With the rise of the sharing economy, freelancer marketplace websites and flexible employment practices, how we work is steadily changing, and freelancing is an increasingly common career choice for people across many industries.
A study from 2014, commissioned by freelance marketplace Upwork, revealed 3.7 million Australians – or 30 per cent of the workforce – fall in the freelance category and contribute $51bn to the economy each year. When Upwork repeated the study last year, it reported that the number of freelancers had climbed to 4.1 million.
It’s a tough gig
Offices are increasingly reducing floor space, and ‘hot-desking’ to encourage flexibility among employees. Working from home is increasingly acceptable, and for freelancers, home is usually the office.
Yet, despite the rising popularity of freelance careers, it’s not uncommon to hear about the challenges of being your own boss in an ever-expanding marketplace. Journalists, in particular, face ever-decreasing word rates, or sometimes, low flat rates, such is the competition following mass redundancies at major media outlets.
Employers with less to spend are being urged to combine jobs to save money.
“I think the advent of digital and the challenges with making it pay has meant lower content budgets, reduced word rates and in some cases, lower day rates,” says Rachel Smith, freelance journalist and founder of Rachel’s List, a service for freelance job-posters and seekers.
“We’re also seeing a lot of ads come through that have overwhelming job specs – essentially, employers with less to spend are being urged to combine jobs to save money.”
Writer and critic Clementine Bastow agrees it’s “tough” being a full-time freelancer.
“I've lost out on gigs this year because someone else has offered to work for less. I know that these people just want a leg up but I wonder if they realise they're adversely affecting their chances, ironically enough, of eventually making good money from freelancing.”
Bastow, who has been freelancing since 2002, with occasional editorial, in-office gigs along the way, notes that the opportunities available to freelance writers are changing: the streetpress scene has shrunk, and despite an expanding digital arena, there’s not a lot of money in it.
“Certain outlets have maintained their fees, and some newer ones have even surpassed them, but generally speaking as more publications have gone digital, the fees have gone down.”
Smith sees an upside though: small businesses are seeing the value in hiring freelancers for creative jobs they can’t or don’t want to themselves, such as copywriting, blogs and social media content.
Personal contact with clients is everything, that way you keep the work flowing.
“There are also many, many companies out there who do understand that you get what you pay for, and pay accordingly, and fairly. So it’s a mixed bag in terms of what we’re seeing.”
Outside of writing and journalism, freelancing is similarly competitive, says Louise Steer, a lawyer, author and philanthropy consultant. Steer, who has dipped in and out of freelancing over the last 34 years, now primarily advises not-for-profits on compliance, governance, ethics and risk management.
“…Clients will try to get you to lower your rates. So you need to check with your professional association and your colleagues about going rates and stick to them. Also be creative about payment arrangements – fixed fees, hourly rates, retainers, can all be considered depending on the volume of work offered by the client.”
For Steer, it helps that her work requires specialist knowledge that can’t be replicated by the “factory freelancers” on websites – sites like freelancer.com or Fiverr.com, which facilitate bidding on jobs, increasing competition and lowering rates.
“Personal contact with clients is everything, that way you keep the work flowing.”
Meanwhile, Steer says freelancers need to be versatile and adaptive.
“It's not a nine-to-five job; freelancers succeed because they are accessible by clients. Having said that, I don't work weekends or evenings as a rule. It's a balance.”
Smith, who has been a freelancer for nearly 15 years, points to the importance of evolving and upskilling in order to edge into new markets.
“When I started out I mainly wrote for magazines, with the occasional newspaper piece, mostly travel. These days, digital clients make up the majority of my income – I predominantly write for brands, online magazines/portals and website clients who need copy,” she says.
“I do some sponsored blogging as well. And, I’ve branched out into creating websites for clients, too, which is something I’d never considered doing, but absolutely love.”
Bastow similarly suggests that versatility extends to having more than one speciality.
“The most typical thing I see is people who only want to write about a particular topic. That's fine, but it's not really freelancing – true freelancing, at least in my book, means taking what you can get, when you can get it, and that may mean copywriting, reviewing something you'd not necessarily be drawn to, or interviewing someone you might not find all that interesting.”
Choppy freelance waters
Versatility is important, but so is a willingness to not have a safety net. Steer warns that freelancing is not for people who worry about security, even though she argues that employment is not necessarily more secure.
“… employers will hire you for as long as they need you and then let you go when it suits them. So I prefer to be proactive, keep my regular clients, and do contract work if it becomes available.”
Smith says the challenge of having a choppy income – freelancers are never guaranteed ongoing work – doesn’t get easier, but acknowledges that having a partner who has steady work can prove invaluable.
“I think the smartest things freelancers can do to keep the wolf from the door are funnel money into a financial buffer for slow patches, because there are always slow patches.”
I try to have contingency plans in place that don't extend solely to putting everything on my credit card.
Smith adds that freelancers should “always, always” reserve 30 per cent of their earnings for tax, and to look for regular gigs or retainers.
“Keep up the pitching and chasing new clients or work even when you’re busy, because you have to keep it rolling.”
While Bastow jokes that she has a great therapist to deal with the income flow challenges, she says this year involved a new approach.
“I consulted with a financial advisor for the first time and she helped me work out strategies for coping with weeks (or months) when the income comes in dribs and drabs. Although I have regular work, sometimes things go wrong behind the scenes that are out of my control, so I try to have contingency plans in place that don't extend solely to putting everything on my credit card.”