As I was finishing my contract I felt excited to jump back into freelancing.
In the past, I had dabbled with different freelance ideas, but this time I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to work with.
I landed on Facebook ads and to my good fortune landed my first client within two weeks.
As I worked through the project, I found so many opportunities to expand the scope of work that I found myself earning about five times more than the amount we initially agree on.
I like to think that it happened because I could use my experience from other projects to draw parallels from solving similar challenges in the past.
After a while, I found myself not only helping them advertise on Facebook but also discussing radio partnerships, email marketing, and updating the website.
I didn’t know it at the time but rather than specializing, I found a great match been the client’s personality and mine.
The meaningless list of freelance ideas
Every website I looked at in my research for this guide provides a long list of freelance ideas as if that’s all we need to begin freelancing.
Then what? Are we going to look at the list, close the window and… magically have a freelance business?
In my experience, that doesn’t really bring us any closer to landing clients and earning money.
Let’s say we pick digital marketing from a list of ideas. We still don’t know who to help and with what exactly. It raises a lot of questions that we still need to answer.
In this guide, I’ll share basic ideas of freelance ideas and then show you how to go from a random list of freelance ideas to finding YOUR profitable freelance idea.
- Admin support
- Customer service
- Data science and analytics
- Video editing
- Graphic design
- IT and networking
- Sales and marketing
- Web or app development
Did you find your idea yet? Let’s look at how to turn a basic idea into something profitable.
Do you really need more freelance ideas?
By now you probably have a vague idea about the field or industry you’d like to work with as your freelance idea.
The challenge many of us have with a long list of freelance ideas is that it gives us too many choices.
There is something called the paradox of choice suggesting that too many options can leave us paralyzed because we don’t want to close any doors. So we do nothing.
Another challenge is that we might settle on an idea but can’t find any relevant clients, and so we take on clients that don’t fit the idea as a one-off and then end up tweaking our idea for years. It’s the perfect way to get stuck working a lot with little progress.. I know from experience.
It can work in some cases but the problem comes when we continue to do something different for each client. In the rest of this article, we are going to hone in on our idea to avoid that from happening.
The case for doing fewer things
The more deliberate we are about who we’d like to help and with what, the more money we are going to earn with our freelancing business.
Every website out there talks about specializing in something obscure and being one of the few focusing on that particular area.
Specializing is powerful but when we are in the trenches doing the work it is not as easy as it looks on paper.
Especially, if we are just starting out, worried if we picked the right idea, and don’t want to close any doors on ourselves.
Let’s look at two examples to see what happens when we do it.
Scenario #1: Let’s say we picked an ultra-specific niche and skill: helping yoga instructors with Facebook ads.
That means if we encounter an interested business that is not related to yoga instruction, and they do not need help with advertising on Facebook specifically, we can’t help them.
A mixed martial arts gym that needs help with Facebook advertising? No, thanks…
A yoga instructor that needs help with writing or search advertising? No, thanks…
Fortunately, when you finally do find the right businesses, we’ll be able to reuse our knowledge and sales tactics, making both the client work and the process of landing the client itself much easier because we keep working with the same industry.
We are likely to land projects easier, we can charge more, and it will be easier for us to understand exactly what our clients want because they typically want the same things done.
And when we present ourselves compared to a generic freelancer it’ll be obvious to the clients that we are the favorable pick.
If you’ve been researching how to find your own profitable freelance idea, I’m sure you’ve stumbled upon a similar example before.
The challenge is what to do when we have a few ideas and get stuck picking the right one. Especially, if we feel like we are not ready to close the door on new projects just yet.. Which brings us to the second example.
Scenario #2: We might pick something more general at first, like Facebook ads for any business, and rather than specialize, focus on the client — the human behind the project.
As we land clients, we’ll have to learn about their industry and business itself for each new project we get.
Of course, it depends on how much or how little we specialize but, generally, it seems like the first scenario is the obvious winner, right?
Then how come that creeping feeling of paralysis strikes us whenever we settle on an idea and have to say no to interested clients?
Maybe we met someone at a networking event or got referred by a family member.
Perhaps we even start looking for the perfect clients only to get stuck when we can’t find any.
The reality is that many of us are afraid of closing doors on ourselves – and how can we even do that when we have barely had any projects?
It often happens because we haven’t experienced the power of specialization just yet.
The question is not which one we should pick but rather when we can leverage each of the two strategies to our benefit.
What I notice happen to some freelancers is that they specialize right away and because they keep running into leads that are not the perfect fit, they decline the projects, get discouraged, and stop freelancing altogether.
That brings us back to scratch with another failed project to feel guilty about.
Luckily, there is another way that we will explore in the next chapter.
Discover your profitable freelance idea with THIS technique
A good freelance idea solves a problem that matters to our client.
There are different levels of problems to solve. For example, cleaning dishes is probably not as important as increasing revenue so it is unlikely that we’ll be paid as much to help with it.
The “trick” is to take the temperature (for a lack of a better word) of the problem we are solving for clients.
Sometimes that is referred to as things that are nice to have compared to annoying problems.
A nice to have might be an app that makes our screen adjust better when we work in the evening (like dark mode), whereas an annoying problem could be when we had to manually email every customer of a business with a new promotion because there is no way to make it automatic.
In my experience, finding the right problem to solve is the most important part of our freelance idea.
Let’s say we know that we want to do something within digital marketing because we have some experience in the field.
From our experience, we might know that are common core functions like email marketing, search engine traffic, social media, etc.
For the sake of the example, let’s say we have some experience with email marketing and even think it’s fun.
Within that field, people might have different problems such as wanting to automatically email customers after they buy something with another promotion.
If a business knows that it will do some good for them but is struggling to figure out how to set it up, that might be a burning pain that we can help them solve.
