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If you’ve read any of my work before, you probably know that I’ve been in publishing since 1987, have been a freelancer since 1993 and ran an editorial staffing agency in New York City from 1996 through 2004.
Some lessons I’ve learned from this crazy journey are as follows:
1. Staying abreast of technology is crucial: Back in 1998, I was pushed to get a website for my company because clients and candidates were asking questions like, “Can I apply online? Can I download the contract from your site? Can I post a job to your website?”
Well, as we didn’t even have a website, I would embarrassingly say no. The “loud silence,” especially from clients, on the other end of the phone line got to be too much.
Going through the process of getting a website taught me the value of staying on top of technology. I learned that while I don’t need to be a hard-nosed techie, to stay competitive, I had to know enough to be able to stay competitive. This meant not only getting a site, but learning how to update it myself.
One of the wonderful things about technology is that new tools are constantly being developed for those of us who are NOT tech-savvy, eg, FrontPage software for building websites, autoresponder software, listserv software for building mailing lists, etc.
2. Writing is a skill: “Obviously,” you mutter. However, many writers don’t treat their craft like it. I single out writers because, in my experience, proofreaders, copy editors, indexers, editors, graphic designers, illustrators, etc. all seem to see intrinsic value and take pride in their work.
Many writers take their craft for granted. Maybe it’s because society views writing as just words on paper. After all, once you know your ABC’s, you can write, right? Well, editorial professionals know better than anyone that this is not so.
One thing I advise all professional writers to do to combat this lackadaisical attitude is to treat their writing like a business skill. Just like being a professional coder, artist or web designer – when you put yourself out there, market and treat your skill like the highly valued commodity it is.
Let it be reflected in your “perfectly prepared” marketing materials – eg, your website, brochure, postcard, etc. Also, when you speak with potential clients, be sure to use a professional tone. No one is going to believe that you write professionally if you don’t talk like it as well.
3. Freelancing full-time is not hard: It’s not easy, to be sure. But, building a successful, full-time freelance career is not terribly difficult, if:
a. You have experience within your discipline. Most successful freelancers I’ve encountered have worked full-time within their discipline at some point.
b. You are willing to work fulltime and freelance on the side for a period of time. Many freelancers leave their jobs once they got too burned out doing both, or secure a big project that allows them to make the leap.
c. You plan for it. Some freelancers (the most successful ones I might add) are more calculating about their careers.
What I mean by this is that they plan a year or two out – knowing that they are going to leave their jobs. So, they save 6 months or a year’s expenses, pay off credit card bills, buy equipment while working full-time, etc.; then, they make the leap.
The ones I know who followed this path are, not surprisingly, the most successful – meaning, they have gone on to hire employees. A few even opened offices and became “official” businesses because their client load demanded it.
Can you build a freelance business if you don’t have these three things? Absolutely! However, it is even more critical that you devise a plan of how you’re going to go about it. Having experience and industry contacts makes it easier, but the web makes it easier than ever today to start a freelance business.
4. Marketing is a skill that must be developed: When most freelancers start out, they may have two or three clients who keep them pretty busy. BUT, the day comes when the projects dry up (it always happens) and you have to scrounge for business.
It’s at this point that many panic and start looking for a full-time job again. When I was recruiting, I received more than a few panicked calls, eg, “I have to find something — quick!”
Invariably, I was unable to help them (see Point #5 below). It usually was a moot point though because within a month or so, some project would come along and they would no longer be interested or available for a full-time job.
It was during this time that I got interested in the whole topic of freelancing as a business. Most freelancers focus on their craft and not the business of freelancing. However, as I preach ad nauseam on InkwellEditorial.com, to be successful as a freelancer, you must, must, must learn how to market if you want a full-time, sustainable career as a freelancer.
5. Employers don’t like to hire freelancers for full-time jobs: It was my experience when I was recruiting that if you freelanced full-time for a year or more, employers were very hesitant to hire you as a full-time employee. Why?
Because most think that you are only seeking full-time work because you have hit a rough patch financially. Logically, it just makes sense. I mean, who gives up a successful freelance career to go back to the 9-5 grindstone? Most employers figured that as soon as the next big project came along, their new hire would be out the door.
