I was six months pregnant when the founder and CEO of the media company I worked for casually walked up to my desk and told me they likely wouldn’t renew my contract the following month. I would be out of a job, given no maternity leave, and unemployed – just in time for my first child’s birth. The ironic part? My employer was a small startup aimed at empowering women financially.
After crying hysterically in my car for about 45 minutes, I came up with a plan to bounce back financially and never be at the mercy of a mercurial boss or dying business again.
Here’s how I jump-started a successful freelance career in the months leading up to my first baby’s birth. Today, with a nine-month-old, I make more money than at my last full-time gig, while also staying home full-time with my sweet boy.
Start building your business before you’re unemployed
If you’ve ever worked at a startup (or any small business, really) you’ve likely heard the phrase “burning the furniture.” Basically, this means that when a business is having cash flow issues, they’ll start cutting back on everything from bonuses to free lunches to yes, even paying freelancers. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice.
When I started to notice some red flags related to my last employer’s finances, I used it as an opportunity to start creating a professional safety net. I created a profile on Upwork, a platform for freelancers that connects you with leads in your field and facilitates payment for any clients you take on through the site for a fee.
I also reached out to former editors and bosses for any potential freelance work and applied for several freelance job listings – all before I left my full-time gig. Since I was still employed and wasn’t desperate, I was able to find two or three solid clients before I was officially unemployed.
Come from a place of yes
About a month before my son was born, I was approached by a new publication that was interested in hiring me to freelance. It was a medical-based site with an emphasis on finance, and I almost said no right away. After all, I had never done any medical writing and I wasn’t sure it interested me.
But instead, I took the call with the editor and liked him so much I ended up signing on. To date, he is one of my best clients – easy to work with, prompt with payment, and I am able to flex my creative muscles in a new way.
Know your worth
In the freelance world, there’s a common saying: determine your rates, then double them. As a freelancer, you need to account for not just the time you spent completing the work for that client, but also the time it took for you to pitch the client, any introductory or follow-up phone calls, even the time it took you to invoice.
You should also take into account what I call general freelance activities. This means responding to public relations pitches, promoting your work via social media, invoicing, even doing your taxes.
So this means your rate doesn’t just include the time you spent researching, writing, editing, or conducting interviews. It should also account for a portion of the time you spend each month completing those general freelance activities.
And another thing? If someone contacts you and asks to “pick your brain” on your area of expertise, respond with, sure, my rates at $X per hour. Never work for free, even as a favor.
Create a freelance toolbox
Before I became a full-time freelancer, I read a lot about becoming a full-time freelancer. In other words, I did my research and figured out what tools I would need to be an efficient – and profitable – worker.
I track my time with an online time tracker called Toggl. Using this tool, I keep track of how many hours I work weekly and monthly, as well as how many hours I allot to each client. This makes it easy to determine how much I earn per client and makes it easy to prioritize clients based on pay. And if I find myself overextended, the lower-paying clients are the first to go.
I also use Hootsuite to efficiently promote my work on my social channels, a free invoicing tool, and WordPress to host my professional website.
As a freelancer, you’ll also need to find your tribe. I’ve joined a few freelance groups online, where I can share ideas and get advice on common freelance issues with other writers. It’s not the same as having coworkers, but it’s close.
Don’t be afraid to “fire” clients
I’ve been in journalism for more than a decade. I’ve worked for many bosses, from the great to the not-so-great. As a freelancer, I get to choose who I work for. And they aren’t my bosses. They’re my clients.
If a client is consistently rude, has unclear or unrealistic expectations or is late with payment, I’ll give them the opportunity to adjust and work on my terms. If they aren’t willing, I let them go.
Since I started freelancing full-time more than a year ago, I’ve “fired” two clients. One was a major client I had worked with for more than a year who was consistently rude and condescending in our interactions. It got to the point when I dreaded corresponding with her because she made me feel so terrible about myself. “Firing” her was one of the best decisions I’ve made as a freelancer.
While it can be scary to let go of a sure thing for the unknown, that’s part of the freelance game.
In my case, it worked out in my favor. I was able to take on more work for another client, nearly doubling my earnings that month. I also had more time for pitching, and subsequently landed two dream publications.
Another bonus? I no longer dreaded checking my email.
Don’t downplay your work
As women, we’re often inclined to downplay our strengths or brush off a compliment. I know I’ve been guilty of downplaying my education or my writing skills, and have often struggled to accept a heartfelt compliment.
But I don’t do that with my freelance career. For one, I don’t call myself a freelancer. When people ask what I do, I tell them I own my own an editing, writing, and social media business. Framing it in such a way makes all the difference, both in the way my business is perceived by others and the way I perceive it myself.
Treating my writing like the long-term career that it is has helped me successfully grow my freelance career – and a tiny human, to boot.