When I talk to freelancers about how their businesses are going (what’s going well and what needs to change), I often ask the same four questions:
- Do you have enough work in general?
- Are you earning enough money?
- Do you enjoy your work?
- Are you working too hard for the amount that you’re earning?
As a freelancer, it’s easy to get into “what’s not right” mode–because most of us are high-achieving perfectionists, to one degree or another. It’s also easy to get into “amorphous panic” mode, where we feel that “something” in our freelance business isn’t going well, but we have trouble identifying it specifically enough to make a significant difference. Let’s look at each of these four factors and what they can tell us:
Do you have enough work in general?
This is a good place to start: are you as busy as you want to be? A lot of beginning freelancers are not. If you’d like to be translating 10,000 words a week and you’re at 4,000, or if you’d like to be billing 25 hours a week and you’re billing 15, the issue is simply that you need more work. My advice here is to do a wide-reaching marketing campaign. If your work volume is currently low, you don’t need to fear that you won’t be able to handle the increased volume. Whether your target market is agencies or direct clients, just get marketing. Whenever you’re at your desk and and you don’t have work, you are marketing.
Are you earning enough money? Note that this is a separate issue from question one. At times, you may feel that you don’t have enough work, but in reality your income is fine. This happened to me when I made the leap from working primarily with agencies to working primarily with direct clients. I was able to work less while earning the same amount. There were times when I went a few days without any work in the inbox, which at first felt kind of terrifying. But when I ran the numbers, my income was fine. The point here is to separate work volume and income: if you’re panicking that “you haven’t been working enough,” make sure to look at the corresponding income level as well.
Do you enjoy your work? This factor–doing work that you are good at, and that you find enjoyable and meaningful–is one that a lot of freelancers overlook. In my observations, burnout is a significant factor in our profession: feeling that you are working too hard, for too little money, or for clients who don’t value your work and see you as a cog in the machine. If you don’t find your work interesting or meaningful, it’s time to consider different types of clients or different specializations.
Are you working too hard for the amount that you’re earning? In my first few years of freelancing, this was me. I had a good amount of work, and I was earning decent money, but when I ran the numbers at the end of the year, I had worked waaaaay too hard for what I was earning. A few factors were at work: I spent a lot of time doing in-person marketing (going to informational interviews with local agencies, etc.) that was very time-consuming and didn’t always pay off. I worked in a wide variety of specializations, so I worked pretty slowly. Over time, both of these things improved: I developed a roster of regular clients, I spent more time working and less time looking for work, and I developed narrower specializations that allowed me to work faster and more consistently.
These questions may seem basic, but I think they can be helpful to freelancers at any level. Especially if you’re a beginner, these may help you get out of “analysis paralysis” mode and identify where to put your business development efforts. Readers, any other critical questions to ask?
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