How one freelancer went from #FreelanceFail to business success

May 9, 2016

“I’m sure you can imagine this wasn’t easy for me to write – and I’m painfully aware of my shortcomings, which I should’ve been working on without taking up your time.”

That’s a line from an email I sent to a client (who was also a good friend) in the fall of 2011. I had been doing this freelance thing for about a year at that point, still stumbling – still unsure of how to really succeed. Nearly 5 years later, I’ve accepted the fact that I was an absolute failure as a freelancer.

Coming to terms with that has been pivotal in my career. Sharing the revelation with the world was a difficult decision, but one thing has been consistent in my personal and professional life: complete transparency. You could say it’s been a cornerstone of my personal brand, which is also bleeding into my professional brand.

Before diving into why I am a failure, I should go back to the beginning of this crazy journey.

Warning: This is probably the longest post I’ve ever written, but I promise it’s worth it. So buckle up.

It began on a hot June day in 2010.

I sat in the back of the taxicab in shock. For the first time since I was 16, I was unemployed. Even worse, I was fired. That ugly word hovered over me like a black cloud but I was determined to make the most of this. The firing was inevitable. I was unhappy at my job after my mentor left, and HR was very kind about it. They knew I couldn’t quit because I couldn’t afford to but they didn’t want to hinder my future employment.

They gave me two options:

  • Voluntarily resign with the option to have a positive reference but no unemployment.
  • Be fired, no references, but I could file for unemployment.

I took the latter option. Even when I had no idea I would be going down this path, something in me knew I wouldn’t return to a traditional workplace. I didn’t know what that meant.

So, there I sat on my couch: A 20-something fired from her job, no college degree, and no logical plan for the next step.

Leveraging my personal brand was key.

At this point in my life, I had a very active presence on social media. I’d been blogging for about 7 years, and my Twitter presence was pretty solid. So, when I found myself completely lost, I did the only thing that made sense. I blogged about it.

Within the hour, I had two phone interviews lined up. I had worlds of support because I put myself out there in my worst moment.

The interesting thing to note at this point is that my social media presence was all under a pen name. At this point in my career, I couldn’t even fathom blogging and digital as a solid career path. I had two LinkedIn profiles (one under my real name and one under my pen name). I was still writing articles using a pen name.

So, at the beginning of my freelance journey, it didn’t even seem real.

Regardless, I had built a solid reputation, and decided to take a chance on myself. I was using social media for my personal brand. Could I actually make a career out of it? After all, the reason I butted heads with my former employer was because I was trying to get our company caught up in the digital age, and my communications director refused.

How do you start from scratch? For free.

Fun fact: My original Elance profile listed me as a Virtual Assistant. I was going to build an entire career out of doing that so that I could do writing on the side while going to school.

With the help of my unemployment benefits and my boyfriend at the time, I had some flexibility. So I threw up a website overnight, printed some business cards at FedEx, and went to my first networking event.

Pro-tip: The first time you drink after you lose your job should not be at a networking event. You will drink too much (free sympathy drinks anyone?), be way too emotional, and potentially ruin your career before it even begins.

Eventually, though, I landed my first couple of pro-bono projects doing social media. I was still trying to nail down my expertise. Was I a social media manager? Was I a writer? Was I good at customer relations? Should I be working on websites? Wait, did I need to learn SEO?

During all this, I was still trying to take classes to finish my Bachelor’s Degree, managing my emotional turmoil (not well), and trying to figure out how I was going to pay my rent down the line.

It wasn’t until Ryan Paugh hired me to be a Community Management Assistant at Brazen Careerist that things began to make sense.

Community Management.

That was the holy grail. That was the answer I’d been searching for. It made complete sense.

To this day, I still credit Ryan as the person who helped me pivot my career into what it is now. He took me under his wing and patiently gave me a chance as I flailed around like a chicken with her head cut off.

The good, the bad, and the ugly.

The good was I now had a direction. An idea of what I wanted my career to look like. A vertical I could master and focus my energy on.

The bad was the reality I still had absolutely no idea what I was doing with this freelance business. I had finally come out and began using my real name, but was it enough?

