Reflections on Full-Time Freelancing

At the end of 2022, I was earning around 10% of my overall income from freelancing projects - now it’s closer to 90%.

When I decided to pause on my start-up, I had to decide between looking for a “regular job” (ie. one with a salary) vs doing something else.

Working full-time on a start-up for 12 months gave me a lot of insight into what really excites me. And I feel that the majority (but not all) salaried jobs don’t provide that deep excitement.

So I decided to make the leap and go fully independent - and figure out a way to make it work.

Now I’m 3 months in, and pretty into the freelance-flow, I wanted to reflect and share some of my experiences.

Should I consider full-time freelancing?

Before I went full-time, I had around 5 freelance projects under my belt and a bunch of potential projects I’d been stalling on (because I didn’t have capacity when I was working full-time).

I wouldn’t have felt comfortable making the leap if I didn’t have that initial evidence that it might be feasible, although there was still a fair amount of uncertainty.

I’d recommend gradually building a portfolio, and evidence that it could work and be sustainable (if it’s something you’d like), alongside a regular job. The feasibility will ultimately depend on what skillset you have and how easily they can be monetised on a freelance basis.

Having no safety net is exciting but stressful

First, the obvious: When you have no fixed monthly pay-check, everything you earn is up to you.

This can be a great motivator. If you’re highly productive, you reap the rewards. If I work 12 hour days and finish up a bunch of projects, I can see this in my bank account the next month. In salaried jobs, earning more typically depends on getting a bonus or a promotion.

The flip side is that I find myself more acutely aware of unproductive periods. I got pneumonia a few weeks ago and had to spend a few days in bed on antibiotics. It was somewhat stressful to know that I wasn’t really earning anything during that time and that I needed to get healthy at some point. If I’d been more sick (for a brief period, there was a plausible possibility I had malaria), this week could have lasted much longer. I found that even having a solid financial runway, there was something psychologically stressful about knowing you’re going backwards financially.

I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had more project offers than I could realistically do. I think this owes a lot to my specialised skillset (having studied/worked as a doctor for 8 years and worked in ML for 5 years), but even then, there’s still a background concern that projects could suddenly dry up. This also relates to my next point:

You need to spin multiple plates

Often, you’ll complete one part of work and then the ball will be in someone else’s court - to review your work, or to perform some dependent task. You don’t want to be twiddling your thumbs here, so you need another project you can hop straight into.

Things often take longer than expected. Projects that were supposed to take 1 month might take 3. There’s also often a delay between finishing a project and actually getting paid. So you can’t be too overly dependent on any specific project. I’ve found it helpful to always have a back-log of potential future projects which I can pull the trigger on as required.

It doesn’t scale

I love freelancing. I love that I get to work on a mix of interesting projects, that I can work on my own schedule, that I can see tangible outputs of my work, and that I can earn a comfortable living.

But when you freelance, even if you earn a good hourly rate, you’re ultimately selling time for money. And unless it’s exactly what you want to be doing in the long-term, it doesn’t feel like a fully-sustainable solution.

I’m very conscious that I want to build a source of time-independent income. This could be a web product, a start-up, creating educational material online, or any combination of the above.

My personal financial baseline

I did a calculation last year for my personal financial baseline. This is the amount of money I need to earn each month to be comfortable: to pay the bills, to put some aside into investments, some in case of emergencies, etc. I know that as long as I make that amount each month, I won’t have to stress out.

So my approach now is the following: I’ll freelance until I’ve earned that amount each month - and once I hit it, I’ll invest my remaining time into pursuing projects that could provide time-independent income.

That’s where I’m at right now, and I’m hoping to have more clarity on exactly what that will look like in the next few months. I’ll keep you posted.