Ten months ago, I started doing freelance writing on Fiverr. Since then, my writing has improved and I’ve learned lots about freelance business practices. My little experiment is now quite successful.
I have now worked with almost 100 clients from all over the world, ranging from IT consultants to small news publications. I just passed 145 total completed orders at an average selling price of about $50. For a side hustle, especially one where I get to choose my own hours, I’m very happy with my success.
Now that I have had a chance to reflect on ten months of my freelancing side hustle, I decided to write a little retrospective with some of the lessons I learned along the way.
The initial motivation
I first heard about Fiverr from a friend. He had considered starting a freelance programming business to make some money, gain experience, and improve his skills. Both of us were (and are) students, so we saw this as a better option than less flexible traditional jobs.
When I checked it out for the first time and made an account during the summer of 2019, Fiverr seemed chock-full of poor-quality, bargain-rate services. I had no interest in fixing WordPress plug-ins, helping first-year computer science students with their homework, or doing sketchy penetration tests. I thought there was no way I could compete with sellers who wrote thousands of lines of code for five dollars. The successful sellers offering high-quality services already had thousands of reviews, so I imagined that I could not get to that level without first slaving away for pennies.
As the year progressed, I started seeing the cheap, low-quality services in a different light. If I were to put myself in the shoes of a potential buyer, I’d look for a more expensive, better quality job. By showing confidence in my work—partially through higher prices—I might attract better clients. Plus, I figured that a client who was willing to pay a little more would have more reasonable expectations in other ways.
To test out this hypothesis, I started with a little market research. After exhaustively exploring the programming section of Fiverr, I saw no good way to differentiate myself other than racing to the bottom with price. I started looking in the writing and editing section instead.
Evaluating a computer program is straightforward. Does it compile? Does it perform the job correctly? Does it pass unit tests? How fast is it? Will it crash if I provide unexpected input? Compared to programming, determining what makes “good” writing is far harder, so it’s harder for buyers to find sellers who are good writers. However, I have one big advantage over many sellers in the technical writing section: I’m a native English speaker.
By combining my knowledge of computers with my knowledge of English, I thought I might be able to carve out a niche for myself—at a higher price than my competition.
In December 2019, I set up my first gigs on my Fiverr account. During the holiday season, I got no messages other than a few from spam bots. By mid-January, I was just about ready to admit defeat. Clearly, I needed to bring in customers externally, or so I thought.
Then, at the end of January, my first client reached out. I had a great experience with this customer—far better than I had expected from Fiverr. After they left a five-star review, the ball was rolling. My gig moved further up in Fiverr’s search results and I quickly received more messages (and sales) from new customers.
What works—and what doesn’t
Needless to say, doing anything consistently for nearly a year teaches you a lot. Here are a few of the most important lessons I’ve learned from this experience:
- To gain customers and command respect, you have to respect yourself. Anything that signifies desperation—unnaturally low prices, extremely fast response times, an inability to say no, “unlimited revisions” clauses—is a big red flag to serious buyers. If you clearly don’t have confidence in yourself and respect for your own time, why should a client trust you to do good work?
- Similarly, negotiate, but don’t be a pushover. On larger jobs, some amount of negotiation is always expected. But if I’m being haggled over five dollars, I’ve learned to take that as a red flag. If the buyer isn’t willing to pay an extra few bucks, they’re probably going to ask for twelve revisions or expect that you finish the job in two hours.
- Gig marketplaces are super useful. Fiverr and other marketplace-style websites take a big cut from your sales. They can also ban you on a whim, cutting off your revenue stream. But using a centralized platform offers big advantages, especially when you’re just getting started. In ten months, I haven’t made a single cold call or spent much time on inbound marketing. My buyers are confident that their money will be returned if I fail to produce good work. And having a reputable source of authentic customer reviews improves trust and eliminates any possibility that I might be editing testimonials.
- Offer services that are useful to businesses, not just individuals. Technical writing is almost always needed by legitimate businesses with plenty of money to spend. If you offer a service that isn’t commercially useful, don’t expect that you can charge a lot.
- Save a lot of frustration by understanding the order and communicating early, even when you’re busy. Early on, when the orders were just starting to flow in faster, I sometimes put off new orders until I was done with my current work. While this isn’t inherently a bad thing, I was failing to read the buyer’s requirements and ask clarifying questions until fairly close to the deadline. By the time I heard back with answers to my questions, I didn’t have very much time to incorporate their ideas and feedback. Since then, I’ve forced myself to read and understand every new order that comes in in real time, which decreases my stress and makes my customers happier.
- If your relationship with a client cannot be salvaged, tell them sooner rather than later. Dragging out a friendship or romantic relationship that’s gone sour often only creates more pain later on. In a similar vein, if I’m not on the same page with a client even after attempting to work things out, I’ve found that it’s better to stop working together now. At the beginning, I treated each client relationship so carefully that I didn’t give stop working for a difficult client until too late.
- Don’t waste time with scams. All of the major gig marketplaces have buyers who will try to get you to divulge private information for “legal paperwork” or “to get you in their system”—these are scams. Use good judgment and hit the “report and block” button if it’s clearly a scam.
- Use the tools that make you productive. Every word processor worth its salt can output .docx files or easily-accessible links. I personally prefer Google Docs; features like Smart Compose and the online commenting workflow are really convenient and save lots of time. If you prefer Word or even LibreOffice, go for it. The only time that having a licensed copy of Microsoft Word is critical is when editing a customer’s complex document with tracked changes.
- Expand into related services, but don’t spread yourself thin. My first Fiverr gig was just writing. After a couple of customers asked me to edit their documents, I also set up an editing gig. Since these both require similar skills, they’re a natural complement to one another. On the other hand, if I were to offer logo design, photo editing, and writing, buyers would think I was throwing mud against the wall and seeing what stuck.
Would I recommend it?
As it turns out, others have found success in similar ways. Unlike Alex Fasulo, I definitely don’t make $32,000 per month. But many parts of her story ring true for me as well. We both found success on Fiverr. Our specific niches are different, so we aren’t competing directly. But clearly, lots of companies are in need of freelance writing services.
Given my relative success and the huge success of others, I think it makes a great side hustle. I’m not going to make it my primary career any time soon, although the skills I’ve learned are certainly going to be useful in other places.
If you’re interested in starting your own business, feel free to reach out to me! I’d be happy to offer targeted advice.