So 2014. I started the year off in a panic. November and December were dismal and I was sure that this was the final downslope on the freelance rollercoaster. That there would never be another upswing. I don’t think I will ever get comfortable with the ebb and flow of freelancing. I love the freedom, and the ability to say no, but the feast or famine thing is just tough to take. Will I ever get to the point where the security wins out over the freedom and I decide to head back into an office? There are days when I say “Never!” but then there are days where the panic sets in and I just want something steady, predictable, and secure.
I considered expanding my business to include copyediting. I quickly realized that copyediting is its own animal – it’s not the same as what I do. I mean, I do some copyediting, but my strength is in developmental and substantive editing, specifically in the biomedical sciences. More than that, I realized that to make any money in copyediting, I would need to automate much of what I do. I would need to use macros and software to make every second count and get up to a decent hourly rate. Even taking into consideration the learning curve, it was clear that adding copyediting to my repertoire was not going to solve my income problem.
So I decided in January that I would delve into my virtual Rolodex and seek out more work in healthcare communications – I’d hoped that as the recession started to ease up, more agencies might be willing to hire freelancers. I reached out to my previous employer, and although they were not looking for freelance help, I was able to get my name back in circulation. It eventually paid off, with about 6 months of steady work over the summer and fall.
Almost at the same time, a former colleague of mine referred me to another agency. I went in to speak to the head of medical writing and started doing freelance work for them a couple of months later – it’s led to a fantastic working relationship that I hope to sustain and even expand in the coming year.
By March, grant proposal jobs had kicked back in. In the current funding environment, though, I think it’s time to resign myself to the fact that grant work will not be a big percentage of my income. That said, grant editing and consulting is one of the most personally and professionally satisfying parts of my career, and I was able to add on a new client this year who kept me very busy during October and November. I am hopeful that I can keep it going in 2015.
Manuscript editing continued to be a big part of my business, and I enjoy it as much as, and maybe even a little more than, grant projects. The work is sporadic, though, so it was good to have the agency work to fill in the gaps.
On the business side, I switched accountants and promptly realized how disinterested my previous accountant had been in my business. My new accountant has put me on the right track, curing me of really bad bookkeeping habits, gently guiding me towards what I should have been doing all along (ahem, QuickBooks). I also made the decision to incorporate, which has turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made, financially speaking.
So what did I learn this year?
1) Networking is crucial. Most if not all of my business is based on referrals. I’m glad I reached out to previous clients and kept in touch with former colleagues. Even if they have no work, they are reminded I am out there and I am available to take work. I send out a New Year postcard every year for that very reason – just get to get my name back in their head as they start their year.
2) Quality really is king. Always do your best work. Always. You’ll get repeat business as well as referrals. By February, just as I was starting to dust off the resume, my repeat clients started calling with jobs. I should have more faith, really.
I’m sure I covered this in a previous post, but it’s worth repeating. If you think you can’t do your best quality work, don’t take the job. Really. Be honest with potential clients if you have doubts about your ability to complete the job. It doesn’t help you or your client if you have to struggle through a job. I hate having to admit I can’t do something, but I really hate having to tell a client I can’t finish their job. Or sending them poor quality work.
3) Do what you’re good at. Although it’s always good to learn new skills, it’s also important to focus on your strengths and offer your clients your very best. I am really good at substantive and developmental biomedical editing and biomedical writing. I’m good at editing biomedical grant proposals and peer-reviewed manuscripts. I’m good at brainstorming and planning and constructing a good scientific story. But there are many things I am not as good at and other things I know nothing about. I recognize this and I wouldn’t offer my services in these areas to any client, no matter how freaked out I am about the potentially lost income.
4) Introspection is important. I try to assess how I am doing a few times a year. And not just financially. How many active clients do I have? How many are new? What kinds of projects have I been doing? Where have I struggled and what can I do about it?
5) Go with a diverse client base. As much as I love grants and manuscripts, they are not sufficient to pay the bills. I ended up with 25 clients in 2014, some repeat, some new. They were independent researchers, research institutions, healthcare communications agencies, publishers, and pharma. I also did some volunteer work for AWIS Magazine – great experience and more contacts!
So how did I end up doing in 2014? I am up a little more than 10% in billing and a little more than 5% in income from last year – so that is really something.
As I write this, I am in the midst of my annual December slump – the part of the freelance ride I guess I’m just going to have to get used to. But this year, I will not panic and instead have faith that all my hard work and diversification and introspection and newfound business sense will pay off and the rollercoaster will once again head in the upward direction. Here’s to an even better 2015!