The Freelancing Diaries: Part 1 — Getting Started is Rough

November 27, 2015 in Freelance by pacejmiller

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As followers of this blog will know by now, I’ve quit my day job to pursue the freelancing (and writing) dream. It’s a beautiful dream, but also one that can potentially turn into a bloody nightmare. I’ve decided to chronicle this adventure in a new series of posts, starting with, naturally, what life is like when first taking the plunge.

Technically, I’m now in my third week as a freelancer, but I still don’t feel like one. Apart from finalising shit from my previous job, I’m still trying to get used to the lifestyle, the self-discipline, and the pressure and fear of the unknown that comes with freelancing. I’ve had days off where I’ve gone out to watch movies, take the kids out on day trips and shop around aimlessly like a socialite, but I’ve also been fortunate enough — or unfortunate enough, depending on your perspective — to have cases to keep me busy already. I translated some songs for an upcoming concert, I did an episode of a TV show, some usual corporate stuff and transliteration work, and even took on my first nerve-racking interpretation cases (I’ll have to write about that experience in another post). There have been days where I’ve felt a bit of pressure and had to work much longer hours than I did as a company employee, but it’s all part of the package.

What this means though is that I haven’t done much work to lay the necessary groundwork to be a full-time freelancer, let alone do any of the stuff I had fantasized about doing with all that supposed free time, such as writing and exercising. Taking into account the amount of time I still require to complete outstanding cases and other odds and ends, I think I need about one more week or get my affairs in order. This involves sending out “feeler” emails and making cold calls to potential clients, completing tests for freelance outsourcing websites and really setting up my “system” properly.

Anyway, here are some things I have already learned for those in the same boat or are thinking about venturing down the same path.

1. Starting out is rough

When I first started informing people — especially other freelancers — of my intention to freelance full time, the vast majority were highly encouraging, but warned that the beginning will involve a very difficult adjustment period. For me, in particular, having been practically a bum for the last four years at my last job, it was going to take some time getting used to it.

However, the adjustment is much more than getting used to something new. Freelancing brings with it an inherent and immediate pressure because your income will no longer be stable like it used to be. Some clients might take weeks or even months to pay, so if finances are tight you will have to factor in the delays. For instance, I recently had to chase up a client who hadn’t paid for work I did more than three months ago (I contacted him last month, actually, and he assured me that it would be paid within three months). First the client ignored my emails completely, but when I called him on the phone he said the money had “come down” and would be paid in the next few days. And really, there’s not much you can do.

Secondly, you need to be instantly better at organising your life. You need to set aside time to do work, preferably on a regular schedule, but you also need to be prepared for things that pop up, as they inevitably do. And unlike before, when you can use “I’m at work” as an excuse, you may have to drop whatever you’re doing and attend to it. You need to have a system for your accounts, so you can better track your clients and payments. I used to just dump files all over the place and lose track of them, but now I’ve had to set up a spreadsheet containing the details and contacts of each case and use Google Drive to file documents away systematically.

Thirdly, and most importantly, you need clients, otherwise you’re not going to get paid.

2. Finding clients — the right clients — is the key

Finding enough clients to sustain the your lifestyle is usually the biggest obstacle to being a freelancer. The best thing is regular clients who can feed you stable work every month, but in the beginning anyone will do. But clients won’t just come to you because you’re a freelancer — you need to go out and track them down.

But how does one go about it? Honestly, if you’ve never done any freelance work at all or don’t have any pre-existing contacts, the task is virtually impossible. I’ve discovered the painful truth that in freelancing it is often all about who you know. I would have never been able to be a full-time freelancer had I not slowly built up a small network of contacts over the last four years. One of the first things I did was to contact my freelancing friends and clients I’ve done work for and tell them I was going to freelance full-time and to send any work they have my way. There are still a few outstanding ones I haven’t been in touch with for a couple of years I’ll have to get to next week.

The other way is to go out and look for clients through other channels. Before doing that you will of course have to fully update your CV and have it ready to be sent out at any time. You can look up the companies doing the sort of work you can help with and email them or cold call them to really sell your services. Most are unlikely to respond, but sometimes all you need is one that does, and that may end up opening doors to more opportunities. You can also try through updating your LinkedIn profile or search for freelancing agencies or websites that post freelancing opportunities — but more on that in my next point.

