Lessons learned in a year of freelancing

I left my full-time job in June of 2009, so it’s now been a full year since I became a freelancer. I guess I thought that since I’d been a freelancer before, I would pretty much know what I was doing. But the last year has been full of a lot more surprises than I was expecting. A few people have asked me for some advice on freelancing (with all the layoffs and uncertainty in publishing, it’s no surprise that more people are venturing out on their own), but sometimes I feel completely unqualified to give answers because I’m still learning myself.

Still, I think I’ve come a long way, especially in the months since I left the temp job I took over the holidays and really had to focus on the solo writing gig.

Here are some of my lessons learned. I would love to hear yours, too.

-It is a really, really tough time to be a freelancer.
That may be a bit of a downer, but it’s the absolute truth. If it hadn’t been for a slew of circumstances that led me to choose last year to quit my job, I never would have done it out of any sort of logic. There are fewer jobs, they pay less (much less) than they used to, and there is much more competition for those jobs. But there is not nothing and it’s not impossible. I would just say that you probably are going to need at least one other source of income to make it work.

-You can live on a lot less than you think.
Having smaller and less steady paychecks has been very tough for me, of course. Add in the fact that we’re saving for a wedding, and budgeting has been crazy stressful at times. I went through all my expenses and cut out things where I could. I almost never buy clothes anymore, and what I do buy is really cheap. I’m working on the ‘little-by-little’ mindset, where instead of buying things all at once, I buy them one at a time. I’ve come up with a lot of free decorations for the house. It definitely forces you to be more creative, and to see what it is that you truly NEED.

-It helps to have a really supportive partner.
I’ve said this before, but I couldn’t have made this transition without Mike’s help. It means a lot that he believes I can do this, and that he doesn’t throw a fit when we have to sit down and figure out how we’re going to get through a month (usually through some sacrifice on his part). There are times when being a freelancer, or business owner, gets you really down, and you want to give up. But he encourages me in those moments, and that means a lot. I keep saying that our relationship is the only thing I don’t worry about lately. I believe this has made us closer.

-Being in charge of your schedule is as awesome as it sounds.
I think my most favorite part of this lifestyle is that I get to do my work when I want to do it. I have gotten so many little projects done around the house, and I have way less stress about things like taking the dog to the vet or being home when the Qwest guy comes. I can say yes to yoga and Nia opportunities that I couldn’t with a 9-to-5 job. As a result I have a workout schedule that I love, and I feel much stronger and healthier.

-…That said, managing your time is important.
A lot of people have told me that they couldn’t work at home because they’d be too distracted, and I would have to agree that if you can’t make yourself sit down to work you’re probably better off with a traditional job. I am VERY guilty of putting things off, but I always do them. And I think I’ve struck a pretty good balance between working on the house and working on paying work. I have a morning routine, and I try to get dressed, make the bed, etc. by a certain time and then “go to work.”

-You can’t do everything you want to do, so figure out what you want to do most.
This is a big one. Part of my journey has been exploring different things that I like to do and seeing which ones are sustainable in the long-term. Many, many, many things that I’ve tried have not worked, and I think I’ve gotten a lot better at being OK when something fails. And it’s been exciting to see the things that have succeeded. But I’ve learned that I can’t do everything. The big thing that has sort of fallen through the cracks is my vintage shop on etsy and vintage blog. I will probably go back to doing those things as a hobby, just because I have too much on my plate, and that takes a lot of time and space to collect goodies and ship them out. Instead I am focusing on teaching yoga and knitting poufs, and I will do a bunch of shows in the runup to the holidays, because I know I have success there.

-If you’re a control freak like me, you have to do a bit of letting go.
My whole life I’ve been one of those people who planned for the future, and didn’t take many risks unless I was sure of the outcome. This past year I’ve had to change. At the beginning of a month, I don’t usually know where my work is coming from or whether or not it will add up to enough. (This is where having a bit of savings is literally a life-saver). I kind of have to go on faith. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some months that were dire. But I’m starting to get to a point where people know they can rely on me, and they assign me regular work. My classes are starting to pay a little more. And when sales are slow, I try to relist items or make something new, so that the numbers go up.

I am way out of my comfort zone there, and I don’t want it to be that way forever. But in the beginning, you just can’t control everything. You absolutely should work as hard as you can to meet new contacts, get your name out there, tell people what you do, etc. But at the end of the day, you do have to surrender a bit. It’s scary, but is it any more scary than spending the rest of your days at a steady paying job that you can’t stand?

-You absolutely can’t put all your eggs in one basket.
I’ve learned the hard way that jobs disappear in an instant, so you have to spread out your projects, or your part-time jobs to fill in the gaps. If something falls through, you can’t cry too much about it. You just have to move on to the next one. Sometimes that door closes so another one can open. Sometimes you have to build the next door yourself.

I have stopped trying to predict the future at this point, and I don’t know how long I’ll be doing this in this arrangement. But I’m feeling a little more comfortable and confident. I’ve tried some things I always wanted to try (and some I had no idea I would ever want to try), and I have learned from that what to do next. I can’t say it’s been an easy year, but I think when I look back I’ll always be really, really glad I took this year to find out what it is that I’m truly passionate about.