Starting out as a freelancer – a beginner’s guide

Have you considered using your skills to enter the world of self-employment? Being a freelancer allows you to be flexible regarding when you work, what projects you take on, and where you choose to work.

Here’s what you need to know about starting out as a freelancer, from getting started and finding clients to paying taxes and building your portfolio.

What service will you offer?

What are your skills? Writing, marketing, graphic design, project management, teaching and tutoring, web developing, CV writing, administration assistance and accounting are some common freelancing professions, but there is a much wider range of jobs out there. Take a look at some popular freelance websites such as Upwork, Freelancer and Peopleperhour to see if your skills are in demand.

How do you set up your business?

To set yourself up as a freelancer in the UK you will need to register as a sole trader or set-up a company. There are certain responsibilities that come with being a freelancer that you need to be aware of before you start, to comply with UK laws. For example:

Registering for Self-Assessment and filing a tax return each year
Keeping a record of all your sales and expenses
Budgeting and paying your income tax and National Insurance

It’s advisable to put money aside each month so you can cover the tax and NI costs and to have some savings behind you in the first few months to ensure you’re well covered while you build your client base. Many freelancers work part-time initially until they can afford to live off their freelancing earnings entirely.

If you are unsure, it’s best to get professional advice but you can read the rules on working for yourself and find out how to register here.

How do you find your clients?

Job sites

The quickest and easiest way to start building your client base is to use freelance websites like the ones mentioned above, and start applying for jobs. If you do a good job and keep you clients happy, you will start to build a base of customers who will keep coming back. However, be aware that these freelancing sites can be very competitive. Initially it’s likely that you will have to take some more basic jobs and charge less – once you’ve done the groundwork in this way and built up your reputation, you’ll be able to apply for the more desirable jobs and raise your prices.


Networking is also a key way to finding a regular income through freelancing. Take time to make quality connections with former colleagues, friends or anyone in your industry who will be willing to recommend you for work. LinkedIn is seen by many as a vital networking tool in promoting yourself and your work.

Speculative job applications

This is where you apply for a job that doesn’t formally exist yet, but (if done correctly) it can be a successful ‘in’ with a company you want to work for. The intention is to advertise your talents in a way that persuades the company that you have what they need, even if they’re not looking for someone or haven’t advertised a position yet. It’s a great way to stand out and tap into a ‘hidden’ job market.

Creating your portfolio

Many creative freelance jobs such as copywriting, graphic design, digital marketing and photography will require a portfolio of your best work in order to win clients.

Here are a few tips to create a dazzling portfolio:

Curate your portfolio to showcase the key skills you want potential clients to be aware of
Include only 5-8 pieces of your best work – there should be no page-fillers
Take time to write a description of each project, such as the brief, the problem you solved, the results it achieved, etc
Make it easy to find your contact details, explain the type of skills you can provide and the kind of work you are interested in
Include testimonials from previous clients

If you don’t have enough work to fill a portfolio yet, don’t worry. It’s perfectly acceptable to create ‘fake’ speculative projects that demonstrate your skills, as long as you clearly label that the work was not done for a real client. For example, if you want to create an advertising copywriter portfolio, choose some existing advertisements, and re-write them with improvements. If you want to market yourself as a graphic designer, design logos, posters and packaging for a made-up company. If you’re a web designer, create an impressive website from scratch.

Being a freelancer gives you a lot of freedom over your own career, but also requires you to take control of the business side of things, be entrepreneurial in your approach and the way you promote yourself and be adaptable to change. You need to be constantly on the look out for new opportunities because, by its very nature, freelance work is not always secure. However, for many, the benefits of flexible hours and location, and having more control over the projects you choose, make the hard work all worth it.