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40 T/D/Y #37: Freelancer

Eleven months after moving to Seattle, the company that had hired me went through a restructuring and laid off a bunch of people including me. Fortunately, another college friend and one of my new Seattle friends had their own startup company and need of my services, so they picked me right up and I worked for them for the next four years. I primarily worked as a technical editor, making sure the documents they produced for projects were well-written, and also did some software testing.

Things started changing in 2006, though. As the company grew, there wasn’t as much work for my writing and editing skills as expected, and I wasn’t keeping as busy as I should’ve. Also, my position was viewed as a cost center: necessary for running the company and providing quality work, but not bringing in revenue. To alleviate some of this, they offered to appoint me to be the office manager. The added duties included a small raise, which I needed, and I did want to keep working there, so I accepted. However, I quickly found once again that I really disliked doing office administrative work, and over the course of the year became more and more unhappy with being there.

Meanwhile, my friend Tony had held out at the first company for a few more years, but decided to go freelance early in 2006. As I talked with him about it, freelancing started to sound like a much better position for me to be in. I liked the prospects of flexible work hours and location, working when and where I wanted to—and doing away with the daily commute I currently had, which was not as bad as when I worked in Boston but still could take a couple hours out of my day. Because my work was already project-based, I thought that it would make more sense to be getting work from multiple clients rather than trying to stay busy in a single full-time position. I also saw potential for substantially increasing my income based on what I could charge as an hourly rate, instead of being on a fixed salary. A job review in late 2006 and conversation with my manager about where I saw myself in five years settled my mind: I did not see myself continuing at that company, and decided I would leave in the first half of 2007.

By February 2007, I was moving forward quickly: I had already asked Tony to put me in touch with people he was doing contract work for, and yet another conversation with my manager persuaded me that ready or not, I should give my notice by the beginning of March that I would be leaving. Instead, it turned out everyone was already on the same page, as my bosses decided to lay me off at the end of February: it was clear to all of us that I no longer belonged there. That was actually a good thing, as they also gave me a small severance package and I was able to extend my insurance coverage for a few months until I picked up my own. So we parted on good terms, and I’ve continued to do occasional work for them as a contractor.

Since then I’ve been working on a freelance basis, mostly for the Microsoft vendor that Tony first put me in touch with, with some work for a couple other clients including my previous employer. Overall, I’ve enjoyed it a lot. I like being able to take my laptop around town and work in different cafes, or work at home into the wee hours of the morning. I’m glad I no longer have to deal with the commute to Redmond every day, and I’m saving a lot of money by not having to drive every day. I still believe in all of the reasons why I decided that I should become a freelancer: freedom in when and where I work, variety of projects, not beholden to any one company to keep me going, and potential for increased income.

However, I’ve also found it increasingly difficult to keep going as a freelancer. Naturally, I quickly ran into the obvious problem: I loathe searching for work, and I don’t like doing office administrative work either, so I’m ill-suited to manage my own business. I never spent any time in developing contacts and expanding my client base, I just continued to work with the few companies that Tony put me in touch with, but I need a bigger base to provide enough work for an adequate income. The obvious solution would be to work with employment agencies, and it seems like a natural fit: their job is to connect companies with service providers, my job is to provide a professional service. Regrettably, I did not start looking into that until the latter half of 2008, when the economic downturn began and even Microsoft started cutting back on projects, so the agencies have had very little work to offer me. And of course the downturn meant that the companies I was already working with had less work for me as well. The potential for greater income depended upon me finding more clients and work, and the flipside of that potential is that without a solid client base—or even with one, when the economy turns bad—I also face a potential for drastically inadequate income.

One positive change in freelancing did happen in 2009. When I started freelancing in 2007, I included page layout/desktop publishing as one of my goals for the year. I’d always enjoyed the work I did for the Nashua Chamber Orchestra’s program books and season brochures, and I wanted to find opportunities to return to that kind of work, this time as a paid professional. Again, as is typical of me, I did not immediately take any steps toward that goal. I figured that as it’d been a few years since I’d done any layout work, and since I’d never done it as a professional, I probably should take a course in design, but I was busy just getting into freelance work in general and also didn’t have money available to pay for a course. And so that goal drifted unfulfilled until this past summer. I was talking to John, who knew of my interest in returning to layout work, about my dire work and financial situation, and he offered to recommend me to his employer for a project that needed someone to do the grunt work. I’ve been working on that in stages the past several months, and his employer’s been very happy with my work, enough that after the first round of drafts and revisions, they recommended me to another company needing someone to do a small and quick turnaround layout project. That’s made me happy in turn, and hopeful that I may be able to find more such work in the near future in addition to my existing work as a freelance editor.


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