To be a freelancer, or not to be a freelancer?

I first got into the freelancing world in 2012. I was in my diploma year. Broke, naive and living off my savings and parents’ money. So I decided to give freelancing a try to make extra cash. I told everyone I knew what I could do for them remotely and got my first client through a referral from my lecturer. A writing job. It was a quick one-off job and I invoiced for the princely sum of just 5000 NGN. Not much. But it felt good to earn extra cash as a student. I also got design gigs from my classmates, and it was approved by the department because I’m one of the two folks that could use AutoCad excellently and they would usually outsource it to some guys in Lagos before our set. This was how I started getting jobs from friends of friends, classmates and family, sometimes really cheap gigs just to have that connection, and a little word of mouth. Pretty low-key. Did this for 2 years.

But I stopped in 2014 to focus on my urban planning career. So I joined the ministry of physical planning and urban development (Mppud), Oyo State for a year internship. That was immediately after I concluded my Diploma.

While I was there, my weekend was usually great until Sunday 5:30pm. It’d start with that pang of anxiety in my gut. And I’d glanced at the clock, knowing my weekend is winding down and Monday is just around the corner. A sense of doom would wash over me as I thought to myself: “I just can’t go in tomorrow…”

Seriously, there’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re trapped in a never-ending cycle of “work, play, work, repeat,” hating/loving your job (and yourself) week after week, knowing your dreams are slipping away right before your eyes. There was a day my team traveled to Ogbomoso, Kisi and Igbeti, all in Oyo State and in a day to inspect some MTN sites that were submitted for approval. My dad just came back from hajj and they were having a big party. It was on Friday. But I was not there. I couldn’t say no to my bosses at the ministry because I was their favorite intern.

The 9–7 was killing me. I wanted more out of life than living for the weekend, than defining my life and value by my ‘work’. So I goggled what freelancers are making on ‘fiverr’ and realized that I could charge hundreds of dollars a day as a freelancer.

I brought out my calculator. “Wowzers trousers, I could do nine days a month and all the bills will be covered!”

Tempting.

“I can take control of my life, make my own schedule, and get paid to do what I love by learning how to build a freelance business,” I said to myself. And I decided to go back to the freelancing world but focusing on freelance sites.

So I discussed it with a few friends who were using fiverr. I started freelancing again in 2015. There had been a year gap since my previous freelance stint. But my biggest surprise this time around was seeing freelancers (especially writers) selling themselves and their souls for a fiverr. Bizarre. I decided to join them anyway. No shame.

“sitting in no shame”
Lasisi sitting in no shame

So they helped me set up an account and gave me some tips on when jobs get posted. Using freelance websites is one way Nigerians freelancers like so much. Everyone thinks it’s the easiest freelancing route because you just download the app, register, get approved and start picking from an ocean of clients.

I remembered how I’d be up by 5:00am just to jump on freshly posted jobs. Some of these guys weren’t even doing all the work anymore. They already got to the point where they’d just get the job and outsource to some brilliant students who would happily collect 3,000 NGN to write a 5k — word article that they probably got paid $100 USD to write.

Having successful freelancers around me also made me think I was just downloading an app that’s like an ocean of catfish where I could just go and point at the one I like and kill. After setting up my account and learning a few things from the already successful freelancers, they promised me that freelancing will be easy beach living — light on the labor and heavy on the free money from a world of clients with nothing better to do than throw cash around.

Fact is this: they sold me a lie. On the surface, being a freelancer sounds like a great way to earn a living, almost romantic in a ‘wandering-lonely-as-a-cloud’ kind of way. But, behind the floppy forelocks and flouncy blousons, no one knows the agony of the freelancer better than he/she/it. I did everything. Writing, mapping, researching, data analysis etc.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.

I found out I was doing ten days a month wrestling the new business beast, five days working on my own marketing and two days on admin.

Seriously, If you’re lucky enough to get nine days freelance at full whack, that still adds up to a 26-day month. Bugger!

So it’s sad there are still folks out there selling people lies about freelancing. On a daily basis, I see all the “How I earned 6 figures in my first month freelancing” merchants. It’s wild how many times I see it marketed as “the simplest way to earn thousands from your couch in 2021” “easy and quick” or some other similar BS. It’s none of those things — particularly if you haven’t done any freelancing before.

‘Quick’ and ‘easy’ are not words that readily come to mind when I think of my last couple of years freelancing. Try ‘bloody’, ‘hard’ and ‘work’. But freelancing is your chance to make your own rules and break out of the rat race. Yes it can be a rocky ride and there’s zero stability, but if the time’s right for you, freelancing can be a lot of fun.

