The Freelance Fuel Blog

Learn to get more clients, charge better rates and thrive.

So you’ve begun toying with the idea of making some extra cash on the side by freelancing in Singapore or maybe you’ve already gotten your feet wet and snagged your first freelance client. Awesome.

It’s an attractive proposal – the idea of being your own boss and earning your own keep. You get the flexibility to manage your time as long as the work gets done. Basically, you answer to no one, but your client. It’s a great way to make some quick cash and really challenge yourself by using your expertise to help others and make money while doing it.

When I started freelancing back in 2012,  it sounded like a dream but it took a lot of time and effort to really get it started and build something sustainable. No longer will you have someone telling you what to do – but then that means you’ll have the full responsibility of setting your own goals and direction.

Feel you’re ready to take that next step? Read on.

What’s a freelancer exactly?

Wikipedia says: A freelancer or freelance worker is a term commonly used for a person who is self-employed and is not necessarily committed to a particular employer long-term.”

Typically, a freelancer provides contract work services to individuals or businesses in exchange for compensation – basically a service provider. Freelancers provide numerous types of services, but the most common ones are: graphic design, writing, photography, videography. Basically anything that sort of trades time/expertise for money.

There are a couple of terms in this definition that you’ll need to take note of:

a) Self-employed

You manage yourself and basically you’re a one-person organization – because of that you’ll need to ensure you’re registered as a Sole-Proprietorship with ACRA to avoid any legal implications should the state find you earning revenue without paying taxes should you need to. Good news is that you won’t need to pay any tax if you’re earning less than $22,000 a year, especially when you’re just starting out.

b) Not necessarily committed to a particular employer

Yes, you heard right. No more seeing your whiny colleague’s face at work or having to deal with a difficult boss. You can provide contract work for different clients without any obligation to be tied down to a single one – unless it’s dictated in a legal mutual agreement.

How do I get started freelancing in Singapore (and beyond)?

The basic essence of what makes freelancing (or any business really) sustainable boils down to a number of things:

  1. A unique, valuable skill that you have
  2. An audience willing to pay for it
  3. A way to reach out to your target audience
  4. Repeat clients and referrals

We’ll explore some of the fundamental considerations for those just starting out:

1.Define what you’re an expert in and what service to sell

It’s great that you know how to snap great photographs, write and work some images on Photoshop, but can you say that you’re the top 10% of each of those fields? Probably not.

When you’re picking a field or service to make your new ‘rice bowl’ (in the Asian context, it means one’s livelihood), think about these things:

Can it make me enough money?

If you’re based in Singapore, I’ll have to assume that you’re a practical individual because living here is not cheap, it’s the most expensive city in the world to live in. If you intend for it to supplement your existing income or even replace it, ask yourself whether it’s even possible in the first place. The problem is that most freelancers starting out don’t consider this, instead they try to ‘follow their passions’ and end up at a dead-end.

For example, say you decide you want to be a freelance writer to earn some extra income on the side. If you wanted to earn about $500 more every month, think: how many articles(or words) would you need to write?

If it’s $50 per article, you’ll need to write 10 articles, if it’s $100 per article, it’s 5 articles. t’s simple math. Say if you wanted to make the median salary in Singapore (as of 2015 that figure is SGD3,770) as a freelance writer at $50 per article, you’d need to write 76 articles. Ask yourself if the field you’re going into is practical before committing to it.

Basically, decide on how much you want to make and whether you’ll have enough time to achieve that goal.

Is it already oversaturated?

For example, If you want to get into doing freelance photography, as a general rule-of-thumb think about how many other photographers you’ve seen sharing their work on your Facebook feed. Ask yourself: how different are you from them?

An oversupply in certain industries can tell you a couple of things:

  • There’s money to be made
  • It’s full of competition and getting work is tougher.

Obviously, the blue ocean strategy here is to find a field where there is money with little competition – but that’s a pipe dream. How to get past these issues is another thing entirely.

You’ll start to realise your photography dreams aren’t all butterflies and rainbows like you’ve imagined. Fret not, there are ways to get around this, but it’ll take time and a good strategy.

2. Choose your niche target audience

A way to circumvent the issue I mentioned earlier of over-saturation in any particular industry is to pick a niche audience to serve. What I mean by that is instead of offering your service to every Tom, Dick and Harry you meet, what if you could deliver the best quality service to a select group of people?

Specialise to thrive

Think about why we pay specialist doctors like oncologists (cancer) and ENTs (ear) a much higher premium than we would pay to a general practitioner (GP)? Obviously because the former two are rarer skills that demand a premium as a result. Using that same logic, you can tackle niches in your business to get ahead of general providers.

Back to our example of photography, put yourself in the shoes of a prospective photography client. If you just had a child and wanted to get some professional photos taken as a keepsake, would you hire:

  1. Bobby Tan : Photographs everything from events, to weddings and portraits.
  2. Jessica Lee : Baby/Maternity Photographer with a specialized portfolio of baby photos

You could say that the example is skewed in the favour of Jessica – the baby photographer, but that’s just an exaggerated example on how you could carve a niche for yourself in an already saturated market, by specialising.

