When I read Dave Smyth’s article What Is Undercharging?, I hoped there would be a magical solution for charging the perfect amount. Instead, it reassured me that I’m not alone trying to determine whether I’m freelancing the right way.
Month to month, year to year, it seems that freelancers are constantly trying to figure out what works best for them. What makes them happiest? What earns them the most money? What platform gleans the most clients? What is the perfect number of hours to work?
How do you freelance correctly?
This isn’t a blog post that will give you the right answer or even the best answer. This is an article that outlines exactly what one freelancer did in non-billable hours in January 2019. In an effort to determine my own self-worth, I hope it helps you, too.
How I Spent My Time Last Month
As I mentioned previously, I started tracking as much as possible, including non-billable hours. I do this to remind myself that even though I’m not getting paid for certain tasks (like writing this blog), I’m still working.
In January 2019, I worked a total of 118.87 hours. Here are some of the non-billable tasks that I track:
Finance/accounting: For adding up my hours, creating invoices, sending invoices, talking with my accountant, and managing any other money-related tasks. Total time in January: 1.22 hours
Graphic design: For tasks such as designing coupons for my services or graphics for my website. Total time in January: 1.91 hours
Job applications/networking/research: Includes consultations, phone calls, coffee meetings, researching leads, drafting proposals, and intentional social networking. I know some people charge for consultations and creating proposals, but I don’t (though I’m considering it). Total time in January: 17.62 hours
Training: For online courses, tutorials, live broadcasts, and reading anything that I consider professional development. Total time in January: 0.55 hours (not enough!)
Writing/blogging: For writing blog posts and updating my website. Total time in January: 10.72 hours
Planning with IWNG: I genuinely enjoy working with the International Women’s Networking Group Rotterdam, and it’s growing in a very exciting way! I value my time with IWNG, but at the moment, these aren’t billable hours. Total time in January: 33.46 hours
I worked a total of 65.48 non-billable hours in January. Another way of looking at it: I will not be paid for 55% of the hours I worked in January.
Is This the Best Way to Work?
At first glance, that seems like a harsh reality to accept. But look at those numbers again: I worked a total of 118.87 hours in the month of January.
In order to earn full-time pay, a person has to work 40 hours per week (at least in the States), which totals 160 hours per month. But those 40 hours aren’t full of meaningful work. Even for a part-time employee, every hour of scheduled work isn’t always packed with tasks that directly make money.
Before freelancing, full-time work was the only type of work I knew. I still compare myself to that standard, but I’m trying to change that mindset.
For example, I spent 33.46 hours working on IWNG affairs. We planned an incredibly successful event, and as a result, I’ve made some great personal and professional connections. That kind of self-investment is incredibly valuable to my career as a freelancer.
As great as it would be to be paid for all 118.87 hours at my current rate, I’m still happy with the balance I achieved.
So…am I undercharging?
Short answer: probably.
In regards to Dave Smyth’s article on Work Notes, my paid/unpaid balance seems to be in line with what he sees as his golden standard for sanity and happiness that also pays the bills.
The rates I charge (that anyone charges) account for education, experience, materials (including software subscriptions), time, expertise…the factors are endless.
But this is where talking to other freelancers has been extremely helpful. We talk about our areas of expertise, what skills we want to build on, what our strengths are, and how we each balance our workloads best.
While I “figured out” the work hours trick, I now have to determine what I should charge, which will lead to ultimate happiness! Easy enough, right?
Interested in getting to know me? Want to share struggles, ideas, or questions? Let’s talk.
In 2018, I made two major life changes: I moved to Rotterdam, and I started my career as a freelance marketing consultant. (Because why make only one stressful change when you can make two?)
For years I have read a plethora of articles, listened to a variety of podcasts, and followed some informative yet entertaining bloggers, always trying to learn about (and prepare for?) freelancing. Spoiler alert: nothing can prepare you for the freelancing life.
Regardless of that fact, I still want to share my experience, with hopes that it either eases you into your freelancing career, or that it provides comfort to you if you’ve already taken the plunge.
1. Being an independent worker isn’t the same thing as working alone.
Previously I decided this was the hardest thing I’d experienced as a freelancer. As a full-time employee at a company, I prided myself as someone who could be trusted to get the job done, with or without help.
This is certainly an important trait for a freelancer, but it isn’t quite the same experience. At a company, I was able to lean on other team members and ask questions if I didn’t have all the answers. But as a freelancer, I find I’m the only one around with any answers – otherwise, why would I be confident enough to freelance?
