Out of all the characteristics assigned to millennials by researchers and writers of think pieces, one millennial attitude about work prevails: we loathe the 9-to-5 grind and we're more inclined than our parents' generation to take the leap into self-employment.
Like a true millennial, I recently left my full-time job at an advertising agency to start my own business as a freelance writer. Before I made the change, I devoured every available piece of advice on setting up a business. I took classes with established writers and set goals for my new venture. But I also came into my self-employed situation with an arsenal of knowledge that I picked up from years spent working at advertising agencies.
Before we go on, scrub the image of Don Draper from your mind. Agencies are not (usually) the bourbon-soaked boys' clubs you might imagine thanks to Mad Men (although most still have a ways to go in terms of gender equality and diversity). In fact, an ad agency is an inherently entrepreneurial environment: from courting prospective clients to setting up billing schedules, I formed good work habits as an agency employee that serve me well as a freelancer.
Thinking of going solo or starting your side hustle? Pick up a few tips and tricks from the ad world.
1. When the work doesn't come to you, you must find the work.
The agency climate can be volatile. Clients come and go; work ebbs and flows. Every employee feels the pinch if a major client drops the agency, and layoffs are not uncommon. Multiply that pressure by about a thousand when you leave the agency and suddenly you're responsible for booking all your own work.
In a previous job, one of my roles was to help generate new business for the company. This included anything from presenting during in-person pitches to writing RFP responses. If you're a freelancer hoping to attract your first client, take a cue from the agency world and work all angles. Cold email introductions can lead to work, but you're better off reaching out to contacts within your own network. Get comfortable with your elevator pitch; hone your ability to explain what you offer as compellingly and succinctly as possible.
As someone who always found the concept of networking loathsome, self-employment has shifted my perspective. I think of networking now as an opportunity to meet interesting people and learn about their businesses. Your prospective clients want to know that you're interested in what they do and not solely out to promote your own services.
2. Time is money.
It's one of the biggest day-to-day gripes at an agency: time sheets. Salaried or not, most agency employees fill out daily time sheets and bill their time to specific client projects in increments as small as six minutes. It can be a pain to keep such meticulous track of your time, but as a freelancer, my time tracking skills have been a godsend. Even before I was freelancing full-time, I started using an online time tracking system to keep track of my side work. There are lots of good free time trackers available.
Tracking your time promotes accountability (it's amazing how I'm capable of being on my laptop all day and only coming up with three hours of actual work), and it also keeps you on the pulse of each project. For example, if you have a gig that pays a flat rate of $1,000 that you estimate you'll finish in 20 hours, that means you'll effectively earn $50 an hour. But let's say the project takes more time than expected, and as you log your time, you see that it took you 50 hours — decimating your rate to just $20 an hour. Next time, you'll know to charge a higher rate for a similar project since you have a better understanding of the project's scope.
3. You are your own admin, and administrative time adds up.
Most ad agencies have an internal job in their time tracking systems for administrative time. This is a bucket for logging work that's not connected to a client but still eats up precious time during your day: filling out HR paperwork, catching up on emails, and other miscellaneous tasks that don't directly serve a client but serve the business.
As a freelancer, I spend hours each week on admin time: invoicing clients, reviewing contracts and freelancer agreements, and keeping track of receipts in anticipation of tax time. When you're a salaried employee, this time doesn't seem like such a big deal; when you're self-employed, it's time you could be using to work on paid projects.
True to my agency roots, I set up a job for "admin" tasks in my time tracking system and I "bill" time to that job for administrative work and the time I spend keeping up on industry news and attending classes or networking events. It may not be time that I'm earning money, but it's still time that contributes to my bottom line and the value I offer my clients. Clocking a few hours of admin time each week is inevitable for most freelancers, but it helps to think of yourself as your own client and view that time as an investment rather than a loss.
4. Always know your value.
Situation: A prospective new client is interested in your freelance services. She wants to know what you'd charge for her project. Great! But wait, what do you charge?
Many new freelancers — especially writers — are perplexed when it comes time to name a price. It's nearly impossible to guess how long a project will take if you don't already have a point of reference for a similar project (see tip No. 2 on time tracking). And what's a fair rate? Should you charge by the hour, or charge a flat rate by project? There's no universal answer, but you can start by determining your own minimum rate based on what you need to earn in order to keep the lights on. Don't accept work that pays less than your minimum rate — it devalues your skills, and you're better off waiting for the right project or client.