Pay-to-Play Freelancing: the no-cost startup myth?

A few days ago, the (very informative and helpful) Carol Tice of Making a Living Writing wrote “The Essential Item You Need for Freelance Success That No One Dares Name,” and it got me thinking.

Now, the point of the article is mostly to burst the get-rich-quick-type myth that is popping up around the idea of freelancing lately. And I fully agree with and support both the spirit and most of the details of the article. It usually takes money to make money, and you’re not going to suddenly go from zero to millions. While it could theoretically happen, the chances are incredibly remote.

But I’d like to offer an edge case.

Not because I want to undermine the very helpful and honest spirit of the article, but because I was under the illusion that I was in an inescapable hole in January 2012, and I’m sure others feel that way now.

I thought that it did take money to start a business (of  course I did!) and I literally did not have the hundred dollars to plop down on a website. I was at the point where I wasn’t homeless because friends would occasionally lend me $20 for groceries. But I was almost 2 grand in debt for back rent, etc, and nothing was working. I couldn’t find a job flipping burgers.

So I did the big no-no, at the urge of my Male Compatriot. (Who at that time was living off student loans and going to school full time, and couldn’t support me even if I wanted him to.)

I joined ELance. Lucky for me, I didn’t know the stigma back then. I was also willing to put in a great deal of time into my ‘business,’ because my time was basically worthless at that point. I started seeking out rush jobs and bidding on them. Not the lowest, not the highest. Was I undervaluing my time? Sort of, but as I said, my time was all but worthless since I couldn’t pay rent and was apparently unemployable by anyone in my town.

I was able to make a grand over the next few months. That’s not a lot, but it’s much more than I had before. And it paid my rent and allowed me to start working through my debt and repaying my friends. Eventually, I landed a long-term gig with the NBC through ELance, which I still have.

Those first couple of months were really rough. I studied everything available to me to make my pitches and my profile more attractive, and I spent hours taking ELance’s skill tests until I was in the top 10% for everything I applied for. I would have no jobs for a couple of weeks, then suddenly a two-day flurry where I’d shut myself in my room and work for 15 hours straight re-writing boring policies into friendly FAQ pages, editing mind-numbing automobile descriptions, writing hundreds of 200-word ad blurbs. I had a few horrible clients, including one who called me every hour over a weekend before telling me I was a horrible human being and the worst person they’d ever worked with. There were tons of ups and downs and self-questioning and late nights.

I couldn’t keep it up for long. I quit taking those types of clients within 4 months, because I knew I couldn’t keep doing those jobs without regressing into the same depression I had when I was totally unemployed. But they gave me the momentum I needed to put money into my business.

Ah, here we are: back to needing money to make money.

But how much did I put into my business? $30.

The price of upgrading my membership for three months. That gave me more credibility and helped me get more clients at a time when I truly needed them. I still take clients every now and then when I want extra cash, though I have long since taken my membership back to free. I ghostwrite or edit the occasional novel, but really I just take projects that I want to take. Lazy? Yeah.

I don’t have a website, except for this fun and non-monetized blog. My profile picture for the longest time was a snapshot of me from the shoulders up taken (I probably shouldn’t even say this, but I will) in my bed. I wasn’t even wearing a shirt, though of course you can’t tell. Eventually I got a nice jacket and took another photograph, but I could easily have borrowed a nice jacket from a friend or purchased one at Goodwill for a few bucks; if it’s just a headshot, a perfectly professional jacket isn’t as important. If you don’t have any professional clothes, don’t take clients in your area until you can afford some!

Am I rolling in dough? No, I’m not. Do I have lots of corporate clients lining up to court me? No.

But I’m making a middle class wage. I have a job that I enjoy and the freedom to travel sometimes. My income keeps me in organic produce and free trade coffee, with a roof over my head. I have the ability to take my cat to the vet and go out for sushi when I really want and play World of Warcraft with my mom and sister. For someone who has only been in business for a year, I’m pretty content. I know I could be making more, but I’m still determining my focus and what my business is really about. I didn’t plan to go this route, after all. When I decide, I’ll make a website, but it’s kind of a waste of time until then.

Ultimately, it took me zero dollars to start up (although I did have a laptop, I often used the library computers on my college campus; it’s possible to get started without owning a computer). It took time, creativity, and the internet. Hell, when I started I only knew Chicago and some AP-style editing. But thanks to the internet and local libraries, I was able to educate myself in a huge variety of skill sets. This was impossible until very recently, and I’m constantly grateful that I live in an age when information is mostly free and when time and expertise is valued.

Now I have a better computer, a shared office, a subscription to the AP Stylebook and a few other niceties that make my life easier. But I could live without them and still make my living.

You can do it, too. It’s not the optimal way of doing things, but if you’re unemployed and desperate, don’t let feelings of helplessness overwhelm you. You won’t get rich quick, but with hard work, a little creativity and diligent perseverance, you can do anything with the power of the internet. Don’t give up.

P.S. I do plan on joining the Freelance Writers Den eventually. It does, after all, take money to make lots of money.

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