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So You Want to Freelance?
What to Know Before You Go

By Eric Kimble

Which scenario best describes your view of a freelancer's lifestyle: Days that begin with a leisurely stroll from your bed to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, followed by a 20-foot journey to your desk, where you tackle projects in your pajamas? Or mornings spent juggling daily calls from a dozen clients and afternoons drumming up future business?

In reality, consulting doesn't fit perfectly into either extreme, but instead lands somewhere in the middle. Indeed, a freelancer's daily existence has a lot in common with those who work full time for advertising or creative firms (aside from the part about working in your pj's): Collaborating with teammates, contending with quick turnarounds and producing stellar work are just a few of the necessary ingredients of a successful freelancer's career.

Freelancing is an option that's become more appealing to creatives because it provides flexibility as well as access to a wide variety of projects and business environments. Creatives often choose this career path so they can specialize in the areas they find most interesting and rewarding while establishing their own work schedules.

While consulting can yield financial, emotional and intellectual rewards, it's not for everyone. Separating personal life from business is one challenge that can arise, so you need to be able to draw the line between your job and your personal obligations. You also need to know how to market yourself effectively or work with others who can promote your talents for you.

If you're seriously considering a consulting career or simply curious about what it takes to be a successful freelancer, understanding the benefits and challenges of this career path can help you determine if it is the best choice for you.

The Upside of Self-Employment

Freelancing offers a number of benefits. For many professionals, the main attractions are flexibility and variety. Consulting exposes professionals to diverse creative engagements and new corporate cultures, giving them an opportunity to test-drive a position or company.

Working as a consultant gives me more flexibility and diversity in my assignments," says ALISA VAN VLIET, a freelance graphic designer based in Boulder. "I'm exposed to many different work environments and projects." Van Vliet worked full-time for 10 years for a variety of companies ñ including a few in the San Francisco Bay Area ñ before moving to Colorado in 2003. While consulting was initially a way for her to find a full-time job, she remained a freelancer because she enjoyed the chance to shop around and learn more about different industries.

Some creatives choose freelancing so they can specialize in specific areas they find most interesting or rewarding. Perhaps you're a graphic designer who wants to work for "green" companies; becoming a freelancer could allow you to control which firms you do business with. In fact, having the freedom to accept or decline projects is another compelling reason many creatives decide to consult.

Home Work: How to Overcome Obstacles

For all the flexibility and choice consulting offers, it also poses some challenges. "One of the more difficult aspects for me is the lack of collaboration," says Denver-based public relations strategist NIKKI MARTIN. "When you're working on your own, you don't have a group of people around you to bounce ideas off of," she says.

Similar to Martin, Van Vliet sometimes misses the interaction that comes with a full-time position. But she says long-term project assignments can provide opportunities to work closely with and get to know new people. So if you're someone whose creative juices feed off of other people's ideas, it could be in your best interest to seek engagements that last several months and involve working on-site rather than remotely. You also might want to connect with others in the creative community who can serve as sounding boards through online forums and networking events.

Along with reaching out to others in the creative community, consultants need to be comfortable with change. If you thrive on routine, freelancing might not be for you. As a project professional, you'll likely work with a range of clients and projects, and you need to be able to adapt well to new work environments and corporate cultures.

You also have to possess good business sense. Managing your own business can be stressful if you don't enjoy marketing yourself or are likely to become so engrossed in your projects that you forget to bill clients. Working with a staffing firm can help you with these dilemmas because this type of company performs the administrative aspects of your business, like lining up your next assignments and making sure you get paid on time.

Matching your talents and interests with the right clients and projects is another challenge for freelance professionals. Says Martin: "It can be a delicate balance between declining work and retaining a positive business relationship ñ as a consultant your reputation is everything." If you do turn down a project, it's best to position yourself as a resource to the client or prospect by providing them with another consultant or agency you think would be better suited for the assignment. The client will likely appreciate the referral and may ask you to help with future projects." A staffing firm also can help you identify opportunities that align with your preferences, as well as play the intermediary between you and the customer.

Van Vliet still worries about earning a steady income, but says there are no guarantees with any position, full time or freelance. "You never know what's next, and it can be hard to budget," she says. "I sometimes worry when I make a big purchase, but then I remind myself that there's uncertainty with any job." She says a lack of an employer-paid insurance plan also was one of her concerns as a consultant, but she now receives health coverage and other benefits through The Creative Group.

