Guide to Getting Started with Freelance Engineering
The majority of my electronics career has consisted of providing freelance electronics design through online job sites. It can be a real struggle to get started on these job sites, as your first freelance job is often the hardest to land. Nevertheless, freelancing can be a great way to earn a bit of extra money and experience while you study, or it can fill in the gaps between finishing your studies and finding your dream job. Whatever your reason for doing it, it gives you the freedom to be your own boss and work the hours you want. It can be a rewarding way to work on a diverse range of projects with interesting clients, allowing you to build or extend your skill set and break out of the repetitive cycle of similar designs.
I’ve been hiring a few freelancers recently to help with some of the work on my open source Altium component library in a variety of fields, and ended up getting into a conversation with one new freelancer about my experience and tips to get his first job – or more accurately, his next job, since I hired him. Since this young engineer was looking for ideas, I thought I’d share some of my advice here. His field was not electronic engineering, however, I feel freelancing advice is fairly universal.
This is by no means a definitive guide, and I’m not sure such a thing can exist as each freelancer needs to do what feels right for them. Rather, this is based on my experience of what worked for me in the past through hundreds of jobs. This guide is mostly targeted towards Upwork, where I have the most experience, but should be just as applicable to other freelancing websites.
Find Your Specialization
I see a lot of applicant profiles for my jobs which try to cover everything they’ve ever done or tried. Personally, I’d prefer to hire a freelancer who mentions a specific set of skills which they are exceptionally distinguished at. This comes up very commonly with software developers, many of whom list just about every popular development language around and claim to be experts at it, often with just a couple of years of experience. I don’t feel as though being an expert in 20 different languages is realistic, so I have to assume the freelancer is either exaggerating their skill set completely or has only passing knowledge of all of the items listed. The same occurs with engineering disciplines too, but generally on a smaller scale.
List only the skills you are most experienced at. When starting out, don’t get adventurous and take on jobs you only have basic knowledge of, as a failed job is going to hurt your reputation percentage far more with only a couple of jobs under your belt. This could severely limit your chances of being hired in the future. If a client has to make the choice between someone with a sub-par job success rate or another with a 95%+ success rate for the same cost, the safer bet for the client is going to be the more successful freelancer. By keeping your advertised skills to just what you have experience with, you can be a more successful and attractive freelancer.
Add More to Your Bio
Your bio shouldn’t just contain your specialization. Tell clients a little about yourself. This is your chance to win them over and make them want to hire you, not just your skill set. This is your first chance to start building a relationship with the potential client; if a client likes you as a person, you’re more likely to get continued work from them.
Check Your Grammar and Spelling
If your profile is riddled with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, it looks to a potential client that you haven’t put a lot of effort into advertising yourself. If you can’t even put the effort into trying to get a contract, the client is going to believe you won’t put much effort into the job itself. If English isn’t your first language, that’s absolutely fine. Edit your profile text in a word processor or use a tool like Grammarly’s free version to ensure your content is free from errors.
Use a picture of yourself that looks like you’re enjoying life! I’ve seen a lot of freelancers put photos that look like they are trying to meet passport photo requirements, or perhaps that came from their mugshot with the local police. This is the first image a potential client will see of you, and research shows humans make judgments of people from a picture of them very quickly, so make sure yours is a good one. If you have an electronics lab, get someone to take a head and shoulders picture of you sitting at your workbench with lots of component bins or test equipment behind you—show how much of an engineer you are! If you’re still working on building up an electronics lab, use a picture of your head and shoulders from a holiday or similar, something with a nice view or colorful backdrop that is well lit. Photos like these will make a client more interested in learning about you, and maybe take a more detailed look at your profile.
I can’t be the only potential client who’s looked at a potential candidate, thought ‘that’s a terrible photo’ and moved on, can I?? Yes, I’m a terrible person!
If your photo and bio piqued the interest of the potential client, they’ll be heading down to look at your portfolio next. This is your chance to show them what you can do. If you don’t have any commercial work you can show, what about something you’ve designed as a hobby project? If you really don’t have anything to show, I would suggest taking a week or two to build up some work that you can display. If you’re stuck for ideas, take a look through the job list on the freelancing website and make what is being asked for, even if you’re not ready to apply for the job yet. If you have commercial work covered by NDAs, or worse, is classified, strip enough silkscreen and identifying marks (plus connectors or whatever else you need to) from the boards that nobody will identify them and then post them. I’ve had classified projects in my portfolio, the description had them as something for a completely different field of application and anything that could remotely connect them to the actual device was removed. I’ve had lots of projects I built for fun in my portfolio too—if it looks good, add it!
