How to Start Freelancing in 2023 (Video + Transcript)
Today as a theme, one question that came up is that part of the series feels like I am talking to people who are already freelancers, or have a pretty good idea of who they are, what they want to do. What if you’re not quite sure what you want to or could do as a freelancer?
Freelancers vs. Entrepreneurs
Today’s session we’ll focus on a few things. To summarize one is we must differentiate between freelancers vs. entrepreneurs. And I will offer a very concise explanation, definition by Seth Godin. This is something that you have to decide because they are quite different. And secondly I want to go into evaluating your current situation realistically. This is not a time that we say forget about family and kids, best case scenario, forget about those loans and debts that. Pretend that you are in a perfect world that won’t work.
So first thing first, the difference between a freelancer and an entrepreneur. Here’s the definition by Seth Godin and I know I’ve been using his name and resource quite a bit because I realize finally this is his niche of really helping people transition from full-time to freelancers to entrepreneurs, he calls himself a freelancer, so:
A freelancer is someone who gets paid for her work. She charges by the hour or perhaps by the project. Freelancers write, design, consult, advise, do taxes and hang wallpaper. Freelancer is the single easiest way to start a new business.
“Entrepreneurs are people who use money preferably someone else’s money to build a business bigger than themselves. Entrepreneurs make money when they sleep. Entrepreneurs focus on growth and on scaling the system that they build. The more the better.”
So I want to give you guys a very brief example here. I am definitely way more of a freelancer as it stands today because I’ve not invested so much in my business for it to run on its own. The skills I possess as a project manager, as a digital producer, even as a podcaster [are good freelancing skills]. If someone comes to me and say, Fei I want to have my own podcast, how much would you charge to help me setup one? You know how have you been marketing your podcast and how could you teach me to do the same? Hourly, project based, those are all freelance gigs.
Now a more entrepreneurial example would be, say Feisworld, my company publishes a series of eBooks, online courses, that I charge for a fee for someone to access, $49, $99, the price is not the issue here, but if that’s the case then I’m transitioning into an entrepreneurial business set up.
I also want to demystify a lot of who people think are freelancers, but turn out to be entrepreneurs. Some examples would be a lot of you guys know Tim Ferris, you know, to me, he is an entrepreneur. I think that’s also what it says on his website, because even though his team is very small, he does all the recording and a lot of the production but, he does have an audio engineer, he has someone I believe he hired to produce show notes and he has graphic designers. Then another example would be the famous podcaster Pat Flynn. I have used his resources well. Pat seems to be a one-man show, but in reality, even though he’s hosting a show, he has a number of products that are S-A-A-S (software as a service) including podcast plug-ins, even a WordPress theme that people can download and access for $99. Pat is an entrepreneur, not a freelancer.
Lastly, Krista Tippett, show host and journalist for On Being, whom I had the pleasure to interview on Feisworld Podcast. Krista Tippett started her show, literally by herself. She mentioned that she was in the studio recording [late at night]. The show took off after a few years, and that’s when she realized it was no longer appropriate for her to run the show on her own. If you visit On Being today, you’ll notice that there is a team of columnists, writers. Most of them work full-time [from social media, graphic design, sound engineers and business development person]. Krista Tippett is also an entrepreneur.
Freelancing is much easier to get started. As a freelancer once you get hired you’re getting paid by the hour. Versus entrepreneur, you may be working on a product let’s say, in development for anywhere between six months to a few years to be on that six-month is actually really rare. If you don’t have proper financial support it can be very different.
Starting a Blog Is Not Freelancing (Though It Has Many Benefits)
This is question I’ve been asked a lot. No, starting your own blog is not freelancing, but hobbies at first. There are opportunities for you to turn your blog into entrepreneurial’s endeavors, which often involves significant time, effort and above all, a good and consistent strategy. [Blogging has many benefits to help you gain exposure to network beyond your own. Plus, if you happen to be a good writer, you may be invited to guest post on others’ blogs. Yes, those paid gigs are freelancing gigs!]
Evaluating Your Situation
I want to share a personal story of mine.
“You always have more options than you think.”
