Lessons from the Freelance Life

in life •  last year 

I didn't choose the freelance life. The freelance life chose me.

Previously I wrote about my education and employment aspects, and lack thereof. The cold reality was that I was caught in a vicious cycle.

No one in my industry wanted to hire fresh graduates with my specific skillsets, only people with several years of experience. But since nobody was hiring graduates, nobody outside the industry would have a chance to build up that much experience to begin with.

Outside the media industry, employers either weren't looking for fresh graduates, or else I wasn't qualified for the positions that were available.

With no conventional employment options left, the only course of action I had was to go freelance.

Networking is Life

'Networking' is one of those overused buzzwords that haunt the working world. Yet knowing the right people will open doors for you--if you just take the opportunities you're given.

In my teenage days, I co-founded The Online Citizen, a socio-political website. When TOC started monetising operations, I reported on current news events and wrote editorials as part of the senior writing team. It didn't pay much, but it paid. More importantly, it opened doors.

In the course of my work at TOC, I encountered a number of people who would later offer writing opportunities. They were short-term contracts and freelance gigs, but it was much better than nothing. My work for those clients brought me into contact with even more people, opening even more opportunities.

In addition, I found other work elsewhere, through my friends and relatives. Sure, they weren't much, but if you add a bit here, a bit there, and pretty soon you'll have enough to get by. It's not a fortune, to be sure, but it's still money. In ten years of job-hunting, I think I've only ever gotten two jobs through recruitment ads. One is freelance, the other was a short-term contract.

Networking is, and remains, the single most important business operation I've had to perform short of actually working. If I could go back and do it over again, I would have paid more attention to social skills, jumped at more opportunities, approached people more proactively. To be a freelancer, building relationships is key.

Avoid The Snipe Hunt

Between my qualifications and my work experience, finding a regular job has so proven to be a snipe hunt.

But so has finding freelance jobs on the web.

To be clear, there are plenty of freelancers out there who have made a living off freelance websites. I'm sure they can share their success stories and advice. All I can tell you is how not to fail.

The biggest obstacle I faced was qualifications. Just like in the regular working world, many of the high-end jobs require freelancers with specific skillsets and years of experience. I don't disparage clients for having these requirements, but the fact is that if you don't have that level of experience and skills, you're not going to land the premier contracts--which makes making a living that much more difficult.

It seems to me that the best career move many freelancers can make is to spend time in the corporate world first. Take a few years to learn the tricks of the trade and pick up essential skills. Once they're out, their expertise and experience enables them to command higher fees. It also gives them a sense of value: their previous salary is a solid indication of how much people value their skills, allowing them to set prices accordingly.

Knowing how much you're truly worth is definitely a core freelance skill. The Internet is filled with content mills, paying writers a pittance in exchange for grinding out tens, even hundreds of articles. Even on freelance job sites, you'll find plenty of employers who'll pay something like twenty dollars for twenty blog posts a day, or forty dollars to proofread a novel, or other such jobs.

It's not worth it. You will burn out before long, and you won't have much to show for it. No matter you do, you must avoid the content mills and the unscrupulous clients.

With that said, if you live in a country with a favorable currency exchange rate, if you can finish the job quickly and efficiently, and if you get paid bonuses, there may be an advantage in taking on such work.

Let's take Fiverr. A basic job pays you just five dollars. But if you can take plenty of jobs and need only twenty minutes for one job, you're earning fifteen dollars an hour. Not bad if you're starting out. If you cut down your completion time to just fifteen minutes, you're earning twenty dollars an hour. Now suppose you can throw on additional services. Extra embellishments, rush jobs, and so on. This lets you make a lot more money for more effort, especially if you're so skilled you only need to expend just slightly more time and energy.

Even if you won't take such work, being fast, efficient, punctual and professional works wonders. The faster you complete your work, the more clients will like you; the more they like you, the more likely you'll get even more clients; and since you complete jobs quickly you'll be able to take on even more work.

But never sacrifice quality for speed. Never rush to beat a deadline if it means sacrificing the quality of your work. Clients, as a rule, would rather receive a well-done project on time (or even slightly late) than a shoddy project delivered ahead of schedule. People will remember the quality of the work you do, not necessarily the time you need to do it.

Being fast, efficient and prolific is the key to freelance success. So is knowing how much to charge for your services, time and energy. Without this knowledge, finding freelance work online is a snipe hunt.

Always Hustle

If you're a freelancer, you're a shark. If you stop swimming, you die.

