What’s it really like being a freelancer?

A freelancer is a self-employed person with a particular skill such as writing, teaching, IT or public relations. They do exactly the same job as an in-house employee and are paid either at an hourly rate or a fixed project fee.

FreelancingOpens in new window is a role where self-discipline is essential. Rarely do freelancers have the privilege to choose their work, rather — they respond to briefs like emergency services for content.

Therefore, confidence, ability and importantly love of the job must come as standard. But for any client wondering what it must be like to be a freelancer, here’s what you probably don’t see.

Masters of multasking

Good, busy freelancers can have every day and night scheduled with different clients.

Freelancers don’t like to say “no” to work, it’s against the grain. This can mean a phenomenal juggling act and each job can overrun, need amends or rely on smooth and quick communications that don’t happen. This is a recipe for stress and clients are not always aware that taking another day from a freelancer that wasn’t planned, may mean they have to delay and bump other commissions along.

Black in theory, red in practice

Freelancers with multiple clients are always waiting for payments. This is not amusing when you are told a payment date, which you then rely on to pay bills.

Imagine having five late payments in a month. This can spell real personal cash-flow trouble for freelancers. According to a survey by Ormsby StreetOpens in new window, in the UK half of freelancers have thought of quitting due to late payments and 36% of a sample of just over 1,000 freelancers resorted to loans on payday to get by.

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The temptations of kettle and fridge

The personal fight against small pleasures and “doing other things” is won and lost constantly by freelancers working from home. A coffee, a slice of toast, that fridge door between you and snacks.

There might be a stack of “little jobs” that need doing in the house. This is the mental battle front in freelancing. To win this battle, routines need to be set and the work space needs to be conducive to working. Some will listen to music playing loudly in the background — like one distraction will fend off the others. There are freelancers who abandon the house altogether and choose to rent a desk in a shared office to get out of the home environment.

When home is the office

Of course, there are other distractions for freelancers that are not of their own making. Having a family — especially children that need to be collected from school, fed and entertained afterwards, puts your personal office time in jeopardy, which is why many turn to the night to regain the peace needed to work.

Often, freelancers will have to arrange that their partners takes the kids out whilst they work at weekends and in doing so will miss out on valued time with the family.

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Working in the bubble of self

Humans are essentially social animals and freelancingOpens in new window can be a very lonely job. What’s more, creative people are more prone to depressionOpens in new window. In Sweden the Karolinska InstituteOpens in new window conducted research with one million people and discovered significant correlations between creative occupations and mental illnesses.

Writers especially had a high risk of anxiety and disorders such as schizophreniaOpens in new window, depressionOpens in new window, as well as addictions to alcohol and drugs. Writers were also twice as likely to commit suicide. Similarly, there were signs that dancers and photographers were more likely to endure bipolar disorders. It’s a hard job to work in isolation but this is something creative freelancers deal with, day in and day out.

It makes a huge difference when there are clearly communicated agreements, specifically of the rate, delivery date and payment date. Defining and honoring a professional agreement will go a long way to getting the best out of a working relationship.

Hidden roles you adopt as a creative freelancer

If you are a professional creative freelancer, you’ll know that when you are running your business, being a brilliant artist is just one of your many roles and you’ll be changing job hats several times a week.

You’ll need to develop everything from client management skills to accounting savvy and embrace a diverse range of soft skills and technical skills if you want it all to run smoothly. There is more to the life of a creative freelancer than meets the buy.

Here’s the roles you’ll need to develop that have nothing to do with your main creative service.

1.     Business Development Manager

Creatives give a business more than frills, they craft what a business feels like, they show the business to customers and that’s why creatives are a key business development tool.

Freelancers need to be turned into a business acutely to understand how their work will prove a benefit, how it will lead to return — directly or indirectly. Conducting an analysis of a business and what a company needs to achieve creatively, is something all freelancers need to understand, to be successful in their assignments.

So, when you are hired by a company to undertake creative work you’ll often have to go through processes that are usually the stomping ground of business development managers — asking questions such as “what is the goal”, “who is the target customer?” and “what do we want to achieve from this?”

Creative work is usually commissioned with the goal of ultimately influencing more sales and that is why a good business head is needed.

2.     Negotiator

Even before you are hired, there can be delicate negotiationsOpens in new window over your fee. This is exactly why many freelancers set their fee slightly higher than the figure they need — because they know a lot of clients will want to barter at the early stages.

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It’s important to know where your line is in the sand with fee and to understand your own strategy to achieving this. Always justify your worth by illustrating your ability. Research the market rates too, so you know what a fair price looks like.

Understand how you intend to negotiate if you have room to negotiate in order to win a contract on agreeable terms.

3.     Debt Collector

This role needs little introduction to many freelancers. Knowing how to ask for your owed money the right way is important to maintain relationships and so you remain professional.

You have every right to ask for money that was supposed to be paid on an agreed date. Make contracts with payment terms the norm for your freelance business. With a contract, it is easier to ask for money owed when you have a shared agreement that you can refer to and highlight, when necessary.

4.     Accountant

Unlike creative employees on a payroll, freelancers have to record and manage their own business accountants. You can of course employ an accountant to help you when you need to submit the tax return but you need to organize receipts, invoices and the basics of bookkeeping as a routine.

This can be as much fun as pulling teeth for some creatives but ignoring this part of the freelance life is like ignoring a fire in the corner of the room, so best to deal with it or you’ll feel like an idiot later.

5.     Account Manager

FreelancingOpens in new window can often mean you are dealing with a client’s client. This is an interesting situation as you have to represent your client at all times and adhere to their methods, expected conduct and ways of doing things. In this respect, you become an account manager and that’s another level of responsibility as you are in the middle tier of a business relationship.

A mature and conducive attitude will be needed to navigate any difficulties on behalf of your client. Sometimes the client won’t want you to declare you are a freelancer to the third parties they work with, so you may need to be discrete. If there are special procedures for the company that hired you when dealing with their clients, then you need to learn them and make it all onboard.

6.     IT Manager

When your livelihood is your computer, it really counts to get to know the right software and the ins-and-outs of basic IT skills. By having a VoiP (Voice over Internet Protocol) service this can save you money on phone bills. Your choice of software can make all the difference in terms of performance.

How to avoid payment problems as a freelancer

Most freelancers who keep busy have at least one client who does not pay in a timely fashion. This is the most stressful part of being an independent worker in the creative industry. So, how do you avoid or manage awkward and confrontational situations or lack of payment?

The fault of late payment can often be attributed to a simple misunderstanding but we all know there are also times when there is deliberate delay or reluctance. When you begin a new working relationship it is always worth being explicit about payment terms. It’s not rude to explain what you want in return for your work — it’s smart, as long as you are always polite and professional.

For many freelancers who are primarily creative, they find it awkward and challenging to approach the subject of payment terms. Many companies genuinely do not realize they are causing you stress when they are late or forgetful with payment and this can even ruin an otherwise perfectly good working relationship between freelancer and client.

So, what can you do as a freelancer to fix this?

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Get to know your client prior to engagement

Research your client and find out what you can about them. Talk to the client directly about their business and expectations and get a feel for how you will proceed in a working relationship.

Many professionals have limited time on the weekly schedule with allotted slots per client, so be confident that you are working with a company that respects a contract — in terms of hours, workload and payment. A good working relationship can last for years and a bad one can go sour within weeks.

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