Don't jump into the freelancing game blindfolded - you need to be prepared so that you can obtain optimal results. Here are the things I wish I'd known first...
A recent report found that in 2020 - despite Covid-19 and the impact this had on businesses and ways of working around the world - global freelancing soared.
When I started freelancing in social media more than three years ago, I had no idea what I was doing. Like most freelancers, it happened by accident.
The social media skills I picked up in my first corporate job at a digital marketing agency stuck with me long after I left. Though my next 9-5 job was in a different field, there was something about the world of Facebook, Twitter and, more specifically, Instagram, that I couldn’t shake off.
So, I started freelancing on the side. At first, I picked up a handful of freelance writing gigs. Then, I put my social media marketing skills to good use and began consulting small business owners on their Instagram marketing strategies.
Eventually, my side hustle became my main hustle when I decided to become a full-time freelancer. Yes, that’s right. I made the brave (or totally bonkers) decision to become my own boss in January 2020…
… a couple of months before a global pandemic took hold and life - in every respect - looked very, very different.
It’s safe to say I’ve learned a huge amount in the last four years as both a part-time and full-time freelance social media manager. And while every single freelancer’s experience is different, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned that may just help you decide if the world of freelancing is for you.
When I first started freelancing in social media I spent a lot of time looking around at what others were doing.
And, I’m not embarrassed to say that I tried emulating some of them. The way they branded themselves, the business model they seemed to have, the type of work they were doing.
If they could be successful doing it that way, maybe I could be successful too?
What I didn’t realise (/forgot) was that I wasn’t seeing the behind-the-scenes.
🤷♀️ I didn’t know if a freelancer was making 5-figure months profit or 5-figure months revenue with huge outgoings
🤷♀️ I didn’t know if a freelancer was managing a seemingly endless flow of clients on their own, or because they had the support of a VA
🤷♀️ I didn’t know if a freelancer was managing those first few months/years of up-and-down paychecks while also paying rent and bills - or if they lived at home with their parents
The point is - don’t compare your journey to anyone else’s.
At first, it felt like the way I was freelancing wasn’t quite right. It didn’t look like every other freelancer I knew (or knew of).
But I quickly learned that my freelancer path might look a bit messy. That for a while, I might sustain myself on a blend of freelance work for my previous employer, 1:1 work with social media clients, and writing for brands like Iconosquare.
And that’s okay. Finding your freelancing groove and preferred way of working comes with time.
Speaking of finding your groove as a social media freelancer, this didn’t really happen until I started actively seeking out communities to join.
At the beginning of my full-time freelancing career, I joined two groups. A female networking group and a low-cost program designed to help support online entrepreneurs grow their businesses through a mixture of accountability and training.
These groups were pivotal to my growth for two reasons. The first was how much they improved my confidence - essential for a new freelancer that no longer had the support of colleagues. The second was the access they gave me to new clients and people that could share my expertise with their networks.
It’s funny how the thought of “networking” used to fill me with dread. The very word made me feel queasy. Now, working for myself, I love networking.
Businesses really are built on relationships - it’s a cliche for a reason. And while I’m pleased that I jumped straight into it when I began freelancing in social media, I only wish I could tell my old self how much Future Bella would love it!
She wouldn’t have believed me 😂.
It’s true what freelancers say. Working for yourself is no picnic.
In the beginning, boundaries will go out the window, along with schedules, lunch breaks and national holidays. The “hustle” is real.
But despite all of this, being your own boss is liberating.
(I said liberating, not easy).
I found freelancing in social media liberating because I was freed from a fixed schedule and compulsory (unnecessarily long!) meetings that took time away from client work. At last, I was able to create a schedule that worked for me.
Since I’m a morning person, that means waking up early and working on projects when my energy and productivity levels are at their best.
If you compare the amount of time I spend actually working now that I’m a freelancer, compared to when I worked in a corporate job, it’s much more. There are fewer distractions. Less opportunities to pop to the office kitchen to chat to colleagues while we make tea.
And while I do miss the social interaction of being in an office, I don’t mind working harder than I ever have before because I really enjoy the work I’m doing. I enjoy that I get to choose the clients I work with and how I want to work with them.
No one is dictating anything to me. For some people, that’s a terrifying prospect (and I understand why!). For me, it’s empowering.
Freelancing in social media can feel like riding a rollercoaster every single day.
Every 5 minutes there’s a new app being launched, a new feature being added, a new trend to be aware of.
That’s life when you work in the incredibly fast-paced and ever-changing world of social media. And it can quickly become overwhelming. Here’s just a handful of thoughts that pass through my mind on an hourly basis:
However, what I’ve learned over time is that being a social media expert doesn’t mean jumping on the bandwagon of every new app/feature/tool.
In other words, I’ve learned to overcome shiny object syndrome.
This is perhaps one of the hardest things to do when you begin freelancing in social media. Particularly because you will have clients regularly asking your opinion on a new trend or app they’ve read about online.
My biggest lesson? It’s important to keep up-to-date with social media trends so that you’re aware of how these impact the industry more broadly, and what it says about consumer behaviour.
But having one or two core focuses (for example, mine is Instagram) and trusting your gut and the experience you’ve developed is what’s valuable to clients.
For example, having worked on Instagram strategies for the last 5+ years, I know that a great strategy includes a few timeless fundamentals.
That’s why I don’t jump on every single trend that comes around - because for many of my clients, I know that isn’t an efficient use of time or energy.
In my first proper job at a social media agency the learning curve was steep.
However, nothing can prepare you for the multitude of different skills you pick up as a social media freelancer.
Of course there are the more obvious skills like video editing, graphic design, and client relations.
But then there’s everything else you pick up along the way. Becoming a pro at sales calls, getting to grips with accountancy, and mastering time management.
What were five separate people’s jobs at my previous company now all fall under my remit. Most days that feels quite overwhelming, but it’s also extremely rewarding.
The key to handling so much responsibility - and spinning so many plates - is to give yourself grace. You’re not going to be amazing at everything, and developing skills in those other areas takes time. Allows yourself the room to make mistakes and give yourself the time to improve.
One of the funny things about freelancing in social media - which you don’t realise until you step outside the world of Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and ClubHouse - is just how much knowledge you have.
When you spend all day, every day, consumed by these apps, it can feel like everyone and their mother works in social media in some capacity.
But that’s just not true. And in fact, there’s so much confusion and misinformation surrounding social media platforms, that working with a true expert is incredibly valuable to businesses.
Don’t save every single penny you earn. Save enough for taxes and a rainy day fund, but make sure to invest in yourself as well.
While you do know way more than you realise (see point 6 above), skilling up and investing in your personal development is essential to growing as a freelancer and business owner.
To date, I’ve invested in 5+ courses and paid programs to help me uplevel in areas including selling, paid advertising, and optimizing systems/processes for my business.
It will feel scary to spend at first, but as long as you’ve done your research and read lots of testimonials, investing in yourself is one of the smartest decisions you will make.
Don’t stay stuck treading water. Whether it’s a coach, mentor or self-paced program, these investments in yourself will pay off in the long run.
In the early days of freelancing in social media, it will feel as though you need to respond to every single email or notification immediately.
Because what happens if you don’t? You’ll miss out on an opportunity, right?
It’s okay (and sensible) to turn your phone on Do Not Disturb for a certain amount of time every day so that you can…
One of the biggest lies you’ll tell yourself is that you need to be “on” 24/7, with one eye on your phone for any new inquiries or client feedback.
All this does is distract you constantly throughout the day so that any task takes three times as long.
One of the most beneficial changes I made to improve my productivity was turn my phone on Do Not Disturb. For a scheduled period of time each day I will check my inbox and reply to any urgent (client) emails. The rest of the emails I will “star” and return to later that day, or the next.
Of course there will be times when client emails and messages need to be dealt with throughout the day - especially if you’re running a timely campaign.
Exceptions aside, remember that replying to emails and Instagram DMs sucks up a huge amount of time and energy. Time and energy that can (often) be better spent elsewhere.
Scrap your to-do list right now.
Yes, I know you love a list. So do I. But replacing my written to-do list with a digital calendar (in my case, Google Calendar) and blocking my time each day was a game-changer.
The problem with a traditional to-do list is that it never gets completed. You start at the top of the list and work your way down, spending as long as necessary to complete each task.