A Built-In Network

Networking is essential to creatives, and some might worry that freelancing makes this task harder since they're no longer connected to colleagues at work. However, consulting can actually make this process easier. "Networking has been amazing as a consultant," says Van Vliet. "If you stay in just one job, you're exposed to only a certain group of people. But every freelancing job I've held has allowed me to connect with new professionals, many of whom have offered me work." Networking as a consultant has been so effective, in fact, that Van Vliet says she's more worried about having too much work than not enough!

Similarly, Martin found networking relatively easy as a consultant. "It was natural via word of mouth," she says. "Once you get a company's endorsement, they'll say to a potential new client, "She's really great, you should consider hiring her."

However, it's important to maintain your network once you establish it, especially when you're a freelancer. Contacts should know the sort of work you're seeking so you can turn to them for advice and job leads. Those in your network also can be helpful if you run into sticky situations on a particular project or job.

Transition Time

If you're a creative considering a freelancing career, the transition doesn't have to be difficult. While working full-time for a public relations agency in Denver four years ago, Martin began picking up side projects to tackle on nights and weekends. When a few of the advertising agencies she was working with wanted to offer public relations services as well ñ and asked her to help them launch the new lines of business ñ it seemed the perfect time for her to move from full time to freelance.

Neither Van Vliet nor Martin considers freelancing a risky career move. "As long as you have a laptop and access to wireless connections, you can consult," says Martin. But to be successful, Van Vliet advises new freelancers to accept almost any assignment: "There are jobs that don't sound great but turn out to be extremely worthwhile," she says. And if you're on a short-term assignment, and the work isn't what you'd hoped for, you know you won't be there indefinitely.

Signing up with a staffing firm such as The Creative Group also can smooth the transition. "At the beginning, your focus is to establish your business, which can be very difficult," explained Martin. "I'd highly recommend teaming up with a placement agency to help augment your initial business."

Ultimately, Martin thinks most individuals can make the transition from full-time work to freelancing if they have a strong personal drive. "I really think that if your heart is in it and you're willing to commit, you can build a successful consulting career," she says.

Look Before You Leap: Hiring Trends for Creatives

If you're contemplating a move to freelancing (or any career move, for that matter), it's important to know the current hiring environment. Fortunately, the competition for creative and communications professionals remains solid.

Because firms are relying on design teams to develop engaging materials that distinguish their products and services, the demand for creative professionals is particularly strong. More than one-third of the advertising and marketing executives we surveyed said they plan to expand their creative services staff in the coming year. Those creatives who possess web and video savvy ñ interactive producers, for example ñ are in especially high demand.

In Denver and Boulder, the market for interactive gurus is very active. Indeed, if you're a creative with design and technical savvy, you're in demand. Companies are seeking web and interactive media expertise, such as creatives with experience in Flash and Flash ActionScripting. There also are many "video meets web" positions available for interactive producers.

In addition, there's a regional demand for online art directors and design professionals with web skills, along with requests for account managers with experience working for interactive advertising agencies.

Finally, Colorado-based firms are seeking web professionals with experience designing, developing and managing content for Internet community sites (i.e., MySpace, LinkedIn and YouTube). Common job titles for these positions are web content coordinator and web content editor.

Overall, there's a robust market for creatives with proven experience in these areas. If you are one of these creative individuals and are considering a freelancing career, now may be a good time to take the leap.

Be Introspective

Aside from evaluating the current job market, knowing yourself and what work environment you thrive in is essential when weighing the pros and cons of a freelancing career. Keep in mind that both full-time employment and freelancing can be attractive at different points in your career. While Martin enjoyed working as a consultant, she recently accepted a full-time position at Communications Strategy Group PR as an Account Executive. There, she's focusing on education, an area of particular interest to her.

Van Vliet, on the other hand, remains a consultant. She originally thought she'd freelance as a way to find full-time work, but instead she's found that she enjoys the variety and flexibility of consulting too much to give it up.

Whatever your decision, keep in mind that developing a career as a consultant requires persistence and patience ñ preparing yourself for a freelancing career is not something that happens overnight. Instead, view it as a gradual career transition requiring thought, research and, perhaps, a little help from a staffing firm. Done correctly, it can be both rewarding and lucrative. Good luck!

Eric Kimble is the Denver area Division Director of The Creative Group, which focuses on placing freelance professionals in the creative, advertising, marketing, web and public relations fields. Contact him at 303.295.7979.

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