So You Want to be a Freelance: Five Reasons to Make the Leap

Last week, I tried to talk you out of freelancing with a list of five reasons freelancing is not all sunshine and roses. Maybe I made some of you give a little prayer of thanks for your 9 to 5. If, however, you’re still thinking freelancing might be the life for you, here are five reasons to further convince you to take the plunge.

1. You can work when you want.

With an office job, flex hours usually mean that you can take every other Friday off if you work nine hours every other day or something like that. You’re still expected to be in the office during “regular business hours,” which typically begin somewhere between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and end somewhere between 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. As a freelancer, flex hours mean you can literally work whenever you want. Morning person? No problem. Get up before the sun and be done by lunch. Unable to cope with sunlight until noon? No one’s going to stop you from starting work post the midday meal. Got a little bit of vampire in you? Well, the night’s all yours. If you want, you can change your schedule every day. You can refuse to even have a schedule. You’re welcome to do your grocery shopping at 2 p.m. on Tuesday and hit the gym at 10 a.m. You can go for a walk or a bike ride or just cartwheel around the neighborhood if you like. There are no time limits on lunch breaks. As long as you complete any work you commit to on time, then no one actually cares at what hour of the day you get it done.

2. You can work wherever you want.

Say goodbye to the generic office or, even worse, the cubicle, and set up your work space wherever you want. I find it nice to have a dedicated work space (decorated to suit my taste, of course), but I certainly don’t work there all the time. When the temperature parks itself in the 70s and the sun is bright and the birds are chirping, I pick up the office (aka my computer) and relocate to the back porch. Sometimes I’ll throw the office in my backpack and take it to the Duke Library. I’ve worked from a hammock and on an airplane and in a hotel room and during a long car ride. If it gets as hot this summer as it did last summer, I’m setting up shop in a kiddie pool in the backyard. The options are endless. While I personally remain fairly rooted, an entire army of “digital nomads” are marching all over the planet, working from wherever they can find a wireless connection.

3. There’s no dress code.

Though a lot of offices have become more casual since the days of the dot com boom, most workplaces still maintain a certain standard when it comes to wardrobes. Bathing suits are generally frowned upon. Pajamas as well. Nudity is definitely a no-no. But when you’re working at home you can wear (or not wear) whatever the heck you want, which means you don’t have to spend any of your hard-earned money on a work wardrobe. Wear whatever you find most comfy or most inspirational and go with it. No one’s going to know.

4. You get to choose your assignments.

While working in an office, most of us don’t have the freedom of telling our boss that the project (s)he just presented to us really isn’t what we’re looking to do at the moment. Or that our plates already full, and there’s just no room for anything else. As a freelancer, however, you have the liberty to choose assignments that interest you (as well as work for people that you find pleasant to do business with). Sure, when first starting out as a freelance, you’ll probably take most anything that comes your way, but as your business and reputation grows you reserve the right to be picky. Maybe you want to stick with one specific niche. Maybe you want to try your hand at a whole range of opportunities. The choice is yours.

5. Your income potential is open-ended.

Now, I admit it, this one is a bit of a double-edged sword, since open-ended could mean $200 dollars (or less) or $100,000 (or more). However, there’s something I find fun about being able to pick up a new project and with it a couple thousand dollars. As a salaried employee, new projects don’t come with new pay (except perhaps an occasional bonus). You pretty much know up front what you’re going to be making for the year or until your next review. And while it can be a bit scary as a freelancer not to have that security, it’s also exciting when you find yourself making more than you predicted you would.

Fellow freelancers, what can you add to this list? What is it about the freelance life that makes it your preferred lifestyle?

*The observations in this post and all other posts about freelancing are based on my experience as a freelance editor and copy writer (who does a tiny bit of travel writing on the side). I do think that they apply pretty universally, however, to the freelance experience.

So You Want to be a Freelancer: Five Reasons to Reconsider

I’ve been working entirely as a freelancer since we returned from our trip in October 2009. Nice, right?

