I had been working for two years at a local nonprofit when a colleague who landed considerably higher within the organization’s hierarchy approached me with an opportunity to, as he put it, “make some extra money.”
I was - and still am - working within a small marketing department, and learned quickly that our definition of “marketing” had been bent, stretched, and distorted beyond all recognition.
While I may have used seemingly negative adjectives to describe my department’s function within the organization, the truth is quite the contrary. Because of the loose characterization of marketing, I became well-versed in graphic design, web management, public relations, social media management, crisis communications, grant writing, and yes, marketing.
After a brief meeting with my colleague, I was suddenly filling out a W-9 form and two weeks later receiving checks for my work as an independent contractor for a local chamber of commerce, an organization on whose board my colleague sat.
I was officially freelancing.
While I couldn’t claim to be an expert in any of the skill sets I listed, I was good enough at some of them to warrant a few more opportunities coming my way.
An acquaintance needed a logo design. A relative wanted some marketing and social media guidance. A friend was looking to have wedding invitations designed and printed.
Soon I had accumulated a modest number of clients, and with great luck I had accidentally created a delicate yet seemingly perfect balance between my career and freelance work.
Seeing Other People
When I was first approached for my first freelance opportunity, I was unprepared for the internal struggle that would ensue.
It occurred to me that I was being asked to work for, and would be paid by, another organization. The concept was both exciting and terrifying at the same time.
Someone else is noticing my work, I thought. But what if this new opportunity takes away from my day job?
I worked through that first question with a good degree of level-headedness, ultimately deciding that if my work at my day job began to suffer, or I began to feel like I was being pulled too far in opposite directions, then I would slowly back away from my new endeavor.
I felt like I was in high school again. I need this job, and I don’t want to quit the team, but I know if my grades slip, my parents will force me to choose.
Just as I had satisfied (or rationalized) my need to experience something new while holding on to what was familiar and safe, a new issue presented itself.
I need to tell my boss.
My supervisor worked closely with the colleague who had presented me with this opportunity, and I felt compelled to fill her in on the situation before someone else did.
Surely she would expect someone in our industry to freelance, right? Or would she think I’m being disloyal? Would she think I’m getting ready to leave the organization?
I called another member of our department – someone closer to my pay grade and who had known our supervisor longer than I had – to ask for advice.
Go for it, she told me. She’ll understand.
As it turned out, she was more than understanding; she was encouraging. She valued the diversified experience, and understood that working at a nonprofit meant supplemental income was necessary for a lot of employees.
I knew it would work out.
I’ve always considered myself to be a good manager of time. I was never late with an assignment in school, I always finished projects at work ahead of schedule, and I’m chronically early to meetings, both professional and personal.
But as I glance over to my Gmail® inbox at the time I’m writing this article, it becomes obvious that managing one’s time is a dressed-up way of compromising, and quietly hoping your clients do the same.
Scrolling through the bevy of messages, all of which I’ve read multiple times by now but have done nothing with, I find the following:
- The Chamber of Commerce is in need of a new front page banner for their website
- A relative wants to have a meeting tomorrow night to discuss an online ad he wants to run for his mortgage company
- I’ve yet to submit an invoice for a project I completed a couple weeks ago
- I need to finish this article!
This list, of course, doesn’t include the emails from family and friends; or the emails about the fantasy football league of which I am commissioner; or the emails containing details about the bachelor party I’m planning for my brother.
For the record, I’m not claiming to be busier than anyone else, because I’m not. I’m also not attempting to portray that I don’t have time to complete all the tasks I listed in addition to my full-time job, because I do.
I’ll plan to finish a draft of the article tonight, even though I could keep revising for several days without being totally satisfied. I need to send it to an editor soon in order to have the layout designed in time for print, and I’ve already read through it three times. I suppose a fourth isn’t necessary. Check.
I’ll reply to the Chamber tonight, explaining that I was out of town this past weekend (which is true) and I need to catch up on a few things this week. I’ll give a realistic and reasonable deadline to complete the project, likely later this week. Check.
The meeting with the mortgage company should be a short one tomorrow assuming we can stick to the topic of the online ad, but we won’t. That’s OK, because as we decide on a few more deliverables from the meeting, I’ll gain the leverage to delay running the ad. I can put together some artwork this weekend and have it up and running by the beginning of next week. Check.
I’ll fit the invoice and all the personal items in between, or, more likely, after everything else is done. My clients will be pleased with my work, both the quality and quantity, and I’ll avoid having to operate on four hours of sleep.
Everybody compromises, and everybody wins.
Shortly after I signed on to work with the Chamber of Commerce, I received an email from their president. She wanted to know if I had any interest in taking on a few small projects for a small business that she and her husband run together.
I received the email while I was at work. I watched as the message appeared on my secondary monitor, on which my Gmail® is often displayed opposite my work account.
I stared at it for a moment, planning to wait until later to read it, but the thought of leaving that or any message unread sent me into a temporary tailspin.
I can’t set a precedent with my freelance clients that I’m always available during the middle of the day, but I don’t want to seem unresponsive. I could always just send a message back stating that I’m at work and I’ll get back to her tonight. Yes, perfect.
While those options were important ones to consider, I was missing something. It hit me right as I was about to open the message.
This will only take a minute, but it’s not my minute to use.
Sure, employees have certainly done much worse. Amazon, Facebook, and Yahoo! were sites frequently visible on any number of computers throughout the office.
But does that make it OK for me to respond to an email about another job?
I couldn’t possibly have justified to anyone why I would be conducting personal business using someone else’s time.
I still can’t, which is why I felt extremely guilty as I tabbed over to Gmail®, opened the message, read it, and replied.
It only took a minute.
I’ve already told you that I never intended to freelance. It never occurred to me that I could take the skills I was learning at my full-time job and parlay them into extra money.
The money helps, of course, but I could have decided to get a part-time job at the local market.
It would be far less stressful. There would be no need to look for clients or convince anyone you’re the right person to stock a particular shelf or ring out a particular customer.
Instead, I decided to email strangers on Craigslist, work unpredictable hours after work, and worry that I’m not entirely in control of how robust my next paycheck will be.
For me, it’s about the challenge and the opportunity for creative expression that goes far beyond what is asked of me daily at my full-time job.
It’s about being not only the creative talent, but also the sales team and the finance department. It’s about new design concepts for each project; each one different from the last. It’s about forming my own identity, which, for a creative professional, is perhaps the most important ingredient to good work.
During my first two years in the workforce, if someone had asked “what do you do for work?”
I would have responded with something like this:
I work at a nonprofit in marketing.
Now, and moving forward, there’s no telling how I’ll answer that question.
Right now, I’m a writer. Sometimes I’m a graphic designer. Other times I still work for that nonprofit in marketing.
And although I never intended to, I’ll always be a freelancer.
by Michael Ricci
Writer & Designer