I’ve been a freelance writer three times now. I keep getting in and getting out, being hunted back into the corporate world and then running screaming back into freelancing as soon as I get the chance. It’s a fun, flexible and fabulous way to work. But it’s not for the feint of heart or bad at budgeting.
The key to happiness in life may not be money, but money certainly is the key to happiness as a freelancer. It may sound very romantic to be a starving journalist/graphic designer/photographer/insert-job-here when you’re young and impressionable, but even the flightiest of us eventually have to pay rent or bonds and, let’s face it, we all like to eat (although I never could stand rocket).
So here’s the thing:
If you’re a bad business manager, freelancing is not for you.
If you’re precious about your work and take every criticism personally, freelancing is not for you.
If you battle to tell clients no or take direction on a job, freelancing is not for you.
If you don’t have the discipline to get in eight hours of work a day, even though your bed and your telly are tantalisingly near and calling your name, freelancing is not for you.
If that doesn’t put you off entirely and you decide to take the plunge, here’s how to find happiness with an uncertain pay check, erratic deadlines and slightly batty clients.
1. Like your job – I know this seems self-explanatory, but if you’ve been a journalist for 20 years and are bored with it then going freelance is not going to help. It’ll likely make it worse because you’ll be bored, unmotivated and have no guaranteed pay check to look forward to.
2. Work for people you like – Your clients are your income, your reason for getting up in the morning, and, frequently, your reason for getting to bed late at night. If you don’t like them as people and have problems with them professionally you’re going to become very unhappy, very quickly.
3. Just say no – Say no to that one more job when you know you’re over-committed already (or say yes and pass it on to another freelancer if you don’t want to risk the client not asking again). Hike up those prices so you can gracefully turn down that client you do not want or business you do not need.
4. Learn to balance the books – Work out how much you need to bill per hour, per day and per week to pay the bills. Build in downtime, you’re not a machine and you’re not productive eight hours a day (or 12 or 16).
5. Build up a buffer – Stash your cash and make sure you have enough of it stashed to keep you going for a few months in case work is irregular, erratic or non-existent, as it can be in December when everyone goes away and the country grinds to a halt. No work in December means no beer and pizza (or water and bread) come February/March and you need to plan for it (also, take a holiday – you’ll need it).
6. Build up another buffer – Make sure you have time spare (says she who has been constantly on deadline for two weeks’ and would really like a day off). Take evenings and weekends off. The time can be used to save your butt if you run late on a job or something urgent comes in, or, gods forbid, you decide you want an actual social life.
7. Network – Get out there (online and in meat space) and meet people. Sign up to websites like Elance that connect employers and freelancers. Connect with other people in your field and potential clients on Twitter and LinkedIn. Connect with other freelancers. Attend industry events and hand out your business card (you do have one, right?) to anyone who shows half an ounce of interest. People forget you exist if you’re not in front of them and you need to create top of mind awareness so that the next time they need a kick ass journalist/graphic designer/photographer/insert-job-here, the kicker they select is you.
8. Go smell the coffee – Cabin fever is a real problem for those of us who work from home (and even more so if you live alone) and when you’re in deadline hell, working in your pyjamas because you’ve not had time to get dressed yet, and you’re having long conversations with your cat – it’s time to go see some sunshine, and some humans. Take the laptop if you must. Go to a communal work space like The Common Room if you have to. Just get out there.
9. And finally – Have fun! It’s your life. If you’re hating what you do with it every day, five days a week (and after hours, and weekends), it’s going to be a miserable one.