Australia's Freelance Revolution (And How To Join It!)

Australia's freelance revolution – and how to join it

With the jobless rate climbing and the workforce more casualised than a backpacker’s CV, we could be forgiven for thinking that job security was a thing of the past.

But what if I told you that a growing number of us don’t actually care?

Sure, we all want to have successful careers, and there are those painfully regular things called bills, but it seems that more and more of us are taking matters of employment into our own hands. If you haven’t heard, there’s a freelancing revolution on, and it’s the biggest thing since all those factories started popping up in the 1760s.

Australia’s in, get amongst it!

Studies have shown that a third of Americans were freelancing as early as 2005, and the United Kingdom saw 12.5 per cent growth in freelancing between 2008 and 2011 alone. With such strong growth overseas, it’s probably no surprise that the trend is well and truly taking hold here in Australia. The 'Freelancing in Australia' study, published late last year by Edelman Berland on behalf of online freelance portal Elance-Odesk, makes it clear: they estimate that a third of Australians are already finding ways to become their own boss. 

30 per cent of the Australian workforce undertakes some sort of freelance work

Whether we’re talking about the rise of ‘portfolio careers’, ‘the gig economy’ or ‘independent workers’ the meaning is the same: it’s about unshackling ourselves from the confines of a ‘job’, and building a career piece-by-piece.

But surely this kind of widespread change is just out of necessity, right? With the GFC still looming large in our rear vision, it is easy to assume that when permanent jobs dried up we simply adapted – but there’s much more to the story.

There were 3.7 million freelancers in 2014. Here's the breakdown.

It’s global, and trackable

Communications technologies have given independent workers the ability to engage with employers anywhere in the world at all times of the day, opening up a global freelance market that didn’t exist before. And on the hiring side of things, employers are increasingly finding that online project management platforms allow them to track their freelancers’ progress, while user-friendly job boards help them to measure their value. Freelancers today come with LinkedIn recommendations, star ratings, online portfolios and a lot more competition than they used to.

It’s a generational thing

In the past we were all pressured to jump straight into a life-long career at the ripe old age of 18, work our way gradually through office politics and fit within the restrictions of our chosen business. It was as if job satisfaction lived at the end of a long, straight line.

These days it’s much more acceptable to meander our way through a few courses, units, and especially jobs before working out where our talents lie. The ability to continue to pick and choose jobs, develop a specialty or expand skills as and when we like, is very appealing to today’s workers, and especially to Gen Y

This appeal might even be reflected in Australia’s employment figures. The Guardian’s Greg Jericho recently looked below the surface of the Australian Bureau of Statistics' job stats to find out just who is being casualised. It turns out that while part-time work has been growing over the years, the overall proportion of casual labour has remained steady for all demographics except one: the under-30s. Of course, the difficulty of getting freshly-qualified youth into work in Australia’s transitional economy may have something to do with it, but what if casual work is also what the next generation wants?

I don’t want to downplay our youth unemployment figures, but it seems negligent to ignore a shift in attitudes – many young workers today are focused on curating their careers and trying out their skills. It’s more than a case of playing the field before settling down: young professionals don’t just plan to be lawyers, they’re lawyer-PR managers who publish music and dabble in an online retail start-up in their spare time.

In fact, 58 per cent of those surveyed in Australia said freelancing was ‘choice’ over ‘necessity’. This suggests there are significant lifestyle factors at play here. Who could blame us for taking a new approach? Research conducted in the United States even found that 90 per cent of freelancers surveyed were happier now than they were before going solo, with nearly half feeling no impact from the economic downturn.

The other large group of freelancers in Australia is the Baby Boomers who, once they know how to market themselves, can be well remunerated for difficult-to-find skills and unique levels of experience.

Freelancing: it's a generational thing

Let’s not forget supply and demand

A revolution can’t be one-sided, and this kind of a shake-up certainly wouldn’t be possible if companies weren’t also changing their attitudes towards hiring on a project-by-project basis. And that’s certainly borne out in the figures: Australian odd-job board Airtasker saw the number of tasks posted on their site double in just the first quarter of last year, and Elance-oDesk says it has grown 235 per cent over the past three years. These days you can hire anyone online: a graphic designer, handyman, IT specialist, home and office cleaner, web developer, SEO expert, videographer, marketer – the list is endless.

This explosion of access to – OK, sometimes overly cheap – labour has also pushed Australians to work at the opposite end of the spectrum. A higher end of the freelance market looks to be emerging, with smaller cooperative outfits like The Copy Collective  and freelance hubs such as Rachel's List vetting their freelancers and tailoring their services to specific clients and markets. Rachel’s List conducts its own annual survey and the majority of hourly rates were within the bracket of $25 to $150 an hour.

Demand for freelancers has grown

While the global nature of online job boards has brought the price of some jobs down, there has also been a perception change occurring locally, where employers now recognise that freelancers can offer difficult-to-find skills – something that has been increasingly important to businesses who want to stay ahead of the game in today’s often disrupted environment. This ability to pay for specific expertise on a short-term basis when needed, coupled with the fact that business can now find, manage and track their freelancers better, has transformed freelancing in Australia into a $51 billion economy.

Thinking of joining the revolution?

Keen to get a piece of that $51 billion? Dreaming of flexible hours and working from home?

While I may have convinced you that the freelance revolution is real, as a freelancer myself I feel I need to offer you some advice: don’t jump the barricade just yet.

