The last ten years have been a turbulent time for the labour market as a whole. As the boom years waned and the recession took hold, the one area that has continually bucked the trend is freelancing. The Professional Contractors Group estimate that in the last 10 years freelancing has increased by up to 82% and that we now have around 1.6 million freelancers.
Whilst the freelance market may be buoyant, deciding to take the plunge and become a freelancer is a decision that shouldn't be taken lightly. Asking the right questions now can help to organise your thoughts and avoid making any false starts. A word of warning though, I often talk to clients who have talked about going freelance for years, invariably putting it off until circumstance forces their hand one way or another. The fence may be inviting but sit on it too long and splinters are sure to follow!
With that in mind I decided to explore some of the considerations prospective freelancers should make before taking the plunge. I also talked to freelance designer Henry Roberts for some insights that he’s learnt along the way!
Are your skills in demand and what are they worth?
With all the will in the world if your skills aren't in demand, maintaining a healthy bank balance will be tricky. It's a good idea to thoroughly research the viability of selling your skills to ensure you're not going into a stagnant or saturated market. You'll also need to get a feel of the going rate for your skills, bearing in mind that as a new entrant, developing and maintaining your reputation will be closely linked to your earning potential.
Have you got the drive?
Without the energy and drive to work under your own steam, freelancing will be a car crash waiting to happen! Without you nothing happens. You'll need to have the self-discipline to juggle multiple projects whilst also performing all the other tasks that any company would need to do such as sales and marketing, accounting and general admin. 'Doing it all' can mean there's a risk of getting swamped.
Henry says the key is to “work as hard as you can without burning out. That’s really important because some people have the idea that they have to punish themselves with their work. You’ve GOT to have a work life balance, certainly if you’re doing something creative. All work and no play, just isn't healthy. You’ll get more quality work done in less time if you’re happy and don’t just sit in front of your computer all day and evening."
Have you got any funds to fall back on?
If you are going to make the transition to freelance working, setting some money aside as a buffer is a good idea. Just as a business has overheads so do you, most notably your rent or mortgage and food. Moving from a steady income to the troughs and peaks of freelancing will play havoc with your finances. Having a buffer will let you learn how to cope with this, without feeling the imminent threat of losing it all!
If you’ve worked your way through these considerations and still feel freelancing might be the way to go, the next two tips could help to ease the transition and increase your chance of success!
Dip your toe in and test the water
Testing the water can be a great way to minimise the risk and see if you can make it work! In practice I often find that rather than an abrupt severance from the shackles of the 9-5, there’s an organic transition to freelancing!
Henry toyed with the idea of going freelance for a couple of years. He said that “every time my job started getting to me I would think about it more and start formulating plans. I started with a little freelance work in the evenings and after a while I could see that theoretically doing it full time should work, so I just eased myself into it.”
“First I went down to part time hours, then I managed to negotiate changing my shifts so that I got all 21 of my part time hours out of the way in just two days, leaving the rest of the week free for my design work. This gave me a safety net of a guaranteed income while I started building things up. Within six months I was ready to go full steam ahead, both psychologically and financially."
Not every client is worth it!
In the early days of freelancing you’ll probably feel the pressure to take on whatever jobs you can. This is completely normal, but in the long term it’s not necessarily sustainable. After a while you’ll find that some jobs/clients are better than others.
I asked Henry for his views on this and he said “when you’re starting out you feel like you can’t say no to anybody, but you’ll find some clients are more rewarding than others. I’m still learning to ask the right questions of new clients in order to judge whether I want to or should be working with them, and occasionally I make a mistake. Then the hardest thing is ‘breaking up’… it can be almost as traumatic as breaking up with your partner, but sometimes it just has to be done. I still struggle sometimes to find the most diplomatic way of doing it. Conquer this fear early on and you will free yourself of problem clients.”
To wrap it up I asked Henry what the best thing was about working as a freelancer. He told me that “picking one is really hard - there are so many great things! I suppose really, it’s the empowerment and freedom that comes with being your own boss. Being able to choose when, how and with whom you work. Being able to take a holiday when you want it knowing that nobody can stop you. Being able to pop out, not at a set time but just when the weather is looking nice. Being able to reward yourself when you’re doing well, getting great feedback from clients, watching the momentum of your business grow… see, it’s quite hard. To boil all this right down I guess you could simply say job satisfaction.”