When I graduated from Northeastern University in 2006, just after the economy picked up a little bit after the crash, and I was an international student without a green card. Graduating from college was really scary because a lot of us as international students are only exposed to a very, very tiny fraction of the job market.
In fact I remember when I started a job search a year before I graduated, during the summer of 2005, I visited Northeastern career service center and I remember out of hundreds of job [postings], more than 90% of them require you to be either a US citizen or at least the green card holder. I was left with 10% of all the choices.
I started a job search early. I talked to a lot of people. This story by the way is not unique in my situation, but to a lot of who you know immigrants, or international students. These days, it’s even getting even harder because only one out of every three graduates are going to get their H1B [US work visa]. So even if they finally [received job offers] from the 10% employers that they could apply, only 3% (1 in 3) of them actually land a job and legally work in the US.
Let’s evaluate YOUR situation.
I have a solution for you if you have no idea what you want to do. And before you jump in, there’s some homework you need to do to evaluate who you are and what you are good at.
If you are currently very confused about who you are and what you want to do as a freelancer, this is the perfect exercise for you. 20 pages may be overwhelming, at least flip through them all and if you are under time constraints make sure you get started maybe with the first five or six questions and you will see what I mean.
If you’re having trouble answering these questions, you’re going to have trouble moving up because your dream to whomever walks in the door next will be unclear. What you want to change? How do you want to change them? How much risk from 1, which is a little to 10, bet everything on it, how much are you willing to put at stake to make the change you seek? How much work are you willing to do to get there? Be specific about the trade-offs. A few more: does the project matter enough for the risk and the effort you’re putting in? Is it possible? Has anyone with your resources pulled off something like this? If so, talk to them.
I’m only covering the first three pages, but you need to ask yourself these questions honestly. I’m going to help you out with some of my stories of why this matters in this really works.
Setting Yourself up for Financial Success
Are you currently employed full-time or have you been laid off, let go, or have you chosen to take time off and really pursuing freelancing full-time?
Setting yourself up for financial success is crucial. Think about whether you have a lot of other loans and debts, whether your run rate is very high or maybe you are in a situation that you do have enough saved up. We covered this topic in previous episodes of freelance live. Personally, I recommend having 12 months of cash flow if not more. 6 months savings often isn’t enough. At that will put a lot of pressure on you.
Perhaps are you in a situation that your spouse is making significant money for the family, and what’s considered “significant” depends your situation. Do you have kids? Where do you live? What are the lifestyles you are comfortable with? If you have / working with a financial advisor, a quick phone call won’t hurt either.
Updating Your LinkedIn Profile
If you have been laid off recently, I suggest you update LinkedIn. There is no need to feel embarrassed about the transition. Layoffs happen more frequently across the board these days.
You also don’t need a company name or an official title to make the change in LinkedIn. Something as simple as Designer / UX / [Your Skills], and company as “Freelance” will do.
If you are currently working full-time, I understand the sensitivity of you listing yourself as a freelancer looking for jobs on LinkedIn. There are workarounds such as keeping your profile as is, but allowing recruiters to reach out to you and making it clear that you ARE looking for freelancing opportunities. Keep track of the good recruiters you may want to stay in touch with.
Talking About the Projects You’ve Done (In Person and on LINKEDIN)
Pay close attention to how you are you talking about yourself as a freelancer. Are you mentioning specifically you are looking for work, and are you clear about what types of work you’re looking? It doesn’t have to be perfect. Also, what are some of the project you can actually talk about (practice with family and friends) and make sure your profile is complete and reflect that.
If you know the projects you want to list, you can include a URL (link to your project online), you can include some stats, the impact, the business problems and solutions, the team members. You should make your LinkedIn profile as complete as possible. Often times I see people have a few sentences floating on their profile, that’s not going to attract or differentiate them.
Repurposing Your Skills
Many of you share the same frustrations in terms of, gosh, how do I translate my skills (something that doesn’t seem compelling) to a paying freelance career? Is it even possible? Should I learn something completely new instead?
