In 2011 I asked if we were in the midst of a freelance revolution.
“This transition is nothing less than a revolution. We haven’t seen a shift in the workforce this significant in almost 100 years when we transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Now, employees are leaving the traditional workplace and opting to piece together a professional life on their own. As of 2005, one-third of our workforce participated in this “freelance economy.” Data show that number has only increased over the past six years. Entrepreneurial activity in 2009 was at its highest level in 14 years, online freelance job postings skyrocketed in 2010, and companies are increasingly outsourcing work. While the economy has unwillingly pushed some people into independent work, many have chosen it because of greater flexibility that lets them skip the dreary office environment and focus on more personally fulfilling projects.”
—The Freelance Surge is the Industrial Revolution of Our Time:
Fewer Frustrations, More Stress
I’m in my 14th year of operating solo and have watched as several of my colleagues have gone independent and I have learned from others who have been freelancing longer than me. I know that many salaried jobs can be frustrating, from my own experience, client work, and talks with friends and colleagues. On the other hand, freelancing is probably less frustrating, as you have much more control, but more stressful for the same reason.
Nine years ago I wrote an article, So you want to be an e-learning consultant?, and updated it on this blog in 2011, So you (still) want to be an e-learning consultant? In 2007 I advised those considering consulting to keep costs low and not overestimate how much they will make. I noted that many clients pay 30 days or more after being billed. Well reality is that some clients take over 100 days to pay, as standard policy.
The freelance consulting field continues to grow, so there is constant global competition. This can make it a buyer’s market. I know many free agents who have significant gaps between paid work. I am currently in a period of several months without client work. During the last recession I went over eight months without revenue. If you are going to make the move, ask yourself how long you can last without any new income. It should be at least three months.
Many people are able to succeed as freelancers with the support of a working partner/spouse. I would not recommend taking the freelance plunge as the sole income earner of a family, which I did. It adds significant stress. I would recommend cutting as many costs as possible, like car payments, before going out on your own. If your monthly bills are low, you can survive for a long time.
Build a Network
The money is important but you also need a support network. Who can you talk to about pricing, or other details you might not want to talk about in public? Find or create a community of practice. Connect with other freelancers in a non-competitive way so that you can share confidences among yourselves. My colleagues at the Internet Time Alliance have helped me in many ways over the past nine years. It’s great to have a place to vent, learn, or even share a joke, where people know exactly what you do for a living. In my small town, very few locals understand what I do professionally.
There are likely many books about freelancing. I have only read one, many years ago, Free Agent Nation, which I found useful but US-centric. I think you can learn more by talking with some freelancers, if you are considering it. The next time you are at a conference, offer to buy a free agent a drink and have a chat. They will appreciate your willingness to at least pay a token in return for their advice. This will be a good reminder, because once you are no longer affiliated with an organization, many people will ask for free advice or work for exposure. I get several requests per week. But other freelancers can help you set up methods to deal with these. Your community and professional network become your lifelines. Don’t leave your current employment without them. In summary:
- Build relationships
- Cut costs
- Save money
- Keep on learning
- Almost forgot: start a blog
As the gig economy continues to expand, more of us will be doing the freelance thing. We can help each other out. But building trusted relationships takes time. Start now.