Fighting off Freelance Competition – The Gentleman Freelancer
Good day, my freelancer friends
Welcome to my first post about the hopes, fears, trials and successes of life as a freelancer. I’m here to share my freelance stories with you, in the hope you’ll relate to them and tell us your own experiences. If I can impart some small nuggets of wisdom along the way, so much the better – Learning from yours and other’s mistakes is essential to being a successful freelancer.
Why “The Gentleman Freelancer?”
That’s a good question. I believe a calm, courteous, thoughtful and thoughtful approach goes a long way in business and life (it’s worked well so far). I believe it’s important to be a thoroughly decent chap, and that has helped me hold onto my Englishness since relocating to the US.
A little about me
So as not to bore you, here’s the briefest background for your erstwhile host. I’ve worked in business, finance and communications for many years, and have managed a small freelance proofreading and editing business since 2006. These stories will share some of the insight and experiences I’ve had.
The early days of a freelance business
When we got into the freelance editing and proofreading area in 2006, it was a pretty empty field. My wife (our chief editor) had a long background in journal editing – She bought some clients with her when she went freelance. It was a golden time – I was still working full-time, helping out with our own business over the weekends. The business started small, making around £10,000 a year, but we grew it pretty quickly.
A golden time in freelancing
Redundancy struck me in 2010, and I started running the freelance business full time. By then, we’d grown to a turnover of £30,000 a year, peaking to around £45,000 in 2013. It was a golden time – We had enough to live on (albeit slightly frugally), but we’d noticed something…
The barrier to entry for freelance proofreaders and editors was dropping, and dropping fast. There were lots of new freelancers coming into the field. This was driven by the economic recession and the rash promises of the “proofreader training correspondence courses” assuring people they could make thousands a month (spoiler – you can’t, at least not for a few years).
The slow, slow decline of a freelance business
Low barriers to entry, low expectations and low prices
The problem with lots of new competition coming in, is cutthroat pricing. New freelancers are desperate for clients, so they cut pricing down to a minimum, until they’re only earning £5 – £6 an hour. These freelancers don’t last long at that rate, but there are always more people waiting in the wings to replace them, convinced they can make it big.
This is a huge issue for established businesses charging more for high-quality work – Because the field is so price sensitive and saturated, potential clients don’t want to hear about “quality” or “added value”, all they wanted was to get their work edited as cheaply as possible.
A freelancer in a new land
In late 2013, I emigrated to the US, and if I thought things were bad in the UK, well I hadn’t seen anything yet… The freelance landscape in the US is even more competitive – Far more freelancers, more agencies, better established freelance businesses – I started to feel worried.
It was a dark time for the freelancer…
I am boringly obsessive about tracking money – I love spreadsheets (don’t judge me!) and have spreadsheets and accounting apps for everything – I am the life of the party! These spreadsheets were telling me something bad – We weren’t earning enough. Our nest egg and emergency budget were being chipped away.
In our first year in the US, our income fell to around £19,000; our second year didn’t fare much better, at around £24,000 before taxes. We were spending £30,000 a year on basic living expenses, it just wasn’t sustainable.
Taking things personally
I’ve always been an insomniac, but it got really bad. I’d lay awake at night worrying about money, then I’d sleep fitfully. I’d wake up and then spend the next hour and a half in bed worrying about money some more. I was paralyzed by my fear and anxiety, and those things are the absolute kryptonite of getting stuff done. My self-confidence was taking a big hit.
Is there a way back?
We made some improvements to the freelancing proofreading and editing business – A new website, more AdWords advertising (and you know how expensive that can be), asking for referrals. Things improved a bit, but it wasn’t enough. We needed to find another source of income, and quickly.
Like any stubborn freelancer, there was no way I was going to work for someone else. At the same time, I’d tried several other businesses which were… unspectacular (blogs, affiliates, revenue sharing websites and more). If I was going to solve this, I had to take a step back and think “What am I really good at, and what am I passionate about?”
Finding my groove
It was a pretty simple question to answer – In the work sphere, I liked research, writing, business and finance. I’d competed some freelance writing as part of our editing business, had worked as a communications manager in IT, and had a good amount of project management experience. I decided to become a freelance writer in the business, finance and tech fields.
That was it, I saw a way forward, a massive weight was lifted. I could breathe (and sleep) again.
Sometimes all you need is to “Get it done”
Once I’d made the decision to be a full-time freelance writer, everything started falling into place. I built a simple freelance writer portfolio site, created some contracts, and started connecting with people.
It’s a lot of work – In the first few months I applied for over 200 freelance writing gigs (and got about 10 – 15 of them), set up all sorts of job alerts and had some people balk at my prices. (Content mills can charge 1 – 2 pence a word, I was charging 10 – 12 pence.)
That’s where being a gentleman and having some business insight came in useful – Courtesy and respect do a lot to build trust (and create repeat business), meaning happier clients who want to keep using you. It’s also why it’s so important to value yourself and your services.
Where we are now
I’ve been a full-time freelance writer since early 2016, and I can’t believe how rapidly it’s grown. My self-confidence has been given a huge boost, I’ve connected with dozens of truly excellent people, become part of a great community of freelancers and I truly enjoy my work. Once I used to worry so much I didn’t want to get up in the morning, now I can’t wait to get to my desk and do my work.
It’s been a financial success too – I’ve taken on around 15-20 clients this year, and I’m projecting we’ll make around £55,000 – £60,000 between us. Freelancing can be tough, but it can also be tremendously rewarding. If you do what you love, and love what you do, people notice, and that means more success for you.
I learned a few things from this experience:
- Always be aware of your competition and how the freelance marketplace is changing.
- Don’t be afraid of money – Track how you’re doing. Coconut can help with that.
- If things aren’t going in the right direction, act now. You just need to get started.
- There’s always a way forward.
- If it doesn’t work, what’s the worst that could happen?
- Always be polite and respectful, it gets you a long way.
Thanks for listening. I’d love it if you could share your stories. If there’s anything you want me to cover, please let me know.