So you want to be a freelancer…
Opportunities are everywhere, but they won’t always be served up on a silver platter
You can imagine my surprise when I learned that the term ‘freelancer’ originated in medieval times when the rich would hire the services of “free lances,” men with lances, swords, and other weapons who sold their services to anyone who could afford them. Ser Bronn of the Blackwater in Game of Thrones is an example of a medieval freelancer. He sold his services to whoever could pay for them.
Anyway, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of modern-day freelancing. No filings required (that was back then though), make money on your own terms, monetize your time, open a second revenue stream… the benefits were simply too compelling to ignore.
However, it wasn’t until two years after I graduated from university that I got my first chance at being a freelancer. I was living in Abuja (Nigeria’s capital city) at the time. A classmate from high school wanted a business proposal done and a mutual friend referred me to him.
The proposal for a 100 million Naira project. Someone had written it already but the quality was simply appalling. There was no way anyone would approve 1,000 Naira on such an atrocious proposal let alone 100 million. So my task was simply to revamp the entire proposal and work out the financials — cost analyses, profit projections, capital, and recurring expenses… the whole nine yards.
It took me three days of non-stop work to clean up the proposal and present new financials. My friend was so happy with the end result that he paid me almost 100,000 Naira for the job. I couldn’t believe my eyes. That was the very first time I was handling that kind of money and it was all mine. I spent that money on a mobile phone and clubbing with my guys. No regrets.
Anyways, that was the beginning of freelancing for me. I would later take on three more projects for this particular friend of mine and I am forever grateful for those opportunities.
The Gift of Desperation
January 4, 2019, my boss sent me a Zoom link. “Hey, can you quickly jump in on this call?” So I clicked the link. The first thing he says is “Yeah, today’s your last day with the company. We’re restructuring… blah blah blah..” There was an “at-will” clause in all employees’ contracts that allowed the CEO to fire people at will — no time to get your things in order, no time to hand over your workload — once he fired you, that was your last day on the job.
The first thing I felt was this huge relief. Truth is I hated the job — details are irrelevant now, but the point is I was finally free of the irksome work.
However, this also meant another thing — I had just lost my only source of income. Imagine starting the year with no job. All the spending for Christmas and New Year is just around the corner waiting to be repaid. My bills didn’t care that I was now jobless. While people were planning on how to expand their finances for the year, I was starting from the bottom. The reality was too unsettling for me and the desperation was building.
But the thing about desperation is that when used properly, it’s actually a wonderful gift. Desperation forces you out of your comfort zone. It makes you take on more risks, which in turn can help you find and utilize available opportunities.
The experience with being fired left a nasty taste so I swore never to work for any boss again. I was going to be my own boss and do things my own way or die trying. That was the beginning of professional freelancing for me.
Don’t be afraid to start small
One of the major reasons people can’t just up and quit their jobs — no matter how soul-draining — is that they’re unwilling to give up their current paycheck for something smaller. They are right to feel this way. But like any meaningful road worth taking, the path to being a freelancer begins with not being afraid to start small.
At my last job, my take-home was $900 per month, excluding bonuses. The first few months after I transitioned to full-time freelancing, I was struggling to make $400 a month. But I understood that this was a necessary rite of passage for me. Clients weren’t going to automatically show up, especially when I didn’t have a strong portfolio to show.
So I stuck it out. I cut my expenses and took on any available job. At this stage, it wasn’t about making money, but about building a solid portfolio. This is the right attitude to have when you’re just starting out freelancing. You may be good at what you do, but without a portfolio, potential clients won’t take you seriously.
Search for industries that fascinate you
This was my approach when deciding what niches to focus on for my content writing gigs. The way I saw it, writing about industries that fascinated me meant I was getting in-depth knowledge about things that I was genuinely interested in. So it felt like I was getting paid to learn about these things. It was a win-win.
