Excerpted from The Big Leap: A Guide to Freelancing for Creatives © 2020 Martina Flor. Used with permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press.

Freelancer = Entrepreneur

As a freelancer, you are an entrepreneur. You will own this business, no matter its size and scope. You will decide on its direction, execute the work, search and connect with clients, invoice those clients, and pay the necessary bills for services that keep your business thriving. Sounds like a lot to do, doesn’t it? It is, and that’s why this may require a shift of attitude and perspective from you, the business owner.

In most cases, as an employee, one takes instructions from the boss. When there’s work to be done, you execute that work. On days when there are no urgent deadlines, you might take the time to surf the internet, have an extra cup of coffee, or take a longer lunch than usual. When you’re self-employed things are different: there is always work to do. Your daily work includes not only your creative work for clients, but many other aspects that you may not have had to deal with so far. When you’re not doing client assignments, you are updating your website or portfolio with your most recent completed projects, paying an invoice from a subcontractor, or trying to engage the next client. To cover all your freelance bases, you will have to learn new things, such as how to manage your taxes as a self-employed person, how to run the software that maintains your website, and how to manage your time more efficiently.

Of course, in many cases, you will be able to work with collaborators. You can, for example, delegate your tax preparation to an accountant. You can hire a web designer to keep your online portfolio up-to-date. These are all possibilities and it is smart to make use of them, but even when you have help in certain areas, you will still be taking care of a lot more things than you have so far. Probably the biggest change you’ll experience when going freelance: you’ll be at the helm most of the time. Your stance and attitude must be active rather than passive. It all comes down to you.

Martina Flor is speaking at MAX 2020, a free virtual event taking place Oct 20 – 22.

Scope Map

The decision to become a freelancer is usually motivated by the desire to do work that you love, rather than work that is either unpleasant or “good enough.” Because being self-employed involves so much responsibility, and can feel like more work than being employed by someone else, I suggest you compromise as little as possible and do work that keeps you happy and fulfilled—this will be your reward.

What you can do and what you want to do will help guide your freelance business. You might want to do illustration only, focus solely on photography, or make graphic design your meat and potatoes. And within your chosen field, you may want to focus on a specific area, such as culture, pharmaceuticals, or entertainment.

This is where a “scope map” comes in. At the end of this chapter, you’ll find a worksheet for creating your own scope map. This map is a written document and not an actual map, and is made up of two things:

1. The things you can do

This part of your map defines and clarifies the range of projects you can apply your skills to. For example, if you are a graphic designer, you can do corporate design, brochures, logos, layout, and editorial design, among many other things. If you’re a photographer, you can photograph social events, art, and commercial products, or specialize in documentary images. Your skills are your resources that will define how you achieve your goals and grow your business.

2. The things you want to do

This part of your map defines very precisely the job that you want to do. It’s your true north, what’s calling you, and where you envision yourself at your happiest.

When you first start out, you likely won’t make enough to cover your expenses. The first work you take on will not necessarily align with the work you ultimately want to do. That’s OK. Do work at the start that will help you pay your bills while you spend time attracting more desirable commissions and projects. One thing to bear in mind: make sure those jobs you take to pay the bills do not prevent you from dedicating time to achieving your ultimate goals as a freelancer. Try to devote part of your day to projects that help you expand your portfolio in the direction you want to go. You can even try to complete those assignments that you don’t like so much with the skills you want to use more often. For example, if you want to do more illustration, and you just took on an assignment for the design of a brochure, why not use your illustration skills to add some visual interest to the layout? Here the benefit is double: you pay the bills and expand your portfolio.

Keep your vision and goals in the forefront of your mind. Dedicating time to them is essential, as essential as having patience and giving your business time to develop. It isn’t going to happen overnight. It will be a few months before you get into a rhythm and receive your first solid assignments— and those assignments will, ideally, bring in new assignments. This process will require your patience and perseverance, and a proactive attitude.

 

Keep your vision and goals in the forefront of your mind. Dedicating time to them is essential, as essential as having patience and giving your business time to develop. It isn’t going to happen overnight.

