Two years ago, Darja Gutnick started her own company, grew it internationally and invested all her effort into it before she chose to shut it down. After an experience that had brought her so much responsibility and knowledge in a short time span, she didn’t want to return to a different company as an employee. Instead, she became a freelancer. With a Masters Degree under her belt and a PhD in Organizational Behavior underway, Gutnick now offers services in founder consulting, management diagnostics and business development.
In the following post, Gutnick gives valuable tips based on her freelancing experience for anyone who is currently self-employed or considering it.
Although not all of us are aware of it, we’re in the middle of a dramatic change towards a “naked economy”. Life-long employment is an artifact of the old (but not necessarily better!) days. In the EU, 14.5% of the workforce fell into the category “self-employed” in 2010. In the US, every 3rd person was self-employed in 2006, and forecasts predict this will increase to 40% by the year 2020. Tuning into this trend, my experience as an entrepreneur pushed me to become a freelance business consultant. In the following, I summarize the most important takeaways I gathered as a freelancer. I hope they’ll give you a good idea of what to expect when you “run wild”.
1. Be entrepreneurial
Although lots of people don’t seem to think that way especially in Berlin, when you’re a freelancer, you are much more of a small business owner than you are an employee without social benefits. Thinking that I am the CEO of my own little company helped me to understand my areas of action and to focus my energy on what ultimately matters most for a business: to create value and to generate revenue. As a freelancer you’re responsible for the whole value chain from lead generation and sales, to accounting and operations, to customer support and overall strategic direction of the business. Letting one of the areas slip your attention for too long can lead you into a critical situation that impacts your whole existence. That is both the beauty and the difficulty of being a freelancer.
TIP: Customer acquisition is crucial to keep your pipeline of projects filled. When you start out as a freelancer (or better before!), spend 80-90% of your time approaching potential clients. A potential client is everybody in your network that could buy your services or somebody that might know somebody that could buy your services. Approach them via email, via social networks (no, not only Facebook but LinkedIn, Twitter, Quora, your blog, Medium and others) or at networking events. Talking to people about you and what you do is crucial. For freelancers, a random chat with a new client can turn struggle, self-doubt and existential fear into an awesome opportunity. I try to spend at the very least one day every week on customer acquisition. I love contactually for organizing all my leads and contacts and spotting new opportunities on time.
2. Be creative
Since you’re now competing with millions of freelancers on the open market, you need to be at the cutting edge and tap into your creative spirit. As a freelancer, this should come naturally, since your specific skill set is already unique. Your creative task already starts with defining your profile and your services. Don’t try to copy the webpages of other freelancers. You should, however, study your competitors carefully, try to understand how your offering is different and work on your unique selling points. As an independent worker, there is no boss to dictate what you should do, and there are no brand guidelines that determine the style of your presentation. It’s all about your talents, your brains and your ability to utilize them. Take a piece of paper and draw out the concept of your service, the value you’re creating for your clients and how you can communicate that in everything you do.
TIP: When looking for new projects, try to approach the task from a different perspective. Instead of thinking of how you can find companies that want to work with a freelancer, approach companies that are already looking for somebody to take on tasks. They’re just not aware yet that their best choice is a freelancer – you! A friend of mine recently gave me the idea of going through career pages of prospective clients and other job boards and to write to those that are looking for an intern or an employee in my field of expertise.
3. Be determined
All the romance of working from home with the cat on your lap aside, by now it probably occurred to you that being a freelancer is primarily running a small business with you being the CEO, COO, CTO, CMO, CFO and all interns. There is probably one principle that all freelancers would agree on: You need to hustle. Just as running a startup with multiple people filling several roles, running your freelance business is a marathon with euphoric moments and stretches of despair and helplessness. And when the latter come, you need to be prepared. Before making the decision to freelance, think carefully about why you want to do it and analyze how functional your motivation is. Personally, I don’t believe one should freelance for any other reason than personal and/or professional growth (which can also mean financial improvement of course, but statistically speaking it usually means the opposite, at least in the beginning).
“left”] TIP: Growth mindset is a good tool that I found very useful when running behind leads for days without closing even one of them. Although the financial aspect of rough patches in a freelancer’s life is very troublesome, the hardest of all can be the psychological effects of the rejection. Don’t take a “no” as the evaluation of your skills and self-worth. Carol Dweck’s theory of fixed vs. growth mindsets helped me to understand the motivational losses I was experiencing when facing long phases of without success. I developed a healthier approach to challenging situations and saw them as an opportunity to learn and grow.
4. Don’t isolate yourself
As I already mentioned before, you are part of a globally growing group of people that face similar challenges. Connect with this group. Other freelancers know the challenges you’re going through, because they’ve been there and know a couple of war tricks that you might use for your own battles. So, put your party hat on and befriend some freelancers. Furthermore, just as with every other challenging situation, one of the most important resources to keep you going is friends and family. Although they might not understand all of your challenges, they will support you no matter what.
TIP: In Berlin you can find multiple freelancer meetup groups, for instance the Freerangers or the Freelance Power Girls Group that meet regularly and serve as a platform to exchange experiences, insider infos and tips, as well as to support each other in the daily battles of the freelance existence.
5. Take breaks
Most of my friends react to my freelance life with the following words: “I don’t know. I would not be able to motivate myself to get out of bed in the mornings. And then all the working alone. I need the team and the social aspects of an office.” Funny enough, I work longer hours, since becoming a freelancer and have no issues motivating myself. Especially in the first weeks as a freelancer, I got to my desk in the morning and did not get up until late in the evening. Working alone makes you fully responsible for everything you produce and all the mistakes you make. Most of the time there is no final check-up before sending materials out to clients. It is important that you’re fully concentrated and bring your best game all the time. For that, taking regular breaks is essential.
TIP: There are different ways to build your own healthy schedule. I know successful people that work with an hourglass. I personally prefer concentrate and online window shopping, travel planning or exercise during my breaks.
6. Kick ass!
And last but not least: Keep your head up high, push aside your fears, be bold, always be professional and kick ass in everything you do.
Find more info on how to get up to speed as a freelancer in an entertaining article by Emil Lamprecht, the CMO of Careerfoundry.