Additionally, as an independent worker, I could still talk with my colleagues and brainstorm with them whenever I needed. And while there are Twitter chats, co-working spaces, and Meetups, I haven’t yet found a true substitution for workplace camaraderie.
And maybe that’s just something I left behind at the standard workplace. But in place of workplace camaraderie, I enjoy late morning fitness classes and casual networking lunches. Not the worst trade-off.
2. I want to continue building my network, both on- and offline.
I’m a gregarious, extroverted woman, so human interaction is a strength of mine. While I may be hesitant when entering a room full of people chatting, I can usually overcome my shyness (especially when food and beverages are present). And because I genuinely enjoy listening to people, I can better identify how to meet their needs in person, rather than reaching out over the internet or even the phone.
I find it’s also harder for people to say no when they have to say it to your face.
It may not work for everyone, but if having a “perfect” website and active social media aren’t converting, maybe you need to get out of the house, too.
3. The first clients will likely be people you’ve already met.
Work is always about who you know, regardless of whether you’re a freelancer or a paper pusher. It’s a reality many of us have faced when searching for full-time employment: if you don’t have a personal connection at the company, who knows if your CV was even read.
It’s hard to convince someone you’ve never met that you are capable of getting the job done, especially as a fresh freelancer. But if you already know someone who may need your services, reach out to them.
It’s much easier to continue building on a relationship that already exists, rather than laying down a brand new foundation. Your potential client already has a sense of who you are and what your work ethic is, so it takes less work to convince them to hire you.
That’s not to say it’s easy. It’s just easier than convincing a stranger that you – a brand new freelancer – can solve their problem.
4. The hustle never stops.
This is another piece of wisdom I heard constantly but had yet to fully grasp when I started. Training never stops. Networking never stops. Improving never stops.
I always have to be ready to make my pitch. I have to be conscious of everything I’m posting on various social media platforms. I am constantly searching for more opportunities while simultaneously balancing my plates.
I evaluate and re-evaluate what I charge compared to my costs. I determine which projects I will invest my time in, and which ones I can turn away. I prioritize my pitches based on my current motivation and level of knowledge.
I look for conferences or networking events to learn about a variety of industries. I send emails and follow up on those emails. I seek connections with people – online and in person – to learn tricks of the trade.
This may sound familiar to anyone working anywhere, but what makes full-time employment different from freelancing is that there is no one pushing you (me) to accomplish any of this other than myself. A company may enroll you in training and even cover the costs, or the business may send you to a conference with a few colleagues to open new accounts. As a freelancer, I’m a company of one.
Almost every waking hour of my day, I’m thinking about how I can be better. It’s exhausting, but just like the rewards that follow, it’s all part of the hustle.
5. I want to be better at evaluating a situation (and saying no).
It’s really hard to say no when you’re embarking on your freelancing career and want as much work as possible. But the truth is that you probably can’t do all of the work well.
We’ve all accepted an assignment or five that we didn’t love. Bills need to be paid. Portfolios need to grow. Experience needs to be gained.
Of course, turning down work is much easier said than done (like most things I’ve mentioned so far). I’ve read in books and on blogs about the importance of saying no. I’ve talked with other freelancers and friends about it.
But if a project or client just doesn’t quite feel right, you (I) need to learn how to let it go as smoothly as possible. This is where treating other freelancers as teammates can help.
6. Treat other freelancers as teammates, rather than competitors.
This is one that I’ve also read repeatedly, but didn’t embrace until recently. (Looking at you, #contentclubuk.)
When I first started freelancing, I wanted any and every potential lead that I could convert. I didn’t want to share too much of my skill knowledge with others because I was afraid they’d be better at it than I am.
Maybe they will be. And maybe that’s a good thing.
I found that, more often than not, a client needs more than just what they asked for. That may be due to the fact that I am a marketing consultant, so I invite people to ask me for more than just one problem to solve.
But depending on the size of the project, sometimes it’s just not possible to do all of the things well. Or maybe you have enough work. It’s important to recognize your strengths and weaknesses.
This is where other freelancers are valuable team members.
We all have areas of expertise or enthusiasm, and sometimes it’s worth your time and sanity to pass a lead to another freelancer – a win for everyone involved. And then maybe down the road, the favor is returned.
Or maybe a client approaches you with a big project: a marketing strategy that requires a social campaign, graphic design, copy writing, event promotion, and web support. While you could do all aspects of the project, maybe it’s worth bringing in an extra set of hands to achieve the best possible outcome.
