Friday, July 20, 2018

Five Things I Wish I'd Done Before Going Freelance

First off, I still don't regret choosing to go freelance.

It has its own unique sets of challenges, it alters your concept of "weekends" pretty much beyond repair, and it does change how and when you have contact with people. (Not to mention how much you want contact with people.) But even with that, and even with the fact that I end up working on "sick days" or messing up my own deadlines or accidentally inverting my sleep schedule, I still love it and what it affords me.

Even so, I will admit that I dropped my job and moved along a bit hastily. This was largely because I'd started having panic attacks and wasn't sure I'd last to the end of my initial plan. In retrospect it was the right choice to make, but I would have benefited from some earlier planning.

If you're in a phase where going freelance is a greater than 50% probability, that's enough reason to start planning to do so. You'll be ready to go if you do... and if you ultimately don't, you've lost nothing and possibly given yourself a few emergency buffers.

1. Bank up 3 months' worth of rent (if possible).

Nope, this isn't where I tell you to give up your morning Starbucks or stop spending on "unnecessary things," because I have no idea how hand-to-mouth you are. How you approach this is your call.

But I will say that when you first start freelancing (and even occasionally when you've been at it a while), you will get severely dry months. Knowing that if your main client goes AWOL during the holidays you can still get by is one of the best safety nets you can give yourself.

That said... saving money isn't easy. Some of us are in jobs where we can. Some of us are just barely scraping by. But if this is a life change you are somewhat set on making, put aside what you can, when you can. Even if it's only a little, even if you don't feel like it'll make a hell of a lot of difference in the long run. Every little bit helps, and the closer you can get to surviving a little while without clients contacting you, the better your run will be.

2. Start scoping out opportunities.

This is kind of like how you should start job-hunting before you give your notice. Except in the world of freelancing, diversification is key. If you work for multiple clients, you won't hurt as hard if you need to leave one for some reason.

Unlike a job hunt, though, this doesn't necessarily have to be all in. Remember those content mills a while back that I said are a good stop-gap in the short run? This is the time for that. If you're a writer, start taking the tests on those sites and getting rated so you can be ready to make a few bucks as soon as you're ready. If you're actively approaching leaving, you're safer to start sniffing out committed clients -- but if you're still on the fence, there are other jobs out there you can express interest in without signing a contract.

I recommend about three of these. (Notice a pattern? There's nothing magic to it; three is just "a little more than one or two, but not too much to be a setback pulling everything together.") Get them lined up, make sure you'll be able to jump onto them as soon as you're ready, and you can worry about something tidier later. Just as long as there's work waiting for you when you've left.

3. Set up your work space.

The work-from-home life is an odd one to get used to. We all think we'll want it and that it'll be great, and the times we've done it for our real job, it is. But when it's your daily life, it's a little different. You get lonely. You get disorganized. It can feel easier to slack off or wander away.

Take a time when you need to do something productive but don't want to pay bills or go shopping, and choose where you'll be working from once you work from home. Then start setting up that spot. Make it comfortable, but conducive to business. Don't feel weird about making it "yours" even if you're the only one who will see it.

Having a dedicated, comfortable work space is one of the biggest things I currently have going for me, and how it looks and how it's kept have a huge influence on my productivity. Plus, if you're still on the fence about taking the leap, walking by your cozy little personal work space every day, just waiting for you to use it, might inspire you to get going.

4. Actually use your LinkedIn.

When you're in more creative fields, using LinkedIn can feel like a waste. I don't get a lot of traction from mine, I'll admit. But keeping it up-to-date and posting on the daily (when I can) actually does get me more eyeballs. And if nothing else, that spreads things around for me.

Plus, jazzing up your LinkedIn is an easy way to keep your resume up-to-date, and keep track of everything you've been up to. Online jobs will likely require you to cut-n-paste your resume and attach it, so you might as well learn to love it.

5. Stop reading freelancing horror stories.

Just like you shouldn't Google whatever surgery you're getting before you have it, you shouldn't spend too much time reading about the horrors of your next life choice. This was one of my bigger mistakes.

Any job you do -- retail, teaching, parenting, freelancing, whatever -- will have bad points. It will also (with the possible exception of retail) have good points. Looking up listicles on bad experiences in careers, though, will all have one thing in common: they'll be bad.

I've had some awful experiences as a freelancer. I've also had some wonderful ones. Reading about the awful ones beforehand, like non-paying clients or customers with weird requests, never prepared me for actually dealing with them. It only made me paranoid about when I'd eventually have to.

You'll have people who don't pay. You'll have people who don't understand why you're "so expensive." You'll have some absolute maniacs requesting some weird shit from you. But just as romanticizing the freelance life doesn't help us, driving ourselves the complete other way doesn't, either.

Unless what you're reading comes packaged with solutions for dealing with these situations, you're far better off giving them a miss and looking forward with confidence.

Some of these are just little things I realized would have been a help. Others were proper mistakes. And no move to freelancing is ever going to be smooth or perfect. I don't think that kind of situation exists. But if it's what you're looking to do, giving yourself as stable a landing pad beforehand will help you stick the landing when you take the jump... even if it's a bit terrifying.

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