A successful freelance career

When I transferred from a steady day job to my freelance life, I thought I had enough cash in the bank and kept my costs of living low. So, I just foolishly gave in to my entrepreneurial urges. It was the classic Now or Never snap decision. I had the faith that I would succeed.

The challenge

A seasoned entrepreneur advised me, that the work I had done so far was always in the context of a bigger team or in combination with software that my employer sold. He said that I was on my own now, and my value had dropped significantly. He predicted that I would struggle.

I soon learned he was right. As a freelancer you rely on yourself. No-one comes to you. You have to go out there, and find work. On your own. Many freelancers experience that finding well-paying work is next to impossible. And the lack of stable income is so stressful that many freelancers want to get back into a day job.

In my case, a friend helped out. He needed help with a big software project, and asked if I was available. It was the perfect storm. I had an immediately employable skill that the right person knew about.

Although I was doing fine, I knew my project had an end date. In hindsight, I didn’t have enough cash, and I certainly did not keep my costs down. Soon I too, would be screwed. Why? Because, I simply didn’t have a plan. I didn’t jump into the deep end of the pool, but out of an airplane with a broken parachute and a sewing kit. I had to figure out this entrepreneurial game, before I hit rock bottom.

Going freelance is not the same as getting a new job. It is a lonely lifestyle, without a safety net. Yet, with the right mindset, it is possible to have a successful freelance career. You have to invest in productizing your skills and marketing yourself. That investment needs two things. I call them: the cork and the hedgehog.

The cork

Cork keeps you afloat. In real life you stay afloat if you can cover your operational expenses (costs of living, car, sports, children, vacation, etc.) Life is expensive so you need to have enough money. Digging into your savings is possible, but by definition limited. Work is paramount.

Step 1 is thus: find work. And I mean: any work that you can find easily, do without much effort, and don’t actively dislike. This work does not have to be freelance! A real job is also fine. If you can work part-time under an employment contract, and that work covers your costs: brilliant. As long as you don’t do it full-time.

The idea behind the cork is that you cover your expenses by working as little hours as necessary. By deduction, lowering your costs is a great help. The less costs, the less hours you spend on your cork and the more time you have for the hedgehog. That’s where the interesting stuff happens.

The hedgehog

The hedgehog is a concept coined by author Jim Collins. He explains that a hedgehog thrives by doing one thing really well. It searches for food, and when attacked, it simply curls itself up, like a ball. This philosophy of doing one thing really well also applies to business.

As a freelancer you should find one thing that you love to do, are truly great at, and get paid for. In my case it was developing software. I have the skills, I love development, and programmers are in high demand.

Finding your hedgehog is easier said than done. Merely being passionate about something is hard for the average human being. Let alone perfecting the necessary skills. And if you are passionate about something, and you are great at it, how are you going to make your economic engine run? Who is willing to pay your bills? The concept is simple, but finding your hedgehog may take years.

That’s why it’s important to start living you hedgehog, today. You have to experiment! Guess your hedgehog, if needed. Find work within that hedgehog, at any rate, free is fine. Remember that you don’t need the money! Costs are covered by your cork. As long as you keep refining your hedgehog.

And once you found your hedgehog, then build momentum. Establish yourself within your hedgehog. Make it more specific. Keep working within it and experience how clients will come to you, instead of you begging for work. Start earning decent money within your hedgehog. And then, finally, you can start cutting cork.