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A fluff-free guide to pre-freelancing

Darryl D.
Freelancing for over a decade now, worked with dozens of great clients, sharing at
・6 min read

I’m a developer, and I have peers that are developers. I have a day job, and my peers have a day job. I freelance, my peers don’t. Combo breaker right?

They often ask me why I freelance. I always respond “why don’t you?”. The answers are almost always the same, overall the response is

“I only hear horror stories."

"I looked into it, and It’s just too much work…”

Then they tell me about what they read, and it’s always some fluffy list of things to do that seem to be written by a person who never freelanced a day in their life or paid to write an article. Overall just wrong information.

I’m going to rectify this with a practical fluff-free approach to getting started. I’ll assume you're a developer with a day job looking into freelancing.

Also, consider this pre-freelance since these are all the things that need to happen before you can start landing some good clients. Once you land one, you are no longer pre-freelancing (prelancing? is that a word??)

This is a 6min read so grab a coffee and let's get into it!

Use your portfolio

Don’t have a portfolio? I have good news and bad news.

Good news: You’re a developer. It’s "simple work"!
Bad news: You’re a developer, what’s "simple work"??

Do yourself a favor, get a simple theme, spend no more than a day on it. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel this first go around, just need something to send to people that say “I know what I’m talking about. Here are things I've done in the past.” Think of it a more verbose and creative resume.

Don’t have development material for a portfolio? No problem, start doing some personal projects. Make a micro-app and launch it. Make a small library and put it on GitHub. Find a design on Dribbble and bring it to life. You don’t need to have paid work to show you can do the job.

Don’t have time to work on those types of projects? OK, write a few stories about your previous projects at work, think of it as interviewing yourself. Problems you faced, how you addressed it and what you would do differently next time. Don’t skimp on the details. We want to be pretty technical here.

Overall, beat your chest a little bit! Show them that you know what you are talking about, the more info you have available to potential clients about your abilities, the better.

You need a proposal formula

Now that you have a portfolio, you need to start reaching out to people. Nobody will know you exist until you tell them.

Pro tip: When people are looking for freelancers, they are getting bombarded by proposals. Most of those proposals are very vague and riddled with useless information about the project at hand. Not to mention formalities that aren't needed on a platform such as Upwork.
They usually go something like this:

Dear Company,

I am very interested in blah blah blah… If you take time to consider me, it will be blah blah blah {inset more copy-paste fluff here}

Don’t do that. Nobody likes that. Nobody cares about formalities when going through dozens of proposals. It's time-consuming.

Make your proposal skimmable, to the point and focused on the project you're targeting.

Let's say you found a project looking for a developer to work on a social media analytics dashboard. Example of how you can approach it:


Took a look at your projects and had a few questions:

  • which social networks are you targeting?
  • how many users will need to use this dashboard
  • do you have any designs for the dashboard

The last project dashboard project I worked on used this tech stack, are you ok with this?

  • react with redux
  • firebase for real-time
  • AWS for infrastructure

Outside of that, I have a decent amount of experience working with various types of dashboards {insert more project related talk here}

Here is my portfolio if you like to see more of my work.

What did I do?

  • asked questions that you need to know about the project
  • mentioned the way I approached my last dashboard project
  • spoke about my experience in the context of the project
  • gave them a way to read more about me

At first, this takes a bit of time, after a dozen or so proposals, you’ll send out proposals just as fast as you make Facebook statuses.

Get on Upwork!

Now that you have a portfolio and your proposal formula, we should be ready to go! Time to find some projects.

Where do you ask? Upwork. Not craigslist, not googling, not cold calling, not networking events, not friends and family. Upwork.

Why do you ask? It’s the easiest way for people looking for freelancers to find them.

What if it goes down? It will always be another. It was first Elance, then oDesk now it’s Upwork. If Upwork goes down, I’m pretty sure another will come, and by the time that does happen, you won’t need it.

