Dealing with the Freelancing/Experience Dilemma

An old cliché asks which came first–the chicken or the egg?

It’s a trick question, because there has to have been a chicken to produce the egg, but all chickens come from eggs.

We freelancers face a similar trick question. Which should come first? Freelancing or experience in your field? It often seems that you can’t have one without the other.

Of course, if you can go into freelancing with a lot of experience that’s great. Experience will help you to market yourself and allow you to charge more for your services. But increasingly, freelancers are starting right out of school with little or no training.

Starting your freelancing career fresh out of school isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can solve the freelancing/experience dilemma. Here are five tips to get you started freelancing without much experience.

Tip #1: Be the Subcontractor

Many experienced freelancers or small agencies have overflow work or routine tasks that they are willing to subcontract to less-experienced colleagues.

The advantage of subcontracting is that you don’t have to spend much time marketing. The experienced freelancer or agency already has projects for you to work on.

Of course, there are some downsides to subcontracting. Here are two:

  • Lower pay. Since the primary contractor needs to earn money from the project too, the pay is usually less than if you worked directly for the end client.
  • No credit. Often, agencies or experienced freelancers do not want you to take credit for the work you did as a subcontractor because they fear losing their client.

However, if you do a lot of subcontracting work for a particular agency or freelancer be sure to ask them for a testimonial. They can give you this without letting the end client know which projects you worked on. A testimonial can help you get future jobs.

Tip #2: Check with Teachers and Professors

If you’re fresh out of school, no one is more familiar with what you are capable of than your teachers. It may surprise you to learn that many professors and teachers are still actively involved in their fields. Other instructors have professional contacts in the field.

If you know that a particular professor really liked your work, ask him or her for tips on finding freelancing work. Who knows, he or she may even be able to give you a gig. Even if they don’t hire you themselves, they may be able to point you to someone who will.

Again, don’t forget to get a testimonial from your former teachers.

Tip #3: Blog About What You Know

Blogging is a great way to gain exposure and demonstrate your expertise. Start your own blog and start writing about problems you know that your potential clients need to have solved. Make sure every post represents your best effort. Check each one carefully for typos and other sloppy mistakes.

Use your social media savvy and your networking skills to bring traffic to your blog. If you have time, carefully choose a few high traffic blogs in your field and submit guest posts. (Read their guest posting guidelines very carefully first.)

Blogging is a great way to get exposure and build up your web presence. You’ll find that even old blog posts get re-read and shared online.

Tip #4: Network Like Crazy

Tell everyone you know that you’re freelancing. Then tell the people that you don’t know.

You need to be networking online and face-to-face. The more you network, the more likely you are to connect with potential clients.

Invest in a nice set of business cards with your contact information printed on them. Not only does this make networking easier, it also makes that statement that you’re serious about freelancing.

Tip #5: Donate Your Services

I usually don’t like to suggest that freelancers work for free. As it is, too many freelancers work for far less than they are worth.

However, when you’re starting out, donating your services to a charity can be a way to get the initial experience that you need. Just make it clear to the organization that your donation is a one-time occurrence and that you’ll be using the results in your portfolio.

And, you guessed it, if the organization likes what you did for them be sure to ask for a testimonial.

Your Turn

The freelancing/experience dilemma is a very real challenge for many new freelancers.

Thankfully, it’s also often a temporary one. Once you get some experience, you can refer to that experience from that point on.

Have you faced and overcome the freelancing/experience dilemma? How did you overcome it?

Image by Rich Moffitt


  1. says

    I once created some materials for a company that didn’t exist. I was honest about the fact they were only samples, but that they demonstrated what I could do. I just wanted to demonstrate that I could create a great brochure.

    The other thing I did was approach business owners who might need my services then offer to work for a really low rate just to get the experience. I always explained that I hadn’t done a project like theirs before so the rate was extra low – that was how I got my first book ghostwriting client. He came back later for another project and was happy to pay my full fee.

  2. says

    Some great tips Laura, I started out working for an agency but after gaining experience decided to strike out by myself as a freelancer. I enjoy the freedom amd flexibility that freelancing brings much more than the steady agency work.

  3. says

    This is a nice write-up Laura. I started freelancing straight out of college because I was living in a small town. In a small town there is very little work and it pays terribly because design is often undervalued.

    My biggest suggestion, other than the obvious networking tactics, is to start a blog. Choose your best work to showcase in a portfolio section and then share the design processes online like this

    Showcasing the process will create value for your work and therefore encourage clients to hire you with good pay.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. says

    When I think back on it, my first freelance experience (long before I “went pro” in 1999) was writing articles for my hometown newspaper in Massachusetts during college summers. It was a small circulation weekly that really only had one reporter and everything else was filler. The pay wasn’t great, something like $50/article, and I had to sit through horribly tedious government meetings, but I built a clip file in a hurry while earning some beer money. Those clips enabled me to get my first staff job with a national magazine.

    Anyway, whether you live in a small town or in a big city, there are scads of tiny, weekly publications starved for content. The pay is going to be meager–but often a better bet than content mills or bidding sites as a way to build your portfolio, and as an actual physical publication people in your area have *heard* of, carry a higher level of legitimacy for local clients.

  5. says

    In the Philippines, freelancing is very competitive. Article writers need to be very creative just to be noticed or recognized by prospective clients. In my case, I made myself available to them by answering their emails and calls. I also offered my services at half my regular rates just to attract clients.

  6. says

    Hi Laura and all,

    So glad to land on your site. I’m a freelance copy editor and proofreader. The first two books I copy edited, while I still owned a brick-and-mortar business, were for free. It helped me realize that I had a lot more to learn if I wanted to eventually freelance full time.

    I started by going back to the beginning: grammar books, test books, lots of studying at a much more advanced level, where I really needed to be. Even then, my first paid copy editing project highlighted the fact that I needed to continue to enhance and upgrade my skills. Now I can charge what I think my work is worth.

    Thanks for your great blog posts,

    Jessica Vineyard
    Red Letter Editing


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