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Freelancing, Fraud Police and How to Take Yourself Seriously

At 20-something, it feels like every conversation leads with, “So, what do you do?” and every single time, I panic because, what this question really means is:

“How do you make money?” “How do you support yourself?” “Do you support yourself?”

It’s hard calling yourself an artist, writer, freelance businesswoman. I can say it to myself over and over again but I feel kind of weird about it. Will the Fraud Police ever stop breathing down my neck yelling, “Get a real job!”?

Does everyone feel like that? Does it ever go away? It’s 2017, what even is a Real Job?

For every one person who doubles taps a drawing on my instagram or shares a blog I write, I expect three comments saying:

“You’ve swindled these poor people!”

“@Actual_IRL_Artist did it better, quit embarassing yourself. Fuxin’ poser!”

“Want to get 1,000+ followers? Click the link in my bio to find out more! xoxo #love”

And even though I usually don’t get comments like that, I convince myself that the Fraud Police are sitting at a really cool bar, surrounded by all their really cool, successful friends laughing at me and the dancing skeleton I posted an hour ago that only has 8 likes.

Defining who you are in a professional capacity when you don’t work in a traditional “professional” capacity is tricky. Sometimes, when I tell people I’m a freelancer they look at me as though I’ve just said “I wish on shooting stars for unexpected deposits in my PayPal account!”

I’ve started to catch my freelance footing but it’s been a long winding road of figuring out how to take myself seriously (and to convince other people to do the same). So, I thought I’d give some advice to anyone starting to figure it out.

1. Know your worth

If you don’t know your worth, do some research before you make a bid. Figure out what your skills are worth before anyone even asks. I made this mistake a few times:

My Bid Was Too Low: I was put on the spot about a project I knew I was perfect for but didn’t know how much my skills were worth. I got the job but ended up spending a lot of time on it for a handful of pennies. If you tell someone you’ll paint the Mona Lisa for $100, they’re not going to come back with, “Only $100? No, no honey, you’re worth much more than that!” They’re going to say “ok” and give you a deadline.

This was one of the first freelance job I landed, I had done this exact work before, but as an hourly employee and had never stopped to think how much my time plus my overhead cost. Considering I had to buy a new computer just to finish, I actually ended up losing money on a project that should have been a huge win.

My Bid Was Too High: A client gave my name to one of their friends to do a t-shirt design for their small business. I had only ever done t-shirt designs for free for school projects so I didn’t know how to price this project so, I did some research online to see what other people charged. The clients took my initial bid but said they couldn’t afford to do work with me in the future.

The problem: I was basing my prices off professionals who had been at this for years and were designing shirts for huge companies, not newbies working for mom and pop’s. This time I had done research just bad research.  

I Had No Bid: I was working as an independent contractor for a company who wanted to launch a new website. The job I was getting paid for didn’t cover any web building aside from the occasional copy update. They we’re going to find a web designer online to do the project for them but, since the build would be fairly simple and I was already writing all of the content for it, I said I would do it.

I hadn’t occurred to me that even though they were prepared to pay someone else to do the job, didn’t mean that they were going to pay me extra for doing extra work if I didn’t bring it up.

Lesson: If you don’t ask for money, you’ll probably never get it. I never got paid for that project.

Now I know how much I need to charge for my services-- to make money and cover my overhead. I even know what my overhead is! I also reevaluate this every few months just to make sure I’m not charging too much or too little. For help figuring how to price your freelance services, this is a good place to start.

2. Invest In Yourself

If you’re just graduating college and starting to freelance, it isn’t likely that you’re sitting on gobs of cash. I wouldn’t advise taking out a loan or even a credit card to pay for freelance costs, especially in the very beginning. You’re just starting out and you don’t want to spend your first year’s income paying off debt from a $3,000 laptop and a fancy office. But, spend what you can on things that you really need.

I mentioned buying a new laptop for a project I was working on. That was a necessary expense. My handed down hand-me-down 13” Toshiba could barely open Photoshop and made my life 100x harder. I was making barely enough to pay for rent and white rice but I knew this was something I really needed.

I spent $800 on a used 17” Macbook Pro on Ebay and another $200 on a solid state internal hard drive that I installed myself and that thing still runs like a champ! It can even can run Photoshop and Illustrator and Spotify at the same time! I was also able to sell my Toshiba for $100 to a friend who needed a cheap laptop for a study abroad program - win, win!

A few weeks ago, I finally invested in a Wacom drawing tablet (read more about that here) for illustration and design projects. These investments have made working easier and mean I can do more work in less time. Ah the wonders of technology!

My Wacom tablet and Macbook paid for themselves in less than a year and, now I don’t have to turn down jobs because I don’t have the equiptment to do them.

3. Just Go For It

If you think you can do something (or can learn how to) throw your hat into the ring. If you say you can do something, people will believe you most of the time. In my experience, saying, “Oh, I could do that for you,” gets you noticed 9/10 times and gets you the job 7/10 times. Of course having a portfolio to back it up and putting yourself in those situations is a different story (for another blog) but speaking up is half the battle. If you’re hesitant about offering your services, a potential client isn’t going to hesitate on passing. So don’t be a wuss.

Also, doing the Wonder Woman stance in the mirror is surprisingly empowering. Give that a try too.