The key to success in freelancing is understanding the reality of what you're getting into and knowing your why

The key to success in freelancing is understanding the reality of what you're getting into and knowing your why

The latest cycle of media layoffs and downsizing has made me very popular. As a full-time independent journalist for the past 15 years, I’ve grown accustomed to the unexpected call or text from a newly unemployed colleague asking me how to launch a freelance career. I always tell them: Before you ask how, first ask yourself why.

Without a strong answer to why you want to be a full-time freelance journalist, it may make more sense to try another career path. The cold reality is that it takes as much time to set up a sustainable freelance practice as it does to search for and secure a full-time job offer. The first year that I freelanced following mass layoffs at Newhouse News Service, I earned about half the salary I had made as a national correspondent. It took until year three of freelancing to match my prior income, after a lot of hustling.

Full-time freelancing often requires more work than a staff job. You must fill multiple roles, from business development, client relations, and operations, to invoicing, cash flow management, strategic planning and training. You also have to secure your own health care and retirement benefits and pay self-employment taxes.

Managing all these tasks takes away from the time you have to do actual journalism. The Institute for Independent Journalists (IIJ), whose mission is to help freelancers of color find financial and emotional sustainability, estimate that freelancers need to earn 30 percent to 40 percent more per hour to achieve the same standard of living as an employee. (Disclosure: I am the founder of the IIJ.)

To make this worthwhile, you need a darn good reason to freelance. Participants in a recent class I taught on the business of freelancing for the IIJ had some excellent ”whys,” including wanting a flexible way to work and earn income:

  • To have time to report and write a book proposal.
  • To accommodate a chronic illness or disability.
  • To be able to travel or live abroad.
  • To work while raising children, with flexibility for the inevitable sick days, school events, and unexpected interruptions.

Freelancers need powerful reasons to wake up every morning, look in the mirror, and feel motivated to single-handedly make a living. Being grounded in the ‘why’ also helps deal with the inevitable bumps in the road, such as losing a steady client, that force you to scramble and adjust your strategy. 

But clearly, freelancing is a sustainable and enduring career choice. A recent Pew Research Center survey of nearly 12,000 working journalists found that one third of all U.S. journalists are self-employed.  So how do they do it? Here are a few rules I’ve developed over the course of my freelancing career:

Always Be Selling

All journalists should be actively managing their careers — reaching out to colleagues and mentors, reading industry news, and developing new skills. As a freelancer, however, these steps are a must. When I launched my freelance career, I made a list of everyone I had ever worked with, studied with, been in a social group with, or lived nearby. Every Monday morning, I’d send at least five emails to someone on the list, asking to connect for a call or a coffee. Over time, I cycled through the whole list and generated new leads for work.

Clients have come via unexpected routes: a friend from middle school introduced me to a longtime blog writing client, for example, and the person I succeeded at Newhouse recommended me to a nonprofit for editing work. By consistently following up on every lead, I have built a reliable pipeline of work that generates new clients to replace ones that no longer need my services.

I also always keep a long list of story ideas for my regular clients, so that as soon as I finish one project, I can pitch another. Most of the financially successful freelancers I know don’t rely on contacting potential editors cold — they develop ongoing relationships that yield steady assignments.

Track Your Money and Time

Another must for freelancers is to be sure to keep track of your invoices and be accountable to yourself for how you spend your time. As a self-employed journalist, time is your most valuable resource. When I start a story, I create a time budget based on the story fee and the hourly rate I need to earn for my business to remain sustainable. I then divide the budget into reporting, writing, and editing tasks, and track my progress using an app called Toggl. (Other apps like Harvest, Clockify, and Atracker perform a similar function.) I invoice for a story as soon as it’s filed, and check in monthly to make sure I get paid. Currently, most of my clients pay via direct deposit, so collection isn’t a problem. 

Find Community 

Most importantly: Freelancing is a lonely business. My key survival strategy has been connecting with freelancing groups that meet regularly to troubleshoot problems, share victories, brainstorm over client issues, and otherwise support each other. These longstanding, trusting relationships sustain me and are what we aim to facilitate at the IIJ.

If you’re willing to tackle the challenges of freelancing, the rewards are clear. I’ve enjoyed 15 years of flexibility with my time and work assignments. I wrote a book, traveled the world in support of it, launched a journalism organization, and wrote for many of the news organizations that I most admire. The key to success is understanding the reality of what you’re getting into, and most importantly, knowing your reason why. 

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports