In case you hadn’t heard, our professional lives are operating more and more in a gig-based economy. In fact, 15 million Americans are self-employed today—and recent estimates predict freelancers will make up 40 percent of the workforce within the next decade.
“Freelancer, consultant, contractor, business owner—whatever you call it, this type of work is on major uphill climb,” says Jill Jacinto, millennial career expert and associate director of communications for WORKS. It’s easy to see why. As Jacinto points out, freelance work offers flexibility and freedom. “You get to do what you love and are great at,” she describes. “You work on the projects that you pick, the clients you want to work with, and seek out the challenges you are craving. You also get to set your own hours and create a ‘flexible’ schedule.”
But before you strike out on your own, there are a few things to consider. Here are five questions you can ask yourself to size up whether you’re really ready to become a full-time freelancer.
1. Am I a saleswoman?
Whether you plan to launch a brand-new app or write a blog for a living, you have to be able to sell yourself in addition to your product or services. According to Jacinto, that means getting very comfortable doing self-promotion—by attending industry events, developing your network, and bragging on yourself and your abilities every chance you get. “If you don’t act as the public relations person and sales force for your business, who will?” Jacinto asks.
To successfully freelance, you have to be able to “push away feelings of shyness and imposter syndrome,” she says. And like anything else, it takes practice to sell yourself with ease. “Before your seek out full-time freelance work, actively practice being a self-promoter,” Jacinto says. “Start with reaching out to your network with coffee dates and emails, and see how comfortable you feel talking about your great work and business.”
2. Do I have the expertise needed to succeed?
In order to sell yourself, warns Miriam Salpeter, job search and social media strategist and owner of Keppie Careers, you have to have something others want to buy—experience or a competitive edge. “Ask yourself, will I be able to convince someone to hire me for the work I want to do?” says Salpeter. “If you don’t have competitive experience, which can vary from industry to industry, you will have a tough time landing gigs.”
At a recent panel about freelance work, an attendee asked Jacinto, “‘How do I display my freelance strategic consulting work if I have never done this before?'” she recalls. “At first, my fellow panelists thought this was a joke—but alas, it was a legitimate question. This person wanted to strike it out on her own into a field she had never worked in before.” While it’s possible to pursue work outside your wheelhouse, you must first make sure you possess transferable skills—and be willing to work for free or at a discount until you have built up the expertise you’ll need to charge for your services. In this scenario, “your first few clients are taking a risk hiring you,” Jacinto says. “And the point is to use them as brand builders and references.”
3. Is my personality suited for freelance work?
The woman who can’t resist chatting up her coworkers to the point of distraction might not be prepared for the isolation freelance work can bring—and someone who struggles to balance her own checkbook might not yet be disciplined enough to be her own boss. “Will you be lonely working independently all the time? Can you enjoy working in an environment where you’re the only one to solve the problems and celebrate the outcome? Are you willing to work 80 hours a week to avoid having to work 40?” Salpeter asks.
Be brutally honest with these answers—your career happiness could depend on them. “If your reply is no, working for yourself is probably not right for you,” Salpeter says. “If you’re easily distracted and don’t have good tools to keep yourself focused, it will be tough to work for yourself for the long term.”
4. What are my business-building skills?
In addition to determining whether you’ve got the expertise and personality skills (like endurance and self-discipline) to work as a freelancer, you’ll also want to figure out if you’re prepared to do the work of an entrepreneur. That means taking on everything from balancing the books to fixing technological snafus. “Unless you have a budget to immediately hire someone to help you—or a great network of friends willing to help out for free—you won’t be able to call on someone to help fix the printer every time it gets glitch-y or rely on an administrative assistant to help you get your work done,” Salpeter points out.
Jacinto points out that there are products—FreshBooks and Bonsai are two good ones—that can help you with budgets and other office paperwork. “But you will still need to be responsible for all of it,” she says. “See how well you manage this on the side before you go in full time. Paperwork and budgets only get more stressful and time consuming if you become a full-time freelancer. Will this be a deal-breaker for you?”
5. What financial shape am I in?
When it comes to freelancing, what you have in the bank matters. Says Salpeter, “If you’re lucky enough to have help with your expenses—for example, you have a partner with a traditional job to help cover you, or a trust fund—it’s easier to make a jump to freelance.” But if you’re on your own, you’ll want to make sure you have several months’ worth of saving in the bank before you put in your two weeks’ notice.
That savings is incredibly important because, as a freelancer, there will be times when you’re not sure when your next check will come in. “We’ve been conditioned to receiving a dependable check two times a month,” Jacinto says. “But when you’re a freelancer, that check could come in a week, a month, or three months, and it is very hard to create the same type of stability you once had working for a nine-to-five.”
Jacinto points out that you could also make $20,000 in a single month, only to see no new business for the next two months. “Don’t count on always receiving that high figure,” says Jacinto. “Can you handle the stress of living paycheck to paycheck, staying attached to your budget scrambling when finances get low? If the answer is no, then freelancing full-time most likely isn’t for you.”
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