This morning I’m sitting in the shade on a balcony at a hostel in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. It’s 10 am. It’s my favorite time of day, just me and my coffee and the street noises below. And I’m working, writing this blog.
Two years ago, when I was teaching in Brooklyn, I would have been at work for nearly 3 hours and awake for nearly 5 hours by now. This would’ve included an hour long subway or bus ride and several irritable inner monologues. And my day wouldn’t end until nearly 7 pm, followed by the same long irritable commute in reverse, where I’d collapse on the couch, only to wake a few hours later and repeat the entire process all over again. After 5 years of that, I knew I needed a change. So I left the country to travel and ended up in Phuket, Thailand. When I was teaching in English in Thailand this time last year, at this time of day I would’ve already been teaching my first class after an hour long commute in the hot sun.
I always enjoyed writing short stories and academic essays, reviews, papers (as well as some truly awful poetry all through the painfully sincere high school years.) But I never thought I could actually make money doing it. Then I heard about a freelancing opportunity that literally changed my life. I gradually built up my freelance hours and reduced my teaching load. Now I write, edit and research 20-30 hours a week and bring in $800-$1000 a month, perfect for living in the developing world. So now I’m living 2 dreams at the same time, traveling the world and getting established as a writer.
What exactly is freelancing?
If you’re a word nerd like me, you might be interested to know that the term “freelancer” used to literally refer to medieval soldiers who fought on the side of the highest bidder. I think from now on my resume will read “Literary Mercenary for hire.” Today it refers to a person who works for him or herself, often for a variety of clients and contracts on a temporary or per job basis. Freelancers usually have particular professional skills that can be marketed to potential clients. Due to the nature of the work, most freelancers can set their own hours and work from home, on the road, or at Starbucks.
Is freelancing right for you?
Ask yourself these questions:
Do you want to make some extra cash? Well, that’s a no brainer. But freelancing is an excellent way to maximize your cash flow, because you can set your own hours after work or on the weekends, while still holding down your 9 to 5 gig.
Do you have a skill or talent that you can use to earn money, or a hobby or passion that you wish you had more time to pursue?? From photography to blogging to web design to AutoCAD, there are freelance opportunities aplenty. Many freelancing jobs also revolve around computer programming, research, graphic design and database administration. A quick search on any of the major freelance jobs web sites will reveal countless other permutations of these types of jobs, as well as many more.
Do you dream of leaving the 9 to 5 grind and working for yourself? Start freelancing in your spare time and you can build your way up to full time with the right contracts.
Are you able to multitask and manage your time effectively? When you freelance, you play the roles of boss and employee. Although you are submitting your work to someone else, you are ultimately in charge of your work schedule, income and tax obligations. This also means you need to set a reasonable work schedule for yourself. It’s frighteningly easy to become a workaholic when there’s no one there to tell you to stop.
Do you have strong interpersonal and electronic communication skills? To make a name for yourself freelancing, you can’t be shy about shameless self-promotion. You also need to compose clear and thoughtful emails, have great Skype skills and diplomacy when it comes to negotiating pay and terms of contracts.
Do you love sitting around all day in your pajamas? Okay, maybe this one is just me, but I doubt it. There’s a lot to be said for working from home. Not only will you save on commuting, you’ll save time by having everything at your fingertips (including the couch when it’s nap time.)
Do you have the confidence to market your professional and personal assets to prospective employers? Be realistic and detail oriented when it comes to your strengths and skills. Don’t be afraid to hype yourself up to potential clients.
Beyond any technical, artistic, academic or editorial skills you may need for freelance work, there is a certain je ne sais quoi that is also necessary to work for yourself. I call this the misfit factor. You need to be comfortable with doing things a bit differently than most of the rest of the world, and to love that about you.
To handle all that excellent work you’re going to get, you will need to be fairly organized. If you’re not currently an organized person, read some tips on how to get there.
You will also need to be able to clearly identify and express your skills and talents, both job-related and interpersonal. Having a great resume is absolutely crucial.
If you plan on taking on a variety of contracts, or several projects from one employer, time management is your best friend. Unlike an office, school, hospital or any other traditional work environment, at home (or in hostel) freelance work relies on YOU to remind yourself of deadlines, keep files organized, respond to emails and complete tasks without anyone supervising you.
If like me, you’re working on a laptop most of the time, you will also need to have self discipline to get your work done and not be distracted by every news feed that scrolls across your FB home page. I like to make separate times for work, online news reading, and socializing. I keep all other windows closed when I am trying to complete a freelance assignment. Usually.
Building a stellar freelance rep means that you are on or ahead of time with your work, in frequent communication with your employer or colleagues, and you do not need to be reminded of what you’re working on. One of the reasons employers prefer freelancers to conventional employee pools is the fact that they (bosses) don’t have to spend time babysitting you.
This may sound a bit counter intuitive, but I’ve also learned that relaxing and going with the flow can really help you in your freelance work as well. This doesn’t mean blowing off assignments to go to the beach or bar. By ‘going with the flow’ I mean being the stream, not the rock in the stream. You are responsible for your work, but you can’t control how quickly your boss replies to your emails, so focus on your end of the responsibilities, and concentrate on working hard and loving what you do, wherever you are doing it. This also means taking on the right amount of work at the right time. Some weeks or months will be very busy while others won’t. Make time to still maintain some semblance of a personal life.
Becoming a freelancer means that you must be able to market yourself accurately, yet with confidence. In 99% of freelance circumstances, you will be chasing the work. Employers are not going to show up at your inbox with virtual flowers. So, grow a pair and be willing to talk about how fabulous you are. This might be hard for some, especially those of us who’ve chosen freelancing because we’re more comfortable interacting in cyberspace than office space, but, yeah… I’m gonna need you to go ahead and promote yourself anyway. Be your own publicist. Document all of your work, ask for credit on assignments wherever appropriate, and negotiate reasonable rates that reflect your worth as an employee.
Rates will obviously vary from contractor to contractor, employer to employer and job to job. And you might need to prove yourself in the infantry before you move to the war room, but once you get going, you can expect an increase in pay, as long as you’re holding up your end of the bargain.
There are essentially two paths to get started freelancing. You can promote yourself, or you can go through another online company to find work. If you go the self-promoting route, you should consider setting up a website and having some business cards made for networking. Be sure to have samples of your relevant work available in portfolio form.
Freelancers who work through an online company such as oDesk can usually set up a profile via the company’s website and bid on jobs posted by clients. Other such sites include Guru and ELance. Some freelancers have noted that rates can sometimes be lower for jobs on bidding sites, since some clients can hire contractors in other countries for significantly less than they would pay native U.S. freelancers. This just means you need to search carefully for jobs and rates that are worth your time.
I suppose the only down side (which isn’t really a down side at all) is that while on the road I devote a significant portion of my day to work, at least 5 days a week. I’m Laptop girl, fighting evil with my radioactive narrative and grammar skills. But, freelancing is after all, still a job. You’ve got to work to get paid. I just get to do it wherever I want, and I still get a weekend, just like most people. It just happens that I decide when the weekend is, depending upon deadlines, etc. It’s more the case that sometimes having a job as a traveling freelancer seems too good to be true. It offers me extreme flexibility and convenience, and pays well for my standard of living. And I love it.
We all need to work. But why shouldn’t we work in the best possible circumstances? We need to move past the work ideals of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations and allow ourselves to love our jobs, to enjoy our jobs, to make our jobs work for us, rather than vice versa.
Image licensed under Creative Commons: Flickr – omcoc
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