Dear Lifetise: I’m a freelancer and I’m anxious all the time about money

Dear Lifetise,

I’m a 28 year old woman, living in London in a flatshare with friends. I’ve been working as a freelance digital marketer for the past 8 months. I always thought that I would love to be freelance. I thought that the variety of work would really suit me and I liked the idea of being able to work from anywhere. But I’m struggling. I can’t seem to get enough regular work to always have enough to cover my expenses every month, even though I’ve cut right down on things like going out. I feel like I spend loads of time trying to get work and on admin, but not enough on actual paid work.

I see other people who are doing really well as freelancers and I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I’m anxious all the time about whether I’m going to have enough to pay my share of rent and bills. I keep pretending to my flatmates that I’m really enjoying it, because I don’t want them to worry about me. My parents don’t have much money, so I can’t ask them for help and anyway, I’d be embarrassed – they thought I was crazy to give up my last job to go freelance, so I don’t want them to know that I’m having such a hard time. I’m seriously thinking of giving up and trying to find a job, but then I’m worried about how I’ll explain what I’ve been doing these past months.

Please help.

Fragile Freelancer

Dear Fragile,

Woah, there’s a lot to unpack here. I can actually feel your anxiety fizzing off the page! I get the sense that you feel that the ground is unstable beneath your feet, so let’s see if we can give you some firmer foundations.

Freelancing takes at least a year to find your rhythm

I know that, unless you’re really lucky, switching to freelancing from a regular job, with a regular, monthly salary feels pretty awful at the beginning. Once you move past the honeymoon phase of sleeping in, spending your former commute time watching trash TV, and making elaborate breakfasts. It can feel pretty lonely and bleak. Particularly around payday. No more payday drinks for you. Just that gnawing feeling of anxiety as you watch your bank balance dwindle.

In my experience, it takes at least a year of full-time freelancing before you get close to finding your rhythm. In that time, your goal is to have identified how many clients and how many projects you need every quarter, to give you enough money to live on, with a buffer. Trying to forecast over a whole year is impossible. Only doing it month to month feels too precarious. A 3-month plan gives you some stability, so aim for that. In terms of your buffer – at the beginning, you want to try to build up one month’s expenses in savings, so you know that you can cover a lean month. Then build on that over time.

So go through your earnings for the past 8 months. Work out which are your ‘little and often’ clients who give you regular, smaller projects and which are your ‘big fish’ clients who give you bigger projects, but where you expect to get only a couple of projects a year. Now work out how much the average ‘little and often’ and ‘big fish’ project is worth to you.

Next, calculate how many ‘little and oftens’ and how many ‘big fishes’ you will need each month to cover your expenses, plus give you the one month buffer. This is your baseline business plan. This is the minimum number of clients and the type/value of projects that you need to bring in each month.

Sweat your network

You don’t mention what you’ve been doing so far to find work, but the most successful freelancers do one thing really, really well, and that’s sweat their network. I don’t mean that you need to go out and do loads of networking events. No-one (ok, no-one except maybe sales people) likes networking events. They are soul-sucking pits of small talk and desperation.

I mean that you need to look at everyone you’ve ever worked with as a potential client. I’m going to assume that you’re a competent digital marketer, so you have skills that people want to hire. You need to go through LinkedIn hunting down people that you know and connecting with them. Make sure your profile is up-to-date and, if possible, has endorsements for your skills. Set aside 30 mins first thing every morning to send messages to people (you have anxiety, you need to do this right away before the fear has kicked in and talked you out of it). A short, template message that says that you are freelance now and you’re available to hire.

You need to do at least 5 a day. Don’t think about them, just bang them out. You’re a little robot doing a mechanical task. You don’t need to worry about whether anyone responds. Or whether they like you. Or any other thoughts about how the recipient might feel about your message. Your job is just to send the message.

Ask for referrals

With your closest network (your friends, bosses and close colleagues from previous jobs) – you need to ask for referrals. Yep, that’s right. All those colleagues that your ego really, truly hopes think very highly of you and so tells you that you must not, under any circumstances, show any vulnerability in front of – that’s the group that you need to tap up for clients. If you want to have a genuine freelance business, rather than the meagre pickings you’ve been making do with so far, then you’re going to need to start selling your digital marketing business and stop worrying about what people think about you as a person.

Good news is, it’s much easier when you separate yourself from your work. There’s no pressure on either of you when you send an email saying “Hey Alice, I’m not sure if you heard, but I’ve set up my own business doing [describe business]. I’m mainly working with [describe types of] clients. If you know of anyone who is looking to hire [describe business], I’d be grateful if you would let them know about me. Here’s a link to my [site/LinkedIn profile]. I hope all is well with you”  Alice is a grown-up. Alice has presumably had emails like this before. Alice will either respond (maybe with a client referral, maybe not), or she won’t. Either way, you’ve done your job just by getting in touch.

And by the way, that network you’re sweating includes your flatmates. Stop pretending that everything’s hunky dory. Tell them the truth (they probably know already, people tend to notice when you’re in your pyjamas every day and you’re slow to buy a round of drinks). At best, they might be able to refer some work to you. At worst, you’ll get some much-needed emotional support.

Get your prices right

Newbie freelancers always make the mistake of setting their prices based on the amount of time they forecast they’ll spend doing the client work. They basically take their last salary and divide it into hours and then that’s what they charge as an hourly rate. And that’s a terrible way to set your prices.

You’ll never make enough money that way, because you haven’t built in any fat. To get the same salary, you’ll need to work every damn hour of the work day, you’ll never be able to take any time off and you’ll burn yourself out.

You need to factor in the time it takes you to win new work, all the to-ing and fro-ing time with clients, and all the freelance admin (billing, chasing invoices etc). Plus, you need to set your rates based on the value that you provide to clients, not just the time you spend on doing the work. Repeat after me: “I am not a commodity.”

If, like a lot of Brits, you are hideously uncomfortable about asking for money, you need to listen to the advice in this podcast, from 7m30. There’s nothing like working out how much money you’re leaving on the table just to avoid having a 5 minute uncomfortable conversation, to snap you out of any awkwardness. And read our articles here and here on getting paid properly.

There’s no shame in going back to a regular job

Finally, if you look at all of this advice and the mere idea of doing any of it makes you feel sick, then take that as a sign that you’d be more comfortable working for someone else (at least for the time being). Be compassionate to yourself. There’s no shame in trying something and finding that it’s not the right fit. There’s no stigma in telling an interviewer that you tried freelancing but found that you missed being part of a bigger team or organisation. A lot of the anxiety you’re feeling now comes from thinking that it’s all on you to fix your situation and that you should be doing better. That’s bullshit. At any time, you’re just doing the best you can and if the freelance life doesn’t work out, that’s ok. It’s just another part of your career experience that you’ll bring back into your next role.

Good luck!

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