It’s been almost a year now since I made the somewhat nerve-racking decision to quit my full-time job without having a new one to go to.
I had been working in different marketing roles for over 7 years. I really enjoy marketing but I had reached a point in my career where I felt like it’s time to change direction a little bit.
I was (relatively) financially secure and decided now is the time to experiment and try a few different things.
So I started to take on odd jobs and projects – some several days per week over a few weeks and others just one off projects. Anything from copy writing, managing events, market research and marketing automation projects to managing Google AdWords accounts and everything in between.
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What was suppose to be a short-term thing until I find the next full-time gig has now turned into a longer-term situation. Mostly because it works really well for me. I love the diversity of the work I do and people I work with. I love the independence of being a freelancer.
While it’s been a fun and really interesting year, it’s also been a year of learning.
Being a freelancer sounds great – things like flexibility, independence, being my own boss and interesting work come to mind.
But, in the last year I’ve learned how quickly FREE-lancer can turn into STRESS-lancer, NOSLEEP-lancer, LONLEY-lancer or just BORED-lancer.
So how do you make sure you’re a happy and successful freelancer? Here are the six things I’ve learned in the past year.
There is nothing more valuable than a great network
The power of (and support from) my network has been by far the most positive and encouraging aspect of the past year.
I knew I had a big, very well connected network. I also knew that in a small place like Auckland (and New Zealand on a whole) – where everyone knows everyone – this network would be very valuable.
So the first thing I did when I started to look for work was get in touch with people I knew. Before I knew it I had several work offers in front of me.
What surprised me was the kind of people and connections that popped up.
One of my first jobs came to me thanks to a connection from a friend of a friend who I had met once for coffee a few years ago.
At the time, she was thinking about a career in marketing and wanted to talk to someone in the industry (me).
Now, years later she saw on Facebook that I was looking for work and connected me to someone she knew who was looking for marketing support.
The lesson here is; you never know who can make an introduction for you so make sure you keep track of your network and have ways to connect with them.
LinkedIn is great for that. I generally make it a point to add everyone I interact with on LinkedIn so even if I don’t speak to them for years, I still know how to find them.
Email addresses and phone numbers can change as people change jobs. LinkedIn won’t.
Pro Tip: Look after your network. And don’t be afraid to use it. Make sure you don’t spam people but the occasional message to remind people that you’re available for work can do wonders.
Know when to say NO and when to say YES
When I first started out, I basically accepted every job that was offered to me.
I think that’s natural and necessary when you start out as a freelancer because you don’t know yet what market demand is like and what types of jobs are available.
So unless you can afford to be without income for a few weeks you basically have no choice but to say yes to everything.
But in my case, it meant I ended up doing a lot of work I didn’t enjoy.
And because I was busy doing that work I wasn’t looking for new projects anymore and missed out on jobs that would have been a lot more interesting and probably also a much better fit for my skill set.
I’ve learned that it’s important to find the right balance.
I sat down and figured out how much I need to earn to pay the bills and now make sure I have enough work to get me there – and sometimes that means accepting jobs that are not super interesting.
But the rest of the time I make sure I have work I enjoy. Sometimes that means I have a few slow weeks before the next ‘right’ job comes up. And of course it sometimes means I miss out on opportunities to earn more.
But to me, doing work I enjoy is more important that money.
Of course, you might feel differently about this. For you, earning a lot of money might be the most important thing right now. Or it might be flexible hours, specific types of clients or something else.
Regardless, by understanding what matters most to you and knowing how much you need to earn to pay your bills you are in the best position to know when to say NO and when to say YES.
My Tip: Work out what matters most to you and how much money you need to pay your bills. Those are the two key factors that will help you decide when to say yes and when to say no.
Find an efficient way to manage your work
Initially, I thought all I really needed was some tool or template to send invoices.
However, as my workload increased and the number of project and clients started to add up I realised I needed a better system and processes to manage my work – jobs, tasks, contacts, leads, etc.
And of course send my invoices. I also struggled a bit with the lack of visibility into how my freelancing business was tracking financially – I wanted more visibility into how much I was earning and how much I had in the pipeline.
While I really love the flexibility of being a freelancer I’m still a bit of a control freak at heart so basically flying blind didn’t really work for me.
