Through choice or necessity, many creatives juggle a full-time job with freelancing. Tina Nielsen hears from seasoned freelancers on how to make it a success – and when it might be time to make the leap to 100% freelance.
Whether you are a full-time freelancer or in a permanent job with a creative side hustle, chances are you will have found it easier than ever to launch your freelance career.
There is little data available to show the prevalence of people with a full-time job who also take on freelance jobs, but Matthew Dowling, the founder of The Freelancer Club, says it is something he has seen more and more of. Technology has made it a lot more feasible to begin freelancing for starters.
“When I started many years ago it was deemed a brave thing to do, but that idea of taking the leap just isn’t as daunting anymore,” says Dowling.
There are many reasons for launching a career working for yourself, one being the extra cash; a way to bring in additional income. The other is the opportunity to follow a passion. “We see that a lot,” says Dowling. “Someone in a mundane job who likes the idea of expressing themselves creatively.”
He describes members of The Freelancer Club as “creative workers who have a portfolio” – for example, writers, photographers, videographers and graphic designers.
Among them are many who balance a full-time job with a freelance gig. It doesn’t come without challenges. “We get a lot of feedback from people who find it frustrating to have to turn down clients because they are not able to get out of work in time,” says Dowling. “It is a balancing act that requires a huge amount of communication and the acceptance that you won’t be able to take everything on as well as acceptance that you will be working extraordinary hours for a period of time.”
Time management is likely one of the hardest aspects of this freelance/full-time juggling act. Graphic designer Johann Hygen started freelancing a year after graduating and continued his freelance gigs once he was employed full-time by a London publishing agency. “I had no choice but to spend my evenings and weekends on freelance work and it can feel very overwhelming to come back from a tough day at work, having to open your computer and start working again,” he says. “But your freelance clients are waiting and expecting the tasks they gave you to be done as quickly as before.”
As Dowling says, “the client doesn’t care that you have a full-time job.” It is true there is a real balance to be struck between the two commitments; don’t jeopardise the client, but at the same time don’t mess up the day job by turning up tired every day due to late nights completing freelance projects.
Hygen suggests anyone looking to freelance on top of a full-time job keeps track of the hours spent on freelance work. “The first mistake I made was not setting up a schedule for the work I was doing at home and counting the hours. You need to work out if you prefer to work in the early morning or after work, for example,” he says. “From experience I would also suggest limiting the number of jobs you take on to avoid being overloaded with work. Focus on quick and easy jobs especially if your full-time work is taking up a lot of energy.”
Whatever your motivation for complementing a full-time job with freelancing, it is salient to consider why you are doing it. “If it is financially driven you have to make sure you don’t get ill or burn out and if it is to find fulfilment in your life you can take it a little slower and just pick and choose a few projects,” says Dowling.
A gradual move
For Jamie Fullerton, a journalist who freelances full-time and is based in Asia, says starting out in a permanent job and gradually moving into freelancing is helpful. “This way you get an understanding of how media outlets work on all levels and it gets you on to the ‘grid’ and shows you the perspectives of the kind of people you’ll be pitching to,” he says.
He started freelancing in a serious way after moving to China to work as the deputy editor of Time Out Shanghai. “The workload at Time Out was pretty low, I got quite bored and the freelancing was a way to keep me busy as well as for the money,” he says.
For some, combining full-time and freelance is less of a choice. Annica Wainwright joined Square Meal magazine while still a student and when she graduated from university she was offered a 4-day-a-week contract. “At the time I probably would have preferred a full-time role, but it turned out to be the best option I could have been offered,” she reflects. For her fifth day she took on freelancer gigs writing restaurant reviews and food news with a regular client as well as the occasional bigger project with a realistic lead time. “I only ever took on freelance projects that I knew I could fit into my schedule,” she explains.
In total Wainwright worked for Square Meal for 16 years but it was only in the final two years that she started thinking about launching her own business. “Setting up a freelance business is hard and being able to do it part time while having a steady income was incredibly helpful,” she says. In her last year before launching she went down to three days a week before finally making the leap in 2014 when she launched 2Forks, a restaurant copywriting and marketing business, along with a co-founder.
“By combining part-time work with freelancing you get to see if it is a good fit before you set up your own business,” she says and adds it is important to consider the freelance venture more than a side hustle. “You have to think of freelancing as a business, not just a job on the side. It took me a few years to start thinking like that, but when you do everything changes.”
On a practical level, aside from the obvious considerations about paying the right amount of tax and not breaking any existing contract with your employer, the question on whether to be open about freelance activities will depend on the individual. It is not an easy conversation to have, says Dowling. “Your boss could potentially see it as you not giving it your all or taking your eye off the ball. It is tricky but if you feel you can have this conversation, it is certainly worth having.”
In Fullerton’s case this didn’t turn out to be an issue. “The wages at Time Out Shanghai were so pathetic there was an understanding that editorial staff would freelance on the side,” he says.
On the other hand, Hygen believes telling your freelance clients about a full-time job is important. “You should let your clients know that your status has changed and explain that you are more available after 6pm for example or if it is more convenient for you to work over weekends,” he says. Eventually he had to give up some of his freelancing. “I did my best to try and keep the freelance jobs as I found them interesting and the work was bringing me some extra creative freedom, but it was hard to keep up.”
He is currently considering a move to full-time freelancing, but for now as a first step he has recently started combining full-time work in the agency with freelance photography work. “The pressure is similar but the experience I have gained from my full-time job helps a lot,” he says.
Making the leap
The ultimate aim of most part-time freelancers is to move to a 100% freelance life. Dowling says they do well to take their time. “I have seen a lot of freelancers dive in straight after a jarring moment in their life – redundancy for example – but a lack of preparation can be a dangerous starting point,” says Dowling. “The ideal scenario is to have a full-time job or some income and in the additional hours start putting your plan together, by building up some savings along with some extra clients.”
Freelance writer and editor Celia Woolfrey has never combined freelance with full-time work, but she made the move to 100% freelance from a full-time job. “You should ask yourself why you’re going freelance,” she says. “In many ways it is a hard life so the benefits need to make up for it. If you have the discipline it does give you a huge amount of freedom to combine it with things that you love. But don’t forget that if there are things that drive you up the wall about your full-time work there’ll be different things that annoy you about freelancing,” she cautions.
In China, the way Fullerton had built up a roster of clients actually meant that he eventually was earning more money through his freelance work and it made sense to do it full-time. It took some adjustments. “I’d worked full-time for magazines since the week I left university so things like getting used to periods of no work was strange but you learn that it is just part of freelancing after a while,” he says. “As long as you’re doing good work and being proactive it will only get busier because work well done leads to more work.”