Climbing the Freelance Career Ladder: My Tips and Tricks

By Liz Alton, Contributor, on April 3, 2018

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The freelance career ladder may not be a widely known concept, but my understanding of it has allowed me to build a client base made up of Fortune 500 companies, top agencies and venture-backed startups. Yet, early in my career, a lack of awareness about exactly how to climb this ladder cost me a lot of valuable time. It’s not just about trading out lower paying clients for bigger brands; it’s about evaluating your desired career direction over a period of time and mapping out a path to get yourself there. Here’s how I used the career ladder to get my freelance business where it is today.

Understanding the Career Ladder

My own experiences helped me discover how the freelance career ladder actually works. Early on in my career as a technology writer, I worked on content for a small retail mobile startup. I created a series of white papers and blog posts on mobile and the Internet of Things. With these pieces in my portfolio, I approached an agency that ultimately offered me an ongoing project blogging for a mid-size brand. They gave me a testimonial and permission to use their logo on my website. Eventually, a larger agency with big-brand clients saw this and added me to their own projects. From there, I began to build a portfolio filled with brands that prospective clients recognize and see as a symbol of my experience and the quality of my work.

New freelancers are often frustrated when trying to land larger projects or add brands like IBM, Twitter or Google to their client list. It takes time, but you can dramatically reduce the learning curve by stair-stepping your way to the clients you’re seeking. And that’s true whether you want to go from writing for the local magazine to The New York Times, or move from programming your own apps to freelancing for Silicon Valley giants.

Evaluating the Long-Term Growth Potential of Projects

In hindsight, I learned that there are several factors to take into account when evaluating potential projects. The pay, the content of the project, how interested I am in the opportunity and whether or not I enjoy working with the team are all paramount considerations. At the same time, it’s important to ask yourself the following types of questions:

  • Will this project help me build expertise, experience or samples that grow my resume or portfolio?
  • Can I leverage experience in this field into future opportunities?
  • Will this brand, product or content help me build my reputation as a subject matter expert?

Knocking Every Project Out of the Park

Here’s the critical part of this strategy: To build a portfolio that leads to larger opportunities, you have to make the most out of the ones that are in front of you right now. It’s critical to treat every client you have like they matter, and not as though you have your eye on the next opportunity. After all, an Accenture survey found that 90 percent of customers who encounter a broken promise — like a missed deadline or an under-delivered project — move on to another provider (or seriously consider doing so). Don’t risk losing a current client because you’re so focused on moving on to the next step in your career.

Remember: A happy client will be delighted to let you feature their project in your portfolio, give you a testimonial or refer you to their friends and colleagues. That’s why its vital to know your long-term goals when you put together a delivery strategy, and really focus on each project you’re working on at the moment.

Trading Up Clients

“It sounds rough,” says Jeremy, a freelance graphic designer, “but in order to build a sustainable business, you have to be realistic about trading up clients.” When Jeremy says “trading up,” he is referring to the invisible calculation independent workers have to consider every time they take on a project. Freelancers can move up the freelance ladder by determining when it’s time to trade up clients. But what does that really mean?

Well, let’s say you’re a freelance developer who’s currently being paid $50 an hour. As you accumulate more experience, your hourly rate will increase. To get to a target of $100 per hour, you may eventually need to move to a larger client or a client in a different industry. How do you know when it’s time to take action? If you’ve been working at the same rate for a year (and you haven’t been significantly challenged over the course of this period), it’s time to evaluate whether you should be planning a shift.

Developing a Plan to Move Up the Freelance Career Ladder

While transitions up the ladder may happen organically, freelancers can speed up their development dramatically by creating a plan of action. Consider where you want to go. For example, imagine you’re a data consultant who eventually wants a freelance consulting retainer with a Fortune 500 company. Spend time exploring what’s required to get there in terms of experience, education and expertise. Look at job openings and, if possible, connect with hiring managers and people currently working at the level you aspire to reach. Then, map out a likely course to get you there. Perhaps you need some established long-term clients with mid-size brands. If so, start focusing on gaining those clients today. Ultimately, doing so may put you in a better position to land a larger contract that increases your visibility and puts you in front of the bigger clients you want to work with down the line.

It’s easy to feel like you’re stuck in one place in your career — especially when you can’t rely on a clearly defined corporate trajectory to take you to the next level. It’s up to you to develop a plan for your business that’ll take your performance to new heights. Once you understand how to climb the freelance career ladder, you can create a road map and progressively select assignments and clients to get you where you want to go. Doing so will help you earn more money and access opportunities that continue to advance your professional skills.

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