A freelancer is self-employed person offering services, usually to businesses and often to multiple clients at a time. The type of work freelancers do varies. Nearly every type of service a business would need could be provided by a freelancer, including (but not limited to), marketing, such as social media marketing, copywriting, and publicity, writing, such as articles and blog posts, technological support, such as web programming and design, creative works such as graphic design, and financial support, such as bookkeeping.
According to the Freelancers Union, 55 million Americans–35% of the workforce–have freelance careers, with a combined estimated earning of $1 trillion a year.
Freelancing is so flexible, you can set your own hours, working full or part-time on the projects of your choice. While clients can offer specifications to the work, a freelancer works similar to an independent contractor, in which he’s free to control how the work is completed. This is an important distinction for tax purposes, because the IRS views employees and independent contractors differently.
Further, freelancing allows you to set your own price, which is often higher than what you’d make as an employee doing the same work.
The regularity of freelance work can vary. Many freelancers work for the same set of clients over a long period of time. For example, a freelance writer might have a client that requires an article twice a week ongoing.
Others work with clients over shorter periods, usually on specific projects. For example, a freelance web designer might build a website for a client and once the site is done, so is the work relationship.
Advantages of Freelancing
There are several perks to working as a freelancer, including:
Get started quickly…today even. As long as you already know the skill you plan to offer, getting started is simply a matter of finding your first client.
Easy to start. You can start right now, using your network find a client. While you’ll want to build a LinkedIn profile and/or a website, you can network within your current career and friend networks to find your first client.
Affordable. Odds are if you have the ability to provide the service, you also have whatever equipment or software you need to deliver it. Eventually you’ll want to invest in business building tools, such as a website, but using LinkedIn (which is free) is a great online resume that can help you promote your service.
High demand for help. While the marketplace of freelancers is competitive, the need for quality, reliable freelancers is growing. Many businesses don’t have employees and instead have a team of freelancers.
Choose your own schedule. Work when and where you want.
Pick and choose clients. While in the beginning you may take any client that will hire you, as you grow, you can choose not to take on difficult clients. You can even fire them.
Do the work the way you see fit. While you need to deliver what the client asks, how the work is done is up to you.
Disadvantages of Freelancing
Where there’s a good, there’s usually a bad. Here are some disadvantages to freelancing:
Can take time to build a steady clientele. Getting enough clients to make freelancing something that supports you and your family can take awhile.
Work can be irregular. Many freelancers experience an ebb and flow in their work. You need to plan for lean times, and be ready to work hard to deliver work on-time when work is plentiful.
Managing multiple clients and projects can be a challenge. While some people like the variety of working on several projects at a time, others may find it difficult to keep track of deadlines and pace themselves to deliver quality work on time. Great time management systems and organization is key.
Pay may be low to start out. Especially in today’s digital economy, many people expect to pay less for work from a new freelancer. Breaking in with lower costs may be needed, but as quickly as possible, seek to charge what you’re worth and find clients willing to pay for quality.
What’s the Difference Between a Freelancer and Home-Based Service Business?
There really isn’t a difference between freelancing and a home business. Both are self-employed individuals and can work for several clients at a time. Both can set their own schedules and have to abide by the same self-employment tax rules.
With that said, there are a few differences between freelancers and home business owners. A freelancer often works under his own name, where as a home business owner usually creates a business name. Often a home business owner has found way to fill a gap in the market whereas a freelancer works within the established needs of the market.
How to Get Started as a Freelancer
Getting started as a freelancer is as easy as visiting one of the freelance sites to find work, and networking with your current sphere of influence to find your first client. Here’s steps to building a freelance career:
1. Decide what you’ll offer. Common freelance work includes writing, web design, graphic design, photography, marketing, social media management, bookkeeping and more.
2. Determine your target market. Who needs what you have to offer? Decide if you’ll specialize within a specific niche of your service (i.e. copy writing or WordPress web design) or within a specific market (i.e. writing for Realtors or web design for authors). This is the time to decide your brand and unique selling proposition.
3. Create an online portfolio. Start at LinkedIn, a social network all about career networking. Build a profile that promotes the benefits you have to offer. Consider setting up a website, which will offer you more customization and flexibility than LinkedIn.
4. Set your prices. Make sure you charge enough to cover your overhead, time to do the work, as well as to earn a living.
5. Start reaching out to find clients. Use your network to help you connect with potential clients. Consider using a freelance site, such as Freelancer.com or Upwork (formally eLance and Odesk) to find work. While they may pay less than you want, it can be a great way to get experience, testimonials and referrals.
All of these kinds of freelance writers do very different things. Josh the guy who specializes in hastily written hot-takes to daily news events has a very different life than Judy the girl who writes website copy for Big Business Firm, Inc. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some universal truths across freelancing—not least of which is the fact that freelancing is a veritable obstacle course of annoyances.
