Do you dream of being as free as a bee? Setting your own hours, choosing the projects you work on, and enjoying more control over your life? Employees are increasingly shifting to freelancing, leaving their colleagues pea-green with envy. But is freelancing right for you? What are the advantages and the challenges?
Perversely, some of the main advantages of freelancing also embody most of the challenges. Here are my top three:
Most freelancers quickly discover there’s no such thing as routine. Either you’re scratching around for work like an impatient chicken, or three clients arrive all at once with a screaming deadline. If you are used to a consistent work pattern as an employee, this can make you feel out of control. There are no bosses to allocate the tasks – it’s all down to you.
Some people embrace this unpredictability. The adrenalin rush of a big project with a tight deadline is intoxicating. If you have caring responsibilities, though, this could be disruptive. You can’t always finish at 5pm or ensure your weekends are free for family time. There are no colleagues to cover for you and clients expect their deadlines to be met.
As a workaholic, I’m comfortable with accommodating sudden surges. What I find tough, however, is the need to keep marketing when I’m immersed in those priorities. Even when you’re super-busy, you have to line up future work. Otherwise, you’re heading straight for a slump. That means working long hours to get everything done, then going to a networking event and making small talk over vol-au-vents.
In short, it’s fun when the work comes in, but you never know whether it’ll be a drop, a trickle, or a torrent. Too little work can lead to despondency and financial difficulties; too much could mean burnout, lower standards, or turning down interesting projects.
The advantages of unpredictability:
- No two days are the same, so you’re unlikely to get bored
- You’re working on lots of different projects
- There’s a buzz from a tight deadline
The disadvantages of unpredictability:
- Competing deadlines are stressful
- Your work/life balance suffers
- Even when you’re busy, you still need to tout for business
As an employee, you usually have a job description that sets out your responsibilities. Although freelancers have a defined skill set, clients often ask for something different. After all, they know you’re reliable and they’d rather not have to look elsewhere.
A few years ago, I ran a series of workshops for a client. Towards the end of the series, they asked me to host a webinar, too. I was appalled. I’d never run a webinar before and this felt like a major challenge. Although profoundly sceptical, I did my homework and worked out what I needed to do. It went really well and I now love delivering webinars. Unless that client had pushed me, I might never have tried it.
There have been other instances, though, where I was too flexible, attempting tasks that I didn’t enjoy and weren’t in line with my strengths. It’s good to be open-minded, but not at the risk of trying to do everything. Also remember that learning or further developing skills takes time, and time your client won’t necessarily pay for.
The advantages of flexibility:
- You’re always learning new skills
- Change is stimulating
- You can move into new, unexpected directions
The disadvantages of flexibility:
- You need to allow a lot of (unpaid) time for learning
- Not everything works out
- You can lose focus
If, like me, you’re not a team player, self-employment could be a good choice for you. I like having complete control over my work, not having to worry about what other people are (or aren’t) doing. This means I get the credit when something goes well, but it’s also me who has to fix any problems.
When I worked as a freelance web developer, websites would inevitably go down at 4pm on a Friday afternoon. It was up to me to liaise with the engineers to get it up and running again, regardless of how long that took. I hadn’t done anything wrong (OK, sometimes I had), but it was my responsibility to oversee the solution. I couldn’t tell the client I’d take a look on Monday morning.
Reliability is crucial as a freelancer – that’s how you get repeat business. Making mistakes is OK, so long as you take full responsibility and fix them right away.
The advantages of responsibility:
- You enjoy a high level of control
- You can pursue your own standards
- You get all the glory
The disadvantages of responsibility:
- You have to fix stuff when it goes wrong. Immediately.
- There’s no team to fall back on, so you’re highly visible
- Things only go wrong at the worst possible time
As you can see, there are some distinct advantages to freelancing, and also some palpable challenges. It’s definitely not for everyone.
Over the next few months, I’ll be writing a series of posts covering some of the practical demands of freelancing, such as deciding how much to charge, managing cashflow, and investing in your business. If you’re still trying to decide on your niche, taking a look at my post on Finding Your Ikigai.
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In the meantime, best of luck with your freelancing plans.