Can You Survive The Freelancing Life?
PHOTO BY pinkypills/iStock
  • If you are an employed professional in the Philippines today, the thought of going freelance has probably crossed your mind. How can it not? Freelancing, or self-employment, offers many benefits: total control over your working hours (more time for the family!), the opportunity to work from home (say goodbye to traffic and long commutes!), and the freedom to choose whom to work with and which projects to take.

    But while its perks are certainly tempting, freelancing also poses some crucial issues that need to be considered before you dive in. Unlike employment, freelance work does not guarantee a monthly paycheck. So, you must ask: Will working on a per-project basis give me financial security? Can I support my family without a regular salary? As a freelancer, where and how do I find work to begin with?

    To answer these questions, we interviewed experts and professionals who have successfully made the shift. Read up on what they had to say to help you determine if freelancing is a suitable path for you.

    With great freedom comes great responsibility. Can you survive as a freelancer? The shortanswer is: Yes, it’s possible. But only if you’re ready to work hard and stick it out.

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    When you’re employed, everything is essentially handed to you: You are regularly assigned a set of tasks and projects and, in exchange for the work you put in, a salary is automatically deposited to your bank account each month. Apart from that, you get benefits like paid vacation and sick leaves, and incentives like Christmas and performance bonuses.

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    On the other hand, as a freelancer, you may own your time, but your work and income will only be as stable and secure as you make it.

    I-expect mo na this is not like the corporate world where you can just sit and may darating na sweldo every month, even if may times na you don’t really work,” explains Marvin De Leon, father of two and founder of Freelance Blend, a blog, podcast, and online community for Filipino freelancers. “You have to be ready na mawawala yung mga ganu’n. Ako, I was working for eighteen years—nasanay ka na ganu’n tapos mawawala? You have to prepare for it.”

    Before launching Freelance Blend in 2014, De Leon worked in the e-commerce and financial services industry. “If you’re sick, wala kang sick leave. Sa freelancing, no work, no pay. Unless you have an arrangement with a client that pays you every month,” he adds.

    Freelancing can be a feast or famine business; you can’t expect to earn if you don’t have work. And unless you’ve already established relationships with clients before taking the plunge, you can’t expect the work to come to you.

    You, in fact, may have to work harder than an employee since you have to constantly be on the lookout for opportunities, and be diligent in hunting down and securing projects. The only way to stay afloat in this type of business is to make sure you don’t let the ball drop by running out of work.

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    Seize big projects that pay well, though they may only pay once. But more importantly, supplement these big projects with those that pay regularly—monthly, if possible—so you get a “base pay” to see you through each month.

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    “Know how much you need in a month to survive. That will serve as your monthly income goal. Then find work that’s regular to help you reach that amount,” says Fitz Villafuerte, registered financial planner and blogger. “This can be a part-time job or a long-term project (at least six months) that pays on a monthly basis. Anything that will pay the bills. You can’t really be choosy on this, but it’s preferred to find work that’s related to your field. But more importantly, something that will not use up all your time. Then find more freelance projects that you like as you already have a base pay per month.”

    Echoing this advice, De Leon says, “You have to find the right clients that will give you long-term engagement versus the one-off. Dapat may good mix of one-time clients and long-term clients who can give you a monthly income, at mas madami yung monthly nagbibigay. Work toward those long-term clients.”

    For Niña Espinosa, 36, mother of four and freelance professional musician, this means maintaining weekly gigs at bars while keeping her schedule open for bookings for big events like weddings, birthday parties, and corporate affairs.

    “As a singer, I have schedules. Pero on call kasi ako, so some days I have to keep open, kasi mas malaki kikitain ko sa raket. For example, may company na naghanapkailangan ng singer—that’s about triple the price of a regular gig. Eh siyempre, mas pabor sa ’kin ’yun, kasi mother na ako, I have kids to feed,” she says. “I have to work very hard. As freelancers, we cannot stop, kasi wala kaming regular salary.”

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    TIP: VISIBILITY IS KEY
    To maximize your chances of booking projects, you have to put yourself out there. People won’t know what you can do unless they see your work. The quickest way to do this is to have an online presence. According to De Leon,freelance marketplaces like Upwork.com and Freelancer.com are good places to start. But ultimately, set your eyes on creating your own platform, be it a website or a blog.

    “Create a digital presence. You have to be searchable on Google. If you’re not on Google, you’re basically zero,” says De Leon, noting that an online presence could help you score even international clients. “Iwould suggest having a blog. Write about your work. If you’re not a writer, create videos, make a podcast. Just create something that’s your own.”

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    He continues, “It’s not impossible, if wala kang online presence, to get jobs. But you’ll really need to work doubly hard versus if you have your own online portfolio. It automates your marketing: It’s just there twenty four-seven. If they search your name, even at midnight, kahit tulog ka na, they can still find you, instead of needing to call you for you to explain what you do.”

    Physical visibility, of course, is just as helpful. Espinosa, for one, attends her colleagues’ events to stay in the loop. “Kailangan palagi akong visible. So ’pag wala akong trabaho ngayon, pupunta ako sa gig ng isang musikero para kita nila ako, and they know na, ‘Baka absent ako sa araw na ‘to, baka pwede si Niña.’”

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    THE FINANCIAL STRUGGLE IS REAL, BUT MANAGEABLE
    The hard truth about freelancing is that lean periods—weeks or months when there just won’t be many clients or much money coming in—are inevitable.

    Lean periods, or what some freelancers call their non-peak seasons, tend to vary per industry. For musician Espinosa, for example, one is during the summer months,when, after graduation season, there are hardly any more grand events.

