Becoming a freelancer (Part 2): The reality of being an independent freelancer
I get a lot of these emails from people asking me how they can become a freelancer after graduating college, or how they can freelance in an industry or a job they’re currently in.
This post will hopefully be the mother of all freelancing posts to dispel any myths and clear up any nagging questions you may have had about becoming a freelancer.
You might also want to read:
REALITY CHECK #1: YOU WILL BE ALONE A LOT
Freelancing is not for the social. You are always alone. Even if you are working at a client with client-colleagues you like and get along with swimmingly, there is a distinct barrier that you keep internally in your head of: me versus them.
They know you are an outsider. They know you are probably being paid more than they are.
Some might be jealous, some might not even see you as a human person or a colleague and treat you like a paid slave.
You will get blamed for everything even if it isn’t your fault, because YOU were the hired one to help them.
…and even if it isn’t your fault and it was the client, how do you tell the gift horse who is paying you every month that they’re the ones with employees who are screwing up everything and making the project tank?
You want to try and keep them as a client (presumably) for the future, so how do you balance that fine line between being a stand-in colleague, and paid consultant?
These are all things you know after a few contracts because it crops up again and again in small doses, reminding you that you are ALONE.
Even with your company of one, you’re alone in the business.
Unless you have hired others, or want to build a company of colleagues, a freelancer is someone who is alone, being slotted into spots that can’t be filled otherwise, fitting into spaces that need smoothing over.
You need to get a grip on it all and handle invoicing, client relations, public relations, books, taxes, etc.
If you miss colleagues and that camaraderie this is not for you.
I don’t miss having colleagues. I just am not that kind of person who needs to have office parties, and office chatter.
I personally don’t mind being someone who is temporarily there. I even keep in touch with some client-colleagues after I leave, but we never develop any close relationships (as to be expected).
I don’t mind being alone, but if you like having friends at work, this is not for you.
REALITY CHECK #2: YOU WILL NOT BE PAID AS OFTEN
My paycheque comes monthly.
Some people get a paycheque bi-monthly.
The first paycheque takes forever because I invoice monthly but then they have 30 days to pay it. Some clients wait that full 30 days, so you don’t get paid until 60 days later.
Some freelancers get 50% now, and 50% at the end of the completed project, which sucks because if they feel like you didn’t do a good job they can screw you on the last 50%.
If you’re used to wasting your bi-weekly or weekly cheques and can’t seem to keep any money in your pocket for an emergency, freelancing is not for you.
REALITY CHECK #3: SOME CLIENTS MAY NOT PAY YOU ON TIME, LET ALONE AT ALL
If you think clients are ALL conscientious, caring folk that WANT to pay you for your time, you are too nice to be in this business.
Other times, they don’t pay you on time, and you’ve been waiting for a BLOODY MONTH for your cash to come in to pay your mortgage and so on.
Sometimes you have to take clients to court because they haven’t paid you in months for work that you completed. Actually if you don’t even keep track of this or record your hours with actual results, you may even end up not being paid at all because the courts can’t find sufficient evidence that you worked, and they may rule in your client’s favour.
My first golden rule is: If you don’t invoice them, they won’t pay you.
I wouldn’t pay you either, if you aren’t smart enough to bill me, that’s YOUR business, not mine.
My second golden rule is: If they DON’T pay you after you invoice them, stop working.
Some people keep working even though they aren’t paid on time. I just stop working until I get a cheque. It’s a pretty easy way to flag to the client that they can’t screw with you (read: you have a lawyer on retainer), and you aren’t working for free.
REALITY CHECK #4: YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY MAY THINK YOU’RE LAZY
They think you sit around in your pajamas doing jack squat all day, getting paid.
Or maybe they think that when you aren’t working on a contract (as in 100% of the entire year), you’re just being lazy.
“If you want to work, you’ll work. You’re just being lazy.”
This is true, but not in freelancing. I want to work, but if there aren’t contracts, I can’t work.
I can’t force clients to start projects and hire me. I can’t force people to pay me for my skills if they don’t need them.
Sure, I could pick up a job at Starbucks in the interim to stave off boredom but for that, I am truly too lazy to do so (not that I wouldn’t if I needed to.)
Frankly, I could do something where I yo-yo back and forth — join a company and work while getting paid, wait for a contract and then quit to take the contract, then go back to joining a company again in the interim while I wait.
This is plausible but exhausting. I will not only annoy companies by joining and quitting every year into NOT hiring me, but I’d have to interview, go through tests and do all that crap I hate.
I’d rather just wait for a contract and eat through my money reserves slowly.
Also, if I joined a company and they put me on a project, that is ONE LESS PROJECT for me to have had a chance to freelance on. If they hire you as an employee, it is to use you for their projects saving about 50% of the cost along the way, but if they really need someone like you and can’t hire anyone, they’ll give in and hire you as a freelancer, spending 200% more than they wanted to if they had an employee to send instead.
Which situation do you think I’d prefer? Yeah, the latter that gives me more free time + more money.
Anyway the point is that if you aren’t working a regular schedule of 8 hours a day, it won’t matter that you worked 100 hours a week for 3 months, in the REST of the time you are off, you are lazy.
