5 Things I Learnt My First Year Freelancing

By Mel Sim

And how it’s helped me to become better at it

Come June 2021, it will be my 16th year being a freelancer. I was 27 when I decided to leave the corporate world and see how I would fare out there on my own. What started as a side job (or gig economy as it is known now) soon became a career choice. Granted, I didn’t really have anything lined up when I decided to quit and thought freelancing would be something I would do first until the next great job came along.

And it did – by being a freelancer! In fact, it’s the best job for me given that I have freedom over my time, control of how I want my career (because let’s face it, freelancing is a career choice as well) to be, and the best part, the opportunity to take my future wherever I desire.

But there were plenty of hard lessons to learn before arriving at my 16th year anniversary as a freelancer. And despite what I’ve heard from others about being a freelancer, I still made some mistakes as a newbie. But you know what they say about mistakes – you learn from them.

So here’s what I learnt during my first year as a freelancer – and how it’s shaped my life now.

#1 Plan, plan, plan
A perk about being a freelancer is being in charge of your work. I know of some freelancers who would wake up early at 6am to start work and take the rest of the day off after lunch – such luxuries! But you know what it also says about them? That they have a plan and that plan is to dedicate a good chunk of their mornings to be productive. Because you no longer have a boss or team lead to tell you what to do and when to get it done, the onus is on you to pretty much plan your own day. And as the saying goes, if you fail to plan, yups, you plan to fail.

So the first order of things as a freelancer was to work out a work schedule for myself. And then to also plan my to-complete list for the week so that I am not swamped with impossible deadlines. As a freelancer, this planning process is very important to visualise the amount of work you have and how you plan to get them done on time for your clients. Without proper planning, you might end up saying yes to all the projects coming your way only to realise you don’t have enough waking hours in a day to complete them!

#2 Don’t Sell Yourself Short
Naturally, during my first year, I was worried about income so I said yes to everything, even the low-paying jobs that took up a huge chunk of my time. I remember a project I took on that sucked up so much of my energy and time only to be paid a measly USD20 for a 400-word document. In case you don’t already know, that’s like freelancing daylight robbery. My mistake was I didn’t think of the time it would take to complete the work; I just thought hey, paid in USD and a client from elsewhere that’s not Malaysia? OK!

There’s really no one to blame but yourself if you feel like you’ve been shortchanged in terms of your fees. And there are some clients who will make that promise of paying you better for more work in the future. Don’t fall for that. Set your rate (which will and should increase as you get better at whatever it is that you do as a freelancer) and stick to it. Even if you think you can complete the project in half the time stipulated, you still need to be paid the same amount because it is your expertise you’re basing your rates on; not how fast you can do the job.


#3 The Power of Negotiation
From negotiating your fee to a client trying to get you to do more but without any additional pay, being an ace negotiator will help you thrive in your freelance career. During my first year, I’ve learnt that if you don’t negotiate, you will end up with the shortest stick – less pay for more work, additional work for no pay, discounts even after the job is done!

#4 Pace Yourself
When I first started, I was go, go, go – simply because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it and there was really no failing being a freelancer because no backup plan in sight. So I took whatever job I was given. I was the freelancer who would wake up at 6am and then work all the way till late at night. In between there were some breaks but also answering emails, calls and even meetings. Literally, I was working from AM to PM and sometimes AM again. By the second year, even though my income has seen a significant jump, I was tired. So tired that I slept through a pedicure – who does that! The freelancer who didn’t know how to pace herself but thankfully knows better now to know that being a freelancer doesn’t mean you work all the time.

#5 Value Your Clients
In my career as a freelance writer, I’ve come across all sorts of clients. And the first rule I learnt about clients: No matter how well they pay you, if they are toxic to work with, dump them. No amount of money is worth the mental anguish – and unfortunately, I’ve had to learn this the hard way several times.

Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of good clients – shoutout to GRADUAN® – whom I’ve worked with since the beginning of my freelance career and remain my clients and now friends as well. The thing about freelancing is that you’re providing a service and if you provide a service that is valuable, your client will appreciate it and keep coming back. So right from the start of your freelancing career, learn how to weed out the bad clients and keep the good ones. It’ll help you enjoy your freedom and work more.

Photo by Windows on Unsplash

Share this article: