So You Wanna Be a Freelancer

Jun 12, 2008 |George Halitzka

George was tired of working for The Man. Thanks to the Lord and his fiancée, he no longer is.

At 8 a.m. on Monday morning, everybody wants to be me.

While you're chugging a triple espresso in your cubicle, I'm sawing logs. As you try not to yawn in front of the boss, I roll over and go back to sleep. Finally, around 10:30, I shuffle to my desk in pajamas and check my e-mail.

Ah, freelancing!

Of course, at 8 p.m. Saturday night while you're at Applebee's, I'm scrambling to meet a deadline at the end of a 65-hour week. I still have to e-mail six clients, and I'm desperately praying that MegaCorp will pay my invoice soon (so I don't have to work next month as a homeless panhandler).

By Saturday, nobody wants to be me anymore.

Freelancing is not for the faint of heart. In fact, more than half of all businesses flop within their first two years. But by God's grace, I haven't missed the rent yet. So if you'd like to be your own boss (and enjoy going to work in your PJs), here's my three-step process to decide if freelancing is right for you:

  1. First, ask God if this is His will — and listen for the answer!
  2. Then decide if you're insane enough to earn half the money for double the work.
  3. Finally, bang your head against the wall a few times. (It'll be good practice for later.)

If you march to the beat of a different drummer (or maybe the voices in your head), freelancing can be a dream come true. Personally, I can't imagine doing anything else!

Do You Really Want to Freelance?

I don't think I decided to start a business as much as God wired me that way. When I was a kid, I opened a stationery store in my bedroom. Later, I peddled Christmas cards to my teachers and started my own newspaper.

But right after college was not the time to begin: I had the zeal, but not all the skills. So I worked different jobs, from motivational speaking to selling tools at Sears. Meanwhile, I learned the fine art of schmoozing and honed my artistic gifts.

Then in 2005, what I thought was the perfect job came along. I moved from Cleveland to Iowa City to take a position as a church drama director. I couldn't believe God had brought this new ministry into my life!

Yeah, it was great ... until six months later, the church eliminated my position.

I had no idea what God was doing. I didn't want to slink home to my parents' house with my tail between my legs, but I had zero job leads. So I threw pillows at the wall and yelled at God for a few days. Then I pounded the pavement and found two part-time gigs.

Meanwhile, I had a crazy idea: "Wouldn't this be a great time to try freelancing, like I dreamed about as a kid?" I began looking for ways to make money as a drama coach and writer.

Iowa City is an artsy college town, so my business had potential. Plus, I'd just paid off my car and had a couple thousand dollars in savings. Gradually, I found clients as I submitted a magazine article here ... taught a drama class there ... and watched money trickle in.

Some folks who freelance want a profit-making hobby, or something a stay-at-home mom can do to supplement hubby's paycheck. There's nothing wrong with that! But I longed to go full-time, and got frustrated whenever my "real" jobs kept me from developing the business.

So I asked people for advice about moving forward without a net. My family thought I was a little nuts, but still backed me up. More importantly, my fiancée-to-be was behind me.Note to guys: If you tell your girlfriend you're quitting your job to start a business and she doesn't head for the door, she's a keeper. So six months after I started, I bid the part-time jobs farewell and took the plunge!

I haven't looked back since.

What People Want

Yet I hear the voice of a reader crying in the wilderness: "George, I'd love to freelance! But what can I do? I'm not a drama guy like you."

Ask yourself this: "What do I have that people want?"

I know a woman who writes from home — in between her full-time job of chasing three kids. It's her way of helping with her pastor-husband's salary. Other folks build crafts, or clean houses, or teach classes or transcribe doctors' dictation.

At its best, entrepreneurship means using your gifts to meet needs in your community. If you're good with your hands and start a plumbing business, you're on the right track! If you love the kids in your home-based daycare, you're serving God!

But before you start, it's important to honestly assess your abilities. Where are you a standout?

While I was in high school, I dreamed of being a professional actor. Then I realized if I wasn't getting lead roles — even at my mid-sized school — I probably wouldn't make it to Broadway.

On the other hand, I was winning awards for my writing, and finding that I was a pretty good stage director, too. Now I make a living doing both of those things. The beauty of freelancing is that you write your job description, capitalizing on your strongest gifts!

