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When I started freelancing, I had zero concept of how freelancers lived. Entrepreneurs? Sure. I’ve got family and friends all over the place who’ve started their own businesses, but freelancers? As far as I knew I’d never seen one in real life.
And that’s a problem.
In the U.S. alone, half of us are expected to be freelancing by 2020 but I’d be willing to bet that most folks out there don’t even know what freelancing really means, let alone what it’s actually like. I mean in general…not for those few lucky writers who are making $300 an hour writing about what a random Kardashian had for lunch (because they knew somebody who knew somebody), or even those programmers who launched into an immediately successful freelance career with the help of 20 years’ experience and a hefty client portfolio.
I want to talk to you a little about what I’ve experienced, how I’ve seen most other freelancers live, and what I believe is the reality for the majority of us out there.
A little side note really quickly…this post is especially important if you’re considering building even a part-time freelance career. There’s nothing like the reality of this life to send you running back to a pseudo-safe life with an employer, so getting a clear picture of what potentially lies ahead will be a big help in you building a freelance life that genuinely works for you (and isn’t just a copy of somebody’s life on Instagram.)
About a month after I started freelance business writing for real, I decided to reach out to a writer who was basically doing what I wanted to do. He shared quite a bit of info with me (you’ll find most freelancers view each other as help more than competition), but one comment in particular had me sit back in my chair and reconsider my life…
“It takes 18 months…maybe 2 years to find your place in all this.”
2 years?! There was no way. How did people survive? How would I survive? Why would it take so long? I took a deep breath, sat back, and realized that even if he was wrong, he was probably right at some level.
If traditional employment is a drive-through, freelancing is deciding what you want to eat, looking up a recipe, making a shopping list, and visiting 4 markets before you even come home and start cooking.
Freelancing is custom-building your work life and it takes time.
Time to figure out your specialization. Time to build a reputation. Time to learn how to navigate finances, and client management, and your needs as a freelancer.
Don’t get me wrong…just like cooking for yourself has a ridiculous number of benefits (financial, mental, health, etc.), so does freelancing. I can tell you that after I cracked my intro time, I was making much more than my previous job for the time I put into my work, Mondays were fun, my health had improved, and my life was generally beautiful.
The time was worth it, but if I hadn’t understood that from the beginning, I likely would have run back to another “high-paying”, stressful job, that at best, felt familiar.
Once I started freelancing and running into other people doing the same thing, I ran into a mix of ages, income levels, educational backgrounds (and to a lesser extent), races — looking at your average article on freelancing though, you wouldn’t know it.
Save a few sites, if you didn’t know any better, you’d think that there was an entry exam that required you to be thin, White, relatively well-off, cis-presenting, young, attractive, and only wear muted colors. (What is that anyway? I can dress much more boldly now than when I had an employer asking me to change my dress to keep everybody comfortable.)
Some of us work from Starbucks, but my bet is most don’t.
Some people may brush the concept of representation in online media off, but if you are not in a region where freelancing is common locally, and the Internet is your primary connection to the world of freelancers (like me), you’ll end up thinking that this is freelancing — that’s a problem because if there’s anything you need to succeed as a freelancer, it’s to really believe that someone like you actually can succeed.
It’s More Than Writers And Photographers
Quick challenge: Name a freelance profession that doesn’t include writing or photography.
If you said anything at all, you’re doing better than I was when I started this freelance deal…better than most people really, and that’s likely because when you talk freelance, the conversation is almost always around writing and occasionally you’ll hear web development and design pop up.
That makes sense, because in the past, those jobs fit with how freelance work worked. Now though, with all the online collaboration and communication tools available, you’ll find freelance customer service reps, package designers, academics, engineers, therapists…pretty much anything.
Even within those fields though, there’s a LOT of variation.
Freelance writing is more than a byline in Ebony. I only write for businesses who sell to other businesses. Some writers make a living — a complete living — by perfecting their skills at writing sales letters, or landing pages, or just online content for the marijuana industry. Take the time to specialize and learn your niche…over time as you build a name, skills, and connections, it will pay off, regardless of the type of freelancing you do. (Really…please do, it’s how successful freelancers make the best money)
It’s Really…Not That Glamorous
I’ve got a theory.
I think that a bunch of people who used to make up the Location Independent corner of the business Internet are in the process of morphing into the freelancing corner of the Internet (that would honestly explain the pictures.)
Now…freelancing can very likely mean you can live a location independent life and work from whatever corner of the globe can provide you with decent Internet — that’s part of what makes it great. But you know what? Being location independent doesn’t automatically mean travel.
I’m about as location independent as they come, and I still almost exclusively work from home (I’m working on changing that…I really am, but habit/comfort/routine/wanting to be left alone while working and stuff.) Travel costs time and money, and if you’re like me and are someone who developed their travel habits in a work environment where work time and free time were clear cut, making the adjustment to a new relationship to moving about might take a while.
