This is Part 3 of our Back to College series, which aims to help college students thrive as small business owners. In Part 2, we covered managing student debt and running a business. To view all the posts in the series, click here.
Running Your Own Freelance Business While in School
Usually when we think of having a part-time job as a college student, people think of working in the residence hall cafeteria, delivering pizzas, or waiting tables. But many college students today have another option to make extra cash while in school – they can start their own freelance business. Does it sound crazy to start your own business while you’re still a college student? After all, maybe you feel like you don’t really “know” anything yet – what valuable professional skills do you have to offer if you don’t even have your college degree? It’s true that college students often have a lot to learn about running a business and providing professional services, but there’s no better time to start than right now. If you have web-enabled skills like graphic design, writing, web design, or software development, you can start making money by starting your own freelance business while you are in college.
Here are a few key pointers to keep in mind if you’re thinking about starting your own freelance business while in school:
Identify Your Skill Set and Value Proposition
Simply put: what do you want to do as a freelancer, and why should people hire you? Companies need freelancers for a wide range of business tasks, ranging from marketing to product development. Take a look at your existing skills and interests. Do you like to write and research? Maybe you could start making money by writing blog posts for businesses, or pitch story ideas to magazines or pop culture blogs. Do you know how to code? Sell your services as an app developer. Are you majoring in graphic design? Start doing work on the side as you earn your degree. Whatever your professional skills might be, even if you’re still learning and developing your creative craft, you can often get started as a freelancer even if you’re not yet a college graduate.
Build a Portfolio
Freelance clients are often less interested in whether you have a degree than they are in what kind of work you do and whether you can do a good job for them. So start working on building a portfolio of professional freelance work to show off your skills to prospective clients. This can be as simple as starting a blog or sharing your photography on Instagram – but make sure you’re serious about it; keep your professional freelance work separate from your personal social media accounts.
If you’re just getting started in freelancing, you might want to do a few small projects for free, or “pro bono” as the professionals call it, for a favorite nonprofit organization or family friend’s small business. Then you can use these initial projects as portfolio pieces to show your capabilities to other – paying – clients.
Set Your Rates
One of the biggest challenges for beginning freelancers is figuring out what to charge. Especially if you’re a college student with no degree and limited experience, you might not be able to charge the same kind of high hourly rates that more established professional freelancers bill for their time.
However, that doesn’t mean you have to work for peanuts! A good rule of thumb is that freelancers should charge at least 3x their hourly wage at a full-time job. So if your school cafeteria or other on-campus job options typically pay $10 an hour, then that means you should charge $30 per hour as a college student freelancer. WARNING: Do not under-charge. Many new freelancers are skittish about charging a lot of money for their work, because they’re afraid they don’t deserve it or can’t deliver work that meets expectations. But if you don’t value your time, no one else will either. Clients will often be happy to pay you more than you had expected, and clients that try to bargain you down or undercut your rates are often more trouble than they’re worth. You’re often better off finding clients who are willing to pay well, rather than waste time with cheapskate clients. And over time as you build up your skills and get more confident at charging for your work, you can raise your hourly rates. Ideally, you will be making a comfortable profit on every freelance project, and it will be a much better deal than washing dishes or waiting tables – and you’ll be learning a lot more about how to run a business and create a powerful professional reputation for yourself.
Now for the tricky part: finding clients! The most important part of any freelance business is finding clients – without clients, you’re just another starving artist. So where can you find clients, especially if you’re a young college student with no professional network? One way is to sign up for online freelance work platforms, like Upwork.com. This is a site where people and companies can post jobs for freelance contractors – such as writers, graphic designers, web developers, and more – and freelancers can apply for projects and bid on the jobs. You complete work within the Upwork collaboration system and get paid via the Upwork online platform – it syncs with your PayPal account or bank account. With Upwork, as long as you follow the rules and deliver good work, you’re guaranteed to get paid and treated fairly by clients; no deadbeats.
Upwork has a lot of low-paying projects and there are some bad clients on there too, of course, but on the whole, Upwork is often a good place to start finding clients, especially if you’re a beginning college student freelancer who’s open to working for lower rates than more seasoned professionals. (Disclosure: I actually got my start as a professional freelance writer by bidding on jobs on Upwork, and it was a very positive experience for me – I’ve met some of my very best clients there.)
Another idea is to start within your inner circle of people you know: your parents, family, family friends, roommates’ parents and friends, etc. Make a list of 10 people who know you well (ideally your parents’ age or older) who would recommend you for freelance work, and then start calling them and ask if they can help you find some clients. Your own family and friends might have some good contacts at work or through their own professional networks, but sometimes you don’t know if you don’t ask.
Manage Startup Costs
Starting a freelance business while in college doesn’t have to be very costly. Ideally, you only need a laptop and a simple website and perhaps some business cards. Hopefully you already have the laptop. You might need to buy specialized software depending on the type of work you do – graphic designers use Photoshop, for example – or if you want to learn some new coding skills you might need to pay for some classes. But most of the costs of freelancing are just the cost of your time – you need to make sure you spend your time wisely, avoid procrastinating, and stay focused on finding the right clients and charging the right rates to be profitable.
There are lots of challenges and learning experiences that go along with running a freelance business, but if you have the right skills, interests, and sense of entrepreneurial hustle, there’s no reason why college students can’t start their own freelance business while in school. You’ll most likely make more money than you could at a typical college student job, and the learning experience is priceless. You might even find that instead of going out to “get a job” after college, you already have created a job of your own – with more fun, more flexibility, more variety, and more freedom. Being a freelancer is what you thought adult life was going to feel like back on your last day of high school – every day is truly your own, and the sky is the limit.