And who knows – maybe you’ll achieve a sense of workplace camaraderie.
7. I tied my self worth to my employment status.
This was an unbearably painful realization I had around 5 months into freelancing.
I had been working for other people (companies) my whole professional life. Every weekday morning I woke up and knew exactly what I needed to accomplish that day at the office. At the end of the day, I usually felt like I had achieved those goals (regardless of whether I felt fulfilled).
After nearly 10 years of full-time employment, I still kept that routine. In 2018, I woke up every morning and thought “What do I need to accomplish today?”
And often times, I didn’t have an answer. I just knew I needed work.
I built a website. I searched for work opportunities. I asked family and friends to send out my CV. I joined Facebook groups. I listened to podcasts and read blogs. I completed online training. I attended conferences.
And while I had a handful of clients, it just didn’t feel like enough. My billable hours were nothing like what I was earning previously. I would remind myself that I wasn’t necessarily working meaningful hours as a full-time employee, but it didn’t alleviate the itching, creeping despair.
And as the days became weeks, and weeks became months, I was really struggling to explain to others (and myself) what, exactly, I was doing, and whether or not I even wanted to do it. I was so hungry for work. I was starving for more value.
I started to ask myself
“Am I worth anything?”
And that’s not a good place to be.
I believe in the value of hard work because it, in turn, has always made me feel valued. The key difference now? I have to grant that value to myself, instead of wait for someone else to define it for me.
In full-time employment, I could pin my value to the amount of invoices I created, the quantity of orders I fulfilled, the numbers of projects I completed, the hours I worked, or the revenue I brought into the company. I could list all of these things as reasons I am paid XX amount.
If I’m not doing any of that in a quantity I deem valuable, does that mean I’m a worthless employee for myself?
In the middle of 2018, I would’ve told you yes.
And even now, there are times I struggle to say no. I have to remind myself that there is so much more to being a freelancer than simply accomplishing the items on a daily checklist.
More than just giving myself worth, I have to decide what about myself is valuable.
To help me define my value, I started tracking all of my hours. Not just my billable hours, but the time I spend writing blogs, updating my website, networking, searching for clients, and even accounting. I don’t feel any of these activities give me value, but it’s been a helpful step towards finding it.
2018 was the year I decided to forge a new path for myself. One year later, I’m still building it, not even sure of where it’s going.
Becoming a freelancer is my first attempt at building a career path. I know it’s been done before, but not by me.
So this is my goal for 2019: to re-define my self worth, and use freelancing as a tool to find it. I’m ready to take ownership of this career path.
Interested in making me part of your own journey? Let’s chat!
As an extrovert, I have found that the hardest part about freelancing is being alone.
This may not seem like much of a revelation, but as someone who has always been proud to be an independent worker and self-motivator, this came as a shock to me.
Being independent is, of course, a very important aspect of working for yourself. But what makes it different from working for a company is that you have no team, no daily motivator other than yourself.
Freelancing: A Team of One
With almost every project I receive, I think to myself “What if the company did this instead?” or “If I include these elements in the graphic, it can be used all these ways throughout their marketing efforts!” or “Didn’t someone tell them that their logo doesn’t translate well in black-and-white?”
But that’s not my job as a freelancer. My job is to be a specialized outsider. My job is not to be part of the team. The company and their work will continue on without me once my project is finished.
That’s hard for me.
I want to give everything I can to a client because I want them to succeed. It doesn’t help either of us if their business isn’t the best it can be, right?
But I’m not supposed to do or be everything for them. It’s not what I’m hired for.
Setting Boundaries and Limits for Yourself
That mindset – it’s not my job – is a toxic way to work when part of a company. As an employee, you may be expected to do more than what was explicitly described in the job posting.
And why not? You’re part of a team, and sometimes the pitcher has to cover home plate to make the play.
But not as a freelancer. As a freelancer, that’s how you can get taken advantage of.
You are hired to create graphics for an annual report, but maybe the client also needs a photo or two to be edited. You’re already using Photoshop, so why not? Or maybe you are formatting the layout, and you notice a couple typos in their copy. It’s easy enough to just swap “they’re” for “their,” or to highlight the extra “s” at the end of a word for your client to review. Why should you allow for these errors?
But that’s how your work takes a wrong turn. You overreach into aspects of the project that aren’t your responsibility. You take it upon yourself to “fix” or “help” when you haven’t been asked. Or if you have been asked, you comply, because for whatever reason, it seems like a worse outcome to say no.
