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Are the Purported Benefits of Freelancing Really All They’re Cracked Up to Be?

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Joanne Poh

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Singaporeans might not be as risk averse as you think. It seems that a growing number of young people are choosing to become freelancers instead of being employed in regular jobs.

This might not sound like much, but in a country where the government has to overtly encourage people to be entrepreneurs and failure is not considered acceptable, it’s an encouraging sign.

Employees in Singapore tend to think of their freelancing brethren as weirdos who “don’t really work”, since some of them always seem to be drinking beer at 3pm on a weekday or going out late at night. In fact, the most hardcore partiers I know all happen to be tuition teachers.

But try working for yourself and you’ll realise within 2 weeks that it’s not all peace and love. In fact, many of the so-called advantages of freelancing are really curses in disguise. Here’s what you should know before you decide to strike it out on your own.

 

Flexibility is a double-edged sword

Not having to jostle with the zombies on the 8.30am MRT can sound like heaven until you’ve actually tried working flexible hours. As a freelancer people might jealously make fun of you for sleeping in until 11am. But they don’t know the agony of struggling to meet deadlines at 4am when all the world is asleep.

As a freelancer, you might have greater flexibility, but don’t mistake that for freedom. Your time can still be very much at the mercy of your clients’ even if you work from home.

I get a lot of my work done from 12 midnight to 5am, and believe me it isn’t fun. I have clients in other timezones who email me at 2am, and instead of going to bed I often feel compelled to stay up an extra 2 or 3 hours just to respond to a request instead of letting it drag till the next day.

Benjamin, a tuition teacher who conducts most of his classes from the comfort of his own home, works in the evenings and on weekends—precisely the times when he wants to go out with his friends. “No choice, those are the only times my students are not in school. I usually finish work around 10pm. By that time most of my friends are no longer free to meet as they have to get up early for work the next day. I have even resorted to watching movies with my tuition students.”

You do have greater control over your time than employees when you freelance—you never have to fight with peak hour crowds (unless you’re freelancing on-site on a 9 to 6 basis), nor do you have to burn your weekends going to the dentist or running errands.

But if you think that means you’ll be able to work only when you feel like it, you’re dead wrong. Just because your hours are flexible doesn’t mean you won’t be forced to work when the only thing you feel like doing is crawling into bed. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself slogging it out in the hours during which, as an employee, you would have been out having fun or sleeping.

 

Working as much or as little as you want? Really?

“If I’m my own boss, I get to choose how hard I want to work! I’m not forced to work hard every day!” I said idealistically before deciding to become a full-time freelancer.

Well guess what, in the past two years, I have never gone “on leave” the way employees get to do. Even when I go on holiday, I’m working in the hotel room or on the plane.

Sure, I know that technically I could tell my clients I won’t be accepting work for a week or two. But that also means I don’t get paid. I also often find myself working on public holidays and weekends.

While most freelancers technically know they could “work less” if they wanted to, an overwhelming proportion take fewer holidays than they should simply because the thought of forgoing that income is just too horrifying.

Before you become a freelancer, it is important to come to terms with the fact that, at least in the first year or perhaps more, you will not be refusing as many assignments as you think. In fact, in the early days, you might find yourself accepting work you shouldn’t be, or work for which you’re being severely underpaid, all in the name of building your portfolio.

By all accounts, it’s unlikely you’ll be working “as much or as little as you like”. More accurately, you’re be working your ass off as much as you can.

 

More money per hour doesn’t always mean more money overall

Whether freelancing will pay more than your day job really depends on how good you are at finding clients and the nature of your work.

Lewis, a former web designer who takes on freelance assignments, says freelance web design pays many times more than what employees doing the same work earn.

“When I first started out as a web designer for a company I was earning $1,800 a month. As a freelance web designer, I can charge $2,000 for a five page website, which you can easily complete in a day if you are experienced,” he says.

On the other hand, the unstable nature of freelancing means that some people earn more per hour but see lower yearly earnings due to pockets of unemployment.

Francis, a freelance editor who takes on stints of a few months at various offices, says the future is not always certain after each assignment ends. “I get more flexibility than perm staff, since I can come and go as I please or work at home so long as the work gets done. I also get paid more than I would as a permanent staff member. But each year I’m jobless for one to three months.”

Still, for those who work at home, income instability can be offset somewhat by lower operating costs. There’s no longer the need to commute to the office, eat out during lunch or buy office clothes, which can translate to a few hundred bucks a month in savings.

 

Retrenchment isn’t the only way you can be made redundant

Many people buy into the spiel about freelancers having “real” job security, since their income sources are diversified and they can’t exactly be fired by a single employer on whom their financial survival depends.

But how does this play out in reality? Well, in the world of freelancers, some people’s income sources are more diversified than others, and some people suffer a higher risk of being made redundant.

Self-employed persons who rely on large numbers of clients such as tuition teachers or taxi drivers usually enjoy greater job stability, since any client who decides to quit on them is just one of many.

For instance, Benjamin has more than 20 students, and with frequent referrals from his existing charges is already working at full capacity. A graduating student or one who decides to discontinue lessons is but a blip on his earnings chart.

On the other hand, there are many freelancers who work for just a handful of clients at one go. This usually happens when they get substantial amounts of work from one or two clients.

If you spend 20 hours a week working for one company, you’re not going to take on 10 other regular clients unless you are a robot or intend to secretly outsource the work to people from third world countries on eLance.

For people who only have a handful of clients, losing one of them may not obliterate their income completely but will certainly send them scrambling in a panic to find new work.

This can sometimes be even worse than getting fired as it can come out of nowhere—your client may suddenly have decided it was more economical to hire a full-timer instead of outsourcing the work to you, or the company’s strategy may have changed and they now no longer need what you’ve been helping them with. There’s no one month’s notice, severance package or even, in some cases, a thank you.

 

So why do it?

Despite the uncertainty and the headaches of freelancing, more and more Singaporeans are doing it. Yet the reasons for which they do it aren’t exactly benefits per se, but rather lifestyle choices that may not suit those who prefer to stay in the 9 to 6.

Getting exposure to work on a range of different projects, taking your first steps into the world of entrepreneurship, not having to deal with office politics and having a greater range of lifestyle choices open to you are what keep freelancers in the game, despite the fact that like all work, it is at times a grind, especially when you’re sleep deprived and running on caffeine.

For some people, the freelance lifestyle is worth the tears.

Would you consider becoming a full-time freelancer? Tell us in the comments!

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Joanne Poh

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.