Well, actually, until recently, I wasn’t entirely sure freelancing was the life for me.  To be honest, the first 1.5 years of my freelancing career were a bit rocky. I was underemployed to put it optimistically, and I actually missed a fair few things about office life. However, in the past couple of months, I’ve decided that freelancing is indeed what I want to do. It didn’t hurt that my hard work finally began to pay off with contracts and freelance work, but it was a stint back in the office as a contract worker and a subsequent offer for a full time job that made me realize I am actually right where I want to be (or at least on the right path).

What I have learned since starting out as a freelancer, however, is that freelancing is not quite the peaches and cream that you imagine it will be when you sit in a cubicle daydreaming. It has plenty of positives, believe me, but it has its share of negatives as well. So, for those of you considering making a jump into the murky depths of freelancing, let me try to talk you out of it. Here are five reasons why you  might want to reconsider.

(If they don’t make you change your mind, tune back in next week for reasons why freelancing is indeed the bee’s knees and then a subsequent post with tips on how to make the leap to full time freelancer.)

1. It can be lonely.
As a freelancer, it’s generally you, your desk, and your computer (or whatever it is you work on). Sure, you can take your work anywhere you want—to the back porch hammock, the coffee shop down the street, or a beach on the Carolina coast. There might be other people around in those places, but let’s face it, the guy working on his novel at the coffee shop probably isn’t looking to be interrupted by some dude he doesn’t know. As a freelancer you don’t have a coworker who you can commiserate with about a project or convince to go on a coffee break with you. There’s no cubicle wall to peer over, no office to pop in on. And while you might be free to go for a beer at 2:30 in the afternoon, your office-dwelling friends probably aren’t, and really, afternoon drinking by yourself is cause for concern. As a freelancer, you need to be either really, really good at alone time or have a pool of freelance friends to drink with mid-afternoon.

2. The work can be inconsistent.
As a freelancer, the best type of work is that in which you’re guaranteed a certain number of hours of work per week. Unfortunately, those gigs are few and far between. Instead, what you tend to find is a lot of project-based work, which basically translates to a couple of days or a couple of weeks of intense work and then a good few weeks of no work from that particular client. Ideally, when one client’s work dries up, another client’s work kicks in, but in reality, what seems to most happen, is that all your clients need all your time all at once. And because each client is your boss and because you want to keep your boss happy, you can’t really call a meeting and say you’re overwhelmed and ask for a bit of help with the workload. (This is especially true as a newbie, when you’re taking all the work you can get and don’t yet have the luxury of being selective.) In the end, this means you’ll have some weeks where you’re working ten hours a day every day of the week, weekends included, and some weeks where you’re lucky to work one full day. Your only constant is irregularity, so if you thrive on a schedule and routine, you might want to reconsider. Every day is a brand new game in the freelance world.

3. And thus the pay can be inconsistent.

When I worked in an office, #2 was true for me there as well. Some weeks I had a ton to do; other weeks I spent most of my time reading blogs. The thing is—and this is a big thing so pay attention—with an office job they pay you even if you don’t do a damn thing all day. As a freelancer, that’s not the case. You only get paid for the hours you actually work. Which means some weeks you might be pulling in the big bucks, and some weeks you  might not get paid at all. If you live hand-to-mouth, this is a not a good thing. It’s also a hard thing for budget keepers, because you never really know how much you’re going to make. Also, as a freelancer, you’re going to have to chase money more often than you’d like. Not all clients are good at paying on time. There’s no direct deposit every two weeks. There’s a check here and a check there, here a check, there a check, definitely not everywhere a check. Give some good hard thought to your comfort level with this kind of financial uncertainty before telling your boss you’re no longer interested in receiving a check from him.

4. Your hourly wage is not nearly as big as it looks.

When you tell people what you charge as a freelancer, you often get looks of amazement, as in “Wow, that’s a lot of money.” And on first examination, it often is. However, if you live in America, you immediately need to knock 15% off that number. That’s how much you have to pay in self-employment taxes to cover the portion of things your employer usually pays for, such as Social Security. Now you have your base pay, from which you will still have to pay income tax (on a self-reported quarterly basis). The self-employment tax is entirely different. Then consider the fact that you’re not getting health insurance, life insurance, paid vacation or sick days, and no employer contributions to a retirement plan. Figure out how much those things are going to cost for you to cover yourself. Divide that out and subtract it from the rate. Then look at the number. It’s not so high now, is it? Now this isn’t to say that freelance pay is bad. It can, in fact, be very, very good, depending on what field you’re in and what clients you find. But when you’re setting your rate, be sure to factor in all the oft-overlooked costs that will be coming out of that money. It’s more than you think.

