The Downside to Freelancing

Jul
14
2008

Boardwalk Sculpture Festival May 6 2007

Over the years I have been freelancing in the web industry it has been peppered with it’s good and bad times, when you look back on these times you can see a distinct pattern of things that are good and bad aspects of the freelance lifestyle. Okay this is not going to have every solution to freelancing, but at least you get another view point and a few ideas.  Now I’m not discouraging people from taking up freelancing, far from it. It]s just a very good idea if you are considering getting into freelancing that you understand the full implications of what you are taking on.  This is the first of a two part article.

To that end here are the downsides to freelancing that doesn’t get talked about much, I little like the elephant in the room, the downside, the things that can and do go wrong, with a few solutions.

  • Cash Flow

    This can be a problem with any small business.  Constant bad debtors, clients trying to extend the  line of credit to the nth degree.  Every freelancer encounters this.  It becomes a little more personal and critical when there is just you bringing in the money.

    But it is more that just bad debits, with freelance work it can be hard to get steady work in your specialisation on a constant basis.  You will either have a feast or a famine.  Then there is the knowledge that you may not have any work lined up at all at the end of the next gig.  To say this can be stressful is an understatement.

    Now this is fine when you are young and have very little responsibilities. However as you get older, and you have a family to support the importance of a stable cash flow becomes increasingly important.  How do you achieve this.

    Mainly it’s about relationships.  You need to setup relationships with various primary sources of work.  Be that top end web design firms or marketing and design agencies, you need to have enough contacts that can allow you to take any overflow they have from time or have constant working partnership where they use your specialised skill set.

  • Isolation

    Freelancers often work alone, sometimes from home,  there is no team, no workmates to fall back on, no one to have that chat with around the water cooler or over coffee.  This means that in industries with a high amount of automation and electronic communication, like the web industry, it can be weeks sometimes before you get to see someone face to face.

    You are kidding yourself if you don’t think this a major issue, after all we are social beings.   With a normal 9 to 5 job you would be encountering and chatting with a large range of people everyday, even if  this is just your immediate team.  Being a freelancer you don’t tend to have this luxury.  Sure you may have your family, partner,  and the like,  but this is what the other “normal” people have as well.

    So how do you overcome the loneliness, the isolation, and stop the freelance cabin fever.  Well it’s basically a matter of getting out and about.  If you have a laptop, go check out the local coffee shops, find the ones with best freelancing facilities (as Miles Burke discusses).  Maybe go find your local co-working space,  this will allow you to work along side like freelancers from maybe even different industries.  Ensure you get to all the social or networking events you can.  Get out to the gym or your favorite social sport. Contact your old friends, freelancing colleagues and go for a coffee, just get out of the office/studio  and see people, interact, talk.

    Some online services like Twitter, Plurk and FriendFeed may help give you a water cooler conversation, but at the end of the day, it’s just a stop gap measure, stop living in the freelance cave, go talk to people, as a freelance you have to make the effort, even schedule it.

  • Business Appearance

    Very often as a freelancer when you are pitching for a project you will be going against other firms that may have a large resource base.

    So it can be a big temptation to give a false impression that you too have large resource base behind you.  Now if you do this you will get caught out, plain and simple.  Clients will end up sending you work to the point that you are totally overloaded.   This is not going to make life very pleasant, we can’t all work 18 hours days on constant basis and still produce top quality work.

    So how do you handle grabbing that ideal contract, or plum gig.  Well don’t lie.  Keep it simple, keep it honest.  There is nothing wrong with telling people you are the principle consultant and that you have a group of sub contractors you can use as required.  This is where you use your contacts, your fellow freelancers and other colleagues to genuinely support your bid.

  • Finding Leads

    By now you will be starting to see that a lot of these issues are interrelated, this one is no exception.  Finding new leads, clients or people to partner with can be an issue at times.

    In a way  a lot of the low cost marketing ideas that can be applied to small business can also be applied to freelancers as well. The usual solutions such as business and peer networking, web promotion can be applied, depending on the market segment you are looking at.

    However where a small business can be promoting the “business” you are really only promoting yourself and your skill set.  This means that there can be an added benefit here doing a lot more self promotion.   Basically this entails getting your name out among your peers and the agencies you want to partner with.

    Ensuring that they know who you are, and that they can depend on you.  Make sure that you promote your skill set and ensure people know that you are the local (for example)  SEO, usability, CSS or Ruby guru to call on.  It all comes down to building your reputation.  You can do this a number of ways, blogs, talks, forums, volunteering.  The most important aspect is word of mouth, you have to ensure that your work you do is always top notch.

    Now there is another aspect, it’s your presentation, you want to make it very clear that your are freelancing and are not out to steal clients or build your business off the back of the people you are partnering with. Yes this is hard call, it’s a bit of a juggling act.

  • Separation from Work

    The separation of work from personal life can be a problem, especially if you work from a home office.  If you have been a freelancing even for just a short time you will know exactly what I’m talking about.  It’s just so easy to drift back into the office, to check email, maybe a feed, or to just finish of the project. This is effectively taking time away from the people you love and care for, family and friends.

    Yes, I know at times we all have to do this.  But at the end of the day if you are constantly working 16-18 hour days, 7 days a week,  you really have to ask yourself why are you working on this mad burnout cycle.  Some of this overload relates to the multiple roles problem (see below), however the rest is just destroying the love for reasons  you started freelancing in the first place.

