Maybe you’re thinking it’s a bad time to really focus on your freelance career? If you are, you’re not alone.
Economic uncertainty is always a terrifying prospect, and so is ditching your “safe” clients or your day job. But the worst economic climate may actually be the best time to take your career to the next level.
The day I officially made a decision to be a full-time freelancer is an incredibly personal story, and one I want to share with you.
I moved from Atlanta to NYC with no job, almost no money, a temporary place to crash, and huge ambitions. I was a fearless (but clueless) 23-year old and wanted to grab onto the world and never let go.
After a few weeks of expecting to land $50 to $100 an hour jobs as a freelance video editor based on a crappy reel from film school I was toting around town, I realized I was getting absolutely nowhere. It’s embarrassing when I think about that experience now!
So after two weeks of these shennaigans, my oldest brother called to tell me I had to pull myself together and find a job already. Living in NYC isn’t cheap, nor is it for the faint of heart. So I lowered my expectations and found a position the next week as a receptionist at a video editing facility. I earned a whopping $25,000 a year, and only had $300 a month after paying all my bills and before eating.
I made it work with a lot of ramen noodles, sharing a mouse-infested apartment near a cemetery, saving overtime checks and eating the catered client lunch leftovers at work. Cheap PBR was my new beverage of choice when I ventured into attempting NYC nightlife.
Fortunately for me, an assistant editor got fired shortly after I arrived, and I begged for a chance to be trained as an apprentice. They agreed! But after a year of haggling my way into a position as an assistant video editor, I was pretty sick of the low pay and long hours. Meanwhile, I noticed freelance assistant video editors were earning $400 to $600 a day (plus overtime) to do the exact same work I was doing at $30,000 a year.
I was resentful and entitled, and had a bad attitude at work. But then I realized I was the problem. Companies just aren’t going to double an entry level worker’s pay after a year. You have to be fearless and either jump ship and find another company willing to pay you more, or become your own self-employed entity.
The time was now or never. I had to empower myself and create my own opportunities. I couldn’t wait around for someone else to do it for me.
Though I was in no way experienced enough to take the leap, I decided to quit my job and dive head first into a freelance career. I knew it would be a sink or swim situation, and I just didn’t care how hard it might be. And after sending out a few emails, I quickly landed an interview at another video editing facility to do freelance work. It went incredibly well. It looked like they wanted to book me immediately!
Feeling very confident and a bit smug, I planned to turn in my notice that day. I figured even if this company didn’t book me, I could surely come up with something else quickly. I got on the subway feeling like a million bucks.
What I heard next would change my life (and everyone else’s life) forever:
“A plane just flew into the World Trade Center!”
The entire subway turned to stare at a homeless man leaning on a pole and picking at his nails. He muttered his declaration about the planes again. The rest of us went back to our newspapers and coffees. I knew some people dismissed him outright, but I could tell that this wasn’t just talk. Something was very, very wrong.
And there was. It was September, 11th, 2001.
When I emerged from the subway and ventured over to Madison Ave, what I saw next was straight out of a movie. An entire block of pedestrians were stopped dead in their tracks and facing Downtown. They were silently staring up at the sky. I had never seen the city so still and breathless before and that sight alone was terrifying. I braced myself to turn and look.
A pile of black, billowing smoke poured into the blue sky above. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. We all slowly broke from our trance and scattered into buildings and shops.
When I got to my day job, my co-workers and other people from our building were crowded in our client area watching the big screen TV. We knew two planes had flown into the twin towers, but assumed they were small single-engine jets. I think we all knew that it was done on purpose and to make a political statement. But nothing prepared us for what happened next.
As we watched the black smoke engulfing the towers on TV, we saw them sway and seem to implode. But I still didn’t get it. It was my client, who was on the phone talking to his office in the financial district, who made the announcement. He had turned pale, and was shaking. “The towers just fell.”
I still didn’t get it. The idea that these two massive landmarks were now a pile of burning rubble, with hundreds of people trapped inside had not registered. Soon the news made the same announcement, and we also learned the planes involved were American Airlines and United. My Dad flew for American at that time, and often flew the route involved. My friend was a flight attendant for United, and also flew the route involved. And one of my brothers was an F-16 pilot. And my roommate was suppose to be at the World Trade Center that morning.
