Four Rules for a Successful Freelance Life: №1 of 4

Thirteen years ago I left my full-time job as Editorial Manager for Old Navy Marketing to embark on a career as a freelance copywriter. I didn’t have any solid work lined up. I didn’t know where I would find my clients. I didn’t think my savings account would last as long as it needed to. In short, I had no idea what to expect, except that I wouldn’t have to be at Old Navy Marketing at 8:30 the following Monday morning, which at that point in life meant a whole lot to me.

This makes it sound like I didn’t do any solid thinking before I quit my job, which isn’t really true. I did think — about the freedom, about the opportunity I was going to have to really explore my potential, about the lucrative hourly rate. This kind of thinking can motivate almost anyone to go it alone, but before you let it inform your resignation letter, stop for a moment and consider your experience and personality.

You should be able to handle all aspects of your work without someone higher up to bail you out of the tight spots. Ideally, you’ve developed solid relationships with talented coworkers who not only know and trust your ability but have a similar yen for greener pastures — pastures where they’ll drop your name and get you some plum assignments. And most importantly, you need a certain amount of guts (be honest here) and the stomach for risk and uncertainty.

The first few months will suck. Lots of people will say they’ll send you work; probably no one will. Don’t panic — this is the first step on your freelancer’s path, and though the road will never be bump-free, it will smooth out ahead. The key is to realize the pitfalls of the “job” before they arise and plan your coping strategies in advance.

Toward that end I’ve come up with four rules that have helped me along the way, which I’m going to dole out one at a time in the hopes they’ll help you. You’ll probably have to finesse them to fit your specific situation, but I promise you’ll have plenty of opportunity to perfect your methods.

And so, without further ado…

Rule №1: It’s a service job.

The sooner you abandon the myth of the “creative job” and replace it with the reality of the “service job,” the better.

Clients aren’t really looking for you to come up with something that’s going to make you famous, they want you to help them build their business. Oh sure, they’ll tell you to “think outside the box,” but when they say that, what they really mean is they want you to know what it’s like inside their box, and then give them suggestions about what they can do to make it seem a little less square.

This is a tricky thing to do, and at times a disappointing one, especially when you’ve come up with something truly box-busting. But if your client doesn’t connect with your bright idea, you shouldn’t insist on it. Ultimately, the client’s the one paying for the work and who has to live with the consequences, so they really do have to love the final product.

It took me two years of freelancing to really get this, and then only because someone else pointed it out to me. I had been working on a big project with a graphic designer I really liked, and we were lamenting the fact that our client favored a more traditional creative execution over something we thought was more original. Or should I say I was lamenting it.

“I just don’t get it,” I whined.

“Don’t waste your time trying,” my friend replied.

“I explained why the other option was better, but they just kept telling me they disagreed,” I said. “It’s really discouraging.”

“Look, Christa, it’s a service job,” he said flatly. “You just have to accept that the client gets what they want and move on.”

I didn’t like hearing it, but he was right.

Sometimes it still gets me down — all this effort and real creative thinking pushed aside in favor of more conservative ideas. But then I remember the concept of the service job, and maybe the check for the work comes in the mail, and my mood improves. Rest assured that eventually there will be a handful of projects that you’re really, really proud of, and in the meantime no one’s forcing you to put the work you’re less excited about in your portfolio.

After all, you’re the boss now.


A longer piece that included this and my three other freelance rules was originally published on Medium last Friday 9/16/16. But with an 11-minute read time it garnered zero views by end of day Monday, so I’m republishing the four rules now, each as separate posts.

When I figure out my rules for success on Medium, I’ll have to remember to include the one about keeping things short.