Entrepreneurs are successful because they think big and are willing to take risks. Freelancers are the future because they work smarter and more efficiently. Or so the stories say.
Every day I see a new headline extolling the virtues of working for yourself and hyping the idea of starting your own business. Apparently, you’re an unmotivated, risk-averse, sellout if you don’t charge enthusiastically down that same career path.
I’ve run my own freelance design business since I was in university, 17 years ago. It’s the only work I’ve ever known. I absolutely love it, and wouldn’t dream of trading it for the most stable, well-paying 9–5 employment. So this may sound odd coming from someone like me: seriously, don’t become a freelancer.
Freelancing is not for everyone. It’s okay if it’s not right for you. It’s fine if you try it and fail at running your own business, and go back to what you’re more comfortable with. I won’t think less of you if you never even try.
If you think it’s easy…
You’re in for a surprise. Freelancing is twice as much work as you’re doing now. Not only are you doing the same hands-on work you usually do, you’re also responsible for all the extra responsibility that comes along with running your own business.
Suddenly you’re a bookkeeper, an advertiser, a project manager, a marketer, an administrator, a communication specialist, a client fire-fighter, an expert scheduler, an artful estimator, and a constant networker. You have to accomplish all of that, and still get your creative work done. Oh, and you do it all yourself with little or no support from others.
It’s not for the faint-hearted. Being a professional, full-time freelancer takes serious dedication and sustained hard work.
If you leave work at the office (or like holidays)…
When 5pm hits, do you like to shut off your work brain, head home, and not give another thought to work until you arrive again the next morning?
Around the holidays, do you like to leave work behind, and have nothing but thoughts about your family vacation until work starts up again?
Well, if you freelance, you can kiss goodbye that clear distinction of when work begins and ends. When you’re a freelancer, there’s always something to be thinking (or worrying!) about. It’s on you to keep things ticking along — there’s nobody else running things when you’re not there.
Even if you have your own clear boundaries of when you do and don’t work (for example, you don’t work evenings or weekends), there are always freelance concerns bouncing around your brain. Sometimes important reminders will pop in your head as you lay down to sleep. You may have your best creative ideas when you shower in the morning.
Your freelance mind rarely ever shuts off, because you have too much to juggle and you don’t want to drop any balls. While freelancing can offer the flexibility needed to create ideal work/life balance, it takes more strict boundary-setting to achieve that goal.
If you’re a social creature…
You’ll miss your water-cooler talk and office banter. You’ll miss your drinks with workmates, or the simple convenience of tapping your colleague on the shoulder when you need a second opinion. Freelancing can be lonely as hell — especially if, like me, you choose to work from home.
You can mitigate this somewhat by working in coffee shops or co-working spaces. By getting out to frequent meet & greets to build your network and form personal relationships and clients and colleagues. But if you’re an extrovert who craves that social aspect of work, you’ll never replicate is as a freelancer.
If you need structure & boundaries…
Let’s be clear: freelancing requires a lot of self-discipline. Some people need external schedules and pressures to keep them focused. Traditional employment provides that safe environment, where you know your routine and expectations, and rarely have to give a second thought to what you should be doing any any given time.
When you work for yourself, you’ve got nobody to blame when you get off-task. You have to create your own structure, and refine your own work processes. If you’ve got an entrepreneurial spirit and a strong work ethic, managing your own schedule may come very naturally to you. On the other hand, if you’ve struggled with setting boundaries and sticking to routines in the past, freelancing is going to be a constant struggle.
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If you need financial consistency…
Don’t look to freelancing if you’re first reason is financial. Yes, running your own independent consulting business may provide long-term opportunity for you to earn more than you’d make as an employee — but that potential comes at a cost.
Freelancing can feel like a rollercoaster. That’s an analogy often used to describe the feast and famine cycle of projects, but it can also describe the irregularity of your income, especially when you’re first starting out.
You need to be in a safe space, financially, so that you can afford the ups and downs of making good money one month, and hardly anything the next.
To compound this problem, banks are often less likely to lend to freelancers, and if they do give you a mortgage, you may worry about your irregular income not always meeting repayment demands.
There are good way to smooth out this rollercoaster and turn your freelance business into a consistent and secure career, but even the best of us come across unexpected hurdles and hard times. If your living situation requires consistent pay, freelancing will stress you the hell out until you learn through experience to mitigate those inconsistencies.
Smoothing out the freelance rollercoaster
How to schedule projects, manage an even workload, and make consistent income from freelancing.
If you think it’s a ticket to that glamorous nomadic lifestyle…
If your reason for freelancing is so that you can work on a laptop from the beach in Bali, think again. Sure, there are people who use remote freelance work as a means to travel. But that’s the exception not the norm. Digital nomads aren’t taking over the world.
Most freelancers, myself included, work from home, or from local coffee shops and shared work spaces. It’s not glamourous, it’s simply efficient.
Digital nomad? Nope. I chose the freelance life so I can stay at home.
Your true motivation for going solo may be closer than you think.
If you want to be a gig worker…
When you imagine yourself freelancing, what does that look like? Where do you get your jobs? How do new clients find you?
If your answer involves applying to gigs on freelance marketplaces like Upwork, Fiverr, or Toptal, you’ve got a dangerously narrow view of what freelancing is all about.
Running a successful freelance business is about forming trusting partnerships with valuable long-term clients. Competing for work on global, race-to-the-bottom websites is not a path towards that success. If that’s your freelancing plan, time to draw up a better plan B, before you get serious about this as a career.
Professional freelancers don’t do “gigs”
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If you’re desperate to be free and happy…
What are your true reasons for wanting to freelance?
Do you think that if you can take control of your work, you’ll finally be happy? Do you think the “freedom” of choosing your clients and making your own schedule will bring you fulfilment you’ve never had from work before? Or are you just looking for some way you can “follow your passion” and turn something you love into a career?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting those things. Freelancing can give you those things! But is freelancing the best way to get them, for you?
It’s not a magic happiness pill. There will be no instant gratification. Freelancing is not the answer for everyone who is unfulfilled by their current work, especially not for those who have commitment problems or wavering thoughts about their true calling.
Freelance for the right reasons
You need to choose freelancing, not because it’s the cool thing to do, but for the right calculated reasons. It requires complete commitment to building a professional micro-business, and dedication to producing excellent work for the long-haul. Because when you’re a freelancer your personal brand and reputation mean everything.
If freelancing is right for you, and you follow through with it, there’s nothing better. But what’s right for me isn’t necessarily right for you or anyone else. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Chart your own path that’s suits your professional strengths and weaknesses. For some people, that path is to be a damn good employee, and there’s no shame in that.
More of my writing on freelancing: