I give quite a bit of advice here, but there’s one thing you’ll probably never hear me recommend to anyone, and that’s to quit a job to start a full-time freelance career.
Emphasis on “start” there, because, like any form of entrepreneurship, a sustainable freelance career can take years to get moving, so dropping a steady income because you’ve got a “passion” for XYZ might be romantic, but it ain’t realistic.
What is realistic is taking the time to learn yourself and your business, and grow a thriving freelance career as an exit plan for an employed life that isn’t working out…but there’s a problem there, and it’s a big one.
I hear Black people especially talk about how hard it is to muster the energy and motivation to build a business after being worn down both emotionally and financially from navigating racialized work environments, and that’s on top of dealing with the typical challenges of employed life.
While I didn’t start freelancing full-time until after a layoff, I did spend years building side businesses while employed full-time. When I was in my 20s, I pushed through based on pure youthful entrepreneurial energy. As I got older though (or rather, as the years of the impact a stressful and unfulfilling career started to pile up), I had to find ways to use my energy and enthusiasm in smart ways.
I had to grow past just being willing to grind it out and work hard, because I promise you, nothing is guaranteed to happen just because you put in a lot of effort or “out work your competition” (the concept of a starving artist wouldn’t exist if work was that deterministic). You have to work for sure, but your long-term advantage as an entrepreneur will be in taking the time to understand your business, and also yourself. That’s why I want to pass on four choices that helped me when I didn’t feel like I had the energy to accomplish what I need to.
Start saying “no”.
I don’t know if there’s a more important word as a freelancer.
Of course it’s important to say “yes” to opportunity, but if you’re old enough to be considering freelancing, you’ve probably already got a huge pile of energy-draining obligations and habits that you need to clean out before you start saying “yes” to anything. After all, you want to be able to follow through as strongly as possible once you do agree to something.
For me personally, that meant accepting that I wasn’t going to focus on moving up in my current career anymore and saying “no” to all those extra hoops corporations ask you to jump through to prove your dedication (serving on panels, extra trips, evening meetings, etc.). Risky? Sure, but it gave me room to start building my competence as an online business person (which really paid off when I launched my freelance business.)
It also meant saying no to people who were emotionally draining and abusive…even family. Especially family.
It meant stepping down from a leadership position at a xenophobic church I was attending (and eventually left.)
It meant turning off a couple of morning radio shows (Tom Joyner included) I used to listen to on my commute and replacing them with a couple of business podcasts.
I didn’t give up everything…I still needed enjoyment and entertainment in my life…but I had to be real honest with myself about the things that were draining or just not providing me that much benefit or relief, cut them out, and replace them.
Focus on a simple start.
It’s not glamourous. You can’t brag about it. You probably don’t even get the quick jolt of satisfaction of investing in personal branding or business coaching. The thing is, it works.
Every business…every single business should start with observation. For you as a freelancer, that means not reinventing the wheel, and instead using the wealth of information on sites like Upwork to see what’s in demand and where the opportunity is. It means getting on social and watching what others are doing, what questions they’re asking and what problems they have.
This is the kind of thing that doesn’t require a lot of production-energy, but that pays off in the long run. So read, listen to podcasts, engage on social — Plant the seeds before you burn energy worrying about investing in a full arsenal of garden tools.
Think in stages.
This is similar to the first point, but important to keep in mind during your entire freelance career.
Remember that it’s all a gradual growth process — taking on more than you’re ready to handle is a great way to burn yourself out. You might eventually want to hire a virtual assistant or bring on a graphic designer as a partner, or start attending professional conferences in Australia—those are beautiful goals, but they probably fit best for year two, or three, or even ten of your freelance career.
Be honest with yourself about where you are, and develop what you have now. It’s fine to plan those stages, but don’t put the undue pressure of future goals on your present self.
Optimize your efforts.
I mentioned this before, but don’t reinvent the wheel.
You’ve probably already got some sort of “in” into freelance potential through your employment history, friends, family, or community. You might understand (or be able to learn) the local social media marketing needs of beauty salons or the needs of call center managers. There might be opportunity to the same thing you do now, but somewhere specialized, like remote customer service in a specific niche.
If you’ve already got a leg up somewhere, don’t go restarting somewhere else just because you can or feel you have to. Learn your freelance lessons where it takes the least work at first, and then branch out later.
I’m a natural grinder…the kind of person corporations and other insatiable organizations love to consume. I have the potential to work myself into the ground, so self-care is always hard for me. Thing is, I have to do it.
Finding the energy to build your side projects is honestly as much about protecting your energy as it is about hyping yourself up. I had to learn to exercise (for my body, not for a goal I saw on Instagram), meditate, pray, eat properly (admittedly easier after I disinvested myself from employed life) and let myself relax and be entertained (still working on that one). I also had to acknowledge the extensive damage my career had done to my mental and physical health in just 10 years. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have known where my care should start.
Take care of yourself. You’ll be amazed at how much energy you can save just through some small adjustments.
The hardest part of a side-hustle, especially if it’s an escape side-hustle, is balancing the need for relief with investing in a solution. Try to keep in mind that you’re slowly shifting resources from a place of lower-return to a place of higher potential return and you might find it a bit easier to stay focused. Regardless, hang in there…people have found solutions and you can too.
Also, if you’ve got any tips that work for you, leave them in the comments! You never know who they’ll help out.
P.S. If you’re looking for ongoing support (and a plan) in building your freelance career on the side, our weekly challenges at the Academy will be great for you. They’re simple and can be completed with minimal time commitment. Come try out your free month today!