Contract and freelance roles have been on the rise for a while, but thanks to the pandemic, more people than ever are finding themselves in contingent roles. Many people have been laid off, and since the job market is bleak in some industries, there’s been a big shift in companies hiring on a contract basis or outsourcing work rather than keeping a staff of in-house employees.
Depending on your profession and industry, you might have already been headed down the freelancer path, or you might be newly out of work and trying to navigate the concept of being your own boss and pursuing jobs on a per-project basis or short-term contract. Let’s discuss some strategies that will help you thrive as you pursue roles as an independent contractor.
Set Your Game Plan
Before you leap into contract work, it’s ideal to have some time to do some thinking and set your goals and mastermind your plan of attack. Any good career plan should be flexible, since you never know what the future holds and what any one contract will lead to.
You might want to pursue roles that are similar to what you’ve been doing previously, or you might see this as a time to pursue roles related to a side hustle—or a combination of the two. If you’re contemplating a career change, this might be your time to get after a fresh start.
Great! You’re ready to get started working on your own! Sometimes you might have a project already lined up, but in most cases you’ll need get out there and find work yourself.
• Start networking with potential clients.
• Update your LinkedIn profile to indicate that you’re working as a freelancer and that you’re open to opportunities.
• Connect with other people in the industry that are successfully working as a contractor and ask if you can pick their brain on how they got started.
• Cold-contact brands that you want to work for.
• Find the right job boards (Indeed isn’t always the best place to look).
• Check our niche job boards, positions posted on social media channels, and sign up for job-seeking newsletters in your industry. For example, I subscribe to Freelance Writing Opportunities and wake up to a list of jobs for Canadian writers.
If you’re new to the industry or just getting your start, it’s a good idea to stay humble in your job search. If you’re a freelance photographer with dreams of shooting campaigns for global fashion brands, don’t expect to get there right away. Hone your skills and get paid doing things like photographing weddings or taking headshots. If you’re a social media marketing newcomer, you won’t necessarily be running campaigns for big-name brands just yet, but maybe there’s a local dentist who wants to get established on Twitter—if it’s paid experience in your field, you’ll likely want to accept small jobs where you can find them, and use them as a stepping stone for building your portfolio and moving onwards and upwards..
Become Agile with Technology
There are all sorts of ways to work as a freelancer, whether it’s on a project-by-project basis, with a 6-month contract, as a consultant working alongside an established in-house team. Regardless of the type of employment arrangement you have or what in, one of the most important skills to have is the ability to be agile, especially when it comes to technology.
Ideally, you’ll come educated/experienced in your own industry-specific programs, like Adobe Suite, Canva, Hootsuite, or MS Office Suite, or you can take courses to learn the basics. But keep in mind that each business has their own systems for communication and doing the actual work, whether that’s a simple Google doc or a complex CRM solution.
You’re not expected to know every platform out there (and impossible feat) but the ability to quickly familiarize yourself and pick up new technology is key to being able to dive into a new contract.
Here’s a real life example: As a freelance writer and content strategist with an average of 8 – 10 clients/projects at any given time, I’m constantly learning new platforms, depending on what systems my clients use. On any given day I’m messaging clients on Slack, organizing projects on Trello, managing a team of writers and editors and creating content in Talkoot, tracking my hours with Toggl, and conferencing Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Skype, and collaborating on projects via SharePoint, Google Docs and Sheets. I don’t have formal training in any of these systems, but when a new clients brings me on board and introduces me to a new software, the need to master it quickly is essential to getting the work done and successfully integrating into their organization’s needs.
Set Your Rates
Some roles come with a pre-determined rate that the employer has set, and other times you may be asked to propose your own rates. Ugh—this is right up there with negotiating a salary during a job interview. If you’re working as a contractor in the same industry and similar position to what you’ve already been doing, it’s fairly straightforward to ask for similar compensation. You can always start by asking what their budget is and see if you can get a sense for what they have in mind. If they don’t offer you any guidance, take matters into your own hands
Research the Range for Your Industry
If you’re just getting started in a new industry and aren’t sure how to set your rates, start by researching online. Search for “Average freelance writing rate Canada” or “freelance photography rates Canada” to get an idea of what others in your field are being paid. You’ll likely find a wide wage range, so next you have to determine where you fall in the experience spectrum. If you’re brand new in the industry with no experience, set your rates at the lower end (and increase as you gain experience. . If you’re a seasoned digital marketer who is now working as an independent contractor, you can command a higher rate given your experience.
Determine an Appropriate Rate Structure
The type of rate that you set also depends on the kind of work you’re doing. For example, freelance writers are sometimes paid per word, or other times it’s on a per project basis or an hourly rate. Social media consultants might be paid per post or on a monthly cadence. Business analyst contractors are typically paid hourly.
