Freelancing: 3 myth-busters to keep you ahead of the game.
There is a lot of unsolicited advice on the internet. And I'm about to add to that cacophony with this post about three myths I wish someone had dispelled for me when I first started out.
Now more than ever, South Africans are looking to side hustles to supplement their income, with most nine-to-fivers juggling one or two side hustles. With the growth of side hustles comes the growing interest in gig work too. But, is there even a difference between regular side hustling and freelancing? Maybe not so much, however being a full-time freelance professional is a different experience in South Africa compared to having a full-time job.
“Why would you want to quit your job and take the risk of having an unstable income stream?” I’ve been asked many times since I decided to leave my unsatisfying job to become a full-time freelancer. While I had been freelancing for almost two years prior to this recent job I left, friends and family took comfort in the fact that I began working a stable job (and for the most part, so did I at the time). They most likely secretly hoped that my dreams of being a digital professional would be relegated to a side hustle permanently once I found a ‘real’ job. I found my first formal job before finishing my honours, and their wishes came true: in the comfort of socially validated capitalist rat-race, I began to take fewer freelance gigs. Unfortunately, it did not take long for my dormant unease with being part of the regular workforce to rear its head. After working for nine months, I decided to quit my job. And in typical millennial fashion, I did not have a plan that would insulate me from the difficulties of being a young black female digital professional asserting herself in a somewhat racially homogenous niche (copy-editing). I took the chance anyway. Now three years into freelancing, I have learnt some valuable lessons that I would not have learnt if I had not immersed myself completely in establishing myself as a young digital professional.
If we’re being honest, working as a freelancer in South Africa is far from easy. Even more so when you are a young black woman with only a few years of experience under your belt, and hardly any connections to start you off in your chosen niche. That said, success really is possible with the right information and support once you have established a trustworthy network.
The freelance world is seemingly shrouded in mystery, and by a lot of rogue opinions, making it challenging to differentiate between myth and fact. Here are three myths given as advice, that I wish I’d been aware weren’t necessarily valid when I first started.
You don’t need capital to get started
This is one of the biggest myths there are out there, probably the most irresponsible piece of advice anyone can give to a newbie. If you treat freelancing as an easy way out that will make you rich overnight without any investment, you are in for a shock. Freelancing is like any other business. You are essentially self-employed, meaning all the benefits you would have enjoyed as an employee now become your responsibility to cater to yourself. It’s an incredibly demotivating responsibility if you venture into freelancing assuming you’ll be absolved of that.
The first of those responsibilities is ensuring you have all the necessary resources to do your job well (yes, it’s still a job). Do have all the tools of the trade that will ensure you produce high-quality work for your clients (even the first one)? You actually need to invest money and time in building credentials that differentiate you from the rest, along with money to keep you going from project to project. While a Macbook Pro wasn’t a necessary investment starting out as a copy-editor, I still needed to ensure I had small tools like an invoicing system/platform, an email address of sorts separate from my personal email, and a steady internet connection with an emergency fund just in case my PC broke down. I needed to invest time into learning basic marketing techniques and rudimentary design skills so I could create all my promotional social media content to attract clients. Still, that is an investment of time. Bottom line: you have to invest something, and time alone won’t cut it when starting out as a gig worker. There’s no way around this.
Starting out, I made the mistake of taking this myth as fact. Only later down the road did I realize that I needed an initial investment into differentiating my services in the saturated world of the self-employed. Down the line, I needed money to have a logo designed, a website, and funds to travel to client meetings if necessary. These things cost money. If done right, investing selected resources can get you started on a firm footing.
Just pick a skill you have and ‘sell’ it
If freelancing was as easy as that, a lot of people would be on their way to making the world of formal employment obsolete. It may be well-meaning to tell people to just sell a skill, but it’s advice that could have someone wasting valuable time and resources better spent on other endeavours. Everyone interested in being a freelancer who bumps into this should ask themselves two questions: how do I determine what skills I have and how do I sell something. To partly answer the second question: selling is in itself a skill. Learning how to make someone want to give you their money so you solve their problem doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. I am one of those people.
Before I started freelancing, I knew I had an interest in words. They fascinated me. I loved reading them, learning how to say them, and using them well. A lot of people would come and ask for my help with using words to better convey their feelings, thoughts or explain their perspective on something. I knew I loved helping people that way too. But I had no idea that it was a skill, being able to do that - let alone one I can actually get paid to use. It took some intuitive searching for what it was called to love working with words in that way until I came across copy-editing. That profession alone took me a while to discover, and once I did I quickly realized I would have to learn how to creatively convince people to pay me to help them use words better. That is a skill I am still learning how to perfect until this day, years after I began my freelance journey.
My point is, it’s crudely reductionist to just advise someone to “find and skill and sell it”. Freelancing requires an entrepreneurial mindset, and more than one skill you’re exceptional at - it requires a skill set. Even project management skills and financial management skills are part of “the skill” you’re advised to find and sell. And no one tells you that when you start out. No one told me about tax-claim forms until I had a client request that I fill them in for the purposes of compliance. I was shaking in my boots cause all this time I thought all I had to do was “just sell my skill” and none of it involved learning about taxes.
Just get started
No, don’t “just do it”. Seriously. You could be setting yourself up for disappointment if you don’t validate your idea first. I wrote a lengthy post I am yet to publish about why idea validation is critical for freelancers. Because every idea that you want to invest in and grow into a business really ought to be validated. I learnt this lesson the hard way (in typical human fashion) through the various iterations of growing Inscribed as a freelancing brand, and in my journey have introduced many offers, deals and new services to clients I wasn’t even sure needed them, let alone if they could afford them. What resulted is wasted time and money trying to convince a target market that they have a problem to which I happened to have a solution they should pay me for. I didn’t even know what mattered to the clients I was targeting. I was too preoccupied with getting what I wanted to realize what I was doing wasn’t working until I just stopped getting clients.
Really, the best thing anyone hoping to venture into freelancing can do is validate their idea using simple steps I will talk about in my next post (borrowed from a workshop I attended hosted by Nic Haralambous).
Freelancing requires an entrepreneurial mindset, and more than one skill you’re exceptional at - it requires a skill set.
Now, before you all come for me, I wanna conclude with the disclaimer that this is of course all based on my own experience. I don’t in any way represent all freelancers in these opinions and would love to hear what other freelancers have to say about the advice I deem as mythical. If you’re just reading this post out of curiosity, do share it with a potentially lost soul.
Until next time, friends.