When Is the Right Time to Launch a Freelance Tech Communications Business?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, www.writerruth.com
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Moving from the apparent security of a full-time job—I say “apparent” because there really is no such thing as job security any more—to the risks and rewards of freelancing can be exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. For many colleagues, the hardest part of freelancing is simply making the decision to go for it on a full-time basis. You may have done, or thought about doing, some freelance tech communications work on the side, but knowing when to make freelancing your full-time lifestyle can be tricky.

That moment of decision comes at different points, and for different reasons, for every freelancer. So many things could push that button: burnout and boredom, difficult colleagues or supervisors, lack of opportunity to advance, or even what I call involuntary freelancing—being fired, laid off, or (for government workers) RIFFed.

For me, there were two such moments. One was when I had been in a writing/editing position with a trade association in the Washington, DC, area for two years and reached my burnout point—two years was about how long I could do a “regular” job before I started getting bored. I was tired of the commute to and from the office, even though it was quite reasonable compared to what most people in DC have to face. I was also getting more and more annoyed by the daily grind of the office—staff meetings held over breakfast (that we paid for ourselves) before the workday began were a major factor in my disenchantment! My boss didn’t believe in professional development, so getting to membership organization meetings was a constant hassle. I still liked putting together the monthly newsletter, but was tired of focusing on the same topic day in and day out.

I had already been doing some freelance assignments on a moonlighting basis, and I felt ready to give full-time freelancing a try, for both the variety in topics and the freedom to work in ways, and on schedules, that were more comfortable. I was lucky—I only had myself and my cat to worry about, lived in a rent-controlled apartment, and had paid off my car, so my lifestyle wasn’t especially extravagant and no one else was affected by my decision.

The second moment came a couple of years later and was far more unpleasant—after a good friend was named head of PR and marketing at a local hospital and talked me into coming with her as chief of publications. That should have been a dream job—my dad was a doctor and medical educator, so I practically grew up in a hospital; and working on in-house and community publications dealing with health, wellness, and medical topics seemed like a wonderful opportunity to do good by producing interesting, useful material. The environment, however, was toxic. My friend was a great friend but a terrible boss, and the hospital manager we reported to was extremely unpleasant. The day that he cursed at me for someone else’s action and my boss didn’t step up for me was my moment to say “Enough” and go back to freelancing. I’ve never seriously looked back since.

Colleagues have had other push points. Sometimes a personal health issue means a regular workplace isn’t workable any longer (or maybe never was); freelancing can be ideal if you’re disabled, depending on the disability. Sometimes it’s a matter of family issues—a partner, parent, or child has a health crisis, whether short-term or ongoing, and needs you at home. It can be a matter of personal preference—you want to be home for the first few years of a new baby’s life, or you simply don’t fit into the corporate culture. For some people, “the moment” is the realization that there’s enough freelance work in hand or en route to make full-timing doable.

It’s important to listen to that inner voice that starts saying, “This isn’t me any longer.” The more frustrated you are in that in-house job, the more poorly you’re likely to perform. Freelancing may not work for everyone, but it’s ideal for many of us and certainly worth trying when family issues or workplace environment mean you need to make a life- and work-style change.

Setting the Foundation

For the most part, it doesn’t really matter why you decide to go freelance. What matters more is how you do it. The ideal is two-fold: having enough money in the bank to support yourself for a few months while you establish your business and having at least one solid, ongoing client or project in hand, contract and all, as your foundation.

Until then, here are some tips to get you heading in the right direction:

  • Start building that foundation now by participating in the STC’s resources for freelancers—SIGs, webinars, conference networking, chapter visibility. Make sure colleagues know who you are and what you can do.
  • Look for opportunities to take on occasional freelance projects that don’t interfere with your full-time job, so you can get the hang of not only doing the work, but also balancing competing inroads on your time and energy. Successful freelancers have more (sometimes many more!) than one client, and often have to juggle between simultaneous client deadlines and demands.

Those moonlighting projects can also help you build a portfolio; tech communicators often work on proprietary material that they can’t show to potential freelance clients, so outside projects might be key to convincing someone to hire you. (Whatever you use as work samples for your portfolio, whether physical or online, such as at your website, be sure to get permission to display them beforehand.)

  • Start saving money—most freelancers don’t begin with any guarantee of immediate income, and often don’t realize what they will need to support their new lifestyles. Sure, it’s less expensive than ever nowadays to freelance, since most of us already have computers and Internet access at home, but you’ll need to pay for your own supplies, new equipment, new software programs and updates, memberships, and health insurance, etc., out of your own pocket. (That last item alone can give you sticker shock.) You’ll also need to budget for marketing and promoting your freelance business through a website and other ways of getting the attention of potential clients.

More about ways to get started in my next post. In the meantime, best of luck!

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is a long-time, award-winning freelance writer/editor, proofreader and presenter, and owner of Communication Central, which hosts the annual “Be a Better Freelancer”™ conference (www.communication-central.com). She has been active in STC as a national and local conference speaker,
Consultants and Lone Writers SIG member, “Freelance Basics” blogger, and national webinar presenter.