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Starting a Freelance Side Hustle: Tips and Reflections from a Tired Student

Edited by Megan Cambruzzi

Let’s face it: if you’re a student, you’ve probably looked into starting a side hustle. When you’re low on cash and time, part-time freelancing seems like the perfect option — you can make your own hours, set your own rates, and feel the satisfaction of building a business. As someone who’s been freelance writing for about ten months, I can’t deny that it’s been a great experience, but there is a bit of a learning curve. If you’re thinking of getting into freelance work, hopefully, my successes (and mistakes) will help you to succeed.

planning your freelance side hustle

Look to your existing skills

If you’re interested in freelancing but not quite sure where to start, take a look at your existing skills and hobbies. In my case, I decided to try out freelance writing after spending a couple of years writing for a personal blog and several campus publications. If you have high social media metrics, why not try out social media management? Have an eye for layout? Freelance graphic designers can make a ton of money. It’s okay if you’re not an expert right away— you’ll inevitably develop your skills on the job.

get ready to research

Before you jump into the world of freelancing, you’ll need to do some research. First, you need to figure out how you’ll find customers. Directly reaching out to clients via cold pitching is one of the best strategies, but it can also be one of the most time-consuming. Platforms like Upwork and Fiverr make it easier to find clients, but you’ll have to pay them royalties. Personally, I’ve relied on a mixture of cold pitching, Upwork, and referrals (I did create a Fiverr account but haven’t found too much success on the platform).

You’ll also need to figure out pricing before you get started. Freelance work generally pays significantly higher than employment since you have to fund your own benefits, office space, and supplies. If you don’t research your industry’s going rates to determine your pricing, you’ll almost inevitably get screwed over and lose out on money. Early on, I made the mistake of signing a contract without doing enough research. After completing multiple unpaid internships, I didn’t know my work’s worth. Fun fact: it’s relatively easy to find freelance writing gigs that pay more than minimum wage (even if you’re a beginner). Not so fun fact: my stupid decision resulted in me working for less than $5/h. Research the going rates. Trust me.

Set your limits

If you’re working as a freelancer, you’ll inevitably cycle through busy periods and slow periods. While it can be validating to watch the work pile in, saying yes to every single opportunity will leave you burnt out. In most cases, you’ll be making less money, too (more on that later). Before you start freelancing, set some rules with yourself. Figure out your maximum hours per week and your absolute lowest rate. Then, commit to them. Be prepared to say no to potential clients. Don’t be afraid to prioritize yourself.

Set up a portfolio

In most freelance industries, you’ll need to set up a portfolio. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy (especially at the beginning), but you’ll need a way to show prospective clients your past work. Since I already had a blog, I made a page that links to my best work. Alternatively, you could set up a free site or make a Google Drive folder. If you don’t have any past work, you might need to create some samples. Researching industry norms can be a great way to figure out what to include in your portfolio (or if your industry requires one).

Running your business

Protect the bag

Before you start working, consider implementing some form of payment protection. It’s rare that clients will refuse to pay, but when you’re only working for a few hours each week, a no-pay client can still have a big impact on your bottom line. If you’re working on platforms like Upwork, look into payment protection or escrow options. Personally, one of my favourite perks with Upwork is the fact that they’ll guarantee payment for hourly contracts if the client has added a payment method to their card. It’s a big relief to know that even if the customer skips out on paying, Upwork will still send me my money. If you’re working outside of a platform, consider requesting half of the payment as an upfront deposit. Alternatively, if you’re working on a larger project, consider requesting payment in several phases.

Foster relationships with clients

It can be difficult to land clients, especially early on. When you finally get a contract, be sure to treat the customer well. If possible, deliver the work earlier than promised. Double-check everything to make sure that it’s high quality. Above all else, make a good impression. If a client needs graphic design work today, they’ll probably need graphic design work in a few weeks, too. Great customer service can land you repeat customers and referrals. As a busy student, getting contracts without having to track down leads is invaluable.

Niches minimize work and increase income

When you’re just starting out, you’ll probably want to take whatever work you can. After all, clients are hard enough to land as is. But once you’ve experimented with working for a few industries, you may want to pick one or two to specialize in. For example, I primarily write for the beauty and lifestyle industries, but I want to narrow that down even farther throughout 2022. By establishing a niche, you’ll build expertise that allows customers to justify paying higher rates. You’ll also become very familiar with the industry, minimizing the amount of research that you have to do for each contract.

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch

Last fall, I found a dream client. Very high pay, easy work, and flexible deadlines, all while writing about a topic that I loved. When the client and I hopped on a video call, we instantly clicked, and she promised to send over a contract soon. When I hadn’t heard from her for about a week, I sent a follow-up message. She apologized for the inconvenience and said that she just had to meet with her boss the following week but would send the contract immediately afterwards. Despite multiple follow-up messages, I never heard from her again.

Unfortunately, stories like this aren’t uncommon. Until you sign a contract (and sometimes even then), there’s no guarantee that an interested client will lead to paid work. In some cases, the client might even ghost you after you set the contract up. No matter how enthusiastic your prospective client might seem, don’t count on them providing work until they’ve assigned deliverables.

Similarly, one of the biggest challenges with any freelance work is the lack of consistency. You might have an incredible month with high-paying clients and non-stop work, only for it to be followed by several months where few leads pan out. On the other hand, a slow period can end just as quickly as it began. While optimism can carry you through rough patches, be sure to build up an emergency fund and avoid making financial decisions based on your most successful months.

Keep adjusting rates

Remember how I said that limiting your work hours can result in more money? When you start to get close to your maximum hours, quote higher rates to prospective clients. If they say no, it’s okay—you already have a ton of other work. But guess what? They’ll say yes more often than you’d think. On the flip side, during slower periods, you may wish to take on low paying work. Just be sure not to dip below your absolute minimum rate—you’ll become resentful and will be too tired to seek out new (and better-paying) clients.

Set money aside for taxes

Since you’re self-employed, you won’t have taxes deducted from your paycheck. Instead, you’ll owe money when you file taxes in April. To avoid any unpleasant surprises, set aside a certain percentage of each contract’s earnings for tax season. The general rule of thumb seems to be 25%, though the amount varies depending on how much you’re making. Although this might be high in comparison to your taxes (especially if you’re only freelancing part-time), any leftover savings can go straight into your emergency fund or an investment account.

Trust your gut

Sometimes, you might be faced with the perfect client on paper—they have a high budget, the work is interesting, they’re friendly—but something about them just seems off. You might want to push ahead anyway, especially if you’ve been struggling to find clients. But if you’re financially able to, it’s best to turn down the client. Even though your gut reaction might be wrong, the hassle of a terrible client (especially on a third-party platform where clients rate freelancers) just isn’t worth it. If you attracted one client, you can attract others (especially clients that’ll be a better fit).

Take a step back

As an exhausted student, it’s easy to feel like the work never stops. When you add on freelancing, things really start to get busy. But don’t forget that your well-being, both physical mental, should be your top priority. Be sure to take time for yourself (schedule it if you have to). And every once in a while, make sure to stop, take a step back, and look at how impressive your accomplishments are. You’ve earned it.

Demetra is a third-year English and Cinema Studies student at the University of Toronto. She loves cooking, reading, and drinking way too much coffee.
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