I built my first e-commerce website as a freelancer for $250.
I found the client on e-lance (which later became Upwork). The site took me over four weeks to build. I have never calculated my effective hourly rate because it didn’t matter at the time.
I was focused on getting paid for a digital skill without an employer in the middle of the transaction. This was a proof of concept.
This first “big” project had a total budget that was less than the hourly rate I currently charge. But it taught me many things about being a freelancer.
Here are a few things I learned from that first project:
- Communication is extremely important and often overlooked.
- I can actually make money doing this.
- Showing confidence has value; you will figure it out.
These lessons helped me climb to the next rung on the ladder.
If I had gone on e-lance and tried to charge what I saw others charging, I would not have gotten this project. I might have never gotten a project and probably would have given up.
I didn’t have a portfolio, testimonials, or much experience. I didn’t have my ladder. That first project was the first step in building my freelance ladder.
I then leveraged the testimonial and positive feedback (and lessons learned about communication) to beef up my profile and get the next project.
I was building my ladder.
I continued on this path for the next few years, slowly adding rungs. I learned how vital the scope of work was, what red flags to look for when talking with potential clients, and how effective relationships are. Eventually, I moved off e-lance and was able to find clients on my own (another rung).
How to build your ladder
This advice goes against much of what you will hear on the internet about becoming a freelancer. “charge what you are worth” is a phrase thrown around without much context. This advice is often given to those in the middle of their journey stuck on a freelance ladder rung and needing a push to get to the next level.
If you are starting, you might have the creative skills but are missing pieces of the ladder.
- Realize that every project has more than just monetary value attached.
- Focus on soft skills like communication; they can set you apart.
- Show up every day and do your best.
- Leverage your past experiences to craft your next ladder rung so you can get to the next level.
- Use the work you do to begin creating a portfolio.
- Don’t compare yourself to others that are higher up on the ladder; you end up skipping rungs and getting hurt.
What happens when you skip a step?
Sometimes you see an opportunity to take a leap and go big. You should take those, but realize that skipping a step has some growing pains.
If you think about the ladder analogy, you could skip one of the rungs, but you have to stretch your legs further than you are comfortable. It is also a little dangerous, and you could fall off.
In the freelance world, this could be a large rate increase, taking on a more complex project than you are used to, or moving into a different industry. They are all great things, but sometimes they don’t work, and you have to take a step back. That is 100% ok because you built a ladder with the right rungs to fall back on.
Your goals define your ladder
The ladder you need to reach your goal of making $80,000 per year is different than the one you need to reach $500,000 per year. Neither one of these ladders is better than the other, just different.
Common questions about rungs
When I shared this concept with some of my freelancing friends, I got a few questions:
- “What makes something a rung?”
- “How do you know you are ready for the next rung?”
- “Will I ever reach the top?”
What makes something a rung?
To me, a rung comprises many attributes, and almost all of my rungs include different items. Some typical rungs include:
These will be different for everyone. You also want to keep in mind that you might not be able to identify the makings of a rung until you have climbed it.
How do you know you are ready for the next rung?
You don’t. The truth is, you will probably realize it after you are there. Keep pushing, and soon enough you will look down and be higher than you used to be.
Will I ever reach the top?
I have no idea, but I doubt it. To me, there is no top. This ladder keeps going, and you will always have room to grow, so keep climbing.