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The perils of freelancing

With so many media companies battling right now and staff being laid off, one of the options for media people is to go freelance. After all this could be cool, right? No boss to answer to, no particular hours - get up when you like...
Well, that would be your first mistake. If you're going to make a success out of freelancing the first thing you have to learn is that you're likely to spend even more hours working than you did at your salaried job. There if you didn't work for a few hours, or even a day or more - no worries, your salary was in your account on the 26th of the month as always. Not so with freelancing. You don't work, you don't get paid.

Show me the money

And that's the second problem - getting the money out of clients. As someone who has been earning her living as a freelancer writer, media consultant and trainer for over 20 years I've learned the hard way about getting paid. One of the first things you have to do, whether writing for an established publication or a brand new start-up company, is to find out just how and when you're getting paid.

The ironic thing is it's often the very large, multi-national companies that you have to fight with to get your money. And don't get me started on government departments. I've now got to the point when I inform them that I won't step foot in the door without being paid first. And guess what, it works... Amazing how suddenly the accounts department can come to the party.

Specialise - and have a website

Much as you want to earn money from wherever it may come, rather try and earn your reputation in certain specialisations, such as health writing, editing or press release writing. That way you'll find yourself in smaller ponds of talent with a bigger chance of getting netted.

For people to find you though you need a great website - something that so many freelancers don't have. And I'm not talking about a good website but a great one. And here don't go to your friend's friend who knows someone who does great websites... You need someone with a proven track record of really understanding search engine optimisation and Google Ads. Otherwise you'll find your website on page 9,999 999 under your speciality.

Ultimately it comes down to doing really good work for each client, so that they spread the word and use you again and again.

Top tips for freelancing:

1. Treat it like any job - get up early each day, dress for work and hit the office
2. Make your presence known - website/blog/Twitter/Facebook
3. Specialise in what you're good at and enjoy doing
4. Make sure you are reliable and always be prepared to go the extra mile
5. Keep reinventing yourself - as trends change go with them
6. If you're a feature writer get out there and introduce yourself to editors
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About Marion Scher

