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How to start freelance marketing (7 steps to success)
Last year, I quit my in-house marketing job in San Francisco, CA to become a full-time freelancer.
Today, I’m living in NYC, working on my own time, and making more than double what I made as a salaried employee.
It wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine, though.
I made many mistakes that could have easily been avoided and wasted months because I had no direction.
Looking back, I wish someone had written an article like this that would help me avoid the painful agony I went through.
So I decided to do it here, right now.
In this article, I’ll show you how to start a freelance marketing business, sign your first client, and deliver a fantastic client experience that will set you apart from most freelancers.
So get ready and take some notes, it’s about to get interesting.
Is freelance marketing worth it?
If you have a passion for entrepreneurship and like to do things on your own time, freelance marketing may be worth it.
Let me preface by saying this: In the beginning, freelance marketing is going to be a lot more work than you might think.
But as you progress, things will get easier.
This is why, to be truly fulfilled in this type of work, you must figure out the “why” behind freelancing. If your “why” is to have location freedom, you can probably find that with a remote job.
If your “why” is to make more money, chances are you can get a significant pay raise if you start applying for new jobs (unless you want to freelance on top of your job).
For longevity, your “why” needs to be highly compelling. Or else, you’ll start to question why you chose this path when things get a bit hard.
For me, the “why” behind freelancing came because of two things:
- I wanted to have time freedom. I’m not a morning person, and I work best at night. So, a traditional 9-5 would not bring out the best in me because my brain doesn’t start working until the early afternoon.
- I don’t want to get involved in corporate bureaucracy, and I want to focus on what I’m good at. There are many different things you can do in marketing; my favorite is SEO and content marketing. The more time I have to come up with content strategies, write, and learn about the industry I’m in, the happier I am.
In all honesty, the latter was why I left my previous role. I love startups, but the startup I worked at eventually became a large corporation and that excitement of “going to work” wore off.
I’m also a sucker for new experiences, and the idea of becoming a “free agent” seemed like something I would look back on and be proud that I did.
Or, maybe it was because I saw a lot of successful freelancers around me and I said, “hey I want to do that too!”
After all, freelancing has been on the rise in the past year.
But before you dive into freelance marketing, think about your “why.”
If you think you’ve found it, let’s talk about how you’re going to make this lifestyle work for you.
Traits of a successful freelance marketer
I like to think I’m pragmatic when it comes to my career choices and what meaningful work means to me.
Before I dove into freelance digital marketing, I watched some of my peers leave their digital marketing jobs to freelance full-time. And from the ones that made it a fruitful endeavor, I noticed a few things they all shared in common.
Let’s go over them.
Previous work experience
Having a proven track record of doing something extremely well in marketing is the foundation for having a successful freelance career (in my opinion).
Don’t get me wrong, you can have no traditional job experience and still make it as a freelancer. However, it’s a lot easier to make the transition to freelancing when you have 1-3 years of experience at a previous job.
Ideally, you have experience working at a marketing agency and in-house for a company. The agency experience will show you how to interact with clients, how to stay organized, and how to deliver services.
The in-house marketing experience will show you how to hone in your marketing skills by diving deep — giving you enough time to provide meaningful results.
At the core of a successful freelance marketing business is the ability to deliver great results.
And what better way to create a case study for yourself than work hard for a couple years at a company, develop your skill set, and get paid a salary while you do it
Having a proven track record of success will not only help you get that first client (which we’ll talk about later), but it will also help decrease, or completely eliminate, the feeling of imposter syndrome.
Confidence is key as a freelancer.
And confidence comes from competency, which takes time. So focus on becoming great at one thing in marketing before you make the leap. We’ll talk about services you can offer in a bit.
A passion for entrepreneurship
This one might come as obvious, but some of the most successful marketing freelancers I know have an entrepreneurial spirit.
After all, you are starting a service-based business.
You’ll have to learn sales, get good with your finances, do business admin stuff, and know how to deliver your services in a consistent and timely manner.
But don’t worry if you’re not good at any of these. Before I became a freelance marketer, I had no experience with sales, I had a bad relationship with money, and I was a huge procrastinator (and still kinda am).
Bottom-line, get excited about being a business owner because freelance marketing can be a gateway into starting something even bigger in the future (if you want to).
A passion for self development
One thing many people don’t talk about when it comes to starting a freelance business is that it can be a very spiritual experience.
Starting a business and self-sustaining yourself from doing what you love can bring such a strong feeling of fulfillment in your life.
But with anything great that’s worth pursuing, it won’t be easy.
