Whether you’ve always dreamed of working for yourself or want to explore a new career path, freelancing can be a deeply rewarding option for those looking for a change in the way they work. While freelancing can spell freedom, new opportunities and independence, it can also feel like an uphill struggle at times. Here we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of freelancing, to help you decide whether self-employment is the right choice for you.
Pro: Freedom and flexibility
If you choose to go freelance, you’ll be joining a growing group of individuals across the world who are reacting to a more digitized, globalized economy and seeking out an alternative way of working to the normal office-bound 9 to 5. In the UK alone, the number of self-employed individuals has jumped from 3.8 million in 2008 to 4.6 million in 2015, and this upward trend sees no signs of waning.
So why are so many people choosing to become self-employed? For many, the freedom and flexibility that comes hand-in-hand with a freelance career is a huge draw. The ability to work from home, set your own schedule, and be your own boss is the ultimate dream for independent spirits and dissatisfied employees alike.
Since I began freelancing five years ago I have benefitted from setting my own flexi-time, shifting hours to evenings and weekends when it suited, and freeing up other time for taking holidays, visiting family and friends, and pursuing hobbies and interests outside of my normal occupation as a graphic designer. By working from home, I’ve been able to move abroad and had the opportunity to create my own workspace perfectly suited to my professional needs. Becoming a freelancer really does change your life and, if you allow it, it can help you readjust your routine and priorities for the better.
Con: Freedom comes with responsibility
Remember your last day of high school? Perhaps it went a little like this — swinging open the gates for the last time, running out into bright, brilliant sunshine, and throwing your school books in the nearest trash can before crashing on the couch in complete and utter relief, knowing that you’d never have to take another exam. But then a month or two goes by and you realize you have to get up off the couch and go do something, whether it’s heading off to college, getting a job or finding a new place to live – the situation is the same in the pros and cons of freelancing.
Starting out as a freelancer feels just like that. The massive wave of relief and exaltation after you’ve left your previous job behind is swiftly followed by the realization that you have to get moving to really make this change work. Becoming self-employed might sound simple enough, but unless you are fully committed to making it work out in the long-term, it can become more of a temporary stop-gap between one job and the next.
I talked to several freelancers in the course of writing this article, and one thing consistently popped up in interviews — that, yes, you have more flexibility than those in permanent employment, but that liberty comes at the price of complete responsibility.
Every issue you encounter in your growth as a freelancer must be resolved by you and you alone. This means keeping track of all your invoices and completing your tax returns. You will have to network to find new business, communicate with clients about quotes and even the unpleasant business of chasing overdue invoice payments. If your computer breaks you will have to fix it, or spend the time tracking down someone else who can. You will also have to set up your own work space and pay for furnishings and supplies, along with utility bills. When you go on holiday, you won’t be paid for time off, and anything that occurs while you’re gone will still have to be addresses – there won’t be somebody acting as back-up.
As well as the increase in responsibilities you have as a freelancer, you will also need to act as your own boss. Initially this might sound fantastic, but it also has its drawbacks. From a young age we are conditioned to respond to authority and we get used to the structure of discipline and routine, first through our parents, followed by school, and finally via our job. Freelancing represents a massive break with this pattern. In the absence of an overarching authority, some people lose motivation and slide into unproductive behavior. If you thrive off the tasks and deadlines set by your manager, and consider this to be a main source of motivation, you might reconsider whether freelancing is the right path for you.
When you are completely responsible for all aspects of your business, it can also be near-impossible to switch off when you need to. For many freelancers, the perfect work-life balance seems more elusive than when they had a full-time job. When you are the Accountant, Receptionist, Head of Sales, Creative Director and CEO rolled into one, it can be a challenge not to dwell on the mechanics of your business during your downtime. This becomes an even trickier to master if your work takes you to international clients and different timezones. Picking up “urgent” emails at midnight is no fun, and takes sensitive expectation-management and self-discipline to manage.
While for some people this complete responsibility can be draining, for many others it is exhilarating and empowering. A positive note — once you become more established as a freelancer, you’ll find that managing your business will become second-nature, and maybe even enjoyable! I now relish my one-morning-a-week spent reviewing my books and tallying my tax estimates. Who knew?
Pro: You can choose who you work for
It’s not often you hear someone passionately declare, “I LOVE my boss!” The employer-employee relationship can be tricky, and whether your experiences range from all-out loathing of your manager to a simply strained relationship, you’re certainly not alone.
A huge advantage of freelancing is that you can have multiple bosses. Wile the thought of more than one boss might sound horrific to some, you’ll be pleased to hear that in this multi-client situation the power balance shifts a little more in your favor. When you accept a client, you are being used not only as an employee (after all, the client sets the task and pays you the fee) but also as a consultant. Clients seek out freelancers to bring particular skills and experience to the table, which they can’t find within their own company. This means that as long as you deliver on those skills, you can have a very rewarding relationship with your client, in which you are treated as an experienced consultant, rather than a cog-in-the-wheel employee.
