How to get freelancing projects (and avoid the circle of hell)

How to get freelancing projects (and avoid the circle of hell)

Updated July 2020

As I went to ask for ideas on how to get freelancing projects, a friend told me to pick one approach and stick to it.

I said yes, ignored his advice like an idiot, and went on to try a whole bunch of things.

I asked other people for advice and got the same answer. Then I did the same thing all over again.

This went on for YEARS… don’t be like me.

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the Simpsons

In the beginning, it can be difficult to pick the best one and there is often a lot being left unsaid.

For example, the effect of most tactics decays fast. While people are able to show results early on, the results don’t last because everyone and their mom adopt the same tactics as they see the results from the early adopters. 

It is the little circle of hell that goes on and on like a never-ending version of Tom and Jerry.

Tom and jerry

While you won’t always know if a tactic is long-lasting in advance, I’ll show you a few tactics that have worked since the beginning of time…

Okay, okay… maybe just since the beginning of the internet…

And they will continue to work for years to come because they are not depending on some new secret hack. They are depending on human behavior.

We often see examples like:

  • Ask your friends and family for referral projects
  • Build a portfolio
  • Use a freelance website or job board

Many of us didn’t browse around to get B.S. answers that we had already thought of ourselves.

Since everyone loves the 31-new-sexy-hacks-of-the-week, I might throw in one or two of those as well. It will be your job — should you choose to accept it — to judge which is which.

Most of us know that referral projects coming via friends and family are great. I won’t go deeper with that here because it is difficult to depend on in the beginning.

If you have the advantage of a large network, do consider using it – it is a great approach to landing freelance clients.

With that out of the way, let’s look at two popular, advanced, ideas that will trap you with a lot of work and no results if you’ve just started your freelance business.

Creating a blog

People often recommend blogging so they can sell you a website hosting option and earn a kickback when you sign up.

Using a blog to get clients is a great approach if you have time to wait for it to kick in. It takes quite a while and a lot of new skills to learn, such as the technical work of setting up the blog, creating content, and promoting it.

Many of us like to think that if we simply create something great, people will magically appear and pay us money. From time to time we’ll see someone in the news who had a huge overnight success. 

The reason it is newsworthy is that it is extremely rare. To see for yourself, either search around for reputable blogs and listen to their point of view on overnight success.

You’ll either see scammy sites promoting how they earned a million dollars with a secret system (that they’ll sell you) or people saying that there are no overnight successes. 

After falling for the first option a couple of times, I learned the hard way that the latter is true. The scams sort of work… If you want to scam people but then this blog isn’t for you.

You can even map out the flow from writing your blog article to someone becoming your client on a piece of paper. If you can’t do it or don’t see a clear path, it isn’t the right time to do that just yet.

Another common theory people have is that they need to have a website with their portfolio, otherwise clients won’t hire them.

Again, it just isn’t true. I didn’t have a website for my clients, yet as you can see here, I landed clients and earned money without problems.

Often, it is something we do to feel good, so we don’t have to do any of the real work of reaching out to businesses. That could be caused by fears like a fear of rejection.

Buying ads

Like blogging, this approach technically works, too. On the surface, it looks easy and like something that takes just two seconds to set up.

But underneath the iceberg, you will find hidden challenges like learning to write great ads, building funnels, optimizing the ads, analyzing the results, and solving other problems when your campaign isn’t bringing you the clients you want.

It’s easy to get client leads and difficult to get great, high-quality, leads.

You might be paying say, $50 per lead but that doesn’t mean you’ll close every lead you get. More likely you might close one in five or one in ten leads – if the leads are good. If they aren’t, it will require many more leads and by then your earnings go to ads instead of ice cream.

You’ll likely have to play around with the ad campaign to configure it to deliver good leads and that will likely cost thousands of dollars before it is set up correctly. And it can go sour overnight.

Both methods work but they are indirect and take time and resources to perform well. They are a better fit once our freelance business is doing well and we’d like to scale it by working less or earning even more.

When we are starting out, we benefit from focusing on tasks that directly get us in touch with clients.

Comedian Joey Diaz starred in the movie The Longest Yard and shared the story of how he was sure that his big breakthrough would come as the movie was released.

It had plenty of other well-known actors like Adam Sandler, Terry Crews, and Chris Rock. 

Joey Diaz was sure that this time it would work out. He waited and waited and waited but the phone never rang.

In this interview, he shares the story.

interview Joey diaz

The point is that we can’t just have a great freelance business idea, a portfolio and expect that clients will magically appear at our doorstep.

It didn’t happen for someone as famous as Joey Diaz, so why would we be any different? 

Luckily, we don’t need to be salesy to talk to businesses. In the next chapter of this article, I’ll share more details on how to approach businesses without being salesy.

If you don’t know where to start, simply pick the first one we’ll dive into below. It’s an excellent choice for most new freelancers.

