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A fluff-free guide to pre-freelancing

I’m a developer, and I have peers that are developers. I have a day job, and my peers have a day job. I freelance, my peers don’t. Combo breaker right?

They often ask me why I freelance. I always respond “why don’t you?”. The answers are almost always the same, overall the response is

“I only hear horror stories.”

“I looked into it, and It’s just too much work…”

Then they tell me about what they read, and it’s always some fluffy list of things to do that seem to be written by a person who never freelanced a day in their life or paid to write an article. Overall just wrong information.

I’m going to rectify this with a practical fluff-free approach to getting started. I’ll assume you’re a developer with a day job looking into freelancing.

Also, consider this pre-freelance since these are all the things that need to happen before you can start landing some good clients. Once you land one, you are no longer pre-freelancing (prelancing? is that a word??)

This is a 6min read so grab a coffee and let’s get into it!

Use your portfolio

Don’t have a portfolio? I have good news and bad news.

Good news: You’re a developer. It’s “simple work”!
Bad news: You’re a developer, what’s “simple work”??

Do yourself a favor, get a simple theme, spend no more than a day on it. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel this first go around, just need something to send to people that say “I know what I’m talking about. Here are things I’ve done in the past.” Think of it a more verbose and creative resume.

Don’t have development material for a portfolio? No problem, start doing some personal projects. Make a micro-app and launch it. Make a small library and put it on GitHub. Find a design on Dribbble and bring it to life. You don’t need to have paid work to show you can do the job.

Don’t have time to work on those types of projects? OK, write a few stories about your previous projects at work, think of it as interviewing yourself. Problems you faced, how you addressed it and what you would do differently next time. Don’t skimp on the details. We want to be pretty technical here.

Overall, beat your chest a little bit! Show them that you know what you are talking about, the more info you have available to potential clients about your abilities, the better.

You need a proposal formula

Now that you have a portfolio, you need to start reaching out to people. Nobody will know you exist until you tell them.

Pro tip: When people are looking for freelancers, they are getting bombarded by proposals. Most of those proposals are very vague and riddled with useless information about the project at hand. Not to mention formalities that aren’t needed on a platform such as Upwork.
They usually go something like this:

Dear Company,

I am very interested in blah blah blah… If you take time to consider me, it will be blah blah blah {inset more copy-paste fluff here}

Don’t do that. Nobody likes that. Nobody cares about formalities when going through dozens of proposals. It’s time-consuming.

Make your proposal skimmable, to the point and focused on the project you’re targeting.

Let’s say you found a project looking for a developer to work on a social media analytics dashboard. Example of how you can approach it:


Took a look at your projects and had a few questions:

  • which social networks are you targeting?
  • how many users will need to use this dashboard
  • do you have any designs for the dashboard

The last project dashboard project I worked on used this tech stack, are you ok with this?

  • react with redux
  • firebase for real-time
  • AWS for infrastructure

Outside of that, I have a decent amount of experience working with various types of dashboards {insert more project related talk here}

Here is my portfolio if you like to see more of my work.

What did I do?

  • asked questions that you need to know about the project
  • mentioned the way I approached my last dashboard project
  • spoke about my experience in the context of the project
  • gave them a way to read more about me

At first, this takes a bit of time, after a dozen or so proposals, you’ll send out proposals just as fast as you make Facebook statuses.

Get on Upwork!

Now that you have a portfolio and your proposal formula, we should be ready to go! Time to find some projects.

Where do you ask? Upwork. Not craigslist, not googling, not cold calling, not networking events, not friends and family. Upwork.

Why do you ask? It’s the easiest way for people looking for freelancers to find them.

What if it goes down? It will always be another. It was first Elance, then oDesk now it’s Upwork. If Upwork goes down, I’m pretty sure another will come, and by the time that does happen, you won’t need it.

Make your profile and buy the premium tier. It’s cheap, you will make it back fast. Actually, Super fast. Don’t even think about it as you will spend more on coffee in a month than on Upwork

It’s a numbers game

Portfolio, Check. Proposal formula, check. Upwork profile, check. Clients, unchecked. Let’s change that!

This part of the process is probably the hardest part because it requires a new habit. ABP “Always be proposing” catchy right?

I’ve noticed freelancers will:

  • send a proposal, wait and hope for that one to respond and eventually move to the next.
  • send out a few proposals a week or month
  • don’t send any, instead just hope to get contacted

Instead, establish a daily minimal of 5 quality proposals based on the formula I mentioned above. Think of it as a routine just like checking your email. Target the newer projects as you can find yourself wasting time on old postings.
When applying to these projects, don’t get attached! Read the description, make your proposal, answer questions, submit and forget. Repeat.

Start to take a project seriously if you get a reply. Until that happens, it’s just number.

The moment you start to get attached to projects is when you begin to feel defeated and unmotivated. It’s not uncommon to send out 20 proposals and get one response when starting off.

Good news, eventually it will take you 30 mins to send out 20 proposals. A half hour of work for a connection to an interested client is pretty good if you ask me.

Start small

When looking for projects, be mindful of the person looking to hire a freelancer and the other freelancers trying to land the same gig. When starting out, you’ll need to offer very high-quality work for low pay. Yes it sucks but, you need to build a reputation.

From a hiring perspective, it’s hard to justify picking a person with no reviews or work history. People who have a long history and great reviews are usually ideal. The problem is, those people are more expressive (rightfully so). You need to make sure that the person looking at you profile isn’t thinking of you as a huge risk. Which you are but, we are here to prove otherwise!

Start off with your rate around $20 to get people attention. For every review, increase your price by $5-10 until you’re happy. Just remember to stay competitive.

What’s next?

I would like to assume you didn’t want to waste time be reading this and not applying so let’s establish some homework!

0 – Find a lengthy Spotify playlist! (or whatever you use for music)
1 – Create or clean up your portfolio (~5 hours)
2 – Create your proposal formula (~2 hours)
3 – Setup your Upwork account (~1 hour)
4 – Send you daily minimal of 5 proposals for today (~1 hour)
5 – Pat yourself on the back for a job well done (~ 20mins, this is a long patting session, but you’re worth it!)

Try it out and let me know how it went!

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© freelance after five 2019
no gmo's, gluten or themes were used in the making of this!
by @FreelanceAfter5