Luckily one of my clients, a company called Roll, actually had the perfect solution for me. Roll develops workflow management software for creative businesses and freelancers. It’s an easy way for me to manage all my work in one place. I capture leads and contacts, manage my jobs including setting tasks and tracking time and in the end, send invoices to my clients.
I also use Roll to keep track of payments (to make sure invoices are being paid on time). With Roll I have all my data in one system and can see exactly how I’m going, what I need to focus on and how much money I’m making this month – giving me the piece of mind to focus on doing great work for my clients.
My Tip: Invest some time into finding and setting up the right systems and processes for you. It might seem like a waste of time in the beginning but trust me, it’s worth it. Check out Roll, but there are also a number of other tools and systems out there you can use to manage your work so find the one that works for you.
Don’t sell yourself short!
Looking back now I realise I often sold myself short in the early days – and probably still do on occasion.
The best example of this is that the hourly rate I was charging in the beginning was too low.
I basically just calculated the hourly equivalent to what I would be earning in a full time job. But that didn’t take into account that I no longer had things like paid annual leave & public holidays, an office to work from, a work computer and phone, access to things like stationery, printers, internet and so on.
Not to mention the risk and uncertainty that comes with short-term project work. It wasn’t until I had a few conversations with other people in this space that I realised I wasn’t charging enough.
So for the next project I increased my rate – and I never got any pushback from clients.
But raising rates is about more than money.
I also, on occasion, hesitated to take on work because I wasn’t sure if I was qualified or experienced (enough).
I think it’s really important to know what you don’t know and tell a client if you’re not the right person for the job. Otherwise you end up with very stressful work and disappointed clients. In my case however, I was being a bit too cautious.
After the first few projects, and great client feedback, I realised I needed to be a bit more confident and have some faith in my skills and ability to figure things out if I don’t already know them.
My Tip: Be realistic about your skills and experience. But if you know you’re good at something, back yourself and be confident. Don’t be afraid to request an hourly rate that’s reflective of the skills you bring to the table.
Be clear about payment terms before starting any work
Discussing money with clients is still something that makes me a bit uncomfortable.
In the beginning I would often agree to do work without any formal agreements or discussion around when and how I’m being paid.
I invoice all my clients and usually put ‘due within 14 days’ on the invoice. But that doesn’t mean all clients follow through with that.
Some clients only process invoices monthly and have certain dates that invoices need to be submitted by. At one point a client owed me several thousand dollars and didn’t pay for over 5 weeks after I sent the invoice.
And it was difficult to chase them because we didn’t really have a formal agreement in place.
Long story short, I’ve learned that it’s a lot easier to clarify all of this upfront. Now I usually send an email with my payment terms and ask the client to confirm that everything is all good with them before I start any work.
That way I know what money is coming in and when and am in a much better position to chase payments if they are delayed.
My Tip: Make sure you and your client understand each other’s payment terms and timeframes before you start any work. It’s as simple as telling the client your terms or asking them for theirs prior to commencing work.
Don’t forget to enjoy the perks of being a freelancer.
Like most people who get into freelancing I did so because I wanted more independence, freedom and diversity.
But when I first started out I pretty quickly found myself basically working normal office hours, Monday to Friday, mostly at client’s offices.
And some of the work I was doing wasn’t very interesting or challenging.
I kind of ended up being like an employee that instead of working for just one company, was working for several.
That wasn’t really what I had in mind. I’ve learned that the freedom and flexibility to work when and where I want is really important to me – more so than making a lot of money.
I want to enjoy life more.
My big passion is kitesurfing and to me there’s nothing better than being able to sneak in a mid-week session when the conditions are great and the beaches are empty and that plays a major factor when I consider taking on new projects.
I prefer jobs that I can do anywhere over those that require me to be at the client’s office during certain hours – even if that means less money.
The reality is that most projects I work on are a combination, with some time spent at the client’s office and some off-site which seems to work really well for everyone involved.
My Tip: Being a freelancer comes with risks and uncertainty. So make sure you also leverage the benefits of it and don’t just end up working non-stop (unless that’s what you want to do – in which case; keep going!).
Summing it up
There’s a lot more I learned this year but those are the top 6 things that stand out for me. I would love to know what your biggest learnings have been. Share you experience in the comments.
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