Freelance versus full-time
People often ask me if I’ll ever go back to a full-time job, and I respond with an enthusiastic NO as I smile. But just because that’s my response, doesn’t mean it’s the best path for everyone. There are pros and cons to both sides, and in the world we live in today we’re not always limited to one or the other. I wanted to put this post together to provide some food for thought for those thinking of making a switch.
Let me assure you, there is so much I wish I would have known when starting out, but had to learn the hard way. (It’s also part of the reason I started my biz blog). Hopefully you can skip one or two stages of agony with something you can pick up from this post. ;)
The biggest perk of freelancing for me is the freedom to set my own time, choosing which projects I work on, and being in the drivers seat. With this comes the uncertainty of what is coming next. One friend taught me to trust it will all work out, and so far it has (but that doesn’t not mean sitting in front of the inbox waiting for the next opportunity to come in; it involves some work behind the scenes). I enjoy not knowing what is next most of the time. But I also don’t have a family or a mortgage to support.
In the French system I do better financially as a freelancer than I would as a full time employee. (Paris may look dreamy from the outside, but the reality is salaries are low). I deal with enough bureaucracy in my day to day, I (personally) can’t always handle the inner politics of office hierarchy and dynamics. I’m too much a rebel and want to keep pushing things forward. For me, that means having one foot in both worlds. The opportunity to do great work, while also being my own boss at the end of the day.
For the past several years I’ve actually been a “faux freelancer” (I made that term up). While I run everything through my own business, I had a steady client for 3.5 years, and then another project that was 1.5 year. Besides not getting the benefits of being a full time employee, I tend to embed myself with the team I’m working with—I’m just not there every day. The main difference is that I send an invoice every month, while everyone else is on payroll. Neither gig was meant to last that long when I started, but it’s how it happened.
For some people this may stress them out, but I liked that it allowed me to pursue other things on the side. My tours have always been a way for me to unplug from my computer and connect with people (and get paid for it). I also have passive income coming in every month from my Skillshare courses (here, here, here) that I created 5+ years ago. (I’m not saying run and teach an online course—I got in at the right time—but it helps to consider alternative income streams as well). Thanks to my blog I often have interesting opportunities come my way, so keeping my independent contractor / freelance status makes it easier to say yes to what comes my way without having to ask permission from a boss.
Personally, I find I thrive and have better balance from working on a range of projects and clients. Every project benefits from what I have learned from another one. And it constantly keeps me on my toes—learning and growing. I’d definitely be bored if I was doing the same thing every day. I love a good challenge. I also love the insider/outsider perspective I can bring to a project. Sometimes when we’re too deep in a subject we go blind to the real problem we’re trying to solve.
While I created a lifestyle that allowed for this freedom and flexibility through my long term, regular gigs, at the end of the day I didn’t always have brain power to work on my own projects. For my latest gig I was contracted for 3-4 days a week, but the nature of the project took a lot out of me. It meant I learned A TON, but I also needed more down time to recover. Also, often life feels like a full-time job, so there wasn’t much time life to pursue other things at the end of the day. Self-care trumped intention, which was an important lesson to learn early on.
That’s the thing about freelance. You have to have discipline. There’s no one checking in on you. You can sleep in, or stay up late, but you still have to get the job done. I used to be a night owl, but I found most of my day was spent feeling guilt for not getting things done and having a crappy start because I kept making excuses and snoozing. It took me 7 years, but I’ve been more proactive at integrating good habits, starting with my morning practice where I feed my blogs (the activity that inevitably got pushed aside for years, yet has been the biggest driver of my success).
It’s really easy to talk about doing something; it’s another to actually do it. You’re in charge of your priorities, which can be easier said than done at times—especially as certain factors are out of your control, or you work on a different schedule than your client.
The thing about freelancing (or as I like to think of it now, as running my own business) is that the little things that you assume will happen don’t: getting paid by clients (cash flow is a real concern for many), managing accounting (hire an accountant if you do nothing else!), paying taxes + sales tax, handling business regulations and social charges (gah, what was that 10k€ bill that hit me!), receiving timely responses from clients, the list goes on. No one is there to hold your hand. You have to educate yourself as you go. The learning cycle never ends when you’re running your own show. (Finding others in the same situation is essential.)
From the outside freelancing can look glamorous, but on the flip side it’s not what many people expect. There’s a learning curve. There’s a lonely curve. Hello, lack of human interaction (“freelance therapy” Skype calls with friends in the same boat saved me in my early years). And most of the time clients don't just come knocking down your door, no matter how awesome you and the work you’re doing. They may want to, but budgets aren’t always there. Or they could have used you, but didn’t think of you at the time. Or the urgent thing turns out not to be so urgent. As a freelancer, you have to feed the future and you’re often juggling many hats in hopes that something works.
When it does stick, it snowballs (in a good way). You learn from each experience. You build your relationships (the real way you get clients). You build your client list. You pick up important lessons in professionalism. You learn to finally take holidays away from your computer.
If there’s any advice I can leave you with is to be open to learning. No one is born knowing it all. And if you don’t know how to do something, learn it, or find an expert/professional who can help you. When you take a business seriously, others will take you seriously too.
You also don’t have to make the jump all at once. Try freelancing on the side to see if it’s something you actually enjoy. It’s not for everyone, so don’t force it. Figure out what works for you. You may even go back and forth throughout your career.
This post isn’t to say I wouldn’t ever go back to full-time. If circumstances changed, or the perfect opportunity came along maybe I’d consider it. I’ve found that every time I’ve said I’d never do something, sometimes changing my plan of action was the more rewarding outcome. I said I’d never get a Masters degree, but I went on to get two. I liked one of the Masters programs because I didn’t have to write a thesis. But I did write a thesis, which was 100% the right challenge for me at the time.
As life goes, you never know what the future will hold. But I think it’s important to unpack the freelance vs. full-time thing a bit more. Talk to people. Ask questions. Read books. Listen to podcasts. Take it all in.
My current focus is developing my own business. For me, that involves taking on big (corporate) and small (individual) clients. It means the best of both worlds. They both come with different challenges and factors that I hadn’t considered at first. There’s not one way of doing anything, and for me, that’s what the freelance side allows. Success doesn’t happen over night, but patience and hard work pay off.
What are your goals? Why do you want to go freelance/full-time? What does success look like to you? What scares you most? When/how do you create your best work?
Share your responses in the comments and I’ll do my best to share any resources, thoughts, or ideas to help you on your journey.
Having a steady/primary client is one way to relieve the load of uncertainty.
Passive income eases the pressure of having regular clients.
For some, running your own business may be lonely or isolating compared to an office job.
There’s a learning curve to starting your own business: educate yourself!
You don’t have to make the leap all at once, if you can start freelancing on the side while you’re still working full-time you can make sure you actually enjoy it.
Good habits go a long way in getting things done.
Self-care is essential to be a successful freelancer or small business owner.
Find others who are in a similar transition or business status so you can navigate the waters together.
Work with a professionals (probably an accountant) to make sure your biz is legit. It may seem like an unnecessary expense at first, but will save you your sanity (and a lot of time)!
Building and fostering relationships are essential to good business.
Figure out what works for you and how you work best.