It’s always the most unexpected objections that people raise when you tell them you’re a freelancer. They couldn’t do it, they say, because if they didn’t have an office to go to, a boss over their head or the fear of being fired, they’d spend all day in the living room watching daytime soaps instead of doing their work. Or they’d miss their colleagues, they object, as though they chose them, like them or couldn’t stay in touch with the ones they do respect when they’re no longer making the same commute. Or they couldn’t live with the insecurity, they protest, as though companies never go bankrupt and HR departments don’t have drawers filled with P45s waiting to be completed.
And if it’s not the weird objections it’s the unrealistic benefits. How many times have you seen envy in the eyes of a salaryman imagining what it would be like to roll out of bed at eleven, start work at twelve and stop just in time for sundowners? Or listened to a former colleague wax lyrical about how he’d also love to be able to choose his own projects and get paid what he’s really worth if he wasn’t being enslaved and exploited by The Firm? And how often have you nodded through a lecture on the pleasures of life without a boss by someone who happens to be someone else’s boss?
Freelance life has its benefits. But it also has its drawbacks. It’s work not retirement, a big yacht and all the time in the world to enjoy both. This is what you can really expect to happen when you part company with the company and branch out on your own.
Deadlines Make Discipline
Boyle’s Law doesn’t just apply to gases; when it comes to labor, work expands too — to fill the time available. But no project ever reaches a freelancer with “whenever you feel it’s done” as the deadline. On the contrary, clients tend to have unrealistic expectations of how long it takes to complete a task, and freelancers understand that the longer they linger over their work, the more it costs them. Take five days to complete a job that you quoted for three, and you’ve cut your hourly rate and your annual income by two-fifths.
It’s not the boss in the office that stops a freelancer from settling into “The Bold and the Beautiful” then. It’s the client and the mortgage manager. Smart freelancers break even long projects into small bites, setting daily deadlines that keep their keyboards smoking.
No Hours Around the Clock
And for most freelancers, the keyboards start smoking early. While you are free to set your own hours — provided you meet the deadlines — there’s a reason that both office workers and freelancers clock in early morning and clock out in the early evening: it’s the most convenient time to work. It’s when you’re most likely to catch other people in the office, it’s when you’re at your freshest and most energetic, and it’s a rhythm that feels natural, leaving you free to play at the same time as salaried friends. The lack of a commute means that you don’t have get up at the crack of dawn to beat the traffic (unless, of course, you’ve got kids to drop off at school) but for most freelancers, the standard workday is the same as everyone else’s.
Except at weekends and holidays, which have a nasty habit of filling up with work too. The problem with expanding projects, deadlines tight enough to squeeze in as much productivity as possible, and no office key, is that boundaries between work time and play time break down. Fall behind, and you will find that weekends and evenings become time to negotiate between yourself and your family.
No Boss Means Lots of Bosses
That turns freelancing into working for the world’s most inconsiderate boss. In fact, it’s even worse. Work for The Man and at least you’ve only got one of them. Work as a freelancer and you’ll be juggling lots of different clients with overlapping deadlines, unrelated demands and no interest at all in the needs of other buyers. All of them act like bosses, and it will be up to you prioritize their demands and keep each one happy.
Those bosses are experts at delegation. They pass the project management on to the freelancer, leaving it up to you to handle the organization (including the paperwork) and crack the whip across the backs of distracted employees (still you.)
As a freelancer, you don’t have one boss. You have lots of little bosses and a big mean supervisor who’s always peering over your shoulder. If the upside of having lots of paymasters is that when one does fire you, you don’t lose all your income, the downside is that your supervisor gives you hell whenever that happens.
Choose Your Projects When You Can Choose to Eat
Earlier this year, Jacob Cass, a graphic designer, described on his blog how freelancing for him meant being able to choose the most interesting projects, although at the cost of marketing time and paperwork. But that was when he was working a 9-6 job for Carrot Creative, a design firm, fitting in his freelance work at the weekends. Now that he’s a full-time freelancer, it would be interesting know whether Jacob is still being so choosy.
Regular jobs usually involve a mixture of dull tasks and really interesting fun. Freelancing is largely the same with the difference being the degree of control you have over the dull stuff. When work is light and there are gaps in the schedule, you take anything that delivers cash. When the schedule is tight, freelancers can be pickier but generally are still willing to take anything. They just use price as a filter. Boring jobs (and difficult clients) pay more because they care less about losing them and want more compensation for handling them.
But that’s only for new clients. When you’re running a freelance business, regulars are your bread and butter, and they sometimes have dull jobs too. You accept them because they pay and you hope the next job is more interesting. Projects don’t get more interesting just because you’re doing them at home.
Freelance work then is still work. But it does have one huge benefit that no salaried employee ever enjoys: career control. You decide how big you become, which skills you acquire, which jobs you bid for. You can even choose to turn a one-person freelance business into a fully-fledged company with employees, if you want. Your future is in your hands — and that’s priceless.