How I Got My First Online Clients [Transparency Report #1]

Last June, I asked you guys what you want me to reveal about my own freelancing practice - all for the sake of transparency. I got a lot of insight via the comments to the post, a surprising amount of emails, and some Facebook messages in response.

After going over your messages and comments, as well as thinking this thoroughly, I thought that the best way to start kicking off my monthly transparency reports is to start with the past.

Kung mag-simula kasi ako sa pagkekwento ko tungkol sa career ko ngayon, walang context. It wouldn’t be meaningful or helpful to tell you about my clients, my rates, or my daily schedule right now without first exploring my roots. This is because what I do now is so radically different from what I was doing when I was starting out.

So what I’ll be showing you this month is The Transparency Report: Backtrack Edition. I’ll dig deep into the early beginnings of my freelance career, as well as deconstruct them into useful tactics. This is so that those beginning freelancers here can pick up a thing or two from my stories.

Early Attempts at Freelancing [or “Mga Raket”]

Before I started my freelance writing career in late 2003 I had some earlier starts:

1994 - Selling greeting card poetry. When I was in 3rd to 5th grade, I was known for carrying around my tattered poetry notebooks. Then one day, a friend of mine asked if I she could “commission” a poem for 10 pesos, and that became a service I provided. The poems ended up in cards or letters for their parents, friends, or relatives during special occasions.

In 1997, when we first got an internet connection at home, I started creating websites. I simply did searches on Lycos and Yahoo! on how to earn money online. I then found out about affiliate marketing and told my relatives in the US to buy online via my website.

But I was surprised to learn that I needed $100 in commissions before the companies could send it to me via a paper check, so nothing ever happened with that. I did get a lot of practice in building several interest sites (about my classmates, about my interest in film, and other hobby sites) and an online journal (in manual HTML, no WordPress yet then).

After I graduated from high school in 2001, I took a year off to apply to schools abroad - I got into the schools I applied to but had money for absolutely ZERO of them.

It was at this point that I realized that I should just start my career as a writer and submit stuff to websites and magazines to start building my portfolio. I kept submitting things even if I was still a terrible writer, and got rejection after rejection. I did get some letters to the editor published, just as an exercise. These weren’t intended for income generation, I just wanted to submit and get bylines and build my confidence.

Finally freelancing: In 2003 I was a Film student, and because of the filmmaking workshops I was attending when I was still in high school, I already knew how to transfer and edit videos in the computer (analog pa yung source before, so I needed special gear). I edited (and sometimes shot) my classmates’ and friends’ class projects for 150-300 per hour, and because of word of mouth I also got some corporate clients at a higher rate.

Key Takeaway: If you’re struggling to figure out what skills you should be learning, it helps to follow the path that you find most interesting and are genuinely curious about. I wasn’t interested in writing to make money (or to even have a job). I was just interested in writing, period. I wasn’t interested in film just so I can sell my video editing services. I was interested in film, period.

See, even if you don’t get to sell your interests as services, you have no idea where these interests will take you. For example, my video skills came in handy when I decided to sell my courses last year. If I didn’t pursue that interest I would have had to look for someone to do it for me.

If there’s any one thing I can pinpoint as the source of my opportunities, it’s my never-ending curiosity. You have to be willing to ask a lot of questions and tirelessly pursue answers if you’re going to learn any of the skills you’ll need to thrive as a freelancer (and as a human being!)

Pitching to My First Clients: What I Did Right

It wasn’t until 2004 that I started taking freelancing a bit more seriously. I found some of my first clients via the Sitepoint Forums - an online forum for website publishers. There was a section of the forum called “Sitepoint Marketplace”, where people bought and sold products and services.

Note: I wish I could share with you (or even just have for myself) the exact emails I exchanged with some of my clients, but I no longer have access to the email address I used during this time. So we’re stuck with personal messages via forums - and even then I wasn’t able to save all of them so I don’t have any record of messages before mid-2004 🙁 I hope you’ll give me a break on this one, kasi mga 10 years na ang nakalipas.

With that said, here are the things I did right during this early stage, even without much guidance:

Find the online communities where your target clients hang out.

Though I was initially interested in the Sitepoint Forums because I wanted to improve my website-building skills, I quickly learned that almost everyone else there was either 1) already making money from websites they built or 2) on the way towards it. This made it easy for me to find work in the forums, even from people who weren’t posting job ads. All I had to do was be very vocal about the thing I was good at (writing) and almost every other member would be a potential customer.

Stick to specific topics/niches.

While I didn’t stick to just one niche or subject, I never wrote about “everything”. I focused on specific niches: travel, dating, and finance. This made it easier for me to get one gig after another for each niche because I was quickly able to build a portfolio:

Plus, I could easily copy & paste my application letters for the same niche. (This has a drawback, if you’re not attentive, you’ll make the mistakes I did above - weird spacing, and signing my name twice :p )

Applications should be short, conversational, and address everything in the ad.

