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
I 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
It 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.