5 Realities of Freelancing that You Need to Know

5 Realities of Freelancing that You Need to Know

Freelancing: People freelance for all sorts of different reasons - some do it because they have no choice, and some do it because they have an independent, nomadic streak. But whatever the reason, they all have to face the same common realities. Here are some top lessons from freelancers during the previous Freelancing 101 Bootcamp, held by CreativesAtWork and supported by e2i:

Reality #1: The first six months are the make-or-break period

Jayce Tham, the co-founder of CreativesAtWork, helps to connect freelance talent to various media projects. She's one of the key figures providing support to freelancers in Singapore, such as through the Freelancing 101 Bootcamp.

Jayce points out that:

Within six months, if they cannot sustain themselves as freelancers, they usually drop out. Those who manage to go beyond six months usually know they can deal with it, and they are more likely to carry on.”

Note that this also applies to “unwilling” freelancers, who are looking for a full time job. By that, we mean this group tends to settle for any job they can get after six months, even if it’s not one they particularly want.

Another key reason, Jayce points out, is that freelancers often acutely feel the lack of financial stability (especially at the start). “Freelancers do not have CPF beyond the mandatory Medisave contributions,” she notes, “so it's up to them to find a way to make up the difference.”

This often means having to find higher income sources, or a way to build investment portfolios. This seldom occurs to new freelancers. It’s about half a year later, when various necessary payments (read: IRAS tax forms and insurance premiums) arrive that the reality sinks in.

The new freelancers will realise that they are struggling to buy endowment plans, Unit Trusts, or will even struggle to secure home loans (they count as earning 30 per cent less than their assessable income, on home loan applications).

Once awareness of this financial reality sets in, it drives many of them to panic and flee to the nearest employed job instead.

As such, the first six months present the steepest learning curve, as one painful lesson after another piles onto you. This can kill the romance of “being your own boss”, so a good piece of advice is to save up for six months of your expenses, before you head off to be a freelancer.

Also, during the early months, it’s good to remember that things get better.

Reality #2: You’ll need to grow a thick enough skin to handle unexpected setbacks, rejection, and being told to cheapen your services

What do you when the last thing you would expect to happen, happens?

Unexpected setbacks

Phillane Cheng, owner of Med Karlek Inc. (a wedding / party styling company), shared her early experiences of a stressful chapter. Back then, she was juggling a full-time teaching job and wedding styling simultaneously.

Pictures taken from Med Karlek's Instagram

It was during her pregnancy that her then business partner felt things were not working out and took off with the capitals of the company. With overheads of the business now fully on Phillane's shoulders, she was left with almost nothing in the bank.

Shortly after, Phillane gave birth. A few clients' weddings of prior commitments were also fast approaching - it was then that she decided to quit her job as a teacher to manage the projects alone. She pulled through these clients' wedding, footing most things with her own money. Though she filed a lawsuit, she eventually dropped it as it was getting too emotionally and mentally draining. She decided to move on, forgive, and focus on her family and the business.

"I didn’t have time to consider about quitting my job as I was on a survival mode. I needed money to come in. Thank God I had my husband who helped me", she shared.

Since then under MED KARLEK, Phillane has been managing a team to style weddings and hold watercolour workshops to train people who have similar passions in styling. She believes that there is no set template for life and sometimes you just got to make courageous and the wisest decisions to the best of your ability in the hardest times.

“A perfectionistic mentality is a stumbling block to your career,”
- Phillane Cheng

Rejection and low balling

Freelancers tend to be a bit nicer to telemarketers, or people who approach them to sell credit cards and insurance. That’s because at some point, most freelancers will have to cold-call themselves; and if your skin isn’t thick enough to handle rejection, you won’t get far.

Dominic Foong, of Pen and Paper Studios, has been self-employed for five years. He does concept design, illustrations, and storyboarding. He explains that:

Cold calling, in the form of cold emails, was the hardest part. Having to ask people if they had work for me to do. I had to face a lot of rejection, and at the start people are not willing to give you the opportunity.”

Even the reasons for rejection can be especially painful to hear. Few things are as terrifying as the cold grip around your heart, when you realise how little some people may be willing to pay you at first. One reality that Dominic learned is that “The reality is creatives from other ASEAN countries can charge cheaper rates for what we do...and many companies prefer to outsource work to them”.

However, it's important not to undervalue yourself and end up in a price war. You need to hold on to the worth of your core skills. One of the main takeaways for Dominic, during the Freelancing 101 Bootcamp, was "knowing how to charge for services, and understanding the value that I bring to customers."

This includes the understanding that cheaper is not always the way to go; many clients will realise that poor work is more expensive than what they'd save by hiring cheap. The bootcamp explained how freelancers could point such points across.

Another solution is to have an intelligent pricing model. During the bootcamp, freelancers were taught to raise prices fairly as demand for their services peaked (e.g. by raising the price as your "bandwidth" to do work is filled); this is a more viable long term approach than always trying to be the cheapest.


