At 22, I was driving a car that didn’t have heat and trying to decide if I could afford the basement apartment with suspiciously stained carpeting and still make the payment on my student loans each month. (I couldn’t.) I needed a way to supplement my income while working a full time job, but I didn’t really have any desirable skills and this was pre-Uber. Just when selling a kidney was starting to sound like a viable option, I discovered Google Ads.
Six months later, my Google side hustle was netting me as much money as my real job.
So I quit and became a freelancer.
I launched my first Google Ads campaign seven years ago this month. It was the start of a crazy journey that has been full of twists and turns, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and anxiety. Looking back, here are seven things I wish I had known before becoming a freelancer.
#1 - You might spend all day in your PJs, but not because you want to.
There’s a perception that freelancers and telecommuters spend their days in ratty pajamas watching daytime talk shows and Googling strange queries. How do I get Cheeto dust out fabric? How many days in a row can you wear a pair of yoga pants and not be gross? In other words, there’s a perception that most of the day is just slacking off.
That perception, at least in my experience, is incorrect.
As a freelancer, you may end up wearing your PJs all day, but not because you want to. Nope, you’re still in your PJs at dinner time because from the moment you woke up, the onslaught of emails, 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. 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.
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 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.
In the beginning, I was desperate for clients to see me as responsive and available, so I would go to great lengths to answer every phone call and respond to emails within minutes regardless of the day or time. No exaggeration, I would literally take my phone into the bathroom while I was showering. If it rang, I’d lean out, check the caller ID, and if it was a client, I’d turn off the water and answer.
Watch out for this. When you're a freelancer (especially one who works from home), office hours tend to slide. There's no time card to punch and no manager who's going to lecture you about overtime, so the work day tends to gradually expand.
Be careful about jumping through hoops to respond to clients at 3 a.m. or on Sundays because it'll end up becoming your norm. Being responsive during normal office hours is one thing, but walking out of a movie theater during a Saturday night date so you can stand in the parking lot and discuss Facebook strategy with a client is another. (Obviously true crises, such as a website being down, are the exception.)
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.
If you want to work outside of normal hours, that's totally fine. (Remember, you're the boss now!) In fact, there are certain tasks I prefer to do on weekends because there are fewer interruptions. However, it's a slippery slope. What starts as a one-time thing to help a client out or simply trying to plow through a work overflow can easily turn into a common occurrence.
#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 appropriately.
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:
What you’re offering (for example, web dev versus copywriting).
How much experience you have.
How difficult the project is.
How much you want the work.
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.
#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. We all mess up.
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 you know is a bad idea. At the end of the day, 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 an agency that offered cheaper management rates. This agency did an abysmal job and that client eventually realized it and asked to come 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. Each of these seven topics are things I wish I had known before becoming a freelancer. Had I known them, would I have stuck to my cubicle and time card? Definitely not! However, the road would have been a little less anxiety ridden along the way. Overall, Google Ads and becoming a freelancer changed my life, and I wouldn’t trade the experiences I’ve had for anything.
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