Adventures of a Freelancer: The Strategic Approach

There's a lot of work out in the big wide world, and since I started freelancing full time, I've taken a step back and tried to take a more strategic look at what work I apply for and what work I accept. 

When I first started full time, there was a powerful urge to accept every offer that crossed my desk because, you know, ELECTRIC, INTERNET, MORTGAGE, GAS, FOOD, AHHH!!! But the more research I did and the more offers I considered, the more I realized that I didn't have to worry about ELECTRIC, INTERNET, MORTGAGE, GAS, FOOD as much as I had to be careful not to screw myself over. Because then, guess what? LAWYER FEES, FINES, JAIL!!!   

So here are few things I have learned, coming out of the full-time freelancing gate like a cat out of the bathtub.

 This is exactly how I entered the freelancing world, growling and clawing and soaking wet.

This is exactly how I entered the freelancing world, growling and clawing and soaking wet.

Time Commitments

One of my favourite things about being a freelance writer is that I get to decide what I work on and when, provided of course that I meet my deadlines. This means that I can go lie in the hammock in the middle of the afternoon, or go visit my grandmother if I get a hankering, and finish my work late at night or early in the morning.

 Don't stare at this for too long.

Don't stare at this for too long.

That said, it always confuses me when people are looking for low-cost freelancers who will commit a lot of hours under a rigid schedule for a long time. It makes sense for a three week contract job, or even a three month contract job. But for years of labor? I might as well be a full time employee of the company... minus the benefits.

Let me give you an example. I was offered a job to do academic copy editing. One of the value adds the company offered their clients was 24-hour turnaround, so they wanted editors that could turn things around quickly. So far so good. However, they wanted a time commitment from the freelancer of a minimum of 8 projects a week (these projects could take anywhere from 2 - 5 hours to complete), each of which had a day-of deadline and only paid $15/hour (it was per project, but this was their estimated hourly rate). 

So, if you took 8 five-hour projects, you would already be working 40 hours that week, not counting any other projects you might have going on, and not leaving any flexibility for fitting in things like going to the gym or picking up kids.

I had another company that wanted me to work 35 hours a week for 2 - 3 years (or more). 35 hours a week isn't quite full time, but doesn't leave enough hours to really expand your business and work for a variety of clients. Even if you worked 60 hours every week for 2 - 3 years, you wouldn't be able to have very many clients. I told the company that I would be willing to do 35 hours a week for a few months, but then I would want more flexibility to fulfill the terms of my other contracts, but they said no. No flexibility allowed. 

 I call this piece, "Eggs No Mo."

I call this piece, "Eggs No Mo."

To me, taking this kind of high-hour, long-term (not to mention low-paid) work from an unknown entity is like putting all of your eggs in one basket (where you don't know if the basket is made of steel or twigs), especially if freelancing is your only source of income. If I had taken the 35 hour a week job, and then they fired me or suddenly had a drop in contract work, all I would have had left was the 10-hour per week job that I had taken on to fill in the gap. Whereas, if I took 5 ten-hour a week jobs and lost one, I would still have 4 other jobs left to help pay the bills.

Non-Competes

Non-competes are good when they protect both the freelancer and the company. However, they catch people up all the time, and while I'm no lawyer, I'm extremely picky about what ones I'm willing to sign. I'm happy to agree to not recruit a company's staff to work for me. I'm happy to agree to not work for a direct competitor. But there are plenty of other things a company can stick in a non-compete that are ridiculous/potentially conflicting and can get you screwed without you even realizing what's happening. 

A friend of a friend decided to start up a freelance consulting business, and her first contract was for her state government, as that's where the majority of her experience was. She signed the non-compete without understanding what it said. When she went to go work for other state governments, hers said, "uh... nope! That's against the terms of your non-compete!" The non-compete had forbidden her from working for any other government for a full year after her current employment was terminated. Which is ridiculous, as that's the entirety of her consulting work. She had to go back and renegotiate her contract, and they eventually agreed to let her consult for state governments outside of New England.

 When I read an over-the-top non-compete, I feel the same way Fry does when he sees a picture of a soul-stealing alien.

When I read an over-the-top non-compete, I feel the same way Fry does when he sees a picture of a soul-stealing alien.

I had non-compete presented to me (which I ended up not signing), that was so full of legalese I had to take it to a lawyer to understand what it meant. Ultimately, the non-compete restricted me from working for all competitors, anyone in the industry, even clients (who weren't defined in the document, but who could be classified as anyone purchasing their services, which in this case could have been your mom or grandpa), and even financial institutions who worked in the industry! That would have restricted my potential employers significantly going forward, not to mention that the non-compete was valid for 2 years, and the penalties for violation started at a quarter of a million dollars. Luckily, I'm a writer and my skills are helpful across industries, but I felt it would be unduly unwise to sign something so restrictive, particularly as it was not very lucrative.

The other thing about non-competes is making sure that the new ones don't conflict with any existing ones. I like to periodically go back to the non-competes I've already signed and make sure I can actually remember what they say. This way, when new ones arise, I can make sure I'm not getting myself into any tight spots.

So yeah, watch out for those non-competes.

Online Platforms that Take a Cut

There are a wide variety of online platforms that offer freelance work of all sorts: eLance, Fiverr, PeoplePerHour, Writers' Access (to name a few), and as you know from my post about check fraud there are some pretty sketchy people and job offers out there. In addition to those people, there are the platforms themselves. Pretty much all of them are basically "what you see is what you get." Take Fiverr--what do you expect on this site? $5 jobs? You can make a lot if you're good at it and don't care about quality, but, it is what it is.

Anyway, when I first began freelancing, I started by poking around on PeoplePerHour, and I applied for some blog post gigs. They were about $40 for five 300-word blog posts. I figured if I could bust each post out in a half hour or less, than it would be worth it. So I did--5 blog posts in 2.5 hours. I did two sets of these for the buyer, and the buyer paid me $40 each through PeoplePerHour. Then I had it transferred over to Paypal. Between the PeoplePerHour fees and the Paypal fees, what should have been a $78 check turned into a $64 check, bringing my hourly rate down by $3. That's somewhere around 18% (this was probably mentioned in the PPH agreement, which clearly I did not read carefully enough)! I have no problem with a platform like that taking a cut, but I learned that I had better take that into serious consideration when accepting jobs. 

 No but seriously, this gif is the perfect representation of my feelings.

No but seriously, this gif is the perfect representation of my feelings.

So my current strategy is to keep my options open and flexible, read and understand every word of non-competes and other legal documentation, and not take low paying jobs on online platforms. 

I'd love to hear how you approach your assignment choosing--what strategies do you use? Any bad experiences?

 

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