• Advice

Getting your magical freelance license: a guide

Recently, a friend came to me with a specific question. She’s a film student who’s been doing short online videos for non-profits and small companies. These projects were occasionally done for pay, but often for experience or exposure. She wanted to know when it was okay to start charging real money for her work – when she was “officially” a freelance professional, instead of a dabbler.

My answer to her: if you think you should be charging reasonable rates… you probably should be.

Becoming a freelancer isn’t like becoming a lawyer, or a doctor, or even a NYC food vendor. In most cases, you don’t need an accreditation or a degree; nobody “gives” you the right to freelance.

In other words: you wanna be a freelancer? ABRACADABRA! I hereby declare that you are a freelancer and give you your Magical Freelance License! NOW GO FORTH AND EARN A REASONABLE LIVING!

Okay, okay. I understand that if you’re just starting out, this self-affirmation can be scary. Just to calm your fears, let’s go through these three little questions together. It will only take thirty seconds – and at the end, I bet you’ll feel a lot better about the validity of your newfound-blog-appointed Freelance License.

1. Is your work good?

Dearest Reader, I hear your modest, self-effacing brain mulling that all the way through the great muffled amplifier of the Internet. “AM I good? What does ‘good’ mean, anyway?”

I know that “good” is a subjective term – and yes, of course you should always keep building skills and improving yourself – but are your skills in demand? Are you asked for further work after you land an initial gig?

Then it’s probably good enough.

2. Do you have some experience doing it – enough to show prospective clients?

Hint: you need less experience than you think.

Have you taken on some projects – even for free? Do you have a wee portfolio to show, a resume, a few polished samples? Do you have relevant educational experience, or have you done a lot of research into the field?

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Then you’re probably ready to start looking for jobs that pay… even if only a little, to start.

3. Do you want to earn money by doing it?

This is sort of a silly question, but it’s valuable. It can be easy to talk oneself out of charging for freelance services rendered. Clients accustomed to low-cost or free work are often happy to claim poverty or need or precedent to justify their policies – and that pressure can be hard for beginners to resist.

Listen, given the choice, would you RATHER be getting paid for your work? Or are you perfectly happy doing it for free?

(I bet I know the answer.)

If your answer is “yes” to two out of those three questions: congratulations!! You are no dilettante or dabbler. You are a freelancer (if you choose to be), and you should be paid for your work.

The truth is that many freelancers stumble into their field; nobody points them towards freelancing, or gives them “permission”. They work for one client, then another… gaining a reputation. They start calling themselves freelancers. They start charging (or raise their initial rates). They work for more clients. All of a sudden, they’ve been freelancing for years – and film school friends are asking them when they can start charging for freelance work, too.

My new freelance colleague, you deserve to be given compensation for your skills. You deserve a living wage, and you do not owe anyone the exploitation of your talents. A passion project is the rare exception. Otherwise, you owe it to yourself to embrace your new freelance title – and charge accordingly!