Behold the rise of America’s freelance economy: a shift in the traditional American economic paradigm spurred by a rapidly growing army of freelancers, consultants, independent contractors and other on-demand workers. Together, they’re stimulating the creative economy and disrupting the labor force.
Today, 34 percent of America’s workforce is comprised of freelancers, according to a 2014 study commissioned by the Freelancers Union. That number is estimated to increase to 50 percent by 2020. Why? Partly because it’s buzzy and at its very core, is nothing short of entrepreneurial. Finding success as a freelancer is invigorating; a reminder that you do in fact have agency and can indeed make it on your own.
But, by golly, freelancing is hard.
We talked with Pauline Rubin and John Himics of First Ascent and freelance web developer and coIN Loft cofounder Steve Roettger — three freelancers in Delaware willing to set aside some time to serve up some homegrown advice to newbies and wannabes.
"Everyone has a talent or a skill or a work-ethic or an insight or an experience, something of value that others don't have."
Want to be a freelancer? Make sure you’re tough. Make sure you can bounce back when you’ve scratched rock bottom. Make sure you’re damn good at providing the services you’re providing.
Above all, know what it means to be a freelancer.
“Stop calling yourself a freelancer,” said Himics, a web developer. “You’re a coder, a designer, an artist, a consultant, a marketer, a craftsmen, or whatever you are. ‘Freelancer’ has that troublesome word in it, ‘free.’ You might think of it as free from a job, or free from a location, but others may take it as your services are ‘free’ — or close to it.”
Whatever you do, Himics said, do not do free work.
“The reason why you’re doing work at all is because it is valuable. Do not devalue yourself and your work, especially when you’re getting started,” he said. “Discounts are fine, and trust me, if you’re just starting out, you’ve already discounted your prices without realizing it.”
Himics said one satisfied and excited client that found your work to be valuable and truly appreciated the experience of working with you is worth 10 clients who did not believe your work was worth being paid for.
“This is not a hard and fast rule, and I’ve broken this rule in the past, but I bring it up in hopes that you might turn down the first 10 opportunities that devalue you so that you have the time and energy to kill it when that awesome opportunity comes along,” he said.
Himics best advice for wannabes?
“Do it. Seriously. Now,” he said. “Sell something. Offer to do something for someone for a fee. Every single person on this planet can make money. Everyone has a talent or a skill or a work-ethic or an insight or an experience, something of value that others don’t have. What is keeping you from trying? Why are you a wannabe? Just do it. Most of the roadblocks are mental and the best way to clear a mental roadblock is to ignore it and charge ahead.”
Rubin breaks it down into three bullet points.
- Networking is key. “Especially when you’re starting out. It may be awkward and uncomfortable at first, but making those connections and relationships with potential clients, partners and referrers is very important. It also helps you learn to feel comfortable talking to others and pitching yourself.”
- Making mistakes is OK. “It’s how you learn, grow confidence and get better. With each client, you’ll better understand your value and what your time is really worth, so don’t be afraid to raise your prices as your skills and portfolio grow. You’ll also start to realize the types of clients you work best with and how to better identify them early on.”
- Things will be difficult. “We’re all in the same boat no matter how long we’ve been doing this. Everyone is looking for another client or the next project or how to take their business to the next level. There’s days where you’ll feel like it’s not working out. Having a good support system will keep you motivated and excited. We’re really fortunate to have our friends at the coIN Loft to give us advice and encouragement when we’re feeling defeated.”
Think you’re ready now? Roettger has some advice on how to structure your life around your work as a freelancer.
- Create a work routine. “I treat my work schedule just like a typical job with set work hours. You always need time to shut things off, so setting my hours has definitely given me a better work/life balance to avoid burnout.”
- Plan your work day. “Very rarely am I working on only one project at a time, so to keep me productive and efficient while working towards finishing a project I found that keeping detailed to-do lists is crucial. I’ve tried many different apps, but I always go back to the simple list with pen and paper. Updating my to-do list is always the first and last thing I do each day.”
- Set clear goals of success. “This is very cliché, but if you don’t know where you want to go, you’ll never get there. I have different goals I set throughout the work year, and attach incentives if I reach them. Being a freelancer you don’t get bonuses, so this is my way to motivate myself.”
- Never stop doing business development. “I’m always looking for more work and try to plan the start of new projects as far out as I can, this way I avoid the down periods.”
- Look for recurring revenue opportunities. “This has been a focus of mine over the last couple of years. Whether its partnerships or monthly retainers, recurring revenue opportunities are the closest thing to getting a salary. They allow you to be a little more picky with the projects you take on.”