When you’re a first-year freelancer, you can’t afford to turn down opportunity.
I mean that quite literally. You have to eat and pay bills, right? Having a plan for your business is good, but a plan alone won’t put food on the table. And since your first year of full-time freelancing is unlikely to bring you wealth, it’s a good idea to at least consider every chance that floats your way, no matter how far afield it might take you from your business plan.
This can be one of the frustrating aspects of being a solopreneur. You think you have a course mapped out, and then the dictates of necessity and circumstance require you to find an alternate route.
However, when you learn to roll with the punches, this can become an exhilarating part of being a freelancer. You just have to rekindle your appetite for adventure.
My own brush with the unexpected happened in February. I got an email, out of the blue, from a startup company asking me if I’d like to teach English to Chinese children online. They invited me to apply to their company and, out of curiosity, I replied that I’d be willing to give it a try.
The opportunity with that particular company didn’t work out, but it got me thinking. I did a quick search for similar outfits and found VIPKID, a reputable company with good reviews from teachers.
I was hesitant to apply at first. I’d launched my freelance career to be a writer, after all. If I started teaching, would that mean I’d failed as a writer?
Eventually, though, I changed my frame. Having another oar in the water would make my business stronger, not weaker. I studied to be an English teacher, so teaching was another skill I could leverage to my advantage. Besides, it wasn’t like I was signing my life away. Teaching for VIPKID was, I figured, a small, reversible bet. The company contracts with teacher for only six months at a time. If I did one contract and found it wasn’t for me, I could walk away and nobody would be the wiser.
I applied and was accepted. It wasn’t a moment too soon, it turned out. A few weeks later, I got word that a major project I was working on was going to be temporarily suspended. While one profit center slowly dried up, I was able to gradually ramp up the new one. This allowed my business to survive a lean time that could have otherwise ended me. Taking that opportunity probably saved my business, and I think it’s one of the smartest things I’ve done as a freelancer so far.
Teaching ESL has been a tremendous boost, financially and otherwise. The pay is good and the students are awesome. Plus, I get to build connections with people half a world away. Not bad for part-time gig work. With luck, this experience will itself become something I can leverage in a variety of ways later down the road.
Tools for analyzing opportunity
Obviously, not every opportunity will be worth pursuing. It’s like playing gin rummy. You can’t hold on to every card that passes through your hands. You have to discard most of them, actually. In other words, you’ll have to say “no” a lot more times than you can say “yes.”
How do you decide which opportunities to pursue? Here are some factors that I’ve found can make the choice easier.
- The compensation. Money isn’t everything, but it can be an excellent tool for quickly winnowing out unprofitable opportunities. This is particularly important in your first year as a full-time freelancer. You can pursue low-paying passion projects after your business takes off. Right now, though, you need to make money. Job offers with paltry pay are ones you can easily cross off the list of possibilities. The exception would be opportunities that offer substantial other benefits, like important exposure or a chance to create a real portfolio-boosting piece. Just be sure the you can afford to take this lower-paying gig without breaking your business.
- Your existing skill set. Offers that dovetail with your existing skills are worth considering. The caveat, of course, is that these must be skills you’re actually interested in developing. Just because you spent a summer installing chemical toilets in the Adirondacks doesn’t mean you should accept similar work if you absolutely hated it the first time around.
- Flexibility (or lack thereof). Flexible opportunities — the kind that give you greater control over how much you work and when — are often preferable to ones with rigid requirements. Flexibility allows you to pursue multiple leads at a time, increasing the chance that at least one of them will become a strong income source.
The Bottom Line
Opportunity comes in many forms. Part of being a good businessperson is knowing which kinds of opportunity to pursue. This is where rubrics come in handy. They help you analyze a possibility and decide whether it’s in your best interest to follow.
I won’t claim to be an expert in this field, but I’m a lot more savvy about it that I was a year ago. Constant growth: It’s one of the challenges — and gifts — of the freelance life.
Most of what I’ve learned so far, I learned by reading excellent books. Here are two that helped me make decisions in my freelance career.
“Making a Living Without a Job” by Barbara J. Winter. This book really got me off the ground. It has a ton of great tips on choosing, building and sustaining multiple profit centers.
“The Startup of You” by Reid Hoffman. Granted, this book is geared toward 9-to-5 folks, but it has useful insights for freelancers, too. The idea of small, reversible bets came directly from this book.
Photo credit: Gratisography