The title of this post is a lie.
It's been more than three years since I left full-time employment to travel and begin a career as a freelance travel and lifestyle copywriter while doing so. In fact, I think it's probably edging close to four years, but if I'm completely honest, it feels like I've been doing this much longer. Perhaps "freelance years" are longer than "full-time years"? Maybe.
Regardless of exactly how long I've been doing this, I know I've learned a lot of lessons. Some revealed themselves quickly (Always agree a price in writing; Never take a job for less than you want to do the work for - you'll just end up hating the work and doing a terrible job; Always be nice to people, especially when you don't want to be) and others unravelled their wisdom slowly (Inbox Zero; Word of mouth recommendations are your most powerful marketing tool so always do your best work; You can't be good at everything; There will be feast and there will be famine, so be prepared for both).
I've already written lots of advice about freelancing and shared my personal experience in this post about getting started as a freelancer and I've also touched on it in this post and presentation about how to use a blog to help you get freelance work. If you're particularly interested in working as a freelancer while travelling, I would suggest you read what I wrote about what life is really like as a digital nomad, and I also suggest you check out these two posts on Travelettes about my first and second year as a location independent freelancer.
If, however, you've read all of those posts already and want something of an update on what I've learned since, then please do read on as I run down the lessons I wish I had known three years ago when I was just a beginner freelancer.
Lessons Learned After Three Years Freelancing
1. This is not for everyone.
I get several emails a week asking me for advice on how to get started as a freelancer. Aside from directing them to this post and this presentation (as referenced above) my number one piece of advice is "be ready to accept this may not be for you". Freelancing is hard work. While others have "cracked it" and earn much more money than they would as a full-timer, and spend less hours working, I have not. For me this is not a deal breaker (see "Curb your outgoings" and "You define your own success".). At least it isn't at the moment. I am fully aware that the day may come when I need to earn more or have more job security and I may then have to consider a full-time position again.
There are several pros and cons to freelancing (as explained well in this article) and it's up to you, not me or anybody else to determine if the positives outweigh the negatives or vice versa for you personally. You may be able to do this at first sight - "No job security, no pension, no health insurance? No way." - or you may need to give it a go and find out through trial and error. If it doesn't work out, please don't see this as wasted time. If there's one thing I've realised in my first decade of working life it's that for many people the concept of staying in one profession or only climbing one career ladder is a very dated and frankly, boring concept. You do not have to do one job all your life. And doing so at the cost of your health and happiness is utterly bonkers in my mind.
2. You define your own success.
For me, freelancing is not about earning a six-figure income. It is not about sleeping in late, working in coffee shops all day, then sweating away on a project into the early hours just so I can then send a nice big juicy invoice off at the end of the month. For me freelancing is a way to work which supports the lifestyle I want; a lifestyle of flexibility, travel and time to pursue my real passion - writing fiction. Freelancing allows me to do all three in a way a full-time job does not.
A successful month for me is when I have covered my outgoings, got some pennies left over for savings, have progressed my fiction writing substantially and had plenty of time hanging out with my boyfriend, friends and by myself (yes, really, I like my own company!). That is what success looks like for me. Of course, I would always like to be more profitable and work less for more money, but I know the effort and time required to achieve that right now would eat into my writing and personal time and that is a price I'm not willing to pay.
For you, it may look completely different. It may mean a certain amount of income, or turnover or a specific milestone reached. Take a little time to understand what success means to you, but based on my own experience, I would also recommend approaching this with a healthy dose of realism as it's very easy to set yourself up for a fall which will be demoralising and counter-productive to you enjoying and getting the most out of your freelance lifestyle.
3. You are not a writer, designer, consultant, researcher (etc). You are a problem solver.
For the first year of my freelance career I trusted in over-delivering and impressing the client with good quality work in order to gain repeat business or to extend a project and earn more money. This worked well but certainly didn't result in the kind of repeat business and long-term partnerships I needed to have a reliable regular income.
What did work, however, was realising I was not a copywriter, I was a problem solver.
