April 9, 2012
So, You Want to be a Freelancer?
Learn From Professionals Who’ve Made the Leap
Paige Pauli left her office job last January to devote more time to her flourishing freelance Web design business. She says the move has paid off in more ways than one.
Paige Pauli's escape from the confines of 9-to-5 office work was really more of a long, plodding farewell.
A week after graduating from Pitzer College in 2008 with a degree in psychology, Pauli was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. She moved back to her native Seattle and took a dull job as an office assistant, not knowing how much she could work while undergoing chemotherapy.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do," Pauli said. "I was going through chemo. I was in this boring office job. I was in this rut."
What helped get her through it was enrolling in the University of Washington's Certificate in Web Design, a nod to her earlier artistic pursuits. She had always loved art and design, and in college, she hoped to minor in dance until an injury curtailed those plans. She minored in art instead.
The courses reinvigorated her with the sort of mental stimulation absent in her work life. It would be an opportunity to develop new skills and boost her resume, and a chance to start over.
A New Chapter
Cancer-free shortly before earning her certificate in 2009, Pauli went to work as alumni director at Seattle Academy, herself a graduate of the high-achieving college preparatory school. When word got out that Pauli had some Web design know-how, she was asked to revamp the school’s existing website.
Pauli began to notice a dramatic improvement in her abilities the more time she poured into her work.
After two years at Seattle Academy, Pauli gave her six months' notice last June. She loved the job and her colleagues, but she had reached her creative ceiling.
Her continued progression led to an initial batch of projects, devoting whatever time she could to completing them.
"I would work eight hours at my job during the day, and I would come home and work until midnight on other projects," she said. "It was a lot of work, but I was really loving everything I was doing. It didn’t feel like a burden."
In the meantime, she braced for the uncertainties of self-employment, proceeding under one key directive: If it isn’t going well after six months, find a plan B.
Pauli never had to figure out what her fallback would be, becoming a full-fledged independent designer and front-end Web developer last January and lining up projects along the way.
The Year of the Entrepreneur
As far as the IRS is concerned, self-employment is an umbrella term that covers freelancers, consultants and small business owners.
Some 15 million Americans fall under that class, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Other estimates peg the number at 20 million, or much higher.
The flexibility afforded by self-employment is the most cited reason why working professionals – creative and otherwise – decide to strike out alone. For others, the appeal lies in the security of added wages in a still-shaky economy.
Working from cafés and home offices is being lauded as the new norm, and technology has made it possible for just about anyone to launch a home business overnight, just two of the reasons one Time Magazine writer dubbed it the "Year of the Entrepreneur."
Itching to make the full-time transition yourself? You’ll have lots to consider.
Weighing the Risks
Michelle Goodman, a 20-year veteran of the freelance circuit and author of The Anti 9-to-5 Guide and My So-Called Freelance Life, cautions that self-employment isn’t all rainbows and butterflies. There are contracts to draft, health insurance premiums to pay and taxes to get right.
Michelle Goodman authored My So-Called Freelance Life in 2008, her second book on the ins and outs of freelancing.
And it can be a bit of a gamble. Bidding adieu to your day job might mean the loss of valuable benefits.
Goodman suggests factoring those types of costs into a personal budget, in addition to calculating the business expenses you might incur during your first year. With those two estimates in mind, you’ll know what to charge your clients.
Because regular 9-to-5s are no longer the security blanket they once were, she encourages anyone with post-cube aspirations to go for it – eventually. Moonlighting might be a better bet initially.
The upside is that successful freelancers tend to out-earn those with parallel office position.
"I think it’s something worth checking out for sure," she said of freelancing. "Just don't leave the job without any freelance work lined up."
In Search of Greener Pastures
Branding consultant Maren Finzer, a former marketing director at Seattle Athletic Club, caught the freelancing bug after returning to school in 2008 for a crash course in digital marketing through the UW Certificate in Marketing Management.