You don't have a boss who pays you no matter how much (or little) work you do. What money you make you must earn with your own effort. If you want to eat, you must always be hustling for more. More work, more opportunities, more contacts, more contracts.

This is especially important in the early days. You need to get off the ground and establish a solid portfolio of reliable clients. These are clients who have regular work for you, pay you fairly and on time, and are interested in maintaining a professional relationship with you. Identify these clients as early as you can, get into their good graces through high-quality work, and be sure to keep in touch with them regularly.

Even after you've established a client base, don't settle. Upgrade your skills, expand your client base, take on outside projects. With greater experience and broader skillsets, you become more valuable to people who wish to hire you. This, in turn, ensures you'll make more money--and grants you a measure of job security.

You're not an employee. You're not owed any loyalty. Clients may smile and praise your work and keep hiring you for projects, but when times are hard and they need to start cutting costs, freelancers are the first to go. Once you notice a client has dropped you--whether they inform you or not--you have to start looking for more clients. If you've taken the time to develop yourself, finding more clients and more work becomes easier.

Deep Skills, Not Broad Skills

I've done plenty of freelance work in the past decade: coaching, data entry, copy writing, editing, journalism, acting. These days, though, I tend to specialize.

Having a broad base of skills may be appealing, but chances are, each individual skill won't be as well-developed as someone who has spent years or decades honing that one skill. That, in turn, means that you'll only get low-level projects while the latter lands more technical jobs.

The more complex the project, the higher the degree of compensation. You'll need to spend more time and energy chasing down and completing several basic jobs just to match the pay from his one complex job, because his skills are far more in-depth and advanced than yours. It is the difference between an apprentice and a master, a journeyman and a grandmaster -- and the prices they command.

Focus on your strengths. It's far easier to build up your strengths than to shore up your weaknesses. With your strengths you can build your brand, be it as an editor, a writer, a graphic designer, or some other profession. With a proven portfolio and deep skills, you can pursue higher-paying work and make a living more efficiently than chasing down multiple low-paying gigs that require basic skills.

With that said, don't be afraid to expand your skills in related directions. A jack of all trades may be master of none, but he is still better than a master of one.

The goal is to build a talent stack. Your strengths are at the top of the stack, telling the world what you can do and are most confident of achieving. After that comes your ancillary skills, which is the added value you offer. If you can combine both, you'll be able to able to achieve more than just your strengths or ancillary skills in isolation.

A copywriter may be able to take on a broad range of jobs: CV writing, ad copy, content marketing, and the like. However, they may not pay as much as more complex projects. A copywriter with an engineering background, on the other hand, is qualified to take on technical writing, and technical writing pays much better owing to its specialist requirements. And the latter can still take on the former's jobs if needed.

Deep skills allow you to concentrate your efforts on pursuing high-paying projects, instead of scattering them on many low-paying gigs. Breadth of skills, stacked properly, gives you more options to pursue. The trick is to approach your skills holistically to build a unique profile and use that profile to seek out, identify and pursue worthwhile jobs, as opposed to taking a scattershot approach and playing up only a small number of the skills you have at your disposal.

Is It Worth It?

The dream of the freelance life is seductive. Work from home, choose your own hours, make time for friends and family, and so on and so forth.

The reality is much different.

I work as much as my peers with regular jobs. Actually, I work a lot more: I work through weekends and public holidays, and paid leave is a nonexistent concept to me. If I'm not doing my freelance work, I'm writing fiction or on Steemit. Not a day passes in which I'm not doing *something * work-related.

Is it worth it?

The question is irrelevant to me, because it's the only option I have. I must make it worth it -- and I have other aspirations than freelance work.

But what about you?

If you have options, and you're contemplating going freelance, you must ask yourself if it's worth it.

Freelancers take fewer days off than paid employees. Freelancers have to seek out their own projects and clients, negotiate their own pay packages, and figure out their work hours and environment. They need to decide their income goals, their family and relationship goals, and work tirelessly to balance their lives. If something goes wrong, if clients fail to pay, if mistakes happen, they're on their own. It's sink or swim time, and no one will throw you a life buoy.

A freelance career doesn't offer freedom. It offers control. Control over your working hours, workplace, income, clients, workload, networking, skills development, and downtime. Instead of a boss dictating terms to you, you decide how hard you work and how much you're worth. You become the master of your destiny, and are completely responsible for all the glories and tragedies that follow.

Is control worth it?

Only you can answer that.

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Cheah Git San Calligraphy.jpg

In between freelance work, I'm churning out novels. You can check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES here.

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