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Lessons on Freelancing: What I learned in the first 6 months

I had dreamed about this day, not today in particular, but one day, a day, in which I would be sitting at a desk in an empty house, writing for hours. It would also involve getting up to do a little jig when the words came out all perfect, as well as moments of dread, sweaty palms and a racing heart for all the wrong reasons. In the last six months, I have seen these and more. As friends (and family) continued to jump off the corporate hamster wheel over the years, I yearned to have the guts to become my own boss. But I liked the cushion of an assured monthly paycheck, the imposed timetable of the day that involved waking up every morning no matter what, knowing well enough that left to myself I would lack the discipline to see a lone venture through.

I was wrong, as we often are, mostly about ourselves. The only thing stopping me from using all the skills I had practiced for building other people’s dreams, could just as well be used to build mine. It has now been six months since I began calling myself boss and learned to measure life’s worth in minutes. Money follows, even if it doesn’t flow, in the beginning. I learned a lot of things, about work, time and myself that I will share in the hope that it might answer questions for someone sitting on the fence. This is not all you need to read to get there, but it is one of the many conversations we will have across the table as we discuss life and all else.

Timing is Everything

Timing is everythingI became a freelance writer after eight years of working full-time in different roles. I sometimes feel I should have begun right out of grad school. I certainly could have. In terms of timing I probably got it wrong, with a move to a different country, a four year old kid and increased expenses at the time of taking the plunge. But what all this time spent elsewhere meant is that I had some savings to fall back on till things took off, plus experience from different industries, which I’m now able to write about. If you had to pick a time, it should ideally be one without liabilities (like when you can bunk with parents), therefore younger is possibly better. Or else, do it after you’ve amassed enough savings to allow for few months of slow pickings before regular income starts flowing in. Timing could save you from quitting a freelance tryout too soon just because you weren’t well prepared. It also helps to gain an understanding of what it will take before you actually give up a full time role. Moonlight on the side while working full time if you can so you can judge if you’re any good and can make a living out of a skill if you could do it all day.

Spreadsheets are Now Your Best Friends

SpreadsheetsIt doesn’t matter if you never worked on or liked spreadsheets (even going so far as to take a dig at friends who spent their work life staring at them). As a freelancer they are your new best friends. Understanding your target market (for instance list of publications in case of writers), monthly account statement, daily tasks, all appear manageable when they’re in neat boxes. Build them early to save yourself from headaches and hypertension later.

Yes You Have to Play all the Roles

all roles

The hardest part about working for yourself (other than getting out of bed) is that you cannot simply execute tasks and move on. You have to constantly be awake to ideas, stories, new business opportunities. You have to build a database of people you can potentially work for, update it regularly. You have to manage finances, market your skills, be each department in a business, at least in the beginning. Read and research as much as you can about entrepreneurship in your sector, from websites that give advice, best practices, etc. Building a pipeline of work is the only way to stabilize your income so keep researching, pitching, breaking your head over the next big idea.

Don’t Sell Yourself Short

don't sell yourself short

How does one even begin to set a rate to freelance work? While it would differ from one craft to another, there are certain rules. For instance, in writing it tends to be payment per word for journalism, project-based rates for other forms of content. Unless you’ve researched the market you will not know what you’re worth and how much you should charge. So when you’re building the market spreadsheet, get a sense of payment terms for each potential client. These are rarely heard from the horse’s mouth so check other freelance websites to see if they mention rates. You had heard time was money, and as a freelancer it is a daily lived truth. So no point wasting your precious time on going after low paying gigs that don’t even look good on your profile. Desperation will not get you far. Hence the thing about getting your timing right. If you begin by aiming low “just for now” that cycle will never end. So take time to take the plunge if you have to, but once you’re in measure your skills and aim high.

Build a Portfolio Website

Build a Portfolio Website

There has to be one place for all potential clients to see what you’re about – your past experience, skills, testimonials from previous work, et al. The earlier you build this the better. While it becomes your online resume, it even helps you keep track of things once work starts flowing in and you have to selectively present some projects for a new pitch. Plus it looks more professional than a dangling one page paper. A simple site (on wordpress for instance) takes less than four hours to put together. Then plug this in all social media links, email signature, etc. Unashamedly send it to family and friends too. They’ll know what you’re up to plus a future project could come from anywhere.