Marion Scher (www.mediamentors.co.za) is an award-winning journalist, lecturer, media trainer and consultant with 25 years' experience in the industry. For more of her writing, go to her Bizcommunity profile or to Twitter @marionscher.
Deon Binneman
Hi Marion,You are spot on. I have been on my own for 17 years and it is a constant battle.The late Tom Lambert used to say that successful consultants market 75% of the time. This quote may help readers: Every morning in Africa, a gazelle awakens. It knows that it must outrun the fastest lion that day, or be eaten. Every morning in Africa, a lion also awakens. It knows that it must outrun the slowest gazelle, or starve to death.The moral of the story is this: Whether you are a gazelle or a lion, when you wake up, you had better be running. In today’s fast moving knowledge economy you better be building and protecting your reputation. You only have one chance at making an indelible impression. Just for interested readers I facilitate a workshop called Marketing a Consulting Practice 3 - 4 times a year. It is ideal for those starting out or those people who want to boost their marketing efforts. Next one - 17 May in Jozi.
Posted on 11 Apr 2013 13:37
Pierre Morel
Great Article and i can relate to your points but one that seems to be overlooked is the emotional side of freelancing. At first like most i always had the idea that the work load whether it be overwhelming or scraping the classified sites for business would be the toughest task; however i think most freelancers will agree that the emotional side should be included as valid points in articles such as these. Should i get up as i have no work waiting, where to market next, is it worth it and one that i have heard on a few outing with fellow freelancers; my partner runs the financial side of the household, and this is an issue specifically for male freelancers. It is emotionally tolling to not take a salary as any new freelancer would have to put every cent back to make the business work as well as separate yourself from luxuries, family time and for those who don't have office space; spending hours at home (think cabin fever).I think any individual who wants to step into the fierce freelance space needs to understand that besides not taking a salary, the long hours and battling it out for ranking is only part of the reality. The emotional side has a tight grip on your business success.
Posted on 11 Apr 2013 14:00
Marion Scher
Thanks Deon, I think your tips really add to this. I absolutely spend 75% of my time marketing. There's no easy passage to successful freelancing...
Posted on 11 Apr 2013 15:51
Marion Scher
Please get in touch with me at journo@icon.co.za
Posted on 11 Apr 2013 15:52
teddy muthusi
Great article and really inspiring comments.Just jumped into the freelance world (advertising copywriter) after years in agencies and media houses. Love the shares on your experiences. Thank you.
Posted on 11 Apr 2013 16:20
Paul Caine
Have been freelancing for about 3 years now and boy has it been a battle and still is. I have never been one to go out cold canvassing, itsjust not in my personality. I am a good Print and Web designer butwish I could get myself out there better. I am redoing my website andam learning SEO as best I can. I am thinking of bringing a salespersonin to help me find work. Any suggestions?
Posted on 11 Apr 2013 18:20
Lauren Copley
Good article - thanks Marion! I have been freelancing on an off (between permanent jobs) for about 30 years as a specialist writer, editor and web content specialist. Despite the uncertainties, I still love it - too much of a maverick to ever do a 9-5 again! However, as you say in your post, getting money out of clients if often incredibly difficult. I have learnt through hard experience to adopt a policy: I do not take on new clients or projects unless it makes me feel interested, enthusiastic or passionate! Having to deal with a client from hell or a project you hate is far more soul destroying than making a point of finding areas that you enjoy and are good at. I also think it is critically important to give some thought to your ideal client and work hard at recruiting people like that.The worst thing as a freelancer is to just chase after money, regardless of the client or type of job. I have vowed never to become a production machine churning out reams of mediocre copy as I believe it really damages my creativity. Would love to work with you sometime Marion and thanks once again for the great post!
Posted on 12 Apr 2013 08:02
Marion Scher
It's so great to get so much feedback from an article. I've had emails and even calls from other freelancers - pretty much in the same position as all of us. Maybe we should find a way to practically network as I'm sure there has to be synergy here...
Posted on 12 Apr 2013 11:57
Rod Baker
Something else freelancers should know: you are only as good as your last assignment - so make sure you give 110% to EVERY assignment you do. There are so many freelancers out there chasing assignments that if you mess up, finding a replacement is not a great problem.Secondly, unless you can give everything to a particular assignment, rather decline it, making it clear that you are doing so simply because you cannot give it your best, due to prior commitments or whatever. I would be far more inclined to go back to a freelancer in such a case, than if he or she had accepted an assignment and then been unable to produce the goods.
Posted on 12 Apr 2013 13:04
Michelle Jacobs
As a freelance sponsorships consultant I find that clients expect me to take on projects "on risk", i.e. no retainer only commission when the sponsorship investment is received. This makes doing business very difficult as day to day running costs need to be covered e.g. communication costs, travel,etc.
Posted on 12 Apr 2013 16:34
James Siddall
This is a nice piece, Marion. I remember you well from 1996 when I was deputy editor of Playboy, and you placed two young interns with us.I have been freelancing since 1997 and it seems to get harder, not easier - largely because many publications are paying the same rate as a decade or two ago.For instance, one national Sunday newspaper that I regularly write for - and on whose behalf I won a 2011 Vodacom Journo of the Year Award - pays R1-00 per word. The same rate that we were paying our freelancers over 21 years ago, when I was a young writer on Scope magazine.Another Sunday newspaper that I also regularly write for pays R1-50 per word. The same rate that Business Day's long-defunct AfterHours supplement was paying me 16 years ago. This same Sunday newspaper encourages me to shoot my own pics to go with my stories, thus saving them dispatching a photographer. Per pic they pay R60-00 - or R45-00 after tax. When I first heard the rate, I quite honestly thought a zero had been left off, and even if it had, it'd still be a fairly minimal rate.If these rates are ever questioned, The Budget is cited, as if it's some inviolate Act of God, But I somehow doubt that these publications' advertising rates, cover prices or indeed staff salaries have stayed frozen for the past decade or two.I do like writing for these newspapers. But I also enjoy having money for luxuries such as rent - I live in a modest garden cottage - dog food, and 3G data. Food for myself would be nice, too.Corporate journalism is seeming increasingly attractive.
Posted on 2 May 2013 07:49