After Hours

10 things you shouldn't believe about freelancing

If you're thinking about going freelance, be forewarned: Much of what you hear -- about the freedom, the money, the work itself -- is just plain wrong.

Freelancing seems to be a goal for many IT professionals, but it's not all it's cracked up to be. Many of the perks people believe freelancers enjoy simply don't live up to their billing. While the following anecdotal musings might give the impression that I'm disillusioned with freelancing, I'm not. On the contrary, many days I feel like I've cashed in a winning lottery ticket (not one of the really big ones, but a winner just the same). If freelancing is your goal, do it for the right reasons — your reasons — not because of the myths you hear.

1: Freelancers make the big bucks

If you think freelancing is your road to riches, buy a new map. Freelancing can be lucrative if you're in the right place at the right time. Most freelancers struggle to keep the lights on the same as everyone else. I don't know any freelancers who claim to be much better off than when they were traditionally employed. During a dry spell, after the savings cushion is depleted, freelancing can be downright scary.

2: Freelancers can specialize

The military specializes; IT freelancers do it all. It's possible to carve out a small niche for yourself. I like helping people use their software efficiently, but that alone doesn't pay my bills. Some of the projects I work on put me to sleep, which reduces my dollar-per-hour rate, as afternoon nap isn't on my fee schedule! The industry changes so fast that the only thing most freelancers specialize in is retraining to keep up.

3: Freelancers are their own bosses

I treat each of my clients as if he or she is my only boss. I cultivate that relationship on purpose. The downside is that I have several bosses. Clients mediate with me more than a traditional boss might, but ultimately, they get what they want. I can decide not to accept a project — that's the extent of my bossiness. I'm fond of saying that I'm boss of that cushy and enviable spot right between a rock and a hard place.

4: Freelancers accomplish more!

So what? The myth is that freelancers accomplish more because we're free to focus on the job at hand. The truth is, freelancers accomplish more because we work more. Unfortunately, all those hours aren't billable.

5: Freelancers are happier because they're doing what they love

I love my grandchildren and my garden. I love long walks in the woods and teaching children that snakes aren't all bad. (No, that's not my dating profile...) IT pays the bills so I can indulge my grandchildren and have a garden. Don't get me wrong. I know a lot of IT contractors who genuinely enjoy their work — I'm one of them. Despite that, I believe most IT freelancers are in the business because they have strong marketable skills, not because they're passionate about IT. (Passion and IT shouldn't even be used together in the same sentence.)

I face most workdays with a positive attitude and a can-do awareness of my skills (and my limitations). In that respect, I do have an advantage, but I would take that attitude with me into traditional employment. It's me, not the freelancing.

6: Freelancers work in their pajamas

I can't dispel this myth because I'm not a voyeur. I, however, don't work in my pajamas unless I'm checking in while sick (because I'm that dedicated). I make jokes about working in my pajamas, but... I'm joking! I need the daily discipline of brushing my teeth and putting on clothes to raise the shade on the working day ahead. (But I do fill my birdbaths while in my pajamas. That's not just idle gossip.)

7: Freelancers have more freedom

The only freedom freelancers really have is the freedom to go broke. (I can't claim that as an original thought; I've heard it many times.) Freelancers may have more freedom to vary their routine a bit: Do I want to work dawn to dusk or dusk to dawn? Do I want to work Monday through Sunday or Tuesday through Monday? Freelancers make choices. Choices with consequences.

8: Freelancers have less stress

Absolutely not true! Persons laid off from traditional employment have the temporary benefit of unemployment compensation. I'm only a fickle client or two away from foraging for meals in the Red River Gorge or wearing a cardboard sign that reads "Will program for food." Okay, that's a dramatization, as the little lizard says, but freelancers have the same responsibilities as everyone else.

9: You need a Web site

I once asked readers about having the obligatory Web site, and most of those responding believed a Web site was necessary. But even though I followed all my own Web site-publicizing tips, mine brought in no new business. If you build it, they will come... totally wasn't true, at least, not in my case. All my business comes from word of mouth and old-fashioned scouting.

I would never suggest that IT contractors not publish an informational Web site. I'm just not convinced that they attract new business.

10: Freelancers can sleep in

While you're fixing breakfast and stretching body parts, I'm answering my first calls of the day. It's true that I only have to commute across the hall, but I'm already at work when you step into the shower. I do sleep in occasionally, but not any more than the rest of the workforce. I can hear the collective whine — But at least you could if you wanted to. That's not true; I'm on call when my clients are working. Anything less would be irresponsible and my clients would soon replace me.

None of the prevailing myths attracted me to freelancing. The truth is, after 20-something years in traditional employment, I was tired of having the company go out of business or move to another planet or being replaced when a new director came in with his or her own people. I never want my livelihood to be at the mercy or discretion of others again. I rely on my own wits — for better or worse.


Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

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