One of the most common questions I hear as a freelance writer is “I want to start freelancing, but I have no experience. How do I break into the industry?”
I’ve thought about this question a lot. I’ve written about it a lot as well. And the more I think about it, the more I think “How do I start freelancing with no experience?” is the wrong question.
Here’s why it’s the wrong question, why we ask it anyway, and what to do about it.
Here’s why “how do I start freelancing with no experience?” is the wrong question.
Many – probably most – people come to freelancing with experience having been an employee, but not having been a freelancer. As a result, these people tend to think of freelancing as employment, just with lots of different employers.
This is totally understandable! It’s normal! But it’s also doing the new freelancer a disservice.
As a freelancer, you’re not at the mercy of one employer. You don’t have to convince one company to take you on, throw a bunch of resources at you and hope it works out. As a freelancer, you are a business approaching other businesses with a value-add proposition.
That’s really important, so let me repeat it:
As a freelancer, you are a business approaching other businesses with a value-add proposition.
So the question isn’t “what do I do if I have no experience”? It’s “what value do I bring to the table”?
Here’s why we ask it anyway.
Experience on past freelance projects is a form of value. In fact, it’s a nicely-packaged form of value. That experience becomes shorthand for reassuring value-add concepts like:
- I know what I’m doing.
- I understand this topic area.
- I can employ the conventions of projects like this.
- I speak the jargon of this topic area and/or industry.
- I know how to meet deadlines.
- I add enough value that other people think my skill worth paying for.
That’s why a lot of places looking for freelancers seek experience. It’s why freelancers that have experience make sure to mention it. “Experience” is a way to communicate a lot of different aspects of value in four syllables.
It is also wildly misleading.
Packing down any set of complex concepts into a single word leaves out a lot of detail. It leaves that single word open to misinterpretation by both parties. For instance, “experience” can cause client misconceptions like:
- This person just knows exactly what I want.
- This person has done progressively more difficult projects.
- This person has a well-ordered system for dealing with upsets, mistakes, third-party fumbles, deadline miscalculations and a host of other problems.
While experience makes it more likely you have (some of) those abilities, experience does not guarantee you have any of them. For instance, your “ten years of experience” may involve having done the same type of project over and over for ten years. You didn’t gain ten years’ worth of learning or development; you simply repeated one year of learning and development ten times.
In other words, “experience” isn’t a land-a-new-client free card. In fact, if you understand what that word stands for, you can beat out experienced freelancers to land a client.
Here’s what to do about it.
“Experience” is a small word that packs a lot of expectations into it. By unpacking the word, you can demonstrate that you offer a client value worth paying for.
Start by asking yourself these questions:
- When have I been responsible for similar projects in my life? Can I show the results, such as by uploading them to a digital portfolio?
- What’s my knowledge of the client’s topic area? If I don’t have any, what experience do I have learning new topic areas quickly?
- Do I know the jargon of this type of freelance work (writing, graphic design, coding etc.) and/or can I speak the jargon of the client’s industry (SaaS products, law, dentistry, etc.)? If not, how can I demonstrate my ability to learn that jargon quickly?
- When have I had to meet deadlines in the past, and what were the results? Can I show the results (for instance, with that digital portfolio)?
- How have I been “paid” for exercising this skill in the past? Payment isn’t always about money. For instance, have you received a high grade in a class on graphic design? Did you create a brochure for a local charity that got lots of praise? Has your fanfiction been upvoted a billion times?
If you have nothing whatsoever to show in your answers to these questions, you’re not prepared to freelance, full stop – because you have zero skills to show in these areas.
For instance, while I’ve been a freelance writer for a decade now, I wouldn’t even begin to seek out freelance work in graphic design. I rely on Canva templates for my featured blog images; I don’t compose those myself. I can talk about graphic design; I can resize and lightly edit photos in Photoshop; I can talk about basic color theory. But ask me to design your logo or branding color scheme from scratch, and I’m going to shake my head.
I don’t have the skills to do graphic design projects well – so I don’t offer that service to clients.
However, if you know graphic design software, concepts and lingo well, and if you’ve had enough exposure to a client’s line of work to have some idea what it’s all about and why good graphic design would matter, you may be equipped to look for freelance clients, even if you’ve never had a freelance graphic design client before.
If this sounds familiar, it’s time to move on to the next set of questions:
- Can I talk to clients about my ideas, listen to theirs, and find ways to meet in the middle?
- Can I show growth in my skills over time?
- Have I thought/read/learned about the most common roadblocks in a freelance project, and do I have a plan for addressing them?
The first one is a matter of confidence. As a brand-new freelancer, you may just have to “fake it till you make it.” If you love the kind of work you’re doing, however, you’ll find it easy to get enthusiastic in conversations about it.
The second one can best be done by setting up a freelance portfolio, which is easy for writers to do on sites like WordPress (see mine above). For graphic designers and coders, there are sites that specialize in showcasing visual works and/or code.
The third one is something you can learn, often from online sources like this one. You can’t be prepared for every weird eventuality, but you can learn what the most common problems are for freelancers and prepare for them. You can learn what should go in a freelance contract and how to read contracts that clients offer to you.
If you can express your value and understand how to interact with clients as another business, you can freelance. Yes, even if you have no freelance experience.
If this article is helpful to you, please consider helping me by sharing on social media or leaving a tip. Best wishes on your freelance adventure!
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