Switching to Freelancing

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of people switching careers: some freelancers (or free-spirited people in the head anyway) accepted jobs as file-and-rank for big companies, some have switched between big companies, and some so desperately wanted to go their merry way that they did everything and anything that was in their power to get fired.

Most of the people in the latter category are considering “going freelance”. So they turn to me with their questions about it, and I try to the best of my abilities to highlight the highs and the lows of this choice. I picked the questions that I had to answer at least ten times, tried to polish the language a little bit, and here they are, for future references. (That way I can point the next batch here and be lazy!)

I – Do you think I can do it?

No false modesty or illusions: freelancing is not for everybody. There will be days when you’ll regret that decision.

Usually the first thing that comes to mind is “I can organize my time freely”. Well… yes and no. Yes, in the morning, when you are not alone and want to take your sweet lazy time, no one will object. But even if you are not working in a 9-5 job, your clients are, as well as your friends and family. Which means that you will probably work on a 9-8 schedule too. If you don’t, more often than not you will have to choose between working during the week-end to pay your rent and your gas, and going to parties.
What’s true, though, is that your customers/suppliers will send you what you are waiting for after they are done with their tasks. So, you’ll get a flurry of emails at lunch time, and after hours. Your real day’s work can sometimes start around 11am in terms of heavy lifting.

But remember: you are freelancing. That means that you have a lot of administrative things to do, that you didn’t have to take care of before. There are the taxes, registrations, receipts handling of government-affiliated offices, paying your bills, wages, suppliers, asking for the tenth time to your customers where the hell that check they promised you is because of said bills, wages, and suppliers, doing some business networking, etc…

So if you don’t need anyone to prod your butt in the morning to get up that’s good. If you really love your job, even better. But be ready to sacrifice some social life at the beginning. Yes you’re free to organize your time as you wish but there is a lot more to organize.

And you’ll sometimes eat rice with nothing on it. You’ve worked your ass off, there’s plenty of happy customers, but they are a bit tardy in the payment department. And you can’t (and are not allowed to) be tardy paying for your stuff. There will be weeks when the flow hits a block. It’s nobody’s fault. But if you expect to earn your first million after a couple of months, think again. Your lifestyle has to be as flexible as your job. But be brave! It will pass!

II – What do you need to kickstart the thing?

Well, just one thing: customers. You are obviously the best (or one of) the best at what you do. But all these people who would so desperately need your services don’t know about it. Ain’t that sad?

Depending on the reason why you go freelance, there are a couple of scenarios:

  • You are taking one (or more) of the customers of the company you’re leaving with you.
    You’d better be really sure about this. Like in love, you can’t really trust someone who left a pretty good relationship for you. Either the previous company didn’t want, or know how to handle, them, in which case you may be doing them a favor, but you’d better make sure they follow; or you are offering them to do on the cheap what your company charged millions for, in which case… sorry, but there a very good chance you’ll get screwed.
  • You may also be switching the kind of work you are doing, and you see an opportunity where no one else has seen one. Good for you! Just make sure there are no hungry competitors in the domain who have been doing it longer and better. Because in our trade, the main advertising tool is word of mouth.

III – How do you advertise your services and get new customers?

That’s right. If you do your job well, you don’t need to. When you are freelancing, you are lean, mean, and fast. You don’t compete with the big boys directly, therefore you don’t need to advertise as they do: you’ll loose.

Your customers, when they are happy, are your best advocates. People will ask them “hey, who did that wonderful thing?” and they will answer truthfully, because you were honest with them. The middle man who introduced you to a potential customer, if he hears that it went well will bring you others. Your friends might too. Even your freelance competitors might subcontract to you if you take care of how you do your job.

It’s a balancing act, but it’s worth it: One the one hand you’re free to choose your customers, your projects, and your schedule. On the other hand, the more appreciative people around, the more contracts you’ll get.

That’s why I usually recommend to keep around 30% of your time for “whacko projects”. These are the projects that no serious company would consider taking, because it doesn’t pay well enough, or the deadline is too tight, or this-is-just-not-how-it’s-done. But you depend on nobody, and you can afford the risk. The customer for this kind of job has been turned down 27 times. You take his project and make it a success, for him anyway. He will be your best ally forever. And maybe next time, when he does have the money, the time, and the rest, he will call you instead of the big companies, because you were the only one who would say yes to a “whacko project”, and you turned it into something concrete. Who knows what you could do with a serious project? Infinity and beyond, that’s the spirit!

IV – I haven’t seen you in a month, man! I though you were dead!

Yep, there will be Crunch Times. Because of various unforeseen delays and minor catastrophes, you will have to work every day, including week ends, and 14h per day to catch up with the backlog on certain months. Your girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband/kid(s) will look at you hunched at your desk (or look at their phone because you are on the roads of Kirghistan) and will hate or despise you for a split second. There Will Be Heavy And Meaningful Sighs.

And then, because you’re the best at what you do, and you’re not afraid of some honest sweating, you’ll pull through. And party like crazy, because, after all, you can organize your time any bloody way you want, right?


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