I have seen it happen on many occasions – so much so that when I was recruiting, I would screen out those with a significant freelance history because the chances that they would leave was just too great.
I once lost a $6,000 placement fee because the employee quit – 10 days before the 90-day guarantee. [Most recruiting firms give employers a 60 or 90-day guarantee that the employee will stay put for at least this amount of time, or they don’t have to pay.]
6. You can’t change your rates every year: Charge enough that you don’t have to change your rate for three years. I know some make take umbrage with this, but I’ve found editorial (eg, writing, copy editing, proofreading, indexing, editing, etc.) to be a very static industry. It is not one where you can raise rates yearly.
Some of the companies I freelanced for back in 1993 still pay the same rates today – I’m not kidding! So, I advise all freelancers who are just starting out to start out charging enough so that they don’t have to change their rates for three years.
It’s been my experience that after this period, you can increase rates without worrying about losing even one of your clients. Putting forth the “argument” of, we haven’t raised rates in three years somehow seems to make it fair for them.
Working on this time schedule, I don’t ever remember losing a client. I think it’s a combination of clients being comfortable with your work and them thinking, “after three years, an increase is only fair.”
7. You must develop a niche: I’ve known a few freelancers who did several things successfully (eg, designed websites and wrote the copy for them), but this was the exception, not the norm.
Most successful freelancers niche it. What I mean is, they develop a niche and stick to it. In my opinion, it is far easier to become successful like this than being a generalist.
Trust me, those sites where you see freelancers touting that they do everything from writing to web design to illustration are not making that much money, or they are farming the work out to other freelancers.
Most clients like to know that they are getting a knowledgeable professional who has a history and body of work within the discipline they are being hired for. If it is a pharmaceutical company, they want a writer who has done this type of writing before.
So, develop a niche and market the hell out of it!
8. Patience is a virtue: Even after all of my years in the industry, I’m amazed by how difficult it can be to be patient while I grow my business. I have lists and lists of ideas that I want to implement and there just never seems to be enough time.
This is easily a career where you can work nonstop all the time. An idea for an article pops in your head and instead of jotting down the idea, you find yourself writing the whole article; you go online to do some research, and before you know it you have spent two hours surfing the net on an unrelated matter; you log on to check email, and in an instant, you find yourself redesigning a section of your website; the list is endless.
This is an issue I still struggle with; although, I have gotten better about stopping. So, instead of browsing for 2 hours, it might be 30 minutes before I literally make myself stop and go back to my original task.
The best advice I can give to stop this kind of behavior is to think of your long-range goals – and ask yourself if what you’re doing this very minute is getting you closer to them. If not, stop and get back on track.
9. Retirement is not planned for: I can count the number of times on one hand that I’ve had conversations with freelancers about retirement. Most small business owners (and that’s what freelancing is, small business ownership) have an exit strategy, or a day where they envision doing something else.
For some reason, editorial and creative freelancers don’t think this way. Well, while you may be able to write or design websites from anywhere at any age, who’s to say you’re going to want to when you’re 70?
In my quest to get freelancers to think of themselves as businesses, one of the things I wish more would do is plan for retirement. This includes looking into 401K plans, buying investment real estate, building a sellable business, etc.
Again, just because you might be capable of churning out material long past retirement age does not mean that you are going to want to. So, plan for the day when you won’t have to.
10. Longevity pays: The longer you freelance, the easier it gets. My business mentor said to me once, “when you first start out, you are just greasing the pipes. After two or three years, clients will not be quite so hard to come by.”
It’s just like search engine positioning — the longer your site is on the web, the more frequently it is spidered by search engine bots, the more results it shows up in, the more popular it is, more people find it – and voila! – you have a popular site.
If you are constantly marketing and networking, eventually, it will seem effortless and referrals will flow in. That’s because you build traction just by being around. Many freelancers don’t hang in there long enough to get this type of seamless recognition.
In conclusion, freelancing is a wonderful career — if, like anything other venture you enter, you take it seriously enough to work it like a business.
Yuwanda Black is the publisher of [http://www.InkwellEditorial.com/]InkwellEditorial.com: THE business portal for and about the editorial and creative industries. First-hand freelance success stories, e-courses, job postings, resume tips, advice on the business of freelancing, and more! Launch a writing career in 30 days or less — guaranteed! Log on to learn how.