In essence, you’ll have to decide on a few things to help yourself stand out in the market and eventually charge higher fees:

  1. What specific niche can you serve within your general category that isn’t already swarming with other providers?
  2. Is there a rare skill that you have that not everyone else has?

3. Marketing: Decide how you’ll get in front of them

Assuming you’ve decided on what to sell and who you’re selling to, the next question that freelancers and businesses just starting out start asking is:

“How do I get in front of prospective customers/clients?”

This won’t be a simple answer, hence we can’t go in-depth within this post alone but we’ll be exploring some low-hanging techniques that you can use to start getting your first few clients without spending too much money or any money at all.

Use your existing social capital

If you don’t yet know anyone, it’s going to be hard to start getting your first few success stories and gain visibility for your operation.

Friends and family can be your best and worst first clients. Reaching out to your existing circle to let them know that you’re now offering such services can result in some sterling recommendations.

Make it easy for people to connect you by building your own website with samples of your work or portfolio and giving them direction on the type of people you’d like to be connected to. (e.g. I’m looking to get connected to small business owners struggling with branding)

Look for cold opportunities

When you’re just starting out, it might be tougher to get warm leads if you don’t already have any marketing mechanism in place – (warm meaning that they are either referred to you via a personal recommendation or are hot leads looking for your service)

Putting Yourself Out There

Once you have a clear idea of who you’re after, think about what platforms your demographic of interest is on and how you can make them aware of your services.

Digital Platforms

Using digital platforms involves more than just ‘Sharing on Facebook and Twitter’, it’s about looking for places to engage with your target audience via content or conversations.

For example, if you’re a calligrapher creating handmade-cards for engaged couples slated to get married, think about where they hang out online. Are there specific forums that they visit to find more information? Can you create an account and provide useful information to engage with them and build trust?

Sure you can. Keep adding value and avoid being too salesy, if they express interest in your services, then give them the sell.

Collaborating With Complementary Providers

Have a think about whether there are existing providers with the clientele’ that you’re after. That way you won’t have to keep running around looking for new clients cold, but tapping on already trusted providers to help their clients will save you time and help the provider deliver more value to their clients.

Using that same scenario above, Perhaps bridal studios serving these couples would like to add more value via additional services to their clients. Would you be able to weigh in with your rare skills and expertise in hand-made calligraphy? If so, reaching out to a few (by a few I mean 20) via email or phone call would greatly increase your chances of success. It’ll also build you some new professional connections!

Physical Networking

Attending networking events can feel superficial or transactional, but it doesn’t need to be. If you’re geared up with a clear value proposition and a mindset to meet interesting people and add value with your expertise, these social sessions can be very useful for your business.

For example, if you’re a web designer hoping to serve seed-round startups, think about whether there are any events where these startups congregate. Are there gatherings on meetup.com happening regularly that you can get in on? Are there accelerator networking sessions you can attend to meet the organizers and offer your services at a bulk-price to serve all the startups in their portfolio?

Being present and visible is one of the sure-fire ways to eventually get some work versus sitting behind a computer in the office 7 days a week. People want to refer people that they trust or have at least met before, if you aren’t hustling, you won’t have any work handed to you.

The ethos of marketing here is not to ‘be everywhere’, but to be discoverable in all the right places where your audience are looking at.

4. Building A Consistent Flow of Business

If you’ve made it this far down in the article, you should have a much better idea of how to get your first few clients as a freelancer. Once your engagements end, the work to look for new clients begins again. Here are some ways to get some consistent work after the first few deals:

Collect testimonials & Case Studies

This should go without saying, but you have to collect testimonials and build case studies of successful engagements. Reason being, new clients that have never used you before need references to get past the unfamiliarity so they won’t feel like they are taking a risk.

Ask your clients before the engagement ends (if they seem happy with your services) for some kind words and collate examples of your work with some description. Your bank account will thank you for it.

Ask for referrals

If your client has communicated to you that he/she has thoroughly enjoyed your service, why not ask for a referral to 2-3 other people? Chances are your client will have friends or associates that are just like them – with the same demographics and similar problems.

A warm referral will be easier to close as a client and you won’t need to go on full client-hunting mode for awhile.

Ask for more ongoing work

A satisfied client can mean more repeat business for you. If the need for your service recurs again and again, try to get the client on a retainer agreement so that you’ll lock-in some positive cash flow for a period of time.

By doing the above, you’ll be building an invisible ‘referral engine’ of sorts to get new business without much effort after the initial ask.

I’ve made many mistakes as a freelancer/business owner and there are many more areas like preparing a contract and managing the client to take note of, but if you consider the above distinctions, I’m confident that you’ll have a great kickstart to your freelancing career in Singapore.
Are there any points you think we missed out from the above? Leave us a comment below.

Eugene Cheng is Partner & Creative Lead at HighSpark a strategic presentation consultancy and training company serving Fortune 500 companies. In his free time, he also manages a blog on freelancing: FreelanceFuel.