Crunch the Numbers
Think about what makes sense the type of work that you do and what makes you comfortable, and do the math! If you’re offered $5,000 for a project, that might sound impressive, but take the time to think about what’s involved and how long it will actually take you to complete it. If you estimate that you’ll have to work 100 hours on it, that is a very different rate than if you think you’ll take 250 hours.
Account for Benefits
Keep in mind that as a contractor you aren’t receiving health benefits and paid vacation the way you would be if you were a permanent employee, so take this into consideration and increase your freelance rates accordingly. On average, a standard benefits plan and vacation package are worth up to around 30 percent of your salary, so you can add that to your contractor rates to make sure you’re being compensated fairly.
Think It Over
As with any type of compensation negotiation, don’t feel like you have to respond to an offer right away or answer a question about your rates on the spot. If I’m unsure of how I want to structure my rates for a particular project, I like to say, “Let me put some thought into this project and what type of rate structure makes the most sense. I’ll get back to you by tomorrow morning with proposal and we can discuss from there.”
Set Employment Terms Upfront
As a freelancer or independent contractor, you need to be your own advocate. “No one looks out for you the way you do,” my mom always told me, and she was right. This means that I’m the one in charge of making sure that I get paid on time, that I’m being treated fairly, and that my services aren’t being taken advantage of.
Before getting down to doing any actual work with a new client, make sure you have agreed on all employment terms upfront. For example:
• How often will you submit your invoices?
• What is their payment cycle?
• How will you receive payment?
• Who owns the rights to the work you do?
• What is the cancellation policy if either party wants to terminate the project?
• What is the project scope?
• When are the deadlines?
Plan Your Workload
When I first started freelancing I would say yes to any job that came my way because I was just so happy that I was getting paid to do what I love to do. That quickly got my into hot water because many deadlines overlapped and I’d often bite off more than I could chew. Because I pride myself on never missing a deadline, this often meant pulling all-nighters to get projects done on time—not my ideal situation.
In order to be successful and maintain a certain quality of life and level of sanity, I now think twice before jumping into a new project and I consider several factors:
• How many hours am I already working each week?
• How many hours will this project take?
• Are the deadlines and project timelines flexible?
• Besides the project, what other work is required (sitting on Zoom calls for feedback), review meetings with the client, etc.)
For me, a simple weekly time-tracking spreadsheet lets me plan how much time I’ll spend on each client and what my total weekly hours are. In this, I always account for a chunk of “miscellaneous” hours—time spent on “quick emails or a chat with a client” can add up to more than you might think, so be realistic with your planning to account for that time as well. If the numbers start to creep over my maximum, the I know that I either have to start saying no to new opportunities, or I need to see which deadlines can be shuffled around to free up additional time.
One important thing that I also consider is: How excited am I for this opportunity? If a project is going to stretch my time thin, I have to make sure I really want it. I don’t want to work all weekend and stay up all hours of the night working on a project or for a brand that I’m not passionate about. If it’s a dream opportunity, then that’s a different story!
Don’t Forget About Admin
Gone are the days of pay cheques automatically appearing in my bank account. If I want to get paid, then I’m the one who needs to stay on top of it. It’s not the most fun or glamorous side of being a freelancer, but performing administrative tasks are essential to your success.
Some things that you’ll need to do:
• Submit invoices to your client at the agreed upon frequency
• Create an invoice template that you can easily fill in and submit
• Track your hours if you’re being paid by the hours (you can’t just ballpark it)
• Create a calendar where you can see when you have off-periods where you might not be getting paid if you don’t have projects happening then
• Submit GST payments to Revenue Canada if applicable
This is another time where spreadsheets, calendars, and time tracking apps will be your best friend so you can easily keep track of what needs to be done, which invoices are outstanding, and what kind of behind-the-scenes admin time you might need to put in each week or month.
Branching out into a career as an independent isn’t easy, but with the right planning and approach, you can be successful at it. Whether you’re out of work and looking to fill the gap before you find your next job, or you’re developing a long-term freelance career, purposeful goal setting, realistic expectations, and hard work are all necessary to excel on your own. You can do anything you put your mind do, so get out there, put the work in, and see what kinds of opportunities you can create for yourself.
Don’t forget the importance of having a strong resume and portfolio to send to potential freelance clients. Along with a killer resume, get a polished and professional One Page Portfolio, created personally for you by Style Nine to Five’s Founder, Christie Lohr. It’s an essential asset that will become an invaluable part of applying for new freelance projects.
By: Jeanine Gordon – Jeanine is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for creating stellar content for global brands and small businesses alike – specializing in fashion and lifestyle.
Feature Image: Adobe Stock