Make your profile and buy the premium tier. It’s cheap, you will make it back fast. Actually, Super fast. Don't even think about it as you will spend more on coffee in a month than on Upwork

It’s a numbers game

Portfolio, Check. Proposal formula, check. Upwork profile, check. Clients, unchecked. Let’s change that!

This part of the process is probably the hardest part because it requires a new habit. ABP “Always be proposing” catchy right?

I've noticed freelancers will:

  • send a proposal, wait and hope for that one to respond and eventually move to the next.
  • send out a few proposals a week or month
  • don’t send any, instead just hope to get contacted

Instead, establish a daily minimal of 5 quality proposals based on the formula I mentioned above. Think of it as a routine just like checking your email. Target the newer projects as you can find yourself wasting time on old postings.
When applying to these projects, don’t get attached! Read the description, make your proposal, answer questions, submit and forget. Repeat.

Start to take a project seriously if you get a reply. Until that happens, it's just number.

The moment you start to get attached to projects is when you begin to feel defeated and unmotivated. It’s not uncommon to send out 20 proposals and get one response when starting off.

Good news, eventually it will take you 30 mins to send out 20 proposals. A half hour of work for a connection to an interested client is pretty good if you ask me.

Start small

When looking for projects, be mindful of the person looking to hire a freelancer and the other freelancers trying to land the same gig. When starting out, you'll need to offer very high-quality work for low pay. Yes it sucks but, you need to build a reputation.

From a hiring perspective, it’s hard to justify picking a person with no reviews or work history. People who have a long history and great reviews are usually ideal. The problem is, those people are more expressive (rightfully so). You need to make sure that the person looking at you profile isn’t thinking of you as a huge risk. Which you are but, we are here to prove otherwise!

Start off with your rate around $20 to get people attention. For every review, increase your price by $5-10 until you’re happy. Just remember to stay competitive.

What’s next?

I would like to assume you didn’t want to waste time be reading this and not applying so let’s establish some homework!

0 - Find a lengthy Spotify playlist! (or whatever you use for music)
1 - Create or clean up your portfolio (~5 hours)
2 - Create your proposal formula (~2 hours)
3 - Setup your Upwork account (~1 hour)
4 - Send you daily minimal of 5 proposals for today (~1 hour)
5 - Pat yourself on the back for a job well done (~ 20mins, this is a long patting session, but you're worth it!)

Try it out and let me know how it went!

photo by unsplash/@nathan_mcb

Discussion (25)

aggieben profile image
Ben Collins

Do you have any suggestions for avoiding Upwork, which many of us view as a race to the bottom? $20/hr is ...not a competitive rate for a professional.

jpamis profile image
João Paulo

$20/hr was just a suggested initial rate for the first work you do in the Upwork platform since nobody knows you there.

You can for instance charge much more than this for your first time and still get rewarded but the idea is to get positive reviews at a lower rate so you can get better rates in the next job and so on.

guitarkat profile image

I think that's really low for some countries? I got $40 for design/graphic side and $60/hr programming. I did do some flat rate while keeping an eye on the scope...

Personally $20 is not much for anything, in all due respect. That would be like if you didn't have any experience like even from a day job... :/

I would push for $40. I was making that when I was just pretty much getting started at 22 years old.

The parallels to the desk job doesn't work here as you have to pay business license and other regulatory and you'll be eating some of your fee through administration of your client. It all costs and it's hidden.

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morficus profile image
Maurice Williams

You seem very hung up on the $20/hr lol. You can obviously choose w/e initial rate you prefer. But I think the spirit of the "start at $20/hr and go up" is basically "start low and charge more and you build your reputation".

I'm also pretty sure this post assumes you are not freelancing as a full-time job... since the post starts off with "talking to co-workers". But even if you were a 22-year-old looking to freelance full-time.... $20-$25/h at 40h a week is not bad (unless you live in New York or California). $20-$25/h @ 40h a week is about $3200 - $4000 a month. That is very much a livable wage in a lot of places. And chances are... someone will only have to charge this low rate for 1 or 2 months. Once they have 2 or 3 clients in their history.... they can raise their rate.