Fortunately I made some calls before the phones lines were overloaded and went down for days. I found my Dad and was told my brother was on high alert, but hadn’t been deployed yet. I wouldn’t know where my flight attendant friend was for a week. My roommate’s boss told me she had headed to a relative’s in upper Manhattan, but didn’t know where.
The subways and phone lines soon went down and my co-workers started to pack up to make their long walks home. I set out to make the arduous journey of walking home alone from Midtown, Manhattan to Brooklyn where I had no choice but to head in the direction of those burning buildings…
I didn’t quit my job that day.
Instead I navigated a new life in an entire city spiraling into post-traumatic shock where the smell of burning permeated the air for months. I could go on to detail all of the intense pain and anguish that went on for the next year, as well as what I saw on that long walk home that still haunts me today.
But out of this terrible experience came a newfound sense of resilience and steadfast determination. My constant inner thought bubble was pretty much, “Oh, hell no! I’m not stopping now!”
Over the next few months, the desire to claw my way into self-employment grew stronger until the urgency to do so was palpable. I realized with great clarity that life is so incredibly short. I refused to spend it doing something I loathed day in and day out. And it was painfully apparent that absolutely anything could happen in the world at any time.
There was no predictability in life any longer, and I could lose my “safe” day job in a split second. Businesses were also suffering and had no real loyalty to me or anyone else. There were no longer 30+ year careers at the same company with hefty pensions and retirement parties. Those days were long gone.
But there was something else. I had certainly not moved to NYC and nearly bankrupted myself to slave away all hours of the day and night for little pay. I deserved more for myself, and I was determined that I was going to find it.
Surprisingly, my freelance career took off when the economy fell into a tailspin. Suddenly no one was hiring full-time help anymore. Everyone was letting employees go to save on overhead, and they needed freelancers to fill in the gaps.
Nearly a year after that horrible day, I really did quit my job and never looked back.
Yes, making the leap was hard and very much a sink or swim situation. I made a lot of mistakes, and had no trusted co-workers to lean on to fix it. I only had a few months of savings in the bank and one short-term freelance gig lined up. I needed more than a little freelance work, I needed a lot of it in order to make living in NYC work.
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Those first few months as a freelancer had their intense ups and downs, but for the most part I was booked almost constantly by developing a ferocious self-marketing system. I even went to Europe for 3-weeks during my third month of freelancing. I rarely used a freelancer’s portfolio to land work, and I still don’t rely on my current one all that much. Instead, I rely on a system of identifying clients and figuring out exactly how to market myself to them so that I’m a near perfect candidate for the job.
Almost all of my jobs still come from very targeted client searches and rock solid cold emails. I don’t do that much networking in a traditional sense, and I rarely do client calls to land work. It doesn’t mean those things don’t work or aren’t helpful. But there are already clients advertising for freelancers and workers everywhere. And there are even hidden clients who need freelancers that you can easily find if you know where and how to look. What they really need is for you to show them you’re the best candidate.
My system works whenever I’m looking for work as a:
- Freelance Content Writer
- Freelance Copywriter
- Freelance Content Manager
- Freelance Social Media Consultant
- Freelance Brand Consultant
- Freelance Marketing Consultant
- Freelance Promo TV Writer
- Freelance Virtual Assistant
- Freelance anything!
But please let me be perfectly clear. I was a complete nobody venturing into one of the worst disasters in U.S. history when I got started as a freelancer. The world was full of grief, chaos, and unprecedented uncertainty. And the competition was fierce.
I bet everything I’ve described here feels all too familiar to you right now. But the good news is you’re not powerless. You’re not alone.
Today we’re all in a similar uncertain and chaotic environment with fewer jobs and a lot of competition. And even today as a seasoned freelancer with 15-years of experience, there are still plenty of other people out there more talented than me. The competition is still fierce.
But I know I’ll be fine. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but I’ve figured out how to scale up and down my work and income as needed to take care of myself and my family.
But will you do me a favor? Remember that no matter what is going on right now in the world and in your life… your long-term happiness, financial health and ambitions are WORTH IT.
You are worth it. Don’t give up on yourself, because no one will ever care more about your own well-being than you. You can do this.
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