Thinking About Going Freelance? What You Need To Know—From a Woman Who Knows

What It Takes to Successfully Freelance Full-Time from Someone Who Knows
by Ryan Burch
Photos Shannen Norman | January 27, 2015
We interviewed marketing consultant, Tadji Akhavan, to hear her best advice—and how she’s overcome her biggest challenges—after several months as a freelancer.
When I decided to quit my job last July, I assumed I’d have a full-time gig lined up by fall. At the time, I wasn’t considering working for myself because it sounded way too risky, and I was determined to get a salaried position working for a well-known brand.

Fast-forward six months, and my career perspective has completely changed. I’m balancing contracted gigs, taking odd jobs, working from home, and managing my own schedule. I love the flexibility and freedom of my newfound “freelance” lifestyle—but I’m constantly facing new hurdles and there’s still so much to learn! 

According to a study by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Center for Women in Business, the number of female entrepreneurs is expanding, and it’s anticipated that women will create 5.5 million jobs by 2018! More than ever, women are going out on their own, and it’s important to understand the pros and cons of self-employment.

To address this topic (and get some help myself!), I decided to interview my brilliant friend, role model, and CC contributor, Tadji Akhavan, who’s been successfully balancing freelance projects in social media, branding, marketing, and public relations for the past seven months. Every day, through hard work and careful organization, Tadji’s inching closer to her dream career—but she’s learned some tough lessons along the way. 

For any of you who are currently unemployed or considering a career transition or are just curious about what it takes to be a successful freelancer—keep reading. Tadji’s got some valuable insights to share! 

CAREER CONTESSA: YOU QUIT YOUR JOB LAST SUMMER. WHAT WERE YOU DOING BEFORE YOU QUIT? 

Tadji Akhavan: I was the Director of Social Strategy at mOcean—a creative/ production entertainment agency in Hollywood. My role encompassed social media and digital engagement marketing for clients, public relations, overseeing the internship program, as well as social media management for their partners.

CC: WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO LEAVE?

TA: I was inspired to do something more. I learned that the entertainment industry is a bit self-serving, and I felt there was more that I could do to help people versus just making more money. 

I was inspired and compelled to find my own clients and help local businesses make a difference for their bottom line. I really wanted to teach people how to do social media correctly and for themselves— so that they don’t have to continually rely on somebody like me to do it for them!

CC: HOW DID YOU SET YOURSELF UP AS A FREELANCER?

TA: I leaned on my family heavily at first. I have several entrepreneurs to look up to—specifically my parents, who each own their own business. My dad runs a small marketing agency in Minnesota, so I knew he would be able to help me when it came to writing a contract, creating an invoice, and figuring out what my rates should be.

I also made sure to carve out my own workspace at home. I live with my boyfriend, so I had to make sure I had somewhere to work—my own little bubble, where I could get into a direct work mind space and have all the tools I needed. Whether it’s making sure you have coffee or a snack or a sketchpad— you need your own little space!

Using a program like Freshbooks is also great! It helps track your time, generate invoices, and keep track of expenses—plus, it’s super intuitive and easy to use.
Make no mistake, you do need to hustle (and hustle and hustle some more) for work—but you have to make sure to prevent burnout, as well. 

CC: WHAT SHOULD PEOPLE DO WHEN THEY DON'T HAVE ANYONE TO HELP THEM GET STARTED?

TA: If you want to work for yourself, you’re going to have to step outside your comfort zone, ask people questions, and ask for advice.

Join public forums—there are a lot of groups available on Linkedin. 

Don’t have a mentor? Get one!

I know it can be hard to approach someone that could be a mentor—but 99% of the time they will be flattered, and they will do whatever they can to help you. I have really benefited from having several successful mentors in the hospitality, marketing, and entertainment industries.

CC: HOW DID YOU NEGOTIATE YOUR WAGE WITH EACH NEW CLIENT? 

TA: This is one of the most difficult things to figure out, but the first thing you need to do! There are a lot of factors to consider: project duration, expected hours, budget, and geographic location. For a big project in Hollywood, I could charge $120 an hour, but in the Midwest, I may only be able to charge $50 an hour. It’s all relative to the situation and you will have to feel it out case-by-case.

Start by figuring out what your Minimum Acceptable Rate (MAR) is: (personal overheads + business overheads) / hours worked) + tax. Then, reach out to people with similar experience, and feel out what might be best for you. Start out hourly and then, when your experience allows you to, begin asking for more! When first quoting, I suggest quoting an overall figure for the project. If you quote hourly, it limits your potential and clouds your client’s judgment.

CC: WHAT'S THE WORST THING THAT'S HAPPENED IN YOUR FREELANCE CAREER OVER THE LAST SEVEN MONTHS? 

TA: I recently contracted with a friend’s company on a TV series premiere marketing campaign and was thrown into a situation where I handled 90% of the marketing strategy: from pitching sponsors for the red carpet; to handling crazy last-minute requests; to working with the events, PR, and production teams involved. I felt that our client had no clue about the time and effort it would take to get things done. Expectations were extremely high and, after a month and a half spent on the project, my team got dropped a few weeks before the premiere—for no apparent reason.

The problem? I am still waiting to get paid because I never put a contract together. The lesson? No matter how hard you work, shit’s gonna happen.

CC: WHAT'S BEEN YOUR BIGGEST "LEARNING CURVE" THUS FAR?

TA: Don’t ever work without a contract, even if the job is for your friends or family—it might be uncomfortable or awkward to insist on having something in writing, but you are protecting them as well as yourself!