A businessman from the recession-hit construction industry approached Finzer and a couple of classmates to help reshape his brand and rescue his company.
Thanks to their efforts, his phone did ring again – with the news that he had won a major contract.
The success of that campaign was enough to convince Finzer to take the risk and fly solo. She relies on word-of-mouth referrals and networking for new business, two of the most prescribed methods of extracting new clients.
Jenifer Kooiman, then 34, joined the ranks of freelance professionals in 2005 after completing the UW Certificate in Editing.
Her UW instructors put in a good word to the editors at Alaska Airlines Magazine. That led to her first copyediting gigs. A cold call to Washington CEO Magazine, which has since folded, amounted to another paid project.
She no longer frets about the need for new clients, receiving steady work from two prominent journal publishers – Oxford University Press and Sage Publications.
"I was single, so I didn’t have to worry about supporting a family," Kooiman said of her decision to take the plunge. "Some months, I was scraping by, living off credit cards for a short period, but the work kept coming."
Her First Client: Dad
Last January, Pauli netted her first client as a full-time freelancer: her father’s small aerospace company, which was in need of a website.
One of Paige Pauli's current ventures is designing the WhichBus mobile web app, providing users with trip-planning capabilities and real-time public transit data.
She netted another at last January’s Startup Weekend, a 54-hour event in which entrepreneurs form teams and pitch their ideas to a panel of judges. Pauli joined a group that was building a mobile transit app called WhichBus.
By late Sunday, they had developed a demo with Pauli's styling.
The work caught the eye of Jenny Lam, an event judge and co-founder of the Seattle-based software and user experience agency Jackson Fish Market.
An initial meeting between the two resulted in 25 hours of work for Pauli each week, in addition to designing websites for a number of other clients. Her cash flow rivals what she was earning before. And more importantly, the creative calling that once seemed so beyond Pauli's grasp has finally been unearthed.
"In the beginning," Pauli recounts, "there were days when I was like, 'Oh gosh, what am I doing. Why did I do this?' Other days, 'No, this is awesome – why am I second-guessing myself?' There were fluctuations. Now, things are going great."
Working in Sweatpants: A Dream Come Alive
Life outside the cube has its perks, but Pauli still relies on the structure of a morning routine to set the tone for her workdays.
Contrary to the notion that freelancers wake up at noon and work in a bathrobe and slippers, Pauli gets a head start to the day by dropping her husband off at work and running errands.
She'll then settle down to work in her apartment's well-lit living room, recently converted to a home office. The couple's television was a casualty of the move, relegated to the smaller den.
As it turns out, no two stay-at-home creative professionals are made the same.
A lot has changed for Goodman since she first appeared on the freelance writing scene as a 24-year-old with "the business sense of a beagle." Gone are the 60-hour work weeks and all-nighters.
She's even reverted back to the dreaded 9-to-5 schedule that spawned her books, aligning her schedule with that of her husband.
She has the freedom to walk her dog in the middle of the day and sets aside weekends for friends and her own creative pursuits.
"If I kept working that way," she said, referring to the erratic schedule she once kept, "I wouldn't have any friends. My family would stop talking to me. The guy I married would be like, 'Why did we get married again?' My dog would pee on the floor. You just can't do it forever."
But what hasn't changed is her work attire.
"I'm not one of those people that gets dressed," she said. "I have work sweatpants. So I do change. I don't like working in a bathrobe or the clothes I slept in."
As for Pauli, she admits feeling challenged by her work almost every day. Clients sometimes ask her to take on projects that she isn't always prepared for. But even the toughest days beat mind-numbing office work.
By a longshot.
"I fell into it," she says of freelancing. "I love it, and I’ve realized that this is what I really enjoyed doing."
To explore a variety of UW Professional & Continuing Education certificates, degrees and courses that can help you become your own boss, visit www.pce.uw.edu/finder.aspx or contact us.