Grow a Thick Skin

Thick skin

This one is the most vital survival instincts for a freelancer. Your pitches will get rejected. Some potential clients will be great people who give you constructive feedback on why something doesn’t work. Others will be mean. Most will not reply. Sometimes it makes you want to cry or kill them, but it’s not worth it. What is worth your time is understanding how you could have presented the same idea differently or going back to the drawing board to see what really works for them. Patience and perseverance will see some of the above rejections turning to a resounding yes in due course. That thick skin you’re growing is also reserved for all the people who feel sorry for you (and many will). They will not get that you’re freelancing because that is what you want to do. To them you’re simple waiting it out till a good (full-time) opportunity comes your way. It is how you’re “keeping busy” for the time being. Again, explanations don’t matter. Why sell the prospect of being able to manage time as per your will, the joy of working on an eclectic mix of projects one never can in a full-time job, or simply being able to get to work within 2 minutes of brushing your teeth. They won’t get it and you needn’t sell it. As long as you know why you’re doing it, it’s all good.

It’s work so it’s not free

no free lunch

The most important question every freelancer battles – Should I work for free? The default answer to this should ideally be NEVER. Yes, writing (or photography/design) can be esoteric pursuits but this is not that. When you’ve decided you must earn a living through the pursuit of what is essentially your hobby and passion, then the realistic answer is, offer that service for free ONLY in two cases: 1) While you’re still working full-time and the pro-bono project gets you new experience on your profile. 2) Or you’re so passionate about the project that you want to make the time to do it even for free, but not at the cost of other assignments. Once you’ve begun your freelance career, politely decline ‘free’ contributions. It’s unprofessional to do a shoddy job on any assignment and since all of them (even free ones) will take up time to turn out good, it’s better to spend it in something that is or could become monetarily productive. The lure of free work is huge when no paid assignments are coming your way, but if you have a certain amount of experience in the chosen field, save your time for researching and working on something that will help you build a viable career. Many magazines and websites are built around unpaid contributions, offering ‘visibility’ in return. These are okay if your day job pays the bills and you write for a lark. But if you’re looking to make money as a writer, you can’t offer free anything. And usually, the ones that are worth their visibility also pay contributors.

Being Master is Good and Tough

master

As a freelancer no one will tell you what time you should be at your desk, or how long lunch break can be. You will not be stuck in traffic everyday. You will begin to appreciate the hours in a day because how productive you make them will depend only on you. Because your efforts are not tied to other people (who love long meetings that get little done, or do not understand the concept of brevity), you will suddenly free up more time in the day than you ever thought possible. That, in essence, is what will determine your success or failure, as it does of most people, though they do not often realize it. Character, they say, is what a person does when no one is watching. As a freelancer, while the final product is up for review, the process is in your hands. No one is checking in to see how or what you’re doing. It can be both liberating and scary at the same time. Some days you can sleep in till late but it can’t go on forever and you will begin to slowly love the part of you that sticks to the schedule you made. What makes it good is that it is all coming together for you and what you want to do with your life.

It isn’t perfect so look before you leap

perfect

You will still be slaving at a desk, spending some sleepless nights and hounding people for payment. This life is far from perfect. It isn’t freedom from horrible bosses or nirvana. It is simply a different way of shaping your life. So how bad you want it is a test you should take early on. There will be very good days, when your work gets appreciated, accepted by a prestigious client or a project comes to you on it’s own. There will be normal days when you chug along, doing your bit. There will be bad days, when weeks go by before money comes in. The joy in all of it is still knowing that it’s in your control, for the most part. If you choose the right people to work with, build relationships that last (and give you continuous work), then the pains are minimized. Taking the time to understand what you’re getting into is half the battle won. Like everything else in life, being a freelancer doesn’t come easy and is actually tougher than being answerable to other people. You are your boss, critic and judge.

Be open and flexible about the future

Be Open and Flexible about the future

Planning is important but even as a business manager you can go wrong deciding for a time too far ahead. Should freelancers continue looking for full-time work? I have found that if you keep thinking you can go back to a full-time job anytime then you’re not pushing hard enough to make freelancing work for you. So stop actively searching for a job and give yourself time to build something of your own. Set a date to evaluate yourself. It could be six months to a year or more. Your circumstances in life could determine it. But in that time really, truly, push hard and do your best (no one else but you will know if you did). Then if something full-time comes along, you will not settle out of desperation. You will know what your skills are worth, what drives you and whether the new role is challenging (and engaging) enough for you. This exercise would have taught you more about yourself than a retreat in the mountains will, though do head out for those once in a while.