Crossing out items is satisfying, but you know what isn’t satisfying?
Looking at that list at the end of a long day and wondering why you don’t seem to have achieved anything.
☝️This was me, until I started assigning my to-dos to my calendar. I roughly estimate how long each task will take me and calendar block accordingly. If a task takes longer than expected, I put it to one side to return to later.
Having something to look forward to is essential when you become a freelancer.
Whether that’s a holiday with family and friends, or simply a day off from work to do the things you love, it’s important to plan this into your diary.
Burnout is a very real thing, and has only amplified in the last 12 months with people increasingly working from home (WFH). While WFH has its benefits, it also blurs the boundaries between “work life” and “home life”, making it incredibly difficult to switch off.
One of the ways to combat this is to commit breaks to your calendar. Don’t wait for a quiet season. It never feels like the right time to take a holiday and before you know it, you’ll go a whole year without a full week off.
Learn to say “no”
When I first started freelancing in social media, I felt like Jim Carrey in the film Yes Man.
I was up for everything. Calls, projects, “brain-picking” sessions - you name it, I was there. Saying no was out of the question.
Why? Because freelancing is an unpredictable world. And while some new freelancers walk straight out of their full-time job and into a series of well-paid and rewarding contracts, many don’t.
In this scenario, accepting any job (or meeting) - no matter how questionable the fee or deliverables - seems like the Smart Thing To Do.
This is when saying “no” feels impossible. But I promise you that saying no is essential to growing the freelancing business you dreamed of.
As you get into the swing of freelancing in social media, your skills will improve, your confidence will grow, and your glowing client testimonials will make saying “no” so much easier.
Here are a few occasions when saying “no” is the wise thing to do:
In the beginning, many freelancers do have to do work they don’t particularly love and take calls that aren’t scheduled at the most convenient times.
But as you become more established, remember to check in with your business goals (and values) to ensure you’re on the right track.
Your time is money, and there comes a point in every freelancer’s career when they have to say “no” to certain requests that will take them away from working on growing a business they love.
Feelings of imposter syndrome are REAL
I’m not sure if these feelings ever go away. Not even when you’ve climbed the freelancer ranks and hit the big time as a multi-award winning CEO.
Expect to question your abilities and your audaciousness every single day.
“You thought YOU could break free from the corporate world and start a whole new business on your own. You? Really?”
☝️ The train of thought inside my head every other day.
And then there are the panicked moments when I question whether “Instagram” is even a word.
I blame it on a lack of colleagues (great moral support) and a lack of distraction (gossiping with aforementioned colleagues in the kitchen).
Without these two vital ingredients, it’s (primarily) just you and your thoughts 8 hours a day…
… and that can become a lot! All I’ll say is that those feelings are completely natural.
You are amazing at what you do. Don’t believe any of the rubbish that your inner monologue is telling you..
You will feel an immense sense of gratitude (almost) every single day
Freelancing in social media and being my own boss has certainly come with its challenges.
There’s no-one to answer to - except me! - which can be both wonderfully freeing and cripplingly overwhelming. I don’t get paid for sick days or taking time off. And, I don’t have anyone except Winston the corgi to talk to day-to-day.
In the UK, where I’m based, freelancers cited that the ‘blurring of boundaries between work and homelife’ (32%) and ‘not having access to statutory employment benefits’ (29%) has a negative impact on their mental health.
Despite all of this - the long days and hard work - I can honestly say I’ve never been happier.
The benefits of being a social media freelancer include setting my own schedule, choosing which clients I work with, and building a business I love.
And because everything rests on my shoulders, the feeling I get when I win new business or receive glowing feedback is unbeatable. It proves to me that I’m capable of anything - and that I wasn’t mad to make the move into freelancing after all.
If you’ve been debating whether to jump into the world of freelancing, here’s a short social media freelancer checklist to get you ready:
Besides that - good luck and go for it!
Freelancing is incredibly rewarding and while it might seem scary to go it alone, it’s much less scary than wondering “What if?” for the next few years.
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Every week, Emily interviews top brands, renowned influencers, and hidden agencies with one goal in mind: to understand what happens backstage of their social media strategies.Listen to esm2