I didn’t even make a kobo in about 3 months on fiverr even when folks were there to help. If fiverr were a person, I would physically attack. Remembering what they made us pass through around 2015 brings out a rage in me that can only be quelled by whisky. The ‘great purge’. We started facing verification issues, trust issues with clients, taxation, payment difficulties and losing accounts. Do you know how often we get suspended? I believe fiverr was strict then because they’ve had dealings with a lot of African countries where members tried to scam their users from other countries. I was mad at them then. But I can understand better now. I would also block a person or group too if I knew they would scam me. We had (have) a very bad reputation and trustworthiness issues online. Nigeria also couldn’t receive money on PayPal. So there were many challenges that limited sites like fiverr to function optimally for anyone living in Nigeria at the time. Boys even used VPN.

I wasn’t getting what I wanted from the app. So I left and didn’t look back until this year. Because I had to deal with their troubles and all aspects of running a business.

But things have changed now. I no longer use these apps, though. I started freelancing again this year. And I work with bookings as a freelance copywriter. And tons of other freelance gigs come from referrals, cold outreach and social media. But I know that buyers on the freelance apps Nigerians are allowed to use care so little about where you’re from. Just have the required skills, be a good conversationalist and be able to write well. So using “freelance Apps” is quite easy now, you can easily set it up and land your first client in days. Anyone can start from there. Especially if you don’t want to deal with the business aspect of freelancing. But it is still taking many people months and even a year to land their first job on these freelance apps. They end up getting frustrated and angry. Then they say “shit, this isn’t for me. I’m done.”

See some tweets:

Just trying to let you know some challenges people using these apps are facing. Because using a freelance site is the number one thing that comes to people’s mind when they hear freelancing. Many people don’t even know that not using these apps don’t make you less of a freelancer. I don’t use any freelance sites. I work directly with businesses and individuals as a freelancer.

In today’s freelance world, no matter what type of freelancer you are — you’re using a freelance site or you get gigs out of these apps, you need to market your work, keep your clients happy, attend meetings, network, do your administration, do your taxes, and keep up with all the latest developments in your branch. The bottom line is you just need to run a business, your own business, and that can be a hard job.

I’m not trying to scare you. But you’re not your own boss, especially if you’re a first time freelancer — the bills are the boss — but once you’ve grown to a point of profitability, that boss will change. And eventually, you “may” actually be the boss. But for now? The bills are the boss. And that’s why you’ll work. The good will come. The bad will come. The ugly will come. You’d be faced with difficulties. Clients would frustrate you. Clients would delay payment and even ghost you. And this is why it’s good to have money that can at least cover your needs for a few months before you start making money.

Freelancing is a business, not a hobby you get paid for. Unless you’re loaded, like most of us hired scribblers you’ll have money worries. They’re your worries. Clients have their own, and the majority of them aren’t too concerned about yours.

Fact is, if you don’t like talking money, contracts, deposits and late payment fines, you don’t stand a chicken in KFC’s chance of surviving at the freelance game. I’ve tried all four basic options as a creative animal especially the honey bee — freelance flitting from brief to brief, being buzz buzz busy, even when there’s no paycheque at the end of it. And they all have their pros and cons, but for the foreseeable future at least, freelancing is where it’s at.

The hours are ridiculous and the pay is sporadic, but you know what, I love it and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Recently, an agency copywriter left the WhatsApp group I created for Nigerian copywriters and art directors. And out of curiosity, I sent him a direct message to investigate why he’d left the group. “It’s the weekend and I just wanted to stay far away from anything advertising, when I see a text from the group, shit just reminds of Monday”, he said.

So hey, it’s a freelancer’s life for me.

If you were a full-time agency copywriter or probably working in-house, you’d have an art director to bounce ideas off. You’d have a creative director sift through your pile of scribbles to find the hidden gems for you. You’d have a business team that goes out hunting on your behalf. There would be someone to empty your bin.

Guess who’ll be doing all of that when you go freelance.

Accounts, new business, brand guardianship, social media, IT, staff morale, replenishing the biscuit tin… as a freelancer, you’re basically a one-person company. And you don’t get holiday pay.

I hope this hasn’t scared you off a life adrift on the freelance ocean.

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Abimbola Lolade

Abimbola Lolade

Brutally honest articles on Marketing and Writing.