Monday, December 3, 2007

My First Full Year: What I've Learned

We're now in the last month of 2007--the first full year I've spent as a full-time freelancer. I went full-time in June of 2006, and have been working pretty much nonstop since then. I started with almost none of the advantages most people will tell you are essential before quitting your full-time job. I moonlighted for several years part-time, but I was hardly making anything approaching a wage I could live on. I had savings, but not enough to support me for a year. And I had a few contacts, but they were mostly within small-scale nonprofits that preferred to enlist volunteers or overworked internal staff to handle communications. They were great for getting samples through offering free work--but not potentially-lucrative clients.

Needless to say, I was a little nervous about leaving the safety of a full-time job and stepping out into the self-employment void. But I was impatient and sick of waiting for the "ideal" time--and I really believed in my writing ability. I thought if anyone on the planet can make a career out of this, I can. People in full-time jobs have to wait for their companies to decide to give them a chance--at a better wage, a promotion, a better lifestyle. I was ready to give myself a chance.

Anyway, I wish I could go back in time to the day I quit my job--and tell the "me" of the past the following things. It would have made me feel so much better.

Just because someone else does things a certain way doesn't mean I have to do it the same way. I remember reading Peter Bowerman's The Well-Fed Writer in my first few weeks of unemployment and feeling completely horrified and discouraged at the idea of cold-calling businesses. It was something I had absolutely no training in or affinity for. After giving it a shot for a few months, I realized that I absolutely had to find a way of marketing myself that wasn't torture. I might be able to learn to cold-call effectively, but I would never be comfortable doing it.

Throughout this past year I've been learning many different ways to market myself--some of which are tolerable, some of which are actually fun, and none of which were described in The Well-Fed Writer--sorry, Peter! Anyway, the lesson I learned is that there is no "good" or "bad" way to market yourself--there's only what works and what doesn't. In the end, you'll find methods that work for you--or you won't stay in business long.

Technology is my friend. I'm a serious techno-phobe. Somehow, I managed to stay in business for about a year (as a web writer, no less) with my clunky old brochure of a website and a handful of general samples. This summer, I finally decided to get out of my comfort zone and learn what I could about the technologies that could help me take my business to the next level. I've surprised myself in picking up enough Dreamweaver to redo my site; enough SEO to improve my rankings; and enough HTML to do basic programming tasks. Very basic. But still, I"m quite a bit farther along now than I was before. I've learned that while technology can seem intimidating, I can't afford to let my hatred of all things technical hold me back from better earnings. And anyway, there's always some kind soul out there who's written an easy step-by-step guide I can follow.

Keep records. Very careful records. I'm a disorganized person, but I've learned to be a neat freak about my business. Nobody else but me is keeping track of my earnings and expenses, who owes me money and who's late with a check, and when all those pesky deadlines fall. I've developed a system that works for keeping track of bills, and I've learned to be meticulous about keeping my calendar up-to-date. I've also learned that if I don't track how long jobs are taking me and how much I'm making per hour on each job, I won't truly be able to price a project without guessing.

Choose pricing I can justify. Pricing is probably one of the biggest sources of confusion for new writers, and I was no different. I can't say I'm perfect at it now, but I have learned that I need to know exactly why I need to make a certain amount on each project--the amount I need to keep afloat financially--and why my writing is worth the price I charge. I no longer back down on prices, because I know I'm quoting what I need to charge--and if the client can't pay it, we're not the right match. I'm also more aware of the value I bring to a business than I was when I started. When you have this knowledge, it's easier to defend your pricing structure--and to know how low you can go.

Don't freak out so much about money. This summer I went on a long vacation against my better judgment. I was staying with family and doing everything as cheaply as possible, but I was still spending more than I wanted to--and I wound up spending twice my (unrealistically low) budget for the trip. When I got home, I had monthly bills waiting for me. Luckily, I also had an email from an old client who needed a big project done. More projects came in over the next few weeks, and before I knew it I had made back twice the amount I'd spent--I'd even managed to save quite a bit.

The moral of the story isn't that it's OK to be careless with money, because more will always come along. The moral is more like this: don't freak out so much. Relax and have fun. I work hard, I have some great regular clients, I'm no marketing slouch, and it will come back eventually. And if not, there's always Ramen noodles.

I'm the boss. I used to think I had to take everything that came along and accede to every client demand because that's what professionalism is. I've since learned that not only is that not professional, it can do serious harm. I've learned that it's fine to choose my clients based on the project, the pay, and the fit--that's one of the perks of this job. It's also okay to listen to my instincts and turn down requests I can't fulfill, including those that infringe too much on my time--requests like hours of unpaid time on IM or over the phone. I'm not a full-time employee, after all; I choose the time and place to work, and as long as I meet my deadlines and answer emails quickly, I'm being perfectly professional.

Starting any business takes a lot of work, dedication, and flat-out failure before you start to see success. My business has been reasonably successful in its first year--far more so than I thought it would be. I have every reason to believe things will continue to improve in the next year--and that my failures will only teach me how to be better at what I do.


Unknown said...

Fantastic post, Jennifer! And it's a great contrast to my cold-call post of today. But you're correct: cold calls are not for everyone. I hate them, and I have to force myself to do them.

I'm going to add your link to my special post on Friday!

Jennifer Williamson said...

Thanks, Lori! I've been reading your posts on offline marketing and thinking "Dear lord, is THAT what it's come to??" I haven't seen a huge slowdown recently, except in Elance. I've been marketing a bit offline (my best-working marketing strategy there is to actually remember to carry business cards around--they actually do work!) and I'll do cold calls, but only if I'm on the verge of putting a resume out on Monster.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your nomination for Top 10 Blogs for Writers, Jennifer! It was clearly well deserved.

Kristen King

Jennifer Williamson said...

Thanks, Kristen!

Anonymous said...

This is a great post, Jennifer. My first year was similar in helping me to extend my technical knowledge. I also have the confidence to turn down jobs when the client doesn't wish to pay my rate. Congrats on your nomination in the top ten blogs for writers. I'm making my way through them - and you're top of the list.

french panic said...

This is a fantastic, informative post - thank you! I am in the pre-plunge stage as a potential freelancer and this kind of information is in INCREDIBLY helpful. It's so reassuring to find other people finding success, while sharing many of the same "character traits" - I haaate cold-calling!

Jennifer Williamson said...

@Sharon--thanks! I noticed about being top of the list; I know it's because the list is alphabetized and not because of how fantastic I am, but a little self-deception never hurt anyone :-)

@French--welcome to the crazy world of freelance writing--and good luck with your plunge!

Susan Johnston Taylor said...

Hi Jennifer, as someone who's still trying to make the leap to full time freelancing, I admire you for doing and doing it successfully! I look forward to reading more.

Jennifer Williamson said...

Thanks, Susan! I noticed your acting/singing blog and I think we have a ton in common. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Congrats on getting through your first year! And for learning so much - that takes a lot, to just keep learning and learning, even when it's not comfortable (like the technology thing).

Has the blog been a help with marketing and landing clients?