Do You Want to Freelance Over A Decade?
This Is What It Takes to Make It
When most people hear the word “freelancer,” they probably picture a young, artsy twenty-something who is free to roam about the country, frequenting trendy coffee shops (you know, those Instagrammable hubs that look like an Apple store had sex with an Anthropologie) while plugged into their laptop via oversized headphones.
You constantly wonder:
“How the hell do they actually make money?”
I’ll be the first to admit, it’s not easy.
I started this fool’s errand almost 10 years ago as a sophomore in college, and even after a few years in, I knew I was in for a world of hurt.
After meeting with my college advisor and hearing about traditional gigs in the real world (full-time jobs, unpaid internships, grad schools), I felt like there had to be another way to create the career I wanted for myself.
When getting started with freelancing, a certain reckless abandon helps. After all, if someone was fully aware of the pain that comes with working for yourself, I doubt so many people would actually do it.
It takes a lot to stomach the uncertainty and instability that inevitably comes from operating as a one-person army.
Not only are you responsible for doing the actual work of designing, developing, or writing, you are also the hunter-gatherer, the marketer, the project manager, the accountant, and pretty much anything else that needs to get done.
So why did I decide to put myself through this?
I have the audacity to think that I can do it better than others.
Don’t get me wrong. When I use the word “better,” I’m not saying I’m more talented than everyone else out there. In fact, I have plenty of friends who run circles around me when it comes to designing, writing, and most other hard skills.
In my opinion, I seem to care more than most. I strive to treat my clients like real human beings with real problems. As a freelancer, your goal is to be as helpful as possible. In other words, you need to provide more value than your competition.
How else do you think freelancers compete with larger agencies? I have always positioned myself as someone who can solve problems faster than anyone else while also providing a one-on-one, quality experience.
I am curious enough to solve real problems.
There are plenty of designers who can design a logo. There are countless writers who can help you share your story. You can’t throw a digital rock online without hitting someone who can get the job done.
The ones who are worth their salt will be curious enough to dig deeper and provide more value by addressing real problems.
I can’t tell you how many times someone has come to me assuming they need a brand or a website, only to learn they have more fundamental problems with their products, services, or operations.
In order to peel back the layers. I ask more thoughtful questions. I poke and prod. Instead of giving the client what they want, my goal is to give them what they need. I ruthlessly aim to find the truth.
You won’t find this penetrating attention to detail from some no-name virtual worker online. Approaching your industry from a more holistic perspective will set you apart from everyone else out there.
I balance being patience with being proactive.
There are plenty of people who dabble with freelancing. Usually, they find themselves unemployed and anxious to temporarily fill the gap.
There’s nothing wrong with this.
However, if you want to turn freelancing into a sustainable career, you have to think much more long-term.
Just like with investing in the stock market, working for yourself has the inevitable ups and downs. If you’ve slacked off on marketing, there will be weeks or months without work. You have to be able to make it through these rough patches without giving up.
During these dry spells, I make sure to create my own opportunity when there isn’t any. This means being proactive.
Whether it’s updating some part of my personal brand or reaching out to others who might need my help, no action is too small to make a difference.
I value my time over anything else.
It’s no secret that freelancing is hard. There are some days when your inbox is overflowing with potential leads, and then there are others when it’s filled with tumbleweeds. No one seems to be picking up what you’re putting down.
Even though these days can be extremely tough, I wouldn’t trade them for the world. These are the valleys that make me appreciate the peaks of freelancing even more.
They remind me that, even though this path is hard, I am in control of something much more valuable than money:
Don’t get me wrong — I still have a long way to go. I’m nowhere near where I want to be, both financially or professionally. Because I have chosen to do things the “hard way,” I have sacrificed immediate stability for the chance to create my own future.
As romantic as this sounds, it’s not glamorous.
I’ve gone months without healthcare. I’ve sacrificed relationships in order to prioritize my professional life. I’ve knowingly shot my resumé to hell all for the sake of productive fumbling.
I am constantly improving my discipline.
Why go through all of the struggle that comes with freelancing?
Along with my time, I am able to reclaim my freedom. I’m not obligated to chain myself to a desk for eight hours a day doing something I care nothing about.
I can work whenever I want, from wherever I want, with whomever I want.
Just because I have this freedom doesn’t mean I don’t have responsibility. In fact, I would argue that, as a freelancer, you have more responsibility than in a 9-to-5 position.
As I mentioned before, you are responsible for juggling a lot of different tasks. Without extreme focus and daily discipline, it’s easy to drop the ball and shoot yourself in the foot.
This is why my life changed as soon as I created my own daily routine.
Over the span of months, I introduced tasks like reading, writing, and others into my morning routine using short, 30-minute periods. Thanks to these “micro-habits,” I’ve been able to build and sustain a routine that provides even more discipline every day.
I share my story early and often.
As much as we all enjoy talking about ourselves to our friends, it doesn’t come second nature in our professional lives.
A major part of freelancing is getting over this insecurity and sharing what you’re doing with others. Some call this “self-promotion,” others call it “marketing.”
Whatever you call it, get used to doing it.
Three years ago, I started writing (almost) every day and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.
Sharing my writing with others has allowed me to develop my own voice and share my story with others, all while remaining authentic and true to myself.
Hopefully, these traits have given you some idea of what it takes to freelance over the long haul. As I mentioned, it’s not easy and it’s not for everyone.
However, if you can relate to the above points, then you might just have what it takes to make it.
Either way, don’t forget to share your story with others who need it.
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William Frazier is a designer, writer, and founder who blogs about making ideas happen at The Imperfectionist. For helpful tidbits on making your own ideas happen, join his newsletter and follow him on Twitter.