Three Experienced Freelancers on Navigating COVID and Their Advice for New Freelancers in 2021
The pandemic brought acceleration. Whatever trends were already happening, the pandemic made them happen faster. Things like the push to remote work, digital collaboration, and ecommerce all accelerated. Unfortunately, this acceleration applied to all the negative stuff as well. That meant more challenges like facing unrealistic demands or having customers skip out on paying you. There were also numerous mental health challenges that freelancers faced – among many other people – in COVID’s wake. Even though many freelancers worked remotely pre-COVID, the pandemic gave rise to many additional remote work pitfalls to watch for. It seemed like people couldn’t win, and advice for freelancers was in short supply.
While the pandemic brought a lot of negatives, one positive is clear: it increased demand for freelancers. Not only is white collar freelance hiring higher now than pre-pandemic, but more people than ever are considering freelancing as a valid career option. On top of that, freelancers like their work more than employees.
With all these positive markers, it would seem like freelancing is entering a golden era. But talking to freelancers on the ground presents a different story. While some freelancers are doing swimmingly, others are having to make tough choices. The stories of fast recovery, mega hiring, and higher earnings don’t necessarily reflect everyone’s reality. Speaking to PulseBlueprint, three freelancers shared their COVID navigation tactics, what’s on their minds for 2021, and how COVID changed their businesses. The three also shared their advice for freelancers just starting out.
Responding to COVID
Rebecca Reynoso is an eight-year veteran of the freelancing and side-hustling world. She focuses her work mainly on editing, proofreading, and writing. In keeping with major surveys, her business expanded due to COVID. But it’s not necessarily because opportunities were going bananas – simply that she actually had time to take the opportunities that were around her.
“Thanks to more “me” time, i.e. no commuting (90 minutes twice per day), I have extra time to work with clients, meaning I’ve taken on more opportunities than I was able to pre-COVID,” Reynoso said.
For Reynoso, having more time via remote work meant an opportunity to expand her offerings. Now, on top of execution-focused work, she added content consulting and coaching to her roster.
Something similar happened for Dan Stein. He’s taken freelancing to new heights during the pandemic, going from side-hustler to full-timer. Pre-pandemic, Stein was working in hospitality, freelancing on the side as an illustrator and graphic designer. He started a 3-month UX bootcamp in January 2020. With COVID hitting right as his course ended, he noticed an increased demand for UX work. The source? His illustrator and graphic design clients saw their businesses upended. As a result, many needed to make big changes to the user experience of their platforms to accommodate a huge surge in ecommerce.
“Because I had clients before the pandemic that now needed to change their organizations drastically, my work offerings became much more UX/UI related by default,” Stein said.
Jaxson Khan represents the other side of the coin. A communications consultant, Khan helped artificial intelligence, fintech, and digital education companies with highly technical writing and marketing strategy. When the pandemic hit, it punched right in the core of why Khan loved freelancing: mobility. Khan loved the location freedom he had as a consultant, enabling him to work while travelling throughout Latin America and Kenya. That came crashing down when lockdowns came into effect, and he returned to his native Canada.
Like other freelancers, Khan said he was able to increase his earnings. In that sense, he fit the typical mold of a white collar freelancer. However, the additional time it took to do business development bothered him.
“In light of COVID-19, … I was able to maintain and even increase my earnings, but it was requiring more time than I liked,” said Khan.
Ultimately, he decided to wind down his consulting business – going from full-time to side-hustle. Eventually, he took on a full-time job and put his energy there, freelancing only on the side.
Precarious work and intense demand
Whenever businesses have trouble, freelancers face an interesting duality. On one hand, demand for freelancers increases, as we’ve seen in the pandemic. On the other, so do the demands placed on freelancers. Khan, Stein, and Reynoso all saw a shift in client demands – and how quickly the clients expected these new demands.
Reynoso found in her business that “people needing help with writing and editing content is sky-high,” which she attributed to the need for “more relevant digital content” in the work from home era. Stein found that turnaround times are getting tighter, and bordering on the unreasonable.
“The need for a designer ASAP and for the work to be done 5 minutes ago has become far more common as organizations are evolving to the new times,” said Stein.
For Khan, the irritating side-effect of the pandemic – and one of the reasons he ultimately wound down his business – was ad-hoc contracts.
“There seems to be more need for infrequent contracts rather than predictable, steady work,” said Khan.
Khan also dealt with issues around on-time payment. He said that some clients all but disappeared, requiring months to chase them down for payment.
Preparing for 2021
As news of a COVID vaccine swirls and the end of the pandemic may be in sight, it’s a time for reflection and planning. It just so happens that post-pandemic planning correlates to the end of the calendar year when most people do their planning anyway. Call it a kindness of the pandemic, if you will.
As Reynoso thinks 2021 plans, it’s about continuing to do what works.
“Right now it’s mostly business as usual,” said Reynoso. “I have a lot of major projects with my freelancing that are overlapping into Q1 of 2021, so I’m not going to really change up much.”
Khan is following the same tack as Reynoso. Comfortable in his new full-time job, he’s planning on “doubling down” in that role. However, he plans to continue freelancing at least a little bit.
“[I’m] having a couple conversations about doing some more predictable business advisory/writing on the side,” said Khan. “I plan to continue part-time/freelance practise.”
Stein is taking this time to think more consciously about his business. Relatively fresh in the full-time freelancing game (only seven months of full-time work after two years of part-time work), he’s thinking about what it means to only work with one client at a time. That, he said, requires some shifting of how he works to focus on his strengths.
“I’m preparing by narrowing the scope of what I offer to clients based on what I think I’m performing best at and what I enjoy doing,” said Stein.
Advice for new freelancers
While these three freelancers have been in the game for years, a lot more people are starting for the first time. Informed by their experiences to date, each freelancer had a unique piece of advice for freelancers just starting out.
Khan believes that freelancing will be a “safe and predictable” career option post-COVID. But if you’re just starting out now, he recommends playing it safe, including iron-clad freelance contract terms that keep you paid on time (he recommends no more than net-30 payment terms).
For Stein, it’s a bit more personal. He advises all newbies to focus on what they are up to – not what everyone else is doing.
“We’re spending far too much time alone to get caught up in an echo chamber of negative self criticism,” said Stein, after he urged new freelancers to ignore the competition and only “compare it [your work] to your own past work, and see areas where you can get better.”
Reynoso focuses on the basics. Her advice for freelancers is making sure you have a good personal website set up. Once you have that, she said, focus on engaging with thought leaders in your space. From there, “hustle hard,” she said.
“You could be the world’s best copywriter, but if nobody knows your name or “brand,” you’ll scarcely get referral opportunities,” said Reynoso.
No matter how bad things got during the pandemic, it seems like there are brighter days ahead. Not only are the majority of freelancers optimistic about the future, but the nature of freelancing means it’s pretty easy to spin things back up again. For freelancers, at the end of the day it’s about freedom – of mobility, of earning potential, and of one’s self. Just ask Khan, who plans to relaunch his freelance business when it’s safe to travel.
“In the future, post-COVID, I will likely reinvigorate my [consulting] practise,” said Khan.
Editor’s note: This article was updated to fix a spelling error.