As a freelancer, you are hired as an outsider to complete a specific task. If another task requested, then you accept it only if the client agrees to pay for it. Alternatively, you discuss these options upfront so that an appropriate rate can be determined.
Often it seems the best outcome for everyone is to stay in your lane. As a freelancer, you’re the base runner that subs in for the player with a bad knee so that you can score the run. It’s a limited yet important job for the team.
And that’s OK. As long as you do your part and do it well, you can (and will) help the business achieve its goals.
I learned about Intermodal Europe 2018 while scrolling through my LinkedIn newsfeed. It was two days way – I knew I had to register!
I was only able to make it to one of three days of the conference, but I thoroughly enjoyed the the panels I attended. As someone who doesn’t currently work in the industry but wants to serve the industry, it was quite enlightening.
Change Is Coming to the Logistics Industry (or at least it should be)
I constantly heard that one of the main factors slowing progress is the resistance to technology and change.
Today, we can download an app to hail a cab and watch it approach our location, while also turning the heat on before we arrive and ordering food to be delivered to our home. In contrast, logistics companies can’t tell a customer where their shipment is or how it disappeared.
One speaker noted that one of the highlights of last year’s conference was a type of tracker that goes inside the shipping container. That was 2017.
Why hasn’t the industry progressed? Why does the supply chain seem to encounter the same problems it did 100 years ago?
The resistance to technology is not just a change of inertia – it’s also a fear of job losses. People are constantly afraid that artificial intelligence will replace them, rather than approaching it as a tool.
And this resistance to technology has ripple effects. The Women in Logistics panel highlighted not only the absence of women in the industry, but the absence of any interest from the upcoming workforce. Logistics and supply chain has not proven itself to be a forward-thinking industry compared to other fields currently embracing the unknown technological frontier.
While there is some innovation is coming from within the industry, other fields are also developing solutions for the inefficiencies of logistics.
Digital Platforms: Baby Steps into the 21st Century
I still find it shocking that the logistics industry hasn’t, as a whole, made the shift to digital platforms. How does anyone trust that their items will get from point A to B? How is anyone held accountable? How do companies stay competitive if they don’t have a user-friendly interface or website? Who has the time?
Companies like FreightBro offer great solutions for customers and freight forwarders to reduce their paper use, communication delays, and time spent connecting the dots. By centralizing all their freight operations in one application, companies and customers waste less time searching for solutions and create a better workflow.
But while digital platforms may help streamline administration, they do not address all the challenges facing the logistics industry.
Blockchain: Take the Plunge
Another universal sentiment seemed to be the need for collaboration. No one functions alone as part of the supply chain.
Dr. Rolf Neise echoed an idea that the Blocklabwhite paper also suggested: players in the logistics industry need to specialize or focus on what they do best.
Being really good at administrative tasks isn’t enough. Shouldn’t everyone be able to file paperwork correctly and communicate efficiently? By specializing in a field or aspect of the supply chain, a company can secure its position in the industry and prove its value as a partner.
Nico Wauters from T-Mining, Tom van Dijk from CGI, and Clinton Senkow from ShipChain were all passionate advocates for using blockchain to improve the supply chain. By implementing its technology, companies can shift their focus from “fire fighting” to providing premium customer service.
Currently, blockchain trials are being conducted in small, private networks. If (and when) the technology takes off and becomes commonplace in the industry, transactions and payments will be visible to everyone on the blockchain.
Building Trust within the Logistics Industry
Change isn’t easy for everyone. Blockchain is not only a change in a company’s workflow, but also its mindset. You have to trust others in the industry that they will make good choices, too.
Van Dijk said that blockchain is disruptive by creating a layer of trust between points on the supply chain. It seems like such a strange definition of “disruption,” but with the lack of visibility in the industry – another universal complaint – it’s easy to see how that trust between partners is not easily earned.
Sharing is Caring
As part of trust-building, some people call for data sharing. It feels risky – why would anyone want their competitors to know how well they move product?
Currently, everyone operates based on the information they are given and the data they produce. This, however, is an incomplete picture of the supply chain.
Thomas Bibette demonstrated how DCBrain is helping companies put their own data to practical use. But with more data available, new trends may reveal themselves, which may lead to better solutions, which may lead to less churn for you.
Without sharing data, it will be increasingly difficult to pin-point issues in the industry so that everyone can improve. Remember: no one functions alone in the supply chain. (At least, if you don’t want giants like Amazon and Alibaba putting you out of business.)
