You can find plenty of positive things online about being your own boss, and we all know someone who says going freelance was the best decision they've ever made. With this article, we want to give you a more realistic view of this often glorified way of living.
Most of us know freelancing comes with the obvious not-so-fun stuff like an unstable income, invoice hunting and finding clients. Here we'll get into the challenges that may be less obvious, but are still important to keep in mind when deciding to work for yourself.
Waiting and patience
When you decide to venture out on your own, you are probably super excited to start working. You set up your website, you have your pitch deck ready, you've been emailing potential clients, maybe you already sent out some proposals. You are all set and ready to go. But freelancing involves a lot of waiting around. Waiting for emails, waiting for feedback, waiting for a green light on a project, waiting for the copy or images to be collected, waiting for that invoice to be paid.
Setting up and running your own practice takes a lot of patience.
When I first moved to Amsterdam, I gave myself a 3-month "trial period" to figure out if I could find work and if I wanted to stay. This sounded then like a good amount of time, but it goes by much quicker than you think. I only started to contact people when I arrived and looking back now, I probably should’ve started much earlier. Building a network is a slow process, so you have to start before you quit your job.
When you want to start working for yourself, it’s important to be proactive from the beginning. It will take some time before you can pick the fruits of your efforts. You will need to have patience and give yourself some time (6 months to a year) to get your business fully up and running.
Working for yourself involves a steep learning curve in the beginning. You are going for it alone and you need to manage a lot yourself. You might need to do your own photography, your own website, your own presentations. You will need to learn new software and skill sets. While it might be frustrating, you will make big steps forward at the beginning. The most important thing is that you continue improving yourself and working on your skills. Because after a few years, you might start to get comfortable with the way you do things, and this can be very damaging to your business.
I once worked with a designer at an agency who had been freelancing for over 10 years which, at that point, made him more senior than me. But because of the way he worked with the different Adobe programs, he wasn’t asked to come back the next week. The way he worked was just not up to date or to the standards of that agency and the industry.
So even though you are working for yourself most of the time, make sure you keep interacting with other creatives, sharing your different ways of working and keeping that learning curve going upwards.
Lack of mentorship
Having a mentor can be hugely beneficial for your career, no matter what stage you are in. A mentor can give you advice, guidance or can help you push your skill set to that next level. When I started working full-time in an advertising agency in London, I experienced how amazing it is to have highly talented people as your senior. I learned so much from them in a short amount of time, just by observing how they approach creative briefs or find design solutions by asking the right questions.
Now as a freelancer, it can be a bit trickier to find a good mentor. You usually work alone or you are hired for only a short amount of time at a company. You might find it awkward to ask another professional for help or advice. Or if you are a bit stubborn, you might think you don’t need other people's guidance and that you can figure it all out yourself. And I’m sure you can, but I would still recommend finding a mentor if you can. You don’t even have to limit yourself to one person or someone within your own industry or country. I’ve been lucky enough to do freelance projects with people who are more senior than me and from different disciplines and backgrounds, from whom I’ve learned a great deal. When you come across such people, don’t be scared to ask them to mentor you. Most people will feel flattered and will be happy to share their knowledge with you.
"Being a freelancer can give people the idea that you are 'free' most of the time or that you are 'not really' working all day."
The illusion of 24/7 availability
One of the downsides of today’s instant messaging culture is that your clients now also have access to you 24/7. It sometimes seems that people think you sit at home waiting for them to give you work. So there will be a lot of "quick jobs" that needed to be done yesterday. In the past when clients texted or Whatsapped me, I would feel pressure to reply to them straight away or work on their request that very minute, even if it was a weekend or I had a night off. This is obviously not a healthy way of working and can be disruptive to your personal time or worse, get in the way of other clients' work. So a while ago I set some boundaries with my clients and asked people to email me (or switch to Slack) for any work-related questions, just to keep a distance between work and personal communications.
Besides your clients, your family and friends can also (unintentionally) demand 24/7 access. Being a freelancer can give people the idea that you are "free" most of the time or that you are "not really" working all day. This means that you get asked more often to help with a move, family obligations or other things that people with a full-time job can’t easily do. This is usually not a problem because one of the main reasons people to go freelance is to live a more flexible life. But even with your family and friends, you may have to set some boundaries.
Living contract to contract
Depending on the kind of work you do, most freelancers don’t own their work after handing it over to the client. Most freelancers provide a service and it is difficult to build up long-term value from your work. Yes, you do gain knowledge, maybe you get some repeated jobs from your client, and over time you will hopefully be able to charge more money. But in the end you are still working contract to contract, job after job.
There are ways of changing this around by being more entrepreneurial. I haven’t look into this myself yet, but I know some designers work for start-ups and get paid in shares or equity. You can also license your work or sell the rights for only a short amount of time. Some designers make products or prints that they can sell on platforms like Society6 or Threadless. In this way, you can create a (small) passive income and keep ownership of your work as well.
"I always recommend doing projects on the side to keep your portfolio up-to-date with new, modern work."
When you work most of the time as a contractor for other agencies, you will probably have to sign a lot of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). This basically means that you have no ownership of your work and are not allowed to share any visuals, knowledge or information about the projects you work on. This usually happens when you work for big global brands through international advertising agencies. Sometimes they allow you to put the work you did in your portfolio when a project is live, but more often than not this won't happen, or you are not there when the project is finalized.
This makes it difficult to have a fresh portfolio and if you are not careful, your portfolio will be quickly outdated. For example, one of the latest projects in my portfolio is a campaign for Dr. Martens I worked on in 2016! Obviously, I’ve worked with other clients and companies after that, but most things didn’t make it into my portfolio, didn’t get signed off or never went live. So if you are a contractor, I always recommend doing projects on the side to keep your portfolio up-to-date with new, modern work.
One of the things most creative freelancers are pretty bad at is protecting themselves with contracts. Some may think it is not necessary to write up such a contract as we trust our clients, or we think we might scare them off when presenting them with one. Most of us probably think it is a lot of work to set up as well. I must admit that I’ve also never worked with a contract and that I don’t have any other form of terms and conditions for clients to sign. And just like any other freelancer, I have walked into projects that were badly managed, where I put way too much work in, and I’ve had clients that just didn’t want to pay after completion.
The Upsides of Freelancing
If we haven’t scared you off with the downsides of freelancing, then you might be ready to make the jump. We have plenty more to share about the benefits of freelancing and how to do it right, from finding clients, managing your finances and working with a recruiting agency. It's all here in our Freelance Life series.