A quick scroll through any “Economy” section of the online news or newspaper will reveal that the job market isn’t so hot at the moment. Or you could just check your wallet and find out the same thing. People live in fear of losing their jobs, or in a constant state of panic over how they will manage to stretch their paycheck once again. This bleak outlook is compounded by the infuriating fact that many of us in this situation have hard earned college degrees, as well as mountains of unforgivable student loan debt. It’s clear why many of us are looking for alternative (and supplemental) ways to earn money.
Enter freelancing, the practice of working independently for one or more clients on a temporary or semi-permanent basis. Some of the more popular areas of freelance work include computer programming, blog writing, web and graphic design as well as several sub categories of each. And the job pool for all of these is expanding exponentially as I type this.
I started freelancing almost a year ago, to supplement my teaching salary while I was working in Thailand. I use a company called oDesk, wherein I bid on writing projects for a variety of clients. At this point I am working almost full time (30+ hours a week) as a freelancer. I literally have to turn down requests from potential clients on a weekly basis. I could easily work 15+ hours a day, 7 days week if I so desired.
Freelance jobs have long been in the fields of journalism, photography, graphic design, web design, IT, data administration, coding and other technological or information related areas. Traditionally, freelancers were self-promoters, working on a job-to-job basis for newspapers (remember those?), magazines, software companies, websites and other businesses. This is still the preferred method for many in the freelance business: they network to find contracts and use every avenue available to promote their work. By building a great reputation in their field, they are able to score better and better contracts and deals over time, perhaps even working permanently for one or more clients.
The Future is Now
However, in recent years, there has been a new development in freelance work, which for better worse seems to be the way forward. This development is known as the bidding site. These “middle man” sites such as guru or oDesk provide a forum for contractors (freelancers) to market their skills through online profiles, as well as bid on jobs posted by clients. Sounds great in theory, and it can be (hey, it works for me) but some freelance veterans say that these sites could signal some gloom and doom for their career prospects`.
In researching for this article, and in my day to day navigation through the freelance world, I’m noticing some trends in freelance work. Number one; there is a ridiculous amount of work out there. Scrolling through the list of jobs in just one category on just one bidding site could keep you busy all day and then some. This can be both positive and negative. If you’ve got time, talent and motivation, taking on lots of work could be just what you need to kick start a freelance career, supplement an existing conventional job, or make some extra loot. However, lots of work means lots of freelancers (remember how everyone except the Wall Street suits is in the economic sh%t right now?), which can sometimes drive down the rates for jobs, so you can end up either losing out on a contract to a cheaper contractor, or finding it difficult to get the rates you’d like, again because someone else can do it for less. This is especially true when you are competing for jobs with someone in the developing world, who can do your job for a fraction of the price because their cost of living is lower. Hello, globalization.
Some experts and veterans in the freelance world have said that while these outsourcing situations may seem like death knells, there are ways to keep your work valuable and relevant in the online freelance job universe. If you promote yourself, without a bidding or intermediary site, you will just need to network even harder, stay hungry and fight for the work and the rates you deserve. Rest assured, once you are established and getting great feedback from happy clients, you will see that it isn’t so difficult to negotiate a livable wage, particularly when a client sees that paying you, an expert, to do something right the first time for a bit more is always more advantageous than paying a few people a fraction of the cost, to screw up again and again.
If you do use a bidding site, the principle is pretty much the same. When I first started freelancing, I took a few very low paying contracts that I knew I could bang out quickly, in order to build my reputation and my feedback scores. Since then I have more than doubled my rate, and I can be much more selective with the jobs I bid on. Truth be told, the last 3 or 4 contracts I’ve had, the client has requested me for the job, and I haven’t even had to apply or bid. And nearly all of my clients have granted me rate and hourly increases without me even asking. So doing a great job for a bit less in the first few weeks or months can pay off. But, don’t do it forever. Take the time to sift through the thousands of bids to find those that are right for you. Keep in mind your monthly budget, and how much you need to earn in order to live (and to save), and only apply for the contracts that can get you there, while also satisfying your professional objectives. Keeping up with the changes in freelancing for the future requires hard work, but we’re used to that. It also requires one more thing.
Technology and Freelancing
I love the romantic notion of a fiercely independent photojournalist, braving the war zones of Eastern Europe or the seedy corners of New York City, camera and notepad in hand, looking for a scoop, arguing with her editor and spending her freelance pay on cheap men, booze and pantyhose. But it’s just not like that anymore (*sigh*). Today, freelancers need to be connected (high speed connected), mobile, and versatile. And considering the types of freelance work that are gaining the most momentum these days, it’s easy to see why.
One more essential we will need in order to reap the benefits of the freelance explosion is technological literacy, in a major way. At the very least, established and prospective freelancers should make sure they are up to date (within the last few years) with all computer technology related to their line of work. For example, in order to be successful at what I do I need a high speed internet connection at least every other day, if not every day. I had to teach myself Blogger and WordPress, as well as several different website development programs, in addition to the joys of SEO writing, and the many thrilling aspects of Microsoft Office. And I’ve got to keep an eye out for any changes in these programs over the next year or so and make sure I learn those too.
If you’ve got high level tech skills, such as design or programming, then things are looking really good for you on the freelance front. About half the jobs advertised on bidding sites at the moment are tech related. Might not be a bad idea to learn some more technical skills either, if you want to make yourself even more marketable.
Freelancing is rapidly gaining popularity, both from the perspective of clients (“employers”) and freelance contractors themselves. The old corporate structures are gradually disintegrating, leaving room for independent contractors to fill the slots once held together by massive HR departments. Many employers now find it more appealing and more affordable to pay a few freelancers to handle assignments rather than set up an entire business. A person starting their own online company or their own small business in the real world can save a ton on overheads by doing most of the work themselves and hiring a few temporary freelancers to do things like accounting, research or database administration.
As technology advances to make connections across the county and the globe at lightning speed, more and more of us will have the option of freelancing if we have the right skills and personality. Freelancers will also need to adapt to technological advancements, keep up with new skills, programs and applications, and market themselves ferociously to be relevant in the exploding freelance market. But there will always be work, so don’t worry too much.