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 can’t stop thinking about how I botched an assignment.
I know it’s not popular or common to talk out loud about your own shortcomings or how you failed at your job. While internet memes and online articles tell us to embrace failure as a learning opportunity, is seems we are rarely encouraged to actually share these shortcomings.
So, at the risk of deterring you from reading further, I want to tell you how I recently failed, and what I learned from it.
I didn’t deliver the product the client wanted. I struggled to communicate what their business was about. I realized afterwards what I was missing: the story.
The Story of How I Failed
The client’s business had changed its direction since it first started, and they needed to update their website.
In a meeting, they described the business as it currently existed and what they were trying to achieve. They wanted the copy to walk a fine line between corporate and familiar – refined but still a little sexy.
Sexy B2B copy? Quick, witty, punny, smart – those are corporate tones I love to play with. But sexy? For whatever reason I was so hung up on this idea. In draft after draft, defining this tone became my primary objective.
And that was my big mistake. I was too focused on how to shape this voice. I felt so lost in this goal that I ended up creating copy that
wasn’t sexy; and
didn’t sound like me or the company at all.
It wasn’t until after I spoke with someone else in the company about how the business started that I realized this copy was all wrong. Had I just focused on telling the story from beginning to now, I would have naturally found its voice.
I was so involved with nearly re-branding the business that I lost sight of the goal: to communicate what the client wants customers to know about their business.
What I Learned
Writing good copy is important, but the craft shouldn’t distract from the goal. I took it upon myself to design a brand new voice for the client when they didn’t need one.
I also need to allow space for the story to speak for itself: leave out the flowery language and clever wordplay. More often than not, simple and straight-forward is the best way to go.
And while I usually embrace this method of writing, I was trying too hard to write something new, to be something that isn’t myself, and that’s not why I was hired.
The other important thing I’ve taken away from this experience? Being myself is the best thing I can be. That’s why I was hired in the first place. Had I just written the way I normally write, the client and I would have worked together to revise it, and the right voice would have emerged.
There’s just no sense in trying to be something I’m not when I’m hired to be me.
If I haven’t already scared you away, you should know this: I pride myself on being a good listener. It’s what I enjoy about copy writing – listening to what people have to say, and then translating it into what they need.
That’s what I want to do for you. Sometimes it’s not enough to tell your audience about the problem you solved with your product – you also have to tell them about where you’re going next and what you can do for them. Here’s how I help you do it.