Is freelancing right for you? Here’s how to determine if it could be your next best career move.

Have you been in job search mode for several months with no offers in sight? Perhaps you started out with hopes for a traditional full-time 9-5 position. Now may be the right time to reframe your goals and give freelancing another look.

In decades past, contract workers were perceived as getting paid less, having less job security, and not as commanding of respect as full-time employees. All of that is changing.

The way we work and make a living has shifted dramatically over the last decade. According to a 2014 survey commissioned by Freelancers Union, there are 53 million Americans working as freelancers. That represents 34% of the U.S. workforce! The recession has highlighted that no job is bulletproof, even those in the previously predictable blue-chip sectors. Combine that with advances in technology and cultural shifts towards a greater work-life balance - and becoming a freelancer may give you a new world of opportunity.

What is freelancing?

What is freelancing? Freelancing or contracting is defined as engaging in supplemental, temporary, or project-based work.

This definition allows for a significant variety in the freelancers' camp. Any of the following could qualify:

  • An accountant with a traditional 9-5 office job who serves as a consultant to youth organizations on weekends.

  • A part-time daycare employee who supplements her income by driving with Postmates (a delivery service) on her days off, and traveling with families who need a nanny for a trip.

  • A marketing specialist who assists clients with go-to-market strategy and support on a project basis.

  • A stay-at-home mom who works as a virtual assistant and a remote project manager.

  • An IT manager who assists organizations with systems conversions on a contract basis.

Freelancing: What's in it for you?

Every professional's decision to become a freelancer is driven by a unique mix of goals and motivating factors. Here is a list of just a few.

  • Flexibility. Freelancers report that they enjoy setting their own schedules, working from anywhere, and being in control of how many hours they work on any given week.

  • Variety. By selecting a diverse mix of projects, you can have a different job as often as you like!

  • Employment risk management. Working for multiple companies allows you to spread the employment risk.

  • Creative outlet. Some enjoy the creativity and freedom of expression that comes from choosing to work for people who appreciate and value their unique approach.

  • Extended test-drive of a new career. Whether you are keeping your “real job,” are in full-time "job-search" mode, or are simply curious about a new direction, freelancing can allow you to gauge supply and demand, and give you a tryout experience without the risks that come with plunging into a new career right away.

  • Less workplace drama. Freelancing can offer you the luxury of stepping out of office politics and working free from interruption and distraction.

  • Cash flow while in search of a full-time opportunity. Some freelancers use contract work as a gap measure when they are between jobs. In addition to getting paid, they also fill the gap on their resumes with new relevant experience.

Employers benefit from hiring freelancers

Employers benefit from collaborating with freelancers in significant ways.

  • Just-in-time access to specialized talent. An organization may need a specialist for developing a go-to-market strategy and pitch deck for a new cloud software offering – and the option of hiring one just-in-time for the duration of the launch saves money and puts the right talent to work.

  • Address seasonal increases in demand. Certain industries are predictably cyclical and need a higher level of staffing during their busy times.

  • Temp to permanent arrangements could present a test-drive option for the employer and the contractor. Both get an opportunity to collaborate, exchange value, and learn whether the move to permanent employment is best.

Getting started: How to become a freelancer

1. Identify skills, experience, and talents you have that are in demand

Think through your education, training, and past work experience, and select a few key points that would be of service to companies and individuals. What is your unique value proposition? Can you support it with numbers, examples, and testimonials?

Test your value proposition by scouting the market. Online platforms like UpWork allow you to do so by reviewing the profiles of other freelancers in your target area of expertise. Read reviews: what do the customers in your field appreciate most? Which of the freelancers appear to be most successful, and why?

2. Get the word out

Whether your networking starts online or face-to-face, get your value proposition out into the world. Reach out to companies that you are targeting, and complete applications for projects. LinkedIn and Facebook could both be effective in identifying centers of influence and getting an introduction.

Create a contractor resume, tweak your LinkedIn summary, and establish a contractor profile on an online platform such as WorkhoppersUpwork, and FlexJobs. All of those should focus on puzzles you have solved, and speak to your target audience in words that matter most to them. Tune into their pain points, and show them how working with you is the right next step.

Consider building an online presence via blogging and videos. Speak to the common problems you can fix, present case studies, and include testimonials from past clients, colleagues, and business partners.

3. Build up your skills

Your professional skills are your tools – and you must keep them sharp in order to remain relevant. Think of yourself as a craftsman with an eye on the long term, and invest in yourself. Whether through continuing education, coaching, mentoring, or a continuous improvement practice, become better.

4. Create a reputation

People hire people they like and trust. Reviews and testimonials are your tools for building a reputation as a contractor. Become disciplined about collecting testimonials, impact quotes, and reviews from your clients. Be upfront and clear that you want to deliver top-notch service, and are willing to go the extra mile to make sure they walk away having gained superior value.

5. Focus on the flow

Tune into the opportunity flow of your selected field. A project can take several days, weeks, or even years, and clients may continue to hire you for subsequent jobs – but you must always balance your current work with a search for new opportunities.

Is becoming a freelancer the right fit for you?

In summary, the field of freelancing offers tremendous benefits to professionals in all fields. With a laptop, a wifi connection, and a cell phone you can be productive anywhere, at any time of day. Flexible scheduling, ability to fine-tune the workflow and the fun that comes from handpicking your best-fit projects are all great reasons to consider contracting.

On the flip side, you must be comfortable with uncertainty – project flow can be less than perfectly predictable, and you don't get paid if you are not working.

Another factor is what my husband is fond of describing as “You eat what you kill” – you have to become proficient at branding and marketing yourself to be attractive to your ideal clients. That takes courage, discernment, and resilience.

Remember also that as a contractor, you are responsible for your own health insurance, travel expenses, self-employment tax, and the paperwork that results from running your own business. Do your research and be prepared.

In closing, I have found that, beyond your technical qualifications and grit, a sense of humor and a focus on customer service will set you apart, and result in repeat business.

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