Year One: Freelancing for Food
I’ve been freelancing for a year, now.
A bit more, actually, but in tax terms, it’s a year- which means I also have a very clear image of how much money I haven’t made. Gulp, and other anxious onomatopoeia.
But you know what? I made it and I’m still going, at least for now. The reason I made it is because I picked up some good advice along the way, which is how all creative and entrepreneurial people get a leg up. So, I’m passing on a few things I’ve found, as well as some general advice, to anyone thinking of doing the same thing. These are, naturally, based on my experience as a writer. Things may be different for an artist or developer, so let me know if you have your own words of wisdom or top tips.
1 – Don’t be afraid to ask for more money!
Yes, you are competing with cheaper writers, artists and so on. Yes, some guy across the globe can undercut you by a fortune. When you start out, you will have to take some low paid jobs in order to start building a portfolio.
But don’t hobble yourself. Those other chumps don’t have your talents and your knowledge. Give a client a high figure and you can haggle down if they aren’t convinced. Give them a low figure and that’s what you’ll get. Freelancing is about judging the value of your time. If you’re working for minimum wage or less, you’d better love what you do.
2 – Don’t be afraid to say no!
On the flipside, there are times when I’ve had to turn clients down. This is usually because I’ve been too busy (nothing more frustrating than being physically unable to take on more work, knowing full well that next month will be dead). However, it’s also often because the project is beyond my skills.
That’s fine. Sometimes you can take a punt at something that you’re new too, especially if the client seems open to an inexperienced freelancer (typically the case if they want someone to join a team), so by all means push yourself to greater heights. But if you don’t think you can do it, or can’t dedicate the time it requires at the price, then say no. You won’t necessarily lose the client forever and you’ll avoid a lot of headaches.
3 – Write a contract
Freelancers do a lot of odd jobs, so it may often seem like a contract isn’t necessary. When you work through third parties like Upworks a lot, like myself, then in a way it isn’t- the work broker has both parties in a contract already, with the terms usually laid out very clearly. When you work for yourself, directly with a client, the terms aren’t always so clear. Writing up a general contract, even in loose terms, is a great way to make it very clear what’s going on.
Establish what the client wants, what you can provide and how long it will take. Sort out the price, too. Once these terms are in writing, legally binding or otherwise, everyone knows where they stand. Clients shouldn’t be disappointed and you should get paid. It’s also worth adding to your template contract (which you can find online), some terms of cancellation if things don’t go well. Sometimes, projects just don’t get off the ground- it’s good to be clear about what that means.
4 – Talk to friends and colleagues
I can directly attribute a huge portion of my (humble) success to the support and advice of friends and other freelancers. If you get stuck on something, or don’t know where to go next, or can’t work out how to budget better, ask! There are many social media groups for freelancers, which will provide advice (often conflicting, but that’s life) or simply point you towards articles online.
A good example: I recently complained to a friend that I wasn’t getting enough work done, because of a very distracting personal matter. Can’t write and sob, can you? But the work still has to be done, because there’s no paid holiday for Jonny Freelance. He suggested doing a bit of work, then something fun or at least not directly work related, then going back to work and so on. Bitesize chunks. You know what? I’m still behind on my deadlines, but now the house is clean.
5 – Find your niche
Seems obvious, but it does help a lot. At first, I had no niche other than ‘words’ and that was fine. I still take on things I never knew I’d be writing about. However, the jobs that have really made me money and become something of my bread and butter are in the gambling industry.
Now, this is almost more luck than intention, because I used to work in the industry and my CV and my portfolio advertise that. As I did more work in this sector, my portfolio became more focused and more work of this type came my way. If you could be smarter than I and work out your niche early on, you’ll eat less instant noodles. Once you do find work that you like, shout about it! Get more!
6 – Watch your figures
Not your waistline- too late for me there- but your finances. Freelancing is a juggling act, so definitely keep on top of what’s coming in and going out. I use a few methods for this, starting with the free Google Keep notepad for making lists of what’s in progress, what’s been invoiced and what’s been waiting to be paid for six weeks.
Accounting software will help a lot, if you aren’t mathematically minded. Not only is a full account of the money you’ve made (and your expenses) necessary for taxes, it also helps you to plan, budget and see what’s working. Invoice software is useful too, such as Intuit Quickbooks, which I’ve used to gently nudge clients. Six weeks later.
7 – Jump right in
Whatever you do, do it now. Do it until you get great at it, until it’s just what you do. Some freelancers and creatives get a kind of fatigue when they feel forced to produce on demand, which is understandable, but there are other avenues. Split up your work, perhaps.
As a writer, the time I spend writing reviews of toilets (no, really) leaves me with little patience for the screen and chair when it comes to writing something fun and creative. However, that’s life- a stonemason might still lay bricks to make ends meet. Leave some time for the work that you love and it won’t feel like a chore. Know that even the boring articles are improving your skills, little ‘XP’ points popping out of each one you complete. Know that getting paid for writing serious stuff is what makes it possible to write books about talking rats and sea dragons.
Maybe this advice will help, maybe it won’t. I hope that it at least encourages new freelancers to go out and find their own answers, make their own mistakes and keep contributing to the creative, constructive world. Please feel free to comment with better advice, which I will put in and use to neatly demonstrate number 4.