First and foremost: Freelancing isn’t easy, romantic, or ideal. Not in today’s economy, not in the background of the American workforce. If you can apply your skills to a well-enough paying job with benefits, do that.
Trust me. Just do it.
2018 was my first year of freelancing full-time as a writer and editor. I didn’t look for a full-time job or send out resumes to full-time companies. I sent proposals; I worked in the short term, I made deals with dozens of clients and fulfilled the equivalent of a salary while working from home and on the road.
Yes, I worked by a pool precisely two times. It wasn’t great. When you work by a pool while traveling, you’re usually just apologizing to the maintenance staff who is trying to straighten up the deck before the afternoon rush opens up. If you work by a pool, you’re probably not in a pool. Think about that.
Here are the learnings. They break down into three ideas: Value — People — Time.
You Determine Your Value
No one can tell you what it is, and don’t sell yourself short. Supporting ideas include:
- No discounts. If a client starts creeping or asking for something for free, shut it down. If a prospective client opens up by asking for a lower rate, walk away — it is a sign of more problems inevitably coming down the road.
- HOWEVER, if a client in good standing refers to me another client that works out well, I will happily give the first client a break on the next project we work on.
- Your rate is your gatekeeper. That number determines what kind of people are going to seek you out — don’t compromise it. At the same time make sure are worth it.
- Don’t work for “sweat equity.” I write for most of my clients and will never accept a cut of the royalties or sales of a book instead of upfront payment.
- If you are a freelance writer, don’t let them put YOUR name on THEIR content. Yes, you wrote it. They PAID for it. It’s theirs. Often there is something that happens between when I deliver the content and when it gets published where someone decided to do some creative editing or rewriting, and it usually looks pretty bad.
- Market rates are one thing, worrying about the guy who can undercut you by half is another. You never want to be the cheapest person doing what you do. There is a HUGE difference between cheap and affordable. Clients who only go for the cheapest freelancers have to repay someone else to do the work 100% of the time.
- Underpromise and overdeliver, sure. Also: SET EXPECTATIONS for your client. If a client wanted some big, fancy presentation along with the work they ordered, they should have hired a big, fancy agency to do it.
Most clients don’t know what they are looking for
This happens A LOT. I’ll field a dozen prospective clients every week, two of them know what it is they need to be done. The rest are so excited to get started on a project they’ll skip crucial steps to get there.
- Upwork has improved significantly over the years, but there is still a low barrier of entry for clients looking for freelancers. I know people are looking for me to write and edit copy and content for them, but if someone can’t take the time to spell-check their job posting, I’m probably going to pass.
- Know when to close things up and walk away as amicably as possible.Companies do this weird thing where their goals and focus change from month to month. Sometimes it isn’t worth following them through their changes.
- Don’t be a Swiss Army Knife. I write, I edit. I do not design. If someone asks me to design something I’m probably going to subcontract it out to someone else. I’m not going to get in the trenches on things with your UX guy — he probably doesn’t want to work with me anyhow.
Protect your time. Use a knife if necessary.
Biggest learning of the year: time only moves in one direction. Learning to control it determines how much you are going to get out of your day.
- There is no such thing as “jumping on a call real quick.” Even if that call is only 5 minutes. “Real quick” means I have to stop whatever I was working on and align my attention to your needs. After, I need to get my head back to whatever it was I was working on. “Jump on a call real quick” means an email should be sent.
- Any call that has more than three people on it is just someone trying to swing a dick. Organizers of these types of calls are usually trying to prove their worth by showing they can dominate someone else’s time. Avoid conference calls at all cost.
- I open Skype/ Hangouts by appointment only. I open slack three-ish times a week for about fifteen minutes to contribute where needed. No more chat boxes, no endless texting.
- Calls, too, should always be appointment only.
- Email may be evil but it’s the best weapon we have against time-suckers. Use whatever means to teach people that this is the best way to get at you and never respond instantly. When it comes to freelancing, everything that is an “emergency” is usually just the result of poor planning.
- Embrace Airplane Mode.
- If you take the vacation, take the vacation. “Grinding” happens when a machine isn’t functioning properly. “Grinding” too long means something will break or wear down and be useless. Don’t grind.
What are you learning? What did you wish you knew before you started working for yourself?
Writing would be great if it weren’t the only thing I knew how to do.
I publish as much as I can, you’ll just have to wait for the rest.