You don’t have any work experience on the site, so make up for it with as many relevant portfolio items as you can.
Winning Your First Contract
Getting your first contract can be challenging. You might find yourself applying for dozens of jobs over a period of weeks without hearing anything back. The fact that there are a lot of other people applying for the same jobs impacts your chances, but there are some things you can do to stack the odds in your favor.
Read the Job Description
I would have thought this goes without saying, but the sheer number of applicants for jobs I post who obviously have not read the description is amazing. After seeing too many applicants who’d obviously not read the descriptions, I started asking applicants to quote a code (like OCL2011126) at the start of their proposal. I then assume that the 20-50% of applicants who don’t comply have not read the description and should not get the job.
Always be sure to read the entire job description, make sure you understand it all, and then and only then, apply for the job.
Check Your Grammar and Spelling
When applying for the job, make sure your proposal is perfect. Again, use word processing software or Grammarly. Keep in mind that English might not be your client’s first language, so if your proposal is difficult for them to read, it won’t help you get the job. If your client’s first language is English, however, a poorly written proposal will not make you look very professional.
When a client is viewing the proposal list, they will only see the first sentence or two of your proposal. This is the space you have to interest them in reading further. Start your proposal with a one-sentence introduction detailing how your skill set is applicable to their job. Your next sentence should be why you want to work on the job. I’ve rarely had applicants tell me why they want to work on my job, and those who do usually get hired. Likewise, as a freelancer, I would always tell clients what interested me about the job, and how I think my skills would be uniquely suited to their requirements. This tells the client that you are going to be engaged in working on their project, and that it’s not just another boring job to you.
Do not create a generic cover letter and just send it to every job. That is the perfect way to never get hired for a job.
After the first two sentences, if you are fluent in the language the client speaks, tell them that this makes you an ideal candidate. Tell them your language ability will save time on the work, as you understand what they want without extended explanations, and you’ll be able to meet their requirements easily and quickly, so they will be able to spend more time focusing on other aspects of the project.
If your language skills are more conversational than fluent, tell the client that whilst you are not completely fluent in the language, you will make sure you understand exactly what they require before you begin, and you’ll meet or exceed their requirements as you work.
Tell the client in the proposal that you’re available to chat, and that they should message you if they have any questions about the proposal, need clarifications, or would like to hear more about why you are the right person for the job. A client messaging you is the best chance you’ll have to build a relationship and win them over so they offer you the job. Having the client message you is a high priority!
If the job is larger and more involved, to show your enthusiasm for doing the work, take the time to tell the client your ideas about how you might want to build the product. If the job description is clear, tell the client how long you think the job might take.
Your proposal is more than telling a client you have the skills to do the job. You want to show the client that you’ll be a partner in the grand plan, that you have as much passion for their project as they do, and that you believe in what they are doing. The bigger and more lucrative the job, the more important this becomes. Some clients might be putting significant portions of their savings or income into making their idea—their dream—a reality, and they’d prefer to have someone tagging along for the ride, rather than just doing what is expected.
Talking to the Client About Your Proposal
If you’re lucky, your client will message you to discuss your proposal further. This is your chance to find out more about their project, and tell them how you can help out. Take your time responding and always be honest about your experience and skill set. Think about what they have said prior to responding, since it’s a given that a thoughtful applicant who has thought through the engineering decisions related to what their client has said about their project is going to be more valuable to them than someone who quickly replies with something that hasn’t been thought out.
If they need skills you don’t have, but feel as though you can pick up, responding with something like “I haven’t done that in the past, however, I’d be very interested in working on that and will learn how in my own time” is a good option, rather than just a flat no, or worse, saying that you can. Your first jobs are going to be low income anyway, so using the experience to pick up some new skills you could apply to other jobs may be worth it. If you feel like you’d be in over your head taking on that new skill, don’t try.
If you’re not comfortable with doing something the client asks because of lack of experience, tell them that you don’t have any experience in that and do not feel it would be appropriate for you to figure it out on their project.
Personally, I believe that having the first job completed on the platform is more valuable than the income of the job, assuming its not a $10,000 job. A relatively low value job, something $250 or under for example, or a job that is hourly and only needs a few hours of work is a good opportunity to bid low. Do the job for a fairly token amount of money, say $20. It’s going to look ridiculous to the client, but just explain as the first sentence of your proposal that you’re new to the site, looking to win your first contract to prove yourself, and are willing to do the work cheaply to get your first review.
If you have no other profit-generating use of your time, it doesn’t really cost you anything to bid low and win those first 5-star reviews and happy clients.