The parallels to the desk job doesn't work here as you have to pay business license and other regulatory

I would disagree. Using something like UpWork or Freelance does not require a business license nor does it have any regulatory costs. Aside from the administrative cost of finding a client... you have what ever (optional) "premium membership fee) the site offers.

morficus profile image
Maurice Williams

$20/hr is just the (suggested) starting rate. Not a permanent rate.

You can draw parallels to a "traditional desk job"... This is just like taking a low-paying entry-level position to gain experience so you can then apply to a mid-level position that actually pays decent.

guitarkat profile image

I would strongly go against that rate... is there a country difference? Might as well do crazy spec work and see nothing for the efforts at all. I consider it too much sunk costs in that respect.

I know the issues regarding getting the work all too well.

Log your hours on how much you ate spending getting the client v. the work, never mind your administration of the business side and your licenses, etc.

I would suggest not-for-profit for experience instead of undercutting and not getting real value for yourself. Help those that need it then charge the rate later for clients who can pay. Get experience from the others and build from that, IMHO.

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morficus profile image
Maurice Williams

I would suggest not-for-profit for experience instead of undercutting

I would agree that if all you are seeking is experience, the not-for-profit route is a valid one.

But in this context, the initial low rate is not for experience but to gain a reputation / ratings on the platform (in this case, UpWork). You can have 20 years of real-world experience... but with zero ratings or history on a hiring platform like UpWork... it will be next to imposible to get someone to pay $60/h

The flat-rate projects is also a good route for starts IMO. But... those usually end up being the most amount of effort and with the least satisfied clients (because they expect The Mona Lisa for the price of a Kinkos 1-hour print job).

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darryldexter profile image
Darryl D. Author

The honest truth, nobody cares if the cost of living in your country is high. They only care if it's low because they can then take advantage and get cheap work.

I'm not sure I follow your plight. Logging hours usually takes minutes, it's common to log them at the end of the week opposed to as you go along. I also haven't heard the need for any business administration or licenses needed, care to elaborate?

Working at a lower initial rate will give you some experience, but the bigger win is a rating and review that could land more ideal clients at an ideal rate. Your experience outside of Upwork is great but, when people go on Upwork to find freelancers, they care about what you did on the platform too.

darryldexter profile image
Darryl D. Author

Are you only looking to avoid Upwork due to $20/hr?

If so, the time and money it would take to land freelance projects will be a bigger loss than this initial rate. Keep in mind, you are not quitting your job to work $20/hr. You are working this lower rate to make your life substantially easier down the road when trying to land clients who are willing to pay $80/hr.

Think of it as your initiation price to freelancing :).

aggieben profile image
Ben Collins

To be honest, I glazed over the word pre-freelancing when I read this, so this makes a little more sense to me now than it did at first. But I avoid Upwork entirely for the simple reason that it's a race to the bottom. The few times I have tried writing proposals on work posted there I saw that the RFP was swamped with obviously underbid work by people who are clearly not going to deliver good work (obvious because if you can't deliver a good proposal, you're not going to deliver good work either).

The same is true on the other side as well: there are countless RFPs that are total crap: they want 1000 hours of work for the price of 50 - and they still get bids.

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darryldexter profile image
Darryl D. Author • Edited

I work on both sides of the fence. Using Upwork to find freelances and using it to find work.

I will say this, 90% of those proposals are BS. It's actually great that you can see them because everywhere outside of Upwork is the same but, you can't see how many and who is applying. That's amazing insight.

When looking through those proposals, you filter them down very quickly. The first to go are usually agencies and spam. First to be read are those who respond as if they read the description, which is why I mention the formula above.

The few times I have tried writing proposals

Keep in mind, it's a numbers game. Not much will happen from a few proposals. I can send out over a dozen of quality proposals within an hour and proceed to do that a few times a week if needed. With my profile, I usually get 5-9 people inquiring by the end of the week or the next week.