People looking for freelancers are looking for that person to perform a service or create a product that solves a problem they can't fix on their own. Understanding what the client's problem is and what they want to gain from solving it has definitely enabled me to build better relationships with them and to then add even more value to what I'd been initially tasked with doing. Several times I have been hired to write copy for a new website and following on from this project I've then been hired again to ghost-write blog or newsletter content or to manage their social media accounts. This was because I found out that they were getting a new website to reach new customers and/or rank higher on Google so I suggested additional ways to do this. Of course, there have been occasions when my suggestions have been acknowledged and executed but I've had nothing to do with it. Yes, that sucks, but in my opinion that's the risk you have to take and should this happen, please remember that it will not always be this way. In fact, that's another piece of advice I think is true; having a bad freelancing experience doesn't stop you from having good experiences in the future - avoid the temptation to sink into a funk when things don't go 100% your way, at least not for longer than a few hours. Learn from the bad experiences, don't linger on them.
4. Curb your outgoings.
One thing that I've done since becoming a freelancer that has greatly profited my business without me really realising it is spending less. That goes for both personal and professional outgoings. As part of our preparation for long-term travel I stopped shopping (and started selling my clothes) and I was more careful about what I spent when going out. These small new habits have stuck with me and I adopted the same approach with my freelance business. In short, if I couldn't afford something I didn't buy or do it until I could (e.g. I used a second-hand camera for over two years before buying my first DSLR) and I also "downgraded" a lot of things in order to save money (e.g. I bought a PC instead of a Mac - a decision that saved me $1000 and I lost nothing in terms of functionality, likewise having an Android phone for the last two years has probably saved me over $500.) My regular outgoings which I need to incur for my business are my rent, internet, phone and utilities (as I work from home, these are split with my boyfriend and of course aren't all used solely for my business). Additional outgoing costs are Dropbox for cloud storage, PayPal fees for processing payments, Moo for business cards and postcards for promoting my books, Findmyshift for managing my time and keeping track of hours spent on client work and TransferWise for moving money around cheaper than through bank transfers. These last five expenses come to less than $150 a quarter. Keeping my business expenses as low as possible makes it easier to turn a profit.
5. Pursue your BIG JOY...even if it's not your freelance business.
Let me be honest with you. Writing copy about hotel brands or ghost-writing an article I will never receive any credit for is not what I want to be doing all day, every day in an ideal world. No, in that ideal world, I'm on a beach sipping mango shakes and alternating between writing my own stories and reading those of others. However, I like my work, I'm lucky that most of the time there's enough of it and I enjoy 90% of what being a copywriter entails. I feel very lucky to be able to say that.
What I love, however, is writing fiction. What I want to do well enough that I can live off it is writing fiction. What I am actively pursuing as a future career and business is writing fiction. But I'm doing so slowly because this benefits me in more ways than one. There is too much pressure on people to "get rich quick" or to "be the best of the best now." One of my favourite bands Voxtrot wrote a song with the line "one day you will learn there is some beauty in the thing that makes you sweat" and I couldn't agree more. I'm really enjoying learning my craft and establishing myself as an author in the same way that I have enjoyed building a business as a freelance copywriter. You should enjoy the journey too rather than race to the finish line... because in my experience once you get to one finish line another pops up ahead!
Certainly pursuing freelance copywriting and writing fiction has meant both have had to compromise in terms of earnings and development, but would I give one up? No, because, well, I couldn't. I need to freelance in order to pay my bills and live. But I also need to pursue the writing fiction because that's what brings me the BIG JOY; the kind of BIG JOY that eases the stress of freelancing. I think it's very possible that if I had put all my eggs in the writing fiction basket already, maybe that BIG JOY would have become diluted because there would be more pressure on those books selling in order to make ends meet. As it stands now the only pressure I feel in regard to my books comes from me, not my accountant or landlord. That has helped me explore and pursue my BIG JOY in a very comfortable, happy environment and it has also consistently offered me one way to escape a bad day/week/month with the freelancing. That's another important tip for you; have hobbies, have interests and have passions away from your freelance work - you will be better at your profession for having regular breaks from it.
