5 things freelancers do to succeed

Nearly a third of Australians are now part-time or full-time freelancers. This is how the successful ones make it work.
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Business publisher The Smart Company declared last year The Year of the Freelancer.  Freelance platform Elance-O-Desk released a study showing 3.7 million Australians are now participating in a $51 billion freelance economy. 

Many millenials will never have a job. This is particularly true in the arts sector, where portfolio careers and T-shaped workers are popular paradigms.

Read: How to build a portfolio carer

Read: Everyone wants a T-shaped worker

In a stretched economy, employers prefer freelancers as a way get the specialist skills they need without the commitments and overheads associated with a permanent employee.

For individuals, the benefits are many.  More than a third of freelancers in the O-Desk study say they are making more money now than when they started freelancing.

Even those who are making less say the the lifestyle benefits mean they would not return to permanent work.  Flexibility, autonomy, variety and the opportunity to develop great networks and diverse experience are cited as advantages of freelancing.  Of course there are challenges as well: staying motivated, getting work and being able to manage demands of diverse projects and clients.

Working in the arts you may find yourself freelance by accident or necessity, as that is the way the sector is structured. Or you may be thinking about it as a better way to meet your career goals.

I have had two sustained periods of freelance work in my working life: first was when I was starting out in arts management in Sydney and for six years managed a range of part-time and contract gigs; and now where I consult on policy and strategy development for arts and creative companies alongside my coaching work.  There have been some tough times in there but also fantastic experiences that taught me lots. 

It might take a leap of faith if you have not worked this way before, but these are the five key things you need to consider when considering moving to a freelance working life.

Know your strengths and talents

Whilst it is tempting to market yourself as a jack or jill of all trades to get the widest catchment of clients, you are far better off focusing your skill set in one direction.  Clients get confused easily and may doubt your skill set if you are covering too much ground.

Reflect on where your true talent lies and where you are most confident in marketing your skills.  Make sure you are focusing on work you enjoy doing as well and not the stuff you would rather never do again.

Understand your value to clients

In freelance world you will be constantly marketing yourself and working to acquire new business. This can be confronting and can bring up concerns about rejection and self-worth. Of course we all have things we can learn and do better, but you have got to this point in your working life by learning enough to move forward.

identify what it is about your skill set and expertise that has real value for your clients. Look for evidence in your working life of what you have delivered and created. Challenge your self-critic and judgements by getting a second or third opinion on what you have to offer. Write it down and be proud of what you have done.

Price yourself appropriately

Many people find the freelance life draining and unprofitable because they just don’t value their time appropriately. Remember that in setting your prices, you need to factor in not just the base market rate, but also your on costs. These are higher than for a casual employee. Expect to charge a least 25% above the hourly rate you would receive if you were employed t do that work to account for  super, workers comp, leave etc. Also remember to factor in your business costs such as accounting, insurance and IT.

Working freelance also means you may not be being paid for every hour that you work.  There is unpaid work to take into account like marketing and admin.  So adjust your fees to what you believe is your true capacity to deliver.  This is probably a lot less than 40 hours a week, 52 hours a year. If you count in normal leave provisions and public holidays, our working years are more like 44 weeks and your billable hours of work may be as few as 10-20 a week. 

Once you have worked out your pricing, develop a rate card that you can give to clients and stick to it. It will save endless difficult conversations and present you as a professional who know your own worth.

Manage your relationships

The work to get a client is one of those costs of being freelance for which you do not get paid.  This work includes building networks, developing proposals, negotiating prices.  So you want to maximise the return from every working relationship: the contracted work, future work and referrals.

Your new client is taking a risk on you so it is up to you to give them the assurance you are able to provide what they need. Make sure you negotiate up front what they expect you to deliver and by when. Be realistic, do not over promise and set achievable deadlines.  Stay in communication throughout the project and advise of any issues as they come up. 

Watch your reputation

When you are competing for jobs on a regular basis, your professionalism and personality will be judged along with your skills and expertise. When working freelance, your reputation matters even more than when you are in fulltime employment. You are known not just for what you deliver, but for how you do your work and how you get along with others.

Being likable is something you can develop and will add to your value in the freelance world. It is simple things like listening, asking questions, being on time, putting away your phone in meetings and even forgiving others for the little slights.  It is not about being phony or brown-nosing, but giving others the respect you would like to have in return.

Freelance work may not be for everyone, but you may want to consider and start to develop your capacity to work this way.  The skills in strategic marketing, business acquisition and contract negotiation that you may need to develop will be increasingly important in our future working world.

Judith Bowtell
About the Author
Judith Bowtell is a former head of strategy and policy at Arts NSW, Screen NSW and Film Australia. She has worked in the arts, creative and community sector for 25 years, and founded Albany Lane Consulting in 2012. Albany Lane supports arts, creative and community workers through leadership, strategic and career development - coaching, workshops and consulting. The opinions in this article are hers, and hers alone. www.albanylane.com.au