In August 1999, I walked in the front door of my house with The Box: all of my personal belongings from the last corporate job I ever plan to hold. Looking back on 14 years of freelancing, I can only marvel at how quickly it’s gone—particularly compared with the preceding two-year stints in various magazine, marketing and public relations staff positions that seemed much longer than the time elapsed on a clock.
I didn’t make the decision lightly or capriciously, and I made sure not to make what my dad used to call an acrimonious departure. (I won’t get into the details here, but let’s just describe the bridge as smoldering rather than burning; a few years later, I counted my former employer as one of my best freelance clients.) The fact is, I’d been planning to pull the ripcord for nearly a year, but nobody knew other than me and my wife (and even she gasped a bit when I plunked The Box on the kitchen counter). We tightened up the budget, saved as much money as we could, and the rest needed to travel from my brain through my fingertips.
So, some random thoughts now that I’ve passed my second seven-year itch.
Smooth seas make poor sailors. As it turned out, I cruised through the first two years with plenty of business. The economic slowdown of 2001, when my phone stopped ringing, was another thing entirely. Surviving that rough patch gave me the confidence that: 1) I could persevere through the inevitable difficult financial times; and 2) no matter how bad things got, I didn’t need to retreat to corporate life. (A hat tip to Peter Bowerman and his first Well-Fed Writer book, which threw me a lifesaver when I needed it.) Living below our means, and of course, having a go-to-hell fund, were key elements to the strategy.
Client relationships are everything. I’ve quoted the Herb Brooks line from Miracle before: “You think you can win on talent alone? Gentlemen, you don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone.” So, too, with running your own business. The market is going to value your ability to persuade, sell, collaborate, manage, and create lasting partnerships more than your creativity. Bad clients are an opportunity cost; great clients not only make your work worthwhile, their referrals are essential to building a business without always having to scramble.
Learning from experience. Once you’ve been freelancing a while—and assuming you actually *like* freelancing—it’s easy to look back on your former worker-bee self with mixed emotions. Could I have made the leap sooner? Why was I slaving away for that company when I could have been making money for myself? But one of my longtime freelance designers made a great point to me this morning: A tough corporate job is a boot camp. You’re learning from experience, often the hard way, and gaining the knowledge and networks that make independence possible. Same thing goes for client relationships and freelance jobs that don’t go according to plan: Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. There’s value in that, even if it’s not always the most pleasant educational curriculum.
To celebrate my anniversary, I’d simply like to say thank you to all of my fellow freelancers and clients for your insights, inspiration, and friendship. It means a great deal.
In the comments: How long have you been freelancing? What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
Photo courtesy of Patrizio Martorana.