Every now and again, I feel inspired to post a random freelance tip on my Twitter feed. I could say that these are Zen master-esque pearls of wisdom that distill in my mind over the course of a few years, but they’re more like out-of-left-field thoughts that come to me while I’m washing the dishes or folding laundry. Here are two for today; feel free to add a comment with your thoughts on them!
The freelance startup phase: give it time, or pick another business.
One of the most common laments I hear from beginning freelancers is that it’s taking so long to develop a solid client base. “So long” could be defined as anywhere from a month to the better part of a year, depending on the person’s situation. First, I tell the discouraged beginners that for the first year and a half that I was freelancing–a time during which I had planned to work very part-time or not at all, since I had just had a baby–I wondered almost every day if I would be better off getting a full-time job. After about 18 months, I still wasn’t earning a ton of money, but it was enough that I felt encouraged to stay the course. It took about three years of freelancing until I got to the point where I no longer considered the option of returning to full-time work for someone else. Looking back, that was a long three years. But here’s the thing: now, after almost 11 years of freelancing, there is no way that I could replace my freelance income if I worked at an in-house job, especially if I looked for something with similar hours and flexibility. Partially this has to do with location: if I lived in a major East Coast city, there might be in-house jobs that pay more than what I make freelancing and offer generous vacation. But in groovy college towns in the foothills of the Rockies: no way.
If you need quick money–and there’s nothing wrong with that…haven’t we all been there?–pick another business. Another mom from my daughter’s school recently told me that she was in that situation, and although she’s bilingual, in a marketable language, she started a housecleaning business. Within three months, she was bringing in a full-time income. Is the work intellectually stimulating, or creative, or self-directed? Probably not so much. But if you need a source of income ASAP, cleaning houses or walking dogs is a much better option than starting a freelance language business. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, since my fantasy sideline career is to become a service dog trainer!
Well-paying work is out there if you look for it. But most people don’t look for it; they wait for it to find them, and meanwhile they complain.
I’m not sure how much explaining this one needs: it’s all right there. Yes, our industry has its share of low-paying work and bottom-feeding clients. In addition, as freelancers we often take that aspect of the industry very personally, as if it’s a reflection of our personal worth. For more on that, see Walt Kania’s insightful post Charge what you’re worth? Please, no on The Freelancery.
But here’s the thing. There is so much well-paying work out there; even clients who are looking to pay high rates to someone who does a really good job. But those clients are too busy with their own work to comb the web looking for you. Maybe they don’t even know that you exist. Seriously: when I interviewed Joanne Archambault about how to find direct clients at industry conferences, she commented that a lot of her clients said that they never knew that someone like her existed, although they desperately needed her. You can go find those high-paying clients at their industry conferences; you can send them postcards; you can give webinars for them; you can write articles for their industry newsletters. But you cannot wait for them to find you, and meanwhile complain about the bottom-feeders and non-payers. It’s tough love, but there you go.