Freelancing is hard work. I think there is this misconception that working independently is mecca or a state or nirvana that that is reached as a reward for those who earn it.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, freelancing is open to anyone who wants and, in a lot of ways, is just like playing bass: it’s easy to learn but hard to master. I don’t have a grand thesis for this post, but instead wanted to share some thoughts on things I’ve learned about freelancing now that I’m approaching the one year mark since making the leap.
You Never Work for Yourself
It usually goes like this: I meet someone for the first time. We shake hands, exchange a few pleasantries, then turn the conversation to our jobs.
The follow-up question to my job as a freelancer is generally about what it feels like to work for myself. It’s a fair question. I mean, there’s no boss to answer to in the traditional sense. For all intents and purposes, I am my own boss. It’s one of the perks that drew me to the job.
I used to answer the question by saying how awesome it is, but it never felt like an honest answer because it’s untrue. The reality is that where I once had one boss, I now have a dozen. My clients care if I’m on time, what I wear to meetings and whether I reply to my emails. They also sign my paychecks. In that sense, they are every bit like a traditional boss.
Now I answer the question much more honestly. Yes, working for myself is great. But now I have many more bosses who expect greater things out of me. It’s scary and exhilarating at the same time.
Working for someone else often means working on that person’s vision and accomplishing what she wants. Working for myself (whatever that means) gives me a certain level of latitude to determine the projects I take. I say yes to some and no to others and decide based on how much I need or want the work. There is freedom there, but with some obvious constraints.
You Don’t Love Everything You Do
My decision to freelance was more of a decision to focus on doing what I love, which is web design and front-end development. I remember being asked to do a bunch of crap in other jobs that I hated and spent lots of time daydreaming about a job where I could just design and code.
I have that now, but with great power comes great responsibility. One of my all-time favorite charts is about the secret life of wedding photographers. The perception is that photographers spend 80% of their time taking photos and the other 20% traveling to exotic places and partying like rockstars. The reality is that photographers spend only 12% of their time taking photos and the rest is split between a ton of various menial admin tasks.
The same is true of what I do. I am a diligent time tracker and have found that, on average, 40% of my time is either spent designing or writing code. All things considered, that’s pretty darn good, but a lot less than what I probably perceived when I started.
How do I spend the other 60% of my time? Well, that varies, but these are some very common items:
- Writing proposals
- Billing, invoices and expenses
- Meetings and phone calls
- My own projects
Not a bad list, but all things that are not related to design or code.
Time Isn’t Always Money
Speaking of how I spend my time as a freelancer, I’ve learned that the time I spend working isn’t always billable. There’s probably enough material here to write a much larger post, but I’ll just spit out the main point for the sake of conversation.
We’ve already established that I don’t love everything I have to do as a freelancer. I mean, who loves tracking expenses and reconciling invoices, right? The real bummer about these things is that I’m also not paid for them. In fact, anything I do outside of designing and coding is almost a charitable contribution that I either do to keep a client happy, earn a new project, or keep my business afloat. According to my time tracking, about 60% of the time I spend on working is stuff that actually makes its way onto an invoice.
I know this is a convoluted argument and I don’t mean it to be. There are things we can do to run a business more efficiently and we need to build the costs of doing business into our rates. Again, there is enough for another post in here, but it’s irrelevant to this one.
The point I want to make is that it’s easy to forget how valuable our time is. Finding a fair way to bill clients in a way that maintains a sustainable living wage is crucial to freelancing and something that I’m still wrestling with myself.
So, What’s the Point of This?
I don’t think there is enough practical dialogue about freelancing happening and I want to contribute something, trite as it is. Most of the posts I find or read are glamorized lists on how to become a freelancer or the latest resources for freelancers. I very rarely come across a sincere post that provides a personal perspective on what it means or feels like to be a freelancer.
The bottom line is this: I love what I do. Given a choice between what I do now and what I did a year ago, I’d choose this every time, warts and all. There are so many benefits that come with freelancing and many of them are intangible and ineffable.
The point of what I’m saying is to provoke more questions than answers. We’re expected to have answers for everything but, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my experience this past year, it’s that the number of questions I have greatly outnumbers the answers.