A few months ago, I celebrated my one-year freelance-iversary. To me, it was the most important date of this past year, better than my birthday, better than any holiday... better than the end of season sales. My freelance-iversary marked one year to the day I decided to exit the traditional full-time, 9-5 job market, go it on my own and start my own business. It was a risk, a BIG risk, but I had had enough experience at that point to feel confident that it was something I could do. I felt, and proved, that if I really put all my attention and energy into growing my own dream, rather than growing someone else's, I could love my work and feel fulfilled by it.
Now, over a year into my entrepreneurship journey, I've learned so much and am still learning every day. I've been blessed to work with amazingly supportive, encouraging, intelligent, and inspiring women along the way who have helped me grow as an entrepreneur and business woman. Recently, I've been frequently asked how I got into this, what some of the challenges have been, and what is my advice for starting your own freelance career. Not one to hoard the knowledge (I want everyone to succeed and love their work), consider this the first of a series on career, business, and entrepreneurship.
First things first:
DON'T WAIT FOR SOMEONE TO PAY YOU TO START DOING WHAT YOU LOVE
This was the advice given to me by a friend when I started which I took to heart. He said, "Start doing whatever it is you want to get paid to do now so when someone needs to hire for that, of course they're going to pay you, you're already doing it." This made perfect sense to me. I started out as a freelance writer and I had many writing samples to offer to potential clients as examples of my work, but there was so much more I wanted to do that I didn't yet have professional examples of.
How could I get started branching out of solely writing if I didn't have proof my work was worth paying for in those other areas? The answer? Do it anyway without anyone paying you. I did this for photography, video, and styling.
BE YOUR OWN PR
I used this blog and social media to share the work I was doing for myself. I made sure to do it at a level of professionalism people would consider worth paying for. Basically, do your best, whatever it is you're doing. Through this, clients began reaching out to me with projects that I never specifically advertised myself for. It started out with messages like, "I've seen your photographs and I love your work. Would you be interested in taking the photos for my new website? What's your rate?" Boom. Paying client.
EXPECT TO GET PAID IN THE BEGINNING... BUT OFTEN NOT IN DOLLARS
However, in the beginning, sometimes I was offered work without pay. Here is where you have to weigh your options and evaluate the opportunity. If you're looking to move into a new area of work and know you have the ability to do the job well but don't yet have a portfolio to show for yourself, prepare to take on free projects that will build up your portfolio in order to land the paying ones.
At the end of this past summer, I got a phone call from a stylist I knew through one of my freelance clients, a fashion tech startup. I manage the content for their blog and emails and she is an established stylist with years of experience and her own business.
She let me know that she had a great opportunity for me to gain styling experience as her assistant but most of the work would be unpaid. She was going to be styling runway shows for a well-known fashion corporation and magazine, had three events she would need help with, and immediately thought of me. As she was only able to get a budget to pay an assistant for one of the events, the other two would be unpaid.
However, at the end of the three events I would be able to put on my resume that I styled events for these well-known brands and would be gaining invaluable on-the-job experience, even if the experience wasn't paid. I took the opportunity without a second thought. I knew I could be a stylist, I wanted to be a stylist, and here I was getting a chance to build my portfolio so I could eventually command a fee for my work. The end definitely justified the means, even if the means would not be offering me a salary... for now.
I took on the project, assisted the stylist on the three events, and at the end, something wonderful happened.
The stylist enjoyed working with me and saw my skill and potential as a professional stylist, so much so she invited me to become the first stylist working under her brand umbrella, a position she’d been looking to fill with the right person for some time. Now, I can be found on her website as a Junior Stylist and am styling for designers and personal clients.
Unpaid work is crucial to building up your freelance business. While it may not compensate you in dollars, strategically choosing what work you perform for free will compensate you in other ways: experience, contacts, exposure, all of which will eventually lead you to paying opportunities.
KNOW WHEN TO SAY NO
Know, however, that this phase must have a clear end. I’ve come to a point in my career that I no longer take on any unpaid work. I’ve proven myself and have enough examples of my work to command a competitive rate. If an interested client can’t afford to pay me, then I simply can’t work with them. Everyone needs to live. After that, the next step is raising your rates as your grow in your expertise… but that’s for another post.
What do YOU want to make a career out of or even just a side-hustle? What are your plans to get started?
Have any questions about entrepreneurship or how to begin a freelance career?
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll answer them in a future blog post!