Finding Freelance Work – Marketplaces, your network and referrals

When you’re first starting off, you will need to find the best ways of finding freelance work for your industry. There are various ways of finding new projects to work on and this will be a quick rundown of the different ways to do so.

Freelance Marketplaces

There are websites like, upwork and various niche marketplaces for web design, marketing, 3D design etc. You can often add yourself as a service provider and people can find you by keyword search, or you can search jobs posted to some sites and pitch for those projects.

While this can be a quick way to get started, there are a few downsides.

  1. If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, you won’t have any reviews on these sites and may find it hard to get new projects.
  2. You will be up against people working in countries with lower cost of living. This difference in costs means that if you’re in a Western country, you will be getting undercut by people in India, Thailand etc. While some people might say they are cheap because they aren’t very good, that’s often not the case and the difference in currency means people can employ excellent freelancers from other countries at a fraction of what we might charge.
  3. The platform will take a cut of your profits and may not pay you straight away. This can be damaging to your cashflow and you may end up working hard and getting paid much later. Ideally you’ll be taking deposits for work so you’re getting paid part of the fee up front and this might not be possible if you’re working through a freelance platform.

Your Network

Depending on what you do and how you’d like to work, either contracting or working from home, you might now people who work for companies or agencies that need some help when they get busy. Don’t be shy – let your professional contacts know you’re available for freelance work and a rough idea of your day rate.

Here are some good tips from Sophie de Albuquerque on how to build your network as a freelancer


This is the number one way I have built up my freelance web design work. Offering a referral fee encourages people to pass your details on to their contacts. As long as you take on work you can effectively deliver, your network of referrers will grow over time and you might not need to do any kind of marketing!


We’ve looked at three main ways of finding freelance work in this article – Freelance marketplaces, your network and referrals. I’ve found referrals to be the most effective way of building my freelance business without having to do other forms of marketing.

Freelancing With Confidence

It’s scary setting up on our own as freelancers and trying to attract clients. Certainly in the early stages this can lead to us offering all kinds of services to all kinds of clients in an effort to appear successful. This is not a great strategy though as we can end of a jack of all trades and master of none, with no focus to our services or client base.

Picking Services and Clients

It takes confidence to focus on particular services for a small group of clients, but this allows us to get better at this smaller range of services. Saying ‘no’ is hard, especially at first while trying to build a client base, but we need to find our confidence and stick to what works for us. Now it’s our business we can decide for ourselves and don’t have to offer everything people ask for.

Acting Confidently

Confidence also comes through in our marketing and the way we speak to people. Don’t be afraid to decline work if the budget is not enough, the project doesn’t interest you or you just don’t like the person. Working for low rates for people you are not eager to help is a recipe for unhappiness. It carries an opportunity cost too – as you will then not be available if a better paid job or work for a client you really like comes along. Life’s too short to be doing things you don’t truly want to do and that’s probably why you’re self employed in the first place.

Acting confidently is reassuring to clients. They don’t want to hear dithering and you being unsure you can deliver – they want to feel sure you can help. This might take some practice and faith at first, but as you start to successfully work with clients it will start to come naturally.


Have confidence in your skills and that there are lots of potential clients out there for you. Choose your services and your clients. Reassure your clients by acting confidently.

Managing Email As A Freelancer

While email is a great way of keeping in touch, email overload can turn out to be your enemy when working as a freelancer. Constantly checking emails and replying only bring you more emails to respond to. Striking a balance between being available and getting your creative work done is difficult.

Set Aside Time For Emails

Inspired by David Allen’s Getting Things Done and a business mentor, I now check email in the afternoons once I’ve done a few hours of focused creative work first. This allows me to get my scheduled work done before getting distracted and fragmented with enquiries and small tasks.

Checking email after doing a few hours of focused creative work first helps get scheduled tasks done without getting distracted Click To Tweet

Use Separate Email Addresses

I recommend you set up various email addresses to separate the emails you receive. For example one for enquiries, another for project notifications, one for newsletters and other non-time sensitive information and one for support requests. You can then keep to one inbox if you need to focus. I set the support address to come to my phone and notify me so that gets priority and I see them out of normal office hours.

