The Pros and Cons of Freelancing
Back when I used to work in an office every day, I would say to myself, "Some day I'm going to work from home, so I can skip this lousy hour-long commute. I'll be my own boss, so I don't have to do any scut work. And I'll sleep late every day!"
Well, I've been a freelance editor without an office job for fifteen years now, and precisely one of those dreams has come true. I no longer have to take a train and a bus to work; I can roll out of bed and be at work approximately seven seconds later (three minutes if I detour through the bathroom first). Aside from no longer commuting, I still do plenty of scut work, and I almost never get to sleep in. Here are some benefits and pitfalls of the freelance life.
The Freelance Life
Make your own schedule
Work all the time
No more professional clothes
Professional pants no longer button
Great earning potential
Be your own boss
Responsible for everything
When you work in an office, your schedule is determined by your boss, especially if you're down near the bottom of the org chart. She tells you what time to arrive, when to leave, when to take lunch, and which project you need to work on first thing. As you rise in seniority and power, you are able to decide some of these matters for yourself, but your working hours are generally still constrained by the office culture. On the other hand, though you may need to work late or bring home some papers occasionally, you are generally free to spend time with your family or pursue other interests in the evenings and on weekends.
When you are a freelancer, your schedule is flexible. You can decide to start work at 7:30 in the morning if you're an early riser, or sleep in and start work around the time your office counterparts are returning from their lunch break. If you have children, as I do, you can work during school hours and spend your afternoons doing traditional "mommy" activities, such as helping with homework, driving the kids to activities, and making dinner. So far, so good, right? It's no problem at all to stick to such a schedule if you only need to work a few hours a day. The challenge comes when the work piles up.
As a freelancer, you want the work to pile up, because more work equals more money. This can lead to working late into the night and all day on the weekends to meet deadlines. I pay for my "afternoons off" by going back to my computer at 8:00 pm and staying there until 10 or 11 o'clock on a normal day, or until 1:00 am during crunch times. You'll often find me working on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons, too, as "just five minutes to check my email, honey!" turns into two or three hours of returning clients' emails, trolling for new jobs, putting out fires on current projects, and managing schedules and billing.
A Freelancer's "Office"
Where does a freelancer work? Anywhere he wants to!
Depending on the kind of work you do and the equipment you need, you may be able to work pretty much anywhere as a freelancer. Have you ever wandered through a coffee shop at 9:30 on a weekday morning and wondered who all those people with laptops are, and why they are so aggressively territorial about claiming certain tables? Why, they're freelancers, of course, and those tables are the ones that have easily accessible plugs for them to recharge their laptops and phones! That kind of portability is especially possible for writers, who need only their brains and a smallish screen to make the magic happen. If all you need is a laptop and some software, then your expenses are minimal, and you can work anywhere from your kitchen table to the monkey house at the zoo.
I happen to be an editor, so I only take work to the coffee shop when I actually have hard copy to mark up (which is very rare these days, although I used to do it all the time. I once carried a 300-page set of proofs on a family road trip and colonized the hotel lobby's tables each night for hours at a time). Otherwise I need to use my powerful computer with the large screen at my desk in my home office. (Graphic designers, another popular freelance field, are usually similarly tied down.) Having a home office is nicer than working in a cubicle because you have the freedom to set it up any way you want to. If you're a lefty, you can put your computer on the left side of your desk. Need a special chair for your back? You're in charge of ordering, so buy one! Don't want to clean the papers off your desk every night? No worries! The cleaning staff is not going to come and toss everything in the trash during the night.
The downside is having to find a dedicated place in your home to work, and having to pay the overhead expenses. In addition to investing in office furniture and technology, working from home means you use more electricity, your heating and cooling requirements are greater than in an empty house, and even your water bills can rise from making extra coffee all day long (and the resultant increase in bathroom trips). There are some tax breaks if you have a dedicated home office, but those are tricky to qualify for; speak to your accountant before you claim home office deductions.
A Freelancer's Wardrobe
Think about what a professional businessperson wears to the office every day: a suit, dress shirt, tie, and shined shoes; or a skirt, pantyhose, blouse, jewelry, and heels. Even in a casual business environment, men are likely to have to wear a non-wrinkled shirt with a collar, and women may be able to wear open-toed shoes and skip the pantyhose, but still have to look neat and pulled together at all times. When you're a freelancer, though, anything goes (as long as you don't have client meetings that day). Pajamas, stained and holey t-shirts, yesterday's clothes, no clothes at all . . . you name it, somewhere a freelancer is wearing it. This means freelancers save a fortune on a professional wardrobe: no need for bespoke suits or silk ties or drycleaning! Unfortunately, it can also mean that freelancers forget how to dress when they are actually seen in public. Take a closer look at those writers at the coffee shop the next time you're there: misbuttoned shirts, wrinkled pants, no makeup, flip-flops instead of shoes . . . the list goes on. And if a freelancer can be persuaded to try wearing some of those old business clothes, chances are they won't fit anyway, because of the easy access to the kitchen when you're in a home office.
All the Money in the World
Another fantastic benefit of freelancing is the fact that you have no outside constraints on how much money you can make. Your income is not defined by how much your boss thinks you're worth or how much HR has decided the company can afford to pay you this year. Your income is solely dependent on how many clients you can bring in, how much work you can accomplish for them, and how much you can get them to pay you. At first this is a heady thought -- unlimited income! I'll be rich in no time if I get paid what I'm worth! Then you crash back down to earth.
- Unless you already have a strong network, you may have trouble landing clients. There are tons of freelance marketplaces online, but many of them use a bidding system that is beneficial to the client but not good for the freelancer, who is faced with lowering her price so that she loses money every hour she works, or not working at all.
- Be realistic about how much work you can do during any given week. I've made this mistake before, because I hate to turn down any job for fear that a client may go elsewhere if I'm not available. But sometimes you just physically can't turn around four different projects in one weekend, especially if you have family obligations. Consider your health, as well. It's been a long time since college, when I could pull an all-nighter with few consequences. Now I get jittery from too much caffeine and sugar, my brain function slows down until I start to make more mistakes than I'm fixing, and the lost sleep costs me hours of productivity later in the week.
- When you first start freelancing, you may have no idea what your time and skills are worth. You may set a low price, figuring that you will entice clients that way, only to find later that you have trouble paying your bills. Conversely, you may price yourself out of the market if you charge too much, especially if you are looking for new clients. How much to charge is a delicate calculus, and the answer will be different for everyone. A forum like the LinkedIn professional groups can offer valuable suggestions.
Answer to No One
That's the goal, right? Unfortunately, when you answer to no one, there is no one else to blame for things that don't get done. You are your own boss, so now you have twice the responsibility instead of none! You have to get the work done, just as you would in an office setting, but you also have to hustle to get the contract in the first place like your boss (or his boss) did before; pay the office expenses like an office manager; keep up-to-date on technological advancements that pertain to your work like an IT professional; be in charge of invoicing and taxes like a bookkeeper; maintain retirement accounts and health insurance like an HR department; and keep your workspace dust-free like the cleaning staff.
That's not to say that freelancing isn't worth it. I love my flexible freelance life. It allowed me to maintain and improve my skills during a time in my life when it wasn't practical for me to be working full-time in an office. Now that my kids are in elementary school, I'm continuing full steam ahead by taking on more complex projects. Maybe I'll go back to full-time office work some time in the distant future, but for now I'll deal with the hassles of work spilling over into family time, being a slob, and having to drum up work during slow periods so that I can enjoy the benefits: making my own schedule and being my own boss.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go put on my cleaning hat and tidy up my desk . . .