    Even those with more regular types of freelance work, like Minela Mojica, 32, who has been working as a virtual assistant (VA) for foreign clients for the past two years, anticipate these periods. As a VA, Mojica does administrative work for various companies, sometimes several at a time. And though she works with each client indefinitely, she is still aware of the threat of running out of work if she fails to pay attention to it. “It’s nerve wracking because if you don’t have continuous clients, then it’s most definitely going to be hard financially,” she says.

    But while lean periods present a real challenge for freelancers, they can be managed.

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    A sense of foresight helps Mojica manage the unpredictable nature of her job. She advises fellow freelancers: “We need to prepare for the worst, and if you feel that there will be drought when it comes to workload, try to apply and acquire more even before it happens, so if one source of income stops, another will replace it.”

    Espinosa, whose husband is also a freelance musician, has likewise learned to anticipate these periods. “May mga months na maganda ang pasok ng raket, pero may mga buwan din na patay ang trabaho,” she says. “So kailangan alagaan mo din ang mga pwesto mo. Doon ko pinupunuan ng mga schedule sa bars.”

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    Espinosa continues, “Hindi talaga pwedeng mawalan ng regular gigs. Dapat meron kang ititira para meron pa ding pumapasok sa ’yo na regular na pera. So, for example, in a week, meron akong tatlong regular gigs. Bago pa dumating yung next month, mag-au-audition na ako sa iba to make sure na meron akong papasok na pera next month.”

    She goes on to share that she and her husband have had gigs that have paid so generously, they’ve been able to purchase cars for their family through their earnings. “Minsan ang ganda talaga ng bigay ng clients. ’Pag minsan may raket kaming maganda, we’re able to get these things.”

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    However, she’s quick to point out that, given the nature of their job, the importance of setting money aside is not lost on them. “Minsan talagang wala. Kaya kailangan nag-iimpok ka talaga ng pera. Hindi mo pwedeng ubusin agad, tapos bukas nakanganga ka.

    As for future plans, Espinosa says she and her husband are looking into insurance policies and possible business opportunities in preparation for their retirement. “Natatakot pa din ako para sa future namin. Kaya nag-iisip na kami ng mga insurance, mga investments na after ilang years may babalik sa’min. Itong year na ’to, we’re thinking magtayo ng business para meron kaming fallback. We’re the ones making our own way para sa future namin.”

    Freelance Blend’s De Leon says, “It’s a good thing my wife is employed, so meron pa din nagsasalo,” he says. “Before kasi, pareho kaming nag-wo-work, so fifty-fifty kami sa household contributions. When I went freelance, nag-usap kami, ‘Mawawala yung ganito ko, paano yung magiging contributions?’ It’s a discussion you need to have, especially if you’re married with kids. Dapat may blessing ng spouse.”

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    Another piece of advice from De Leon? If you’re going into this late, or if you’re still employed and are only just considering going freelance, try to save up at least a year’s worth of your living expenses before you do. This is what helped him through his early days as a freelancer. With 18 years of experience as an employee, he had saved enough and built an emergency fund before he made the shift. “So I was able to survive for at least a month without income,” he says.

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    TIP: PRIORITIZE YOUR EMERGENCY FUND
    While the unpredictability and irregularity of a freelancer’s income may make it challenging to save money, it also makes it all the more necessary.

    According to financial advisor Villafuerte, you should ideally set aside 30% of your income. But if that’s too big, you can start with as little as 5%. If you don’t have an emergency fund yet, allocate your savings to this fund, which should amount to six months’ or a year’s worth of your living expenses. It should help you through lean periods.

    “Build your emergency fund first, which goes to a simple savings account. More importantly, get insurance if you are the breadwinner,” says Villafuerte.

    Once you’ve established your emergency fund, continue the habit of saving. Think of it as an act of paying yourself first. “This is not bound by time, as you’re not an employee who receives a paycheck on schedule. Rather, it’s like having a ‘personal tax’ that you deduct from each payment that you receive.”

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    With your emergency fund in place, part of your savings can then be funneled toward investments that should meet your financial objectives.

    YOUR EARNING POTENTIAL GROWS WITH YOUR EXPERIENCE AND SKILLS
    There is a good income potential forfreelancers in the Philippines. “May potential siya to match, if not exceed, what you earn in an office, especially for online freelancers who work with companies abroad,” says De Leon. “It really depends on the job. If entry level, like data entry or transcription, siguro lower. Pero yung mga specialized skills, like if you’re a web developer, it can go high, around P100,000.”

    Of course, it may not be as lucrative when you’re starting out—unless you already have something to show for your work. Some freelancers, like event organizers, even have to take a few non-paying jobs at the beginning of their career to gain experience and get their name out there. But down the road, their rates can only go up. Why? Because experience expands their skill set and hones their expertise so that the services and products they offer become something unique to them.

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    This holds true across all industries. “The higher the level of expertise you have, the higher you can charge,” says De Leon. You can maximize your earning potential by upgrading your skills and competence in your chosen field. To do this successfully, though, it would greatly help if you were doing something you like, so that you’re willing to keep at it.

    Mabi Gabriel, a former freelance English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, says, “You have to do something you really enjoy, para may willingness ka to exert effort for it. Hindi ka kasi tied up sa work na ’yun, pero babalik balikan mo. Tapos along the way, nasasanay ka doing that business, so tumataas yung market value mo.”

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    Once you’ve determined that particular job or skill you want to focus on, master it, then build your credentials, and keep improving. Best of all, find out what the market needs and try to address that.

    Says Villafuerte, “Never stop learning.Your earning potential is directly proportional to your skills. So read news about your industry, upgrade yourself with books and seminars, get certifications, and network with other freelancers in your niche.”

    This story originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Good Housekeeping Philippines magazine. Minor edits have been made by the Smartparenting.com.ph editors.

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