As a follow up to my previous post The top 3 freelance sites, I am going to describe how to get started on these freelance sites and to make a name for yourself until you can have money rolling in on a regular basis. I have seen many users sign up on freelance sites such as Rent A Coder, never manage to land a project, and quit after a couple of months because they think it's a waste of time. Or they will only have a couple of projects under their belt, even after being a member of that freelance site for almost a year. In either situation, this is simply because that user did not understand how to ensure his bids would be selected and thus could not obtain the one thing that would put him above the 30 other users bidding on the same project: feedback.
The first thing you should do is to choose a good username. This may sound obvious, but you would be surprised at the number of people who seem to forget this extremely simple concept. Would you consider handing a $300 project to a guy who goes around by the name of neroswdak345 or even I Am Legend, especially when it's someone you've never met and probably never will? Well, neither would the guy who created the project. Obviously, most people will just use their own name, but if you do not wish to do so, at least choose a reasonable name that will not have buyers smack their head on their desk in disbelief. Make sure your username comes across as professional and is not based on your favourite Game of Thrones character.
If the website gives you the feature to customize your profile page, it is also recommended that you do so and try to make yours as unique as possible since it's the first thing the buyer will see once they click on your username. Trust me, when someone's just visited 15+ freelancing profiles that look exactly the same, it makes a difference when they see one where the seller has given his layout a unique look. It also shows you are serious about freelancing and that you are not just bidding on these projects for the sheer enjoyment of "bidding" (I've seen it too).
The next extremely important thing that you need to realize is that you are going to have to charge extremely low when starting out on any such freelance website. You may be the best PHP coder around with 12 years of experience, but unless you have some sort of feedback to show for it, nobody is going to even consider hiring you on the bigger projects where deadlines are of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, it just happens that the only feedback trusted on freelance websites is the feedback given through that freelance website itself.
What you've done during your academic and professional years before hiring up on the website is mostly irrelevant. As such, your first step is to get feedback, and since you have no feedback at first, you are going to have to outbid the competition. In some rare situations, you may be lucky enough to be able to charge reasonable rates (from your point of view), but, in most cases, this is a phase you will go through until you build a reputation within the freelancing community. Once you've firmly established yourself as an excellent seller, you will be able to bid higher.
The way you present your bid also matters. When I was actively freelancing on Rent A Coder, I was simply amazed by the number of people who would just leave a comment such as
hi can do this accept my bid $15
In most cases, these are automatic posts set up by users for projects that fall under specific categories or that contain certain keywords, but I highly suspect that other users actually log in to post such comments, believing that the seller is going to be impressed by such a bid. You should always read the project requirements carefully and leave a comment based on those requirement, highlighting why you would be the perfect choice for this project, mentioning your ability to deliver high quality work quickly, and your eagerness to ensure the buyer is 100% happy with your work.
Of course, it sounds stupid to mention this, but out of 30 bids on a project, half of those will be one-liners written in dodgy English and with absolutely no indication that the seller understood what the project was about. There is a reason why many people simply quit freelance sites after some time or so many accounts go inactive. As you go along, you will without doubt pick up how to make your bids stand out from the competition and what makes it unattractive, depending on the project kind. Keep in mind that buyers do not always automatically look for the lowest bid. Many of them are quite happy to pay more if they feel that the coder is trustworthy and worth the investment and that the project will flow smoothly. Consequently, it is essential that you work on your bid comments, as buyers do spend time reading these, and if these are backed by outstanding feedback from previous buyers, your chances of being picked will substantially increase.