Being Your Own Boss

As a freelancer, you are the one who makes the decisions about all aspects of your business. This will allow you to mold your work life in whatever manner you wish—a truly fabulous prospect! Your personality and your way of life will have a direct impact on what you do. If you are an anxious person, it will affect your business in both helpful and challenging ways, as will being a slower person. If you work better at night than during the day, you can accommodate your own rhythms, by working with customers who are in another time zone, for example. If you like to travel, you can apply to give talks at conferences or teach workshops in places you’d like to explore.

In this new venture of yours, you are the central point of everything you build. You will see how rewarding it can be to build something that is entirely your own.

The Potential to Earn More

Another piece of good news! Contrary to what many believe, a freelancer can have a substantially higher income than an employee. A frelancer can also earn the same as an employee but work considerably fewer hours. One assignment can help you pay for three months of living expenses, but only require one month of work. Depending on what you do, there are jobs that will earn you royalties, providing you with profit over time without you even having to work for it!

Your possible sources of income increase exponentially when you are self-employed because you can take advantage of your diverse range of skills. If, for example, you work with photography and love to teach, you can do work for clients, sell your photos, and teach classes and workshops. Later in this book we will discuss how to broaden the range of possibilities and how to price your work—one of the most important and complex aspects of your practice—and manage expenses in ways that increase your potential to generate more income.

Managing Your Schedule

Managing your schedule gives you great freedom to be flexible and independent, without having to ask anyone’s permission to do anything. That said, you’ll be doing work for clients, so you’ll have to be available during certain time ranges so that you can conference when necessary.

Managing your own schedule will require a certain amount of self-discipline on your part. With no almighty boss dictating what must be done, following a schedule will require commitment.

Managing your own schedule will require a certain amount of self-discipline on your part. With no almighty boss dictating what must be done, following a schedule will require commitment.

Ideally, your workday should be tailored to you. If you like sleep, plan a workday that begins a little later than usual and stretches into the evening. You can also take Fridays off or work a half day when you want to. Forget about the structures you’ve followed up to now—your workdays can be any way you want! The important thing is that you carve out work hours for yourself and stick to them, so that your practice maintains order and consistency.

Decision-Making

You will now be making decisions in all aspects of your working life: you will decide which commissions you decline and which you take, how much you charge, the best way to execute assignments. As I mentioned earlier, you’ll choose your clients, and you’ll stop working for those you don’t like to work for. You will decide whether the walls of your workspace are green or yellow, if the office coffee is regular or hazelnut, and if you can take Monday morning off to go to the doctor or visit an old friend. You’ll own this business in every way.

All the decisions you make are important, because they reflect your values, your priorities, and your personal brand. Your decisions will have the power to affect the progress of your practice. Don’t fear doing things differently from how other freelancers are doing them. The only formula you must apply to make your business work is...your own.

Creating Your Personal Brand

Your logotype, the color on your letterhead, the design of your website, and even the way your dress and behave, are some of the things that define your personal brand.

Since you are a freelancer, you are your business; thus, your professional brand is also defined by who you are: how you present yourself when interacting with clients, including your style of dress, your hairstyle, and your overall demeanor, including the way you speak to customers and whether or not you smile when you are introduced to a colleague. You are your personal brand.

From now on, each of your assignments will say something about how you approach a project, and, based on that, your clients will recommend you to other clients. Every new successful project contributes to your reputation. Project by project, assignment by assignment, you will be building your own prestige; your work becomes a reflection of who you are.

This means that just as successful and impressive projects reflect on you, so do mistakes, which can be challenging, but remember: mistakes are opportunities for learning. Some of the best and most memorable moments of my life have been connected to my studio and the projects I’ve done through it.

Your logotype, the color on your letterhead, the design of your website, and even the way your dress and behave, are some of the things that define your personal brand.

The Challenges of Freelancing

How you manage your time, how you talk to clients, and how you meet deadlines and your own goals, among many other things, defines your work culture. Think of your studio or business as if it were a person: Is it respectful? Is it organized, or is it chaotic? Does it meet the deadlines it sets for itself? Is it smiling or serious? Kind or bitter? All of these qualities define the culture of your practice and the type of professional you want to be. And your work culture will be expressed through the quality of the work you do, your daily exchange with clients and collaborators, your commitment to projects, your working hours, and your rules and processes.

