How to break the cycle of low-paying freelance gigs

Almost all freelancers start with low-paying gigs. Nothing wrong with that. We all have to start somewhere. But what separates successful freelancers from the not-so-successful ones is that the successful folks were able to break free from low-paying gigs.

What I always tell the freelancers I coach is that low-paying gigs shouldn’t be forever. You can do that for a month or two, a project or two, but once you’ve gained experience and have testimonials, it’s time to do real business. Breaking free is not easy. So we’re here to offer solid tips.

Take stock of your skills and interest

First things first—take stock of your skills. Know what you’re good at, what your experiences are, and everything you’ve learned so far. If you’ve been freelancing for a few months now, examine which skills badly need improvement and which skills you’re quite good at. This will help you make better decisions from knowing what types of projects to take on (based on your solid skills) to how much effort you need to put in to make the necessary improvements.

Create a short list of your non-negotiables and keep them in mind

This is a big one. Trust me, it’s easier to stay working on low-paying gigs when they’ve become your normal. They feel safer and easier and you may think you’ll never go wrong. Problem is, you’ll also never make decent money and achieve freelance freedom. You’ll be stuck hustling all the time because you’re only making a few dollars per project.

Create a list of your non-negotiables. Here’s my personal list back when I was clawing my way out of low-paying gigs, just to give you an idea:

  • No projects lower than $150 per 700-word blog post
  • Only work with companies/brands I like
  • No working on weekends

My main goal was to develop self-discipline. If I cannot stick with these, I won’t be able to break the cycle I’m in and grow as a freelancer. If I cannot keep these three things in mind, I won’t be able to achieve what I really want for my business.

Build a solid portfolio

Next step is to work on your portfolio. I know, sounds so basic but a lot of freelancers still use Google Drive for their portfolio and that just beats the purpose of it. Keep in mind, your portfolio should not only showcase your work but also make it easier for potential clients to explore your work. It should demonstrate your skills and passion for what you do and most importantly, a solid portfolio must reflect your personality. None of these will happen if your portfolio is a GDrive full of folders or sample projects.

Canva is a great place to get those creative juices going. You can download your work as a PDF and that’s a portfolio right there. If you want a step higher, places like carrd.co and nicepage.io lets you create free one-page sites or landing pages. Here, you can upload your work and showcase them in a more creative way.

Also, don’t forget to add the essentials like testimonials, a quick bio, and the best email to contact you. Make sure your portfolio is presentable and showcases your personality–it makes it easier for potential clients to see your work and reach out to you.

Educate yourself about rates

Had I not discovered there are places that pay $20, $50, $100 per article, I wouldn’t have known there’s a bigger world of content writing out there. Had I not joined Facebook groups for freelancers and learned about what other writers charge, I wouldn’t have known I can go as high as $500 per 1,000 words. 

Go out there and educate yourself about rates. Join Facebook groups and Slack communities. Follow relevant people on Twitter. Ask questions. Ask for advice. Don’t be ashamed to say, “I’m only charging X for Y right now, and I want to up my rates. Any suggestions on how to go about this?” There are so many resources out there—from the scope templates Wethos has available to blog posts and articles all over the internet. The more you read, the more you know.

Reach out to potential clients directly

Reaching out to clients and brands directly has done wonders for my business. Fact of the matter is, you won’t find high-paying, premium clients

You’d also want to take stock of your interests. One of my biggest rules to myself is to never work on projects I’m not interested in or with brands I don’t really like. Because if I do, I’ll struggle every single day. Make it a habit to develop a strong self-awareness. Maximize your skills and follow what interests you. Growth starts from there.

in places where you found your low-paying clients. Especially if we’re talking job boards.

Instead of spending time on job boards, go and reach out to clients directly. Write a solid cold email, find the right point-person in the company you want to work with, and email them. I’m not saying one cold email will magically break the cycle of low-paying gigs. But the more you reach out to clients, the better you’ll be at it. Some will say yes, others will say no. But the moment you get that first YES, you’ve proven to yourself you can do this. And you can finally leave those low-paying gigs for good.

Making good money consistently as a freelancer is not easy. Let’s just say that because that’s reality. But nothing great comes easy anyway. If you’re persistent and hungry for growth, you’ll find yourself running a business that’s actually bringing in solid income. Keep in mind that a freelance business is not just so you make ends meet. A real freelance business is one that is sustainable and allows you to build financial freedom without compromising your desired lifestyle.

Tammy Danan
Tammy Danan

Tammy Danan is a storyteller who reports on environmental and social issues. She also covers productivity, creative pursuits, and the future of work. Her words have appeared in VICE, Audubon.org, ZEKE Magazine, Shutterstock, Toggl, among others. You may find her on Instagram @SlowFreelancing.