What, you didn’t think I was going to tell you it was all sipping lattes in a cafe and working a three-hour day, did you?

Making a success out of freelancing is just like anything else worthwhile: it takes hard work, and a lot of conviction. If you’re serious about curating your career then you might just need these top 10 tips.

Prepare yourself for the transition

Tempting as it may be to walk out the office door for the last time, you have to be sensible. You need to get your product ready for launch. This includes getting the right qualifications, building a website, a bit of moonlighting to build up your portfolio, and growing your contacts.

Get these things in place and you will hit the ground running!

Find your niche

No matter where you’ve come from; your unique experience will be valuable to someone. For me, it’s having a background in visual art and some decent research skills. Even if it stems from a hobby or seems unrelated to your main gig at first, figure out what makes you unique and work this into your freelance profile. 

Then diversify your skills

While you want to highlight the things that will make you stand out, let’s not forget this is freelancing: never fence yourself in! Businesses are going crazy over ‘T’ workers who have a depth of knowledge in one area and can branch out into others as needed.

Having multiple talents means more streams of work – a key factor in your freelancing a success. So diversify your skills with up-to-date technical knowledge, social media skills and a bit of project-management prowess. Cast your net wide with a range of projects and you will see your skills profile build in no time.

Work up a portfolio

Would you get an architect to build you a house without seeing their previous work? Probably not. Businesses won’t spend on unproven freelancers, so like anything worthwhile, it’s a case of showing and not telling. You’ve got to find a way to prove your skills and the easiest way is to build up an online portfolio of previous work. Whether it’s pro bono or not, it’s the skills that matter.

Don’t undersell yourself

One of the best pieces of advice I was given was not to quote rates without first reviewing the job and the people behind it. If you set your rate too low you will find it hard to increase it later, and it can also devalue your work. Never take your hourly rate at a permanent job as a base rate – you need to factor in the temporary nature of the work, your overheads, and that ultimate factor: what the job is actually worth to the client. Remember: your pay rate does not reflect your personal worth; it reflects the market you work within.

I always ask for as much detail as possible so that I can work out the level of difficulty and the timeframe needed for a job, and provide an estimate before I start. Make sure you note that it’s an estimate only and subject to change, and be up front: if things are getting out of hand throughout the job, speak up! No one likes surprises.

Manage your personal brand

If you’re going it alone then there’s really only one person you can rely on: you. Even if you start out with a regular client or two, you should be dedicating at least a half-day a week to finding new ones.

And how do most freelancers find work? Good ol’ word of mouth. That means you need to treat every client like your most important one, even if they are always late on payments and need everything yesterday. Add your clients on LinkedIn as a matter of course and if you get some great feedback, don’t be afraid to ask to share it on your site or ask them to write up an endorsement.

As a freelancer, it's absolutely vital that you manage your personal brand!

Work out your finances

If you’re new to the freelancing game then it can be quite scary to leave all those regular paydays behind. The best ways to prepare is to build up a salary safety net (you can do this with your moonlighting before you leave your permanent job) and think about getting a regular part-time gig to start with. Even the best freelancers take bread and butter jobs, so even if your business is hand-knitting socks for golden retrievers then find a way to do some dog walking or knitting classes on the side.

There are all kinds of grants out there for creative types, too, so check out the government's grand finder to locate business grants, check out the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund, or get your head around the new grants model from the Australian Council for the Arts.

Stay on top of your business

You will be running your own business now so that means paperwork. Make some projections around what you’re likely to earn in the year and if you haven’t got one already, you’ll need to get an ABN. If you act as a sole trader and don’t earn over the threshold then you won’t have to register for GST (much simpler) and that will get you out of a quarterly Business Activity Statement (BAS).

With success comes responsibility, though, so track all your invoices in a spreadsheet and check them off once they’re paid. And don’t forget you have to pay your own benefits: I take a third of my freelance revenue and keep it for superannuation, tax and overheads, but speak to a financial adviser before you start so you know you’ve got your levels right.

Never stop networking

Just because you’re not competing with the person in the cubicle next door doesn’t mean it’s less competitive out there. Sure, you can network online and join the relevant industry organisations, but if you’re looking for more leads then think about taking on a voluntary role somewhere or starting a meetup for the freelancers in your area. Freelancing can be a lonely business and you’ll be surprised at how many jobs you can get from being friends with people who you would otherwise consider your competition.

Manage your time (after all, you did this to be flexible)

Nothing will nip your new career in the bud like being unreliable. It’s one of the main fears businesses have in outsourcing work so you simply have to structure each workday as if you were in an office (even if that workday starts at 4pm), and be on time – there’s no excuse.

Freelancing is a juggling act and all of your clients will expect to be your top priority. How do you keep them all happy? Simple: don’t overcommit and stay in regular contact. It’s easy to go by the old adage of ‘making hay while the sun shines’, but if that means you’re turning out sub-standard work, you could be doing more damage than good.

If you are finding things are slipping through the cracks, then you might need to look at your systems and time management skills. Online project management systems such as BaseCamp can help you to stay in regular touch with your clients online, and it keeps deadlines visible and conversations from clogging up your inbox. And if for some reason you’ve decided that 2am is your most productive hour, then hold off on sending emails until your client is at their desk. You can set your emails to send at a certain time with Outlook or a plug-in like Boomerang for Gmail.

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