Survivial Skills for Freelancers

Why you should think twice about going freelance

I love my job. Let’s face it – I wouldn’t have stuck at freelance life for 17 years if I didn’t. But if you’re thinking of making the leap from a regular monthly income to the uncertainty of going solo, there are a few important things to consider.

Not the obvious, like what to charge, how to attract the right clients, or how to market your business. While they’re all vital questions, I’m talking about the dirty, gritty, soul-searching stuff. The “am I really cut out for this?” delving you need to do before you start.

Though I only have experience of life as a freelance copywriter, the same issues apply to any freelance career – freelance graphic designer, freelance illustrator, freelance rocket scientist (is that even a thing?).

The benefits of being your own boss

I’m sure you know all about the benefits of a successful freelance career. Chances are, these are some of the reasons you’re considering working for yourself:

  • The freedom to manage your own time
  • The flexibility to work where you want, how you want, when you want
  • The chance to choose who you work with, and what you work on
  • The potential to earn a good income
  • The ability to choose your own hours

Yet many of those benefits can only be unlocked by years of hard graft, reputation building and solid experience. It’s a fortunate freelancer who gets to pick and choose their pet projects from day one.

Consider this:

Being good at your job doesn’t mean you’ll make a good freelancer

So you’re a great writer/illustrator/photographer* – excellent. But being good at what you do, day in, day out, with the security of a full-time job and the stability of a regular income isn’t enough to guarantee you a successful freelance career.

*insert your chosen discipline here

Yes, it’s a great start – but there’s a lot more to it. Can you hack these hurdles?

All by myself

Freelance life can be hella lonely. I spent the first 15 years of freelance life stuck in my office, home alone, with only my cats for company. By the weekend, I was climbing the walls and chewing the ears off anyone who’d listen.

When I started my freelance career in 1999, email was new, and today’s popular social media platforms were a mere twinkle in the eye of a Harvard drop out. Hell – there was barely an internet. (Ever wish you hadn’t started something? Man I feel old!)

Only recently did I discover the support that’s available through social media, networking and events… and the joys of working in a decent coffee shop.

The café-bar at my gym has become my second office (thanks, Virgin Active!). Good coffee, free wifi, free heating, and the buzz of other people without the constant interruptions of working in an office. Yet it’s not unusual to meet freelancers who need complete silence to work. You’ll need to experiment to discover the working environment that ticks your boxes.

The thriving community of freelance writers on Twitter (search #copywritersunite) has kept me going on many a tough day. It’s great to have trusted colleagues-come-competitors to bounce ideas off – and for the necessary office banter. And nothing beats networking events for that “I’m a freelancer – get me out of here!” lifeline. It takes time to discover the type of event that works for you. Personally I loathe the “let’s all stand up and talk about our business for two minutes!” approach, though most involve a necessary element of shameless self-promotion.

Distraction, distraction, distraction

I know freelancers who can’t work without the buzz of daytime television in the background. Are you freakin’ kidding me? I can’t even listen to a song with lyrics without getting distracted. I suggest you keep the TV firmly switched off, but only you know what works for you (and who am I to criticise – Judge Rinder?).

If you need to focus – and believe me, you need to focus – create a work playlist. Mine consists of electronic trance, but who knows? Classical may be more your thing.

As for loading the dishwasher, hanging the washing, polishing the cat** you can look at these in two ways: as distracting household chores that remain untouched until you’ve clocked off for the day, or as valuable thinking/stretching/stepping-away-from-the-laptop time.

Above all, stay off social media, switch off pop-up notifications (annoying, distracting little mosquitoes that they are) and discipline yourself to check your email three times a day rather than once every five minutes (you know you do it).

Finally, be prepared for insecurity, rejection and self-doubt in spades. If you’re a sensitive soul who can’t take criticism or knock backs, do yourself a favour and cultivate that full-time, steady income role.

Freelance life is not for the faint-hearted. But if you’re organised, tenacious, thick-skinned, self-motivated, ambitious, driven and disciplined, it might just work for you.

The last word

There are numerous books about freelance life; I haven’t read any of them. I’m no expert on running a business, but having built up a successful freelance career over the past 17 years I do know what’s worked for me… and what hasn’t.

If my advice helps you to do the same, I’ll be happy.

As someone once told me: “There are two types of freelancers: those who freelance because they want to, and those who freelance because they can’t get a job.”

Make sure you’re taking the plunge for all the right reasons.

**not a typo