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When I Grow Up I Want to be a Freelancer Just Like You

Based on a post written by Eileen Parzek to A List Apart in ©1999

Freelancing. Some people will tell you it's not a good word to use for ones livelihood; that it has bad connotations. Perhaps it's true - "freelance" does conjure up an image of someone who hasn't quite settled down, really isn't sure what they want to do, might fly off with the next sunset.

The term freelancing has its roots in history, from the days when knights traveled the countryside hiring themselves out independently to various nobles who needed their service (a "free-lance"). In modern times, the term is used for a person who pursues an occupation in the art or literary world, under no long-term contractual commitments to any one employer.

So, I accept being called a "freelancer" (or, an "independent professional", the term of the new millennium, apparently) and I strive to be the best darn freelancer I possibly can be. Yet, success in the freelance web world is elusive, and perhaps because I haven't (yet) run crying and screaming into anyone's cubicle, I'm often asked "what's it like?" and "should I quit my day job and do freelance web design?" My purpose in this article is to share some of my answers.

I didn't exactly look before I leapt into freelancing, but I also did it at a different time, when the web world was new and fresh, and no one could have answered any of those questions for me if I HAD asked them! I started out moonlighting while employed in 1995, because I discovered a place where all my previously self-taught skills fit perfectly, and I simply loved the medium. It wasn't until a year or so later, when I started to realize how deeply I loathed my day job, and that any day could be my last one on earth, that I took the leap. And it was a good while after that, before I realized that the new world I was dabbling in had gotten fiercely competitive, that I actually had to be a businesswoman, and it forced me to get really serious about it. I didn't have an ounce of "business knowledge" at the time ... only a background in computer graphics, interface design and hypertext writing, and an inexplicable need to mold information into web sites ... but I decided to stick with it. I'm glad I did.

Looking back, now that I can safely say (peeking over my shoulder, always) that I succeeded in building a virtual, freelance design business, I tell would-be freelancers:

Selling yourself is probably the HARDEST part of freelancing. No matter how good you are, if you don't figure out a way to let the world know you exist, you're sunk. For me, it is a constant struggle to figure out ways to generate work, and I'm going to be honest - it IS a fiercely competitive business, and I'd be a numbskull to share how I've done it :) 

Once you land clients (and that's plural... don't EVER sit still with just one or two, trust me), then the fun begins. You have to be extraordinary at what you do... not just your skills, mind you, but your relationship building. My clients know I'm there for them, almost all the time. I don't go anywhere for long without telling them where I'm sneaking off to... or giving way-in-advance notice that I'm going, without laptop. You have to be able to communicate well, read between the lines, respond quickly, anticipate needs, make them feel taken care of, and leap tall buildings... oops, that's another job.

The work of finding work is never ever done. Even when you are buried in projects, you have to always be hunting down your next ones - the ones that you will be doing in 2-6 months. The average span from "gee, you do good work, will you do it for me?" to "here's a contract and a check, get moving" is at least that long. And things fall through. Constantly. People hatch grand schemes for web sites every day, by the hundreds, and then forget where they were going with it, lose or can't get funding, or get distracted. Expect it. Plan for it. And roll with it.

Speaking of contracts, make sure you have, at least once in your planning, spoken to a lawyer. The value of a good contract, written to protect YOU, the freelancer, and your intellectual property and rights (including the right to get paid) is inestimable. Don't fall prey to the urge to cut corners in this area, and rely on a contract you found on the web somewhere.

Expect to spend only a mere slice of your life doing actual creative work, and learn to live with it. If you can't live with it, seriously think about polishing up your resume. I would say I probably spend 40% of my days doing nothing but administrative work. Assuming you will go it alone, that means proposal and estimate writing, answering emails to clients, billing and invoicing, phone calls, and on and on. Then figure on maybe 10-30% of your day doing marketing, researching new markets, building relationships with new potential clients, and going on sales calls (if you do local business). Depending on how much time you do that, you also have to spend plenty of time keeping up with this business that never sleeps... reading, studying, learning new software, experimenting, and communing with the rest of the wild life. The time that's left over is when you will be delivering what you promised... Believe me, if you want a normal workweek, you will probably never see it while freelancing! Most of the things I just mentioned are necessarily done during the day - that's when everyone else seems to be conducting business, anyway. So, for me, I find myself doing all of that by day, with periodic breaks, and not hitting my stride with creative work til after normal work hours, when its quiet, the phone isn't ringing, and I can work uninterrupted.

You have to be able to be flexible - ie., if a client emails at 4 pm Friday that they HAVE to have something done, and you don't have major plans (or even if you do, sometimes), there goes your weekend. Do that willingly, and they will remember you the next time they need your services. Just make it up to yourself with a midday escape or a day off the next week. And make sure you get paid for it!

Finally, you have to be able to survive not having coworkers, and find your social stimulation elsewhere. I've always been a bit of a loner, but I've got a good network of close friends outside the house and a world wide network of colleagues to toss ideas back and forth with. Each independent is different so I can't really advise how to keep sane in this area. Some options might be to join a local business or social networking group, make regular lunch dates with employed friends (force yourself to get dressed like you were going to the office and make an outing of it), or go to where the employed people go during lunch or happy hour and mingle.

You have to learn to live with a rollercoaster financial situation too... and be disciplined enough to squirrel away that big check now, to live off of it later. I devised a rock solid plan for how I managed my money - and stuck with it. Not once have I underpaid taxes, been missing money when I needed to pay my quarterly taxes, or not known where every penny went of my freelance income. Organize yourself, invest in a system and USE IT. I'd be *dead* without Quickbooks or my accountant.

It's not easy. After six years of living the freelance life, I could never say it was! But for me, it's the only way to fly. Why? Each person has to find their own reasons, based on what they need, how they work, their goals and expectations. For me, I do it because only I can limit my success and income - not some evil supervisor or boss. I like being able to structure my own time - sleep late (and cultivated the art of answering the phone out of a dead sleep with a cheery "Hello!") and stay up all night working when I'm sharpest, enjoying warm summer days and delivering the goods by night. I like having a choice in who, if anyone, I spend the majority of my waking hours with. I enjoy the challenge, if not the endless hunt for work, and the empowerment of being in control of my life. I like that I could potentially pick up and live in a tree house in Borneo, as long as it had a fast Internet connection. I love my work. And you can't beat the commute!


Eileen Parzek is an award winning graphic and web designer providing digital and print graphic design and web design services. Always found at the intersection of information, creativity and technology, her business, Business Design Studio (www.businessdesignstudio.com) helps small businesses make a big impression.

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