Six lessons I’ve learned since going freelance

freelancers_coverIt’s been a month since I decided to change track in my working life and try out the freelance gig. It’s been an emotional roller-coaster of a month and I’ve been on a steep learning curve. I have no regrets about taking the plunge, but I’ve certainly got a more realistic outlook on the freelance existence.

To help anyone else wanting to embark on this scary but ultimately fulfilling journey, I’m sharing what I’ve learned in this short period of time:

  1. Embrace the hustle

To make it as a freelancer, you need to put yourself out there constantly. Work isn’t going to fall on your lap; you need to seek it out. This involves telling everyone you know that you’re now a freelancer and available for work, relying heavily on any contacts and networks you have from previous employment, and being prepared to shamelessly promote yourself at any (appropriate) opportunity. The last one is pretty tough if you’re not naturally that way inclined but marketing yourself is essential in the freelancing world.

2. Say “yes” to everything

Unfortunately it seems as though 90 per cent of job offers/projects/promises fall through. I had one amazing week of job offer after job offer but stupidly turned many of them down because all the dates and deadlines clashed. Little did I know that the offers I had said “yes” to were dependent on non-existent funding/unreliable people letting you down/jobs that probably didn’t exist in the first place/friends trying to be helpful but didn’t know what they were talking about. As time progresses I’ll get more discerning of what will actually go ahead but in the meantime it’s safer to say yes to everything, wait to see if they ever come to fruition, then turn jobs down if the need ever arises.

3. Build your online presence/brand

Update all your online profiles – LinkedIn, Twitter, academia.edu, personal website etc. to reflect your new freelance status. Create an identity that clearly conveys the services and expertise you offer and display contact details prominently.

4. Make a plan

So much of freelancing is uncertain so it helps to plan ahead. Make sure you have funds to fall back on. List and contact any potential clients, then keep contacting them to remain on their radar. Decide early on whether you’re prepared to do any work for free. Sign up to a course or develop any skills you might need. Reach out to other freelancers in your field or community. Be super organised – I’m currently writing grant applications to fund my next book project so keeping a calendar of deadlines and timing work responsibilities is vital.

5. Broaden your (perceived) repertoire and skillset

When you’re starting out, the chances are there aren’t going to be great paying jobs that exactly fit your particular interest area/expertise. It’s therefore helpful to broaden what you think your knowledge area and skill base is. I was offered a one day research job for a think tank and turned it down as the topic area seemed far removed from my knowledge base so I a) felt I wasn’t qualified and b) thought it would take much longer than a day to complete. This was a big mistake for two reasons. Reason 1 – they weren’t seeking my knowledge but rather my research skills to write a literature review. In addition, I’m more qualified than I think I am so shouldn’t have succumbed to self-doubt regarding the research topic. Reason 2 – you should say “yes” to everything (see above point), as you never know if it’s actually going to amount to anything. If it does, it’s likely to lead to more work. If it doesn’t, at least you looked keen and they’ll keep you on their books.

Later on down the line, when I have more experience and a strong client base, I’ll become more specialised and picky about jobs. But at the moment I’m finding it’s good to be open-minded as income can come from unexpected sources. For instance, my main freelance job this month has been marking student dissertations. I never would have thought to seek out this kind of work but it turns out to be well paid and surprisingly enjoyable.

6. Negotiate your day rate

This is a really tricky one for the new freelancer and deserves it’s own blog post (which I’ll do at a later date). When someone approaches you with a job and pay offer, it’s not a fixed deal. My freelancer friend taught me that you need to extract a clear brief from the client, calculate how long you think it will take, and then give a quote (especially if it’s higher than they offered at the outset). They’ll either respond with a direct yes or no, or try and enter into negotiations. It’s likely they have a bigger budget than they’re letting on, but if they don’t, it’s up to you whether it’s worth a low payment. Taking the job will probably open more freelance doors but you don’t want to get struck in the trap of being on a low rate with them forever. Deciding what to charge as your day rate in the first place can be a minefield but luckily I have friends who are freelancers and although they’re in different fields, I was able to discern what the general pay bracket is for freelancers in London and set a competitive day rate accordingly.

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So, how am I doing after a month? Life seems much more manageable and balanced. I love being in control of my own schedule and being able to meet the odd friend or see my family during the day. I’m not making bucket loads of money but have reached my minimum target amount for the month. Despite the challenges, freelancing is proving to be worthwhile and rewarding.

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