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.

The Freelancing Life

November 20, 2015 in Best Of, Blogging, Freelance, Novel, On Writing by pacejmiller

There hasn’t been much activity on this blog for a while, and for that I apologize. The last few months have been one of the most tumultuous periods in my life for a long time, with a lot of things happening both personally and professionally.

Life update — the end of an era

Apart from the usual grind of looking after two young kids, a close relative passed away unexpectedly, which hit me very hard, and there were three additional incidents where other family members had to visit the emergency room for various reasons. It was one scare after another, and each time something happened it took a little out of me.

Professionally, I once again find myself on a different path, and it’s turned out to be a bit of a dream come true. For those who don’t know, I had been working at an online newspaper writing and editing mostly semi-translated articles for close to four years, and mid-September, we were suddenly called to an impromptu meeting one afternoon by the editor-in-chief.

It is a place where meetings are rare, and nothing usually ever comes out of it. Just a month or so prior we were told that there would be a restructuring, with our paper moving from under one unit to another. It was painted as an administrative issue only and some staff members were privately assured that nothing would change. So naturally it was concerning that a meeting was being called again so soon, especially when friends outside of our company had been messaging some of us that very morning, asking, cryptically, whether we were okay.

And this is no joke, but every time we had a meeting we would joke that the paper was probably being shut down. We knew it wasn’t the most professional or stable of places, and often I felt like we were just a bunch of amateurs mucking about and were somehow getting away with it. So of course we made the same joke again before this mid-September meeting, and it turned out that this time the joke was on us. The editor-in-chief kicked off the meeting with a description of how wonderfully our paper was performing, which I knew was a bad omen. Sure enough, the next thing he said was that the paper would be shut down “temporarily” due to the fact that the conglomerate had been hemorrhaging money at a rate much worse than they had expected.

To be honest, I wasn’t surprised. The company was built on a culture of schmoozing and sucking up to superiors, and few managers were really putting in any effort into driving the business forward. My own superior, for instance, promised many things — some even as early as when I interviewed four years ago — and none of them ever came true. He said he would rearrange our work days so that we’d only have to work on weekends every now and then (fail), that we would have regular seminars to teach us how to be better writers and journalists (fail), that we would have regular meetings to keep everyone up to date (fail), that we would create sub-groups to specialize on certain areas (fail), that we would start marketing our paper and build relationships with other papers (fail), that we would start publishing advertisements so we’d actually make some money (fail) — the list goes on. That’s right, in four years, he didn’t make a single one of these promises come true.

The one that did come true, eventually, was updating the look of the website. That was a promise made during my first interview, and for the last two years we were told it was “imminent.” And do you know when we updated the website? Two weeks after he announced that the paper was shutting down in six weeks. Yes, we finally updated to the long-awaited “new” website a month before it was shut down.

Another hilarious sequence of events took place when the chief decided that we were going to buck the digitization trend by creating a paper version of our online paper. A monthly digest, if you will. We hired a designer and reallocated one of our writers to manage the new magazine. That’s right, two people to create a 100-page magazine every month. Even bought a brand new Apple computer and a color laser printer and everything. As it progressed, this monthly magazine somehow morphed into a “semi-annual” magazine, and then a “yearly” magazine. And then one day, poof, the entire project was called off. Four months of work and the hiring of a brand new staff member for this sole purpose, all for nothing. And there wasn’t even a “WTF just happened”? There was more or less a collective silent shrug, and everyone went back to work pretending it never existed.

Anyway, the outcome of the meeting was that the paper would be closed down by the end of October, but that most of us would keep our jobs and be relocated to join the Chinese-language newspaper in the same building. A few of my ex-pat colleagues were shown the door with just a two-week notice period. As for who will get to stay and what work they will actually be doing in their new roles, the chief told us we’d find out by the end of September.

Naturally, the days turned into weeks, and nothing was said. A few of us managed to individually corner the chief on separate occasions, but the answers were always vague and non-committal. The only assurance I received was that I would be safe, and that everything would be sorted out “shortly.” Later on, we pieced together the fragments of information we each received and basically understood that: (1) whoever hadn’t already been shown the door would probably get to stay; (2) we’d be moved from the comforts of our current floor to join the other media losers in the depths of the basement (literally); (3) our workloads would be reduced towards the end so we could start testing out the new roles on the new systems; (4) we’d work on firm-issued laptops instead of our current desktop computers and sit together on long tables in open plan; (5) we’d have freedom to choose to write whatever we want to write; and (6) if we didn’t like our new roles we’d be able to apply for a redundancy package within the first 45 days.