How to Get Decision Makers on Board
It’s the million-dollar question. From what I saw, it seems that many leaders in the industry are focused on making today’s sale, or on the number of shipping containers lost last week. It’s hard to plan for the future when there’s a fire that needs to be put out today.
As step one of his value-based 5-step method, van Dijk suggests starting with creating awareness among key stakeholders before experimenting and creating a pilot.
But how do we create awareness that will change the mindset of this ancient industry?
Through better visibility and more efficient means of communicating, some supply chain participants estimate they could reduce the steps taken to answer basic operational questions such as “where is my container” from 10 steps and five people to, with TradeLens, one step and one person.
One step with one person. The efficiency is almost unimaginable. Why would your company want to be left behind in this technological advancement?
These, however, are industry powerhouses. They have the resources to invest in this type of research and experimentation. The blockchain infrastructure doesn’t fully exist yet – it is still only comprised of private networks.
But even so, ShipChain is running pilot programs with Perdue and CaseStack, and has had its work recognized in the DHL white paper on blockchain and logistics. While these names, again, are heavy hitters, the growing investment and interest in the technology cannot be ignored.
As Senkow said, this is just the “dial-up” stage of blockchain. It has so much potential and there’s no denying that it will be here to stay.
At the moment, it seems that offering services at the lowest cost is everyone’s priority. With giants like Amazon and Walmart offering free shipping, it’s no wonder people expect low costs, regardless of quality of service.
But that just can’t be the case.
At the moment, clients may be willing to pay a low price for the risk of the item getting lost. But if you could guarantee that their product could be tracked all the way from point A to B with your stellar customer service, wouldn’t that be worth the risk of investment?
And, as I mentioned before, the future of logistics is also dependent on the type of talent that the industry attracts. Don’t you want the best and the brightest? Because as the logistics industry strands, it’s not looking very attractive.
Logistics is the backbone of the global economy. Why isn’t it a leader in advancement?
Interested in nerding out about supply chain logistics? Talk to me!
One of the hardest changes I’ve had to make since moving to Rotterdam is not having a compost bin. It breaks my heart to throw away my egg shells, my juicing scraps, my week-old flowers – anything that can be naturally broken down into soil, rather than trapped in a plastic garbage bag.
To the chagrin of my husband (and possibly my neighbors), I am experimenting with making a compost bin on our balcony. Alternatively, I am also tempted to casually scatter my bio waste among the green spaces in the city. (Just kidding…mostly.)
While it may be difficult for me as a resident to dispose of my green waste in a responsible fashion, businesses and entrepreneurs throughout Rotterdam are working towards creating a new economy, also known as a circular economy.
About BlueCity: The Circular Economy
Set up in an abandoned water park, BlueCity is working towards “Bringing Back Balance” by creating circuits of earth-friendly practices. Even its initial choice to re-purpose an abandoned water park set the tone for this incubator for innovation.
But it’s not your run-of-the-mill co-working workspace or collaborative offices. (Did the abandoned water park tip you off?)
Their vision is to create a no-waste economy, one that finds alternative uses for an industry’s waste, ideally coming full circle through various businesses. They want innovators – and the world – to produce waste that can be a building block, rather than unused potential.
BlueCity offers their space as a breeding ground for imagination. Here, businesses can test prototypes in a collaborative environment without fear of failure. It’s a space for trial, error, improvement, and eventually development of scalable solutions.
BlueCity’s space and resources have allowed a variety of businesses flourish. Rotterzwam designs countertop mushroom kits that use coffee grounds so that users can grow oyster mushrooms at home. Their materials are recycled plastic, cardboard, and used coffee grounds from their partner Moyee.
KEES makes clothes from residual and renewable materials, while also employing people who may not be considered “useful” otherwise. They fight fast fashion with their thoughtful designs and uncommon uses of materials. KEES then makes an effort to hire people who have been recipients of social assistance for long periods of time – those who may not have the skill sets to secure a long-term job, but have the drive to work.
Better Future Factory offers prototyping and design with recycled materials. It can be challenging to make upcycling sexy and practical, but if anyone is winning at it, it’s Better Future Factory. From perfume to tiles, they are quite literally reshaping industries. They’re even making glasses frames from pogs (or as they’re called in the Netherlands, Flippo’s).
Reducing our impact on the environment can feel daunting, or even hopeless. But knowing that there are people out there working really really hard to curb climate change makes me want to contribute, too.
Sorry not sorry neighbors – my composting experiment is here to stay.