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The Thing About Grey

It pulls me in from the crowd, makes me go weak in the knees, colors my dreams. Out of a thousand things in rainbow shades, I am extremely likely to pull out the grey. It’s hot stuff, if you ask me.

Let’s suffice it to say, I have ‘a thing’ for grey, referred to (quite unfairly I feel) as the color “without color”.

The crowds may chant bleak, boring, old and sad to its face, but I find there’s much beauty and fun to be had in it. Of course if this were the 18th century, and Paris, I would have been quite the ravishing enchantress about town in my swishing grey gown.

Charlotte_Walsingham,_Lady_Fitzgerald_by_John_Hoppner

Or a happy fly on the grey wall buzzing over Whistler’s Mother as she sat in perfect composure for this portrait.

James_Abbott_McNeill_Whistler_-_Portrait_of_the_Artist's_Mother_-_Google_Art_Project

Wikipedia offers a grim reflection on one of my favorite hues by (horribly) stating:

In Europe and the United States, surveys show that grey is the color most commonly associated with conformity, boredom, uncertainty, old age, indifference, and modesty. Only one percent of respondents chose it as their favorite color.

And goes on to make matters grey-er by quoting color historian Eva Heller.

“Grey is too weak to be considered masculine, but too menacing to be considered a feminine color. It is neither warm nor cold, neither material or spiritual. With grey, nothing seems to be decided.

Bah, Humbug I say!

Let a girl salivate o’er grey

Ogle at the grey sweater-chest,

slip on a plain grey dress,

jump off the steel-grey train,

dance under the glowing grey rain.

Images via https://www.pinterest.com/manikadhama/

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When I Grow Up…

ny cartoon

It is past 11:30pm, the room is dark from the curtains being drawn all the way to the end, the lights have been switched off for over half an hour, we’ve been silent all this time. And then she says this, without turning towards me.

“When I grow up, I want to be a journalist.”

Frankly, I’m surprised, and a little miffed. Ever since she learned the concept of growing-up-to-be-something, my now three year old girl has wanted to be a doctor. We have all played the hapless patient, had our blood tests done, received express instructions on when and how many medicines to take, even received change for the consultation fee. So we harbored dreams of Harvard educated at-home health care in our old age.

But it all ended last night.

“I want to be a journalist, like Baba.”

It wasn’t the worst thing she could have chosen. From one set of grandparents who had charmed her into following them into a medical calling, she was now leaning towards the other. No freebies to be had but surely we can live with that.

“Why do you want to be a journalist?”

I waited, while acknowledging (silently) that it was wonderful she had learned a new word, had pronounced it perfectly, was curious about things, was going to…

“Because then I will come on TV.”

No. No. No. No. No. No. NO.

This was all going downhill, and nearing midnight, which is never a good sign on weekdays.

“But you always wanted to be a doctor.”

“No! I want to be a journalist.”

Hello, I’m the adult here. I can win this.

“You can be what you want honey. No matter what you choose, you will have to study very hard for it.”

That settled it.

She was quiet after that, with dreams of TV stardom I presume. Meanwhile I wondered why she hadn’t taken a fancy to following in Mamma or Papa’s footsteps. Though she thinks adulthood is one giant party with free-flowing makeup and coffee or wine (depending on what Mamma is caught drinking), her ‘job’ choices so far are grandparent stamped.

Who can blame her. Mamma and Papa just go to ‘office’, take two whole paragraphs to explain what they ‘really’ do, are not ballet dancers and are never on TV.

Advantage: Toddler

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One Love, Two (and more) Questions Asked

Peppa and George from Peppa PigPeppa Pig, my daughter’s many-a-dinner-time cartoon friend has a little brother George who’s answer to “What do you want?” is always “A Dinosaur”. He has a green toy dinosaur that accompanies him everywhere. This among other things, is the usual playground conversation between the little brother and sister.