Reality #3: Your support network may not be supportive at first

Among some more conservative people, freelancing is seen as the province of those who “can’t find a job”. This is a very old school mode of thinking, but don’t be surprised when you encounter it.

At the same time, your social situation may exert undue pressure on you to not be a freelancer, and seek conventional jobs for stability. For example, if you’re pondering marriage or having a child, it will be especially tough for you to make the leap.

Left to right: Sean Tan, Diana Goh (Pictures taken from RA Healing Centre and 'thewildabandon' respectively)

Sean Tan, formerly from the events industry, made his venture into the equine industry (i.e. horses) six years ago. He now works with special needs children doing therapeutic riding with Paisano Polo Academy. He mentions that, when he first made the decision to work with horses:

My family members told me to leave this job! It was only over time that they have come to accept this.  I brought them down to see what I actually do and they see the joy in what I do.”

Diana Goh, a designer, illustrator, and calligrapher (thewildabandon on Instagram), struggled between what people advised for her career, versus what she was passionate to do for a living.

“Having studied in Australia since I was 14, I found a love for the arts from those early teenage years. Back in Singapore years later though, I was advised by my then boyfriend to pursue teaching as a career. My focus was conventionally on settling down early with a house and building a family. It was not until we had broken off a 10-year relationship, that I went back to painting as a therapy - and my love for the arts returned. I realized that marriage and settling down could be put on hold, so that I could start building now, this passion that had never left me.

My brother, Samuel Goh and his wife Ting (Ksana photography) - were pivotal in the transition of my hobby becoming a career. They were my biggest mentors and encouraged me to step into the unknown, them first paving the way as freelance photographers.

Samuel advised her to begin with an Instagram account to document her works. But Diana was the biggest critic of her own work, and felt what she illustrated was never good enough.

“Even if you become really good, you will still never feel ready. Take it as a journey to document your works, rather than you starting a business”, Samuel told her.

She took their advice and started “thewildabandon” on Instagram in November 2017, documenting her paintings and drawings as she made them. She has since been painting and illustrating for clients who find unique beauty in her art.

Phillane shared,

I think I worried too much when there wasn’t a need… It’s very Singaporean to must have everything planned out before it starts. But we can do it, with the support of family and friends – this is more important than having the concrete business.”

Things will change in time, and the people who are true to you often turn from the strongest detractors (because they care) to your biggest supporters. There's also an alternative support network to consider: other freelancers.

Through e2i supported events like the bootcamp, or Freelancer Hackathons, you can network with others and find common help.

Reality #4: Sometimes, getting paid can feel like trying to pull teeth from a live shark

When you’re an employee, the Ministry of Manpower has your back. Anyone who doesn’t pay you on time will get into serious trouble.

When you’re self-employed, however, you don’t have a contract of service; you have a contract for service (much like what exists between you, and a plumber you hire). If there are payment issues, it’s a civil matter and you need to bring it to the Small Claims Tribunal yourself.

And many new freelancers are shocked to learn how unprofessional some clients get, when it comes to payment.

Isabel Leong, a freelance writer, just started three years ago. She relates that:

At one point an overseas publication I wrote for was shut down, and I never got paid for my work. And with some other clients, I have to wait a couple of months for payment.” This compounded other difficulties, such as already finding instability in having to source for new work.

Peter Cher is a more veteran writer, and also a translator. He says that among the challenges faced:

The major one will be payments, which are very tedious. Freelancers need money urgently, but companies are likely to pay their other vendors first. It is important to maintain a good relationship with the clients, and also work out the payment process with the clients.”

During the Freelancing 101 Bootcamp, Peter points out that a key lesson was learning about legal protections. "The main takeaway for me was the legal part of things, like what to include in the contracts; and subsequently, knowing the laws that protect your interest."

This has helped him to draft more full-proof contracts. Freelancers at the event also learned about what recourse they had for defaulters. Such as, the Small Claims Tribunal - and about which clauses are unfair to them (e.g. a request for no limit on revisions).

Reality #5: Things get better, and things are getting better in a big way

For those who show persistence and adaptability, a freelance career gets easier. After the first six months, you’ll often find it easier, as your reputation and client base build up. But you have to persist, and do your best work every day.

The best part of it is that today, the Singapore government - and organisations like NTUC - has turned its attention to freelancers in a big way. Bodies like NTUC Freelancers and Self-Employed Unit (U FSE), as well as e2i, now provide more resources and aid for freelancers.

Freelancers, or those considering it, look out for these:

Businesses needing to tap on freelancing services:

Special Thanks:
e2i gives special thanks to these people for sharing your experience with our readers:
[Attendees of Freelancing 101 Bootcamp]: Dominic Foong, Isabel Leong, Peter Cher
[Other friends]: Diana Goh, Sean Tan, Phillane Cheng


By Ryan Ong & R.Lee

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