Is there such a thing as a lucrative freelancing skill anymore?
January 15, 2014 10:12 PM   Subscribe

I've just come out of a short stint of unemployment, now working a fairly low-wage job but with decent hours, giving me spare time to kill. Thought perhaps that this would be a good time to pick up some new skill or other to fill the hours and perhaps make some extra money on the side.

After poking around the Internet for a while, I've found myself wondering where best to put my time and energy to use. Queries to Google or Reddit or various message boards seem to throw back either suspiciously rosy forecasts ("learn this and make THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS A DAY!!!") or bleak predictions ("don't learn this/this other thing/this third thing, there's a million people doing it for pennies"). Often the two extremes will coincide in a single comment thread or discussion. Basically, it's hard to judge between perspectives.

So naturally, I decided to turn to Metafilter, where I've gotten damn good advice previously.

I'm open minded. I've learned foreign languages before (German, Latin, some ancient Greek back when I was aiming for a Ph.D.) and I've played around with some HTML and C++ enough to know I could have an enjoyable time learning and using them. I've been looking into electrical work and plan to apply to apprenticeships, but that's not something you freelance in, obviously! Generally I find that a given subject will interest me if I get to know it well enough. And I don't expect to become terribly rich, I'm looking for something I can learn in three to six months that would provide an extra grand or two a month, perhaps. Is there anything like that out there? Or should I just go with plan B, and start knocking over liquor stores?
posted by AdamCSnider to Work & Money (13 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Web design is huge right now. If you can get comfortable with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and put a good portfolio together, you can definitely get work as a freelance web designer.
posted by mekily at 10:28 PM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sure, find out which CMS software the businesses and key non-profits in your area use. Then get a login for some demo installs of some of those CMSes so you can learn how they work in your spare time. Figure out how to upload custom imagery, add things to areas like footers and sidebars, and edit basic HTML.

Then walk in and say, "hey, I noticed your website uses (WordPress, Drupal, whatever) and not only am I interested in what you do, but I know how to publish with that CMS. Will you let me know if you need any help?" Then hand them your resume/C.V. If you don't hear back, email the director or marketing manager.

Bonus points if: 1) You have a simple website of your own that gives out all the needed information about you, 2) you have a sane-sounding email address, and 3) you have or can pick up some additional capabilities in software like Photoshop. If you can do 3, consider also going to local graphic designers and offering to help with their "production work," which often includes preparing HTML and imagery to go on their clients' websites.

Source: I have been a freelancer for many years now, and I've seen many of my clients hire people like that to help them out. Usually I have just built them a new website and they really want to find people who can help them take advantage of it because they don't have enough time.
posted by circular at 10:30 PM on January 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

I think if you had web design talent you could make $1-2K/month freelancing. There seems to be a lot of demand for anything related to web development and design. If you are good at it, if you have a niche market and/or niche skill, and if you can get the word out about yourself, you should be able to make money at it.

Likewise, I think there's a big demand among small companies for IT consultants who can help them keep their workstations, server, and network running smoothly. There are lots of small 1-5 person IT companies that do this kind of work. They may have a dozen or several dozen or more small company clients who each need a little bit of work regularly or occasionally, and collectively this constitutes a decent amount of business.
posted by Dansaman at 10:32 PM on January 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's tutoring; I pay our undergraduate math tutor $25 per hour cash, and I see tutors who advertise on Craigslist asking for more than that.
posted by lakeroon at 2:41 AM on January 16, 2014

I tutor as well, but not only is it difficult to pull down a grand (!) each month tutoring, as mentioned, it comes to you in cash, ie, no taxes taken out. If you're making as much as a grand, you're going to have to file estimated taxes.

Typically I tutor one or two students on the side of my full time job and enjoy the extra cash to go out on the weekends. Then I just claim the little I earned on my taxes at the end of the year. I think my best year was about $500 from tutoring.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:46 AM on January 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've been looking into electrical work and plan to apply to apprenticeships, but that's not something you freelance in, obviously!

