During my time as a freelancer, I interviewed Donald Trump, took a ride in a WWII-era bomber, and bumped knees with a convicted killer in a top-security prison in New Jersey. I also sat through boring meetings and poured over pages of notes, looking for something — anything — to write that would get me paid for my time.
I worked freelance jobs for nearly a decade. Stuffing them into the nooks and crannies left over from my other, full-time occupation — chief caregiver for my two young kids.
For years, my day-to-day life had a certain Dr. Jekyll/ Mrs. Hyde quality. I was just another stay-at-home mom when I was with the crowd at the playground. I was a reporter with a long list of questions when I was on the phone or in meetings with politicians.
I loved it. And, I learned a few things about staying productive as I cranked out five news stories a week along with countless clean loads of laundry, bedtime stories, and peanut butter sandwiches.
Lesson One: Product is Paramount.
Freelancers have to be mindful, always, of the importance of product. Money comes in when you produce, not when you show up; not when you try. It’s the product that gets you paid. (FYI: this is true even if you are paid on an hourly basis. When your time is tied very closely to a specific need or goal within an organization, your value to the company will be assessed by whether or not you produce something valuable.)
If a project is fun, it’s easy to get caught up in the process, spending more time than is necessary on the task. There’s nothing wrong with investing extra time if you are working for recreational purposes, but, if actual payment is your goal, you have to keep your eye on the time you spend and make sure that the price you have set for the project will offset the time you invest.
If a project is boring, it’s easy to push it to the end of the list, delaying product completion, and thus, payment, just because it’s not a very fun task.
There is something about working for yourself as a freelancer that elevates the idea of fulfilling and enjoyable work. If you let those ideas take center stage, you could easily quit producing things that aren’t fun. Lack of product will impact your bottom line.
Lesson Two: Your Time is Valuable. Price it Accordingly.
As a freelancer, it’s easy to low-ball your prices, especially at the beginning. You might be staring at a blank schedule and a mailbox full of bills, nervous that you won’t be able to make enough money to stay afloat. Or you might be wondering what to do with yourself during the hours you set aside for work if there’s no work to be done.
Remember: Time spent working is time that you won’t be able to spend somewhere else. When you work, you lose access, forever, to minutes and hours of your life. When you consider your prices, make sure you ask yourself if you will make enough to justify the lost opportunity. It’s also important to price your time high enough to pay any expenses you incur to get the job done, pay the relevant taxes, and meet your costs of doing business.
Lesson Three: Take Tools Seriously
Freelancing does not mean unprofessional, unprepared, or ill-equipped. The people you work for want you to get the job done as well or better than a full-time employee with an unlimited expense account. This is true even if they are paying you at bargain basement prices.
Don’t expect to get any special consideration if you did a job poorly because you lacked the tools to do it well. And, don’t expect to be paid for the extra time you spent doing something with an inappropriate tool. If you were a freelance wood-cutter, you would be expected to show up with a sharp ax. Choosing to do the job with a steak knife wouldn’t entitle you to more money, but it would cost you much, much more in time and effort.
The same is true for every other type of freelance work. The right tools will save you time and make you money. The best tools will serve as productivity force multipliers. Spend as much as you can to get what you need and never stop investing in tools.
Think I’m being over zealous? Imagine showing up for your wood-cutting job, but instead of the industry standard sharp ax, you have a brand new chain saw. Your productivity and your product will increase exponentially. And, you’ll gain a reputation as the best darn wood-cutter in the forest.
When investing in tools, there are two types to consider. Tools that help you to get the job done, and tools that help you to get paid for the jobs you’ve done.
AND CO is an example of the latter. It’s a tool suite dedicated to simplifying the process of getting paid. Having a system in place for invoicing, payment tracking, and tax compliance is essential to successful freelancing. In many cases, these types tasks fall outside of the primary skillset of a freelancer. If you aren’t an accounting specialist, it will probably be more efficient for you to find a person or tool to handle the financial nitty-gritty for you.
Canva is an example of a tool that has helped me get job-related tasks done. After I left the journalism world, I freelanced as a content marketer. At first, I used Photoshop along with iStock photos to design memes and edit images for clients.
But Photoshop was a bit clunky for the work I did, and combined with iStock photos, it was also an expensive solution. Canva, however, offered just what I needed for much less money. Using it, I could create memes in much less time, and it’s open access to appropriately-licensed photos for $1 each was a time and money saver.
Canva was the right tool, and it helped me get the job done more efficiently.
Lesson four: Don’t Reveal the Secret Recipe
In my experience, the best tools, have a way of democratizing a skill. Why use a tool developed for graphic designers when a cheaper, tech-based option could get the job done? Why code a website from scratch when WordPress and a few plug-ins can produce a similar result in much less time?
The problem is, if a tool can make me much more efficient, it can do that same thing for others. If I tell my clients the tools I use in my work for them, they may just send a memo to an employee, and my job will go away.
I think it’s important to treat knowledge of time-saving tools as a trade secret. Part of the value you offer is knowing the best tool to use for a job. Your knowledge is valuable, and you don’t have to give it away for free.
I work full-time for BuzzSumo now, and one thing I love about the product is how accessible it is. The tool analyzes content to help marketers learn about what appeals to their audiences most. One feature provides a non-branded report detailing the preferred content length, format and network for a topic and website. And we offer AND CO members a discount you might want to check out.
If I were working as a freelance content marketer, I would run reports like this for each new client, analyzing their website, and their industry. I would not tell them that the analysis was done by a tool I paid $99 to access. The secret sauce is a family treasure! Keep it that way.
Lesson Five: Know When to Sprint and When to Pace Yourself for a Marathon
One of the most disorienting things for new freelancers is the ebb and flow that comes with contract work. Jobs don’t always come your way at optimum times, nor do they always space themselves out like airplanes lining up for an orderly take-off.
I found that understanding and committing to intense seasons of work could boost my bottom line. I also found that trying to work until 1 a.m. and get up at 6 a.m. was not a sustainable long-term path for me.
I have learned that I can sprint for about 2 weeks maximum, then I need to back off and work less. If I don’t, quality suffers–my quality of life, my family’s quality of life, and the quality of my writing.
Freelancers need to learn what their sprint pace looks like and what their marathon pace looks like. And, they need to know when to use each work pattern.
I would sprint during election seasons, interviewing candidates, writing up to 10 articles a week, double my usual 5. But, at the end of the election season, I would back off, creating less stories for a week or two while I caught up with the rest of my life.
The total for the month would be around 26 articles, a net increase of 6 for the month.
If I had kept up the crazy pace for too long, I would have eventually crashed, and just taken a week or two off writing, lowering my net output, and thus my paycheck for the month or the quarter.
Sprints are also a great way to broaden the depth of your resume. If you are working one job at a regular pace, you can throw in another gig or two if the product expands your resume. Just remember to back off a bit and let yourself recover.
Because I learned to be productive, freelancing was a great fit for me for a long time. It provided income, built my resume, and added a lot of joy to life. These five lessons were key to my longevity as a freelancer.