We’re continuing our focus on freelancing this month, with IPSE’s National Freelancers Day coming up next week. So far, we’ve looked at why freelance? as well as how to get started freelancing. This week, we’re shifting gears a little and taking a look at some of the challenges of freelancing.
Here, I find that there’s a stereotype that presents the freelancer as always struggling, riding the rollercoaster of too much work one week and not enough the next, and surviving at the mercy of just a couple of very demanding clients. While it’s true that the life and career of a freelancer is not all rainbows and butterflies, it’s also true that it doesn’t have to be quite so bleak – and there are strategies and tactics you can follow to overcome the challenges of freelancing.
The biggest challenges of freelancing (and how to overcome them)
1. Knowing your worth
Setting your rates as a freelancer is possibly one of the hardest things to do, especially when you’re starting out. You may try to look at what others are charging – but who’s to say how they arrived at those rates and if they’re even successful? You’re also likely to underestimate your worth by disregarding the years of experience and the skills you’ve accumulated in your career and the results that you can get your clients. The temptation, especially at the start, is to accept any rate because you’re so grateful that someone is hiring you.
To recognise and charge what you’re worth, you should:
- work out how much you need to charge in order to reach your income goals – it’s likely to be more than you think, once you consider the number of billable hours you have and take off all the associated expenses;
- build your confidence by mapping out all your hard and soft skills, unique personality strengths and proof of your credibility (awards, qualifications, etc.);
- practice saying your rate out loud (without immediately adding “…but I’m happy to negotiate!”).
In order to grow, you’ll also want to be raising your rates regularly as you gain more experience and hone your skills, and move away from charging by the hour towards instead charging a project fee (so that you get paid more for less time as you get faster and better at delivering your work).
2. Selling yourself
As an employee, not only are you given a certain salary without having to do much negotiating, but you also have the name of a big company behind you. When I went to conferences as a Brand Manager at Procter & Gamble, people were lining up to speak to me – once I left, I was one of many ‘self-employed’ who was seeking work from others. I had years of marketing experience but, as I soon discovered, sales uses a very different set of skills and strategies!
To get more comfortable with the idea and practice of selling yourself, you’ll want to:
- get over the ‘ickiness’ of sales and recognise that without selling yourself you’re not going to be able to make a living;
- practise your ‘elevator pitch’ so that you can quickly and effectively tell people that you are an “X who works with Y type of clients to help them achieve Z result”;
- have conversations every single week, as building relationships takes time and the conversations you’re having today will decide the income you’ll have coming in a few months from now.
As you gain more experience, you can also let others do the talking for you: make sure you gather and leverage client testimonials and case studies to let your work speak for itself and bolster your credibility further.
3. Managing clients
You may well be grateful for any work that comes in, especially at the start or during a slow period – but then you start working with a particularly difficult client and you immediately regret your decision! Unfortunately, there are clients who create more problems than they’re worth, with poor communication, unreasonable demands and last-minute requests, and late or inadequate payment.
To manage your clients effectively, you must:
- set clear goals and expectations upfront with a contract outlining deadlines and payment terms, as well as any assumptions and requirements;
- have regular check-ins to ensure that everyone is clear on what needs to be delivered and when, and that you can flag any issues that will prevent you from delivering on time;
- learn from your mistakes and trust your intuition in future so that you can choose to say “no” to difficult clients – or raise your fees to make up for the pain you know will follow!
Of course, you also need to do your part to build trust and respect when it comes to the work that you’re delivering. As you gain more experience, you’ll be able to identify your best clients – the ones that are passionate, collaborative and profitable – and focus more on delivering those kinds of projects.
4. Managing your workload
Whether your clients are especially difficult or not, there’s often a temptation for you as a new freelancer to over-service and to agree to every single request. There has to be a certain level of goodwill and industriousness – you want to deliver the project to your own high standards and to the satisfaction of the client, after all – but that’s not to say that you should be killing yourself to do that. You’ve most likely become a freelancer in order to have more freedom and flexibility to spend quality time with a young family, for example, and you mustn’t forget that and end up in a situation where you’re always putting your work first.
To manage your workload and ensure you’re getting the balance that you’re after, you need to:
- be clear on what success looks like for you, both in terms of the income you want on the one hand and the ways of working on the other;
- get comfortable with gently pushing back on unreasonable deadlines or demands, being realistic with what’s possible and providing constructive solutions for how to get the client the results they want without you having to sacrifice your health or relationships to do so;
- learn to say “no” to the projects and clients that will consistently or significantly interfere with your other priorities, for example, requiring you to work every day on your family holiday.
The key thing here is to remember your ‘why’, the vision you have for your freelancing career and the big picture of your life as a whole, and to manage your projects and clients to support that vision.
5. Setting boundaries
One of the biggest challenges of working for yourself is actually the other side of the coin of the very freedom and flexibility that you so desire. Since you can work when and where you want, there are no clear boundaries between office and home, work and play. With increasingly blurred lines, it can become a slippery slope where you end up working evenings, weekends and holidays – which, again, was probably something that you were hoping to avoid! You don’t want that freedom and flexibility to become a burden.
To help set some boundaries and establish a structure to your freelancing work, you can:
- create physical boundaries with a defined office space (rather than just sitting in the kitchen or on the sofa) along with a separate email address and, if possible, also a separate phone number for work and home;
- block out your week and be intentional about when you work and when you don’t, planning your days off and proper holidays ahead of time (and sticking to those plans!);
- take breaks throughout the day and use the flexibility that you have to exercise, cook healthy meals and run any errands so that you’re using your downtime effectively.
It’s important to remember that when you’re working for yourself, taking care of yourself is taking care of your business. It’s a fallacy to think that working yourself into the ground will bring you better results. The only outcome will be burnout, other health problems or damaged relationships with your loved ones, and, ultimately, an inability to deliver your work.
6. Feast or famine
Perhaps the most common complaint of a freelancer is the ‘feast-or-famine’ cycle. One day, you have ten leads and the next you have none; this week you have too much work, next week too little; this month you have a spike in your income, and next month you’ll struggle to pay your bills. You may have taken that one step outside the 9 to 5 but you’re still trading your time for money and now you don’t even have that steady salary and all those benefits that you used to have as a full-time employee.
In order to even out the feast-or-famine cycle, you should:
- think of yourself as a business and not ‘just’ a freelancer – this will give you the rigour and ambition you need to get out of that painful cycle of not having control over your income and to put you in the driver’s seat;
- develop a business plan with different streams of income so that you don’t become dependent on trading your time for money and working with just one or two clients;
- engage in proactive marketing – public speaking, expert interviews, blogging, etc. – to build your profile as an industry expert and to build a pipeline of clients for the future.
Above all, don’t accept this feast-or-famine cycle as an inevitable facet of freelancing; find ways to even this out and get the stability that you need. We’ll be looking more at how you can think of yourself as a business and level out your income next week.
Next week’s post will be our final one in this series on freelancing and we’ll be featuring Millennial money expert Michelle Jackson as she shares her perspective on how to manage your money as a freelancer.
In the meantime, come on over and join our Facebook group, where we’re running free live training sessions to dig into some of these strategies and help you achieve the vision you have for working for yourself!