    The best way I have found to separate work and family life is to physically separate them.  Have a physically separate office / studio that is purpose build (or refitted) as a work place. That’s all it is used for, when you are in that room you are effectively at work, removed from all distractions.  It’s a matter of discipline I find, you walk out of the room on Friday night and don’t go back in till Monday, okay you will break that rule from time to time, but at least try to stay away from weekend work.

    Now for that weekend, plan in advance, set yourself non-work related tasks or just things you want to get done, this will help keep you out of the office.

    Sure you want to go online during the weekend, maybe read a few feeds etc. Fine, then get a laptop (the eeepc is just $500) use this as your non-work connection to the web, you can check your feeds, non work email, blog away, and stay in the usually social network loop. That said make it clear to your friends and family that if your are on the laptop out of the office you are open game to be interrupted.

  • No Work, No Pay, No Play

    This is often an aspect that people forget.  It’s a distinct difference between a freelancer and small business.  With a small business you will often have a few employees that can at least generate some income while you are not around.

    Being a freelancer you don’t have that luxury,  like being a contractor, if you get sick or on a holiday,  no income is being generated.  This basically means that you have to allow  a percentage of your income over the year that can be put a side for a holiday or for times when you get sick.

    I have found over the years it’s best to ensure that everyone knows, that’s clients, and agencies you are working for  when you are going to be away, and if you can be contacted at all during this period. Be this for a conference or holiday. Nothing worse than having to patch a web site over a PDA via a 28k modem line in some beautiful exotic location, you are stressing and working half blind while the people around you are all having fun.

    Getting sick is also a  problem.  It does happen, I’m not condoning drugging yourself up and trying to work through it, we have all done that from time to time.  But sometime you just have admit you are human and take the time to recover.  A better solution would be don’t get sick in the first place.  Maintain your fitness levels, eat well, try not to stress out too much, in fact let’s reduce that stress.  Get that flu shot, yes it does work, others will be laid out for a week, where as you may only get a fever for an afternoon.

    Also consider getting income protection insurance, get a policy that has only a few days wait period, so if you are off for a week, you are covered.  Yes it costs but when you need it you will be very grateful.

  • Multiple Roles

    Freelancing is no different to any small business, you are going to find yourself doing everything from the accounts, admin, marketing, sales to the things you love.  Now I’ll assume that you are a gun and have a very professional attitude to your loved production work.   It’s the other things that frankly we all tend to hate or do badly.

    However with freelancing you have to be at least capable of wearing multiple hats, it’s kind of expected that you are multi-talented.   Often you will find that those spare hours in the evening or on the weekend get taken up with these unpaid duties. So why do it?

    This brings me to an interesting point.  When you first start out, doing everything maybe a good idea. However you will get to a point where you are in fact burning your billable hours doing admin, accounts or some such.   Well maybe you should be contacting that aspect of your work out to some other freelancer and free yourself up.  We all have an element of our work we dislike, this I believe is the element you should be outsourcing.

So is that a complete list of the downside of freelancing or have you encountered other issues?

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10 comments

  1. Great article Gary. With all my complaints of my current government workplace, people have often asked why don’t I freelance? You have answered for me. It’s not as easy as it sounds as you have very clearly outlined.

  2. @Zuzu – there is an upside, that comes next, but if you are not ready for the downside it can be a surprise. Freelancing is not for everyone. And even then over time freelancing may not be suited to peoples general needs etc.

    @Josh – thanks.

  3. Not a serious observation, but there is another down side. It is that awkward moment when you try to explain to some-one that you do have a ‘real job’.

  4. @David. I have been doing this that long that I have never considered that. I do get the “freelancing is a transitional phase for your business – right” looks from time to time. Then I explain I have been doing it for a while.

  5. @David
    what real job? come on, get serious, of course is not a real job,
    you do not have a boss to stress you, and to show you how smart and powerful he is,
    you don’t have to get up early in the morning to go to the office,
    you don’t have to make tasks that you simply hate it
    is not a real job….

    now seriously, i am a freelancer for past 3 years now, and that allowed me to change the country, to work when i want, at what project i want
    of course there are drawbacks, lot of them, but my freedom is more important.
    is true that sometimes i am thinking to get hired, because with my skills i would get a nice salary( not sure if bigger then what i earn now ), but after this i just think of what i said before…

  6. Imho, you forgot one or two things:

    1. Your mistakes carry on so much more weight when you’re “a business” and that’s because people tend to fuse blame on people. In a small business people who make critical mistakes can be fired in order to preserve a client – you don’t have the luxury to make mistakes.

    2. You have to have the work ethics and be able to will yourself to work on things. This may sound far-fetched but it does come to pass when you work on long-term projects and your payment plan relies on your own personal work (due to reputation, etc) – and the project suddenly becomes very boring. (If, like me, you went to freelancing so you wont get too bored doing the same thing)

    BTW. A very good article :]

  7. Good points Garry, Freelancing is a hard gig. I have found that by branding it “Independent” its little bit easier to sell as compared to “Freelancing”.
    Some of yr points r dead right.

  8. Hi Gary, Great posts, and I’ve heard you mention these before at barcamp.

    Just want to point out that Business Appearance can be used as a positive selling point. Freelancers can have a “can do” attitude that other companies cannot provide.

    “The web is a great equalizer. A tiny business can have a better website than a huge one. A tiny business can do better customer support than a big one. A tiny business can write a better newsletter than a big one.”

    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2008/07/should-small-bu.html

    Maybe someday

  9. Yikes! Thanks for this. I’m glad there’s an upside, too.

    I’m working as an urban planner, and I write on the side. Both have ample opportunities for freelancing, but I can see how you need to hustle and at the same time draw borders between work and personal.

    All told, you still seem to enjoy it.

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