Over time, you will find that some client relationships develop and thrive, leading to long-lasting partnerships that provide steady work. When I started my self-employed career I spent a couple of years fostering relationships with numerous clients, and found that everybody has their own way of managing the freelancer-client relationship. I found some clients to be exceptionally professional and grateful to hand over responsibility of their projects to me. Because the relationship goes both ways, as long as I continued to hand over high-quality work on time, clients came back time and time again. Eventually this builds a valuable client portfolio — a list of clients who consistently provide you with interesting, fairly-paid work, along with a quality to treasure above all others — they pay your invoices on time.
Con: You have to manage who you work for
Having multiple clients is fantastic for allowing you the flexibility to work for who you want. Through this you will develop excellent client management skills, and even meet clients who become long-lasting professional allies. But, like all the pros and cons of freelancing, there are serious ups and downs to the multi-client set-up, a huge down being the inevitable run-ins with bad clients.
Bad clients come in various guises. Some are perfectly friendly and offer you a great project to sink your teeth into, but when invoicing comes around, they pull a vanishing act. I’ve had a couple non-payer clients, and dealing with their elusiveness is time-sucking and soul-crushing. Late payments (I once had to chase a payment for close to a year) and non-payments can be financially devastating and emotionally draining.
The other nightmare client you may encounter is the over-controller. These clients don’t really want to employ a freelancer; they’ve simply been forced to because they don’t have the resources to perform the task themselves. This is a common scenario in the design industry: 1. Client hires designer, 2. Client doesn’t want designer to design, client wants to design instead, 3. Client ends up taking over the design, 4. Client comes back to designer wanting the task to be done again after failing to do it themselves, and the cycle goes on. As a freelancer you are not a mind-reader, and you can only work from the brief that you have been given. But this does not stop the over-controlling client from expecting you to know exactly what they want.
The first bad client, the non-payer, can be tricky to identify from first contact, and when you are starting out you may find that you have more of these unfortunate encounters. You can minimize the stress of these scenarios with an automated invoicing and payment chasing service, like Xero.com. The second type of bad client is a little easier to spot early on — if they are not keen to provide a brief, or chase you at all hours of the day and night about exceptionally minor issues, the alarm bells should start ringing. This sort of client will make your freelancing life miserable, and it’s in your own interest to manage who you work for with confidence.
Good clients are out there, so don’t allow one bad experience to knock your confidence.
Pro: You will learn new skills
When I landed my first job, I had to learn how to be a specialist. While this specialism did evolve over time from intern-appropriate coffee-making to creating marketing materials on InDesign, it nonetheless remained just that — a specialty. Others in the office had their own roles, from accountants to HR. While a speciality may be comforting and rewarding in its own way, it can restrict you from facing new challenges, and it’s a major contributing factor to the boredom that many dissatisfied employees experience on a daily basis.
Stepping into freelance work opens up the door to a range of new skills and a higher number of specialties. You might spend a morning contacting new clients and negotiating new business, get creative in the afternoon with a project, before ending your day with a round of invoicing and updating your books. When your background is in sales but you need to learn how to code to create your portfolio website, it quickly becomes apparent that nobody else will do it for you. Every day can be different, depending on the tasks you have to complete to keep the cogs of your small business going.
Even if you go back to permanent employment or decide to start a larger business down the line, you’ll find that your freelance career has equipped you with a broad range of incredibly useful skills.
Con: You have to learn new skills
The downside of learning new skills as a freelancer is that you simply have to learn these skills to keep your head above water. My background is in print design, so I found it difficult and time-consuming to learn web skills like coding. If you’re a committed creative you may find it stressful to spend so much time learning how to manage your accounts and taxes. For the wallflower, the thought of cold-calling clients for new business is enough to ditch the freelance idea altogether.
When you start out on your freelance career it can feel like going back to school, except you don’t have a teacher looking over your shoulder and urging you on. You can find tons of great (and often free) online resources for picking up both self-employed skills, such as accounting and invoicing, and more industry-specific techniques, like graphic design or copywriting. But the motivation to get your head down and learn, often in the time outside of your normal working hours, has to be all your own. My advice? Accept that it will be hard work, but push ahead and you’ll become a master multi-tasker and jack-of-all-trades in no time.
Pro: You have control over your income (to an extent)
One of the foundations of employer-employee relations is the possibility of a merit-based raise or promotion. When you become self-employed this goes out of the window. In some ways this is liberating — you can set your own fees and hours, giving you much more freedom over your capacity to earn. As you become more established, increasing your fees is appropriate and long-term clients will not be put off by paying more for a job well done.