Of course, hindsight has me questioning my decision to not pursue writing fiction more aggressively and four years ago, if someone had told me that indie publishing would become what it is now, I would have possibly prioritised writing books over establishing myself as a freelance copywriter. But would it still bring me that BIG JOY? I don't know.
If you're at an early stage in this journey and you have something you are passionate about and you believe there is a way to monetise this, of course, I say go for it, but do so with a steely determination to protect the BIG JOY it brings you.
6. There is no restriction on how clients may find you...
Over the last three and a bit years, clients have contacted me through this blog, through my website, on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, and no fewer than five of my most profitable projects to date came about because I met somebody face-to-face at social and networking engagements. Fellow bloggers have referred me to their friends and family members, and I even had someone reach out to me after seeing my photos on Instagram (they wanted an Amsterdam based writer so headed there to search for one - why not!?!). I don't know why but I was amazed when people started to use my social networks to find and contact me, and I was even more surprised when this resulted in well paying jobs and even long-lasting relationships. The moral of this story is don't dismiss any avenue as a way for a client to contact you. You never know who's watching you... in a good way!
7. ...So leave lots of breadcrumbs.
I'm currently reading an interesting book called Stop Thinking Like A Freelancer by Liam Veitch, the guy behind the Freelancelift website, which I haven't explored too much but looks like it could be a potentially useful resource for freelancers. While I don't agree fully with everything he advises, I did like his reference to how important "breadcrumbs" are. These are the tracks you make as you go about your online and offline lives which lead potential clients back to you, i.e. speaking at a conference, commenting on a blog, meeting up for a coffee with a fellow freelancer, joining a Facebook group etc. I think most people who are active online leave these breadcrumbs naturally and so shouldn't give it too much extra thought, however, if you're not very active either on- or offline, perhaps this is something you should think more about.
8. Don't let people forget you. And don't you forget them.
No, this doesn't mean tattoo your phone number on prospective clients' foreheads or perform a belly dance in front of potential customers so they literally never forget you, it means make valuable connections, keep in touch, and stay accessible. I met a fellow blogger two years ago at a travel industry conference. 18 months later she introduced me to her husband who works for a multi-million dollar company, the website for which needed new copy. I didn't do anything special when I met her. We simply chatted, found some common ground, exchanged business cards and a few weeks later we swapped a couple of emails complimenting each other on our respective blogs. I had no idea it would result in a hugely profitable two month project.
It is also worth visiting all of your online platforms (blog, website, social media sites etc.) and testing how quickly somebody could find an email address for you. And I would definitely start a spreadsheet or address book folder of client names and contact details. (I actually only did this embarrassingly recently and I realised how valuable a resource it was.)
9. Be generous and nice.
I think this advice sort of arches over the last three points.
For many freelancers, the pool of other freelancers able to offer the same service as you can is large. You want to be noticeable for the right reasons. You definitely don't want to stand out in it for being unpleasant, rude, short or abrupt with people. Even when a client deserves it... don't rise to it. Walk away, take a deep breath, go watch a funny YouTube video.
And even if you don't feel you have time or the energy, if you can (and most of us can more than we think), you should be generous with your time and your conversation when networking, meeting new people or when someone (NB not a company!) reaches out to you with a quick question. Regardless of the work opportunities this may or may not bring, I can guarantee that it will also make you feel better about yourself. Negativity breeds negativity, and positive thinking and positive actions breed more positivity. That's not me saying so, that's science.
10. Be objective about your work
This is something I've learned since writing fiction and collaborating with editors, beta-readers and proofreaders, but it has helped my freelance work no end. In addition to the ability to listen to and learn from criticism being a true asset, becoming more objective about your work will help you become more resilient and professional as a freelancer.
