09 Nov Navigating Your First Year as a Freelancer
Some people are perfectly happy with the 9 to 5. They don’t mind having a boss. They’re happy to rock up in the morning, leave in the evening and entrust the future of their career to their employer. There are many, however, design, web development, app building, copywriting or something else altogether, freelancing is the perfect way to monetise your skills and make a living from them on your own terms instead of waiting by the corporate table for whatever crumbs big business may be prepared to sweep your way.
However, the life of a freelancer is beset with many pitfalls. A corporate environment may not be an environment that’s conducive to their personal and professional growth, but it offers certain protections to which freelancers do not have access. You’ll never again have the privilege of sick pay or paid holidays. You may spend days or even weeks not knowing where your next paycheck will come from. In your zeal you will face the ever present risk of pushing yourself too hard, over-committing and burning out. Your first year of freelancing can be an exciting and liberating time… But there’s a lot that can go wrong if you’re not careful. Here are some ways in which you can navigate the potentially perilous path of the freelancer and come out smiling on the other side.
The better your relationship you have with your clients, the better chance you have of enjoying a steady stream of work. Thus, it behoves you to make sure that your clients feel valued and that they’re getting the best possible return on their investment in you. Take steps to reward their loyalty, whether this is offering them seasonal promotions or being flexible with your rates if their own businesses fall upon hard times financially. This will incentivize them to keep using you and even if you have to take a slight hit on your rate to retain a loyal client, it’s usually a small price to pay for a steady income and a good reputation.
While freelancers face fewer startup and operational costs than other small independent businesses, it’s still a good idea to do whatever you can to reduce your operating costs. While many of these may be tax deductible, like any business you need to think about cash flow. While it may be tempting to splash out on fancy equipment to fund your endeavours, it may become a rod for your back should you face a dry spell in terms of incoming work. Everything from getting discounted printer and toner from The Cartridge Shop to investing in reconditioned or used equipment instead of buying new can help you to save a lot of money on your operations without impeding the quality of your work. Don’t rent an expensive office if you don’t need one. In most cases you can simply work from home and use a virtual office service if you wish to appear larger or grander in your operation.
When you first start out as a freelancer, it’s completely understandable to take all the work that you can get. With proper time management you may even be able to honour your commitments, meet your deadlines and keep your nascent portfolio of clients happy. Just be aware that while a strong work ethic is commendable, putting in long hours, working 7 day weeks and missing out on time with friends and family to ensure that you make deadline simply isn’t sustainable.
While freelancers are not paid to take holidays, that certainly does not mean that they don’t need them. By all means make hay while the sun shines, just make sure that you plan your working calendar to allow you to take a week off or two here and there. UK employment law allows all employees 28 days’ paid leave a year and you should aim to take at least this much time off for yourself in the year. If you do not take this time off you are much more likely to burn out. Inevitably your work will suffer as a result of this and it will diminish your brand and make clients lose faith in you. Worse still, failing to take time off will seriously diminish your quality of life. When we don’t take substantial rest breaks our brains literally forget how to relax. To quote clinical psychologist Deborah Mullen;
Without time and opportunity to do this, the neural connections that produce feelings of calm and peacefulness become weaker, making it actually more difficult to shift into less-stressed modes … What neuroscience is showing is that we require downtime in order for our bodies to go through the process of restoration. It is only when we are safe from external stresses that our bodies can relax enough to activate restoration.
Many nascent freelancers are terrified of the word “no”. They fear that it will slam doors shut in their faces and alienate them from prospective clients forever. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s okay to say no. In fact, it’s actively encouraged. Just because you’re new to the world of freelancing does not mean that you must take on every piece of work you are offered. Blindly accepting all work you are offered can do you more harm than good. It can make you beholden to clients who pay you less than you’re worth. Worse still, it can cause you to overcommit which can leave you stressed, sleep deprived and altogether miserable. Not only will this diminish the joyful experience that freelancing is supposed to be, it may also compromise the quality of your work.
Your first year as a freelancer will leave you with valuable skills which will inform the rest of your career. So long as you keep learning and having fun, you can lay a solid foundation for years of successful freelancing!