5 Lessons COVID-19 Has Taught Me as a Freelancer

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In the last three months of 2019, I was comfortably hitting over KES 80,000 ($800) as a freelance writer working 6 hrs a day, weekends excluded. I was helping a client create content for his new internet security blog and we still had loads of topics that needed to be covered.

By my estimate, I would be hitting at least 200k ($2,000) within the first three months of 2020. Who said you can not make good money writing? I was finally going to prove all the doubters wrong.

Suffice to say, the reality has been brutal. My gradual decline began in February 2020 and by the end of April I was clientless, making zero shillings per month, and about 30K ($300) in debt.

I wasn’t even sure how I would pay for my internet in the coming month.

What went wrong? Well, COVID-19 happened. My one client who had made me feel untouchable bailed on me and new gigs became scarce because everyone thought the world was ending.

There has never been a time when I doubted my choice to become a freelancer than in 2020. But they say what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, yes?

My freelancing career is now out of the ICU and the road to full recovery has been quite impressive. And looking back, I can’t help but think I had a hand in my downfall.

Yes, the pandemic was unprecedented but to say that it has been hard on everyone is a lie. Some people have thrived during this period. No, I’m not talking about the COVID-19 millionaires who benefited at the expense of poor Kenyans.

I’m talking about legit people, writers especially, that grew their income to thousands of dollars. And that, right there, is the first lesson that the coronavirus has taught me.

#1. Writers will always have a job even if the world is ending

Have you ever heard of the story about the bird that was raised among hens? All its life it remained on the ground without realizing it could fly and it’s all because the hens around it didn’t know how to.

When COVID-19 broke out in full scale and people started losing their jobs, there was a consensus that everything was now shutting down. And I believed it.

So, instead of rising to the challenge, I accepted that I would not get a new client in the prevailing conditions.

Do you know what’s worse? I’m a tech writer. If anything, the virus has led to more opportunities in this field.

For starters, Internet usage has increased by 70% which means there is an increased need to educate people about internet security.

Second, with people unable to gather, there has been an increased need for remote software solutions like video chat apps and online learning apps.

Also, there has been an urgent need to come up with treatments for the virus and, artificial intelligence and machine learning are two technologies that could be leveraged to speed up the drug development process.

I didn’t see that. Instead, I listened to the multitude that believed the pandemic was shutting down the world economy.

I’m not sure which niche you specialize in, but if you look closely you will see endless opportunities that have opened up thanks to COVID-19.

#2. A client is not your friend

It’s okay to have a personal relationship with a client but, never for a moment think you are indispensable.

Here is a fun fact. The client I was working with on the internet security website, I knew his kid’s name. We talked about family sometimes.

Admittedly, this got into my head. With this kind of relationship, I didn’t see how we would ever stop working together.

And if it came to it, I was sure he would give me a warning in advance so that I could prepare myself.

Guess what! One day I submitted an article and that was the last time I heard from him. No warning and no goodbye. And that is how I went from making over Ksh. 80k ($800) to zero in just a day.

To make matters worse. I had put so much trust in this one client that I ignored the one critical rule that every freelancer should never forget — never rely on just one client.

When that client bails, you will get back to the job market as a desperate freelancer and you may end up going for low-paying jobs so that you make ends meet.

That is exactly what happened. And with it came another lesson.

#3. Never take low-paying jobs just to get by

I rely on just Upwork to get my clients. Yet another mistake I have been making as a freelancer but we will get to that in a short while.

If you are familiar with the platform then you know that you need points/connects to apply for a job.

In the past, freelancers used to get 60 free connects every month but Upwork changed their policy and now, you only get 10 free connects per month. If you exhaust them, you have to buy connects.

I still had my 60 free connects and so I had nothing to worry about. Or so I thought.

Almost a month after I had lost my client, I was down to 6 connects and I hadn’t landed a new client yet. My desperation grew.

I couldn’t afford to buy new connects once I had exhausted my free ones and I wouldn’t be able to pay for my internet if I didn’t get a new client.

Internet for me is everything. I would rather go hungry but have working internet.

What did I do? I looked for three jobs that required 2 connects each and applied for them. In case you did not know, the lower the connects an Upwork job requires the lower the pay.

Luck was on my side because I landed one of the jobs. I was getting paid less than I was earning even as a beginner freelancer, but at least I had money coming in right? Wrong.

The job was a disaster. It was my first ever bad review on Upwork and it was scathing. I had just been promoted to the Top Rated status and that review blew that away. My job success rate went from 100% to 89% real quick.

Did I deserve it? Maybe. See, the problem with working at minimum wage is that you will need to write a lot to earn a substantial amount of money. In an attempt to do that, I ended up making some mistakes like missing a few commas and using ‘she’ instead of ‘he’.

Nevertheless, I feel like, as a client, there are some mistakes you should be willing to overlook depending on how much you are paying your writer. 

I have just finished my calculations and realized that I wrote 26k words for this client. I only earned Ksh 11,500.

#4. Never rely on one platform to get clients

Don’t get me wrong. Upwork is a great platform. I’ve lived a pretty comfortable few years thanks to the clients I got from the platform.

But, as I mentioned, I have found myself in a position where I have to bid for low-paying jobs because I was about to exhaust my connects and I couldn’t afford to buy more.

Worse still, I have missed several good job opportunities because one bad review from one client messed up my ratings.

I have since built back my job success score to 100% but I’m yet to be reinstated as a Top Rated freelancer.

I think it’s the high time I started exploring other client acquisition methods. More specifically, I’m in the process of creating a writer’s website so that I can begin cold-pitching.

I think this is an option you should also explore if you haven’t already.

#5. Make the best out of every opportunity you get

To quote my favorite rapper, “Go hard youngin. They let you in the game, you better play your part.” That’s Wiz Khalifa in case you are wondering.

When I was working with the internet security client I had access to a Google sheet with a list of all the topics that needed to be covered. I could have written as many as I wanted and earned twice as much as I did.

But, I chose comfort. The client let me into his game but I didn’t give it my best.

During those dry months when I was struggling to get a client, I used to remember that Google sheet with the same regret that filled me whenever I was eating githeri in boarding school and I happened to remember all the good food I had wasted while at home. The chapatis mostly.

If a client commissions some work today with a one-week deadline and yet it’s a job I can do in one day, I’m finishing it up on the same day.

These are my mistakes. Learn from them.

Do you know what’s crazy? All the lessons in this post, I’ve heard them before. They are things that Walter and other freelancing experts are always warning us about. And yet, they had to happen to me so that I could learn.

Don’t be like me.

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