Hustling as an independent freelancer is far past the “fad” stage — the number of contingent workers in the United States now tops 57 million, according to data compiled by Statista. That’s not only because gigging allows people to meet financial needs, but also because it offers flexibility and autonomy. Even high-level executives have been doing it, though it comes with the fancier name of “consulting,” either in addition to their full-time job or as a way to transition into their own consulting firm.
Whatever we call it, freelancing can have its dark side, and you shouldn’t become part- or full-time self-employed until you know how to navigate the toxic points.
What Can Be Problematic
Any or all of the following factors can turn freelancing into a stressful affair:
- Unpredictability of hours and income
- Internal or cultural pressure to be “always on” and risk burnout
- Lack of safeguards such as healthcare benefits or employer-matched retirement accounts
- Lack of clear boundaries between you and clients or family members
- Unstable work networks for resources, including education and mentorship
- The need to convince others you are serious and truly skilled despite working part-time
- The need to convince others they cannot be flexible or late in payment simply because you are not an employee
- Micromanaging, unreliable, or vague clients
- The potential inability to seek legal recourse when cheated out of pay (even with a contract, going to court may not be practical given legal costs or the location of the client)
- Excessive time finding and applying to new gigs
- The potential for accounting, tax, or other administrative errors
- The need to be visible and compete against both other freelancers and well-respected, highly popular companies
- Having to quickly switch gears to meet the goals, systems, or personalities of new clients
Other points, such as needing to mentally and logistically balance the gig work against a traditional job, can cause anxiety, too.
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How to Tone Down the Toxicity of Freelancing
Not all the pain points of freelancing have easy fixes, but there’s a lot you can proactively do to be happy and successful in this field. These are the main points to ensure you have in:
Create and apply a contract template with clear terms and conditions. Specify not only details about the work but also what you will be responsible for versus the client, communication preferences and limitations, milestones, and what happens in the event of a conflict or canceled projects.
Clarify your goals. This will help you establish specific criteria to use when you’re looking for new clients. The more aligned your vision is with theirs, the more likely it is that you’ll form lasting relationships for repeat work and valuable networking. Try to take jobs that truly build you up, not just ones that are immediately available.
Do your research. The best clients often have an established history with freelancers they’re happy to brag about. But they also might have other signs of reliability. Agencies, for instance, might have earned different ratings, certifications, or reviews on sites like Glassdoor. If a client you trust gives you a referral, that’s a good sign, too, but take the time to look at company websites or individual LinkedIn profiles. Contact information should always be easy to find and verify, and you should have more than one channel of communication.
Focus on the realistic. Sure, you might want to get in five more hours of work a week, but if that’s going to make you sleep-deprived or cut into family time, maybe it’s not worth it. Set boundaries from the get-go and think about what’s practical, not just what’s ideal in your head. Looking at your work in this way will ensure that you don’t overpromise and underdeliver to your clients. It will also help you sort out potential solutions and identify the specific steps necessary for progress and good results.
Communicate well. This doesn’t just mean replying quickly or via a client-preferred platform. It also means ensuring that your implicit and explicit communications match and that there’s no ambiguity about your intent, current understanding, or goals. Brevity, offering rationales, and paying attention to how a client thinks or processes all matter. Mass messages can be good, but don’t underestimate the value of targeted correspondence that pins down relationships that will last over time.
Invest. Yes, it can be difficult to put money aside as a freelancer. But just as if you were on payroll, some of your income should work for you, such as building compound interest. Factor the need to protect yourself and your resources into your pay rate, look at the long-term, and don’t be afraid to pay a little more upfront for better resources if you know that they’re going to help build your client list.
Know your worth. Desperate freelancers who are in a pinch often lower their rates to win clients. Don’t do this, as it cheats you out of personal income and sets a market precedent for you and anyone else doing similar work. Look at what payrolled professionals earn for the same work as a starting point and then factor in any distinguishing expertise that adds to your value.
Be aggressive. This doesn’t mean that you should be pushy. It does mean that you should take appropriate risks and seek out opportunities, including asking for referrals, partnerships, mentorships, and other arrangements. Set up contingency plans so you don’t have to quit, and if you need or want something, ask for it.
Freelancing, whether you’re consulting or offering some other service, can be a tough business, but it becomes far more satisfying if you tackle its pain points head-on. Use these tips as a starting point, and then consider factors that might be unique to your individual trade, industry, or circumstances for a customized plan.