No matter how good you are at what you do, there will always come a time (or times!) when your work is not exactly what the client wants. This could be for 100 different reasons and there's little to be gained from asking yourself at great length what went wrong. If you do identify the problem (you misunderstood instructions or they were given to you incorrectly) then learn from it, but for all that is good in the world, do not take criticism personally. Yes, I know it's a fine line but try to distance yourself from the product you create or service you deliver for your client and view it objectively before you deliver it back to them. Ask yourself how it could be better and if it's within your means and the client's budget to make it better, then do it. Take responsibility for your work but also remember that you are operating within agreed parameters (i.e. to a deadline and a budget) and so as long as you can objectively review what you do and feel proud of it, let it go and let it belong to the client and not you.
You are not the work you do. Just like my books are not me. They are something I created and published. But once I put them out in the big wide world they are not an extension of me. Yes, they have my name on the cover and they are going to be judged and critiqued and loved and hated, but they have no impact on whether I'm a good person. The same goes for the freelance work you and I do.
11. Have a niche, and don't be afraid to make it narrow.
As a blogger, I've grown to both love and hate the word "niche". Truth be told, I don't truly know what my blog's niche is. I write about travel and writing, so isn't that niche-y enough? No, it isn't and maybe, one day, I'll work on narrowing this down. But my blog doesn't pay my bills, nor have I ever intended it to, so I'm not going to sweat it too much.
My copywriting work, however, does have to pay the bills. I'm lucky that I was quite quick to narrow my niche almost by accident after a year or so of taking on copywriting work, and interestingly it happened through both supply and demand. As my blog grew, and I began writing more about my travels both on my blog and for other travel websites (which I did mostly for free to grow my blog's audience) I thus developed a substantial portfolio of travel-related articles. At the same time, potential clients were either coming across these articles or my profiles on job boards like Elance and PeoplePerHour, which I had optimised with keywords like "travel writer", "travel content" etc. and if they needed travel-related copy, they reached out to me or chose me for jobs. After a year, I had enough money to invest in a website and I made it very clear there that I specialised in travel (and again optimised the copy on the site).
Pay attention to what people are asking for and if you can deliver it (and enjoy doing so) then make that your niche. If this naturally becomes very narrow, then good for you! A narrow niche means you can start calling yourself an expert and with proof of your work you can draw up a list of those clients who need to know about you and you should absolutely introduce yourself to them.
12. Treat your freelance career as a business... and be the best boss you've ever had.
This tip can incorporate (geddit?!) so much, from how you approach pricing to how you manage your web presence etc. but try not to over-think it. Personally, approaching my freelance work as a business helps me consider outgoing costs as much as I do my earnings and it also makes me think about the future in terms of five-year plans and predicting industry changes and developments that may change how I do business. (For example, the way we use blogs and social media prompted me to start pitching myself as a "ghost blogger" and curator of social media content, a natural extension of my background in research and copywriting - and now I'm starting to pitch myself as a ghostwriter of ebooks as that market continues to explode.)
It also helps me realise what I don't want. By looking to the future of my freelance business I know that I don't want to have so much work that it starts to dilute those benefits I mentioned above and likewise I don't want to hire other people or outsource the work I do because I don't want to spend my time managing people.
I started this list with a reference to advice I give those who email me with questions about my life as a freelancer and how I make it work. One of the other common questions I receive is about how I stay disciplined and motivate myself as a freelancer. My reply is that I still have a boss. I still have someone who kicks my ass if I don't deliver. I still have someone who reminds me that doing my best everyday will pay off eventually. I still have someone who applauds me on a job well done or reminds me to learn from another project that was less successful.
That person is me.
If you can't be your own boss - and be a good, fair and positive boss - then freelancing will be hard work. I like being my own boss. I like pushing myself to get up (and get dressed early every day - that would be tip number 13: working in your pyjamas is overrated!) and I like reminding myself to switch off the computer when it's gone 7 o'clock on a Friday evening. I'm not always good at being a boss, and I often get things wrong, but like so many things in this weird and wonderful world of freelancing, I'm enjoying the process of learning...
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