After having seen several episodes of their harmlessly sweet adventures for months, my little girl turned to me a few days ago and asked, “Mamma, Peppa and George are two babies. But you have only one baby. Why is that?”

She’s three and I’m not stupid, so I knew this question was going to come soon. I smiled and told her that people could choose the number of babies they wanted, this could range from zero to four (it’s 2015, lets get real) and I had chosen to have one special little her.

Nothing happened for a few days. Then, there it was again, yesterday, hiding beside the conversation of a party invitation from a friend with twin girls.

“Mamma, A_ & A_ are two babies and you have only one baby. When you were getting me, couldn’t you ask for one more?”

“Honey, I didn’t exactly buy you at the supermarket.”

“Yes I know. But when I was a shiny star and you chose me, you could have picked one more.”

That children are curious and ask countless questions is common knowledge. That you must be prepared with ingenious retorts is a given. That you can lie through your teeth is just parenting privilege.

So why didn’t I pick two stars? (“we”? There is the husband and his wishes & whatnot to be acknowledged, not necessarily considered).

Well, we’re just about getting used to being adults, with jobs and school fees and drastically reduced frequency of sex in our lives. And then there’s this little person who joins all our couple (+1) hugs, berates the arguing party in couple-only heated conversations and makes us laugh silly…at her antics, at the wild, white skirt moves that made her, at our neat little party of three. And it ‘feels’ complete, in defiance of the sibling childhoods we come from and the “but two are perfect” noise around us. If there is a second child ‘star’ somewhere, the hubby and I aren’t looking for it right now. Perhaps we never will. Making her a playmate or a true blood companion after we croak, aren’t good enough reasons to have a second one.

In our own little, possibly flawed way, we try and teach her what ‘sharing’ means when she’s around friends, cousins or even little things like giving away balloons to stranger babies coming after her. The night activities are incomplete without wild jostling and pushing her down on padded bedding. Uncontrollable peals of laughter accompany the hubby’s “She doesn’t have a sibling, someone needs to push her around” in explanation to wild throw-offs.

Most children in my daughter’s class are already part of a pair and as the years go by, she will continue to question us on this point. Many of our friends are single children and are glowing examples of all that’s ‘normal’ and ‘well-adjusted’, the epitome of accepted adult behavior (for the most part). There will never be a right answer or the perfect number, but the ‘not-somethings’ will have to explain their choice that strays from the ‘norm’, established though it is by people whose lives have no bearing on that of others.The zeros and ones will come under the scanner and their lives will be used as examples for or against the motion.

Like all ‘good’ parents, we probably will not admit to our girl just yet that we don’t have all the answers. We will continue to believe, and tell her that we’re capable of crafting a well-functioning adult without a sibling partner (there’s no harm trying). And we won’t let her in to the big parenting secret (until it’s time to spill it): we learn as we go, build our own rules, stumble and rise. Somewhere along the way we will have built our version of an (im)perfect everything.

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And then there was light

I’m all for natural lighting, to the extent that I would live in a glass house if I could. I’m the jump out of bed (well okay, not jump but curse the alarm and get out of bed) kind of person, who before anything else draws the curtains and says hello to sunshine/rain or whatever else is waiting.

And then there is the husband who would rather close every inch of space from where light could penetrate (“It becomes too hot if you open the curtains”). I told him to go live on the North Pole (actually I said ‘London’ because he’s more likely to make a living there). And while I call him names I also realise he’s not alone in his thinking. Thankfully my room-mate in college agreed with me but we would always be surprised how other people could switch on lights at 10am instead of sunbathing indoors.

What’s more, you save on electricity bills too. Of course that’s not what I’m thinking when I do what I do but it sure is an argument I’m going to use against curtain-closers. When you’re living in the city, curtain closing should only be for privacy, not because you’re a sunlight-hater. Sure there are times when you’re sunbaked enough outside to want any of that indoors. That is when you want to live in the air-conditioned, dim lighting cocoon. But no other time is an excuse mister.

And artificial light-wise, give me yellow over white any day. There’s something almost obtrusive about white light, which is why it is probably great to study under. But for all else, paint my room yellow please.

Rest assured my war against curtain closing isn’t over. I refuse to switch on house lights before sundown. And more importantly, my weekend afternoon tryst with 19th century classics is not going to involve a tube light.