What I’ve learned from six months of freelancing

Somewhere between 2014 and 2015, I decided to go freelance overnight. In other words, I decided to make a living by putting some letters together and taking the camera everywhere I go. My own business. At 22. You know how sometimes people say they’ve had this big thing on their heart and were patiently waiting for the right time to make it happen? Well, I’ve never had that. The opportunity just presented itself because the most amazing team I’ve ever worked with (I love you guys!) offered me some regular work, then another magazine job came up and I suddenly knew being serious about this was the only logical thing to do. I didn’t have the slightest idea of what I would get myself into (and I still don’t have), and it’s both shittier and greater than I imagined. That by the way is the kind of thing I hope to say about life one day! So here’s some random advice in case you’re in a similar situation, in case you’re bored with your day job, finished uni or just feel like making a big change.

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1. Get some float. With studying in London and living out of suitcases ever since coming back, I’ve been historically terrible at saving up. I needed a plan B that could tidy me over the first few weeks, in case things wouldn’t go as smooth as I hoped. Some people won’t pay you just because you finished the project and send them invoices, and there’s so many other things that can go wrong. I took out a loan for the famous “three-month buffer”. In my case, I didn’t really have to make any big investments straight away as the only things I need on a daily basis are my DSLR, a laptop and a phone.

This year will be different

2. Read ‘This Year Will Be Different before getting caught up in too many other preparations. It’s great. Out of the zillion things that I’ve been soaking up from this book, the most valuable advice has been to roughly spend as much time working on your business as you do working in it. That means looking after marketing, social media, networking, pitching and accounting just as much as focussing on writing, designing, painting and so on. I initially thought working through these tedious lists would be a waste of time, but actually in order to get decent numbers at the end of the month, you need to invest a little bit of time in planning ahead. Monika Kanokova, the book’s author and a successful freelancer herself, has done a flippin’ awesome job of making freelance life seem fun and rewarding – besides all the long nights.caroline_schmitt_photography - 1

3. Have a mentor. Find someone who’s also self-employed; it doesn’t even have to be the same industry, in fact, it’s refreshing if they do something completely different. Ask them if they’re up for answering all your stupid questions and for kicking your butt if you’re lagging behind your paperwork or work for less than is healthy – in return for a beer or two. There’s nothing more intimidating than realising you’re virtually alone with this mess of a business, and there’s so many people on the same boat, so get out there and connect.

The annoying numbers business

4. Get a tax advisor. Have their number on speed dial. Try find one who regularly works with and helps “entrepreneurs” and who doesn’t make you feel stupid for not knowing anything about numbers. That really is worth the money. Don’t take me as an example though, I’m way behind in all my accounting (trying to stay in on Berlin summer weekends to “sort out my paperwork” somehow doesn’t quite work out so well, surprise) and currently very busy coming up with new excuses as to why I still haven’t compiled that bloody list.

5. Have a day off. People say that you probably won’t have a holiday and won’t get to sleep for more than two hours during the first couple of years after building something. And maintaining a social life? Phew, what is that even? Well, in a rather decisive click moment last year I realised that I don’t only want to live for work. I love my “job” because it’s not a job and because it makes me happy (most of the time), but sometimes it’s time to get out of that little camera-and-laptop bubble and live a little. So don’t feel bad for taking a Sunday off. You’ll feel so much more refreshed and creative at the beginning of a new week!caroline_schmitt_photography12 - 1

6. Money matters. Don’t undersell yourself or work for too little, especially not if the client is big and obviously has got the cash. But I also wouldn’t say “Never work for free”. Some projects pay extremely well but you don’t feel you’re being challenged on a creative level, while other, more interesting things often naturally have a smaller budget but end up being a super fun challenge. I’ve been calling them “portfolio projects”, they’ve been with NGOs or indie publications where writing the piece took me two hours and gave me decent exposure. But: Make sure you manage your time accordingly, don’t spend more than 10 percent of your actual working time on stuff that doesn’t pay off, otherwise you’ll drown in work – and have nothing but pasta on your plate for the whole month.

7. Be hungry. Hungry for inspiration, for more knowledge, hungry for criticism, hungry for progress, for good numbers. That is so, so, so important when you work in the creative industry. And once that spark à la Steve Jobs is gone, do everything you can to get it back.

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Do one thing every day that scares you

8. Surround yourself with people who dream big, who are hopelessly idealistic and who are convinced they and their work can change the world. Do one thing every day that scares you, as Eleanor Roosevelt so famously said. That will have an effect on the way you do business. Which brings me to…

9. Over-deliver. Make people happy, go that extra mile even if you don’t get paid for it. Be humble. That way people will recommend you and happily commission you again. Relationships matter even in the dark world of business.

10. Enjoy it. I’m not gonna lie. It’s tough, there are times when I feel like nothing is working out, invoices are being ignored for months on end and just in that same period, the tax office wants a huge tax payment that I haven’t even earned yet. People with ‘actual jobs’ often don’t understand what I’m doing. There’s the ‘Oh, so you’re watching Netflix all day and go on fancy holidays, right?’ questions and your parents probably wish you’d know what you’re doing with your life. Sorry guys. But the truth is, that whole process is incredibly rewarding. You learn to take responsibility for absolutely everything, you slowly get to grips with tax, insurance and bookkeeping – none of which they teach you in school. Oh, and you yourself can decide (mostly) what you spend your time working on.

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But in all of that, the one thing I underestimated most is how tough this would be mentally. But it’s so okay to have bad days where you regret not having studied business or law, or whatever else gets you a beautiful and stable paycheck. Fellow freelancers have assured me that’s part of the deal. Just get up again the next morning and make it a better one. If you work from home, go to cafe, run in the pouring rain or visit an exhibition during lunch. You can do anything once you’ve braved the first bumps and start believing in yourself. Trust me – and dream big! x

4 responses to What I’ve learned from six months of freelancing

  1. I have no plans in becoming a free lance but it’s the “At 22.” that made me read your article (also the fact that I just discovered you blog and I love everything I read and see). I’m the same age as you and I feel that I will never have the butts to do what you do ! In my 2 years break trying to find out what I’m able to do, I’m in the middle of a happy time yet a bit empty when it comes to job/studies fullfillment. I really wish I could find something to do by my own and not waiting that someone say finally yes to my several internship application. I need the courage to believe in myself but when I read your article, one part was full of admiration while the other was saying “see, she’s your age and she’s doing something that is right to her”.
    That said, well done for your work here and elsewhere: where can we find your others publications ?

    • Caroline Schmitt – Author

      Dear Marine, really sorry for the late reply! Thank you so much for taking the time to respond. The one thing I would advise you to is to wait until you find out what you really want to do and then find a job (or create one and go freelance) that fits exactly to that, or will eventually. I know exactly what it feels to go from one internship to another and just feel like your work isn’t appreciated. That sucks – but it’ll make you realise what you (don’t) want and give you a lot of insight into the nasty world of business! ; ) So I guess it’s not all bad. Oh and you can read some of my stuff when you click on the “Journalism” tab on the left or on Twitter @caro_schmitt. I keep my fingers crossed that things will work out for you x

  2. Wow!

    I feel incredibly honoured! Thank you so much for your lovely words and let me know if there is anything I can help you with. Also, I’m excited to share the news that I’m working on a second book, which I’ll launch on Kickstarter on the 4th of January! Yay!

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