The one thing they won’t teach you in school, besides how to do your taxes...
In 2017, Forbes questioned whether we were ready for a 50% freelance labor force, based on Upwork’s prediction of a freelance majority by 2030. Now they’re reporting accelerated growth far beyond what they originally expected. So why are so many leaving desk jobs behind, or skipping them altogether, in favor of a freer lifestyle? Well, freelancing is a way to pursue multiple interests, can help you build a professional network, and gain more control over your career. It can be a great place to start, especially if you’re fresh out of college or making a career change and are faced with the foreboding task of “getting your foot in the door.”
Reports from the Pew Research Center from research gathered in 2018 found that “42% of 18-to-34-year-olds now freelance,” making millennials the largest generation in the freelancing labor force. In the same year, USA Today also noted that millenials are more likely to join the freelancing community: “Four of every 10 Millennials intend to leave their full-time employers to work as a freelancer in five years. Only 23% of Gen Xers and 13% of Boomers had the same goal.” Freelancing can often be that ticket in, or it can sometimes turn into a full-time job or an entire career, if you know where to begin. (It’s also a mechanism of the capitalist machine, a way for employers and companies to avoid paying for salaried wages, healthcare, and benefits. More on that here). So, where should you start?
“Freelancing is a lifestyle. You have to be able to pivot at a moment's notice, take rejection in stride, and maintain relationships to succeed,” says Spencer Kosior, 24, a freelance broadcast operations and video technician who works mostly in Massachusetts. He’s been working in the local broadcasting industry for about a year and a half and has been pursuing a master’s degree in journalism as well. “The school-work-life balance doesn’t exist when you’re a freelancer,” Kosior adds. The hustle he describes is not a surprise, considering the daunting size of the freelancing community and all the other professionals out there competing for opportunities.
Upwork, a popular platform that connects freelancers with companies searching for them, released an annual report in 2018 which found that 56.7 million Americans freelanced in the U.S. that year. The study was conducted in partnership with the Freelancers Union and also reports, with a big thumbs-up kind of attitude, that 87% of freelancers polled feel “optimistic” about the future of the industry.
Laura Porat, a motion graphics designer who lives in Los Angeles, admits she didn’t see immediate success when first searching for gigs. “When I was starting out freelancing, I definitely did a lot of cold emailing to producers at studios I wanted to work at,” she recalls. “It had varying levels of success.” She reports that out of 100 cold emails, only 10 would end in a paying opportunity. “Nowadays I get a lot of my gigs through word of mouth. I'm also very active on social media and I've gotten clients who have seen my work on Twitter or Instagram.”
Ah, the headache-inducing, ever-awkward process that is networking. You probably hate to hear it (I know I do), but it seems that’s the very strength you need to make a sustainable living as a freelancer. One of the best ways to find freelance jobs, as listed by every self-help blog post I found about freelancing on the web, is to ASK AROUND. How helpful. But what they’re getting at, and what Porat alluded to as well, is that you’re much more likely to land a gig through someone you know than from sending out emails that get lost in the shuffle. Mandi Hinrichs, 29, who works from her home in Connecticut, knows this already: “I find it's better to network as much as possible because your industry friends are going to help you learn about new opportunities, might bring you along with them to new companies, or introduce you to someone who may need your skill set.” As a freelance copywriter, Hinrichs has built a network that includes connections with people from many different industries. “I have written blog articles, SEO copy, web content, scripts, print ads, and product copy,” Hinrichs includes, “Always be ready to learn!”
Alright, so we’ve touched on what it’s like to live the life of a freelancer and some ways to secure assignments, but how do you actually make that money??? As expected, every company you work for will do it a little bit differently. Some do payroll through invoicing websites or PayPal, while some send checks or use direct deposit. Olivia Harvey, 25, says some will even use Venmo if that’s what you prefer. Harvey freelances for a lifestyle websites, including HelloGiggles, So Yummy, and Blossom. She recommends keeping separate invoices for each company you publish with and says her rates depend mostly on word count. Harvey reports her rates for HelloGiggles at $25 for 250-word pieces, but says generally for 1,000 words or more she’ll charge anywhere from $65-$100 per article. Often she’ll charge more for research heavy pieces. Harvey also touches on the isolation some freelancers feel without the community of office coworkers. “I deal with the loneliness by making sure I leave the house every day,” she recommends. Making, and keeping, plans with friends helps Harvey from getting stuck in her freelancing bubble. “Even though I miss having coworkers, I still don’t think I’d trade my freelance work life for one in an office.”
“it's better to network as much as possible because your industry friends are going to help you learn about new opportunities”
For go-to freelancing resources, Porat recommends The Freelance Manifesto by Joey Korenman. Kosior suggests the Freelancers Union website for information on everything from how to deal with clients not paying you to a contract creator that will help you build airtight agreements. But there’s also guidance to be found on the internet. There are videos, podcasts, blogs, and even classes for how to be a freelancer out there. “Being Freelance” is a six-part, free podcast class that’s super helpful if you’re on the fast-moving podcast train at the moment. The fact of the matter is, you just have to go out there and try to see if freelancing is right for you. Harvey says it best: “Take risks and always go with your gut. Even if a job doesn’t seem to fit your interests, if it feels like a good opportunity, go for it. What’s the worst that can happen?”