Monday, June 8, 2009

Why Freelancing is Hard

I recently taught two classes of photojournalism at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona in a post-graduate level course. At the beginning of the class I asked every student to state their name, where they were from and what field of photography of photojournalism they wanted to enter. With the exception of one student everyone said they wanted to do freelance "reportage" work. Were they all crazy or just clueless???

Here's why....

Why Freelancing Is Freakin’ Hard

Rock climbing is hard, and so is freelancing. Despite how magnificent it can be to work for yourself, there are some things about freelancing that just plain suck. And no matter where you specialize, these vicious drawbacks usually find a way of asserting themselves.

What drawbacks am I talking about?

* Dealing with the feast & famine cycle
* Managing every aspect of business entirely on your own
* Finding time to market yourself, do client work, deal with clients, keep up the administrative stuff, and still grow the business
* Balancing work and life (and often family) while dealing with all of the above
* Getting sick, going on vacation, or otherwise not working 24/7 while still dealing with all of the above

Now if you only look at these negatives, freelancing seems like a pretty bad idea — that’s definitely not the case. It’s important to acknowledge the challenges of freelancing, though, so that you can manage them and learn to free yourself from the usual limitations.

And that’s what we’re going to do in this article.

The Feast and Famine Cycle

This is a problem that most freelancers deal with painfully at the beginning of their career — and usually still manage later on too (hopefully with less pain).

It starts when you have lots of free time and very few clients, when the obvious thing to do is to market a lot. After marketing for a while you’ll get clients and eventually start running out of time — and then you’ll stop marketing (because you’re packed with work and have no time). Finally, when you’ve managed to hammer through those client projects and finish all of the work, you’re left with very few clients again, and the cycle repeats.

What to do about it
The feast and famine cycle is primarily a problem of time. If you can shave a bit of time off of your client work, and automate some of your marketing, you’ll do a lot to alleviate the stress. You can also even things out by building alternate sources of income that are steadier than client work.
Managing Everything Yourself

Like the feast and famine cycle, this is the hardest at the beginning, but the problem never fully goes away. Truth be told, managing every aspect of a growing business is incredibly difficult to do on your own, regardless of how much experience you have.

The root of the issue is that there is simply too much information for any one person to handle. It’s like trying to view an entire atlas at one time — you can’t do it unless you flip to the front and look at the “general” map that doesn’t have all of the details.

It’s the same for freelancing. Very, very, very few people can think about the accounting, legal, marketing, customer support, industry, and strategy/growth aspects of their business at the same time. Trying to plan, manage, and schedule all of these by yourself is a recipe for disaster.

So don’t try to do it alone.
The solution to this problem is an easy one — get help from other people. You shouldn’t do your own accounting, let an accountant do it for you. If you can delegate the less important tasks, and only focus on what’s important to you, then your business is likely to be in much better shape.
Doing Everything Yourself

If thinking about and managing everything is a problem, than actually doing it is much worse.

Let’s say you’ve found help from an accountant, and you’re using some tools to help with the marketing. That still leaves an enormous amount of work to be done by you — enough that you’ll eventually run into an earnings plateau and have a hard time making more than that. How happy you are with that number and how much time it requires to maintain it will depend on how well you’ve handled the other problems.

But what if your income weren’t time limited? What if there were ways to leverage your time so that you get more work done with less effort? There are…

The way to beat these time and earnings limitations by working with other people. You could outsource some of your work, you could work with other freelancers, you could find partnerships. You can create an entire distributed team. With these concepts time is no longer a limiting factor on your income.
Maintaining a Work/Life Balance

The hardest part about all of this is that freelancers don’t work in a vacuum, separated from everything else. We have lives, families, hobbies, and many other things that demand our time. We just can’t work all day and all night.

Not to mention, freelancers who do work all day and all night typically end up burning out in a spectacular ball of flames (yep, I’ve done that).

How to keep a healthy balance
The trick to keeping a good work/life balance is pretty easy, at least in theory. It tends to be very difficult to actually put into practice.

The ’secret’ is to set limits. Only work during set hours. Deal with clients during designated periods. Take breaks at regular intervals throughout the day.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many ways to make it easier, though having more time overall will help. So in a way you’re lucky: dealing with the other problems we’ve mentioned will help alleviate this one too :-)
Planning for emergencies

Perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a freelancer is getting so sick that they can’t work. Losing the only employee of a one-person business is devastating, and it can happen without warning.

So what can you do?

There are a few ways you can deal with this. The first is to have someone ready to answer emails or take phone calls in your absence. It doesn’t have to be a good solution, it just needs to work in an emergency.

The second part is to have someone you can call to take over some of your work if it becomes absolutely necessary. I recommend working with other freelancers on a regular basis anyhow, which makes setting up a situation like this even easier.

If you have those two pieces standing by, unexpected emergencies will be a lot easier to deal with.
So what’s the big answer?

As we hinted at throughout the article, the answer to these problems is to treat your freelancing more like a business and less like a job. Start building systems that save you time, start working with other people where it’s valuable to you, and start to build assets that bring in some steady money.

Of course, doing all of this can be very difficult, and there’s not a lot of information out there. Which is why, I’m happy to say, we’ve been working on an ebook for the past several months that outlines exactly how to do all of these things — in detail. If you find yourself dealing with these problems, I highly recommend you check it out.

Find more great posts about Freelancing here.

1 comment:

Paco Elvira said...

Great and extremely useful post Charlie