Do You Have What it Takes to be a Freelancer?

By Carly Milne

Woman laying on a hammock working on a laptopAdmit it – you dream of casting off the chains of nine to five employment. You fantasize about leaving your Office Space-like environment in a blaze of glory, and picture yourself gleefully bidding your cubicle mates adieu amid the dust you leave in your wake on your way out the door.

You’re not alone in your freelance employment desires. Roughly 23.5 million Americans are working from home, and by 2010 that number is expected to climb to 40 million. More people than ever before are taking the self-employment plunge, but does that mean it’s the right step for you?

“Freelancers are generally people who aren’t afraid to take a leap or rely on themselves,” says Avital Binshtock, a freelance writer and editor from Los Angeles. “Freelancing requires quite a bit of self-confidence in one’s abilities, as you don’t have a fixed schedule or a boss to keep you productive. The motivation to work has to come from within, so you need to be disciplined.”

Binshtock walked away from an associate editor job at the Los Angeles Times six years ago to start writing and editing without a net, and has since logged credits in magazines and newspapers in addition to becoming the editor of ValleyLife. She also wrote a book, Frommer’s Napa & Sonoma Day by Day. And although she relishes making her own hours, Binshtock admits that, “It can get lonely sometimes, not having direct co-workers to befriend. And you run the risk of getting caught up in your work… it becomes hard to distinguish between work time and leisure time.”

But that’s something freelancer Joe Donatelli relishes.

“I determine my own success – I don’t have to rely on anyone else,” he says. “If you’ve worked in an office, you know how maddening it can be to rely on people who aren’t dedicated to their work.”

Donatelli, who counts the Food Network and Tandberg Television among his clients, chalks up part of his success to his unwavering focus. Translation? He doesn’t use Instant Messenger. Ever. But another part of it?

“Pride,” he says. “If you’re not proud of your work, or proud of your efforts as a small businessman, or proud of your lifestyle, you will lose focus.”

Which isn’t to say there’s not a transitional period from being in an office to being your own boss. Certainly motivating yourself and learning how to focus when Oprah is on are two of the hurdles you’ll encounter when you first take the plunge. Binshtock found the biggest differences between her freelance and in-office careers came in her ability to choose her own projects, responsibilities and clients, as well as her ability to set her own schedule – something freelance publicist Colleen Coplick enjoyed greatly when she transitioned from her desk job to becoming her own boss.

“My other jobs were very rigid, strict, and controlling,” says Coplick. “I’m not a morning person, but that was irrelevant to my bosses – I had to be there at 8 am, period. But now that I’m freelancing, the freedom that setting my own hours gives me means that if I start at noon but work until seven, that’s nobody’s business but my own. I may work longer hours, to 1 am sometimes, but now it’s my choice.”

But that appears to be the key for those longing to live the freelance lifestyle – knowing your limits. Coplick warns that anyone who desperately needs security or specific structure to their day and finances are best to leave freelancing as a pipe dream, while Donatelli warns that uncontrollable factors like unscrupulous clients who refuse to pay can make freelancing a stressful experience. And although you can prepare yourself with all the pro and con lists in the world, the bottom line is you won’t really know what it’s all about unless you try it. As Binshtock says, the 9-to-5 world will always be there if you decide to go back.

So how best to prepare for the freelance plunge? Donatelli recommends having a year’s worth of living expenses behind you, while Coplick stresses the importance of knowing how to manage that money. Focus is key – not just in your work ethic, but in finding a niche that helps make you a marketable prospect to potential clients. But most importantly, do your legwork ahead of time and network, network, network.

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