6 tips for taking your freelance business global

Photo: Otto Williams, PayPal
A booming gig economy continues to provide South Africans with the opportunity to make a living doing temporary, part-time, and freelance work. Recent years have seen this economy go global, enabling local gig workers who sell their professional skills and those selling products, the chance to scale their business by servicing international clients.

The landscape of freelancing has undergone significant changes since 2020, with the number of freelancers growing substantially to nearly 29% of total employment¹ post-Covid, and this percentage is set to grow. According to SAFREA (South African Freelance Association), to qualify as freelancer, an individual should earn at least 80% of their income from freelance work.

“Freelancing offers several advantages, such as the ability to work across borders, which broadens the market and client base for freelancers. Additionally, timely payment is a crucial benefit, ensuring financial stability and enabling freelancers to manage their businesses effectively”, says Mr. Hush Naidoo, Chair at SAFREA.

According to SAFREA, Media freelancers alone are estimated at 4500+ professionals in South Africa, working across industries such as graphic design, copywriting, social media management, Information Technology, accounting & Finance, and administrative support.

“The gig economy will undoubtedly grow substantially over the coming years. Factors including large organisations’ incorporation of freelance talent to compliment their permanent workforce, inflation, and the need for flexibility supported by enablers such as digital nomad visas, all contribute to this,” notes Otto Williams, SVP, Regional Head and General Manager, Middle East and Africa, PayPal. “For freelancers selling their professional skills, global freelance work websites make scaling their business’ across borders, achievable and potentially very lucrative.”

Although the opportunity is vast, deciding to target international opportunities should be approached in a similar way as starting a business from scratch:

1. Do thorough market research:
The single most important activity ahead of targeting an international audience is understanding their unique needs and cultural differences. This will inform the extent to which services and products should be tailored and if a market should be entered in the first place. A deep understanding for your cross-border audience and the organisation you aim to work for will also increase the odds of landing jobs and help you navigate the work environment once dealing with the client.

2. Elevate your career with strategic online presence:
Showcase your skills with a well-designed and easy to navigate online portfolio. It doesn’t have to cost much, or anything at all, but it can certainly set you apart and grab attention. Make sure it is SEO friendly and remember to get permission from previous clients before showcasing work done for them. Once set up, directly engage with potential clients in your network to drive traffic to your portfolio through word-of-mouth and carefully plan your digital advertising. For those looking to go global, create profiles on popular freelancing platforms like Upwork, Fiverr, Freelancer, and Toptal. Don’t forget to familiarise yourself with platform fee structures to optimise earnings and minimise expenses.

3. Partner with suppliers that enhance your credibility: Collaborating with reputable suppliers and service providers can mitigate challenges and position your business as the top choice. For instance, when selecting payment platforms, prioritise recognised and reputable options like PayPal, which offer benefits for both sellers and buyers, such as buyer and seller protection1. This alignment with trusted platforms can expedite payment processing, potentially accelerating fund receipt compared to traditional methods such as wire transfers. Importantly, it also fosters client confidence: knowing you’ve complied to PayPal credibility checks increases your appeal as a supplier and boosts your chances of securing contracts.

4. Manage your finances: From promptly sending invoices to choosing a reliable payment provider – carefully planned and diligent financial management will streamline your business finances and help to maintain a healthy cash flow. If you are generating your own leads and not simply working through a digital freelance platform, providing your clients with trusted and secure payment options should be a priority. The right payment platform will also make your payment set-up process easier by seamlessly integrating with your website builder.

5. Network: The world is small thanks to professional networks such as LinkedIn. Leverage these as part of your digital awareness and lead generation strategy – it is an easy way connect and build your global audience. Proactively reach out to professionals on networking platforms, show genuine interest and get to know them, attend webinars and industry events, and join local and international associations related to your industry. The fruits of networking are not always instant but in the long run generally pays off in the form of introductions, freelance opportunities and collaborations that will fuel your business growth.

6. Thoroughly understand international agreements and tax implications: Educating yourself on legal and tax requirements is not only necessary but will protect your businesses, ensuring that you comply with local laws, and avoid unexpected financial pitfalls. For digital nomads, especially those working across borders, it's essential to understand tax obligations in different countries. If you work for South African clients but live abroad as a nomad, you might be subject to double tax. Consider seeking advice from your financial and tax advisor. 

“Freelancers should not forget that they too are reliant on key providers. With strategic choices, thorough planning, and partners that act as enables, the ability to scale across borders will be simplified and supported”, concludes Williams.

  1. Available on eligible purchases. Limitations apply. [Linking to Buyer/Seller Protection section of the local User Agreement.]
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