The beginner’s guide to being a freelancer
This article was originally published in The Walkley Magazine.
With news companies shrugging off full-time jobs, tomorrow belongs to freelancers, says Leon Gettler. Here are his rules to success
The freelancer life is liberating. Not having to put up with idiots and office politics is the best working environment there is. Do it for a few years and it’s easy to make yourself unemployable. Still, it’s not for everyone. Freelancing is a step into the unknown and uncertainty. Some may head back to paid employment, but you can make freelancing work well by following these rules.
1. Set yourself up as a business: This is the biggest transition. Suddenly you are on your own and the only money coming in will be from the jobs you pitch for and receive. It is scary and the only way to deal with it is to create a business. It puts you in control. What are your outgoings? Add them up for the year, divide it by 12. That’s how much you’ll need every month, the rest is profit. Secondly, get an ABN and register for the GST. Then identify a niche. It can be anything from technology to cars. Set yourself up as the expert and develop contacts in those areas. Make sure you have many outlets. Don’t make the mistake of having all your eggs in one basket. Get a website. Think of it as the office people will drop in on – it’s your business brand. And look at your mindset. If you know how to run your own show, chase your own stories, it will be an easy transition. If you are used to relying on orders, freelancing is not for you.
2. Invoicing: The invoice is part of your brand. Put your photo on it. The invoice should have your name, ABN, address, banking details identifying your bank, BSB and account number and your terms of trade. The standard is to ask for payment within 14 days. The invoice stays on your computer files. Invoice as soon as the job is done.
3. Make life easy for your editors: Pitch great ideas that take the conversation in new directions. Give enough of the story outline to show how it will work. Make sure the story hasn’t been run anywhere else. Read the publication first so you know the market. Don’t pitch a story that’s just a media release. Watch your spelling and grammar. Write to the commissioned number of words and no prima donna antics. Once the story is in the editor’s hands, it’s theirs to do with as they see fit. That will ensure they will keep sending you work.
4. Multimedia: Podcasts, videos and blogs are the way of the future. Don’t just focus on writing text, expand into multimedia. It will show you’re versatile. More importantly, it can pay better.
5. Chasing money: From time to time, there will be slow payers. Always wait for one month. If they haven’t paid it by then, put in a polite phone call or email asking them when you can expect to be paid. The money always comes. The key here is to do it nicely. There is nothing more infuriating than people who commission pieces and don’t pay – but don’t display your anger. Keep cool and polite, even use some humour. It defuses the situation. You do this so they keep sending you work. If they still don’t pay, call the union. Alternatively, you can send in a debt collector. They take a cut but at least you get most of your money. Still, that should be the last resort when everything else has failed. Where possible, don’t burn bridges.
6. Hold your nerve: This is probably the hardest part of freelancing. People will promise you work and not deliver. They will approach you with an idea and then disappear. They will renege on deals and they will stop giving you work for “budgetary reasons”. There is no easy way to hold your nerve but it’s important to focus on the long term. The best way to do it is to plan, focus on the job, mono-task and have some Plan Bs. Learn to live with the uncertainty, it comes with the territory. If you can’t handle the uncertainty, you shouldn’t be in business. I have always compared it to soldiers on the front. Some will crack up, others stay focused. To hold your nerve, think strategically. As a freelancer, you’re a soldier.
7. Communicate regularly: Don’t keep your editor in the dark for too long when there’s a big job. With lengthy and complicated projects, communicate milestones as often as possible. If you need to delay a project by a few days, just tell them. They would much rather know that it’s going to be delayed than not. They will appreciate your sense of responsibility and the fact that you were up front.
8. Signatures: It’s good to include a signature on your emails with necessary contact information. It should have all your phone numbers and, if possible, a URL to your website. If you have a LinkedIn and Twitter feed, add that too. Have that on every email you send out to your clients. It’s all part of brand building.
