I remember walking out the door of my last job, on my last day, saying, “I’m not spending my life working for another man’s dream.” I had finally felt the call of the freedom of freelancing and responded with a wholehearted letter of resignation. It was my moment to shine – to conquer the world of sole proprietorship. I saw the grass on the other side and realized it was greener than mine. And so I began.
Aware that I had quite a bit of ambition, and quite a bit less actual knowledge, I read every book and every article on freelancing I could find, but as we all learn the first time we read the directions for operating the lawnmower, there is a small but crucial difference between reading about a machine and the experience of operating it in real life. The lawnmower manual does not prepare you to have your forearms rhythmically and violently vibrated for forty-five minutes. Or to have the insides of your nostrils coated with flung grass residue. In the same way, I’m not sure reading about freelancing – though I did assimilate a lot of useful information – really prepared me for the lessons I was about the learn.
At some point, whether you begin freelancing by choice or by force, your newfound “freedom” will suddenly begin inspire a wide arrange of fears, night terrors, panic attacks….ahem, I mean, a wide range of emotions. I had read that freelancing was a roller coaster, but I thought that meant it was all fun and exciting (possibly because I’d forgotten that three quarters of being at a theme park is time spent standing in line). Nobody – and nothing I had read – prepared me for the late nights, the late checks, the crazy customers, or best of all, the worst enemy of me… me.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad I read all those books and articles. They armed me with information and advice when I needed it. But here are some things I wish one of those many books and articles had told me about the actual experience of freelancing:
It’s just you, you, and more you. When you’re freelancing, it’s you and you alone running with a project, so you need to know that your personality – strengths and weaknesses – is amplified to your clients. You can be the best developer on the planet, but if you have an awkward way of communicating, your clients and potential clients will see that, and they will judge you for it. You can be a fantastic graphic designer and an expert emailer, but if you procrastinate or are bad at estimating your time or regularly have to push back deadlines, your clients will see it, and they will take their business elsewhere. You can be great at running every aspect of the business and always hit deadlines on time, but if your work quality isn’t up to snuff, somebody’s going to call you on it – only it isn’t going to be your boss; it’s going to be one of your clients.
When I get bogged down in work, I tend to not communicate via email very well. During my freelancing days, this personal weakness bit me time and time again because although I got the work finished on time and always read my clients’ emails, I was terrible at responding. Sad to say, no matter how much I helped and improved their business, the poor communication always left a bad taste in their mouth. So, find your weakness and shore it up. Whether it’s communication, work quality, appearance, or any of the other aspects of freelancing you could be bad at, work hard to fix it now. Because it’s just you.
As a freelancer, you will always have up and down situations. A lot of people describe freelancing work as being very “feast or famine” – one day, all of your invoices get paid on time and your belly is full, but maybe the very next day, a client pays late, somebody cancels a big job, or you just have to pay rent, insurance, taxes and the car repair bill all at the same time, and there’s nothing left over. No lunch for you. This applies not just financially, but in every aspect of life and business, and the best advice I can possibly give to you is to just stay steady no matter where you are at. Everyone will tell you that when times are tough, you have to focus, remain calm and “soldier on,” but this should to apply to the good times as well. When you land that big client and the steak is on the grill, don’t just slack off or get comfortable. It’s easier to keep building momentum when you’ve already got some!
In fact, though it’s important to be diligent at all times, I’ve found that it’s actually best to work harder when times are good and take a step back when times are hard. That doesn’t mean stop working entirely, but most of us have a habit of working harder when we are in trouble. The pressure of unpaid bills makes us spend all our time desperately searching out more work. The pressure of angry clients makes us spend all of our time trying to make sure customers stay happy. The problem is that phrase – “all our time.” When we’re spending all of our time doing one thing, we’re spending none of our time doing everything else. The balance of our life falls into a shambles; home life, friendships, and even the actual client work we’re supposed to be doing fall by the wayside, and we lose perspective and overall momentum. My brilliant advice is to just stop and reverse that. If you try to go from 0 mph to 80 mph by hitting the gas as hard as you can, you’ll just spin your tires. Force yourself to slow down in the lean times, gain a little perspective, and find out what got you there – and how you can never end up back there again.
Conversely, when you’re already going 60 mph and you want to go 80 mph, it’s much easier to just step lightly on the gas pedal to get there. When you already have momentum, that’s the best time to build more momentum. There will be a time when you’ve built enough momentum that you can “coast” for short periods – go on a vacation, come home early week – but make sure you’ve earned it. If you’re going to slow down by 40 mph, it’s better to slow from 80 to 40 and not from 40 to zero! After all, you want the business to still be moving forward when you come back!
Freelancing is all of the things those books and articles say: It is exciting, it is a rollercoaster, it is one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do, It is elating and thrilling and incredibly challenging and it brings a whole new level of freedom into your life. It is well worth doing, and it’s even more worth doing when you’re armed with at least a little bit of real, experiential knowledge when you start. So, read the lawnmower manual – and then, go find some people who’ve actually mowed a lawn and ask them what it’s really like. Then suit up, put on your working shoes, and go run that thing yourself.