Another reason to focus on industries that fascinate you is that you won’t get burned out as quickly. In freelancing, you are responsible for your own motivation. If you don’t work, you don’t earn. It’s not like with employment where you have paid off days. You must make the decision every day to get up and get the work done. Working in an industry that excites you helps keep things interesting for longer.
There are many ways to get paid more
In eCommerce, this is known as upselling. Basically, you’re offering your freelancing services, but then you start to identify other areas where you can provide more value to the client, and in so doing, earn more.
For example, as a freelance writer, I started upselling my services by offering to include unique featured images with every content submission. Afterward, I told my clients I could also post the content for them so they wouldn’t have to worry about logging in and out of WordPress all the time. Next, I told them I could syndicate their blogs and create snippets for social media posting. For clients operating in complex industries, such as finance and blockchain, I offered to do Whiteboard videos for them to simplify their message and improve engagement.
All these extra features helped me get paid more. For each additional service, I charged a small fee and the clients were more than happy to pay since I was providing value to them.
Lessons I learned so far
There are four primary takeaways from my freelancing journey:
1. Be the gringo who always delivers
Have you watched the movie “American Made?. In it, Barry Seal (played by Tom Cruise) made so much money the bank had to make a separate vault for him alone. Why? Because he was the gringo who always delivered.
As a freelancer, you must have the same mindset. No excuses, no whining, no procrastinating. If you say you’re gonna deliver 8 blogs a month, then you must deliver 8 blogs a month. No one wants to hear your excuses, no matter how legit they might be. If you know you can’t deliver, don’t take on the job.
2. Commit to continuous learning
As a freelancer, your knowledge base is your bread and butter. The more you know, the more opportunities you can access. I’ve seen lots of people be okay with just mastering one field. For instance, they say they’re only good at writing blogs, but can’t write website content. Or they say they’re only web designers and can’t do web development.
Specialization is great and all. But it limits your options. In freelancing, there’s no limit to how much you can earn. Commit to continuous learning and keep upgrading yourself. You never know what skills will be in demand tomorrow.
3. Get the right soft skills
Freelancing gigs are skills. And like any other skill, they can be learned. What makes you stand out from other freelancers is your attitude and mastery of soft skills. Chief among them is communication. You need to be able to communicate effectively with clients.
Assertion is another important soft skill. This will come in handy when negotiating your rates with clients. If you know you’re good at what you do, don’t settle for less — unless you’re just starting out and trying to build a portfolio. I’ve told a client to f**k off before because he thought I was just some desperate Filipino freelancer willing to take on shit jobs.
4. Take care of your health
One of the biggest drawbacks of being a full-time freelancer is that you don’t usually get employment benefits like health insurance. On the upside, what you do get is ample time. Use that time wisely. All that sitting down in front of your computer screen for hours on end will eventually take its toll on your health.
Take steps to stay active throughout the day. In my early days as a freelancer, I signed up for martial arts classes twice a week. The sessions were intense, but they made sure I got a healthy dose of physical activity every week. You can also do free activities like jogging, skipping rope, pushups, situps, yoga stretching, etc. Don’t underestimate the value of physical activities.
Also, eat right. Yes, milk tea, pizza, shawarma, fries, and other junk food are irresistible. But learn to take them in moderation. Drink lots of water, and most important of all, get enough sleep every day.
I have since grown my freelance career into a full-fledged, registered business — CM Tribe Digital Marketing Services. We offer content marketing services comprising text-based content, infographics, and video. This covers the full span of content marketing. I have also affiliated with SEO experts and professional web designers, so these are add-on services that we can offer our clients.
Good luck on your freelancing journey. If you think you’ve got what it takes to be a freelancer with the CM Tribe community, check out our Entrepreneur’s Corner page and submit your story to us. If it meets our standard, we’ll onboard you immediately and let you work with our top-dollar clients.
Ezekiel is the founder of CM Tribe Digital Marketing. He thought it would be a good idea to give people a platform to share their stories and inspire each other to pursue their passions. Well, here we are.