Write Emails To Reduce Back and Forth

The way emails are written can reduce the number of responses required to reach a conclusion. Offer choices and ask directly for things rather than leaving emails open ended. Another tip that saves me a lot of time is having a bank of canned responses to emails in Simplenote/Evernote/Whatever that I copy and paste when needed.

Inbox Zero?

We aim for ‘inbox zero’ (a term created by Merlin Mann on his now defunct site 43 Folders) and usually succeed in reaching around ‘inbox ten’. By using an online project management system and David Allen’s Getting Things Done method of ‘deleting, deferring or doing’ we can process email in batches and (mostly) clear the inbox. This stops things getting lost in the list and is much less stressful.

Read some tips on reaching inbox zero from Creative Bloq.

Keep Organised

I use folders for each client and then a folder for each of my own projects and organisations I deal with. This keeps the inbox clear and means I can find things when I need to.

Save attachments and delete them from the emails to save space in your email folders and mailboxes.

Warning Signs Of Difficult Freelance Clients

You may encounter freelance clients who have unrealistic expectations or try and take advantage of you. This might not be malicious, it’s just how some people do business.

Red flags to be aware of include:

  • Low budgets or haggling before a spec is even defined.
  • Overly tight timescales. This is a sign that the client may be disorganised and this will make them hard to work with.
  • Asking for work up front before paying anything – in the form of pitching or ‘spec work’.
  • Not wanting to agree to a proposal/terms or pay a part of the project fee before work commences.
  • Saying that instead of paying they will give you exposure or it will ‘look great on your portfolio’. That may be true but you still have bills to pay.
  • Dictating how things will be done without taking your input into account. There are countless people on the freelance marketplaces that can do prescriptive tasks. Doing this kind of work will grind you down long term, so look for clients that appreciate your knowledge and experience and let you lead in the areas you know about.
  • They have used a long list of freelancers in the past. It’s not always the freelancer’s fault things don’t work out and a string of previous providers points to potential issues with the client.
  • If they are negative about previous freelancers or life in general, they may prove difficult to work with.

There are entire websites devoted to ranting about these kinds of clients, but it’s best to just politely decline their project and move on.

You have a responsibility to choose your clients and projects and take on work that fits well with what you offer. If you get a gut feeling that something isn’t right, take notice of that.

Your time and energy is valuable and there’s an opportunity cost to working with clients that don’t treat or pay you well. If you’re working for them you’re not working for client that treat you well and pay your full rate, on time.

Managing Freelance Enquiries

If all goes well you will be generating enquiries asking for your freelance services. To make the best of your time you need to process these quickly and separate enquiries from genuine potential clients from ‘shotgun’ enquiries that are unlikely to lead to paid projects.

Picking up on the blog posts on choosing your target clients, spotting potentially difficult clients and the post about saying “no”, you need to disqualify the unsuitable projects as fast as possible. For example if you don’t offer SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), just thank the enquirer for their time and decline the work (extra points for introducing them to a trustworthy contact for a referral fee…).

People will be at various points in their research and buying process. Good proposals or pitches take time to write. If someone is just researching and has a vague enquiry, give them a ballpark figure and timescale and offer to write up a full proposal if those constraints are acceptable to them.

Limiting Time Spent On Enquiries

In answer to the eternal question ‘how much is a website?” I ask them if they have a list of requirements or a specification I can quote on. If not, I offer to write them a spec document after a discovery phase. If they are serious they will go for this, if not you will save yourself hours of educating these clients with no guarantee of a paid project at the end of it.

Again, you can spend longer with people when first starting your freelance business and you have lots of free time, but once you have a regular stream of enquiries you are better off focusing on the straightforward enquiries and projects.

Getting Back To People

If you’re really busy, it can be hard to manage your freelance workload as well as dealing with enquiries. Putting time aside for focused work and admin helps with this – turning off your email and phone while you’re focusing and then dealing with emails and calls once you’ve hit your daily target.

Most people are fine with waiting a few hours for non-critical enquiries, but don’t leave things too long. If you can’t respond fully, a quick call or email thanking them for their enquiry and letting them know when you will follow up is a good idea.

Alternatively, an “out of office” autoresponder can let people know their email has been received and that you’ll get back to them fully at a later time.

Having a set of email responses can save you a ton of time as well, as you can copy and paste and then edit to suit.