Fortunately, these annoyances are entirely predictable. You do not just have to throw up your hands and surrender to misery. Just as every cloud has a silver lining, every problem has a coping strategy. Here they are.
1. An editor wants you to change your perfect prose
You turned something in. Your three closest friends agreed it was genius. But your editor wants you to “rework” things, so now you’re fuming with righteous anger. What kind of world do we live in where this person does not see the perfection of this great work?
First, try not to take it personally. Editors are busy. Also, they have bosses. Their bosses have bosses. So maybe your editor got a memo this week reading “NO MORE (INSERT WHAT YOUR PIECE IS LIKE HERE) OF THIS CRAP.” You don’t know! You will never know!
Weirdly, whether the editor is “wrong” or “right,” and no matter how angry their comments make you, I guarantee that if you do what they say, you will be pleased with the result nine times out of 10. Putting more time and thought into your work generally makes it better.
Even if you think the feedback is stupid, take the editor’s stupid ideas and start molding it into your slightly better idea. The piece will miraculously improve. Before you know it, you’ll turn in the draft and be at an afternoon Inferno Hot Pilates class.
2. An editor asks for too many rewrites
Every assignment has a threshold of diminishing returns. Eventually, rewriting a piece doesn’t make it any better. At this point, you are allowed to speak up.
Remember, your editors (probably) aren’t trying to make your life hell. They have a lot of pressure to hit a certain tone, and then, according to that whole boss/bosses’ boss chain referenced above, that certain tone changes.
So be polite. Say something like “I think we’ve approached this from a couple different angles, and I don’t really see how we can try another one.” Then, against your best instincts, try to be complimentary: “I loved your suggestion about going into possible motivations for the closing of the fish hatchery before launching into an analysis of its board of directors, and I think that draft was best.” Then suggest a way to wrap everything up: “So are there any tweaks we can make to that draft to bring it home?”
Do not feel shy about your right to call it a day if your hourly rate drops from something vaguely acceptable to the 1987 minimum wage. The free in freelancer is about your freedom, not doing things for free.
3. People aren’t paying you on time
This is the worst part of being a freelancer. It’s extremely frustrating to do a job for people—particularly people who get a nice check every two weeks—and feel like they don’t care whether you get paid (or, in some cases, don’t actually want to pay you).
Step one: Calm down and remember that it’s very unlikely people are sitting around trying to screw you over. Most money hold-ups are logistical. So write polite notes to those involved. If you don’t hear from them, call. Be direct to find out your expected payday.
Sadly, you might have to wait two weeks or two months for the situation to untangle itself, which is awful, but also Just The Deal™. You will get paid. Resist the temptation to be rude, even though the temptation of rage is your only alternative to feeling pathetic.
If the organization is truly trying to weasel out of paying you, contact the Freelancers Union. The organization recently passed legislation in New York City to help with this very issue. Even if you don’t live there, someone can recommend relevant resources.
4. Someone steals your idea
I have a friend who wrote an entire piece, only to find out that someone more famous than her (as in, possessing any fame at all) wanted to write on that topic. So her piece was killed. Bye! Another friend of mine got halfway through a piece and then found out someone she met at a party was publishing a piece on the very same topic.
I wish I had some good news or advice for you here. I mean, the first friend got a kill fee, but that was cold comfort after all that work. As for the second friend… for every 30 great conversations you have with fellow writers, expect one person to steal your ideas. What are you gonna do, stop having drinks with other writers?
Ideas are a dime a dozen. Your job isn’t to jealously guard the ones you have, it’s just to have more. Yeah, I know. Ugh.
5. People you wrote about are not happy
Part of the reason one becomes a writer—aside from the massive income, endless accolades, and glamour of spending one’s days in bed wearing sweats—is to tell the truth.
You might write that a restaurant is bad or a TV show should be cancelled. You might even make the case that someone is a murderer. Telling the truth, or your version of it, will upset people. (People will get mad at you even when you write nice things. Why? Because no good deed goes unpunished.)
Angry people will leave angry voicemails or write nasty emails. They might insult you on social media. If they do something illegal or harass you, you can contact the authorities or the authorities at Twitter, as reporter Lauren Duca did recently when Pharma Bro Martin Shkreli conducted targeted harassment against her.
Ignoring someone is hard, but it’s not as hard as feeling bad about the impact of your work. It’s not easy having a job that can affect other people’s lives. At the same time, someone needs to alert mankind to the reality it inhabits. Every writer thinks they’re uniquely qualified to tell the truth about the world, or they would have done something else. So do what you’re supposed to do.
Freelancing is a fast and affordable way to get started working as your own boss from home. With that said, there are pros and cons, and success comes from those who plan their business and deliver high quality work.