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Five Pitfalls of Freelancing and How to Avoid Them


Barrie Seppings is the director of creative strategy at wordsearch, the world’s leading marketing network for architecture, property, and real estate. He’s an incredibly popular author for our Firebrand blog in Australia and created this guest post just for us.

Ah, the life of an independent contractor in the creative industries. How nice it must be to take briefs in your pyjamas and present concepts in your underwear. To not have to sing happy birthday to that guy in finance whose name escapes you. To decline that call when some client you don’t like very much phones, wanting grunt work for his uninspired brands…

<insert record scratch sound effect>

You don’t need me to tell you that life in the Democratic Republic of Freelancia is no bed of roses. What you need me to tell you are five of the most serious (sometimes unavoidable) downsides of freelancing, and what you can do to mitigate them. So, that’s what I’ll do.

Downside 1: The phone sometimes stops ringing

Relying on a few sources of work, no matter how consistent or lucrative they are, is always risky. Think of it like an investment strategy: if all your eggs are in one basket, and there’s rush on omelettes, you’re doomed for breakfast tomorrow.

Solution: Keep your friends close, and your competitors closer

You might think other freelancers are your competition. Sometimes they are. But more often than not, they’ll pass a job on to you because they’re too busy, or the project is not a great match for their skillset, or it’s a giant opportunity they’d like to tackle with a colleague, or they just sold the movie rights book to their debut novel or whatever. Be there to pick up the dropped ball. Get the ball rolling by handing on leads to people you know. You’ve heard of karma, haven’t you?

Downside 2: You get sick. Like, real sick

This is actually happening to a couple of friends and colleagues of mine right now, one of whom is a freelancer*. And it is terrifying, just to watch. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to go through. Not just the illness itself, but the knock-on-effects for someone who needs to work, but simply can’t, can be close to catastrophic. Pray it won’t happen to you.

Solution: Plan for it happening to you

Slice off a fraction of your earnings (no matter how small) each month. Keep it consistent. Put some of it into a sick leave fund (for when you get the sniffles), some of it into health insurance (for when you break something) and some of it into an income protection (for when life comes along and smacks you in the mouth, good and proper). If it’s been a few years and your sick leave fund is piling up, congratulations. You just bought yourself a holiday.

Downside 3: You get typecast

This happened to me and it’s a double-edged sword, I tells ’ya. On the one hand, everyone gets to know that you’re very good at a particular thing. You’re automatically on the shortlist. Stick at it long enough, and you become the go-to-guy/gal. The number one draft pick. The safe pair of hands. What if that sector/channel/technology/segment falls out of favour? So do you, my freelancing friend.

Solution: Spread yourself around

Go hunt up some briefs in a (slightly) different field. Drop your rate to get ‘em and then really pull out all the stops to deliver fantastic work. Try and draw a thread between your known area of specialisation and this fantastic new approach you’ve developed for this new brief. (If you need a hand with the post-rationalisation, give me a call. That was actually my speciality.**) Show that you’re a breath of fresh insight, rather than an inexperienced risk. Rinse & repeat until you’ve got a specialisation and maybe three or four other areas you’re also pretty darn good at.

Downside 4: No one takes you anywhere

One of the great things about working for a big agency is that you sometimes (not always) get to go places. Shoots, conferences, talks, meetings, site visits, product demonstrations, even, on very rare occasions, lunch. (Used to happen a lot often, according to everyone older than you). Freelancers? Not so much.

Solution: Take yourself anywhere you want to go

Just like the health insurance thing (only much happier), you need to take responsibility for your continued development and inspiration***. No one else is going to. Slice off a regular fraction of your earnings and put it into conferences, training courses, talks, travel or exhibitions. Heck, why not ring up one of your freelance buddies and go to lunch? Double bonus: most of this stuff is a tax write-off****.

And here’s the fifth and most vital thing you need to do to be able to afford all this other stuff:

Price yourself to the market

When an agency hires a freelancer directly, they don’t pay holiday loading, sick pay, super, payroll, health cover etc, etc. The freelancer does, out of what they charge. On a macro level, that’s part of what drives the freelance economy. So if you are genuinely worth your market-appropriate day rate, have faith in yourself and stick by it. You might need every cent. I’m hoping you won’t.

* Hang in there guys, we’re thinking of you.

** I got so good at it, my superhero identity was officially changed to “Tenuous Link Man”. Came with a cape and everything.

*** This idea comes from an ex-boss of mine who missed only this one aspect of his global agency role when he went independent. If he’s reading this now, it should be apparent I’m talking about him.

**** This guest blog post does not constitute financial advice. Actually, it barely constitutes a decent blog post!

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