Reader asks: “Is this whole freelance thing worth it?”

“Is this whole freelance thing worth it?” It’s a somewhat pessimistic question, but one that I hear with some frequency from readers and students. Corollaries include “I worry about machine translation putting us out of business.” “I’m 57 and only plan on working for another 8-10 years.” “I’m working too hard for the amount of money I’m making.” “I thought I wouldn’t need to market this much.” “Between self-employment tax and paying my own benefits, I have to charge so much more than I thought.”

I’ve been there, grasshopper. When I started freelancing in 2002, I had the “is this worth it” conversation with myself about three times a day. Fourteen years in, here’s my take on some of these concerns.

On the negative side, just to get it out of the way:

  • I don’t lose sleep over machine translation. When computers are writing great books, I’ll worry. In terms of the effect on my business right now, I don’t worry. And for the record, I’m not an MT hater. I use Google Translate myself (when is that museum in Italy open and closed?). But I do think that at some point, we’ll feel MT eating into the lower end of the translation market. And inevitably, that will have some disruptive effect on the rest of the industry. Again, this is not keeping me awake, but I think we’ll feel it at some point.
  • Freelancing is really, really not for everyone. And if it’s not for you, it’s OK. It’s not a defect. You can have a salaried job and still be smart, and driven, and even entrepreneurial.
  • As independent work becomes more of a viable career option, more people are doing it. That causes its own disruptions. When I started freelancing in the early aughts, “I’m a freelancer” was about half a step above “I’m basically unemployed and don’t want to say it.” But in 2016, that’s not the case. Lots more people see freelancing as perhaps more stable than traditional employment. As compared with my early freelance days, I see more competition at the high end of the market, and more of a struggle to make a living at the low end. Personally I think that most “word professions” have followed a similar trajectory. Freelance writers deal with this too: lots more people pitching to the high-end clients, and “are you serious???” rates at the low end.
  • You probably have to earn more than you think. If you want to be a “forever” freelancer, you need a similar level of financial security to someone with a traditional job. That means a few things. It means you’re re-investing in your business (conferences, courses, computer upgrades, memberships). It means you’re saving for retirement. You have a rainy day fund so that you won’t be destitute if you can’t work for a few months. You can take enough time off to recharge and enjoy life. You’re not in perpetual overtime mode to make ends meet. And in order to do that, you’re looking at a pretty big number.
  • Freelancing is a (freaking) lot of work. Let’s say we rank people in most salaried jobs on a scale of 1-10. Some companies will only retain the 9s and 10s, but a lot of companies out there are doing the opposite. They’re only getting rid of the 1s and 2s. They’re promoting the 9s and 10s, and everyone else (3-8) is warming the chair and drawing a salary. In the freelance world, your tail is on the line every single day that you go to work. If you’re not a 9 or a 10, clients may just move on and find someone else. Being the director of marketing, IT person, customer service rep, accountant, bookkeeper, office cleaner, general admin person, AND doing the actual translation work puts a lot on your plate.
  • You will never be able to stop marketing. Unless, I guess, you work for big agencies that will always need you, and you never raise your rates. Otherwise, you always need to replenish the client pipeline. This year I lost a big direct client (literally) overnight, because they hired an employee who took over the translation work. Agencies will go out of business, or shift their own focus. If you cannot make yourself market, freelancing isn’t the right job.

But on the other hand (phew…I was waiting for this point, because I love my job and I want you to love it too!):

  • Pretty much any index you read will rank translation and interpreting as in-demand, fast-growing careers. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 29% increase in the demand for translators and interpreters through 2024. If my own teenage daughter wanted to become a translator or interpreter, I would wholeheartedly encourage her. Overall, I feel very positive about our industry and our job prospects.
  • Translation is a just plain awesome job if you love languages, writing, and learning new things. Translation has made me realize that I could never do a boring job. I can do a hard job, or a stressful job, or a job that requires ongoing professional development. But to me, boredom at work is death. Translation is a good job if you share that sentiment.
  • Your income potential may be higher than at a salaried job. For example, there are few to no in-house jobs for French to English translators here in Colorado. And I have just about zero desire to move to a major city. But by freelancing, I can run a thriving business from basically anywhere. When people comment that, “it must be hard to make ends meet when you’re self-employed,” I actually see the complete opposite side of that coin.
  • The freelance quality of life is an enormous factor. Don’t ignore it. This depends on your situation. Some people don’t mind, and even enjoy, the 9-5 culture. But I’ll use my own example: what would it take for me to accept an in-house job? Well, it would have to replace my freelance income (perhaps not in terms of cash, but including benefits and other compensation). It would have to let me leave work in time to be home when my kid gets home, so that I can take her to her after-school activities. I’ll make up the hours at other times, but I need a break at 3:00. It would have to let me reshuffle work when other members of my family (husband, parents) need me. It would have to give me 6 weeks of complete vacation (no paying work), plus another 2-3 weeks of “paid vacation,” when I’m working part-time from another location. And realistically, those factors are very, very unlikely to happen. At least not without a significant hit to my career advancement potential. So for those reasons alone, freelancing is very, very worth it for me.

    I’ll also say: the classic work/life balance example is kids. People who want to be home with their kids, or be home when their kids get home, etc. But as my own daughter gets older, I can see that the work/life factor doesn’t end there. For example now that I have a shred of free time, I’ve gotten into playing the lute. Then I found two (very patient) retired women who were willing to incorporate me into a little music group. We play together one morning a week, which I could never do with a salaried job. So, I also think it’s time to broaden the work/life focus beyond kids, and into “having a life outside work.”

Readers, thoughts on this? Advice on how to assess the “is it worth it?” factor for newbies?

13 Responses to “Reader asks: “Is this whole freelance thing worth it?””
  1. Karine D December 5, 2016
    • Corinne McKay December 5, 2016
  2. Elaine December 6, 2016
    • Corinne McKay December 6, 2016
      • Paola December 28, 2016
  3. Delfina December 6, 2016
    • Corinne McKay December 6, 2016
  4. B. Verguet December 8, 2016
    • Corinne McKay December 8, 2016
      • B. Verguet December 11, 2016
        • Corinne McKay December 12, 2016
  5. Julia Maitland December 28, 2016
  6. Sara December 30, 2016

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