I know, I felt the same way, but reality is just the opposite. I worked in Business Operations (BO) for a little over a year. If you aren’t familiar with BO, depending the agency or the consulting firm, it typically means that you assist people in client executives positions. You’re someone who take in the Statement of Work (SOW), translate them into invoices, payment schedules, collections and things along that line. Not the most exciting job in the world, but certain parts of it are fairly strategic. In 2009, as with everywhere else, there was a layoff in my company and as a result I had to give up what I was doing as a business analyst and associate PM to support business operations. I still remember, the VP at the time was very honest with me and told me that it wasn’t a very glamorous job.
We had an open office and several people walked up to me and say, you know Fei, I’m so sorry, what is it that you’re doing? And you know they were trying to be nice, but it’s like what is the point of this? Personally, I was also struggling, it wasn’t my favorite job to be quite honest, but I learned a ton. I learned how to forecast a business, how business “momentum” works and track a seven-figure business, supporting five or six very senior client executives and their portfolio of 20+ clients.
Because I was working for a public company, they had to announce their DSO, which days of sales outstanding. I was able to hit a single digit, which means clients were able to pay [their invoices] on time with very little delay. I reached one of the best record in the company’s history – at the time was 3. As a 27-year-old I had to write these emails to very senior executives and their account payable department to say: how satisfied are you with our service? Respect should be mutual. I would really appreciate you would consider helping us reach our goals.
I want to give a shout out to Melissa Blaeser and Megan Wilson for teaching me so much of Business Ops. I had bite my tongue from time to time. I had thin-skin, I still do. But I learned so much and the payoff of the entire story is at the beginning of this year  I was hired by a small agency to build a marketing practice. I was able to do all of that, precisely because of what I learned as a business operation analyst.
Selling Your Buried Treasures
You may be thinking: look, I am so sick of what I’ve been doing, I’m not good at it, I don’t necessarily love the clients or the people I’ve been dealing with, I just want to get out.
I always tell them, not so fast. Because you should look back to your experience and ask yourself: Which part of that experience can I leverage? What was I really good at? What was I struggling with? And why was I struggling? Was it because of the internal politics? Or did I actually not enjoy the work at all?
Because there is a difference. Here’s another personal story of mine.
When I first started freelancing in 2016, I precisely wanted to branch out of project management, digital production because I want to have more autonomy. So I avoided that route.
When I started working at Arnold in 2013 as a digital producer, I was, for a while, the newest member to the team of about ten people. Ryan Harms, the VP of Digital Productions, was very supportive of me to begin running a weekly session called Digital Production Workshop. I scheduled an one to two hour session every week gathering all the digital producers to talk about what we’re working on, our struggles, the solutions we create (i.e. spreadsheets, tactics).
Instantly, everyone was actively involved, sharing the tools and resources they find most helpful. For example, I was sharing some of the spreadsheets I created in the forms of clean slates and client examples. I also remember introducing how Scrum methodologies can work in a creative agency, so forth and so on.
Running such workshop was not written anywhere in my full-time job description, but something I grew so much interest in that I fell in love with this initiative.
Within two sessions, there were people from many other departments within Arnold joining in. At a big agency such as Arnold, there are so many departments. We had people from user experience, development, design, marketing, broadcast and it’s just so fascinating. We start changing up the formats to make sure that the presentation was not dull or boring. So we ask people to go through the slides very quickly, with a very fast tempo – check out a presentation technique called PechaKucha.
The payoff of that story? I was able to translate these workshop skills to the second freelancing gig I had in 2016, which will continue in 2017. For this client, I created an agency toolkit, a single place for any employee to look into processes and documentations across all the disciplines. To do this, I spoke with every person to capture what they do, also what they’d like to do in the future. I also invited to the company’s Friday lunch & learn session to gather feedback, allow others to ask questions. The Toolkit was an on-going effort to refine, instead of a having only a final reveal at the end of the project.
I hope you find these examples useful because I think instead of wiping, erasing everything you’ve known, you should value what you’ve accomplished. Because that’s what I’m hearing from some of you guys. That you did accomplish something that mattered to you.
Try pivoting rather than starting from scratch.
Thank you for reading! If you find any of these tips helpful, please consider sharing this knowledge with your family, friends and encourage them to pursue doing what they love, loving what they do.