The downside is that you have to be incredibly self-motivated. There's no boss looking over your shoulder, so no one will get mad if you spend all day watching soaps ... except you, when the bill collectors call.

So as you're starting out, it's important to set weekly goals. How many clients will you phone this week? Which article are you going to write and submit? Who are you planning to network with? If it helps, reward yourself with a bowl of strawberries after you reach a certain milestone. You may not accomplish everything on the list, but having a target will keep you moving!

And don't forget the pesky details, like paying your internet bill. You are now responsible for everything it takes to stay in business.

Money, Money, Money

As a freelancer, you answer the phone and file the records. You vacuum the office and buy the supplies. Most importantly, you keep the books and do your taxes. Thankfully, you already know how to accomplish most of those tasks — but finances deserve special mention.

Freelancers are mercenaries. Some people hate asking for money, and if you're one of them ... uh, get over it. You have every right to be paid for your time, just like Billy Bob at Acme Widgets. However, you don't have a payroll department — so you get to collect your own salary.

Learn the phrase "cash flow" by heart. As a business owner, you can't just record income and expenses as they happen (though that's important!). You need to project what money is coming in and going out in advance. If you're doing this full-time, that allows you to answer questions like, "When can I afford groceries?" If freelancing is a sidelight, it's still vital. Since you know August will be a good month, you can plan to buy your daughter's Big-Girl Bed or the new hot water tank.

To make freelancing work, I'm always planning (and booking dates with clients!) several months in the future. When I get too focused on the present, I simply don't work the following month! So on May 9, as I'm writing this article, I know that most of my summer income will come from writing articles and teaching drama workshops. More projects might come in, but I already have stuff lined up to keep the lights on.

Most aspiring freelancers want to know how much they should charge for their product. Usually, the key ingredient is your time.

You aren't earning an hourly wage anymore. Sure, you get paid for the 45 minutes you spent fixing a client's computer — but not the three hours you were working the phones, finding clients. My rule of thumb is that I should earn at least $20-30 an hour when I'm serving a customer. Otherwise, the project probably isn't worth it.I sometimes do discounts to land new business or because I'm passionate about a project. But I strongly suggest that you don't work for free. Word will get around ... and then, nobody will ever want to pay you!

Don't neglect to factor expenses into your prices. When I started teaching drama workshops, I forgot to include the cost of class supplies and liability insurance in tuition. Oops — there went the profit margin! Remember, you no longer have an employer to pay for anything.

Keep the receipt whenever you make a business purchase. Uncle Sam is surprisingly generous with tax write-offs for freelancers — but if it isn't on paper, it doesn't exist. I saved $1,000 in taxes last year because of good records.Be sure to track the miles you drive for business purposes, too. In 2008, the IRS lets you write them off to the tune of $0.505 per mile. With gas hovering around $4 per gallon, entrepreneurs need all the help we can get!

Along with the IRS, you also have to answer to your local government. Many businesses need to be licensed by cities and counties, so do some internet research to find out what permits you need. If you're planning to operate out of your house, make sure you're zoned accordingly. Permits are a real headache (and may cost you a few bucks), but headaches are better than monster fines.

Most of this stuff you can learn as you go. In my opinion, however, there are two prerequisites to starting a business: good record-keeping skills and responsible spending habits.

Translation: If you can't balance the checkbook, get your house in order before you think about freelancing!Pay off (or at least pay down) any large debts before you strike out on your own. If you can't make your car payment and The Man repos your ride, you'll be out of business in a hurry!

The Fine Art of Schmoozing

When I was in middle school, I decided to do magic shows for birthday parties. There were some decent tricks in my repertoire, so I hung up signs in my neighborhood for "Magic George." Guess how many times my phone rang?

That's right — it never did.

I was clear on part of the marketing process: I knew that advertising is good! If you're going into business, you should have business cards, some kind of flier or handout, and probably a Web site. Your materials should look as professional as you can afford to make them, and emphasize the customer's needs. (Translation: Nobody cared that I was a magician. They might care that I could spice up little Suzie's birthday party.)

