Last year, nearly 54 million Americans enjoyed the flexible freelance lifestyle—an uptick of 700,000 from 2014—underscoring a major shift in the way companies function around the world: Hiring freelancers isn’t just acceptable, it’s a more attractive (and cheaper) way of doing business.
That’s created more opportunities for people with useful skills who have the time and desire to earn more money on the side.
Of the many ways to turn your skills into extra income, freelancing in the hours before or after work or on the weekends is one of the most feasible, with low barriers to entry and high potential returns. Here’s your six-step guide to getting started.
1. Find your niche.
Regardless of the type of work you do—that could be data analysis, web development or marketing—there will be a lot of competitors in your industry willing to charge lower rates. But you can differentiate yourself by taking the time to zero in on a profitable niche and type of client that’ll value quality work.
If you’re a graphic designer, you might choose to focus on projects that involve infographic design for content sites or eBook layouts for enterprise tech companies. Or if you’re a New York City bookkeeper, you might target clients who work in the performing arts.
Choose an area that genuinely interests you and become the best hired help in that narrow space. Once you’ve made yourself invaluable within your niche, you’ll have a platform you can use to expand your business in any direction you like.
2. Define your goals.
Without clearly defined revenue and time-management goals, you’ll have a difficult time succeeding. So map out how much you aim to earn, as well as how many hours you’ll devote to your gig each month.
For example, if you want to earn $500, how many clients will you need to sign to accomplish that? And how many weekends will you need to devote to your work to get it done? The stakes are particularly high if your ultimate goal is to transition one day to a full-time freelancer. Because I’ve quit my day-job too early in the past, my personal rule is that I must reach a side income of at least 75 percent of my salary before pursuing a freelance job full-time.
Note that this is a good time to ensure your new work isn’t jeopardizing your full-time job. Avoid pitfalls like breaching contracts or agreements you’ve signed with your employer and working on side work during company time.
3. Thoughtfully seek out your first clients.
Just as important as finding a profitable niche is targeting the right kind of clients for your freelance business. On the most basic level, you’re looking for individuals or companies within your niche that understand, need and value the skills you possess.
When you’re first getting started, you may need to cast a wide net in order to land a few gigs, but you’ll soon develop a clear sense of whether you want to continue pursuing similar clients, based on who you work best with. Once you have a couple clients who are willing to advocate for you, the momentum picks up.
By appealing to a narrow and well-selected niche, new potential clients will have a quick path to deciding that you’re the best person to help them with their projects. This, above all else, is the avenue to charging premium rates.
4. Set strategic prices.
From a pure numbers perspective, this MotiveApp calculator is good for determining your hourly rate so that you can meet your income goals and expense levels. But your rates shouldn’t only be about meeting revenue targets; you should also price yourself according to the value you deliver to your clients.
On his blog, marketing consultant Neil Patel talks about learning that the more you charge, the less clients complain. Because he selected clients with big budgets (think: Amazon, NBC and HP), he knows they understand it costs money to invest in the right vendors who know how to get results.
There’s no such thing as prices that are too high. Your prices may be too high for the types of clients you’re targeting, but if you do your homework on who to pitch your services to, you’ll be selling exactly what your clients need—for a price they can justify.
5. Build a website featuring examples of your work.
A great website highlighting your work is often your first shot at impressing new potential clients, so it’s important to communicate the services you offer and why you’re the best person for the job. That means you need a site that displays examples of your work, highlights your relevant skills and accomplishments, offers testimonials (even if they’re from coworkers or former bosses when you’re just starting out) and features regular updates.
Naturally, the majority of us aren’t skilled in whipping up a beautiful portfolio website on our own. But this is an important enough step that it’s worth setting aside some cash to pay another freelancer who is skilled to help you build one.
6. Fine-tune your pitch.
No matter how skilled you are at your craft, you need to be able to sell those strengths and convert your conversations into paying clients. From sending a well-crafted cold email, to closing the deal with an effective freelance proposal, make sure you present a strong entrance that shows you’ve done your homework.
Focus on highlighting your strengths, anticipating and answering questions that may come up and leaning on past projects to demonstrate your expertise.
For more actionable advice on getting started as a freelancer, check out this ultimate guide on how to start a freelance business.