Tactics to get freelancing projects

Reach out to businesses (without being salesy)

Everyone has an opinion on reaching out to businesses cold via email or phone calls. This strategy has worked well for me and others across a range of different skills and industries.

If you’ve considered this approach, head over to this case study where I share the details of how I landed $9,190 worth of projects without being salesy using this approach. You’ll also see the exact step-by-step approach to do it for your own freelance business.

In the grand scheme of things, this is likely the channel that will get you the most freelancing projects the quickest. 

You don’t need a website or even a professional email. You won’t be dependent on job boards and you can contact any business you dream of working with.

Many of us are concerned about coming across as a salesy or that we are annoying someone and they will complain or be rude to us.

Sure, it could technically happen but when I ran an experiment cold emailing 247 businesses, I only got one email that was slightly negative and it wasn’t even bad or rude.

Everyone else I heard from was nice and friendly even if they weren’t interested because I focused on connecting with them and being a nice person. 

I bet that if you were to reach out to five or ten businesses in a nice way, you’d be surprised how nice they’ll be.

The Upwork hack

I landed a writing project paying $500 for an article following this tactic.

Some Upwork-projects are limited by the geographical region. In my experience, it’s most often Americans wanting people in the same time zone (or native English speakers) for writing projects.

I’ve found that often they are simply not aware that someone who is not a native speaker yet highly experienced can do the job to their standards.

When you search for these projects, you won’t be able to see the projects within Upwork itself (unless you are in the same region or country) but there is another way…

You hop over to Google and search “ YOUR KEYWORD”, where you exchange YOUR KEYWORD for whatever type of jobs you are interested in.

get freelancing projects

Sometimes these projects are indexed by Google and you can then open them up in an incognito/private window or by logging OUT of your Upwork account before clicking the link.

If the project mentions any details on what the business name is or any other hints that allow you to find them, you go back to Google, find their information, and contact them outside Upwork.

You can explain that you weren’t able to bid for the project because of the geographical difference but you have some examples to show that might make him interested.

I don’t recommend contacting businesses outside Upwork but in this case, I don’t know any other way to do it.

Since you didn’t have the option to bid on this project, you wouldn’t be able to land it anyway. You can just ask them to invite you to the project.

This requires more work normally using Upwork, which is great because the client will instantly understand that you did a lot of extra work to find them and that you had to get creative. Here’s an example from when I did it recently:

some details are blurred out for privacy

To a client that shows them that you are a smart and independent thinker. Of course, some just want someone cheap to do mindless tasks and for those, it might not be a good fit.

For the rest of them, you’ll instantly stand out from the crowd and I bet that they might even be willing to pay a little more for someone as bright-minded as you if it is within their budget.

Facebook groups (or other social media sites)

Using Facebook groups is a popular strategy for landing clients and group moderators are aware of that, so it is more challenging now than it used to be.

Most freelancers using this approach with success will share advice and case studies in groups and then wait for people to message them privately.

This works but can feel challenging at first. The twist is to avoid going where competing freelancers are going (e.g. if you are a writer, don’t go to the writer-groups). There will be so many people doing the same and you’ll be looking for scraps as a bottom feeder.

Approach agencies

A reader has seen success by using the old school approach of contacting other freelancers and agencies for work. Many will sub-contract for special projects or perhaps need specific expertise for just a few projects where it does not make sense to hire someone full time.

If you’ve worked for an agency, you might even have experienced that first hand.

The easiest way to go about this is simply to email them, briefly explain what you do and ask if they keep freelancers like you on file or hire from time to time.

You’ll probably need to check-in with them once a month. You may find some that are looking for help right away while others will contact you with work months from now.

Place your bets strategically

Many tactics we see out there are short-lived and over the years you might have to play around with different ones as the world changes, so let’s zoom out and go one step further.

We will inevitably need to practice to get good even with the perfect tactic. So, it is more important to be comfortable trying a few times before getting it right, and having a good attitude is going to help secure our success.

Many venture capitalists and business investors use an approach that turns out to be a perfect fit for us to adopt as well. They know that some of the businesses they invest in won’t work out while some of them will but it is difficult to tell which ones.

Instead of trying to do the impossible and pick the perfect bet, they have a portfolio with, say, ten bets knowing full well that half of them will never turn in to anything, three might do OK and one or two will be big winners (like Google or Facebook) and pay for all the rest — and then some. That makes the entire portfolio worth it.

We can use the same approach to pick a number of tactics to test out because we know that some will work while others won’t.


Each one of these tactics could be a good fit for your freelance business, and there are many more that could help as well.

After all, these are just tactics. The key here is test and experiment with a few different things until you find one that works for you and then experiment to make that single tactic work better and better for you.

After looking through so many tactics, many of us feel a mix of overwhelm and excitement. Ironically, tackling that is often more difficult than to get freelancing projects using any one of the tactics.

Have you tried any of these tactics? What happened? If not, what’s holding you back?


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