Still, it's important to remember that advertising alone doesn't cut it! Business isn't about what you know or how cool your brochure looks ... it's about who you know. For instance, I teach a pretty good drama class. Yet when I started freelancing, nobody knew me ... so nobody cared.

That's why I called a friend who was teaching kids' drama classes at our local recreation center. She hooked me up with her contact person, and told me she was moving out of town in a few months! Soon afterwards, I began teaching her drama classes — and planning my own.

The kids weren't signing up in droves, however. So I looked up local theatre companies and school drama departments on the internet. I called and asked if they would distribute class fliers for me. (That's called "targeted marketing" — advertising to those most likely to be interested in your service.)

Some of the organizations ignored me, but others helped out. Meanwhile, I was meeting more thespians in my part-time gig as the House Manager at a local theater. The end result was that my first round of classes did pretty well ... and word of mouth began to spread! A year later, my workshops were always filling near capacity.

So here's the moral of the story, kids: Networking and cold calling may not be your favorite pastimes, but you need to do both!

Networking means leveraging your relationships. Your aunt may actually need what you're selling. (In fact, my aunt hired me to write a script for her company once.) But even if she doesn't, she might know someone who does. Then, when you call the potential client she mentioned, you can say, "Your friend Molly suggested I call...."

Unfortunately, Aunt Molly doesn't know enough people to sustain your business forever. That means you'll have to do some cold calling.

When I'm marketing drama classes, I phone lots of schools and organizations (like YMCAs). More than half of them don't return my calls. But the small percentage that do make the difference between paying next month's rent and living in a van down by the river. So I keep dialing. And whenever possible, I pair a cold call with a mailing.

"Hello, is Mr. Big available? ... OK, could you tell him George Halitzka called? I'm a freelance theatre teacher here in Louisville; I was wondering if he'd like to offer a drama workshop during summer camp. I sent some information in the mail last week...."

There's one more part of marketing that you should never neglect: word of mouth. You can't make phone calls or print ads to get it. You can't do much at all about what people say — except satisfy every customer you possibly can. (And occasionally, it doesn't hurt to impress their socks off.)

If you're not in business to serve your clients, you might as well get out of business now.

A Little Risk is Good for the Soul

I'm not your typical business owner. According to personality tests, I'm "risk-averse." So why in the world do I freelance?

Well, getting booted into it by God helped, and so did marrying a great encourager. Besides, I have a certain distaste for working for The Man.

But I encounter risk on a daily basis, and it isn't fun. Here's my nightmare scenario: My biggest client doesn't pay her invoice on time — the one I need to catch up the gas bill. In the same week, I'm diagnosed with a serious illness that my crummy health insurance won't cover. Then on my way home from the doctor, I get in a wreck that's my fault and total the car.

Thank God none of that's happened. But it could.

On the other hand, I could move to a new city and get my dream job eliminated after six months. Oh, wait ... that did happen. Life is full of perils. You have to decide which ones are worth it.

Last December, I directed a Christmas play and toured it to churches. I believe it was God's will — or at least He brought together a really talented cast. So we started rehearsals, and I did a mass mailing to area churches. I followed up with hundreds of cold calls.

I made very little money during rehearsals, because almost all my time was going into the play. But that was OK — as long as we got eight to 10 paid bookings, we were fine!

Unfortunately, we got two bookings. After expenses, I made less than $0.

"God, I thought you led me to do this!" I protested. "I can't pay January's rent. Do you want me and my wife to be homeless?"

Julie assured me it would all work out, and said God had been providing through freelancing for over a year. Since I'm a confirmed heathen, I kept grumbling anyway.

But pretty soon, extra funds trickled in. My folks sent us money so we could drive home for the holidays. Julie's grandparents sent us a Christmas gift we weren't expecting. Julie picked up extra hours at her part-time job. By the end of the month, we paid our rent, and even had money left for — ahem — a speeding ticket.

So, since business ownership seems to be my calling, I keep making phone calls to folks who don't want to talk to me. I continue mentally cursing the clients who pay invoices late. The day-to-day grind keeps me as busy as I want to be, and then some.

Then occasionally, God reminds me that freelancing has an unexpected side effect. In between the cold calls, my mustard seed is growing into a bigger faith!

If you start a business, who knows? The same thing might happen to you.

Copyright 2008 George Halitzka. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

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