5. You must constantly look for work.

Job hunting sucks. It’s always a relief to get a job and be able to tuck that resume and reference list away in a drawer and forget about it. If you’re a freelancer, however, you don’t get to do that. Your resume and references should be getting a constant workout. The nature of freelance work is that it is fluid. You never know when work from a client is going to dry up or when a client  might decide it’s easier for them to hire someone in-house to do the work you’ve been doing as a freelancer. To avoid being left high and dry, freelancers must constantly be looking for work, following new leads, making connections, and maintaining relationships with current and previous clients. During both weeks when you have five hours of work and weeks when you have fifty hours of work, you’ve got to keep up the hunt. It’s hard work, and you don’t get paid for it, but you’ll end up not getting paid at all if you don’t do it.

Taking the Time to Travel

In the November/December issue of National Geographic Traveler, an article addresses what they have deemed “Vacation-Deficit Disorder,” referencing a recent study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research called No-Vacation Nation. The article focuses on both the sad state of paid vacation available to most U.S. workers and the fact that many Americans don’t use the few vacation days they are given.

Among countries with advanced economies, the United States is the only country that does not mandate vacation days. Throughout Europe, companies are required to give employees anywhere from 20 (Belgium, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, the United Kingdom…) to 30 (France) vacation days each year. Even workaholic Japan stipulates 10 vacation days each year. No wonder Americans are so poorly traveled in comparison to the rest of the world. A two-week European vacation or a trip to Australia isn’t going to fly for the majority of working Americans.

So, how, I can hear people, asking is it possible to take an entire year out to travel? Well, as I see it, there are a few options. First, if you have a job that you like, check with your higher-ups to see if they’d be willing to give you a leave-of-absence or a sabbatical. This will give you the freedom to travel with the security of a job to come back to. Unfortunately, I must say, that the likelihood of your job allowing this is slim. But, as my momma always told me, the worst they can do is say no.

Second, if you’re still a young’un, consider taking your first year out of college to travel, or even put off college for a year to travel right out of high school. In the United Kingdom and Australia this is a common practice, referred to as a gap year. One problem might be that having never been employed, you’re unlikely to have much money. The good news is that as a young person you’re likely to need less money. You haven’t yet got used to the luxuries that older people find hard to give up. And you can always do odd-jobs as you go to bolster the bank account. Though this idea is still a bit radical in the U.S., it’s starting to catch on, meaning that universities and employers are beginning to look at it as a positive experience, not just a year of goofing off.

Third, you can say the heck with the job and give your notice. That, effectively, is what we’re doing. Or, more precisely, what I will be doing. Jeff is completing his PhD, so in some ways, he falls more under option two (although thankfully he is making money). I, having moved here with the stipulation that we’d leave D.C. once the PhD was in hand, would be quitting my current job regardless, so in many ways this is a natural break for us. But instead of moving to a new place and getting new jobs, we’re going to move to a lot of places and have no jobs. Obviously, a good choice.

In some ways, that’s a little scary. What in the heck are we going to do when we get back? We’re not 18 year olds who can just head on to school, we’re not retired folks who have no plans to go back to work, and we’re not beloved employees of a company dying to take us back upon our return. But you know what, I’m not too concerned. We’re both intelligent, hardworking, talented people (in my humble opinion, of course). We have education, and we have experience. We’ll find something. And if I have to work some weird jobs while I find a good position, well, that’s okay. I once pulled garbage bags full of maggots (see job at the Louisville Zoo). I can handle anything.

There’s never a perfect time. But there are plenty of good times, and in my opinion, it’s about priorities. This is what we want to do. There probably won’t be a better time to do it. So, hey, that’s it, we’re doing it. I’m not going to miss the rat race. Would you?

(And, yes, I know that the other question on everyone’s mind is how in the heck can we afford this. We will be addressing that in a future post, and while rumor has it that it’s not polite to talk about money, I’m going to do it.)