MANY Malaysians relish the notion of starting their own businesses. We’re a very entrepreneurial society. But starting a business with employees to take care of is very challenging. Perhaps aiming to be self-employed can be the first step towards starting a business.
Being self-employed is fundamentally the same as being a freelancer, basically someone who performs a service for pay. The difference between an employee and a freelancer is that the latter’s obligation is to produce a desired outcome or result, with the client not being in the position to control how the freelancer achieves this. In contrast an employer has the right to control how an employee does his or her job.
The appeal of being a freelancer is the sense of freedom or autonomy that one gets. There’s also the prospect of making more money when you take on multiple clients as opposed to drawing a pay cheque from just one employee.
However, as with all things, there are drawbacks to striking it out on your own, namely the amount of self-discipline that’s needed and the fact that there’ll be dry periods when there’s very little work flowing in.
All in though, successful freelancers will generally tell you they have no regrets leaving full-time employment and would not consider going back to a conventional 9-to-5 working style.
So if you want to try your hand at freelancing either as an end-goal or as a stepping stone towards building a business with employees, here are some things to consider.
STICK TO YOUR STRENGTHS
The first thing to decide upon if you want to become a freelancer is what service(s) you are offering. Do you go into the same line or do you do something different? The temptation to offer something different will be there. But it makes sense to stick to what you’re good at.
Jenny Blake, a former career development programme manager at Google and author of Pivot: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One, advises people to “double-down on existing strengths, interests and experience”.
If something is outside of your core expertise, it could be quite a struggle to make a living out of it. In contrast, if it’s something you knew very well, not only do you have the skill sets and the experience to do it well, you’ll also have the reputation and industry contacts to make it work.
GET SOME FREELANCING EXPERIENCE
There is a right time for everything. So when is the right time to quit your job to start a new freelancing career? Unless you’re laid off, in which case the decision is not up to you, the right time to make the move is when you have acquired some experience freelancing.
If you don’t have freelancing experience, it is a good idea to try your hand at it while you’re still gainfully employed. But you should do so ethically. This means avoiding doing any freelance work during office hours and to avoid any conflict of interest situations.
As long as you do your freelance work at your own time (after office hours or during the weekends) and you are not doing work for a competitor, there is no ethical issue. Continue to put in an honest day’s work during office hours and outside those hours, you can do your own thing.
Some companies tolerate their employees doing freelance work on their own time. I know of at least one that actually encouraged it on the notion that doing freelance work (for a non-competitor) gives their employees a chance to gain more experience.
Of course some frown upon it and some explicitly ban it. So understand your company’s policies with regard to freelancing and don’t do anything that violates the rules.
If your company forbids employees from doing any kind of paid outside work, you can gain some freelancing experience doing pro-bono work for charities or work on personal projects for yourself. This is not exactly the same as doing freelancing work for pay but it will give you some useful experience doing work outside of a fixed office environment.
GET BUSY NETWORKING
You should also ratchet up your industry networking to increase your prospective client base. But remember that effective networking can’t be done overnight.
Make a point to attend industry events and mingle with other people in your industry. In this day and age, online networking sites is a resource you should tap on.
LinkedIn, in particular, is a very useful business networking tool to get to know other people in your industry or in similar industries.
If you’re hesitant to ask for a connection with someone whom you don’t know and have never met before, remember that if they are on LinkedIn, it means they want to network with others (otherwise they wouldn’t be on that network in the first place).
So don’t hesitate to reach out to those whom you’d like to network with. It only works to your advantage to know more people.
Once you’ve made up your mind to become a freelancer, start enquiring with existing freelance clients whether they would have additional work for you should you become a full-time freelancer. Many freelancers I’ve spoken to managed to line up many clients before they quit their jobs.
If you have a very good relationship with your existing employer, you could even be frank and upfront with your boss.
Inform him that you have plans to move on and ask whether they would be willing to outsource some of the work to you once you leave. Your current employer could be your first client, assuming the parting of ways is amicable.
BUILD UP YOUR PERSONAL BRAND
When you’re an employee, personal branding is nice to have but not crucial. When you’re a freelancer, it is absolutely necessary.
In the past, personal branding meant good word of mouth or having a solid reputation in the industry.
Today, it also involves what the Internet says about you. Like it or not, prospective clients will Google you if they’re not familiar with your work.
They’ll see your LinkedIn Page, Facebook profile and other things that you post online. And they’ll also get to know what others say about you. Most importantly, they’ll get a sense of past work or projects you’ve been involved in.
If you’ve been busy, samples of your work and comments about them as well as your abilities will inevitably appear in Google searches. If you do good work, you’ve got nothing to worry about. The only people who have to worry about what people may find online are those who have done bad work that others criticise or complain about.
An important thing you must do is to create an official homepage for yourself. In the age of social media, a website may seem like a throwback from the early days of the Internet. Some may even consider it passe but an official homepage still works well as a central hub where people can learn more about you and what you do.
People shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but they do. Similarly, people will form instant impressions based on your online presence and if your website looks shoddy, it will reflect poorly on your reputation.
These days, creating a professional-looking website is easy and affordable through the use of online services like Wix (www.wix.com) which are template-based and do not require any technical or programming capabilities.
If you do all these things, then you’ll be in a better position to build a successful freelancing career. It’s not easy being a freelancer as there’s no steady income to rely on every month. But it can be very fulfilling and potentially more financially rewarding too.
Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org