And even when you finally find a client who is willing to give you work, sometimes you’ll still have tough decisions to make because they’re not always necessarily the right client. What if they are paying you too little for it to be worth your time? Is it better to work for peanuts or have no peanuts at all? What if you happen to be too busy when they decide to give you a piece of work? I’ve heard that one of the cardinal sins of being a freelancer is to refuse work from anyone you would like to work for in the future. If you’ve turned them down once they’ll just go to others who won’t.

I recently turned down a regular freelancing job that seemed ideal on paper. Two to three hours a day, five days a week, and I’d make close to three-fifths of my previous salary. The work was similar to what I was doing before and would be relatively easy for me. I even did a sample translation test and all that. In the end, however, I decided it wasn’t worth it. Though it was only two to three hours a day, it was always the same fixed hours of the day (2pm-5pm), taking away the flexibility I wanted as a freelancer. The rates weren’t horrendous, but they weren’t great either, and I’d have to work my way up to the maximum pricing and volume over a number of months. So in reality, I’d probably be making a fifth of my previous salary for a couple of months, then two-fifths for another couple of months, and so forth, with no guarantees I’d actually get to the three-fifths mark. Not good enough to sacrifice my flexibility for.

3. Be wary of agencies and freelancing websites

As noted above, one of the avenues to look for work is freelancing agencies and websites. Examples include established enterprises such as Freelancer, or the newer WritePath. I’ve also been looking at a Japan-based one called Gengo. In Taiwan, a lot of people use freelance job aggregators such as 104case or 518case, which are similar to Freelancer in that people post freelancing cases for people to bid on, though you have to pay a subscription fee to be able to gain access to the case contacts. As a translator, there are also plenty of translation agencies that will get the work for you in return for a percentage of your earnings.

Personally, while I’d recommend trying them out, I wouldn’t get your hopes up about being able to get sustainable work from such options. For starters, most of these gigs will require you to take a free-of-charge translation test, which can be time consuming and a waste of time. A lot of them are old cases that closed ages ago but people just haven’t bothered taking them down. I’ve also heard of horror stories where some a-hole companies will split their case up into say five parts and then send them to five applicants and tell them it’s their translation test. That’s basically their entire case done for free.

Most of the time, however, it’s just a company looking for ways to push prices down as low as possible. When you have desperate people fighting for work, the rates gets lowered to appalling levels, and they almost always tend to be urgent cases. In the translation industry, they often don’t even care how good or bad the quality of the translation is, as long as it’s cheap. To be fair, there are some awful translators out there who don’t give a shit if they get paid low because it matches the time and effort they put in, but what it does is ruin the market for everyone else. You also have to remember that if the market is international there will be people in say India or China who are willing to work for a lot less.

Translation agencies are the worst because they don’t respect you at all. It’s always urgent cases at basement rates, and they end up taking around 50%-75% of the earnings for doing nothing.  I remember one instance where I did a translation test for free and later received a call on a Friday afternoon asking me to take on an urgent case due the next morning, for less a quarter of the rate I normally charge for standard cases. I said no and never heard from them again.

4. Pricing sucks balls

Negotiating your rates is one of the most annoying things for me as a freelancer. I’ve read around and it seems the general consensus is to never sell yourself short when in discussions. But what constitutes selling yourself short is such a tough question. You don’t want to rip yourself off, but you don’t want to price yourself out of the market either. Most of the time you’ll probably be wondering if you’ve done one or the other. I’ll have to do a full post on this some day after I’ve generate a bit more experience on this point.

5. You never have as much time as you think you do

The most sobering revelation from my three weeks as a freelancer is that you never have as much time as you think you’d have. When I was working a full-time job and doing freelancing cases on the side, I thought to myself that if I were doing freelancing full-time I’d have endless hours of free time on my hands to do all the other things I’d want to do. That’s not the case, at least not in these initial starting-off weeks.

Freelancing cases take time, often a lot of time, and you probably end up spending more time on the same cases as a full-timer because you care more about building up your reputation so you can win more work. Plus, in the past my freelancing was extra cream on top of the cake, whereas now it’s the actual cake. As a result, I actually feel busier than I did before. Just a couple of months ago I was still wasting hours a day zoning out in front of the computer wondering why I wasn’t being more productive, and now I’m working hard but wondering where all my time has gone. It’s more stress but it’s also infinitely more rewarding doing stuff you care about.

Oh well, better get back to it.