I’m guessing that most of us (well, at least me and my circle of renegades), we practice what you’d call straight-up, head-first freelancing:
Try to land as many clients as you can, while making as much money as possible, and try to have some fun in the process.
But there are a few different twists on this. Three variations on the life.
They all spring from different reasons for shunning the delights of a . . . you know . . . regular job.
Each style has its own quirks, nuances and strategies.
Why you are freelancing should determine how you freelance.
When life is elsewhere
Here, you are freelancing to make room for another overriding passion, to bend your work life around something of wildly greater importance.
Perhaps you have a toddler at home. Or you are training for the Olympics, caring for an aged relative, or working for a cause that consumes you.
Or maybe you rock-climb, craft artisanal cheeses, or aspire to stand-up comedy. Or perhaps you’re on a spiritual quest.
To have a job where, every day, you must drive someplace and sit in an assigned seat until the bell rings? That would be a colossal intrusion. Or maybe (bless your heart) you simply don’t buy into the notion of laboring some 40 hours every damn week.
So, you freelance.
The beauty is, in the compact economics of freelancing, you can pay the rent and feed yourself without selling all your days. You can work Monday through Wednesday. Or just mornings. You can work the raccoon shift from midnight to 4 am if you want.
Or, you can go nose-to-screen around the clock for ten days straight, then spend the rest of month changing the world.
No, you can’t grow rich this way. And you won’t. But you can get darn close to the pay of a ‘regular’ job — and free up precious hours for what really counts for you right now.
I’m thinking of my friend Vernon. He’s a skillful programmer. But what obsesses him is restoring classic English sports cars. The money from that is erratic and unpredictable, however. So from time to time, Vernon signs on to write code for nine days or two weeks or six weeks, collects some checks, then disappears into his shop until he needs money again. He does fine.
There’s also an illustrator I know, who works a few hours a day while her twin girls are in school, then divides her time between Mom stuff and coaching a softball team.
The trick here, obviously, is to be coolly efficient. You need get your work habits down to like 8% bodyfat. You want maximum return from short input.
There is no Twitter or Pinterest or Freelancery in the work space. You settle in and go. You are working against deadlines of your own choosing. You are good at what you do, but is not who you are just now. When you click ‘Send’, it is over for the day.
For clients, you want heavy-using frequent flyers — not one-time buyers you must woo and cajole for every job. There is no time for that.
You want the ad agency Creative Directors who call in freelancers all week long. The editor who needs to fill up pages with 500-word pieces on healthy cooking, the marketing director responsible for promos and literature on 38 different products, the webmaster who juggles international web sites in six languages.
What little marketing time you have, you devote to uncovering busy buyers like these. Yes, it takes time to win them over. But you can start today. Be reliable. Be the go-to, will-do, no worries freelancer.
Don’t expect high-profile glamour work here. Most of it will be workaday stuff, which is always where the volume is.
It may be somewhat repetitive. Those times when I worked half days (when the kids were deep into after-school sports) I dined on a steady diet of product copy for IT services, case studies, and vapid profiles of insurance agencies. Over and over again.
But in this mode, that sameness can be a good thing. You eliminate the ramp-up time and learning curve. You get fast at doing those websites for chiropractors, and those travel brochures in Polish.
You are the pastry pro who can unfailingly produce plump brioches by the dozen.
You get done early. So you can go do what’s important.
Because you’re building something in the garage
Here, you’re freelancing to fund a long-term project of your own, or some venture that’s a spin-off of your craft.
Maybe you’re writing a specialized app, designing a library of web templates, shooting a documentary, or setting up a web-based business. Or, you’re creating a book, developing a training course, or devising software that can generate custom music or order. (I’m making this up.)
The idea, of course, is to use your client work pay the bills while you get your project born and raised. From there, you run your offspring as happily profitable sideline, or even a full-time preoccupation.
A surprising number of tidy businesses grew up precisely this way. 37 Signals started as a small group of designers doing websites for typical clients.
In their spare time they tinkered with a few basic web apps, mainly for their own use. They eventually offered the apps on a subscription basis to a few clients. And then more clients. In time, the income from the applications allowed 37 Signals to phase out the client work entirely. Which they don’t miss.
See the 37 Signals Bootstrapped series for stories of other companies who went this route. A common theme: client work grew tiresome and frustrating. They saw an opportunity to build their own stuff, and use their skills for themselves.
Check out the story from Coudal Partners, a design and interactive studio. The boss was no longer interested in basing his business on “the whims of people who are stupider than we are.” A bit harsh there, but we do commiserate. The company now earns its keep with their hugely popular Field Notes notepads, along with other products of their own devising.)
The hard part here can be balancing your work on the side project, with the everyday demands of your freelance clients. How much time for each? And when?
My friend Bill found it more efficient to carve out days of unbroken time to devote to his instrument-building project in between client assignments.
Or, you can do what writers James Patterson and Elmore Leonard did early in their careers. Every day at dawn, they devoted a few hours to their book projects, then changed hats, and moved into their usual workdays in advertising. That’s a better way to preserve the rhythm and continuity.
You may find that by relegating your freelance client work to a smaller window, you somehow become more productive. And you may find it easier to tolerate client irritations. Because you have something else in the oven.
A caveat, however, from those who have been there.
When you’re jazzed and enthusiastic about a side project, it’s easy to let your freelance side go to seed. You can start turning in work that’s maybe a notch below par, not following up on referrals, getting slack about networking. Very easy to do, when you’re figuring the side project will make a million dollars.
You can work at freelancing half-time. But not half-assed. Not yet.
You can do all that after your side project pays its own way.
It’s all about the art
Here, you’re freelancing because you want to practice your craft your way.
The thought of working to a house style, or following a boss’s creative direction is painful and intolerable. To work on projects randomly assigned to you, torture.
You want to push edges, try things, scare yourself. You have strong feelings about what you do. To you, design or writing or coding or photography or branding is everything.
So, you freelance.
There are plenty of designers in this camp. I’m thinking of creatives like Jason Santamaria. Or maybe Dustin Curtis. Oliver Reichenstein. Or Steve Zell, who is endlessly intrigued by branding and corporate identity. And the older guard, like Milton Glaser, Saul Bass, Paul Rand. It is mostly about the art, less about the business.
There are photographers here too. Illustrators, programmers for sure. Writers. Are there ground-breakers and enfants terrible in translating? I don’t know.
Here, you career will rise and fall on your body of work, your unique viewpoint, style, approach. (And oddly, the reputation of your peers may matter more than your standing among clients.)
When looking for clients, aim first for chances to do amazing stuff, for clients who want amazing.
High-profile counts more than high-budget. Unless of course, you really need the money.
Given the option, you’re better off doing stunning work for the bad-boy start-up with no budget, than doing corporate drear no one will see. Think of your portfolio.
You need to be visible in the business. Be a voice. Write articles and highly opinionated and controversial essays. Take a stand. See Jeffrey Zeldman. Do speculative work on your own, and post it.
Be audacious, too. Like student designer Andrew Kim who posted his own re-do if the Microsoft identity, and attracted all sorts of publicity.
(His inbox was jammed, he says. Although he only wanted job offers, not freelance work. But he’s young. He’ll learn.)