While some people do strike gold quickly and make a ton of money, it’s best to assume that these folks are outliers. Entrepreneurship is chancy at best and sometimes downright frustrating.
For part of my own freelancing career, two words too often applied: feast, famine.
Too much work, not enough work. A fair amount of work but knowing that in a week’s time I’d be finishing up my final assignments – and no editors seemed interested in my current pitches. More rarely (and usually at the beginning of this journey) I’d have no work at all for weeks at a time, and be mighty glad that I had some side hustles.
Then again, I started freelancing full-time way back in 2002, when blogging wasn’t a big thing and when companies didn’t have to have major online presence. I’d get some magazine or newspaper gigs, and then a whole bunch of rejection slips. Again, thank goodness for alternate income streams (and a super-frugal nature).
“To break in you need to be willing to be broke,” notes Lamine Zarrad in the Freelancers Union blog.
Zarrad suggests that would-be entrepreneurs (including freelance writers) become “scrappy and creative.” He also offers some pretty useful tips for doing so. I’m listing some of them here, along with a few of my own.
Tackle any debt
Got consumer debt? Don’t quit your day job. Not yet, anyway. Tighten your budget and start throwing every available dollar at your obligations. After all, you might not make much money right away. Entrepreneurship can be challenging enough without the worry of having to make minimum payments on credit cards or items bought on time.
And about that newly tightened budget: Keep it that way until you’ve really gotten your entrepreneurial groove on. Live on less until you’re absolutely sure you can start to live a little larger.
“A lot of small things, in aggregate, can reduce the monthly burn. Cut anything that is not core to your basic functioning and morale,” Zarrad advises.
Build a couple of emergency funds.
If you do plan to quit your day job, or even just go part-time, set aside at least three months’ worth of basic living expenses. Ideally, you’ll have more than that. Assume you won’t be paid much (or anything) right away, and have enough money on hand to augment such money as does come in either from writing gigs or a part-time presence at your old job.
But your business needs an EF, too. Do you plan to pay for things like Internet hosting or a co-working space? Better have three (or six) months’ worth of expenses. Oh, and consider working at the public library or even the kitchen table for a little if at all possible, because that won’t cost you anything.
Set up credit while you can
Don’t quit your day job without getting some credit in the name of your business. Should you quit to go freelance later on, you might not be able to get the best small business credit card offers.
Get some “buy-in”
If it isn’t just you and your dream, remember that a potentially rocky start isn’t only about you. Months of low (or no) income will affect your spouse/partner, or the parents who let you live rent-free or even chipping in to help fund your project.
Talk openly with these folks and discuss how you’d deal with potential issues before they happen, rather than trying to plot damage control when you’re consumed by entrepreneurship.
Have a payback plan in place, too – and not just a financial one. Obviously you’ll make good on loans or otherwise reimburse the relatives/friends who believed in you. But there might also be other forms of payback, such as “Now that I’ve firmly established my business it’s your turn, Partner, to quit your lousy job/become an at-home parent/follow your own entrepreneurial dream.”
Create a plan
Simply hanging out a “freelancer for hire” shingle rarely (if ever) results in tremendous success. Build a business plan that defines your type of writing (niche or generalist?), what you have to offer and how you’ll find clients.
It probably won’t happen overnight. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee it won’t. That’s why they call it work. If it were fun, they’d call it fun.
Put another way: A woman I know lost her job and wrote to ask me how I became a freelancer. “You know I always loved writing,” she said – as though having been on the high-school newspaper was enough to launch her straight into a new career.
She wound up taking my Write a Blog People Will Read* course – and then losing interest in writing. The last I heard, she was working in a completely unrelated field.
Design a routine
Or maybe even an outright schedule, if you do best with rigidly specified time slots. Maybe the first hour of the day will be reserved for pitching new ideas and/or answering e-mails from editors about previous pitches. From there you could allot blocks of time for working on current assignments, keeping up with the news in your niche (make those pitches topical!), dealing with edits, networking with other writers and taking care of bookkeeping.
Some time during the week, or maybe more than once per week, reserve some time for self-care. Entrepreneurs don’t have an HR department of a supervisor to thelp them know when to shut it down.
“Even laptops need to recharge,” says Paula Pant, who’s been freelancing since 2010. (For more information, see “Self-care is part of your work.”)
Trust your gut
Ask upfront about payment: how much, and when and how it will be paid. Not sure whether the rate is high enough? Search topics like “freelance pay rates” or “how much do freelancers earn” and you’ll find that five cents a word is paltry, even though the guy doing the hiring made it sound as though he were doing you a favor.
Speaking of which: You should also search for information on the company asking you to write for pay. Are there complaints or other red flags?
Definitely ask how you’ll be paid. If the person is vague, be nervous. And if you write one piece and payment is delayed, do not take on any other work on spec. That sounds obvious, but it isn’t. Holly Porter Johnson, whose “Earn More Writing” course has helped hundreds of freelancers get started, recently met a woman who is owed $20,000 by a single client – yet keeps on turning in assignments.
You read that correctly. The company owes her 20 grand and she continues to work basically for free. They’re a really good client, she explained, and she just knows they’ll catch up sooner or later.
Don’t do that. Please.
*I’m offering a discount on the writing course through June 30. Visit my payment platform and use the code FREELANCEPLAN to get “Write a Blog People Will Read” for just $99.