As a freelancer you control your own earning power. Even though there may be limitations on pay-per-hour depending on the standards in your industry, you ultimately have the capacity to earn up to this limit, and work extra hours for extra cash when you want or need to.
For many self-employed people this aspect of freelancing is one of the greatest motivators for developing your business. After all, you can’t expect to simply turn up at work each day and be paid at the end of the month — you have to actively seek out work and sing for your supper. Clients won’t pay for lackluster work, but the other side of the coin is that they will often be willing to pay more for work done to an exceptional standard. We can simplify it like this:
High-quality work + hours worked = a great pay deal for you
Of course, the income factor falls into both pros and cons of freelancing. Your income will be dependent on the demand for work in your industry. If your whole industry is experiencing a slump, it will admittedly be much tougher for you to find steady, well-paid work. If you suspect your industry is going through a difficult time and is unlikely to recover in the foreseeable future, you need to act fast. Consider how you could adapt your skill-set to other industries, and take the time to learn some new skills to give you the flexibility to change career paths fast if necessary.
Con: You lose out on employment benefits
Many of the freelancers I spoke to wouldn’t describe themselves as rolling in dough, but most get by on a decent income and some experience particularly successful periods in their work, allowing them to save for houses, holidays, or further education.
However, there is a downside to self-employed income. Even though you may be able to maintain a similar income to the one you earned as a full-time employee, you will miss out on numerous employee benefits and perks.
Depending on your country of residence and employer, these benefits can range from the basics like income security (due to contract-based employment) and access to company pension schemes, to more niche perks like health care benefits, childcare provisions, gym passes, and free social events. As a freelancer you won’t receive these benefits from an employer.
The good news? This doesn’t mean that you can’t recreate many of these practical benefits for yourself. Paying into a private retirement fund is a great start and an essential habit to instill from your very first year as a freelancer. Allocating money towards health insurance or childcare from the very beginning will also allow you to see these as essential benefits.
Pro: Freelancing can improve your lifestyle
When I look back at my working life, it’s clear that becoming a freelancer had the most significant impact on my lifestyle as a whole. This is because a self-employed career isn’t confined to an office between the hours of 9 and 5. By accepting that freelancing is a lifestyle — that you will work from home (unless you choose to rent office space) and set your own hours — you have the power to restructure your life completely, and do it through your choices and yours alone.
If you want to have flexi-time, you can. This makes it a complete game-changer for parents who want to have more time with their children, or individuals who simply want to discover a better life-work balance for themselves. It is a completely modern way of working, and it seems like the trend towards flexible self-employment is only growing as more people discover that they can work whenever and wherever using the internet as a facilitator
Freelancing is the antithesis of a traditional corporate working culture. So while there may still be stigma attached to self-employment in some countries, you can feel confident that you’re choosing a style of working and living that prioritizes self-fulfillment and flexibility over corporate mechanics.
Con: Freelancing is your lifestyle
Because freelancing is so deeply enmeshed with your domestic life, it can sometimes feel completely inescapable. By working from home, you will be using your house as not only a personal space but also as an office. This can promote bad habits. You might fall into a trend of working late hours because your office is just steps away. At the other end of the spectrum, distractions, particularly if you have a busy household, can interrupt your work and put kinks in your productivity. At times you can feel a bit like this poor man who became famous for taking an innocent Skype call from his home office.
You can manage these workplace-related pros and cons of freelancing by establishing boundaries between office life and domestic bliss. You can take physical measures by setting up your office in a separate part of the house that feels distinct from domestic areas, for example.
You can also promote good habits from the outset. Every evening at 6, I lock my office door and put the key in a separate room of the house. Even if I receive seemingly urgent emails after that time, it’s a handy technique to achieve absolute separation between my work time and my leisure time. In the morning when I take the key out and unlock the door, it makes me feel like the work day has officially started.
Pros and cons of freelancing: The verdict
As I researched the pros and cons of freelancing, I talked to freelancers across a range of fields to hear how self-employment has changed their working and personal lives. Many reflected on the tough times they experienced while they were getting started and the difficulties of settling into a completely independent way of working.
The good news? Despite the confession that embarking on a freelance career is no walk in the park, no freelancer I spoke to would choose to swap their self-employed career for permanent employment. The first few months can be tough, but it can also be exhilarating. You have the unique opportunity to construct a career that not only meets your professional expectations, but also your lifestyle goals. From my own experience I can say with certainty that becoming a freelancer really does have the potential to change your career and life for the better.
If you’ve got any words of wisdom to share about pursuing a self-employed career, we’d love to hear about them! Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below.