When I first started freelancing, many of my friends predicted that I’d get tired of it sooner rather than later, and go back to looking for a full-time job. Anything is possible, I suppose, but after a year and a half of being a full-time freelancer, I feel safe in saying the experiment is a success, even if someone offers me a benefited 30 hour a week position as a cheese taster, and I decide to pack it in.
For this round of advice you didn’t ask for, but might need, I thought I’d concentrate on the stuff that I didn’t know until I’d been freelancing for a while. Such as…
1. You probably need to get up earlier than you think. I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: it’s easier to get stuff done in the morning, especially if your clients are in New York and aren’t rolling in til 10 a.m. I have mornings where the only real work I get done all day is before 11. The rest of the day gets eaten by meetings and impromptu phone discussions.
2. Speaking of meetings, charge for those. I still have one or two legacy clients who get freebie meetings, but they tend to be a) really good, steady clients who pay well, b) not folks who’ll try to get me to agree to a twice-weekly seminar with their whole marketing department. Everyone else gets an hourly rate, as much to discourage unnecessary, unpaid chitchat as to make actual moneys.
3. But don’t be afraid to do some things for free. I know, I said before that you shouldn’t ever work for free, and I still stick by that most of the time. However, for good clients, I do tend to do a little extra, and I would still write the occasional free piece for a small blog network or site that I really, really loved. But that’s something you should do sparingly. I still wouldn’t write for free for a big, money-making site. If they have money to pay the sales staff, they have money to pay you, my friend.
4. How much should you charge? More than you think. I low-balled myself when I was first starting out, and it was a big mistake. If you’re going from a full-time job to freelancing, use your old salary as a rough guide. Figure out what your hourly rate would have been if you worked 40 hours a week (I know, I know) and use that as a starting point. Don’t forget that you also had things like benefits that didn’t show up on your check, but were part of your compensation. Charge more for things that are more complicated. Straight proofreading, for example, might be the cheapest thing on your list, but copyediting with photo research and SEO work would cost more.
5. Make your contract as precise as possible. Spell out exactly what your duties are, as much as you can, so that you don’t have to have an argument about whether proofreading includes keyword research or whether phone meetings are free, etc. Build in notice for either party to back out of the deal, and specify when and how you’ll get paid.
6. Get business cards. To be totally honest with you, I haven’t exactly gotten around to doing that yet. I thought of it this morning, because I have networking event tonight, and I know I’ll wish I had them. Learn from my mistakes, people!
7. And speaking of networking, you don’t have to do stuff you hate. The thing I’m going to tonight is basically a bunch of old friends and coworkers talking over beer, which is one of my favorite things anyway. If you hate leaving your house, though, you totally don’t have to, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Buff up your LinkedIn account, and stay home. I got four gigs when I started out freelancing without ever leaving my desk.
8. Ask for help. The way I got those gigs, mentioned above, was by announcing to my Facebook network that I was looking for writing and editing work. If you’re the sort of person who would rather get gangrene that tell everyone else on a hiking trip that you seem to have injured your leg (a.k.a. No. 8 on my list of Ways I Might Actually Die) this will seem like begging. It’s not. (I promise.) You’re just letting people know you want to work. If they have stuff that needs doing, they’ll be happy to hear about it.
9. Take weekends. Another one I’m bad at. But in general, I’d advise people not to take so much work that they regularly work on the weekends. If you can’t afford to take less, look at your rates again or look at your time management. Sometimes, life intervenes, of course. Right now, I’ve got physical therapy twice a week, and because it’s in another borough, I lose about six hours of work time. So I often work weekends. One thing I don’t do, though, is accept gigs where I’m expected to work on the weekend. Unless you need an off shift, because of child care, for example, I’d really recommend not getting into the habit of working on Saturday and Sunday. You’ll be more productive if you get time off.
10. Don’t threaten to sue, especially if you’re not going to follow through. I know a few freelancers who’ve gotten stiffed on a job, and have immediately gone to lawyer land. Avoid this as much as possible. Although getting actual, legal advice is never a bad idea, you want to avoid escalating things by threatening legal action, at least until you have no other choice. This is partly because it annoys people, and sometimes slows things down further, and partly because, in reality, you’re probably not going to sue unless someone owes you a ton (like, an actual metric ton) of money. Big companies know that they have a legal department and you, at best, have a lawyer. Try everything you can to resolve the issue without letting it get to that point. It’ll feel like the cold war, but it’s worth it, just to keep your profits from getting eaten up by legal fees. So far, fingers crossed, I’ve managed to get paid for every gig. (Albeit, sometimes very, very late.)
Image: Refracted Moments/Flickr