The Five Levels of Freelancers

Jan 26, 2017

by Steve Treseler. Become remarkable, find better clients, do work that matters.

This is the tagline for Seth Godin’s online freelancer course. Godin is a bestselling author, entrepreneur, and thought leader on the post-industrial economy. His teaching has transformed my career as a freelance music teacher, and I’d like to share one of his most important lessons: the five levels of freelancing.

You may have no interest in climbing the corporate ladder, but as you climb the freelance ladder, you will attract better clients, earn more, and maximize your impact on the world.

Level One: The Mechanical Turk

Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” service allows businesses to hire workers to complete remedial tasks for a few cents each. These jobs include taking surveys, transcribing speech, and categorizing products.

A Mechanical Turk freelancer is a cog in a larger system — like an Uber driver. She has some autonomy over her schedule, but ultimately the gigs come from someone up the chain. A level one teacher works within someone else’s business. This isn’t a bad way to get started, but Mechanical Turks don’t get paid fairly because they are easily replaceable, and the organization takes a big chunk of the revenue.

Level Two: The Handyman

The handyman is proficient and convenient. If he provides an in-demand service, the handyman can be booked solid with students. However, he is susceptible to competition and often needs to compete on price.

Level Three: The Craftsman

The craftsman has a reputation for excellent work. She is referred by name, and people are willing to drive a little further and pay a little more for her services. The craftsman has a specialty. You can’t be a craftsman and teach “all levels, all styles, and all instruments!”

Level Four: Unique

A unique freelancer offers a one-of-a-kind service that can’t be replicated. By standing out rather than fitting in, the unique freelancer is able to sidestep competition and charge premium rates.

What makes this freelancer stand out may be his personality, unique combination of skills, community connections, or teaching style.

Level Five: Remarkable

The word remarkable means “worth making a remark about.” When we see the work of a remarkable freelancer, we have to talk about it. She doesn’t need to advertise because word spreads organically.

Moving Up the Ladder

You will move up the lower levels of the ladder as you gain experience, deliver on promises, and build trust with the community you serve. As Godin says, this isn’t a shortcut to success — it’s a “long cut” to meaningful and fulfilling work that pays well.

Once you have a teaching studio up and running, you need to make strategic decisions in order to move up to levels four and five. You may need to narrow the scope of your services and focus on what makes your brand of teaching unique.

Some questions to consider as you work up the ladder:

  1. Who are your ideal students?

2. Do they know they have a problem?

3. If they are seeking a teacher, who do they ask for referrals?

4. Do your potential students (and referrers) know who you are? If so, do they like you?

5. Do they trust you?

6. What stories do your clients tell about you?

7. Under what conditions do you teach at your best?

8. Could someone else replicate your work?

9. What problems do you solve in a unique way?

I specialize in teaching saxophone and improvisation, but for years I took any work I could find in order to pay the bills. I thought that becoming more well-rounded would help me get more work, but it turns out the opposite is true.

I discovered that focusing on my specialties leads to more fulfilling work and attracts more of my ideal students. I started turning down all “handyman” level gigs. Although I’m passable at directing large ensembles and teaching clarinet lessons, I pass those opportunities to colleagues who specialize in these areas.

Doubling down on what makes my teaching stand out has led to some amazing career opportunities.

Take Seth Godin’s Freelancer course, a bargain at $50.

Steve Treseler is a Seattle-based saxophonist, teacher, and author. He is on faculty at Seattle Pacific University and teaches creative music workshops across the U.S.

Reserve of free digital copy of his forthcoming book Creativity Triggers for Musicians at stevetres.com


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