Here’s the Lowdown on Making a Life as a Freelancer

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Freedom and flexibility. We all want it, but earning autonomy in our careers can take years to obtain. More American workers are ditching traditional work environments for a role in the nonstop gig economy (aka life as a freelancer!). According to a survey conducted by Upwork and the Freelancers Union, 35 percent of the American workforce identify as freelancers.

That’s 55 million people taking control of their destiny in this $1 trillion business.

tina fey money dancing

Sixty-three percent in the same survey admitted to freely choosing the independent workforce which means more than half actually like working themselves to death. Don’t buy into the hype. Freelancing is hard work. Your friends, former classmates, and colleagues will trick you into thinking they’re living their best lives ever by sharing carefree images on social media. While they very well may be living large, you are not them. This hustler lifestyle can take a toll on you. If you’re considering transitioning into life as a freelancer as you work a full-time gig or ready to step out and go full throttle, here’s a few things to keep in mind.

Feast or famine.

janet jackson eating

What rates should you set? Are you shortchanging your expertise? Are you overcharging? Often times clients will have their budget set and you must decide whether to accept or negotiate. If you’re working with an individual or a startup on a shoestring budget, you can forget asking for a higher rate other than the specified amount. When a client approaches you and requests your rate, this is a true test of how bad they want you and a measure of your personal worth.

Develop a rate sheet for services. Do you work hourly or prefer day rates? Make this clear. How long does it take you to complete a project? Is the deadline feasible? Take everything into consideration before making or accepting an offer. Your life as a freelancer depends on your clarity with yourself and your client.

When you’re first starting off and your portfolio is bare, you may have to accept gigs for less than your initial rate. Your pride will tell you to walk away and your past due bills will beg you to stay. Know which voice to abide by. Ask around and research the market to find out the going rate for gigs.

“When you accept less than you’re worth, that’s what people are going to keep offering you.”
-Luvvie Ajayi

Establish a payment method.

Upwork? Paypal? Venmo? Check? Have your accounts ready to go. How do you want your money? Research which payment methods have fewer strings attached. Sometimes you have to pay a fee to a third party to receive your cash and will have to wait a few days before the funds appear in your account. When you land a new client, always discuss invoicing up front.

As much as I would like to send emails to clients who pay late a Rihanna-inspired subject line of “BBHMM”, I realize this is not the professional way to handle things. But there are times when you will have to send frequent reminders in order to receive payment.

rihanna pay me

Get everything in writing down to how long you will render services and the date you expect payment. To protect yourself, include a penalty for late payment.

Run from anyone who wants you to pay you in cash off the record. There are red flags all over this play. Even if you choose to accept cash payments, keep a detailed record of every penny.

Uncle Sam is your new boyfriend.

He wants his fair share. Don’t go cutting corners around the tax man. A good rule of thumb is to save at least 20 percent of every dollar you make and put it aside to pay your taxes. Your money isn’t taxed. Welcome to the 1099 world. Early on it’s best to determine if you are ready to form an LLC or remain a sole proprietor. Know the difference. Hire an accountant. Save your tears. Tax time is worse than a breakup. The tax deadline comes around the same date every year. Prepare. Prepare. Then prepare some more.

Welcome to the world of deadlines.

When you become a freelancer, you will easily get bogged down with deadlines. If you’re working on projects simultaneously, your calendar will become your best friend. Write down everything.

Because you are punching an invisible clock, real-life tends to get in the way. Family problems, medical issues, vacation, travel, etc. With life happening nonstop, these deadlines will creep up on you. And if you miss deadlines, you’ve just missed money and a future opportunity. You will have days when you struggle to keep everything in order and other days you’ll scraping to find your next opportunity.

Depending on what industry you’re in, freelancing can result in living paycheck-to-paycheck. A traditional workplace comes with bankers hours, 8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. with weekends and holidays. As a freelancer, you’re working for what you want. No one is standing over your shoulders yelling, “Get back to work!”. You have to decide how much effort you’re willing to put in and for how long. This means late nights and early mornings. No weekend drinking games. Some days there is no time for lunch. Freelancing is the equivalent of finals week. You’re working your butt off to submit your last project and ready for the break.

Everyone has a different experience, but do recognize there are many sacrifices to be made in early entrepreneurship. No guaranteed paid maternity leave or health insurance, and you can forget about holidays off. Find your groove, but also ask yourself if the gig you’re accepting is worth it.

Prioritize your tasks and set goals for each day.

Networking is key.

issa awkward handshake

Even if you’re an introvert and networking isn’t your jam, you have to put yourself out there. And remember that deadline thing? Take it serious. If you’re late, even in unforeseen circumstances, you will always be associated with tardiness. Give clients a heads up if something changes. Every gig you work is an interview for the next. People hire who they like. So if you’re not making the cut in one job, you like will not receive a positive reference for the next. Stay on their radar. Unless you did a stellar job and I’m sure you did, it’s essential to stay on people’s radars. Send a thank you note (here’s the anatomy of a perfect thank you note). Tag them in a post about your new services. Keep in touch via email. Whatever you do, make yourself known. Your portfolio should aways stay up to date.

There is a time for business and a time for friends.

mean girls good friend

Your friends love you and you love them back. Don’t work for free. Friends don’t let friends work for peanuts. You should be very insulted if a friend continuously takes advantage of your skills without offering to pay. On that same token, if your friends do commission you for a gig, do a good job. Don’t sidestep the gig all because it’s a friend. Get everything in writing. Don’t text it. Request a formal proposal and draft a contract. If you’re afraid to tarnish your friendship, refer them to another person equally as talented as you to complete the task. A true friend will never ask to pay you in “exposure.”

Be committed to getting better.

zoey deschanel happy

In your life as a freelancer, you are your accounts receivable, intern, tech support, HR, editor, etc. We’re in a very tech-driven society and there will be times when you will lack a necessary skill. Look it up. Each day is your classroom. Learn something new. There are millions of people on YouTube who will show you how to complete a daunting task. However, never lie to accept a job that you know for a fact is impossible for you to complete.  Be intentional about every job you accept. Keep your big picture in mind.

Join the Freelancers Union. Browse sites like Mediabistro and Guru. Tap into your network. Search for job leads on social media. Companies tweet out opportunities all the time. Get inspired by TED talks on enhancing your world. Build your own tribe of freelancers. Most importantly, don’t isolate yourself. This world can get super lonely and demanding, don’t go at it alone. For heaven’s sake, get out of your house. Work from a coffee shop. Rent a coworking space. Or find a quiet space in the library. Add some color to your scenery.

Enjoy the satisfaction of being in control of your professional destiny. Your talents will keep you in business. For my freelancing boss girls, what resources can you share with the community?

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