Initially, I kind of wanted to stay. It was a safe job that paid well considering how easy it was, and the work hours were stable and normal. And I salivated at the idea of being able to write about what I wanted to write, a stark contrast to the existing situation where I got tossed most of the longest and hardest articles on the most difficult topics — and was still expected to produce the same number of articles as everyone else. The main concern was work hours — we were told there would probably be morning and night shifts — and with my family commitments it wasn’t something I was looking to accept. But the chief told me the new hours would be “flexible,” and it was suggested to me that I’d probably be able to keep my existing schedule, though as with everything else, it was “yet to be confirmed.”

Shit dragged on like this until late October. About 10 days before the official end of the paper, there was an update: even after we are technically transferred, we’d stay on our current floor (the top floor) until the end of November, and we’d get laptops by the start of the final week of October so we can start trying out the new roles to see how we like it. The 45-day cooling off period disappeared like a fart in the wind, and the redundancy application date was set in stone at the end of the first week of November. In other words, I’d have 10 working days to decide my future.

The decision was expedited when we had another meeting on the Tuesday of the final week. Needless to say, we had not received our laptops by then, and my workload was actually being ramped up as certain people had already left, meaning I was both writing and editing, sometimes at the same time. At this final meeting, we were told that: (1) the laptops might not come until next week or beyond; (2) we’d still have to work shifts, from 9am-6pm or 1pm-10pm, with everyone having to work a weekend day about once a month from 10am-7pm — and that everyone’s schedule would be different — but no final roster was set and that each person’s exact times would decided “shortly”; (3) we’d have to choose our own stories but with “guidance” from the chief to ensure we’re on the “right track”; (4) we’d be posting our own articles on the website and have no one to edit our writing, but there will be a fine each time someone spots a mistake; (5) everyone would have their own personal page with all their articles, the number of hits for each article, and its “star” rating from readers — this will be used to determine performance.

The meeting was a relief for me, because I had remained torn about whether or not to stay. Even if I were allowed to work 9-6, unlike everyone else, nothing else appealed to me. With the laptops not arriving until after the switch, it meant I would have less than five days to experience the new role. And though we were told that we’d be technically allowed to choose our own stories, I got the strong sense that it would not really be the case. The fines and the personal page — essentially for naming and shaming (another wonderful part of the firm culture) — effectively sealed the deal. I knew it wasn’t all the chief’s fault — it was clear that the firm was mired in bureaucracy and the higher ups couldn’t make up their minds because they were all desperate to save their own asses. That’s what happens when there’s zero accountability and no incentive to do anything until the shit hits the fan.

So immediately after the meeting, I went into the chief’s office and told him I was taking the redundancy. I did some calculations, and with the redundancy package and freelance income, I was actually better off financially in the short-term, at least over the next six months. The plan is to generate enough contacts and steady freelance work to make the arrangement work over the long-term, and if not, I’d have to find a proper job.

PS: In hindsight, I absolutely made the right choice. My former colleagues were booted to the basement in the first week of the transition as opposed to after a month, and as of now they are still yet to receive their laptops. They actually moved a few of the desktop computers in our existing office downstairs into open plan for people to share. And it’s apparently been hectic and stressful, with odd shift rotations, little choice to write what you want, and pressure from the chief to get more hits. Can’t say it’s a surprise.

The freelancing life begins

So despite the fear of instability and uncertainty, I jumped at the opportunity for a freelancing life trial. It was my dream before I joined my translator job to freelance exclusively, but it was simply impossible without the requisite contacts and steady stream of work. Over the past four years, however, I have managed to build up a small network and some regular clients, so it’s a good foundation to build on.

I think I’m going to have to do a series of posts about what it’s like to be a freelancer, because there’s so much about it that I never thought through before I embarked on this path. It’s been a bit of a rough start, to be honest, because there’s so much unanticipated random stuff when you leave an old job for a new one. After a week of rest, movies and expensive food, I started dealing with the post-employment paperwork, updating CVs and LinkedIn, chasing up the company for stuff (typical), communicating with government agencies, dealing with insurance issues — all while trying to finish off existing cases I already have and trying to find new clients, as well as establishing new systems for more efficiency. And when you have more free time in theory, guess what? You end up getting asked to do more stuff, with family and the kids in particular.

On top of everything, I took on my first live interpretation cases for a film festival, which basically wiped out an entire week because I was too nervous to focus on other stuff and had to make sure I was well prepared. It’s been a bit of a wild mess for the last couple of weeks, and I still have cases outstanding that I really should have gotten to already, which makes me feel terrible.

