July 10, 2020
At 22, I was making $14.70 an hour, driving a car without heat, and trying to decide between the efficiency apartment with no kitchen and the one bedroom with suspiciously stained carpeting. No worries though, with my student loan payment, it turns out I couldn’t afford either one!
It was becoming strikingly apparent that I needed a way to supplement my income while working a full time job. Unfortunately, while I did have a college degree, I didn’t have any desirable skills and this was pre-Uber. Just when selling a kidney on Craigslist was starting to sound like a viable option, I discovered Google Ads (formerly Google AdWords).
Six months later, my Google side hustle was netting me as much money as my real job.
So I quit and became a freelancer.
Quitting my day job launched a journey full of twists and turns, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and anxiety that would last for the next eight years. Most of that time, I was a full time freelancer, and while I recently re-entered the corporate world, I wouldn’t trade my freelancer experience for anything. However, there are a few things I wish I had known beforehand. Here are seven of them.
#1 - You might spend all day in your PJs, but not because you want to.
There’s a perception that freelancers (and remote workers, in general) spend all day in their PJs, vegging out to daytime talkshows. They rarely do any actual desk work, other than Googling things like "how do I get Cheeto dust out fabric?" and "how many days can you wear a pair of yoga pants and not be gross?"
While you may not be able to disabuse others of that notion, you better disabuse yourself of it right now.
As a freelancer, you may end up wearing PJs all day... but not because you want to. Nope, you're still in your PJs at 3 o'clock in the afternoon because from the moment you woke up the onslaught of emails, meetings, phone calls, and random fires you had to deal with would not let up!
Yes, as a freelancer you will have some flexibility in your schedule, but it’s not a passive income. You’re going to work hard. Really hard. What’s more, you’re going to have to be self-motivated and organized. It’s up to you to set priorities, stay on track, and meet deadlines on budget. Which brings me to….
#2 - Congratulations, you’re the boss.
As a freelancer, you’re going to have a lot of responsibility and autonomy. You get to make decisions about how things are done, and most clients will give you plenty of leeway. Enough rope to hang yourself with, for sure.
On the positive side, being the boss allows you to acquire new hard and soft skills and build confidence. You also, usually, get credit for the successes, which isn’t always the case in a traditional corporate environment.
On the negative side, you have to make most, if not all, of the decisions and take responsibility for them. There’s no manager who’s going to take the heat for your failed SEO strategy. In addition, you’re probably going to have to do things you aren’t so crazy about such as accounting and billing, sales, and administrative work.
#3 - Winter is coming… so plan for it.
As an employee, you have a sense of security that you typically won’t have as a freelancer. An employee knows with a good degree of certainty that he or she will have a job tomorrow and what his or her take home pay will be each month.
Not so with freelancing. A client may drop you without notice, not pay on time, or not pay at all.
Personally, I once spent about 15 helping a repeat client set up a Google Tag Manager and Google Analytics integration that spanned multiple sites only to have him never pay.
In freelancing, there will be months of hectic feast followed by anxiety ridden months of famine. Know this going in, and plan for it. Save money where and when you can so that you have a cushion. Make as many connections in your industry as possible so you can find new clients quickly. Know that you have skills, and if you had to you probably could get a more traditional part or full time job.
It’s going to work out. Just breathe.
#4 - Find your balance… and don’t answer the phone in the shower.
I once had a client say that what he liked best about working with me is that I always answered the phone. And he was right, I did always answer… including after hours and on weekends.
In the beginning, I was desperate for clients to see me as ultra-responsive, so I would go to great lengths to answer every phone call and respond to emails within minutes. I would literally take my phone into the bathroom while I was showering and stop washing my hair to answer if a client called.
Don’t do this. Don’t jump through hoops to respond to clients at 3 a.m. or on major holidays unless you plan to do so forever.
Look, it is important to be responsive. Being prompt about getting back to clients goes a long way toward building trust. However, destroying your personal life in order to do so won't end well for anyone. You'll be burned out in the blink of an eye, you'll start to resent these needy clients that won't stop bothering you, and your work will suffer.
Most clients get and respect the concept of office hours; after all, they don’t want to work nights and weekends either! However, even clients that are understanding will shift their expectations if you consistently work and deliver projects outside of normal hours.
Sometimes, you may need to work weekends to finish a project, but you don’t have to tell clients you’re working during that time. Set their expectations early on so that you don’t end up working 24/7.
Establish a work-life balance from day one or you'll regret it!
#5 - Money may not buy happiness, but it does pay your bills!
The gist of this one is that you’re providing a service and you deserve to be paid.
Here’s the truth: There’s always going to be someone that’ll do the job cheaper than you.
Your neighbor’s second cousin’s fifteen-year-old son will charge way less than you to build a website or monitor a social media campaign. If all a client cares about is the price tag then that client is probably going to be difficult to work with. Think twice before jumping in.
You need to know how much your time is worth and to realize that you have a finite supply of it. One person can only work so many hours a day. What you can charge will depend, in part, on:
When trying to figure out what to charge, keep in mind that you have costs a regular employee wouldn’t. For example, if a client was hiring a traditional employee, the client would probably be paying something toward healthcare, social security and medicare tax, office supplies, Internet, and PTO. As a freelancer, all of those things are on you.
Tip: Get in the habit of tracking your time with a tool like Harvest so that you can more accurately bid on future projects. (They even have a free version!)
#6 - You’re going to get fired.
Not every client is going to stay with you from now until the day you retire. Clients are going to fire you. Probably a lot of clients. Sometimes it’ll be your fault and sometimes it won’t be.
When it is your fault, try to recognize that, own up to it, and learn from it. No one is perfect.
Regardless of why the client is letting you go, try not to get overly defensive. Sure, the loss of income can be upsetting, and maybe the client is letting you go in favor of something else that you know is a bad idea. Still, that’s the client’s decision. If you see red flags, by all means, bring them up, but don’t try to hold clients or their data or marketing campaigns hostage.
If you enjoyed working with the client, being pleasant at the end of your relationship leaves the door open for them to come back. This does happen. Notably, I once had a large Google Ads client fire me, without notice, for a company that offered cheaper management rates. This company wasn't transparent in their practices and their service quality wasn't on par with mine. It took a few years but eventually the client realized it and came back.
#7 - It’s not me, it’s you.
On the other hand, don’t be afraid to fire a client. It’s definitely not fun, and it can be scary if you’re kicking a large amount of money to the curb, but as cliche as it sounds, your peace of mind is priceless.
You deserve to have a pleasant work environment and to be paid. If a client is abusive, undermines you, or consistently doesn’t pay, it’s time to tell them the relationship isn’t working.
Like most jobs, being a freelancer has its pros and cons. While this article seems to focus more on the negative aspects that’s because we usually don’t mind being surprised by positive things. It’s only the obstacles, the unforeseen negatives, on our journey that prove bothersome. These are seven things that, had I known before I started, would have made the road a little less bumpy. Overall, Google Ads and becoming a full-time freelancer changed my life for the better.
If you're just starting your freelancer journey, I wish you the best of luck. You've got this!