Compare that to creating amazing emails for standard answers like “thank you for signing up”, “confirm your email”, or “we got your message to customer support”.
The same business owner might not care as much about those emails and so is unlikely to pay a lot to get them set up.
There are also different types of businesses and people to help. A small restaurant might not be able to afford as much expertise or high-quality help as a funded tech-startup.
There is no right or wrong in which one you choose since everyone have some annoying problems they want solved. But if I can leave you with one thing that took me way to long to learn, it is to avoid working with completely new businesses.
They usually don’t have any money and when they don’t have any customers, everything seems risky compared to a business that knows the impact your work can have.
Some freelancers chose to work with smaller businesses even though they might be able to earn more by working with bigger ones, simply because they enjoy it more or perhaps are able to work remotely.
That is also worth considering, if it is important to you.
A specific example for you
First a brief note. It will be tempting to pick something related to your day job. Sometimes it works but often this isn’t a good idea if you value your job. It is easy to get into a situation where the lines between competition are blurred.
You might end up giving away confidential information or hinting at something that causes a conflict of interest even if you don’t intend to.
If your company is ok with it, it can be the easiest place to start. Often times they are not comfortable with it or you might have signed an NDA, in which case you could pick one of these instead:
- The same skills in a similar industry (e.g. if you write sales copy for a startup you might help online coaches with the same)
- In the same industry with overlapping projects (e.g. if your day-job is in marketing for a fashion brand you might help fashion ecommerce shops with their online advertising attribution)
- In the same industry with the same skills but targeting a different audience (e.g. if your job is in luxury travel you could help 3-star hotels in your freelance business – those two will never be competing because people choose either one for different reasons)
If it is clear that there is no conflict of interest in the same industry, with the same skills, but targeting a different audience (bullet point 3) is sometimes the easiest way to leverage your time and skills.
Another approach to specializing
I like to think that the reason I landed the client in the example earlier was that our personalities were a great match.
As David Epstein explains in his book ‘Range’, sampling different ideas to find, what he refers to as ‘match quality’, has led many people to a happy (and successful) life.
We can apply the same principle to our freelance clients. Let’s call it ‘client match quality’. Besides needing to be able to help them with their tasks, how good of a fit is the client’s personality with yours?
Speak with them about their project and feel out if your personalities are a good fit. You’ll have to speak with them about the project details anyway.
Besides being skilled at something clients need help with, you can use client match quality to close them instead of using the power of specializing.
You’ll likely find it easier to land new projects with those that you have a good personality fit with, but you’ll also have an easier time managing the clients throughout the project as you are likely to have similar expectations.
This will be a good fit if you focus on great communication with your clients — something I strongly recommend. There is nothing like bad communication to drive an otherwise fine project in the ground.
Clients typically say that they use logic in their hiring process and select for skill and expertise but who are we kidding? In reality, freelancing is a people business.
And in a people business, the currency is trust. Our clients want (and need!) to be able to rely on us to take care of tasks for them.
So, we are actually in the trust-building business. It is remarkable how much extra work clients will give us if they trust us — even if we don’t have direct experience with the task at hand.
Some will even ask us to help find problems to solve in their business because they like having us around.
Imagine if you could use the old adage “just be yourself” to leverage your personality and earn more money?
That does not mean you should not specialize eventually – it is your business and you can run it exactly the way you prefer.
Naturally, there are different examples where each situation is better. For example, if you work with computer programming it might work much better to specialize since different programming languages can have different use-cases.
Or if you work with marketing it might make more sense to optimize for match quality as clients who needs help with marketing oftentimes love it if you, not only run their campaigns but also write content or set up email funnels.
Another element is how much you value communication with your client – which might only be something you know after having had a few good and bad clients.
If you optimize for client match quality, you’ll typically get clients that communicate in the same way you do.
Some readers have experienced that specializing felt too transactional whereas they prefer to identify with the client’s values and align their passion with their client’s.
How to know if you should stick with your freelance idea
Some will know right away what they would like to do as a freelancer while others might want to experiment following the process above.
I have enjoyed the experimentation because it has allowed me to get a good understanding of the landscape and how things work differently with different specializations.
For example, as I was pitching Facebook advertising management services via email it didn’t work well for me (though I know it works well for others) whereas when I pitched writing copy via email I landed great projects.
One way to speed up the selection process is by asking people that might be familiar with an industry or service/skill that you are interested in, out to coffee.
When people understand that you come from a place of learning they are usually happy to answer questions you’ll have.
How to know if you’ve found “your thing”
You’ll typically know if you like the work and clients after a few projects. The easiest way to know is simply doing a few projects, that’ll give you the best sense of which parts you might want to tweak.
Do research on who else is doing it, what they charge and how much they specialize compared to being broad to find the exact sweet spot for yourself.
When should you sample something new?
As you are researching your idea, you should be able to see other freelancers doing something similar. Either the exact same or the same skill to a different audience or a different audience that you sell the same skill to.
If not, you’ll want to find some people in that audience you can talk to, to understand if this is actually something they need and are willing to pay for.
If you see other people doing the same and making money, you are probably on to something.
This is one of the most challenging parts for a beginning freelancer because it can be difficult to tell whether we just don’t have much experience in sales or if it is because our idea isn’t interesting for our potential clients.
The best way is to get paid. If you’ve been paid three times, you know there must be something there as a general rule.
To get you started, go ask a few of your friends what you are good at. Note it down and compare it to the interests you have. There will typically be a couple of crossover points that you can use to get started.
Action steps & takeaways
First, pick an overarching idea you want to work on. That could be a skill or industry you have experience with for example.
Next, find a great problem to solve. If you aren’t sure, I suggest reaching out to businesses you are interested it and ask them can kind of challenges they tend to have within the topic you are interested in.