How do you imagine the freelance lifestyle? If you’re like most people, you think it’s a frantic life full of project-hopping, pitching, meeting deadlines, and oversleeping team meetings because you got drunk on a beach in Bali the previous night. The stereotypical freelancer is chaotic and makes up for his lack of organization with hustle and intensity.
This description is not entirely wrong — the freelance life can be all those things, particularly if the freelancer in question is young and devoid of responsibilities.
But to succeed as a career freelancer, in the long run, different qualities are needed. Through more than a decade of freelancing I have learned which traits help you succeed and which ones just make your life a mess.
Here are the top five traits of a successful freelancer.
Being easy to work with is the most universally desirable trait in the business world.
In addition to being a freelancer myself, I’ve also hired dozens of freelancers over the years. You wouldn’t believe how many act like rock stars. Some expect you to adapt to their schedule seven time zones away. Some are unwilling to discuss the project with other team members. Some have an unending feeling of entitlement. Some are unable to accept criticism without throwing a fit.
Simply being pleasant and open-minded in every interaction will — believe it or not — set you apart from most people. This doesn’t come as naturally as we may like to think. If you want to be a consistently positive force in your team (whether freelance or not) I strongly recommend reading Ray Dalio’s book, ”Principles”.
When you receive a message from a client, just respond. It’s not complicated. But — again, you may be surprised — most freelancers tune out for large portions of the day.
I get it — you have your free time and you don’t want to be bothered. But freelancing isn’t a full-time job where your employer is buying eight hours of your time per day. Your freelance clients are buying your expertise, not your time. They are putting their business in your hands and they need to know those hands are safe.
Always respond promptly. Even if the response is “OK I will check in the morning” your client will be relieved that you can be reached in case something urgent happens.
With no manager hanging over your shoulder, it is up to you to maintain a level of productivity from day to day.
Scheduling/productivity apps help but, primarily, your mind has to be in the right place. It’s easy to slack off as a freelancer. I’ll take today off, party tomorrow night, beach the next day, I’ll make up for lost time next weekend, and so on. Flexibility is, indeed, one of the great positives of freelancing, but there is a difference between flexibility and chaos.
To enjoy flexibility you must first implement a system and set reasonable boundaries for yourself. Some days, you won’t feel like working, but you must work. Other days, you won’t feel like sending pitches to clients, but guess what? Nobody else is gonna do it for you.
If you can’t discipline yourself, you will end up working under a boss who will discipline you by force.
Always do what you said you’ll do, when you said you’d do it. If something prevents you from meeting a deadline, communicate the issue to the client clearly and openly. Always take ownership of the project you’re working on, and that includes problems and delays.
Without traditional company structures in place (clocking in, in-person meetings, a strict hierarchy) it is easy to become a lone gunman who reports to nobody. But this isn’t the wild west — this is a project that may make or break your client’s business. Treat it as such. Where structures don’t exist, you must fill the gaps yourself to put your client at ease regarding your dedication to their goals.
To paraphrase Tony Montana:
All I have in this world is my word and my laptop, and I don’t break ’em for no one.
Dedication to your craft
Quality of work can only be sustainable if you take pride in what you create.
It’s all too easy for freelancers to submit half-baked work, particularly in software development where the quality of code isn’t readily apparent. Unlike enterprise companies, freelance clients generally don’t have quality assurance teams to review your work. It is therefore often up to you to maintain high standards of work.
Eventually, poor work becomes visible. Whether through poor performance or through a third-party review (as a freelancer, I’ve seen some horrific things done by other freelancers) lack of quality will be exposed.
If you have a deep respect for your craft, you shouldn’t have this problem. If you lack that deep respect, imagine what it would be like to have it and act that way. You will thank yourself later.
Putting it all together
I’ve made some of the mistakes outlined here in my early days as a freelancer. I enjoyed the lifestyle a tad bit too much, I suppose. I was lucky enough that my lax attitude didn’t cost me more than I could afford to lose.
In the meanwhile, I’ve read a lot about decision-making, productivity, performance, risk, and more. As an honorable mention in addition to the five traits above, I’d add breadth. Although not precisely a trait, breadth is crucial. If you don’t believe me, I recommend reading the book ”Range” by David Epstein.
And, whatever you do, never stop reading.
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