I quit my job to work for myself 7 years ago — here are 5 key lessons I’ve learned
- Author Jessica Thiefels, who's been working for herself for seven years, has several helpful tips for prospective participants in the gig economy.
- From following up persistently to quantifying your value, here are five key lessons to learn if you're ready to leave your 9-to-5 for freelance work.
While the term "gig economy" feels like just another buzzword, the reality is that our global workforce is moving in this direction.
In May 2017, the BLS released a report saying that, within the month of May, 10.6 million people engaged in independent contractor work. Upwork's 2017 Freelancing in America report found that, in total, 57.3 million people in the US were freelancing last year.
I've been freelancing and working in the gig economy since 2011, when I got my first freelance writing job. I've been in and out over the last seven years and now still take on freelance clients, even after starting my organic content marketing agency.
Along the way, I've learned a few key lessons that may help if you're ready to leave the 9-to-5 behind you.
You have to be the follow-up queen (or king)
In many cases, you need your clients or potential clients more than they need you. That's why you can't send a single email, or pass through your resume just once, and never get in touch again.
Not only are there more than 280 million emails sent and received per day worldwide - which means your email can easily get lost in someone's inbox - but follow-ups show you're serious about the job.
A good follow-up flow looks like this:
- Day 1: Initial email
- Day 5: Follow up, referencing your last email
- Day 10: Follow up with something like, "I just wanted to send a gentle reminder…"
- Day 15: Follow up with something like, "I'm sending along one more follow up, if I don't hear from you, I'll assume you've gone in another direction with the project. I'd still like to be considered, so please get in touch if you're interested in working together."
Continue this as you get responses; if they respond to your first email and not to your second, get your follow-up flow going. To remind yourself, use a tool like Boomerang, a reminder app for Gmail. I love this extension because it lives in your inbox and once you send an email, you can choose when you want it returned to your inbox.
I can't tell you how many gigs I've got by being the Queen of follow-ups. For example, I got an email on August 30, 2018 about a potential project. After following up for nearly two months, we kicked it off this past month, on October 11, 2018.
If you want to be successful in the "gig economy," follow-ups are a must.
You control your growth, so grow
The exciting and challenging part of working for yourself is that you're in total control of what you get paid. It's exciting because you don't have to wait for your boss to give you a raise. But it's challenging because you have to know your financial value as a freelance or contract worker and update your pricing on a regular basis.
The first challenge, quantifying your value, can be simple or tricky, depending on your industry. In most cases, you can find data on what others in your industry are charging with a simple Google search.
For example, you can see the average per word and per hour rates for freelance writers in this Clearvoice study. You can also scan Upwork to see what typical hourly rates are for people in your industry or ask others doing similar work as you.
What's even harder, however, is increasing your rates. In the past, I've worried about about losing current clients (if you pass the rate hike on to them) and future clients for fear that my new pricing is too high. Yet, in the last seven years, I've raised my rates dozens of times, going from $6 an article to $500+ depending on the client.
While I've had some clients push back on new rates, we almost always come to an agreement somewhere in the middle. In many cases, however, I raise my rates when working with a new client - as opposed to doing so with current clients - so I simply state my rate and if it isn't within their budget, I can come down or walk away.
I've learned that if you want to grow in this economy, and build a business out of it, you have to scale your prices so you can continue to earn more and keep a manageable workload.
People will always want to pay you less (don't say yes)
It's easy to have a scarcity mindset, thinking: "Any money is good money." In some cases, this may be true - if you're struggling to pay rent, for example.
However, it's important to remember that taking on a project means you're not only getting paid, but you have to do the work, and that takes time: Time away from better paying projects, time away from reaching out to old contacts for new work, and time away from networking with local groups to find people who want to pay what you deserve.
It took me a long time to realise this. I would take on a project that paid less than I wanted and inevitably feel resentful to the client, and worse, frustrated with myself. I would do whatever I could to get it done quickly and easily, because I wasn't being paid what I know I should have.
Not only does this mean the project is a time-suck, but it also means your work will likely not be as good. That could potentially get in the way of future projects - that client may not want to work together again and may not refer you to others. Worse, they could recommend that others not work with you.
The best way to avoid these consequences is to use a simple checklist for every project that comes across your desk. Your checklist will help you decide whether to take on a project. If you answer "yes" to any of these, you can take it. If not, say, "Thanks, but no thanks."
- I will get paid my asking rate or more.
- It will allow me to expand my portfolio in a way other projects can't.
- There's a lot of potential for well-paying referral work.
- I'm passionate about the project, cause, or organisation.
There will be feast, and there will be famine — go with it
Living without a consistent 9-to-5 job has been life changing for me. It's exciting to be my own boss, to manage my own time, and say yes to the projects I feel most passionate about. What's less exciting is managing the ups and downs of income and clients. After seven years, I experience this less thanks to a consistent client base.
However, as a new freelance or contract worker, you'll find that work comes in waves - when there's a lot, it bombards you, and when there's a little, it feels like you'll never work again. The key is riding those waves and consistently maintaining outreach for new clients.
For example, on your busiest weeks, find at least one hour to reach out to a few potential clients. The project will likely not come through within a week, or even three weeks. If you get a yes, you can use this lead time to finish up current work and step right into the new gig when you're done. This helps mitigate the stress of feast and famine, allowing you to be more comfortable and maintain a consistent income.
Leave your 9-to-5 behind at the right time
If you're ready to leave your 9-to-5 behind, now's the time to do it. But the last lesson I want to leave you with is this: Don't leave your job before you have a consistent client base, if you can wait. The beauty of the gig economy is that you can take work outside of your current full-time job and do it at night and on the weekends.
Give yourself this time to build contacts, get experience, and learn the tricks of the trade. Get connections from others who are already freelancing and start to build what could eventually be a business. Then, when you know you can support yourself, say goodbye to the 9-to-5 once and for all and step into self-employment, ready to make your own way.
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