Diamonds are made from intense pressure deep under the Earth.
Running a successful business is not easy (at first). This is because any time you go into the unknown, your brain will go into survival mode and try to trick you back into comfort.
If you become aware that pain is a powerful teacher, and face your mental barriers head on, you’re going to realize how strong you really are.
At some point, you may not even recognize yourself anymore (in a good way).
This is why successful freelancers, and business owners in general, have a deep love for personal development.
So as you read through the rest of this article, take into consideration that becoming a freelancer is actually quite simple. But it won’t be easy.
However, I can promise if you do pursue this career path it can go either of two ways:
- You make more money then you ever did working a regular 9-5 and you become a confident business owner that can take anything head on.
- You gain confidence learning how to do sales and sign your first client. And if you realize this lifestyle is not for you, at least you end up with a wonderful experience and a bump on your resume that will make you a strong candidate for your next marketing role.
So at the end of the day, you really have nothing to lose. Even if number two happens, you didn’t lose time. That time was the price you paid for understanding what your true values in life are.
This is why starting a business can be a spiritual experience. It’s one of the best ways to learn parts of yourself you never knew existed.
Okay, with that, let me show you how I got started with freelance marketing.
How to start freelance marketing (in 7 steps)
Here is my step-by-step guide to starting your freelance marketing career:
- Do great work as an employee first
- Try freelancing part-time
- Create a case study
- Sign your first client
- Package your services
- Create a system of operations
- Provide a great client experience
Okay, let’s dive deeper into each one.
1. Do great work as an employee first
As mentioned earlier, the best thing you can do for yourself is to first learn on the job, and get paid for it!
Marketing is a broad field, especially in the startup space. You can specialize in:
- SEO (Search Engine Optimization)
- Content marketing
- Copywriting and content creation
- Email marketing
- Paid ads
- Influencer marketing
- Social media marketing
- Graphic Design
- Web design and development
In fact, for all the things I just mentioned, I’ve seen freelancers in every one of those fields.
You can even get creative and offer a combination. For example, I combine SEO and content marketing to help startups create engaging content that ranks well in Google.
Copywriting and launching email marketing campaigns also work well together.
Moral of the story, find your specialization in marketing. And the best way to do this is to work for someone else and experience them all. Then, over time, see what you gravitate towards the most.
Then, once you do find your niche in marketing, focus on becoming the best you can in that space.
Also, figure out the type of clients you want to work with. Are these SaaS companies, ecommerce brands, local businesses, etc.?
If there’s one takeaway from this section it’s: Get good at providing one service for one ideal customer.
2. Try freelancing part time
If I could go back in time, one thing I would have done differently is start freelancing while I still had a full-time job.
When you start freelancing for the first time, there’s a lot of stuff you have to figure out. How to deal with business financials, how to create invoices, how to package your digital marketing services and deliver them on time, etc.
When I started freelancing, I started from a place of fear.
This was not good for my mental health.
My salary was gone. I had bills to pay. I freaked out.
Sure, I had savings and created a safety net for a few months before I really needed to find another full-time job. But seeing my savings go down week over week, while trying to figure out how to run a freelancing business, was quite stressful to say the least.
Having to learn all of this while being stressed out about paying bills is no fun.
So, if you can, start small while you have a stable income. If you have no job at all while you’re reading this then I feel you, because I was in the same boat. If I was able to figure it out, I’m sure you will too.
But if you do have a job while reading this, definitely consider finding a client that won’t take too much of your time so you can learn how to swim before you jump in the deep end.
3. Create a case study
Creating your first case study is going to be the basis for how you approach your first client and how you package your services.
Your case study is simply a way to show people that you know what you’re talking about. If you’re a freelance writer, this can be a previous content writing sample. If you’re a content marketer or SEO, this can be a previous website you helped grow.
This is why my previous job experience as a marketing manager is so great. My first case study came from the company I worked at. It was enough to get people to see the value I could provide. I even had my previous manager give a testimonial that I could use.
If you don’t have previous work experience to “show off,” then your next best bet is to create your own experience. Create a website, start a blog, or build a personal brand and show how you identified a problem, how you came up with a solution to that problem, and how you executed on your solution.
If you can showcase that, you’re golden.
And you don’t even need to create an elaborate presentation to send to prospects. I simply wrote a blog post on my personal blog explaining what I did at my previous company and how it affected their bottom-line. Then, any time I would email a potential client I wanted to work with, I would link out to my blog post in the email.
4. Sign your first client
Here we go, this is it. It’s time to get that first client.
Traditional freelancing guides will say to build your website portfolio first, package your services, and figure out the operations side of your business.
But I’m a firm believer that you learn by doing.
Let future you figure out how you’re going to deliver after you sign the client. Close the deal, then figure it out after.
Of course, be confident that you can drive results for a client before you interact with them. Don’t just sign and then realize you can’t deliver.
But my point is, if you spend too much time thinking before you do sales, you’ll think your way out of doing the most productive thing you should be doing — talking to prospects and closing your first deal.
As long as you have some results to show for (see the previous section), you have enough to get some prospects interested.
If you don’t know your ICP (ideal customer profile), the first thing you can do is create a profile on different freelance marketplaces.
For marketers specifically, you can check out these places to find freelance jobs:
If you just want to get your foot in the door, and don’t know the type of client you want to work with, marketplaces are a great place to find your first few clients.
For me, marketplaces didn’t work well. And it’s not because I couldn’t find clients on them. In fact, I got a lot of job requests on these platforms (they do work).
They just didn’t work for me because I already knew the type of company I wanted to work with, and the jobs I was getting requested for did not fit my criteria.
I knew I wanted to work with SaaS companies that had product-market fit. And usually when a company raises a Series A funding round, it can signal that they have reached that stage.
So I took a personalized outbound approach. I looked through LinkedIn and Top Startups and filtered companies based on my criteria. Then, I created a list of about 10 companies. From there, because I knew I wanted to provide SEO content services, I did an SEO analysis on all the 10 sites and looked for ones that could have a potentially huge upside to investing in SEO.
I also made sure that the companies were in a space that I understood and was passionate about, or else what’s the point?
I narrowed down my list to just three companies. And I sent them each a personalized email that had a 100% response rate.
Here’s the secret: Give value without expecting anything in return.
For every company I reached out to, I did a keyword analysis on a topic that they could rank for and that made sense for their business. I would reach out and tell these companies that they could rank for “X” and tons of other keywords (based on my research). After that, I would offer to either write an article for them (free of charge) going after that keyword, or would offer to hop on a call to tell them all the things they could do to improve their SEO traffic.
No selling, just giving value.
For the free articles I did write, it was a long term play. And several months later when those articles did start to rank, the CEOs of those companies ended up reaching out wanting to work with me.
Showing your results instead of talking about them is very powerful.
And for the companies that wanted to hop on a call, many of them would follow up asking what I could offer and at what prices.
This is where the next step comes into play.
5. Package your services
Once you’re ready to freelance, and know your niche, it’s time to package everything and put a price tag on it.
This can be a confusing process, and it’s the part of this whole freelancing thing that took me way longer than it should have.
When I started freelancing, I didn’t know if I wanted to actually do the work or just tell companies what to do. I was in this consulting vs freelancing back and forth that put me in a state of paralysis.
I spent a lot of time thinking and not a lot of time doing.
I was afraid to make the wrong decision.
But the irony is that you only really know what the right decision is by just flipping a coin and seeing what happens. If you’re right, then good! If you’re wrong, well now you know what’s the right thing to do!
I decided to go with consulting. I had a friend doing freelance work with Google and Facebook ads and asked her if any of her clients needed SEO help (this is a great digital marketing strategy for getting clients). She said yes and referred me to a company.
I got on a call with this potential client and put together, in bullet points, what I would deliver — I knew what to deliver based on the work I did at my previous job.
They said, “cool, what’s your price?”
At that moment, I knew I had no idea what I was doing. I had a general idea of how long it would take me to do this (about one week). So I did some quick math. I took my previous salary and figured out how much I made per week and blurted out that number.
In hindsight, it was a terrible thing to do. I grossly underestimated the time it would take me to accomplish what I said I would in one week. I put in almost 80 hours that week to put together an SEO and content plan.
Fast forward a couple months, and I noticed the company didn’t even execute on what I told them to do.
Something with not being able to see my strategy come to fruition didn’t sit well with me. And this is where I learned that marketing consulting was actually not for me. So I decided to go with freelancing and not only provide the strategy, but execute on it as well.
So when it comes to creating your services, you need to think about the pricing model you’re going to use. Ask yourself:
- Do I want to charge an hourly rate?
- Do I want to charge per individual project?
- Do I want to charge a monthly “subscription” fee?
If you’re not sure what’s common in your space, you should make a Google search for the type of service you offer, followed by the words “freelance reddit” at the end.
For example, if you want to offer email marketing services, search “email marketing freelance reddit.”
You’ll get tons of subreddits and communities with people doing exactly what you want to do!
You can also join Facebook Groups related to your service offerings and ask around to see how others are packaging and pricing their services.
Point is, look around and see how others are approaching this. It can look different for each niche in marketing. But if there’s one takeaway from this section it's to focus on creating a value-based pricing strategy.
Hourly is great when you get started. But your goal as a freelancer is to have time freedom. And if you’re good at what you do, you should be paid based on the work, not the amount of time you put in.
5. Create a system of operations
As a freelancer, the more organized you are, the more at peace you will feel in your day-to-day life.
From sending outreach emails, to applying on marketplaces, to generating invoices, following up with clients, and delivering and reporting on results, it can be tough to bring everything into one centralized place.
Here’s what a general freelancing stack could look like:
- Stripe: For generating invoices and receiving payments
- Slack & Email: For communication
- Airtable: For project management
- Typeform: For sending client forms
- Calendly: For scheduling calls and meetings
- Google Drive: For documents, spreadsheets, and files
It’s a lot.
And what I would often do is create a bookmarked folder on my browser for each individual client.
However, I knew that large agencies didn’t do this — they were more organized. So I looked around and saw that many agencies had their own internal software that helped them manage everything.
They had a “command center” of sorts.
So I started to look around for tools that could help me do this and eventually landed on Copilot.
Copilot is a platform that allows you to run your freelance business in one central place. It can also help you bring in your existing tech stack, or even replace some of the tools that you may already be using, like:
- Helpdesks and FAQs
- Files & eSignatures
The great thing about using a platform like this is that you can have a backend of all your clients and get a birds-eye view of everything going on.
And taking this software-style approach to running a service-based business is how you eventually scale and even productize your services — making it seamless for new clients to pay you.
But the best part about a platform like Copilot isn’t even the organization that comes with it (which is great). It’s the fact that you can create a client portal and stand out from any other freelancer your clients may have worked with in the past.
Which brings us on to our next point…
7. Provide a great client experience
Providing a great client experience is how you make your clients stick around and give you referrals.
It’s how you make a name for yourself as a professional freelancer.
If your clients walk away with a bad experience, they’ll try to cut ties with you and not recommend you to others. Or worse, they’ll talk negatively about you in front of other companies.
The best way you can retain your clients, and provide an amazing experience, is by:
- Providing great results
- Communicating well and staying on top of deadlines
- Giving them a seamless onboarding experience and place to manage their relationship with you
The first point is obvious, without great results, you won’t keep a client for long.
But the second and third points are how you differentiate yourself from other freelancers. And the way you do this is by creating a client portal that your clients can log into on their own time and review everything.
It’s the ultimate form of client collaboration and management.
I personally use Copilot for my client portal. I love it because of a few reasons:
With Copilot, you can easily create a one-time invoice or a recurring subscription that can be paid via card or ACH — giving both you and your client the flexibility to structure payments in a way that makes the most sense.
In Copilot, you can easily upload any documents that need to be signed and clients will be able to electronically sign anything straight through their portal.
Instead of using Google Forms or a Typeform to create client questionnaires, you can easily create forms in Copilot — making it easy for both you and your clients to access this information in your portal.
If you need to send Loom videos to your clients, or instructions on how they can give you access to any of their accounts, you can easily create a helpdesk or knowledge base and tell your clients to go through any guides you may have.
You could also use this space to have an internal blog with your client and give them weekly roundups or updates on what’s going on.
And lastly, the best part, you can create a client dashboard that houses all of your files, project statuses, and reports.
Whether you have an SEO dashboard, a content calendar, or files and scripts you want to upload for your client, they can all be embedded into your portal.
You will have your own dashboard on the backend to manage all of your clients, but each individual client will have their own custom dashboard they can log into — giving it a feeling that you’re not just a freelancer, but a software as a service company.
Whether you want to provide SEO/SEM services or help businesses manage their social media platforms, becoming a digital marketing freelancer is a great way to make some extra money on the side of your job, completely replace your job (like it did for me!), or find work-life balance and work on your own terms.
As mentioned earlier in the article, becoming self-employed and being your own boss can be extremely rewarding. But you will go through some growing pains as you begin.
If you’re up for the challenge, the main thing you should be concentrating on is creating a great product.
- To run a successful freelance marketing business, you need to:
- Find your ideal niche and the service you are going to provide
- Find an ideal customer profile willing to pay for that service
- Find a way to acquire clients
- Find a way to go above and beyond and deliver a premium experience
If you can figure those things out, which I hope got you one step closer after reading this article, you will be able to run a very successful freelancing business.
And if you want to learn more about starting a service-based business, be sure to check out our other articles as well.
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