The days have just gone by super quickly and I feel like there is not enough time in a day to get to all the things I want to. And I really need to build up my efficiency and motivation after working at a place that not only encourages but cultivates inefficiency and laziness. I am 100% serious about this. For four years, any hard work I put in was rewarded only with…more work. Basically, if you finish an article, you get another one. There’s no quota or maximum daily number of articles you must do, and you can’t leave early, so there’s no incentive to work fast. So if you’re super efficient and diligent, you could end up doing six or seven articles a day. If you’re completely lazy and unmotivated, you could do two a day. It makes no difference. No one says anything. There are no performance reviews. Maybe your end-of-year bonus will be affected a little, but we’re talking about a maximum difference of about half a month of salary. Even if someone started off in this job by coming to work on time every day and working really hard all throughout the day, what do you think will happen to them when they start seeing that their colleagues are always coming in one or two hours late, taking three or four hour lunches plus afternoon naps, and doing less than half the work they’re doing — with absolutely no consequences? Doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. And this was the type of work environment I was in for four years. I did my fair share of slacking off like everyone else, but I’m glad to say I maintained some dignity by at least ensuring that I did a certain amount of work at a certain quality every day, which made me a rarity.

Anyway, I’m hoping next week will be a new week where I can start sinking into a bit of a routine. Once that happens I’ll be able to focus on systematically punching out the existing cases and prowling for new clients and projects. Still, I’m already enjoying the freedom, the nature of the work, and the sense of being my own boss. Makes me want to do the very best I can every time.

What about the writing?

I’ll be truthful: one of the main reasons I wanted to have a go at the freelancing is because I want to free up time to finally finish my two books, and perhaps a screenplay I’ve had in my head for a while. I realized this was an opportunity that will never come around again, and I wanted to grab it by the balls.

So far, I’ve had even less time to work on these things than when I worked a full-time job. This blog post is the only writing I’ve done in months apart from a few movie and book reviews that were mostly composed on public transport. Again, this is something I hope will change. My ideal day once the dust settles would be half an hour to an hour of reading every morning and at least an hour to work on my own writing. Perhaps one day a week I’ll be able to write a blog post or two instead, and another half day I’ll use to catch a movie or go out and about. Not sure if I’ll ever get close to this dream, but I’m going to start doing everything I can to reach it.

Wow, that was some rant. Sorry.

Putting food on my family

August 9, 2015 in Freelance, Misc, On Writing by pacejmiller


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I was supposed to have started working on my book projects last month, but as of today I’ve still done jack squat. The excuse this time: making money.

I’ve always welcomed a bit of freelance work on the side as a supplement, though that aspect of my income has been sporadic at best. Some projects are great, while others are awful, and it’s usually hard to predict which before you agree to take it on. This year things have been more stable as I’ve built some repeat clientele and long-term collaborations, and last month everything suddenly exploded, especially towards the end of the month.

Just when I was getting in the mood to do some writing I was bombarded by five separate projects, all with relatively tight deadlines. The annoying thing is that some of them feed the work to you periodically and just when you think you’re done they send you more. And the shit clients tend to take forever to get back to you if you have a question, but when they need something from you they are always, without exception, in a massive hurry.

It’s frustrating especially because the state of the market is not great, and most of the time the clients can’t tell if your work is vastly superior than others, meaning it is difficult to charge what you deserve. And if you do charge what you deserve (at least by market standards) they’ll probably just go to someone else.

The problem is exacerbated by my analness. I just can’t stand when something is not up to par and just have to fix it, even when it doesn’t really concern me. Like this theatre production I was doing translations for had split the work between me and another freelancer, and just hours before opening night, they send me the “finished” slides so I can help fill in some of the blanks. And of course, I reviewed all the slides and saw how shit the translations were by the other freelancer, and I couldn’t help but fix them up along with all the other careless formatting by the production staff. They really appreciated it but I knew I wasn’t getting any more money. In fact, I had to chase them up for payment (which I hate doing but have had to do more than a few times).

I bitch, but when you get the opportunity to more than double your monthly income you just have to take it. As an eloquent leader once said, “I know how hard it is for you to put on your family.”

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Besides, even when you add up the hours from my day job and the freelancing, I’m still working a lot less than I did as a lawyer. Plus I find the work relatively easy and stress free, so it’s a world of difference I’d gladly take any day of the week.

The onslaught is actually continuing but I hope things will slow down after this week so I can finally get to what I’ve been meaning to do all year. The good news is that I’ve been reviewing films like a trojan whenever I’ve been on public transport and have about 10 movie posts completed. I’ll release them gradually over the next week.

PS: Also looking to get back into reading after a long hiatus. Nothing gets me in the mood for writing like reading.