Credit where credit is due, thank you Solomon Northrup, for your book as inspiration for the title of this post. I began my journey in freelance in 2010, and 5 years have given me a unique perspective on the cycle of what it means to be a freelance consultant. Here are a few things I’ve picked up along the way.
1. It’s the hardest job in the world bar none: Casting off the relative security of a full-time job, in order to pursue what you truly believe in is one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do. While the timings are flexible, so is the amount of money you make. Long hours in a cubicle may not be your idea of Utopia, but it sure as hell pays the bills. Justifying to yourself and family about the validity and even good sense of your ‘life plan’ is probably the most challenging exercise. While the upside to this decision is the fact that you will undoubtedly escape the vicious cycle of a Mumbai commute, the downside is seeing the derelict (at times) nature of your bank account at the end of the month. But all things aside, the sheer joy of being accountable just to yourself, compensates for all the assorted pains you will experience.
2. Support system: Whether it is your family, girlfriend, relatives or neighbors, your support system is of vital importance. Especially in lean times, having your near and dear ones there to support you, albeit silently, is a massive blessing. You will face massive self-doubt on the veracity of your decision, on whether what you’re doing is sustainable or not, and several other questions. At times like these I’ve found it extremely helpful to have a heart-to-heart with someone you trust. A support system will get you through some pretty rough times.
3. It’s the best learning experience of them all: Freelance is definitely one of the more difficult jobs out there, but very often the potential learning will outweigh the difficulties you face. As a freelancer you work as an entity and not an individual. Being an independent professional mandates networking and building connections. This will necessitate socializing. You will also learn the finer nuances of managing client expectations and delivery variables, vital skills most MBA grads pay good money to learn. Overall the biggest learning experience will come when it comes to managing finances; without the security blanket of a ‘steady’ paycheck, you will learn to tighten your purse strings, budget effectively and above all else, to have a good time, without hurting your bottom line.
4. That peaceful, easy feeling: Being able to work at your convenience is one of the biggest upsides to freelance. Considering the fact that you don’t follow a strict 9 to 5 or 9 to 9 work schedule, you will be able to make time for a lot of things you’ve wanted to do over the years. Avoiding a commute will definitely be the biggest fringe benefit. As a creative professional I have found that pushing the envelope is best done from within your comfort zone, the restful nature of the zone you operate from will also make a huge difference to your style o functioning, increasing both your productivity and your profits.
5. Good work builds loyalty: A freelance contract is a one-time work thing. The key to sustained business is delivering good work. Unlike advertising agencies, that have multiple clients to fall back on, as a freelancer, repeat business is the key to sustenance. So whenever you are engaged in an assignment, ensure that you deliver a product that your client goes ga-ga over. Always build a pleasant rapport with your clients by being both polite and proactive. This would involve a little intelligence gathering on your part, but keeping tabs on your client’s competition is one of the best ways to prove your worth to a client.
6. Love what you do: It will show in your work. Need I say more?
7. Live life and enjoy it: You only live once, the entire reason you began freelancing, or are even considering it, is to enable yourself to live life a little more, a little better, so don’t forget that mission statement.
8. Set a base price: One of the things most freelance professionals forget is that they aren’t alone. The market is teeming with freelancers who will at some point in time bottom out the market by undercharging clients. There is definitely no escaping that sad fact. To safeguard your interests, always set a base price that clients can use as a reference point. Ensure that you leave room for contingencies and wiggle room for bargaining. Rule of thumb: a 25 percent room for client haggling needs to be left.
9. Advances help: Always work on the principle of a 30:70 advance. As freelancers you need to ensure that payments are always realized. It helps to establish a practice of staggered payments, this way you will at any given point in time have a decent amount of money to fall back on, for any incidental expenditure and damages incurred during the process of the assignment at hand.
10. Be fair, organized and transparent: It helps a great deal to enter into a written contract with a client, such that all ambiguities are cleared. Define timelines, payment terms, hours of operation, escalations, processes for any and all iterations and delivery schedules, in order that both parties are well aware of what the expectations are of each other. Ambiguity can kill any and all chances of a symbiotic working relationship and as such should be avoided.
11. Establish a network: As freelancers you will lack the deep pockets and resources of an agency or established commercial service provider. In such a scenario, competing with entities several times your size may not always be feasible. To avoid this unfair competition, it would definitely help to establish a solid network of freelance professionals who you have a non-compete, symbiotic relationship with. For instance, as a copywriter, it helps to know a few good art directors, photographers, coders, developers and other professionals, whose skills you can leverage in order to offer potential clients a definite cost benefit, over competing service providers.
Five years isn’t an eternity, but it sure can feel like one. This journey is a never ending one and has been a rich, rewarding and at times difficult experience for me. I sincerely hope that these pointers help any reader/fellow freelancer on the way. Consider this my way of paying it forward.
Until next time, Godspeed.
About the author: Melroy Pinto
I’m 33, based in Mumbai, India. I have been a writer for a sum total of 12 years, 5 of which I’ve been a freelancer for. I have been associated with some of the Indian subcontinent’s most recognised advertising and branding firms, such as FCB-Ulka, DDB-Mudra and the Publicis Group (Beehive Advertising). I’ve most recently founded my own digital media firm called Beard Bros and continue to be associated with brands and agencies in a consulting / freelance capacity.