I did it! I made it to my first freelance anniversary!
Freelancing is having a moment. For better or worse, it seems like you can’t look left or right in the world of work right now without hearing about it or being asked what your ‘side hustle’ is.
Fixed offices are becoming more expensive and less necessary in the digital age, working from home is increasingly losing its taboo status (it still has a long way to go…) and millennials/gen zers are realising they want to spend their work time doing something they’re genuinely interested in rather than doing a job they tolerate for someone else.
I dropped the 9–5 a year ago to become a Voice Actor.
It’s not always been plain sailing, and I’ve had to learn a lot very quickly, but I’ve now reached a steady and comfortable point in a way of working that truly suits me.
I appreciate that not everything I’ve experienced will be the same for everyone, and much of it depends on my background and personality, but here are my learnings all the same.
You get what you put in
I’ve always had a bit of an issue with salaried work. I get it — it’s stable. You get paid every pay period regardless of what you do. You can have a crap week, you can be sick, you can be on holiday, and you still get paid and enjoy relative stability.
Because of this, salaried employment is held up as the gold standard of work environments, but I’m not fully sold.
It’s great to have stability and support if you have a bad day/week/month, but what happens on the flip side? If you work like a dog for 3 months straight and produce great results, you’ll make exactly the same pay, but you’ll be producing so much more value for your employer.
Maybe I’m more risk-tolerant, or maybe it’s easy for me to be risk-tolerant because I don’t have any dependents and my wife also works, but I also did my best to bring as much stability and predictability to freelancing as possible.
I planned various self-employed ventures for a couple of years, messing up almost all of them along the way, and side hustled for 6 months part-time before going full time, to manage the risk aspect.
Since I started freelancing, I’ve quickly grown my business, but that’s because I’m offering more to my clients, with better equipment, more experience, more confidence, and a greater understanding of what I bring to the market.
As I offer more value, I bill more. Go figure.
Maybe I’ve never been at a company with a good enough bonus culture, but it’s always seemed to me to be a very inflexible “locked in for a year or two” salary arrangement, even though your value has the potential to be exponentially different within that time period.
The flip side of this which can be scary is that you can, in theory, make $0 if you don’t do anything.
No one will force you to get up and chase leads. No one will check your creative work. There’s no IT department to fix your computer when the integrated graphics on your computer breaks (why did I buy an all-in-one again?!). It’s all on you.
Even if you don’t make $0 (and you have to try quite hard to make $0), you can still make less than you planned. I got extremely neurotic about this in my first 2 months and kept panicking near the end of the month that the whole venture would crumble.
But over time, as I planned better, adapted more quickly and got into the flow of things, I felt a lot more in control, and eventually found the structure quite liberating! When I pursued new initiatives, put in the hours, went outside my comfort zone, I saw the results.
I always found as a salaried employee, if I worked beyond my contracted hours (which was always) I got nothing for it. If I responded to an urgent email at 11 pm, no one cared, and my wallet didn’t notice a thing.
If you push yourself as a freelancer, yes you can be tired, and yes emailing clients at unsociable hours because of time zone differences can be a bit destructive, but you know there’s something in it for you.
It’s not for everyone
I’ve always been very introverted. So, when I carved out a way that would allow me to work totally by myself and not be perpetually surrounded by people and stimulation in an open-plan office, you better believe I was excited.
Working from home, I feel I can really do deep work, think through complex problems requiring a bit of brain space and not lose a lot of my energy to unnecessary meetings.
When I think about my more extroverted friends I imagine that this could become quite frustrating. You don’t have the same ability to engage with people and bounce ideas around, and it’s a lot easier to get lonely.
I stand every day in a padded room and talk into a microphone; I then sit at a computer and edit audio files and write to clients. I’ve loved this way of working, but I’m not convinced everyone would.
That doesn’t mean to say at all that extroverts don’t make great freelancers (although I do think as an environment it is brilliant for introverts).
You can still spend a lot of time writing to people and interacting on social media, you can skype with clients depending on what line of work you’re in, and co-working spaces have never been more available and affordable.
You also have to be very self-motivated, as you’re the only one who will make you do anything, and without discipline or some form of accountability, you can easily achieve very little.
You’re really starring a 1 person business, which means you (have to) call all the shots.
Even as a voice actor, which is a relatively specific profession, I have to be performer, audio engineer and marketer to have a viable career, and ideally have some skills in business management, finance, and training & development to run things well.
You brush your teeth every day. Not because someone tells you to, not because it’s fun, not even really anymore because you know it’s good for you, you just do it because you’ve always done it.
When I first started freelancing I wasn’t sure if I should set specific things in my diary, or just go with the flow. I like the idea of flexibility, and I’m more of a disorganised “It’ll all work out” type of guy for most things, especially with creative work, so I started by having no structure at all.
Whilst I did enjoy it, and still got things done, I did find it very easy to slip into being overtly lazy and procrastinating. I would check my emails and job sites every 2 minutes to see if the work was coming in, which is probably one of the least productive things you can do.
I’d wake up late because I could, and take the day as holiday if not a lot of work was flying through the door, instead of doing the grunt work of marketing and growing my business.
I needed some boundaries.
This is audition time. This is email prospecting time. This is admin time. There’s still room for flexibility in all of this of course. If a really big client that I’d love to work with emails me after my designated email time, I’m not going to just ignore them until tomorrow, but as a general rule, excluding some urgent exceptions I stick to it.
These days I have a trello board that I review every night to fit in business development. On top of that, I have set things that I do every day because I know how important they are to keep my business and my personal wellbeing ticking ahead, like auditions, exercising and committing deliberate practice to being a better voice actor.
Rejection is selection
You will never get every job you apply for. It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone has a success ratio.
This is particularly true for performing more generally, where a huge part of your job is auditioning/marketing, but even for most other freelancers, there’s the dreaded (and unpaid!) work of drafting and sending proposals.
Initially, I found this a bit of a challenge. As someone who’s only had standard salaried jobs before, there was always the hurdle of job interviews and applications, but the bright side was that once you were in, you were in.
Sure, there was a bit of probation time where technically you could still get fired, but the onus to justify your existence and open yourself up to rejection basically stopped after signing the dotted line.
Someone once described freelancing to me as “a world where you get hired and fired every day”, and it’s true. Often if you have a client for just one job, you get selected, do the job, and you’re back to being unemployed and searching for work again, all within a day or two.
Now, this may seem terrifying (and I’d be lying if I didn’t think the same thing for the first month or two), but after a certain point, you start to work out your systems and develop repeat clients.
For example, once I worked out what my success ratio of auditioning to booking was, I stopped thinking about every job audition as a waste of time, or even as rejection, and instead, I knew that based on my success ratio, that every non booked job was one closer to the booked job.
Also, there’s nothing personal about not getting a job. No one looks at your proposal and samples and thinks, “wow I hate that person, they’re terrible I really want to reject them”, a) because people aren’t that mean b) because you aren’t that important, and c) they’re super busy. They just think they preferred another one.
You have to shift your mindset from clients reject work to clients select work. No client plans to reject people, or even thinks in terms of rejection, they just want to find and “select” the one that works for them.
It’s ‘free’-lancer for a reason.
Without a doubt, there are pros and cons to being a freelancer, and it certainly isn’t for everyone, but I can say wholeheartedly that it’s completely changed how I think about work.
I’ve created a business out of nowhere that I really enjoy, can build around my life (rather than the other way around) and feel in (almost) full control over my life. Pretty priceless if you ask me.