I’ve hired freelancers in the past and found that most of their applications are too long, giving me their educational background and why they need the job. Worse, most of these long applications don’t address the important points made in the ad. Early on I made sure that I addressed everything written in the ad.

Plus, my applications weren’t too formal. I was matching the style of my application to the tone of the ad, and since most of these were startups and small businesses, they were very informal. So I just stuck to simple, conversational language.

Apply for projects outside your comfort zone - yes, even if you don’t have previous experience.

One of my earliest high paying jobs (at $500/month for maybe an hour or two of work per day) was this cool project where I had to write the responses of a web chatbot.

Basically, he was a cartoon character, and the user types a question or statement about ANYTHING and he will give an appropriate response (including “Sorry, I’m not sure what you’re saying.” when he doesn’t understand what you typed).

I’ve never done work like that before, but it didn’t stop me from applying. I was just upfront to clients about the skills I already had, and emphasized those. If I was still learning a specific skill but not yet practicing it, I’d mention that too so that they know I’m already on my way to being a practitioner.

For the web chatbot job, specifically, they needed someone who was “well rounded” so that the bot can respond to a wide variety of questions. They also wanted someone who was a “geek” (into scifi, fantasy, pop culture, etc.) because their target audience was geeks. So I presented myself as someone who:

  • was a film major but also had a science background (for “well-rounded”)
  • well-read in several genres, including classic literature and comic books (for “well-rounded” and “geek”)
  • was a fan of Buffy, Star Wars, and Star Trek, as well as active in messageboards about these fandoms (”geek”)

I could have focused on the part where I’ve never written scripts for a chatbot before, but instead I spent most of the application displaying my strengths - all of which were true, by the way. This is why I got that job:

Sometimes you don’t have to make a dramatic change in who you are and what your skills are to get projects that are outside your comfort zone. You only have to look at what you already have and use that as your experience and qualifications. We all have several interests, hobbies, and life experiences to draw from.

Pitching to My First Clients: What I Could Have Done Better

Though I (surprisingly) did some things right during this early stage, there were some things I could have done better:

Make a compelling case for why you’re right for the job.

For some of my applications, rather than stating why I’d be a good fit for the project, I’d leave it up to the client and ask questions like “Can you give me more details?” Plus, I let them know “I can show you my previous work upon request” - WHY?! Bakit hindi ko na lang ininclude sa pitch message ko di ba? Yung client pa yung mage-effort.

Also, notice how I just talk about myself and what I want - I never talk about what’s in it for the client.

Here’s an even worse example (this is the client’s message to me, and my original message is what’s quoted at the top):

What’s great about this is that the person did not post an ad looking for a writer - I just saw from one of his forum posts that he needed one. So I give myself a thumbs up for hustle - but a thumbs down for execution.

See, I expected that the person would 1) browse my website on his own 2) do the “heavy lifting” trying to figure out kung papaano ko ba siya matutulungan. If I had a more concrete suggestion, this would have worked better.

Know how to handle conversations about rates and money.

I once applied for a writing job and gave my higher-end rates ($20 to $50) when the client asked how much I was charging. I’ll just let this thread speak for itself:

And here’s what I said in response:

“That sounds reasonable.” *facepalm*

Deconstructing what I did wrong here would require a separate post in itself (I’d be happy to write it if you want to read it). But the most glaring mistakes here was that I threw out a number without knowing the details of the job, and I very quickly accepted a rate that was 10x less than what I was asking for - even if I already had a good portfolio at that time.

Next on Transparency Report: How I Got My First Premium Clients

How did I go from pitching in message boards to doing high-profile work with big-name clients?

Next month, I’ll release another transparency report that takes a look at my career history. It will cover my career from 2006 to 2010 - this was the crucial time when I transitioned from having generally low rates ($5 to $10 per article) to higher rates ($50 to $125 per article) and premium projects.

Are there any specific things you want me to share for the next report? Email me at [email protected] or let me know in the comments 🙂

6 thoughts on “How I Got My First Online Clients [Transparency Report #1]

  1. Susan Guinto

    Love this article Celine, and your succinct way of putting things! 🙂

    Love your honesty and I can relate about that: “That sounds reasonable.” *facepalm* thing! Did that a couple of times until I learned my lesson pretty well. Makes me feel a lot better that I’m not the only one who’ve made that mistake. 😉 (sigh!)

    By the way, just to let you know that using your tips, I’ve since managed to double my rates. But then of course, it’s still a far cry from yours. Thanks for inspiring me to strive better everyday! 🙂

    1. Celine (

      Thanks for your comments Susan!

      “just to let you know that using your tips, I’ve since managed to double my rates.” Wow, congrats! 😀

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