10 lessons learned from 10 years of freelancing

YOU GOT TECH - Abe Olandres - The Philippine Star

Freelance life can both be liberating and rewarding. You are your own boss and you have dreams of growing your one-man team to a huge, successful company one day.

Having been a freelancer for almost 10 years and growing my business to a full-blown company in the last five years, there are a lot of valuable lessons I had to learn the hard way.

1. Never stop learning. A freelancer is always in a state of uncertainty. You don’t know if your skill will still be valuable in the next three or five years, so don’t stop learning. Make it a point to learn a new skill every year as part of your personal development plan.

Even learning unrelated yet useful discipline such as balancing books or accounting, team management, or even public speaking can be really handy someday.

2. Be a Jack of all trades, then master one. Don’t let the saying – jack of all trades but master of none – discourage you. Continue to learn new skills and find the one that you think you can be really good at, then master that.

You will be known for the skill that you’ve mastered but you can give added value to the other skills you’re also familiar with.

3. Build a trusted network. Connect with old colleagues, classmates, friends, and people in your industry. They could be your most valuable source of new project leads.

Don’t forget to also pass on potential projects to other freelancers whenever you can’t do it or you’re already fully booked. They will reciprocate the gesture in the future.

Even your past clients can be a great source of referrals, so make sure all your projects are fully complete, on time and beyond expectations. Nothing beats a happy client.

4. Think long-term relationships instead of short-term gains. Clients value long-term relationships. Take care of them well. They will greatly appreciate that you provide added value on top of what you’re paid.

Once you establish a certain level of trust (on top of great work, of course), clients will keep coming back and even refer you to their network. Again, nothing beats a happy client.

5. Protect your name. As a freelancer, your name is very valuable in the trade. It’s your currency. Protect it even if it will cost you time and money. If your reputation precedes you, your name is the only CV you’ll need.

6. Work with other freelancers. Being a freelancer can be lonely. It can even keep you stagnant in the industry. If there’s an opportunity to work with other freelancers as a team, grab it.

 Working with teams allows you to gauge your skills against industry players, learn from them, and expose you to environments that will help you grow as an individual and a professional. It can also be an opportunity to see how you are as a team leader.

7. Don’t burn bridges. The industry is a small one and you don’t want to burn bridges because of a small issue or misunderstanding. You might not know that you’ll be working with or for these people in the future. It also works the other way around.

8. Donate your free time for a good cause. There will be times that you won’t have any clients, or projects are at a crawl. Use this time to either learn something new (see #1) or donate your time and skills to a good cause.

This can be a simple website for a small NGO, school or community and it’s also an opportunity for you to network, showcase your talents, and add to your growing portfolio. Sometimes, the big breaks and projects actually come from the networks you build in this community.

9. Stick to a trusted payment channel. In my early days, there was no solid payment channel and I’d just hop from one to another, depending on what the client prefers. There were bank wire transfers that took too long, Western Union that was prevalent but I got victimized by identity theft, Xoom which was convenient with door-to-door delivery but not widely supported in all countries, and PayPal which was really convenient but wasn’t available in the Philippines yet at that time (though that did not stop me from opening one and using it whenever possible).

It was only in 2006 that PayPal officially supported the Philippines that it became my standard online payment channel. Since then, it’s my primary mode for online transactions.

10. Plan for the future. The future of freelancing can be unpredictable. It is best to come up with a long-term plan for you and your business like how to scale, sustain and how to keep yourself current. For most freelancers who are just starting, this might still be difficult since the immediate concern is the monthly projects. Just keep in mind that figuring out your three-year, five-year or even 10-year plans will really help you prepare for the future.

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