When Andrew and I decided to leave Denver to drive from Canada to Patagonia, one of the first orders of business was to figure out how I’d make money. I decided to start freelancing and see if I could make it as a writer while we traveled.
Here’s how I did it.
1. I started freelancing part-time, right away.
I made an account on Upwork and started to bid on jobs. I didn’t get many at first, and the ones I did get were largely poorly-paid and temporary. I kept working my full-time job and writing a bit on the side. Eventually K9ofMine.com and I found each other, and I started to write steadily for the outlet. I still write for them.
- Getting that first gig is hard. I honestly don’t remember how I eventually found K9 of Mine, but it took a while. Luckily, I had a full-time job to pay the bills. I wasn’t in a big rush. That’s why I recommend starting to freelance part time before quitting your job.
- Another note – Upwork can be rough. The pay is often terrible at first, though I’ve more than quadrupled my pay with K9 of Mine in the 2 years I’ve worked with them. The platform is really crowded, making it hard to get noticed. Finally, Upwork takes a huge cut of your earnings – up to 20% at first. That said, I don’t know how I’d start freelancing without it.
2. I built a niche.
As a dog trainer and dog behavior consultant, I have a natural niche. Writing for K9 of Mine gave me a deep portfolio in this subject as well. I racked up certifications from the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Dog Trainer’s Connection, Dog Writer’s Association of America, and others to make myself really stand out.
- You can always expand your niche later. Going deep on a subject that you’re somewhat of an expert in will help you stand out from the crowd on ultra-dense websites like Upwork. Your knowledge and writing skill is the best reason for a client to hire you instead of some crappy content mill, so make sure that your niche is front and center.
3. I built my web presence.
I built myself a portfolio site and made sure that I wrote regularly on one of my three blogs. I kept track of my favorite pieces of work and linked them in my portfolio. While I don’t know if having a portfolio was integral to my success, I do think it helped considerably.
- Building a portfolio and a good online presence is one of the best ways to get yourself out of UpWork and other overcrowded freelancing sites that take huge cuts of your pay.
4. I expanded my skills.
Just being a good writer who knows a lot about dogs didn’t get me very far. I took free certification courses on Google Analytics, Inbound Marketing, SEO (several of those), building websites, basic coding, and Growth-Driven Design. I now offer a suite of services rather than just writing. If you’re really just interested in writing, focus on learning a bit about SEO (search engine optimization), content marketing, and copywriting.
- Again, this helped me stand out from the crowd when bidding on projects. I’m much more attractive to clients when I say that I’m an expert in dog behavior who understands SEO, design, and marketing than if I’m just “a writer who likes dogs.”
- I took this step shortly before quitting my job, and it really helped me feel confident with that move!
5. I built an RSS feed.
I should have done this ages ago. Upwork is pretty terrible as far as notifying you about jobs. That’s a problem since early bids on projects often are more successful. It’s discouraging to find a job posting that already has 50+ applications on it!
I use a Chrome RSS feed plugin and set it to notify me whenever a job on Upwork is posted that includes a given keyword (such as “dog”). This has dramatically reduced the time I spend looking for new jobs each month. I just scroll through the RSS Feed several times per day and only look at jobs that sound really perfect.
6. I just keep networking.
When I used to read this tip coming from other people, I always had to suppress a sigh. Where the heck was I supposed to network? But things have started to come through. A few months ago, a conversation with an old college friend (and partner of my boyfriend’s at Optimotive) let to me taking over the blog for PlantSnap.com. Ben met the founder of PlantSnap on a chairlift in Telluride.
Other clients have come in as referrals or through the IAABC network — including one client who hired me to ghost-write their book! I recently was hired to write for a new client who found me when I pitched a quote to them via HARO. They didn’t quote me, but did offer me a job. It happens, it just takes time.
I’ve never met the vast majority of my clients in person, but I also largely didn’t find them thanks to huge sites like UpWork. Those big sites were a great place to get started, but I’m glad that I largely am free of them now.
It’s A Lot of Work to Start Freelancing, but it’s Worth It
In March of 2018, just under six months ago, I was working as a behavior technician at an animal shelter. I loved my job — I had a beautiful 14-mile bike ride every day and worked four ten-hour days. I spent my three-day weekends playing in Colorado’s mountains. Life was good.
But I also took advantage of the three-day weekends to build up my skills as a freelancer, writing for clients and building my skills. All of that hands-on time training dogs at the shelter translated into invaluable experience that I could use later as a writer.
Now, I’m sitting in the shade at an oceanfront cafe in Victoria, British Colombia. My dog is asleep at my feet and my boyfriend is editing video beside me. We just finished sharing a bowl of poke and are going hiking later.
In just a few months, we’ll cross the other US border and drive into Mexico. It’s an understatement to say I’m stoked. All of this work to start freelancing is 100% worth it.
Kayla is a biologist, writer, and web designer. She’s passionate about animal behavior, the science of habits, and anything outdoors.