The ugly reality was that I was an emotional mess, had absolutely no idea what to charge clients, stretched myself way too thin, and constantly let down the clients I was able to secure.

The reality.

I absolutely failed as a freelancer.
There was catastrophe after catastrophe. Deadlines missed. Opportunities squandered. Bridges burned.
So where did it all go wrong? Where’s the lesson in all of this? Well, if you’ve read this far, you’ve earned the lessons, so here we go.

6 tips for freelancer success (from a failure)

If you’re going into freelancing full-time, have a plan.

I know it seems like the sexy alternative to the drone of the 9-5 office life. Escaping from your cubicle, working remotely, getting to do what you love every day – it’s the dream.

On the other hand, it can also seem like the best option when you’ve got a box in your hand in the back of a cab on a hot summer day. However, the nuances of freelancing are exhausting. The depression that comes with the fear and uncertainty is crippling.

If you’re not intentional with your decision to go into freelancing, it will knock you down and make you crawl up a jagged wall.

I had no plan. I had no savings. I had no safety net. I was just stubborn.

Define what success means for you.

What’s your endgame? What does success look like for you? Are you freelancing just to make some extra money on the side of your full-time job? Do you want to start your own business? Do you want to make a million dollars? Will you give up freelancing if the perfect full-time job fell in your lap?

If you don’t know what success looks like, it’s easy to be indecisive. If you have at least an idea of success and your path to it, you can be more selective and intentional with the opportunities you pursue. I didn’t know what success looked like for me, so I took on way too many projects, stretched myself way too thin, and ultimately sacrificed the golden opportunities for the dead-end ones.

Do a reality a check about your life.

Freelancing impacts every single aspect of your life. How are your relationships? Are you in debt? What’s your working style? How do you handle adversity? What are your goals? What’s your back-up plan? Do you have a good support system?

This was the biggest contribution to my failure. I was in a new relationship I was ultimately unhappy in, I had family issues I was dealing with, on top of debt, and the ridiculous pressure I put on myself to finish school. All of this was on top of diving into freelancing full time without a plan.

Stop the comparison game.

This is the worst thing you can do. Especially in the age of social media, when there are constant blog posts about the success of others. How to quit your job and travel the world. How Y made her first million before the age of 19. There are things to aspire to, sure, but that’s where defining YOUR success comes into play. If you start comparing your progress with others, you will stumble and fail. Your individual circumstances differ from others. Your success will never be identical.

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to success.

Never hesitate to ask for help.

It feels like a dog-eat-dog world out there, and sometimes it is. The one thing I’ve learned since the beginning of this journey is that there are people who WANT to help you succeed – but you have to ask for it. Turn down the stubbornness, turn up the vulnerability, and be honest. You cannot do it all. Despite the endless amount of information available on the web, nothing beats a 1:1 conversation over coffee with someone who has been there. Remember that everyone is busy, so when you reach out, be clear and concise.
Respect their time, their expertise, and you might be surprised at where it leads.

Know your worth.

Even though I was a communications professional with experience, I still thought freelancing meant I had to start from scratch. I cannot tell you the number of articles I wrote at a penny per word. I still get stressed out when I think about the clients who called me at 10 PM to yell at me about something that wasn’t my fault, and out of my scope of work – but I let them because I thought that’s how things worked. Do a gut check. Think about your experience and the value you bring to the table.

Don’t let others dictate your worth. Define it, and stick to it – no matter how scary it may feel.

There’s no happy ending to my story.

Well, there’s no ending. Yes, for all intents and purposes, I failed as a freelancer. But I’m just beginning my journey as a business owner. If you’re ready to join me in the adventure, stay tuned to this blog.

It should be a fun ride.

Berrak Sarikaya is an Amplifier. CMGR @Meshfire. Co-founder @7in7co. Storyteller. Content & Community strategist. SmallBiz expert. I have a PenguinPosse. I speak fluent #GIF.

Berrak Sarikaya

I’m an Amplifier. Social media marketing, content strategy & creation, and community building are just a few of the tools I use to help you achieve your goals.