Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links from Amazon and/or others, and we may receive a referral fee (at no extra cost to you) if you sign up or purchase products or services mentioned.
We’ve preached the benefits of going freelance, but without knowing what you could actually do as a freelancer that inspiration isn’t awfully useful.
To help, we’ve compiled a high-level overview of the best-paid and most popular freelance job categories and roles, the skills you will need to perform them, and if you don’t already possess them, the ways in which you can acquire them. These are all positions that can be done part-time or full-time, depending on if you plan to retain your current occupation for a while.
However, before we go any further, one thing needs to be clarified. Several of the jobs below will be tough to break into with no experience whatsoever. If the thought of one day taking them on as a freelancer sounds appealing, it can at times be better to first spend a few months interning in positions which utilise and develop these skills, or by trying to land a junior role in the same position at a smaller company, so you can learn and gain some experience from more experienced colleagues before going solo. At the end of the day, the vast majority of jobs can be performed on a freelance basis, but we’re focusing on those which can be performed by working at home, with a PC and an internet connection.
You may also wonder, what’s the point in someone with absolutely none of these skills even attempting to learn them? Well, no one was born a freelancer. I’ve known successful marketers who started out as welders, programmers who learnt while waiting tables on the side, and many others who simply wanted to make a change to their lives and jump into something that was at first scary and new – and you can too.
If there’s anything in particular you’re interested in, you can jump ahead here:
- Web Development
- Virtual Assistant
The marketing industry as a whole is likely one of the main employers of freelancers around the globe. By its very nature, it is made up of people from a huge variety of backgrounds with diverse skillsets. To name just a few:
Copywriting and Content Marketing
Copywriting involves writing text to promote a brand, product, or service, by increasing awareness and ultimately trying to lead the customer to a sale. This can be sales copy as part of advertising campaigns or product descriptions, as well as social media posts or as part of email marketing.
Getting into copywriting can be more difficult that other roles on this list, as it can be tough to land clients to build your portfolio without having a portfolio to speak of. To remedy this, besides working as an intern or in a junior position in-house at a company or agency, you can set up a website and fill your portfolio with examples of “speculative advertising”. Simply look around you and pick a few products, or think of a range of services, and create ads and copy to demonstrate how you would sell this item if you were in that position. Of course, make sure you only use the examples that you’re truly proud of in your portfolio – quality matters over quantity here. Similarly to content marketing, it’s all about practise; write all manner of content, long-form, short snippets, and everything in between, to get a real feel for many different styles and approaches.
Additionally, start off by offering your services to people you may know for cheap or free – only the first few, never undersell yourself – to build your portfolio and experience. Once you’re confident in your newfound skills, you can branch further out.
Content marketing is the creation of written content such as blog posts or social media posts to meet a particular business goal, generally similar to copywriting in raising awareness for a company, or offering value to potential customers to increase interest and trust in the brand itself. Content marketers will often work closely with SEOs to optimise their created content to rank well on search engines, to organically drive traffic and leads to a business’s website.
For content writing, set up your own blog on a subject you’re passionate about and churn out a bunch of content (who knows, you might even make some money from it one day). This will help both practise your writing as well as give you insight into ways to make your content rank.
Of course, this won’t help you much if your writing is awful. Make sure you practise writing every day if possible, and read as much as you can (some of the greatest writers were prolific readers, after all). Some good books that cover content marketing in particular are Content Rules and Everybody Writes by Ann Handley, as well as Content Machine by Dan Norris.
SEO (Search Engine Optimisation)
The role of an SEO specialist is to optimise a web presence of some form (generally a website, but can also extend to e-commerce pages on stores such as Amazon or Etsy, mobile apps, and social media pages), to rank highly on search engines such as Google, or internal search engines in the case of some of the other examples.
This can be done in various ways, such as with on-page SEO (by making sure the page is optimised for relevant keywords and phrases which receive adequate search volume), technical SEO (making sure the structure of the site is properly set up to be easily crawlable by search bots, that internal linking between pages is correctly set up, and much more), and off-site SEO (mainly the acquisition of backlinks from other authority sites in your industry, to give a digital “thumbs up” to search engines that your website content is good and can be trusted). Of course, there’s much more to it than this, but these are the fundamental ideas.
You can learn the basics of SEO over with Google themselves, and Moz also have a pretty good free introduction to SEO.
Once you have the basics down, similarly to content marketing, the best way to skill up for SEO is by running one or more websites and actually making them rank. This may be easy if you choose an uncompetitive niche and focus on subjects which no one else has properly covered, or incredibly difficult (sometimes impossible) for highly competitive topics. This will involve a combination of making sure your site is structured and laid out properly (Google recommends always aiming to optimise the user experience over everything else), creating content (yep, content marketing and SEO go very closely together), and then working on building backlinks to your content in varying ways, which is often the hardest part of the process.
Side note: stick to learning “white hat” tactics. “Black hat” and often “grey hat” tactics are frowned upon by search engines, to put it lightly, and can result in your website being heavily penalised by search engines if they notice what you’re up to.
Digital Advertising Specialist
Digital advertising specialists work with a number of different online advertising platforms, with Google Ads and Facebook Ads being the big players here. They engage in so-called PPC (pay-per-click) advertising, and will launch advertising campaigns in conjunction with creatives, before continually optimising them by using the data gathered.
Luckily, Facebook and Google have their own free learning platforms. Facebook Blueprint will help you get to grips with the basics and much more related to Facebook Ads, while Google Ads has its own courses and certifications to get you qualified.
In terms of getting a portfolio together for this kind of work, it’s quite a bit harder than the others on this list as you actively have to spend money to build a portfolio, unless you actually run your own business that you’d spend money on anyway. This is why, in this case, working for someone and running their digital ad campaigns while learning the ropes is probably the smarter approach before you consider taking things freelance.
Graphic Design & Video Editing
These two roles are of course quite different, but as they’re similar enough and both lie in the creative field, I’ll kill two birds with one stone. They’re both likely obvious enough to anyone reading, but just in case: In the case of graphic designers, these creative wonders will dream up and conceptualise any kind of still art that is needed for the running of a business or its marketing efforts, ranging from logos, advertising graphics, or reports – primarily to inform and compel the consumer to make a purchase or raise awareness of a brand.
Video editors engage in more or less the same work, but from a video standpoint. Videos have quickly become the most popular form of online media, and this doesn’t look to change for a long long time, so a good video editor is always in demand.
To become a creative, you need to get creative. Practise your skills as much as you can and build up a healthy body of work. Besides your own personal projects, you can at first offer your work to friends or family at a discounted rate (or free if you’re feeling generous and are happy to do some work pro bono), to build up a wide-ranging portfolio. Be aware of working for people who ask you to work for free, in return for “exposure” on their online channels – the likelihood is that their exposure won’t generate anything for you and they’re simply taking advantage of someone who is trying to get their foot in the door.
Social Media Management
Social media dominates what people see online, and even though social media empires seem to rise up and fade from our collective memory every few years (anyone here still use MySpace?) for the last decades or two, the internet will likely always center around some form of social network – we’re social creatures, after all.
In that vein, brands will always need someone to take care of their social media channels. This includes posting the latest posts, curating content, interacting with fans and other pages, and plenty more. In a way, a good social media manager should encompass several skills we’ve talked about here – they should be able to write good copy, have a good understanding of what their fan base wants to see, and potential even be able to create their own graphics or video content if needed, though they’ll often work with specialists in those particular fields.
The barrier to entry here is lower than most other roles on this list, so you’re likely to have plenty of competition for any of the positions you’ll be applying to. The best way to make sure you stand out from the rest is by getting out there and setting up your own social media channels. If you know anyone who owns a business and doesn’t have any social media presence, offer to take on setting up and managing; offer them your services for free for the first few months while you find your feet, and when you see some results you can have a talk about pay (potentially make them your first client!). Just make sure you play it safe if you’re looking after someone else’s page and don’t go putting their brand in jeopardy. Additionally, focus on where their clients are – Twitter won’t be great for a café, for instance.
Whether you do or don’t have this opportunity, you should set up your own social media channels and try growing them organically – choose a subject you’re passionate about and feel that you can put out good content about, or can at least curate content (without stealing it), from around the internet. Your own channels will be great venues to experiment with what works without potentially aggravating a client.
We won’t recommend you any particular places to go when it comes to picking up the right knowledge for social media. In this case, Google is your friend, and the best way you’ll learn is trial by fire. “Simply” create a great-looking page, put out consistently good content, and interact with your audience in a meaningful way, and you’re bound to see results.
This shouldn’t need much explaining; programmers are who we have to thank for essentially any of our digital freelance success – they forged the internet and all the applications that make our lives simpler. As such, they also perfectly position themselves to work as digital nomads, coding away from the comfort of their own homes.
Being a programmer makes for a fantastic freelance set up for several reasons – the barrier to entry is higher than all other categories on this list, meaning the competition is lower, and at the same time the demand is always high – meaning pay for freelance programmers can be high to say the least.
