Keeping It Real — Why Freelancing Is Not A Get-Rich-Quick Scheme.
Freelancing has become one of the biggest employment trends of the past half-decade. With the rise of the gig economy and an accompanying, insatiable demand for online content, the market is a booming machine made up of many eager, would-be freelancers.
Most of them will fail.
If you google “becoming a freelancer” you will find hundreds of quick guides and posts about X person making X exorbitant amount of money a month by doing some kind of freelance work. The message seems to be that anyone on Earth can become a freelance writer or content creator, and they can all become rich and successful by doing so.
This is simply untrue. And even though most people know, on some level, that it isn’t conceivable that every aspiring freelancer could see these amazing levels of success, that doesn’t seem to stop a huge number people from feeling that they (of course) are cut out to be one of those amazing success stories.
My goal is not to assign blame in this matter. It’s easy to get the impression that with a modest amount of elbow grease, freelancing is a barrier-free career choice. This impression has been cultivated by bloggers and influencers all over the web, after all. The voices of reality — which are often harsh and blunt in the way that truth usually is — are buried under the idealistic how-to guides and embellished stories.
Freelancing in any capacity is far from a cushy job. It is categorically difficult, requiring intense levels of self-discipline, very thick skin, and a well-developed strategy that allows you to be resilient in the face of repeated failure. It is not for the faint of heart, or for the uninformed.
Most people who attempt to build a freelance career do so rapidly, jumping headlong into the waiting bear-traps of content mills and predatory clientele. Many others become frustrated and deeply disillusioned after a few months of sustained effort with little to no income to show for it.
If this had no effect on established, professional freelancers, it wouldn’t be much of an issue. People would go their own way and either fail or succeed without causing any kind of big-picture impact.
Unfortunately there is an impact when it comes to this influx of the uninformed. The freelance market is flooded — saturated is too weak a word for the phenomenon. For every professional freelancer with a consistent portfolio, there are dozens of amateurs drowning out their voices with a clamor for quick, easy work and money to match. Income has been driven down across the board despite demand being higher than ever.
The result is a bevy of sites and income trends that have taken advantage of the competition, and a market which is all too happy to employ a scarcity mindset in order to secure cheaper services from freelancers. It has also become increasingly difficult for those who are new but serious about the work to find accurate information to help them get started.
It is important that established freelancers share the voice of caution and provide a more realistic picture of the industry. This is the only way to combat the increasing over-representation of short-lived freelancers, and to weed out those who are serious from those who are merely dreamers.
As a freelance writer who is only now establishing herself after two years of sustained effort, I can tell you unequivocally that this is a career that takes time to develop. A lot of time. It is a journey made up of consistent rather than “amazing” work (a concept, by the way, which is hugely subjective and therefore useless in the first place).
Having a skill or talent such as the ability to write or design graphics is lovely, but it has nothing to do with actually securing work on a regular basis. It also has nothing to do with the vital freelance skills of knowing how to market and network, or the knowledge needed to survive lean times by ensuring multiple streams of income. The idea that all one has to do to successfully freelance is “pick a niche” and “determine your pricing” is laughable at best and insulting at worst.
If it were that easy, everyone would do it, right?
By making it sound “that easy” on a large scale, bloggers and other media sources have, in fact, encouraged everyone and their uncle to try to freelance. The vast majority soon find out that they have no truly marketable skills to go along with their baseline creative ability. This not only hurts them economically, in many cases, but also internally as they take a hit to their self-esteem as artists.
To put it bluntly, just because you’re a writer, it doesn’t mean you can or should become a freelance writer. Just because you know how to design a graphic, that doesn’t ensure that you can make any significant amount of money in graphic design.
The only thing that will make a career out of a creative ability is an absolutely enormous investment of time, energy, and (often) resources. It is a venture comprised of risk and chance, along with a healthy dose of self-education.
Plenty of people have business ideas, but how many have the free time or credit to go and start one? And of those, how many have what it takes to start one and then turn it into a long-term venture? Twenty percent of small businesses fail in their first year, and that percentage jumps to nearly fifty percent by year five. By year ten, sixty-five percent of businesses have failed.
Freelancing is a business. Even if it’s just one individual, and even if they never intend for it to become the kind of money making machine touted in clickbait titles. An aspiring freelancer will still need a foundation of resources and capital to start working successfully. Contrary to popular belief, it is not enough to just have “a laptop and a talent.” If this is disheartening, then so be it.
If you do succeed at starting and sustaining a freelance career, your income is likely to remain fairly modest. The average holds steady at just $39,000 per year — not a livable wage, in many places. On the higher end of the spectrum, income can be expected to reach about $65,000 per year. The outliers may be very visible, but they rarely share the incredibly lucky breaks and less-than-glamorous undercurrents — such as the very marketing schemes they are likely attempting to pull you into — that allowed them to ascend to millionaire status.
The only “secret” I can offer as a freelancer is to be prepared to spend a lot of time and money failing before you land any steady work in this industry. That’s not to say it isn’t a wonderful and rewarding career — it is. If it’s something you are truly informed and prepared for, you can even enjoy the aforementioned failures. I have learned more skills than I ever could have imagined while embarking on this journey.
If, however, you can’t name reasons for attempting a freelance career other than an ideal income, ideal schedule, and an ideal level of “freedom” from 9–5 culture, I’m afraid it’s time for some radical honesty. You shouldn’t try to become a professional freelancer.
If you aren’t sure about the path, my advice is to seek out trustworthy, established professionals and ask them for advice. You may wish to foray into freelancing as a “side hustle,” and this is fine — sites I would otherwise view with skepticism such as Fiverr are a good option for you to try.
Those of us who are actively invested in our freelance careers should consider it a good accompanying investment to mentor “new recruits.” Competition is a non-issue in this arena. By increasing the quality of the available freelancer network, we help to weed out the low-paying clients and uninformed amateurs who are flooding the job boards these days. There will always be competition, but at least the pay and opportunities will be worth competing for.
In the end, people simply need to be more honest with themselves. The internet is filled with empty promises and get-rich-quick schemes — it is the job of the individual to use common sense to navigate the online world.
Bloggers and other media sources bear a responsibility, too: stop unethically promising the moon and stars to uninformed people so that you can make a short term profit via digital products, viewership, or online courses. You are one of the main sources of market over-saturation, and you are hurting your own industry.
I hope to see a more balanced perception enter the collective consciousness when it comes to freelancing in the near future. Until then, I wish you all the best…just don’t put on those rose-colored glasses before you get behind the wheel (or laptop screen).