Your work culture is unique and fits who you are and your way of being. This is what will make you stand out in the crowd.

Managing Working Hours

Time management is one of the essential ingredients to your success as a freelancer. This includes not only how long your work day lasts, if you work Monday to Friday or take Friday off, and when you take holidays, but also how you manage your day-to-day tasks.

When you don’t have someone else organizing your day, it’s easy to let hours slip by doing irrelevant tasks, ending your workday without having achieved any specific goal. Determine overarching goals as well as other, more concrete goals; completing the latter will help you to fill in the big picture.

Having the ability to work fast is definitely a plus. That doesn’t mean you should always do it, but if you’re able to tackle certain jobs quickly, it can leave a positive impression on your clients and benefit your business. By establishing processes and rules for yourself, you can increase your speed and effectiveness. In addition, with tried and true methods, you won’t waste time reinventing the wheel every time you have to complete an assignment.

That said, keep your eye out for assignments with unrealistic deadlines. Projects like this can easily turn into an incomplete job that neither you nor your client are satisfied with. A project that you can’t include in your portfolio has certainly much less reward than one that you can. Remember that the job you are doing now might bring you more work in the future— the better the result, the better future assignments will be.

When you don’t have someone else organizing your day, it’s easy to let hours slip by doing irrelevant tasks, ending your workday without having achieved any specific goal. Determine overarching goals as well as other, more concrete goals; completing the latter will help you to fill in the big picture.

Managing Free Time

Managing free time as a freelancer is complex. The line between working too much and too little is a fine one, and can have a direct impact on your income. It’s so easy as the only one responsible for getting your projects done to find yourself working after hours or canceling a dinner because “the files sent to the printer had a mistake.” Or you may, without considering the implications, plan a long vacation during a time of the year when many assignments tend to come your way. Poorly planned time off can have adverse effects on your year-round income.

It cannot be said too many times: as a freelancer you are both boss and employee. Embracing both roles simultaneously can help guide you in many of your business decisions and find the answer to many of your questions. As a boss, think about how much vacation time you would give an employee. Likewise, think about how much vacation time you would like to have as an employee. The number of days off you should take is probably an average of the two.

Ease In or Just Leap?

The big question among those thinking of becoming freelancers is this: when is the best time to do it? In response to this question, there are essentially two major lines of thought. One perspective advocates for setting a future start date and creating a plan so you’ll be ready to make the leap at this self-assigned time. The other, which is a more gradual approach, suggests keeping your current day job, and adding in freelance work on the side.

In the first scenario, the insecurity of not having a consistent income can motivate you to set it all in motion. The fear of not being able to pay the bills may generate that extra adrenaline you need to get you out there seeking clients, connecting with others, and reaching out to your network. The biggest risk is that you could fall short and be unable to cover your expenses as quickly as you estimated.

The fear of not being able to pay the bills may generate that extra adrenaline you need to get you out there seeking clients, connecting with others, and reaching out to your network.

In the second, you are making a gradual transition toward a freelance business. While you maintain a job that allows you to pay the bills, you dedicate your free time to building something new. In this case, you will probably have to be prepared to receive e-mails and calls from your freelance clients during your regular work schedule, and you will also have to sacrifice your free time to complete freelance projects. The biggest risk here is that it’s easy to overdo it and miss out on rest in order to deliver jobs on time.

How you proceed is a very personal decision. You know better than anyone whether the pressure will work for you or against you. Or if the strategy of adding clients on the side while you keep your day job is doable and will allow you to grow your freelance business. Also, your personal situation, which is different for everyone, will play a part. You may have children, a partner to support you, a mortgage, or an expensive car payment. You may absolutely despise your current job. All these parameters will help you measure the risks and benefits for each strategy and help you make the decision for your next step. Having said that, neither approach guarantees success or predicts failure for your business.