Freelancing is a risky business at the best of times, add to that a pandemic and we now have many freelancers in dire straits. Publishing houses have had to re-think their strategies and change publishing plans, which has led to many projects being put on hold or cancelled. As a result, many clients have suspended commissioning freelancers and brought all their work in-house.
In my recent poll regarding freelancers’ current situation (on LinkedIn), 62% of the respondents said that they lost work because of the pandemic.
We obviously couldn’t have prepared ourselves for this, but here are a few lessons that I’ve learned from freelancing during COVID-19.
1. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
I actually learned this lesson five or so years ago when the one and only publisher that I was freelancing for at the time underwent a major restructure which resulted in freezing all freelancing for several months. That’s when I realised that I had no contacts at other publishing houses and was left with no other options. Fortunately for me, I was just about to have a baby, so this didn’t affect me personally, but that’s when I decided to step up my networking game.
The same applies now – many publishers have reduced or completely stopped outsourcing work. I know freelancers who are in the same situation as I was five years ago – working for just one publisher with nowhere to go after their contract was terminated. Not a good situation to suddenly find yourself in…
However, there are still some people who are hiring, but you have to have the network to find them. Which brings me to my second lesson.
2. Build relationships
You won’t find work if you haven’t got the right contacts. This is the time to dig out old emails from clients whose work you couldn’t take on before, and clients you worked for in the past. Polish your LinkedIn profile (if you don’t know how, then have a look at this), and start looking for ‘commissioning editors’, ‘senior editors’ and ‘publishers’ on LinkedIn. Send them a message saying you’re available for work (nothing wrong with that). Join organizations that can connect you with other ELT freelancers, like MaWSIG (IATEFL) or TESOL Materials Writers.
3. Diversify your offer
Ever since I started freelancing I was fortunate enough to work on long-term projects and always had new work lined up before a project finished. Because of the long-term nature of the work that I was doing, I often turned down other offers of work. This allowed me to specialize in one particular area and be picky about the projects that I accepted. I’d read so much about finding a ‘niche’ and ‘specializing’ that I’d bought into that whole concept. And it worked for me. Until the pandemic…
Times have obviously changed and I no longer think of myself as the ‘secondary expert’, the content developer, writer, project manager (of materials for secondary schools). This week, for example, I’ve been proofreading materials for the primary segment. Something I would have never taken on pre-pandemic. But it’s work, paid work, and it allows me to expand my portfolio.
So, even though I always thought that specializing in something, and becoming an ‘expert’ in a particular area would generate more work, I’ve now learned that you have to be more flexible during a pandemic and start working outside your niche.
4. Invoice promptly
This seems pretty obvious, but I’m the first to admit that I rarely invoiced promptly pre-pandemic. I usually invoiced at the end of the month, or sometimes, at the end of the…following month, or…the month after. However, now, with accountants working from home and not having access to all the invoicing and payment systems, you should be invoicing as soon as you finish a job as payments are taking longer than ever to process. I’m now invoicing as soon as I send in the last piece of work, even before the work gets approved. It just gets me right into the system and ensures I get paid a few days after the editor accepts the work.
5. Stay on top of your budget
I’m also the first to admit that I used to be terrible at tracking my incomings and outgoings. And if you know me personally, or if you’ve ever worked with me, you’re probably surprised to read this. I’m very organized and pedantic about every aspect of my working and personal life apart from…finances. Until recently, I should add.
At the end of 2019, we wanted to buy a house. We met with a mortgage advisor who asked me, ‘So, what’s your monthly income?’ Hmm…well…I’m not sure (for us, freelancers, it varies, right?). ‘And how much do you spend on rent, bills, food, entertainment, etc.?’ Hmm…I don’t know. Work was never an issue at that time. I always had long-term contracts and a steady income. I actually had a contract with one of the ‘Big Four’ until April 2021. What could go wrong? A pandemic?
The chat we had with our mortgage advisor prompted us to keep a spreadsheet with all our monthly incomings and outgoings. And when I say ‘all’, I mean ALL. We have been tracking every single thing (I must admit, being on lockdown helps with this as all those takeouts, happy hours, and coffees to go are non-existent now). We can now see exactly how much we spend and how much I need to earn to maintain our current way of living. Pre-pandemic, I was aiming for big numbers and I never knew what my ‘minimum’ was. Keeping a thorough spreadsheet has opened up my eyes to that. So, now, instead of chasing the highest number, I work to meet that minimum.
6. Create a passive income
Argh…this is one of those, ‘Why didn’t I do this earlier?’
Way before the pandemic, I wanted to create a shop on my website (I offer lots of free resources, and I felt it was time to start charging for them). And a platform for courses. But…I never had the time to do that.
And then when the pandemic started and freelancers (including me) were losing work, I thought, there’s no way I could invest in a platform like this now.
But, I believe that having passive income (ebooks, books, courses, workshops, webinars, etc.) is a must whether there’s a pandemic or not.
I hope these lessons help everyone currently facing challenges and anyone who wants to be prepared in case work dries up in the future (which I hope it won’t).
If you’re a freelancer working during the pandemic, what lessons have you learned?