REALITY CHECK #5: YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY SEE YOU AS SOMEONE WITH A LOT OF FREE TIME TO RUN THEIR ERRANDS
See above, but what becomes worse is that they ask you to do things like pick up their dry cleaning, take people to the hospital, do the grocery shopping, and all the little tasks of running a household without realizing that you also need to sit at your desk and to work 8 hours a day to deliver to your client.
“But you have so much free time!”
No.. not really.
You may not have an office, but if you freelance at home, you don’t have free time.
You have to get work done before your family comes home and your family life takes over, but you certainly aren’t hanging out at Starbucks doing nothing but reading the paper and getting paid.
This is the hardest thing for people who are not freelancers to understand.
Sure, your schedule is more FLEXIBLE, but there are so many hours in a day.
If you spend the morning helping someone mow their lawn, your afternoon and night need to make up for the work you didn’t do in the morning.
REALITY CHECK #6: YOU WILL NOT REALLY HAVE A FAMILY LIFE IF YOU TRAVEL
If you are a freelancing consultant, you will not have a life.
I don’t want to lie to you, so I won’t. The reality is that you are gone most of the time.
Are you used to going out with people on Fridays? Maybe seeing your family on weekends to relax? Or perhaps you like spontaneously going over to your best friends’ house to have dinner (or vice versa)?
You can forget all of that.
A typical consultant’s week (not as a freelancer) is to fly out either Sunday night or early Monday morning (8 a.m. is not early, think 3 a.m. flights) to get to the client whenever they start work which is usually around 8 a.m. – 9 a.m.
You are exhausted from already starting your day at 3 a.m., and expected to put in 10 hours of billable time.
By the time you stumble into your hotel room which may or may not be a nice one, you have to try and find food to shove down your gullet, and collapse onto your bed, or worse, CONTINUE WORKING because it is a tight project and you have to bill overtime to make it work.
Wake up Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to bill another 10 hours each, and you fly back out Thursday night on the red-eye or earlier if you’re lucky, because the client doesn’t want to pay for another night in the hotel (Thursday night).
You get home around 11 p.m. or midnight, try not to wake others in your house, try to get in a shower to remove that airplane stink, and then stumble into bed.
Friday, you don’t have to necessarily work if your client doesn’t want you to bill more time, but you might have to secretly work anyway to make your deadline without billing for it.
Or you have to spend your Friday working for your company (not your client) doing performance reviews, bullsh*t internal crap, or talking to your protegees whom you are training as juniors to become seniors.
Now if you’re a freelancing CONSULTANT, you don’t have to deal with projects you don’t want to fly you (you just say no to the money), and you don’t need to waste your Fridays working on company stuff, but you might be doing your receipts, books and other freelancing administrative stuff on Fridays (my favourite has always been to invoice the client).
It is still work, and more than a full-time job especially if you travel.
You will not see your friends for months at a time because your Fridays or Saturdays are reserved for sleeping, finding food, running errands because nothing official is open on weekends and you need to get it done on the Friday, and you don’t have a simple 8-hour day.
I moved to where the client was, so I didn’t have to travel, but I could do that as a single person. Someone with a family will not be able to move there for the interim of the project unless their family moves with them each time, so traveling is a must.
HOW TO FIND CLIENTS
Depending on your industry, you may have a go-between (a broker) who looks for work for you, or you simply have to go company-to-company, door-to-door, go to networking events and hustle for your own clients.
No one is going to call you and say: Hey great move quitting your job! I have a sweet contract for you lined up!
It rarely happens, and it takes not only time, but a lot of work.
You need to set up your resume and portfolio, make it look professional, and then cart it from door to door, asking for work and getting your name out there.
The beginning is usually very slow to find clients because you are not known. Once you do work for a few (and it goes without saying to do an outstanding job, even more than what you were paid for), and word gets around, you MAY just be called and hired for a job.
HOW TO FIGURE OUT WHAT TO CHARGE AS A FREELANCER
In a typical year, assume you will work about 50% of the time, which is about 1000 hours.
How much do you need to charge per hour (@1000 hours), to live?
Better yet, if you were to go to a company, what would your salary be?
Double that salary, and divide by 2000 hours to get your estimated hourly rate.
E.g. You can get a job at $50,000 a year.
Doubled, it is $100,000 a year.
Divide $100,000 by 2000 hours to get your rate = $50/hour
If you take projects by a flat rate, and you think you can get it done in 10 hours, add a 50% contingency of 15 hours, then multiply it by your rate to give the client a quote.
Take a maximum of 10% off your price, no more than that.
You will most definitely go over time, and what you DON’T want, is to under quote the client and have to charge them more later. It’s more painful as a client to have to pay additional money later on, than to just pay the real amount up front.
For any kind of scope creep, such as them asking you to just do this “one little extra thing”, tell them it’ll be X amount of hours in addition to your current work load.
I hope that helps.
Becoming a freelancer is rewarding but not as easy as you might imagine. It also isn’t the answer to everything. Some days (10% of the time) I wish I worked at a company so I could not deal with some of the stuff I have to deal with, but 90% of the time, I am happy with where I am.
If you have more questions, fire away in the comments.