9. No freebies: From time to time, you might be asked to write stuff, participate in forums, give talks, facilitate sessions, etc, for free. Don’t do it. The people running these events get a wage and you should, too.
10. Use a schedule: Yes, you now have the freedom to work when you feel like it but you will need some sort of schedule in place to stay productive. It’s easy to shirk your duties when you’re working for yourself. That means you have to be very ordered in your processes. If you have regular gigs, set aside certain days for certain stories. You should be disciplined. Forget about sleeping in. Accept the fact that you will be working a lot harder and putting in more hours as a freelancer than as a paid employee.
11. Set up a home office: You can improve both your productivity and your state of mind if you have a set space for your work. Having your own space keeps you organised. This is also important for tax reasons. If you don’t have an actual office, create one. Get a corner with necessary power points and put in a few partitions.
12. Communication: If you don’t have a separate phone line for your home office, get one installed. That provides you with your own space. And you will sound more professional if your kids aren’t taking the calls.
13. Keep your office space clear: Yes, it’s tough when you’re working from home. Kids’ toys and adolescents can take up space in your room. Keep it sacred, work- related and free from clutter. That will help you focus.
14. Manage your family: Family time is important but they need to understand that your work time is sacrosanct. Set boundaries to ensure you have the space to function.
15. Set up a break time: It’s like lunch hour at work. You need time to recharge during the day. Yes, it’s tempting to eat lunch at your desk when you’re flat out. But separating the two is good for your state of mind.
16. Dress the part: Sure, working at home means that you can stay in your dressing gown and trackies all day. Don’t. There are all sorts of studies showing you are more productive when you make an effort with your appearance and look professional. That doesn’t mean working in a suit when you’re at home all day, but it does mean not sitting around in your underwear.
17. Set boundaries on work time: When you work at home you quickly find that it starts encroaching on all areas of your home life. Keep family and private time sacrosanct. Set up specific work times and don’t let the two overlap on a regular basis.
18. Stay flexible: There might be times when home life interferes with work life and vice versa. You have to be flexible to avoid stressing out. A schedule is important but you might not always be able to keep to it. Life happens and the benefit of being a freelancer is that you can work around it.
19. Use to-do lists extensively: They can be on paper, on your desktop or online. In any form, a to-do list is an effective tool for managing time. It tracks what you need to accomplish that day and keeps you focused.
20. Have an emergency fund: Freelance work is often feast or famine. You’re either too busy or scrounging for work which does not pay well. Set aside funds in an emergency account to use when work dries up. Don’t make the mistake of getting into debt during lean times as that will always keep you on the back foot. Remember, January is a slow month.
21. Use a tax professional: As a self employed freelancer you’re going to fill out your quarterly BAS, plus personal income tax. Mind-numbing stuff. You will need a professional.
22. Deadlines: Don’t miss them. But if you’re going to miss a deadline for whatever reason, let the editor know as soon as possible. Don’t make excuses and don’t ask for forgiveness, it sounds pathetic. Just ask for the shortest possible extension you can manage and promise that the project will be in their in-box first thing on the morning of the new deadline date. And deliver on that date.
23. Rates: For writers, the best rate in Australia is around $1 a word. Most gigs are at around 70 to 80 cents. Only settle for anything less if that work is regular.
24. Tax: Normal deductions include telephone, mobile, gas, electricity, newspapers and magazines, stationery, postage, public transport and parking. Get a log book from a news agency and work out how much of your driving time is work-specific. You can claim that percentage as a tax deduction for your petrol, car maintenance and car insurance. And also as part of your car depreciation.
25. Loneliness: This is one of the hardest parts of being a freelancer. Suddenly, you are on your own, there are no conversations or people around you. Keep in touch with contacts and friends. Meet them for coffee and lunch. Stay busy. And remember the words of Jean-Paul Sartre: if you’re lonely when you’re by yourself, you’re in bad company.
Leon Gettler is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist writing on management issues. Previously he worked as a political reporter at The Sun News Pictorial and as a business journalist at The Age