I’ve been thinking of writing on this topic for a while. Though many in the industry know the issues that I will be raising in this post, I believe that many who aren’t would be clueless to the struggles of doing freelance work. Personally, when I first tried my hand at this whole freelance thing, I never knew what the regular “procedures” are and what to expect. Therefore, I thought it would be useful for me to share my thoughts on this, in case there are people like me previously, who had no clue on what to do. Furthermore, there is a great allure to being a freelancer and while there are certainly pros, I think the cons need to be considered heavily as well. Many fresh grads won’t know what the cons are because no one really talks about it, especially if you don’t know anyone who does freelance work.
Keep in mind that I will be talking about this from the angle of freelancing as your bread and butter. If you are just doing freelancing on the side for extra income, some of these points might not matter to you. But for those who want to try their hand at earning a full income from freelancing gigs, then this is the right post to look at.
Here are some misconceptions that people often have about freelancing:
You don’t answer to anyone
That is a partial true but mostly untrue. Ultimately, even though you think you are your own boss, the real boss is now your client. Sure, you can go for 3 hour long breaks and wear whatever the hell you want as you work. There is no one to tell you what your schedule will be like, and you manage your own time. In that sense, you are your own boss.
But in the more practical sense, your clients will tell you the deadlines and time frames that you need to work within. Furthermore, they are the ones to actually pay you. So, the freedom is actually an illusion.
You can pick and choose the projects you want to take on
This kind of optimism is often crushed within a few weeks, unless you have an incredible portfolio that has clients running to work with you. For most of us who have a decent, yet average portfolio, landing a project itself might be the most arduous thing to endure. Imagine that job application process, again and again for every project you want to try to land. It’s exhausting. A lot of times, you might find yourself searching for clients to hire you rather than doing actual work for clients. It’s the gruesome reality but lots of large companies have in house designers or a creative team, hence, they may only take on a freelancer to help out when they are short staffed.
You can work anytime you want
Speaking of work hours, this is both correct and wrong. You can dictate your own schedule by taking on as many projects as you would want on your plate, but the deadlines make it very difficult to switch off. Hence, clients and companies tend to take advantage of your more flexible schedule, making last minute changes, texting you past the supposed “office hours”. It’s very important to set some boundaries. You can charge your client either per hour, per day or at a flat rate per project. Most freelancers who are just starting out tend to give clients a flat rate so that they can get more projects and make some work connections. The dangerous thing about flat rates is that there is no “OT” and you don’t get paid for extra changes they might make. For flat rates, you have to make it clear to your client that you have designated work hours and let them know exactly when that is.
Of course, this isn’t set in stone. More often than not, the client will pressure you with last minute changes that need to be done before a deadline and will have you work through the night. In which case, you have to make it clear to them before starting on the last minute changes that an extra fee will be charged for these last minute changes. It’s tough but you have to be your own boss in this sense too. Be firm, professional and polite. Stand your ground, because otherwise they will walk all over you. Trust me, that has happened to me more than once and now I have no qualms about letting them know my rates for extra changes to a final product, close to the deadline.
You will be paid loads because you can engage in multiple projects at once
The sad truth that I learnt is that, no matter how many projects you take on, whether you get paid is all up to the companies you work for. It isn’t a guarantee that companies will pay you upfront upon the end of the project. Be sure to invoice them as soon as the project is done (just google a quick invoice template and quantify all your services so that there is a record). However, how long they take to “process” that invoice is all subjective. Most companies will take about a month to process the invoice and send you your cheque (or wire you the funds). But there are PLENTY of companies that take months… AND I KID YOU NOT, ACTUAL MONTHS AND MONTHS to process one measly invoice.
So once I took on 3 projects at once, and worked myself to the wee hours of the morning to get everything done. I wanted to make it rain so I figured, why not. Sent out my invoice and waited for it to rain moolah, but it never came. My bank account was dry as a desert. The payments came sporadically. The worst thing was that I didn’t know when exactly I would get paid. In an ideal world, I would get paid for those 3 projects all at the same time, but while one company took 2 weeks, another took 6 months to “process” payment. Which brings me to my next topic…
You are not employed not unemployed; In reality you are the corporate pariah
Unfortunately, there is no real law protecting freelancers in Singapore, which is a real shame because a good portion of the population here do a good amount of freelancing. Not just as a full-time job, but even part time to make ends meet and make extra cash. Not only do we not get the employee benefits that full time staff receive (such as CPF payments and timely pay), we also don’t have the manpower laws that protect us from employer abuse and misconduct. As I mentioned before, some companies take their own sweet time to reimburse you for the services you have rendered. And for people who rely on this as their bread and butter, it’s tough getting a company to stick to a date of payment, especially when you don’t have the backing of a lawyer.
Furthermore, here’s the catch, without a physical signed contract, it’s actually quite difficult to sue the company that’s mistreating you because you technically aren’t their “employee” per se. It’s messed up. So essentially, big companies can do whatever they want to freelancers, even not pay them. And if we fight back, they have a team of lawyers to protect them from legal issues. It’s a giant oversight on the Ministry of Manpower in Singapore that make freelancers seem like criminals or corporate outcasts. Companies will hide behind “processing time” to delay payment as and when they please. It’s probably the worst part about freelancing and the darkest time as a freelancer, down to my last dollar, praying that they will pay me for the work I had already done.
So what can you do about it?
LEARN FROM MY MISTAKES.
1. Never give them the final product without either a deposit or an upfront payment. My good friends who have been freelancing all their lives tell me that they will give partial drafts or low-resolution images to show their clients their work but will withhold the final product until they have received payment. GENIUS! Some even ask for a deposit before they begin on the project. So it’s something to look into.
2. Draft out a contract or at the very least a formal email. You don’t need to have a lawyer at your beck and call (though if you do, then you are one lucky bastard) but instead, look up some official contracts online and see how they are formatted. Type out an “official” contract and get your clients to sign them before you engage in projects with them. So long as it is written in hard copy, you have a better chance at getting your money back if they choose to jet off without paying.
3. If you are a new freelancer and starting with a flat rate, include your official “working hours” in your contract or at the very least, inform your clients so that they know when you will be working on their project. Be firm about the timing and say that you will work on it tomorrow if they contact you after the time you initially stated.
4. Don’t be a pushover!! This is my biggest tip if you are freelancing. You have to build a thick skin and not be worried about being pushy. Especially when it comes to payment and working hours. Everything else, the client is always right but never be afraid to voice out your opinions and push back when they are setting impossible tasks or late in payment.
Sidenote: When a certain publishing company did not pay me for my project for over 6 months, I was so pushy, I flooded their inbox and even (in desperation) got my friend who was a lawyer to draft a formal letter of demand for payment. After seeing the letter, the payment was transferred to my account within a week. So don’t give up and don’t let them get away with it!
Ultimately, have confidence in yourself and your work. If you made it to the end of this article, kudos to you! It’s a long one, but I’ve barely scratched the surface. The final takeaway from this article is that freelancing is an actual profession, despite Singapore’s thinking that it’s just some sort of “Profitable Hobby”. It isn’t as easy or as fun as you might think. So consider what I said with a grain of salt before making the decision to jump into the freelance world.