I started trying to freelance online, with little success. When I mentioned to a dentist that I was freelancing he asked me to fix his old website. A small store owned by a friend asked me to make a website. Later the dentist asked me if I had cards to give to a friend.
About 75% of my business since then has been word-of-mouth. The rest has been me contacting local businesses that don't have websites. Business cards and flyers are supper cheap.
That being said, after three years, I'm only now starting to feel comfortable. There were very long dry spells, in between short periods of intense business, and word-of-mouth takes a very, very long time to operate (hence me reaching out to businesses without websites). I had to depend on my wife financially for stretches. I've also had to learn design, which is a much different skill-set to programming and has been very difficult. The main reason I went down the freelance path is because in my last salaried job, my boss developed substance abuse issues and unpredictable behaviours, which lead me to having a burnout. It's been hard but it's gradually starting to pay off. For all the difficulties, it is much more rewarding than watching all the value I generate go to some guy with a business degree who got through college doing elementary algebra.
Anyway, that was a fun rant, hope it was helpful to someone.