Also, be organized. I would tell people not to do some of the things that I did at first. I jumped out of my last job without being 100% prepared, and I didn’t have much savings. My grandma passed away the second to last week of work, so I traveled for the funeral, made a few more trips home…and it became discombobulating. I got very depressed and ended up being a lazy bum for a month—losing time and money. The point is: life happens. What can you do to prepare yourself for life? Be as organized and prepared as you can.

Plan out your day the night before, and plan out your week on Sunday nights. It’s the little things that keep you organized—for example, don’t sleep in until noon just because you don’t have to report to the office! 

The point is: life happens. What can you do to prepare yourself against life? Be as organized and prepared as you can.

CC: DO YOU THINK "ME TIME" IN IMPORTANT? 

TA: After I quit, I got to go home for a week. I didn’t think about work, spent time with my friends, spent time with my family, and I really let myself relax. I didn’t take my phone with me, and I didn’t check Facebook. I was able to let go and just relax. It was a necessary meditation.

Make no mistake, you do need to hustle (and hustle and hustle some more) for work—but you have to make sure to prevent burnout, as well. It’s so important to exercise, eat well, and get enough sleep. These little things will help you transition into working for yourself in a healthy way.

I also think it’s important to treat yourself! Get yourself that venti latte; go to yoga in the middle of the workday. Take advantage of being freelance and do the things you can do in the middle of the week now that you’re not at an office!  

CC: WHAT ARE SOME THINGS PEOPLE SHOULD KNOW BEFORE GOING FREELANCE? 

TA: You need to be willing to do whatever you have to do to make it—and this may include getting a part-time job.

I’m also an Uber driver—and I’ve been driving since August! I’m not ashamed to admit it because I’m hungry to be successful and I’m going to do whatever it takes to succeed.
I’m hungry to be successful and I’m going to do whatever it takes to succeed.

CC: WHAT HAS THAT BEEN LIKE AND WHAT HAS IT DONE FOR YOUR CAREER? 

TA: Working for Uber has been amazing! I’m making money while making connections at the same time! I meet other freelancers, other Uber drivers, and the network I’ve created is insane. These are people I would have never otherwise met!

It helped me get a new client, and I even helped my boyfriend get a new job at a creative agency in LA—I picked up the President and now my boyfriend owes me big time!

With what I’m doing, it would have been crazy to think that I could get 10 clients right away! I’ve had to take what I can get and figure out what I can give up. Uber has become part of my solution. I get business cards every day and I always remind people to reach out to me!

CC: HAVE YOU HAD ANY ANXIETIES RELATED TO BEING A FREELANCER? IF SO, HOW HAVE YOU DEALT WITH THEM?  

TA: Absolutely. I think it’s healthy to be nervous and anxious because it means you’re serious and this is important to you!

If I’m feeling really anxious about something, I just walk away, have some tea, go for a walk, or go for a hike. I do whatever will make me feel more centered, and then I’ll attack it again.

The other stress is money (and I’ll be honest, I’ve been a couple months behind in bills at times)—but if you can pay for rent and food, then the rest doesn’t matter. You just have to be frugal, be responsible, and know that you will figure it out!

CC: IT CAN BE EASY TO GET DOWN ON YOURSELF WHEN YOU WORK ALONE. HOW DO YOU KEEP YOUR MIND RIGHT?

TA: I make sure I take care of myself and get enough sleep. It’s easy to let yourself procrastinate and work all night—but it’s the worst thing you can do! Instead, I recommend going to bed super early and waking up at 5 or 6am.

It’s very important to make time for yourself. Since I’m working from home, I can stop what I’m doing, go for a hike with my dog, and then get back to it later. It’s OK to take breaks—in fact, doctors recommend looking away from your screen every 10 minutes and going for a walk every hour!

If I know that I’m going to be on my computer all day, I set my timer every hour to get up, get water, go for a walk, and get out of my funk.  

CC: WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS AS A FREELANCER?

TA: Remembering that you are your own brand—and you have to act accordingly (and be kind to others!). Anyone that you connect with needs to have a lasting good impression of your brand, because that’s where your referrals will come from.

You are now your own business—so you have to consider: what would you want to see from a cool business? Who are you as a whole person and a whole brand, and what does that mean? This may mean that your personal life is on display—especially via social media. You have to become your own PR agency!

Finally, you’re going to be working alone a lot—so it’s important to stay social, reach out to friends and peers, get together, talk about projects, and bounce your ideas off of other people! 

CC: THROUGH IT ALL, WHAT DO YOU LOVE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT YOU DO? 

TA: I love being able to coach and consult and teach. It’s so amazing to be able to learn and share the knowledge that I’ve acquired! I’m happy to have freedom and flexibility—but at the same time, I’m keeping my mind open and always exploring new opportunities.

CC: THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR INPUT! CAN YOU LIST THREE OF YOUR FAVORITE RESOURCES FOR PROSPECTIVE FREELANCERS?

TA:
  • Evernote: This virtual notebook easily syncs to your computer, phone, and other devices. You can upload photos, voice memos, and file attachments. It simplifies your thoughts and is a great organizational tool for anybody (not just freelancers!).

  • Freshbooks.com: This cloud-based accounting software service is especially useful for small businesses and freelancers who frequently send invoices to clients. Zoho and Harvest are other great alternatives, too! 

  • Tradepub.com: This information hub covers a range of topics in varying industries. They offer free business, computer, engineering, and trade magazines, as well as downloads and eBooks. You can seriously learn about anything!
For more marketing tips from Tadji and additional insight into her freelance life, connect with her on LinkedIn.