The Freelance Life

Note: I’m no longer working freelance jobs as my primary source of income. Considering how much I struggled in the slow business times while freelancing, this is a definite yay. But someone asked for this post many months ago, and I wrote it and then forgot to post it. So just replace a bunch of the present-tense stuff with past tense.

I’ve mentioned casually in the past that most of my day job involves freelancing. Basically, I’m not an employee of any company, but companies hire me to work on various projects.

As you might expect, I get questions about this somewhat regularly from curious folks, people who want to do the same thing, and my family–often the same questions. What’s it like to work from home? How do you get started building your own gig? Do you really get to work while sipping a cocktail on the beach?

Good question. Let’s try to answer them.

What Exactly DO You Do, Anyway?

For the most part, writing, and a lot of it. To name a few things I’ve gotten paid to write…

  • Blog posts
  • Website copy
  • Technical documentation
  • Social media management
  • Community management
  • Content curation
  • And much more!

As a result, much of this post and any advice dispensed will be directed toward writers and other people who work for the Internet. (No joke–I had to enter a location for my work on LinkedIn and entered “The Internet”, which was accepted.) If you work in development or education or another industry altogether, well, no promises on how much this information helps you.

Want to work with me? My long-term project schedule is pretty full right now, but I’m open to short-term projects that take minimal time. Get in touch and we’ll talk.

Why Freelance, Anyway?

For me, the short answer to this question is “out of necessity”–those bills won’t pay themselves. I graduated in 2009, when the economy was down the toilet, and like many of my fellow grads, I couldn’t find a job. The rare longtime reader may recall lots of complaining about my inability to find a full-time job. I’ve never had a full-time long-term job with the benefits that everyone has dreamed of and therefore don’t have much to compare to (although I have worked in a small office before). Despite the many ups and downs that come with doing your own thing, I wouldn’t take a “real job” now unless business was very down (with little hope of looking up) or if someone wants to pay me to write personal blog posts or book reviews for a living. Sorry, Mom and Dad.

For others, the answers are as varied as the freelancers themselves. Some people want more flexibility to pursue their interests. Others want to spend more time with family. Still others want more than one source of income. Whatever your reasons, there’s a way to create the lifestyle you want while not being tied down to one company. Before you decide this is the way you want to work, take a little time to think through why you want to do it in the first place because it’s not easy.

Getting Started With Freelancing

Before starting the freelance life, the first thing to do is identify what services you’ll be providing. Writing? Website development? Marketing? Sales? Customer service? Ideally, you’ll provide something that you’re good at and that someone else will pay you to do consistently.

While freelance mills can be a way of getting started in your career, especially if you have no experience, I don’t necessarily recommend them long-term for a few reasons. You get paid significantly less than you would than through negotiating with the client directly thanks to a middleman taking a cut, and there’s often much more competition for the same jobs, including people who will accept even less money.

That said, if you have no idea where to start and no experience, then going through a third party can be a good way to outsource the hard work of finding clients to someone else.

Finding Clients and Jobs

The one certain thing about the freelance and self-employed life is that nothing is certain. A client’s company may shut down, run out of money, cut your hours in half (or worse), not need your services anymore, or just freeze all expenses, including the funds used to pay you. Or you may have been contracted to complete a specific project that you happened to finish. All of these things have happened to me in the past.

There are a couple of things you can do to keep the hours and the money coming.

The first is make sure people know about the services you offer. I’m definitely the worst person to ask for advice on this since I’m terrible at networking and don’t have a quote-unquote professional website of any kind. The type of promotion you do depends on how you find your clients. Business cards can be good for in-person networking (and dropping in those jars for a chance to win stuff). However, if most of your potential clients live online, then a website is a better way to go. You can also do both and put your website on your business card.

The second is ABL: Always Be Looking. Even if you’re working your maximum hours every week, it never hurts to casually dip a toe back into the freelance pool every now and then, just to see what’s out there. Maybe you’ll find something even better than what you’re working on now, or maybe you’ll find a posting for your dream job or for your dream company. This way, you can always be prepared if your services suddenly aren’t needed.

There are plenty of job boards that specialize in remote or freelance work (sometimes both), and many of them offer email updates or RSS feeds so you can get updates on new openings. This awesome remote job resource contains a list of companies that let employees work remotely, as well as plenty of job boards that specialize in remote or freelance work.

The Pants-Optional Office

First, a side note: While not all freelance life is remote, and not all remote work is freelance, there are plenty of independent contractors who work remotely. Most of the stuff in this section is applicable to both.

This working-for-yourself life is starting to sound like a dream, right? Choose how much you work, choose who you work with, and best of all, working in pajamas. The reality is very different.

Sure, pants are optional since I work from home, and won’t lie, it’s pretty great. I’ve had Skype chats where I wore a non-holey shirt and no pants, and no one was the wiser. Heck, they may have been doing the same thing.

Then there’s the cabin fever. In a traditional office, there are other people around, sometimes just a few feet away, and there’s always the break room for casual chitchat. Even though I have roommates now, I’m still by myself a lot. I’ve worked out of coffee shops when I could afford a drink, along with the public library (and the staff at my local branch want me to come in more often). I’m rather introverted, but even I feel the need to leave the house and interact with other human beings for awhile. I can’t go more than a few days without at least leaving the house for a walk or run or trip to the store or working somewhere outside the house. And then there are all those times I forget about my last shower and therefore start feeling blah as a result. A good rule of thumb: if you don’t remember the last time you showered, go shower.

The distractions inside the home are just as bad. Sure, the Internet (and other people) are often there to distract you at a traditional office job. But at home, the entire home is a distraction. Checking to see if the mail has arrived. Grabbing a snack from the fridge. Wondering what that noise is outside. And since your home is so familiar, there’s always something around to distract you, from the ice maker cranking away at making ice to the Internet at your fingertips. Hence the need to get out of the house at least once or twice a week, minimum.

But if you do work out of the house, I hear pants are recommended.

Money and the Freelance Life

Let’s talk money. There are a ton of resources out there for setting a rate for your job, whether by hour or by project. The specifics of setting a rate greatly depends on how much you need to pay the bills, what services you’re offering, and how good you are at those services. So I won’t go into too much detail on that here. There are plenty of calculators online to figure out how much you need to make in order to maintain your desired lifestyle, so go check one of them out.

One thing to keep in mind: as an independent contractor, all the things you may be used to an employer paying–some of those taxes, retirement accounts, health benefits, et cetera–are now on you. Whatever rate you set for yourself, make sure to have the funds on hand for these things so you don’t find yourself in trouble when tax time comes. Making sure to set aside money for taxes; the amount you set aside will depend on your country’s tax code, but 20% minimum is a good starting number for US residents. You may have to pay quarterly taxes if most of your income comes from contracted work, the amount of which will depend on your residence and income.

If you can afford it (some years I have, some years I haven’t), I recommend consulting a professional to help with your taxes. I’m not a tax expert on my own country’s taxes, much less for any other country, so for real, consult a tax pro in your locale to make sure you’re filing right.

Should You Do It?

I don’t know, should you?

Being serious for a minute: it’s not easy. Many governments treat freelancers like they run their own businesses (hence all the extra tax documents) because you actually do. If you’re not used to selling yourself to potential clients or even convincing someone to see something your way, then you may have a harder time promoting yourself as you’re getting started. You’ll experience ups and downs that are higher and lower than working as an employee.

But if you can make it work, you may never go back to the office on someone else’s whim. And that’s not a bad thing.

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