I guess it depends on your definition of "freelance," but I'd say this describes my electrician. He has his own company, with himself as the only worker, a phone, and a van with his name on the side full of tools and parts. He totally controls his own schedule and can refuse any job he wants to, but like any freelancer or sole proprietor, he only makes money if he is working and there is no backup or sickdays. If he stays busy, he makes decent money -- I think he bills at about $80 per hour, but there are other components also like markups on supplies and a lot of projects he quotes by the job, so if he's efficient his hourly can be higher.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:25 AM on January 16, 2014

if your foreign languages are good enough for you to be a translator, you can potentially bring in quite a bit of income translating. You can sign up for a website like to get started (membership requires a fee, but it's worth it in my opinion as a member).

If you are able to interpret, you can also potentially do that- I picked up an interpretation job part-time, and others are available through various agencies, especially if you live in an area with a large population that speaks the language you are fluent in.
posted by bearette at 8:10 AM on January 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Web development or design can pay a fair wage as long as you have a good client relationship. Seek out projects where the client really benefits from someone across the table hashing out the project with them and relating to their goals. If they could manage the project and produce a clear spec they could pay half to an offshore person, but they choose you because you do the work and manage yourself. If you see conflicting reports about the lucrative value of freelance software development it is probably because of these two scenarios. If you live in a 1st world economy don't try to compete with people on e-lance -- compete against what they can't offer, which is in-person consultation.
posted by dgran at 8:35 AM on January 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Like others have said, I make $1-2K/month doing computer/internet support. Basically every business needs a website and most business owners don't have to time (or interest) to learn how to work on them. In addition, I do a lot of housecalls for hardware and software support. Again, most everyone has a computer but they don't have the time (or interest) to learn how to use them. I've responded to things as simple as locating the power button on an iMac or plugging in a monitor.

For me, I'm good at computers and programing and I have an overabundance of folks who will pay me to help them.

This already ideal situation allows me to live in a small town, have tons of freetime, no schedule, and no "boss" per se. I rode out the "economic crash" like nothing happened. These days, I take my business to Amsterdam 3 months out of the year. I rent an apartment and do the same work for the same clients that I do at home.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:55 AM on January 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you don't mind dust--working for people that do estate sales or specialize in helping old people moving into assisted living. I know several people who do this as a side gig. Not good if you can't resist buying stuff, but good if you like to pack stuff up.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:23 AM on January 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I work as a tutor also. If you are good, you can do much better than $25/hour - I charge $40-$50 depending on what material I'm tutoring.

The downside of tutoring is that the hours are variable - at the beginning of the semester you've got no students, then around the first midterms people start freaking out, then more freakouts after the midterms come in and people see that they failed, and then during finals week everybody wants to meet you all at once.
posted by number9dream at 3:50 PM on January 16, 2014

Web design is huge right now. If you can get comfortable with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and put a good portfolio together, you can definitely get work as a freelance web designer.

This isn't going to be nearly enough to actually make money doing web design. You're going to need both page and graphic design skills, and the tools to create them. The design part is, in my opinion, much more important and rare than the coding part.

Good designers who are bad coders can create nice websites. Good coders who are bad designers aren't going to get very far.

The exception is that if you're outgoing enough, you can try to sell businesses on using a content management system or even a cloud service to build sites without worrying too much about design. Wordpress has lots of templates you can buy, and cloud services like SquareSpace have templates that you just select, where most of the design is already done for you. The opportunity is that you could do the work for someone that just doesn't have the time. The risk is that building a site this way isn't that difficult and you're not really adding a ton of value.
posted by cnc at 4:00 PM on January 16, 2014

A guy in my office, he had an entry-level accounting job he'd gotten fresh out of college as a temp, taught himself Ruby on Rails and just quit to go work for a start-up after doing a few years of freelancing on the side.

I talked to him about it a little, and he thought that learning Ruby on Rails was a really great way to get started because it had a good balance of being in-demand, but not as many people know it well since it is fairly new.
posted by forkisbetter at 9:09 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

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