Talk about an open-ended question. Depending on what you’d like to code, this can hugely vary. A good language to start out with to understand the basics of coding is Python – it is by far one of the easiest languages in terms of syntax (the way the code is writting and structured), and will clue you in on most of the fundamental concepts you should keep in mind when it comes to programming. These same concepts can then be applied to other languages going forward, although the syntax of other languages will need to be learnt from scratch.
When I started learning Python, my favourite two books were Automate The Boring Stuff With Python, which is available to read for free on the author’s website, as well as Python Crash Course: A Hands-on, Project-based Introduction to Programming. Learn the basics, and, similarly to many other roles on this list, get building! Python is a very versatile language, and will allow you to realise a huge number of projects you may have always had in mind. Don’t forget to set yourself up with a Github account, which allows you to store your partial or finished projects in an online repository, and which also doubles as a great place for your coding portfolio when it comes to client-seeking time.
While this does come under programming to some degree, there is also quite a large degree of variation between a full-on programmer, or someone with full-stack capabilities, compared to someone with a pure focus on web development. Web development is simply easier, more accessible, and can be learned in a shorter amount of time.
Not just that, but web development can also be performed purely with the use of so-called “no code” options, or CMS (Content Management System) platforms such as WordPress or SquareSpace. It is quite possible that as long as you have enough experience with a particular platform, you can niche down and market yourself as an expert on development with it.
If you prefer going the no-code route, you can get to grips with WordPress, which is by far the largest CMS and supposedly powers around 30% of the web. There are many places to learn, one of the best being the WordPress codex itself, but if you prefer video guides, Udemy has got you covered, and YouTube has a glut of free guides available. Once you’ve got the basics down, the best way is to simply set up a test site of your own and test and iterate until you’re comfortable. Have friends or family who need a website? Help them set it up for free or cheap, and build up your portfolio before moving on to bigger clients.
Of course, there are other fantastic beginner-friendly languages out there, as well as other CMS platforms, but to get started I recommend you begin with my suggestions above. Once you nail them you’re bound to be confident enough to pick up other languages or systems quickly and without breaking a sweat.
In our increasingly interconnected world, the value to a company of having their content in multiple languages is becoming ever more important. This means that translators who are highly proficient in multiple languages are greatly in demand. Translating articles, captions, user interfaces, and much more is the name of the game, and the pay can be surprisingly good.
This isn’t rocket science for someone who speaks a second language, but it’s pretty simple: just be bloody good at all of the languages you speak. Make sure you can translate between languages smoothly and without a hitch, challenge yourself to translating obscure words from both languages and dive into dictionaries to see if you can fill up your internal lexicon any further. Essentially, do everything to make sure you’re a language pro. If a company hires you and you end up making basic grammar mistakes or misspelling half of the words you’re translating, you’re unlikely to be hired for their next job.
A virtual assistant can in truth be a huge number of things all rolled into one. If they possess the skills to do any of the aforementioned jobs on this list, then those skills are instantly part of the VA package. Generally, VAs will know their strengths and specifically pitch these to clients. At a fundamental level, this can involve answering emails and phone calls, managing a calendar, customer support, processing sales and orders, and basic data entry and management. This can then snowball to a huge variety of services, depending on how confident you are in them.
In reality, if you already have a fairly good understanding of the basic skills I mentioned above, then you could start as a VA. However, once again due to its low barrier to entry, it is a highly competitive field and there are VAs aplenty. If you want to stand out as a VA you need to have your own unique angle, so try to gain or foster a particular skill that is in demand and not all VAs can supply.
In essence, basic VA work has you acting as a virtual secretary of sorts, meaning you need good social skills and superb time management. The more services you can offer to clients, however, the more interesting and diverse the work will become.
Just About Anything
The jobs mentioned above are just a small slice of some of the most sought-after freelance jobs out there, but in reality, just about any job can be done on a freelance basis. Successful lawyers can take their talents away from a law office and be their own boss, architects can draw up their concepts in their living room, and even event planners aren’t bound to a corporate lifestyle.
At the end of the day, you shouldn’t want to follow any of these paths just because you think they’re a fast path to financial success, but rather because you feel a passion for them and won’t get burnt out learning them. Motivating yourself as a freelancer can be a challenge – the last thing you want is to be doing something you hate!
If you’re still contemplating a direction you’d like to take your freelance career, or would like some more information on anything we’ve written above, comment below and we’ll do our best to help out.