07/29/2011 11:28 EDT | Updated 09/28/2011 05:12 EDT

Should You Become a Freelancer? Probably Not

Freelancers, especially writers and the ubiquitous 'consultant,' must have a significant amount of real world experience. To merely apply book learnin' to your freelance offerings will expose you as a lightweight.


I have noticed, as the economy implodes and jobs are hard to come by, lots of young folks -- many right out of college or with limited work experience -- think that freelancing looks like a good career move.

With few exceptions -- very few -- they would be wrong.

Here's why: freelancers, especially writers and the ubiquitous 'consultant,' must have a significant amount of real world experience. To merely apply book learnin' to your freelance offerings will expose you as a lightweight.

And no, I am not trying to stifle competition. They usually take care of themselves.

As well, some direct office or corporate work will allow you to understand the dynamics that motivate your potential clients. All the successful freelancers I know came from several years of a solid career background; communications, IT, television production, etc.

Almost as bad are the newly downsized who decide that they can also be a freelancer. Treating freelancing as a stopgap or avocation might keep you somewhat busy, but if you go in at the deep-end without water wings, you'll likely drown. And you can likely forget grabbing clients from a previous employer. They tend to be a bit humourless and even litigious about that sort of thing.

Plan for a year before you strike out on your own. Do some work on the side for friends' companies, family or some charities. Get some experience that showcases your talent while you hone your craft, client patter and realize that working for oneself can be both fabulous and soul-destroying. And of course, keep an eye on your motivation and self-discipline. Most freelancers work for quite a while before they get into a rhythm that works for them. Personally, I work better in the early morning and on weekends. I'm a bit strange like that, but it means that come Monday morning I can deliver work, usually early, which tends to lead to more work during the week.

While there is a place for a journeyman/woman/person freelancer, a specialized area usually works best. That's where the previous experience comes into play. If, like me, you specialize in financial content, understand and keep abreast of relevant issues of interest to your clients. Be prepared to discuss topics with clients that are applicable, even though they may not result in direct business.

Being knowledgeable in an area simply ups your stock as an expert. You want to become the go-to person for clients and referrals as not only being worth the money, but also interesting and a respected resource point. If I had a nickel for every sentence from a client that started: "You might not know this, but..." If you don't know, admit it, but find out fast and take the information back to the client. Maybe even go a bit further and consult a peer who may be an expert you can access to expand on the client query. The client will definitely appreciate your diligence. An informed client is a repeat client. Might want to repeat that in the mirror a few times, as there is no greater truth to a freelancer and his/her business.

Finally, here's a bit of inside baseball; most clients don't understand or even like freelancers. Consider that for the most part, you are talking to decision makers in an organization that may have three people or 30,000. They have real jobs. You are a freelancer. Be sensitive to them, as they will initially be suspicious of you. To most people, the thought of freelancing is as scary as public speaking. Or climbing the Matterhorn without a safety rope. Once again, your value is not your abilities; it is your previous real-world experience that colour your abilities. While that helps to establish you as an 'expert' it also allows you to understand and be sensitive to those all-important client office dynamics.

And always encourage a client to steal your ideas and proffer them to the company as his/her own. The long-term payback is well worth the 'theft'.

And stay humble. Even if you aren't. And never, ever, let a client think you are smarter than they are. Even if you are. It's just not good business.