If the client is thrilled with the work you’ve done, you can always suggest that they pay a bonus on the job, or ask that they consider you if they have any other projects they want to get started on. Personally, I’d be asking what other ideas they have in mind that I might be able to help them with, winning not only my first few jobs, but a repeat client or two in the process. You can even entice the client to get you started on another job by suggesting that with the money they saved on the first job, they can afford to get started on the second one right away. When it comes to freelancing, having a couple of clients who send you a steady stream of work will allow you to spend more time making money, and less applying for jobs. The faster you can start making this happen, the better your freelancing experience will be.
Just Do the Job
As an alternative to a really low price, if you have nothing more pressing to do, just go ahead and do the job for the client if it’s only a few hours, then attach it to the proposal as a done deal. You can then take the approach of telling the client in the proposal that you loved their project idea so much you just had to see how it would come out, so you went ahead and made a start; now you just need their feedback on what changes to make.
When I’ve had clients I’ve really wanted to work with, such as those with really good project description, or very interesting work, I sent them the completed project if it was just a few hours of work. For the right job, this can be a real winner for closing the deal.
Applying for Jobs with Terrible Descriptions
There are jobs out there, and an unfortunately high number of them even, with a description that gives you almost no indication of what needs to be done, or how long it might take. You might even see a fixed price job of “I need a simple board made”. This is obviously nearly impossible to quote for; is it a simple 384 pin BGA with DDR3 and USB3.2? Or is it an 8 pin microcontroller, pot, and 2 connectors? Depending on your experience, either one could be “simple”.
The client has taken the time to post the job, so they probably do want the project done and it’s not just someone trying to waste people’s time. I’ve seen jobs from people who have paid out tens of thousands in projects with descriptions like this. It’s worth applying for, but would I take a bit of a different approach than I would the average job application.
For these jobs, I would use my proposal to ask the client about what their vision for the project might be. Typically, for a fixed price project I’d put my proposal at about one third of what their budget is, and suggest that the project instead be used to create a set of specifications for the board they need. For hourly jobs, you can suggest the same thing but restrict the scope of the project to creating the specifications. I would work with my clients to help morph their vision into something that could be produced. Often times, the person posting the job was non-technical, and didn’t know precisely what they needed—only what their idea was. Instead of just sending these people the generic “I have the skills you are looking for…” pitch, reach out to them and offer to help them figure out exactly what needs to be done to turn their idea into a reality. If the client is serious, it can be a great way to win the job and the trust of the client. Some jobs such as these turned into high paying jobs, but they are very hit and miss. While you are getting your freelance career started is a great time to chase these clients, since many experienced freelancers with large portfolios and lots of jobs behind them won’t bother.
Moving up in the Freelance World
It might be hard to imagine when you start with a pay of just $10-15/hr, or doing $100-300 jobs, that this is all going to be worth it, but you’ll get there. Once you have several successful jobs under your belt and have been doing the work for a few months, you will start getting invited to more and more jobs. The potential client hasn’t necessarily picked you. It’s more a case of the freelance site suggesting you as an appropriate candidate, and that’s a big step. Now, clients are seeing you before anyone else and using their limited invites—which are precious— to bring you to their job. If you follow through with an excellent proposal, you have a high chance of getting the job.
If you receive an invite to a job, don’t submit a one-sentence proposal like “thanks for the invite, I can start when you’re ready.” I’ve seen too many of these, and I have to say, they don’t look very convincing. Even if the client most likely saw your skills as the best fit out of dozens of other candidates which the site thought might be appropriate, you still need to win them over. Follow through with a proposal like you normally would, and if they remember they invited you, it might be that little extra push to get you the contract.
You should hopefully start to have at least several regular clients about 6 months after your first job. The work they give you should at least pay your bills and keep you from starving. With the feedback you receive, your portfolio should look good, allowing you to start charging progressively more and take on larger jobs that take longer to complete. After a year or two (if your experience warrants it), you can easily charge $100-150/hr and still get jobs, something that would have been unthinkable with your fledgling freelancing account. When a job is asking for a budget of $1000, you might be able to bid $3000 and still win it if you can justify the price based on the engineering experience in your profile.
Your pay in the online freelancing world isn’t just about your ‘real world’ work experience, it’s a combination of your past experience and what your profile shows. Successfully completed jobs can be worth years of engineering experience in terms of how likely you are to get a job, and how much you will get paid. It takes time to build your profile, your reputation, and successful job history, but it can pay very well once you’ve put in the effort. Those early jobs with low pay and high success will pave the way to getting ‘BEST MATCH’ labels being shown to the client.
Would you like to find out more about how Altium can help you with your next PCB design? Talk to an expert at Altium.