Three summers ago, I didn’t know much about freelancing. It was a few weeks before the beginning of my one-year Master’s course in translation and although I was planning to start my own translation company eventually, it wasn’t on my list of things to do in the near future.
Fast forward a couple of weeks to the course introduction. On my first day at the university, some translators gave lectures about their work, and one of them said something that stuck with me: If you’re going to start a company, you might just as well do it now. Two weeks later, my company was officially registered. I had no idea what I was doing, but I figured waiting wouldn’t make things easier.
In two weeks, I will be one of the translators giving lectures to the new students at my old course. Even though I did the same thing last year, I am quite nervous. Giving advice to a classroom full of students of which many are much older than me feels weird. I still feel like a complete beginner in so many ways. Yet, as I was writing the notes for my lecture, I realized how much has happened and how much I have learnt since the beginning of my freelance career.
Yesterday, I celebrated my 25th birthday and soon my company will be three years old. This list is a gift from my 25-year-old self to my 22-year-old self – and all the brave freelancers out there.
1. Stop making excuses
The best time to get started is often right now. Fear will look for all kinds of reasons to make you do it tomorrow or next week or next year or never. Don’t let it.
2. Don’t belittle yourself because you are new
I used to introduce myself with phrases like well, I’m trying to … Say what you do without hedging. If you write you are a writer. If you take photographs you are a photographer. It’s as simple as that.
3. Say no
When opportunities are scarce it can be tempting to jump on every single offer you get. But if you keep taking on too much work or the wrong kind of work, you will burn out and both your work and health will suffer. Learn to say no from the start. Sometimes it hurts, but in the long run, it’s so worth it.
4. Build a relevant portfolio
I used to think portfolios were only for artists and designers, but I’ve realized writing case studies is a great way to explain how you work and what a relevant project could look like no matter what you do. I have still only started my portfolio, but I will hopefully be adding a few more case studies soon.
5. Track your time
I always try to track how many hours I spend on each phase of a project, from preparation and contract writing to invoicing, even if I’m not paid by the hour. It’s a good way to learn when to set deadlines and how much to charge – and, if you are anything like me, find out how bad your estimation skills are. Most things I do still takes at least twice as long as I think they will.
6. Ask for longer deadlines
I had been working for translation agencies for a while before I realized that most project managers don’t mind giving you longer deadlines if you just ask before you accept a project. Never take on a project that you will have to hurry through just to get it finished in time. By asking for more time you show that you value their projects and that quality is more important than some extra money.
7. Ask for help
Starting out, I thought I had to figure out everything on my own, even when I got stuck because the instructions were unclear. Ask your clients for clarification, ask experts for help, ask a friend to do some brainstorming with you. No one expects you to be able to figure out all the problems in the world by yourself.
8. Take more breaks than you think you need
Yesterday, on my birthday, I didn’t do a single minute of work. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often, not even on weekends. But breaks are so important if you want to be able to think clearly, stay healthy and keep enjoying what you do.
9. Mind your back
It took me more than 2,5 years of freelancing before I got an ergonomic chair, even though I’ve had problems with headaches and bad posture for as long as I can remember. Do stretches and exercise if you spend a lot of time in front of the computer. Become aware of how you treat your body at work before it becomes a problem.
10. Don’t overinvest
There are many things you might think you need, that you could probably do just as well without. Save up some money before you start spending it on better equipment. You never know when you will need that buffer.
11. Plan less – do more
Waiting for the right equipment is one way to procrastinate, planning is another. Limit the time you spend on planning a project and get started as soon as you can instead. Plans almost always need to be altered anyway.
12. Work on your own terms
Only bring on clients who are willing to work on your terms. Always write clear contracts and never sign up for a project if it doesn’t seem right. Missing out on an opportunity is better than being tricked or used.
13. Ask clients for feedback
A few months ago a job coach told me to ask five of my clients what they liked about working with me and what they wished I would do differently. It was scary but it gave me such great insights into what my clients were thinking about me and what I should focus on in the future.
14. Meet other freelancers
After four interviews with freelancers, two translation conferences, a bunch of lunch meetings for self-employed people and a couple of hoffice days, I have realized how inspiring and motivating colleagues can be – even (or perhaps especially) if they are working on completely different projects and you only meet them occasionally.
15. Connect instead of competing
Don’t view other people in your industry as competitors. Instead, get to know them. I’m not afraid of sharing ”secrets” or losing out on projects anymore because I know we can all be successful – and even more so if we help each other out.
16. Think twice before working for someone you know
In the beginning, I made the mistake of taking on too big projects of the wrong kind for too little money for people I didn’t want to let down. Obviously, this was bad both for the projects and my relationships. If it really is a good project, you should still always write a contract and do it professionally.
17. Don’t be afraid of selling
I still dislike selling, but I think I have realized that I don’t have to be ashamed of it. One of the more surprising comments I got when asking my clients for feedback was “I wish you would have tried to sell more services”. Remember that as long as you do quality work for your clients, you are doing them a favour, not the other way around.
18. Work in a nice environment
Sometimes all I need in order to find new motivation and inspiration is to clear up my desk, light some candles, put a great record on and make a cup of tea. But these simple things are easy to forget when you get stuck.
19. Go on more adventures
Another way to recharge is to bring your work for an adventure. Right now, I am in Britain. I have a lot of work to do during the two weeks I am here, but I have some time for adventures too, and it is really helping me find new inspiration. An adventure doesn’t have to be far away, though. You may just as well do some brainstorming in a forest nearby.
20. Don’t compare your first drafts to masterpieces…
Would you compare a block of stone to a sculpture by Michelangelo? No? Then don’t worry about your first drafts, whether they are sketches or texts. Let them be rough and shapeless, but do get through them so you can start the refining process. Then you will be a huge step closer to finishing.
21. …but always deliver great work
While the first draft can be rough, you should always aim for a great end product. In a way, this is the only thing you really need to focus on. Making sure you have enough time and focus to deliver high quality work is the best way to get happy clients, more clients and the right clients.
22. Challenge yourself every day
I wish I would challenge myself more, because every challenge makes me grow so much as a freelancer. Find something scary every day, if only a tiny thing, and do it anyway.
23. Allow yourself to be human
If you mess things up, or get so ill that you can’t focus, you should tell your client, not fight to meet a deadline with bad work. Humans make mistakes, humans fall ill and clients know that. Apologize, get over it and do your best not to repeat it.
24. Stop worrying
I have been worrying so much throughout my life, and so often in vain. Lately, I have found that if I just set my mind to it, I can ignore the what ifs. I can let go and be confident that it’s not the end of the world even if it doesn’t end up the way I want it to. It’s a small change, but it makes life and work so much more enjoyable.
25. Take your dreams seriously
I have realized that so much is possible if only you really want it. Don’t dismiss ideas as silly dreams, but use them as your compass. What would you do if you had unlimited resources and time? What is one thing you could do today that could lead you in that direction?