Also, keep in mind, lot's of people first go with cheaper developers for the sake of price then find out it's more expensive due to lack of quality. The second time around guess who they target :)

mmarinez20 profile image
Manuel Mariñez

I have a question, what should I do if I end up receiving too much responses for the proposals I send ?, for example I sent 20 proposals and then I get 8 interested clients, and that's probably more than I can handle, but neither I want to lose that potential client.

darryldexter profile image
Darryl D. Author

That's a very good problem to have! Usually only a few would want to move forward. I typically prioritize the client who is best at communicating, giving details, etc... Also what is mostly aligned with my skills. For the other people that also want to work with you, ask if they mind waiting until you have more bandwidth. Usually once people decide on a person they like, they don't mind waiting. If they choose to not wait, let them go and just reach back out once you do have bandwidth since they did express interest. They may still need more help.

mmarinez20 profile image
Manuel Mariñez

:) hey nice ! thanks for your response, really trying to reach out any doubts before I get this freelancing path a shot... I'll probably still have questions once I get started jajaja.

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freelanceafter5 profile image
Freelance After Five

No problem! I'm on twitter and happy to help.

kspeakman profile image
Kasey Speakman

I am curious how you deal with the IP issues. I read the user agreement, and it looks to me like anything I use in the project that may have previously been mine (like a library I independently developed) becomes the client's sole IP that I cannot use anymore without permission. Seems like it would be pretty hard to reuse common (especially plumbing) code between projects. Which is something I would want to do as a freelancer.


Upon Freelancer’s receipt of full payment from Client, the Work Product, including without limitation all Intellectual Property Rights in the Work Product, will be the sole and exclusive property of Client, and Client will be deemed to be the author thereof. If Freelancer has any Intellectual Property Rights to the Work Product that are not owned by Client upon Freelancer’s receipt of payment from Client, Freelancer hereby automatically irrevocably assigns to Client all right, title and interest worldwide in and to such Intellectual Property Rights. Except as set forth above, Freelancer retains no rights to use, and will not challenge the validity of Client’s ownership in, such Intellectual Property Rights. Freelancer hereby waives any moral rights, rights of paternity, integrity, disclosure and withdrawal or inalienable rights under applicable law in and to the Work Product. If payment is made only for partial delivery of Work Product, the assignment described herein applies only to the portion of Work Product delivered.

darryldexter profile image
Darryl D. Author

It's really hard to comment on things like this because I'm no lawyer. I can only speak from experience and have yet to have any IP issues or have any "sue happy" clients. I would just put the library on Github, apply a license and move forward. I wouldn't get hung up on anything like this.

tim__moran profile image
Tim Moran

I think this post is good advice. Problem is Upwork seems to be starting to knock back beginners trying to get into the game due to oversaturation of skills. Any advice to actually getting approved to work on Upwork when being a beginner.

psheth profile image

Great article !! Do you have any comments on hourly rate versus project based price? Which mode is better?

Also where should one create portfolio? Launch my own site?

darryldexter profile image
Darryl D. Author


I have a lot of comments on hourly vs fixed, I have a post I'm working on as we speak, sign up on to get the update. I'm pretty opinionated about this topic and want to explain why before just giving an answer.

For a portfolio, I would say use a template stating off or a template service like just to get moving and sending out proposals. While that's up, start working on something a little more custom if you need to. Keep in mind, the more time you spend on your site, the less time you spend sending out proposals, find a balance :)

Let me know if this helps!

psheth profile image

Thanks, will try your tips

willjohnsonio profile image
Will Johnson

Is the premium tier the 14.99 one?

darryldexter profile image
Darryl D. Author

I haven't looked in a bit but sounds right!

garylyq1212 profile image
Gary Quan • Edited

Hi, but what if the client did not understand any of the tech side? Is that a way to explain more simple enough to them?

darryldexter profile image
Darryl D. Author

I would consider that an opportunity to teach in addition to execute. It's also important to inform the client that they're hiring you to do both. If you're not comfortable (or just don't want to...) I would suggest going to the next client.

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