When we went freelance we both had some ideas about how things would work out. For many, going freelance is a decision to escape our 9 to 5 job. We imagine we’re going to be in control of our time and only do the work we love to do. But we quickly found out that this isn’t exactly the truth, at least not in the beginning. Freelancing is interesting, because there are always two sides to the story.
In this article we’re going to look at some of the common contradictions of freelancing. Of course, all of these depend on your personal circumstances, but generally these seem to hold true for most people who start fresh as a freelancer.
Nika: People think that you must be earning a lot when you tell them your hourly or daily freelance rate. And when you multiply that by the amount of hours and days a normal person works in a full-time position, yes it does come across as if you are making a lot more money than you are. If you have a good month, this indeed can work out in your favor and your bank account is nicely filled.
But on the other hand, when you work on a project with a fixed-fee, hit a dry patch work-wise, go on a holiday or you are not working for any other reason (spending two whole days on your tax returns), you are earning... zero. There have been projects where I didn’t manage expectations and timing well, so I ended up working many more hours than I was paid for. So when you calculate that back I was earning way below the average minimum wage.
Tobias: As Nika already mentioned, earning money as a freelancer scales directly with the amount of work you put in. Compared to being full-time, the moment you take just one day being sick, you’re not getting paid. And of course, never forget that the amount you charge per day or week isn’t really what you get out of it in reality. Deduct taxes, healthcare and other expenses, and then you’ll know what you really made.
While I don’t like to make generalizations, I’d say that most freelancers who just started out usually make much less or roughly the same as their full-time counterparts. In the end it’s really up to you, how much you charge and how well you negotiate.
Nika: A lot of people go freelance because they like to have more control of their time. This was the main factor in quitting my full-time job. I didn’t want other people to tell me when I could take a day off, or when I could or couldn't go on a holiday for more than two weeks. So the first year freelancing I worked as a contractor for different agencies in London and took a lot of time of to travel. This was obviously amazing!
Later, when I started to work more with my own clients on design projects, I realized that having more free time is not always the case. It takes a lot of practice and time management to achieve that perfect work-life balance. I must say, I struggle with this quite a bit. I’m not very good at managing time and I’ve spent many evenings and weekends at home, finishing projects for my clients. I admire people who run their own business but can stop working at 6 or 7 PM.
Tobias: I would agree that if you’ve figured out the project management part of this whole freelance situation, you will enjoy more free time. Sometimes free time just means you can work at night, sleep in and enjoy the summer days outside.
As Nika already mentioned, many people go freelance because they want more free time, but they end up working more than when they were full time. This really just comes down to your project and time management skills.
Nika: One of the main reasons people hesitate to go freelance is that they are scared to lose the security of their paying job. I’ve always found this very contradicting. Because to me (especially in today's financial climate) job security is a myth. There are plenty of examples of companies that move their offices and production to lower-paying countries and lay off their long term employees by the thousands, just to cut costs. They completely ignore the years of hard work from their employee and pay them off with a few months’ salary (if you're lucky). And when you aren’t prepared for this, what are you going to do when you can’t find a new job?
When you work for yourself, it's true that you have less control over your income, where your next job is coming from and how much you will be earning. But you are in control of the rest. When you go freelance, you need to learn how to learn. You learn to be proactive, to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit. You learn how to network and how to manage your finances. You also learn to be flexible. If you notice your work is running low, you can learn a new software and pick up other jobs you normally wouldn’t do. The longer you run your own company, the bigger your network will be, the more jobs can come your way. I think going freelance and having an entrepreneurial spirit is the best job security you can get.
Tobias: I can’t agree more with Nika here. Being full-time means you rely 100% on your employer. Your fate is in his or her hands. You’re technically zero in control, but while things are good, you’re fine. As a freelancer, you are the one who is 100% in control. Even if that means you make zero money next month, or twice as much as last month. You’re fully in control. For some this might work, and for some it won’t.
Nika: During my (only) full-time job, I quickly realised how toxic office politics can be to your daily life. Maybe I got unlucky at this agency, because it put me off working full time for a very long time (maybe forever?). Now I know that there are many amazing companies out there where everyone feels like family, colleagues become good friends and some even become part of your life. But still I haven’t found an agency or workplace that I believe is free of office politics.
When you are working from home, there are of course fewer people around who can cause these frictions. So you would think you are free from dealing with these hierarchical constructions. But now, you are personally responsible for good relationships with your clients. And when things go wrong, it will unfortunately involve a lot of politics and relationship management. You need to communicate everything very clearly with your client, not let them step over your boundaries and you have to keep your patience, even if they are being unreasonable. But if it gets too bad, the good thing about being a freelancer is that you always have to option to fire your client.
Nika: When you run your own business, you can choose what kind of creative projects you are going to work on. Besides freedom, a lot of people go freelance because they want to go after their creative passions. They love to create things, and start out with the idea that this will be the only thing that they will be doing. Making stuff and getting paid for it.
Although this is true, when you work for yourself, you also have to deal with a lot of other sides that come with running a business. You will spend a lot of time dealing with clients, getting new work in, writing proposals and contracts, filing your taxes, keeping track of your finances, etc. Especially when your business is going well, you can find yourself more and more on the managing side than actually being creative. I have friends who eventually went back to full time or gave up their business because it was too much.
Tobias: Probably one of the most underestimated parts of being a freelance designer is that you actually have to run a business yourself. This might be a bit easier if you freelance in-house for agencies, but if you have your own direct clients, successfully running your business takes at least 50% of your time. PS: You can counter this a bit if you’re working with an agent. We wrote about this here.
Nika: Most freelancers dream of working on amazing, ambitious projects and having the best clients in the world with good budgets who understand your innovative, creative ideas. And if you are lucky, you will have plenty of these projects coming your way. But sometimes, you will be working on projects that will just pay the bills. When working for yourself and for your own clients, freelancing can be very rewarding. Job satisfaction can be really high when you’ve delivered a project and your client is super happy with it. On the other hand, when it goes badly or a client is being difficult, you can feel it dragging you down. I’ve had sleepless nights about projects that just didn’t seem to be heading the right direction, wondering if I was any good at all. I guess this is the main emotional roller coaster as a freelancer; one moment you are feeling amazing and competent, a split second later you are questioning your own talent and expertise. But don’t let it get to you! It’s part of being a creative.
Tobias: I always had these beautiful dreams about being a freelancer, working for only my dream clients and being in this perfect state of happiness. But as Nika already mentioned, reality hit me hard. Especially if you’re early in your career, 80% of your projects are most likely not portfolio pieces and just there to pay the bills. And then, slowly but surely this will hopefully improve.
I guess the main point of this article is that the freelance life can have many highs and many lows. You will have long nights and weekends, but also long vacations. Your cash flow will fluctuate, you will be happy when helping out lovely clients, you will be stressed when a job goes wrong, you will be annoyed when a client pays late. But the good news is, all of those things can be influenced by you. It will be harder in the beginning, but eventually you will figure it out.
You will be proud when you archive another finished project or when a product sells out. I guess for me it’s the overall idea of choosing your own path, creating your own career and being free in choosing which direction to go in. To be in control of the uncontrollable.
Keep creating & Hope you enjoyed this article
Nika & Tobias