While it’s not the first question you should be answering when considering freelancing, the skillset question is one of the most difficult. Part of that is because the language that some of us use around skillsets is a little imprecise.
For example, you’ll hear me call myself a “freelance writer”. While we both use words, the work I do is very different from the “freelance writers” you’ll see published in Black Enterprise or on the Huffington Post. I get paid because my words sell software and services. They get paid (primarily) because their words attract attention. I’m almost always anonymous when I write, but my words can fetch up to $2 each. I almost never write for free or for exposure.
The same goes for a lot of freelancers. Whether web designers, virtual assistants, or lawyers, our titles often don’t give people really good insight into what we actually do. That? That can make it very hard for people new to freelancing to understand what skillsets they might be able to focus on as freelancers themselves.
Finding Your Intersection
It’s also a little misleading because most people who’ve settled on a freelance skillset are sitting on years, if not decades of time developing skills and then shifting and adapting them to niches (and sub-niches) that work for them.
They’ve done this via time spent employed, studying on their own, and just pure trial and error. A lot of us simply evolved into the freelance lives we live. (A lot of us also over- and misuse the word “passion”, but that’s a conversation for another day.)
Now…that doesn’t mean that you don’t have any hope of deliberately choosing a skillset. You really can, but you’ll need to listen first, and to probably do it in ways you’re not used to. I mean that. You likely hear about freelancing, but in incidental ways that don’t reflect the reality of the life or all the opportunity out there.
You’ll need to listen to the industries you know as both a consumer and professional (retail, health and fitness, travel, software, etc.). You’ll need to “listen” to formal reports like Upwork’s quarterly skills index. You’ll need to continually listen to yourself and your comfort, because the last thing you want to do is take on the risk of freelancing without reaping the benefits of comfort and flexibility because you’re stuck doing something you can’t stand.
If you’re interested in freelancing, you should be connecting more with the business world.
Freelancing is the business of selling your labor and you cannot do that without understanding your buyers (clients) and the environments they face. I’m not saying you need an MBA. You REALLY don’t. You just need to take business seriously.
(Side note: Business isn’t near as hard or complex as some people get the ego boost from making it out to be. It’s not about burning yourself out for the hustle, just taking the time to ask more questions and be more deliberate in your work.)
Ideally, you’re looking for a place where your abilities, comfort, and industry demand intersect. That might sound challenging, or even impossible, but know that there are many of those places for you to find. Freelancing is a huge and growing world and one I believe almost anybody can find a place in. (Here’s a list for some inspiration.)
If you don’t have a skill, you can likely learn or develop it on your own, and that doesn’t always require a degree. Keep in mind that skillsets (what you do) are different from niches (where you do it and who you do it for)…you’ll need to become and observer of both to optimize your life as a freelancer.
One of the things that you can actually come to enjoy as a freelancer is learning to navigate the industry shifts and changes that working for an employer can dampen your understanding of. Your skillset isn’t static. I’ve been writing, and loving it, for almost 25 years and I JUST ordered $100 in books on copywriting.
Know that, just like in employment, improving what you offer is a big part of what improves your situation and earns you more as a freelancer, so keep developing those skills.