How to Freelance Like a Pro

Three experts share their tips for freelancers, whether you're starting out or just need some new insights.

A photo of freelancers Marcy Chu, Paige Slaughter, and Mari Backus sitting together at a table.

For a lot of freelancers, finding work (and keeping it consistent) is the hardest part of the job. And if you’re just starting out, building up a reliable client base can seem like an especially difficult hurdle to jump.

But seasoned pros have a lot of tried-and-true tactics for keeping the right amount of work coming in. Three experienced marketing freelancers shared their strategies for maintaining a steady stream of projects⁠⁠ and the work-life balance that makes freelancing worthwhile to them.

One of their most fundamental tips, and an easy one to start with, is to remember the reason you began freelancing and use that as inspiration on tough days. Paige Slaughter, founder of Fruition Studio, has made that inspiration her business mission. "I realized I could use email marketing to help purpose-driven businesses build community and make a difference in the world,” she says.

A drawing of a floating head visualizing some data points.

Find your first clients

Getting started is intimidating, especially when you haven’t built up a portfolio as a freelancer. But connecting with potential clients can be surprisingly easy⁠⁠—you may already have some in your contact list.

Mari Backus, founder of the North Carolina-based Stay Collective, started out by completing projects for organizations and companies that she worked with during her previous job. The result was a snowball effect of new business. “As I continued taking on more projects, many clients would refer me to their friends or colleagues, continuing the growth of my clientele,” she explains.

Marcy Chu, a freelancer based in Venice, California, took a different route. She began by offering her services for free, then promoting that experience on platforms designed to connect freelancers with clients. “After the free work, I started taking projects on Upwork⁠⁠—at a super reduced rate⁠⁠—and slowly raised it over time. I also applied for the Mailchimp Partner Program, which is still a large source of client referrals today.”

A drawing of a person balancing all kinds of office supplies on their hands and feet.

Figure out how much business you can handle

Once you’ve begun to build up your client base, it’s important to set boundaries to avoid getting overwhelmed. Everyone’s ideal workload looks different, so all 3 freelancers stress the importance of learning by trial and error.

Paige and Marcy organize their time based on the depth of the work, from one-off projects to long-term marketing initiatives. Marcy blocks off at least 2 days a week for her ongoing clients and uses the remainder of her time to take on new business, while Paige offers her services at project-based (rather than hourly) rates so she knows exactly how much time to dedicate to each client.

Mari has developed a system to keep from overloading herself while still keeping potential clients engaged.

“Clients make a deposit to save their space on a waiting list, at which point they are given an estimated start date, a survey to prepare for the project, and a list of 'homework,' such as gathering brand materials or content,” she says.

A drawing of an elephant with some packages and boxes on its back.

Get more business when you need it

While it’s important to set limits, you also need to know when to find new business. Mari can usually tell it's time to seek out new leads when she doesn't have a lot to do for several consecutive days. But signs of a slow period may look different depending on the kinds of projects you do.

“I don’t like to use income as an indicator because with multiple one-time projects, looking at monthly and even quarterly income is more important than weekly,” she says of her strategy.

When it is time to drum up more business, Mari’s methods include contacting past clients who may be interested in doing more work, reaching out to members of entrepreneurship groups, and using search engine optimization (SEO) to streamline her company website.

Paige likes to take a community-based approach in her search for more clients. She regularly attends local networking events and conferences, and also sponsors a weekly newsletter for a co-working space in her area. “It’s a great way to give back to the organization and present Fruition Studio to a community of local entrepreneurs,” she says.

A drawing of two turkeys who appear to be doing a line dance.

Build community, not just business

While freelancing offers flexibility and freedom, it doesn’t come with the structured social environment that many traditional jobs offer. Each of the 3 freelancers turn to their communities⁠⁠—both local and virtual⁠⁠—to interact with like-minded people and share experiences.

Some of their recommendations include volunteering for community organizations, joining Facebook groups, and attending networking events.

“At the end of the day business is about relationships,” says Paige. “Finding and creating community has helped me thrive as a business owner and as someone who wants to change the world.”