Some thoughts after 3 years
Well, would you believe it — I’ve been a freelancer now for over 3 years. That’s longer than any other job post I’ve held and I’ve managed to put food in my belly each month, so I must be doing something vaguely right!
One of my close friends recently asked me about getting started with freelancing. She currently has a similar situation to what I had before I quit my job — a great career track with a great salary in an expensive city. Frustrations with old bosses, work/life balances and worries about being in the same boat forever has led her to consider freelancing as an option.
She recently left her job and having watched me do my thing for 3 years, she’s curious to learn about what I did to create the flexible lifestyle that I have now.
I wrote up a few notes for my friends and thought I would share them here, too, in case anyone else was in the same boat or just generally considering freelancing.
So, here goes.
Having successfully navigated the freelancing world, what is my advice to newbies?
1. Finding Clients
I used UpWork to originally find work. Groan. Before you go hating on it, I still think it’s a good place to experiment to see what types of jobs you like and has lots of stuff on there if you’re willing to put in a bit of time. It’s a good way of finding out what you like and are good at (and what pays!)
It can be tough to weed through the bad jobs to find good ones but with a bit of effort and common sense you can certainly find work. There are of course many other websites similar to UpWork but since I haven’t tried them, I unfortunately can’t say much about them.
LinkedIn can also be good — I’ve had a few people reach out to me on there who have become long-term clients so you’ll want to advertise that you are accepting freelance work. LinkedIn has now also started posting remote jobs that you can directly apply to.
You could also try cold messaging companies/people on LinkedIn/email too but that’s much more difficult IMO versus a site like UpWork. You’d need your own website, brand and area of expetise. At least with UpWork the jobs are sitting there waiting for you, so I still recommend this controversial site as a starting point for newbs.
Also, the thing I liked about UpWork is that you can try things out — I would never have gotten into content writing if it were not for UpWork. I also tried other lines of work that I didn’t like too much… but the great thing is that if you don’t like it you don’t have to do it anymore! There are no ties like a regular job.
You never know what you’ll find.
2. Financial Planning
If you’re planning on quitting your job to go freelance, make sure you have some savings… and I mean a lot. To be honest it took me a good 6 months before I earned what I spent (I also travelled a lot but still, it’ll take longer than you think to reach a breakeven point). The amount you save naturally depends on how much you spend per month and what your general cost of living is. Work out your base costs and add a little for fun, travel and a buffer… then times your monthly requirements by at least 6.
For me, the first year of freelancing was a bit of a financial (and emotional!) rollercoaster. So just be prepared. It won’t be rainbows from day 1 and although this is not what you want to hear, it is better to go in pre-warned.
Just focus on getting income for the first few months, don’t bother with all the faff around business cards, websites and all that stuff.
Also related to financial planning — just note that some clients take a while to pay depending on their invoicing terms so be careful of cash flow. You’ll need a good way of tracking your finances!
3. Time Management
One of the biggest mistakes I made when I started out was massively underestimating how long something would take me to do. This effectively meant I was undercharging for my work. Therefore, be very careful with time estimates.
For each project, calculate roughly how many hours something will take you. Add in a buffer amount of time of around +20%. Use your time estimates and your hourly rate to price your work.
Well if it took me 4 hours to write a 750-word blog post, then I had better charge for at least 4 hours of my time for each blog post…
If you have absolutely no idea how to estimate how long something will take you (or are just really bad at it like I was) then try tracking your time. Use a site or app such as TMetric (that’s the one I use; it’s free) so that you can see where you spend your time and to help you price future projects.
I actually recommend tracking your time when you first start out anyway. You’ll be amazed at how the time disappears. Make sure a portion of your day is spent on actual billable work i.e. the stuff that brings in the dough! If you don’t have billable work, make finding it your priority.
Over time you’ll get better at knowing a rough rate for work when bidding or pricing projects. Again, always add in extra time as a buffer — things always take longer than you think!
4. Value Your Time Carefully
When calculating hourly work please don’t just take your salary and divide by 40 hours a week / 52 weeks a year.
You must factor in taxes, pension/401(k), holiday/vacation, sick days, etc.
There are many ways to do it and you’ll find varying advice and formulae all over the web. For me, I like to work backwards.
If my goal is to earn $50,000k this year, what does that work out per week? Which weeks am I taking off? And if I only really want to work 4 days a week at 4 hours* a day, what does that work out as an hourly rate?
*This brings me to my next important point — once you start tracking time, you’ll realize that most days, you can only really get 4–6 hours of billable time in a day. NOT 8 hours.
The rest of your day will be spent on admin, finding clients or general email stuff so you need to make sure you bake this into your hourly rate. Plus, you’ll need breaks; freelancing is exhausting. Factoring in this additional time a must, to make sure that your lifestyle is sustainable.
By the way, this advice can apply to hourly work and ‘per project’ work — the same logic applies. For projects priced in one lump sum, just use the same method of estimating how many hours it will take you. Again, be sure to add a buffer and maybe even some additional margin (one of the many reasons some people prefer not to be billed hourly).
5. Be Clear (and Under Control)
Be super duper clear about what needs to be done and when. Scope creep is so tricky to deal so have some controls in place to prevent it.
I find it best to be clear on everyone’s expectations at the beginning.
When negotiating work be clear about what is and is not expected. For example, if you are writing a 2,000-word article, you’ll want to be clear about:
- Are they expecting a first draft? When?
- Is it ghostwritten or does it include a byline?
- How many drafts/versions?
- Will there be a round(s) of edits? Major edits or minor?
- Will you need to include images? How many?
- Do they want references? What type? What nationality? Are you responsible for researching all this?
If in doubt, ask. I find over-communication is better when freelancing, to ensure that everyone is on the same page at all steps along the way.
And don’t forget to talk money from an early stage in the process: When Negotiating a Contract, Get This One Thing Our in the Air First
6. Plan for Tax
A boring one, but necessary. Be sure to keep some of your earnings aside for tax. When you work for yourself, you’ll have to pay taxes in one lump sum (or multiple depending how you have it set up) when you come to file your taxes. Unlike a job where tax is taken out automatically, you’ll need to prepare ahead of time for tax season when you’re a freelancer.
You don’t want to be hit with a big bill around tax season that you haven’t saved for!
The rules differ by country so you’ll need to do research on your own for this. There are many tools and guides online to help you.
Just one note — make sure to register in time before the deadline!
7. Experiment and Have Fun
Finally, have fun!
I know it’s tough to start out. Trust me, I’ve been there. Just try and remember the reasons you went into freelancing in the first place and try and keep in mind your bigger goals. What are you striving for? Are you just doing this temporarily or are you looking to completely restructure your life? Will you freelance forever, or do you want to start your own business one day? Try experimenting and saying yes — freelancing gives the perfect opportunity to do things you might never have thought about doing before.
I’ve absolutely loved freelancing over the past 3 years and can hardly imagine being in an office again.
That’s not to say that if the right opportunity came along I wouldn’t take it, but the things I’ve learned and the work I’ve managed to do over the past 3 years has been just amazing. I’ve broken into new fields, made some brilliant connections, started a side business, achieved location independence and most of all freed up my time a whole lot more to actually feel like I’m living.
Has it been tough?
But would I change it?