While the Great Recession forced many people to turn to independent work a decade ago, these days, more freelancers embrace the gig economy by choice rather than necessity. The 2018 "Freelancing in America" report by Upwork and the Freelancers Union, which surveyed more than 6,000 workers, found that the number of new freelancers has been growing—and in 2018, 61 percent started by choice, compared to 53 percent in 2014.
“I think technology has enabled a lot of freedom in people's lives, and this is another expression of that," says Pablo Fuentes, producer and host of Small Business War Stories, a podcast that interviews small-business owners around the country. “Thirty years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a designer to work for a company in Belgium while surfing in Bali, but now technology makes that possible."
Independent workers prefer perks like flexibility and variety over the stability or a reliable payday. Those who freelance full time seem to be happy—51 percent of the people surveyed by Upwork and Freelancers Union said that “no amount of money would get them to take a traditional job."
Whether you're looking to blaze your own career trail or simply like the idea of being your own boss, here are some of the reasons for turning your passion into a paying gig.
1. Schedule Flexibility
Who wouldn't want to dictate their own schedule? As teacher, coach and performing songwriter Leanne Regalla of Livin' Out Loud Music puts it, “flexibility is huge."
Regalla, who's based in the greater Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area, freelanced as a performer while teaching music full time for 15 years. Four years ago, she turned to freelancing full time, primarily as a writer, and is currently launching an online music school.
“I generally stick to regular office hours, but if I need to schedule an appointment some afternoon or if I want to go on a weeklong trip, I don't have to ask permission from anyone," she says.
The flexibility allows Quakertown, Pennsylvania-based writer and journalist Melinda Rizzo to do her best work during her “natural energy cycles." Rizzo says she knows when she's best at administrative tasks and when she's sharper and more creative to tackle project deadlines.
“I'm not constrained by an 8-5 window," says Rizzo, who's been freelancing for two decades, full time since 2016. “As long as the work is filed on time, I can do it when I want."
2. Earning Potential
Whether you embrace the independent lifestyle completely or as a side gig, you set your own rates — and raises.
The 2018 MBO Partners State of Independence report, conducted by Emergent Research and Rockbridge Associates and featuring responses from 3,584 residents of the U.S. (aged 21 and older), shows that the average income for full-time U.S. independent workers was $69,100 in 2018, and the number of high earners (making over $100,000) has been growing. For comparison, according to the the U.S. Census, the median income per entire household in 2017 was $60,336.
“My earning potential is up to me," Regalla says. “I don't have to agonize through a horrible review process with bosses who don't understand what I do, and eke out a standard 2.7 percent raise because that's all the budget allows."
3. Personal Fulfillment
When you're passionate about what you're doing, you feel like your work matters.
Passion can be the spark, what gets the fire lit. But passion with no systems and no execution usually does not get people very far, in my experience.
—Pablo Fuentes, producer and host, Small Business War Stories
Rizzo says that during her 20 years as an independent reporter and writer, she considered going “back out" to a corporate job. She says she could work well in that environment—but knows it's not where she's her happiest.
“What stops me cold is the realization that never in my work life have I felt more fulfilled, more excited about my work or freer," she says.
4. Challenge and Variety
No matter your field, you're likely to have at least one job aspect that you don't love. As your own boss, you can outsource some of the tedious parts—and choose projects that truly excite you.
“Challenge and variety are big for me," Regalla says. “I rarely feel bored with my work, and I'm always learning."
Tips for Beginners
Rizzo offers the following advice for those starting out:
- Take yourself seriously and treat your business like a business.
- Choose a niche that's a natural fit for you.
- Find out the best times of the day when you're productive, and accomplish the various tasks an entrepreneur has, including marketing and billing.
- Figure out what motivates you best—then get motivated.
- Find a community, online or offline, to help with the freelance solitude.
- Don't be afraid to fail—just make it right.
Fuentes, who also founded his own business, says the freedom comes with trade-offs.
“People have to become very good at self-managing and they also have to account for the uneven cash flow," he says.
Whether you're using small-business loans, personal savings, business credit cards or family investment, you need to find the right solution to fund your freelance or home-based business because you'll need working capital.
“Take a cold, hard look at your expenses and come up with a budget," Rizzo advises. “See if you can transition [to full-time freelance], or have a partner who will support the first year or so getting started."
Fuentes also recommends having systems in place because a successful business requires repeated execution.
“Passion can be the spark, what gets the fire lit," he says. “But passion with no systems and no execution usually does not get people very far, in my experience."
A plan or roadmap will help fuel your success. But Regalla also cautions about over-planning and recommends jumping in even before you feel completely ready.
“So many people waste way too much time studying, thinking, creating business plans, projecting income," she says. “But none of that matters until you have a few clients and find out if your idea is working, if it has potential and if you enjoy the work as much as you thought you would."
Before you take your passion to the next level, one question to ask yourself is what's your motivation behind turning it into a paying gig. When you turn your passion into a product or service, you risk losing some of the enjoyment. Now you have to think about customers, marketing, revenues and lots more. And, Fuentes points out, you have to make sacrifices.
“If your passion is your release valve or you think of it as 'your therapy,' I would think twice about turning it into a business," he says. “The equation changes and you're no longer doing this activity for pure joy."
Photo: Getty Images