Dear Alphabettes: Freelancing and working from home

Dear Alphabettes,

Of the freelancers among you, what problems and anxieties are you facing? (Is a certain amount of uncertainty and anxiety maybe even necessary for the creativity of a freelancer?) Also, what are your experiences with working from home?


Dear Jeremy,

I don’t know if anxiety is necessary for creative practice, but it is certainly something I battle with in life generally! (I have OCD, anxiety and have had a bunch of panic attacks — my work is absolutely a trigger).

When I started out as a designer, I imagined a career in a studio leading a team of collaborators. When I got to that point, I was earning great money, working alongside people I admired on excellent projects — I was, in theory, achieving all my goals, but I was miserable, burnt out, and a nervous wreck. The trouble was in a corporate environment I was determining my worth by the quality of my work — so every project outcome (and compromise) became critical in my self-confidence, and I was busy striving for perfection in every project which was a fast track to the psychologist’s office.

So when I found myself looking to find a more healthy balance in my career and started to seriously consider freelance I was already incredibly anxious (seeing a psychologist twice a week) — I doubted my ability — wasn’t confident I could do good work, get the right clients or pay our mortgage. I wrote a tonne of pro’s and cons lists before getting started and also mapped out my back up career if everything turned to custard! But I was incredibly fortunate to have people around me who believed in my ability when I did not. That support structure was fundamental to me being able to turn my back on a well-paying job to freelance.

Before I wrote a business plan, I drafted a bare-bones household budget (to know exactly how much I needed to earn to cover our essential bills and living expenses). Then I wrote a business plan to ensure I could meet that minimum (x hours at y hourly rate = keep a roof over our head was my most basic formula!). Breaking it down like that gave me an achievable (less daunting) entry point and a specific number of hours to strive for each month.

I believe creativity demands courage — and at the time I lacked confidence in my creative ability — and myself. I knew my attitude towards my work (and lack of confidence) was the biggest problem I would have to overcome — so I built a habit of creative play, (I call this passionate practice) with no preconceived ideas about what something should look like — or how it should preform. I started to take risks in my self-initiated work, I gave myself permission to break rules and get things wrong.

I created a business model that focussed 50% on earning (professional practice) to pay the bills, and 50% on learning (passionate practice) to build that confidence. I also wanted the learning to be analogue based so I would have to work slow, and purposeful — where I could focus on being better rather than having client constraints and expectations which feed the self-worth perfectionism feedback loop that got me anxious and burnt out in the first place. So I started doing letterpress and making artist books that were all about fulfilling my creative urges and giving me a safe environment to experiment.

Working from home has been great for me — but I recognise collaboration, connectivity and community are also really important… I don’t do well in crowds, so ‘networking’ at industry events is hard but I made a point of catching up with someone I respect and or admired, one-on-one at least once a week to get me out of the house and keep talking to designers about practice and process… (later I established TypographJournal to create a new channel for these conversations) but I still have regular meet-ups with other designers too. And this network means I can share or refer others projects that demand skills I don’t have; I can collaborate on projects too big for me to service solo; and ask for help from people with more experience when I get stuck.

Next, on a more detailed level, I set up weekly calls with an ‘accountability partner’ (for me this was someone else starting out freelancing in a different design discipline — but equally your accountability partner could be a mentor — or a friend working in a studio — or anyone you trust really). Each week we would share knowledge, problem-solve issues and roadblocks, review each others work, look at our finances, and backlog of work… we would collaborate where our skills would help each other out and just generally cheerlead for each other. This was invaluable! My accountability partner knows my business intimately and is a trusted friend so despite both being in business now for seven years and not doing our accountability calls/meet-ups as frequently we still regularly deep-dive into what each other is doing from a business standpoint.

Once I got started I quickly found getting work wasn’t difficult — but getting quality clients who pay their invoices on time was more challenging. Once you find a good client look after them to the best of your ability — good work is self-perpetuating — happy clients will do all your marketing for you (after seven years freelancing 90% of my work is from word-of-mouth referrals from existing clients).

After the first couple of years (and a few evolutions of my business plan) I was earning plenty more than that bare-bones break even equation. As well as building my income — I have also been slowly building my creative confidence. I am now 18 years into my career — (7.5 into freelance), and I certainly don’t have everything worked out. But I am determined to create a healthy life (and business) — that can be rewarding (creatively not just financially). And to (hopefully) do some work that has greater meaning than what it looks like — or how it preforms. So advice from an anxious work-from-home freelancer;

Plan for busy and quiet times — I find with my freelance work I have 2 busy quarters and 2 quiet quarters a year — this works quite well for me as I focus on my passionate practice when there are fewer freelance opportunities — but it is important to plan for those down times by ensuring you have enough $ to tide you through.

Fear can be paralysing… fear of failure is a much bigger issue than actual failure. So be brave, take risks, build a habit of creative play. (You don’t need huge budgets or perfect clients to make the work you want to be making — you can create that work for yourself.) Adopt a passionate practice approach to your continued learning and advancement.

Strive for progress, not perfection — Don’t determine your worth by the quality of your work, or make yourself crazy trying to get everything perfect… People at the top of their game don’t achieve what they consider perfection. Your aesthetic taste almost always out-weighs your design ability — no matter how good you get — you’re always going to want to up-your-game. (Set yourself realistic goals, but hold them loosely — your goals should be about growth, rather than an end-point).

Be generous — When you help others, you help yourself. Share your ideas — share your knowledge — and work in collaboration — not competition with your peers.


Do you also have a question about freelancing, the universe, or everything else? Tweet at us @alphabettes_org and if the answer doesn’t fit into a tweet, we may reply here.

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