Whenever I bump into a friend that I haven’t seen for a while, the conversation inevitably turns to work.
‘So, what you are you doing with yourself these days? You still at that place, er…’
‘No. Actually, I work freelance now’.
‘Freelance, really? Wow, that’s so cool! So you like, work from home?’
‘Uh-huh. Just me and my laptop.’
‘Awesome! Man, I always wanted to work from home; waking up when I want, working my own hours. I’m so jealous of you!’
‘Yeah. I’m living the dream alright.’
We part, them believing I have the best job in the world, and me satisfied by the fact someone thinks I have a cool job. I never lay bare what freelancing is really like, and how I’m often as envious of them as they appear to be of me. Maybe, it’s an ego thing?
I mean, I guess I am living a life that many people dream of. My office is just a few yards away from where I brush my teeth on a morning, I can start work whenever I like (after the school run is taken care of), and choose when I’m done for the day.
That’s work utopia right there.
Except most of the time it doesn’t quite feel it. And freelancing, or gigging, is far from the cool deal that a lot of 9-to-5ers perceive it to be.
Here’s the reality: I don’t wake up when I want - my dog and young family won’t allow it. In my household, 6am is a lazy morning. Work can’t start until the dog has taken me for a walk and the school run has been safely negotiated. I do work my own hours, though. Sometimes 14 hours a day, but I rarely let that detail get in the way of a good conversation.
Then there’s constant stress of ensuring enough regular work to keep the money coming in, the chasing of payments from feet-shuffling clients, and the obsessive checking of emails for correspondence to pitches sent no more than a few hours earlier.
For this freelancer, life couldn’t be further away from the 9-to-5. While friends and strangers look on green-eyed at my perceived ‘Life of Riley’, there is many a night after hitting the sack ― unable to switch off due to impending deadlines and unpaid invoices ― where employment, with it’s regular income and sponsored health care, vacation and retirement benefits, have me questioning why I ever chose this vocation over a Monday-to-Friday in the office.
Vacations aren’t really vacations because, as much as I try not to be, I’m always on call. Smartphones make emails hard to ignore. There’s always a client in search of an edit or rewrite, or research to take care for a future project. That is, if I’m lucky enough to have clients. Some days that isn’t the case.
I don’t have a retirement plan; I’m not sure I’ll ever retire. And sick days. Well, freelancers don’t really have time to be sick.
It’s a feast or famine lifestyle. And it’s the fear of no food on the table that drives me to the unpredictable, sometimes anti-social life that I lead. I’m notorious for passing up on party invites in favor of late-night proofreading.
So why do I do it? Why don’t I just save myself the stress and pursue full-time employment?
Because freelancing is addictive, and despite the pressure and anxiety, I love it.
The downsides (of which there are no shortage of) are outweighed by the fact I have no boss to answer to. And that, if I wanted to, I can work in a park or coffee shop or library in any town, in any city in the world. Some weeks I work on a Sunday, but that’s fine because I can take the Monday off instead to enjoy the beach or head to the mall when they’re a little quieter.
That kind of flexibility and freedom can’t be found in any other kind of employment, and that’s what’s I remember whenever times get tough.
According to a study by software company Intuit, by 2020, over 40 percent of the U.S. workforce ― some 60 million people ― will be fellow freelancers, contractors and temporary workers. Some will never look back, others will beg to go back.
Freelancing requires significant mental toughness. It’s scary and you’ll question your decision to go it alone at times, no doubt. But stick it out through the hard times and you’ll be rewarded.
For those of you embarking on a life of self-employment, here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years that will help you survive the transition to freelancing:
Know your worth
Jobs boards such as Freelancer and Upwork are common pathways into the world of freelancing, particularly for writers. Such sites are an easy way to get your foot in the door, but don’t let them dictate your worth. Competition to land gigs results in a race to the bottom. Jobs are awarded for as little as $1-$2 for a 500-word piece. You’re worth 100 times that. There are obvious reasons to set your rates low when starting out; to show what you can do and build a portfolio, but never undersell yourself. You’ve got to make a living.
Don’t overdo it
It’s not advisable, but there will be days when you find yourself working 12-14 hours. Sitting in a chair and staring at a computer screen for that long isn’t great for your health. Divide up your working days by taking regular breaks. Take a walk outside, go fix yourself a drink ― do anything to stretch your legs and rest your eyes.
Make the most of your flexibility
A laptop and a decent Wi-Fi connection are all you need to work. Use this flexibility to work in different environments. Getting out of the home office every so often is good for creativity and productivity. According to the Harvard Business Review, people that use co-working spaces see their work as meaningful, enjoy greater job control, and feel part of a community. Explore the world beyond the four walls you’re used to, it really makes a difference.
Save, save, save
As a freelancer, if you’re not working, you’re not getting paid. There will be times when there is no work and there may be times when illness prevents you from working (although it takes a lot to keep a freelancer down). It’s in these moments when you’ll need savings to fall back on. Save when the work is flowing in so you have enough to live on when it dries up.
Put yourself out there
Make sure you have a social media presence. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles are a must. These are the first places potential clients will look (along with your website) to see what you’re all about. If you get beyond the selfies and epic fail videos, the big social media sites are still the best places to network, so use them to your advantage to get in touch with potential clients. You might also want to look at pitching up on YouTube, Google+, Instagram, SnapChat and Reddit. Be careful, not to spread yourself too thinly, though. Inactivity can come across as lazy. Make sure profiles can be updated regularly.
Follow up often
Have a system in place to remind yourself to follow up on invoices. If you’re lucky enough to have a few jobs on the go at once, it’s easy to let little tasks like invoices slide. Whether it’s a spreadsheet or a color-coded notebook, set reminders to chase clients. Some clients will take advantage if you let them; remember: it’s your money, and you need your damn money! Such a system will work well for pitch follow-ups too.
Embrace the cloud
Computers are notoriously unpredictable beasts. They break down for no apparent reason and are incredibly adept at making work disappear. Do yourself a favor and save everything important to the cloud.