You should break these 5 freelancer rules

Apr 21, 2015

When you begin to freelance, advice-givers seem to spring at you from every corner. Books, magazines, blog posts, your great Aunt Millie: they all seem to be telling you things that you “must” do, the “rules” of freelancing successfully. Some of this advice is sound! Some of it is well-intentioned, but useless. These are the 5 most-commonly repeated “rules” that I’ve found to be bunk – feel free to break them with impunity!

1. You must have one year of savings stored away before you start freelancing

Hahahaha. Ha. Ha.

This is one that I especially like debunking, because if somebody had told me this rule when I had started freelancing… I never would have freelanced. At the time, I was Woebegone-Dickensian-Orphan levels of poor; if I had waited to save a year’s worth of wages, I never would have started.

Simply put, I was already living paycheck-to-paycheck. I didn’t have the luxury of wasting that time in miserable, dead-end jobs before I tried something new.

If you want to start freelancing, START. Don’t quit your miserable, dead-end job (but consider finding a new, not quite so soul-crushing survival job). Instead, freelance on the side; build up your client base.

Funnel the extra funds into savings, if you want. When you’ve saved up enough or have enough clients to make the leap and freelance full-time, you’ll know – but you do NOT need to build up an entire year’s worth of income first. That’s a fairly arbitrary number.

2. You must have a concrete plan – and stick to it

God laughs at freelancers’ best-laid plans.

You should have goals. You should have targets. You should have a career plan, sure. Plan to your heart’s content!

But my experience in freelancing suggests that unexpected opportunities and pitfalls are a regular occurrence. You’ll need to be able to think flexibly, roll with change, and not completely tweak out every time your plan changes.

If you are too rigid, you will burn out fast; a lot of things will be beyond your control. Focus on the things you can influence: your portfolio, your relationships, your skill-set. Plan as much as you like, but be willing to change.

3. You absolutely need a degree in X field in order to work in X field

Okay, caveat: this is true for some fields, especially the sciences and certain kinds of tech. Odds are, if you’re in one of ‘em, you know – that’s the kind of information that emerges early. If it’s true, go and get that degree!

For many other people, a degree (ESPECIALLY an undergraduate degree) in their field is not requisite in order to get a great gig. Training is important! Up-to-date skills are important! Experience is important! A degree is just one avenue to all of those things; don’t think that you must get one in order to land work.

Relevant point: my degree is not in writing.

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4. You must take every client/gig that comes your way

This is an excellent rule to follow if you enjoy being powerless and miserable.

Listen, part of the reason you became a FREElancer is FREEdom. If a gig promises to make you unhappy, don’t take it. If you’re “eh” about the money and it doesn’t interest you, don’t take it.

Don’t waste your valuable time and energy on sub-par work. Saying a polite but firm “no, thank you” to clients doesn’t burn bridges; in my experience, it perversely makes them want you even more.

5. Pitch is paramount

An unscientific survey reveals that there are 99,999+ thousand articles and posts in the world about marketing yourself/your business – “branding”, “positioning”, “pitch.”

Yes, marketing yourself and knowing your strengths is important. Yes, you should know how to describe yourself; you should even have a pithy little elevator pitch in your back pocket. But it’s not the most important element of your freelancing career.

The pitch is important – but it all falls apart pretty fast if you can’t deliver the goods once you land the job. Do good work. Keep learning. Then do better work.

Your word-of-mouth can do a LOT of the hardest marketing for you, if you emphasize quality over branding. Self-promotion is a necessary evil as a freelancer; being good enough that the clients find YOU reduces the necessity of that braggadocio.

One of the things that I like best about freelancing is that for every “rule”, you’ll find a freelancer who has broken that rule – and succeeded. Take the advice that suits your goals, and discard the rest. These 5 rules have never worked for me, personally; join me in my gleeful law-breaking, and toss ‘em out the window!

Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.