I lost my last staff job in 2006, at 3pm on a Wednesday afternoon, from the New York Daily News, the nation’s sixth-largest newspaper.
I decided to go back to freelancing, a way of life and generally unpredictable income stream that both terrifies and seduces many people. In the ongoing recession here in the United States, millions of people are “freelance” because they simply can’t get hired back into a full-time staff position.
I work with a wide variety of clients, writing for The New York Times, (since 1990), magazines like Marie Claire or Smithsonian, selecting and creating on-line slide-shows for HGTV. com. to helping private individuals whose manuscripts need editing.
Luckily for me, I had role models — growing up in a family where no one counted on a paycheck or pension. My father was a film-maker, my mom a writer and broadcaster and my stepmother wrote for television shows, teaching me by example how to make the cube-free worklife enjoyable and profitable.
Slash your expenses to the bone
I think this is the single most essential element of deciding to quit a job or leave any reliable income stream. If you carry a $5,000 a month mortgage, a $400 a month car payment, private school tuitions and other enormous carrying costs for a lavish lifestyle, freelancing is likely not a choice you will enjoy or be able to sustain. You don’t have to eat ramen or wear burlap, but freelancers must fund every cost alone — including all health and dental fees, sick days, vacation days and retirement. (You will get to write off, up to 30 percent typically, many of your business expenses, whether subscriptions, dues, travel or professional fees.)
Be social media savvy
If you’re going to compete with people like me, who’ve been doing this for years, even decades, you’re entering a crowded field of experts. LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media links will keep you in the loop and let others know you’re ready for work. You must have a terrific website, (with a professional headshot), with a variety of work samples and update it frequently. A smart and helpful blog will keep driving traffic to your sites.
Be a little hungry — all the time
Freelancing is not a good fit for the lazy and undisciplined! The ability to manage your own schedule, a fantastic perk, means you have no boss, co-workers, annual review or external check on your productivity. You must work as many — or more — hours as you did in your loathed cube in an office. You must check in with past, present and future clients consistently. Go to meetings and conferences to meet influential people in your industry. Work will eventually come to you through referrals, but you’ll be chasing it a lot of the time. Remember the salesman’s ABC: Always Be Closing; i.e. you must constantly be closing deals in order to assure plenty of future income.
Think broadly and deeply
In my view, this is the most compelling reason to go freelance. The creative freedom to produce work you value, to work with people you admire and enjoy, to know your work is making a significant difference in the world is worth a great deal. It won’t pay the rent or electricity bill, but it will remind you why you’ve made this choice. With its freedom, you can travel whenever, wherever and however often you can afford — or find a client to fund it. You can attend conferences and meetings that intrigue you and may lead to totally new and different opportunities. You can visit a museum or gallery or movie in the middle of the afternoon to refresh your weary brain. You can (and should) commit to some regular volunteer activity. All of these are luxuries most employers don’t allow.
You’re 100 percent reliable
In 2007, I landed in a hospital bed with pneumonia because I just kept working as I became more ill. Never again! But I can count the number of deadlines I’ve missed in 30 years on one hand. More like two fingers. Your clients are offering their trust, time, energy, attention and limited budget. They are relying on you. If you or your dependents are in poor health, freelancing is an unwise choice, with no paid sick days and clients who expect results with no whining or excuses. Unless you’re in a coma, or a family member has died, meet your deadlines! (Your competitors are.)
Here are five reasons to keep your job or commit to another one:
You’re lousy with money
Some people just are. You have no idea what’s in your bank account. Your multiple credit card APRs are 20 percent or higher and your FICO score — (you do know what that is?) — remains scarily low. You have a ton of student debt and/or credit card debt. You want that $3,000 vacation, dammit! Read the essential book, “Your Money or Your Life.” Then decide what matters most to you.
If your employer is putting up with it, you’re lucky. Freelancing offers no room to slack off, because no one will remind you to get back to work or work harder or more efficiently. It’s all up to you.
You have major and inflexible financial commitments
If you’re carrying enormous student debt, have a bunch of dependent kids or a non-working spouse/partner or a car/home likely to require costly repairs, freelance work — which can be feast or famine — might just add a lot more stress to your life. Having a low overhead and little or no debt, (plus three months’ savings, at least and a low-interest line of credit), makes this life choice workable. Sadly, that’s just not where many people are right now.
Admit it. Some people have zero interest in sharing their skills or time with others. Freelancers who thrive long-term share their time and talent with others. You’ll suddenly need to pick up a gig — or are overwhelmed and need to sub-contract it to a reliable colleague. If you’re not someone who plays well with others, freelancing will be lonely and much tougher.
Your skills or work ethic could be stronger
The freelance life means competing with thousands of veterans offering a ferocious work ethic and fantastic skills. They invest regularly in new technology, attend conferences, take classes, network. The trade-off of working alone means you can’t fall back on tech support, your boss or staff or intern.
Here’s a recent helpful post about freelance life from Toronto writer (and friend) Patchen Barss.
Here’s one of my favorite websites, Freelance Folder.
And here’s a great blog, Dollars and Deadlines, by Chicago-based writer Kelly James-Enger.
If you’ve gone freelance, what are your thoughts?