Becoming A Freelancer: 5 Steps For Making The Jump
What should you do if you’re considering becoming a freelancer? That’s one of the key questions I’ve received since my last update on my solopreneur / freelancer journey. As it turns out, there are hundreds, if not thousands of Ghanaians and Africans who have opted for or are considering the unconventional career of becoming a freelancer. After reading your emails and comments, and speaking to some of you in person, it’s evident many of us have shared experiences and concerns. More importantly, we needed a support system or community. Enter Freelancers Africa, a Facebook group which hopefully will offer some of the insights, tips, and support that we all crave as freelancers in Africa. A good number of you are still in the “considering freelancing” or “just started” phase – one which be exciting yet confusing and wrought with fear and doubt, especially if it means leaving a job. Let me assure you: you’re not crazy. I experienced the same. How do you prepare for becoming a freelancer? Here are some thoughts.
Ask Yourself Why
If you read enough of my articles, this one should be a no brainer: ask yourself why exactly you want to become a freelancer. Are you bored out of your mind at your day job? Do you feel like you’re missing your calling? Do you just need a vacation or new responsibilities at work? Are you in need of a more flexible schedule? Just curious? Don’t like being told what to do? Looking to craft your career and life? People opt for freelancing for many different reasons and usually it’s not just one thing, but rather a mix of reasons. In my case, I wanted to dedicate myself to growing Circumspecte and exploring the possibilities – something I’d promised myself I would do. I also wanted more creative leeway and flexibility career-wise.
I don’t belong here, I’m not qualified enough, what am I doing? – ring a bell? Identifying your “why” in freelancing is important because it helps bring to structure to the largely unstructured freelancing waters. It will not only help you set a goal and craft a vision, it will also be the rudder that guides you during those bouts of “imposter syndrome”. It could also become the starting point for a business plan. If possible, write down exactly why you’re freelancing, what you seek to gain through it, and what you consider to be “success”. There are no wrong answers, so be as honest as possible. You could also take it a step further like I did, by recording yourself explaining why you’re doing this – hearing your own voice can be a great motivation when you feel like giving up or find yourself in a pool of tears. And yes, this has happened a few times.
I’d reckon a guess and say that you have a propensity for dreaming or imagining alternate realities if you’re considering freelancing. Unfortunately, the everyday facts of life aren’t fueled by dreams or passion alone. You have bills to pay and the fact that your income might come in spurts or periodically doesn’t excuse you from paying them. Be practical. Take stock of your financial situation – your existing and possible income stream(s), monthly bills, debts, other expenses. How much would you need to meet your financial obligations each day, week or month? Can you meet them if you don’t have a job for an entire month? At the bare minimum you should be able to cover your living costs, and if possible, save for those periods when business is slow. Because they will come.
All this is to say, don’t quit your job until you feel confident that you can live comfortably for at least six months to a year with no income coming in. Many people have a “side gig” while working full-time. This not only allows you to have a flow of income to start off as a freelancer, but is also an excellent time for researching and testing things out.
One insight I gained was also to overestimate how much one would need each month to account for the unexpected.Say for instance, I spend 1,000GHS a month on living expenses, I’ll assume I’ll be spending 1,500GHS monthly after I leave my job to cover any eventualities like price hikes or a downturn in the economy. I also back-saved to shore up income for the journey ahead. These are hard, and somewhat frightening questions, but questions that must be asked nonetheless. It’ll save you a lot of headaches down the road.
Research Before Becoming A Freelancer
Research is a powerful tool when it comes to transitions. True, you might not have a cookie cutter idea of what may come, but you’ll be more prepared – if nothing at all, mentally and emotionally. I started researching or exploring the idea of becoming a freelancer about a year before I actually decided. My go-to platforms were Entrepreneur.com, Fast Company, and The Daily Worth and they have remained valuable resources through this experience. You may also find very pertinent insights on Medium or just through a Google search. Aside from doing desktop research, it might be helpful to speak to people who are already on the journey you hope to undertake: freelancers and entrepreneurs.
Don’t know anyone? Join groups related to freelancing and freelancers on social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn. You could also explore dedicated freelancing platforms like Upwork, Elance and Freelancer which offer resources to freelancers (some at a fee). You may also consider seeking out career events that explore the future of work; you will not only gain important insights, but could also meet other freelancers who could serve as resource persons. Finally, try as much as possible to tailor your research to your specific industry or skill sets – for instance, web design, writing. The freelancing landscape could be very different depending on the service to be delivered or the skill sets you’d be leveraging.
Network & Work on Your Brand
About 70% of my freelancing jobs have been through referrals. And I haven’t even developed my personal website jabdulai.com yet. How did that happen? I nurture my networks and try to add value whenever I can. In our part of the world, networking – or “connections” as we call it – is that thing we do when we need a job or opportunity yesterday. Many of us wait until the very last minute to reach out to our networks. Doing that comes off as ingenuous, and worse, parasitic. Nobody likes to be used. digital marketing maven Gary Vee, my mentor a la distance, has a philosophy he calls” jab, jab, jab, right hook”. In layman language that translates to “give, give, give, then ask”. The essence of it all is adding value. Add value to and nurture your network and I promise you, it will pay back a thousand fold. Think you don’t have a network? Think again.
Your family, classmates, colleagues, friends, social media followers – they all constitute your network. There is at least one thing that has drawn them into your network – birds of the same feather. For instance, they are either people who have a/ similar interests as we do (classmates, followers) b/ are where we hope to be one day (mentors, role models) c/ care about us or d/ have a general sense of who we are (family and friends). What value are you bringing them? What do they know or come to you for? The answers to those two questions will give you a sense of your brand and consequently, some of your skills, strengths, and even weaknesses. Why is this important? Referrals. People refer people they can identify with x problem, solution, opportunity – the more people identify you as their go-to for something, the more likely they are to refer you. Of course, there’s also a science to branding oneself and networking effectively in digital era, some of which I cover in Circumspecte’s personalized trainings. Ultimately it boils down to two things: ask yourself why you’re doing this (determine just how committed you are) and nurture your networks by adding value.
Now you may find this one surprising, but it’s quite important. Give yourself a timeline to make a decision and make sure you factor in telling your family and close friends. Even the ones who “get” and love us the most might have a hard time understanding why you’re considering becoming a freelancer. Having a candid conversation with your parents, guardian, significant other, friends about your motivations and reasons for doing so can go a long way in helping them come to terms with the possibility. Remember, you have had more time to get comfortable with the idea of unstructured work and inconsistent pay, allow them the same luxury. The decision might be yours, but the reality is that it might affect them as well – if not financially, then emotionally and mentally from worrying about you. Try not to take their hesitation or skepticism personally – you’ve had your doubts as well, or will from time to time. Be kind. You might even be surprised that the feedback they give could steer you towards success if you do decide to freelance.
If you’re in the corporate world, you will have to factor in company procedure regarding job or contract termination as many require a few months notice. Another thing that may be useful is putting feelers out on the freelancer or consulting market, what skills are needed and what opportunities exist. One way to do that is to sign up for consultant job mailing lists relevant to your industry or simply, editing your LinkedIn profile so it shows you’re interested in opportunities.
As with most things in life, freelancing is by no means a “one size fits all”. Some elements of what I’ve shared may resonate with you, while others may not. At the very minimum, I hope this series lets you know you’re not alone. Got other tips for freelancers starting out? Leave a comment below. Have other questions or relevant experiences to share? Consider joining the Freelance Africa group on Facebook.