On top of that, way too many of us work for freedom in our careers for other, less glamorous reasons. Freelancing has meant that I don’t go into an office anymore, but it’s also meant that when my father went into kidney failure a couple years back, I could go to the hospital every day for a week to relieve my mother without worrying about repercussions at my job. Plenty of people freelance so they can care for family or friends long-term and simply have a life where their schedule is not fully dictated by an employer.
Plus, plenty of freelancers work inside actual offices or meet regularly with clients, so while they might work from home, they’re pretty much tethered to a general location.
You’re An Entrepreneur
Not many of us call ourselves that, but if you’re a freelancer, you’re a really tiny business doing business with other businesses.
By all but a few definitions of the word, you’re an entrepreneur.
That means you’re answering questions about marketing, branding, profit…all that stuff. It’s simpler than running a traditional business, but if we’re going to be real (and that’s one of the main missions of BlackFreelance), not treating a freelance business as a proper business has done quite a few freelancers in.
I’m not saying you need an MBA, but I am saying that freelancing — successful, long-term freelancing — is more than just copying your LinkedIn profile into Upwork. You’re going to be working to drive business, differentiate yourself from competition, develop your services in response to what your market needs and, if you’re like a lot of freelancers, possibly even eventually turn what you learn as a freelancer into a product and transition into traditional entrepreneurship. (And you’ll be WAY ahead of a lot of other entrepreneurs since you would have spent time as a freelancer getting intimately familiar with a group of people’s needs.)
So those are the five misconceptions that I’ve noticed. If you’ve got any ideas you had about freelancing that you found out weren’t true, share in the comments..and when you’re ready to start your freelance career, come claim your free month at BlackFreelance Academy (it’s a great community and you’ll establish the most important basics of your career in a sustainable way.)
Clark Alford says
18 months to 2 years to find your place in all this; I couldn’t agree more. Every time I interact with a new client a new problem (which eventually gets a new solution) comes up which I never even thought about before. In other words there is no substitution for experience. You have to be in it to win it.
LeToya Williams says
I enjoyed this article, that was pretty much what I expected because I also have started a business… I can say that I am 2 months in FULLY and I still haven’t found my niche. I like to write about diverse things i.e. personal poems, random articles about things that interest me and blog about social relevant topics. I have only published a few pieces (12) on my blog (listed above). so my question is do I NEED to only write about 1 central thing? perfect what I have published? or leave it be? I want a blog that anyone can read because essentially I want to start my own black owned magazine that will cover an array of topics in which I know I won’t be the sole writer but I do want to be well versed in a few things. so I thought that starting out I should show variety to peak the interest of different groups of people. Am I being too broad? Of the content that I have posted, I have gotten a little traffic via my Fb page and blog site but mainly from other bloggers. Any pointers.
OK…so I’ve completely been in your position, starting a magazine and all. My #1 piece of advice is to draw a line in your head, and that’s between your career as a writer, and as a magazine owner. Some skills transfer back and forth, but you’re really doing two different things.
As a career writer, if you want to build a brand, you have to focus. People have a hard time believing (and when I “believing”, I mean to a point that they’ll pay you) that generalist writers can get done what they need to, even if they love your style. All writing has a goal, and if someone is paying you, theirs is usually very specific. Your career as a freelancer can do a lot to educate you on the magazine business and you can watch a lot of internal processes somewhat from the inside and save yourself quite a few mistakes, so I would definitely focus there first.
That said, writing for magazines alone can be shaky ground (especially when it comes to social topics vs. finance, health, or business) to build an income on…which just means you might need to supplement (you can stay in your same niche, but try a different type of writing.) Check out this post for some ideas.
I’m going to suggest drawing one more line, and that’s between your web presence based on your personal work and what interests you, and the one you want to ask people to pay for. It might mean 2, or even 3 sites/blogs, but clarity is essential, and you want people to feel like you can focus on what they might pay you for.
…and 2 months is no time at all…finding your best niche can take a lot longer than that.
Keep on writing, and just know it almost always takes a lot longer to build magazine income than freelance writing cash. (Just a side note.)
Are you trying to build a full-time income from any of these projects?
Mallory Griffin says
As someone who wants to move away from her day job and become a freelance writer, thank you so much for this article! It’s insightful and helps get beyond the romance of it all.
I’m glad I decided to follow y’all on Twitter!
Thanks for following!
Yeah…once you get past the romance, you get to the really good stuff;)
Elizabeth d'Anjou says
Hey, awesome article—just came to it from a colleague’s tweet.
Your final point is *always* the one I end with when giving advice to newcomers to my trade (freelance editing). Took me a surprisinly long time to get through my thick head, and made all the difference in the world when I did.
Thanks for reading!
But yeah…the entrepreneur question is a hard one, because as a freelancer, you don’t necessarily want to think like an entrepreneur, even it’s crucial for your business.