Becoming a freelancer – what you need to know

So you think you’re ready to drop the corporate life and become a freelancer. Now what?

There’s a lot of planning that goes into this, so let me share my experience and the steps I took to finally take the freelance plunge while based in Dubai. Some of these points are universal, and some specific to where I live, so I’ll mark them accordingly!

The one important thing I will say before writing more is that you not only have to put in a lot of work after starting your own business, but before jumping into freelance life as well. You have to plan a lot before freelancing – it’s not the romantic ideal of ‘I’m going to leave the 9-5 and work in my pajamas!’. It really isn’t (ok, it can be on a few days but it’s not the norm!).

Ask yourself some important questions!

I thought about the freelance decision long (and by that, I mean for months at end) and hard – WAY before I resigned from my full-time job. Am I ready to leave the structured, corporate life? Is there a market for the services I’d be able to offer? Will I make any money?! Here’s some more questions to get you started:

  • “Why am I even thinking of this step?”
    If it’s to escape ‘the man’ and no other thought, stop right there. Re-evaluate. Think about why you’d like to take on a role that could be quite unpredictable. If you thrive on structure and a 9-5 style role, maybe this isn’t for you. You need to have a really clear – and sustainable – reason about why you are entering this phase of your career.
  • “OK, what services will I offer?”
    This can be an easy or hard question to answer. If you’re a graphic designer, then you know what you can do for potential clients. Sometimes, you have multiple skillsets that you can translate into a variety of services. First put these together – just write them down somewhere. You need to know exactly what you can and cannot do. And certainly don’t do things you have no skill for. You have no idea how many times I’ve now heard the phrase ‘I can’t believe you’re being honest with me’ when I turn down a potential job because I tell them it’s not something I am good at and therefore cannot do it.
  • “Who will my clients be?”
    It’s very important to figure this out. Are you going to specialise in a sector? Do you have existing contacts who could become clients? Is there a niche that you can tap into, and be good at? Again, work this all out.
  • “What steps do I need to take next? Are they feasible?”
    So that’s the next sub-head!
Plan, Plan, Plan

After thinking about your decision, you think you’re ready. Now you’re wondering what happens next!

  • This bullet point is specifically for people in the UAE: Figure out what kind of visa you want. There’s a myriad of options in the UAE right now – you can set up as a freelancer, you can set up a free zone company. What are you hoping to do? Are you a one-wo/man band? Are you planning to build an empire? I personally went for a freelance visa, so I’ll start outlining data on that front where relevant.
  • Once you know what kind of visa you want, it’s crunch time. Can you afford this? I’ve highlighted this because it really is ridiculously important. I created a spreadsheet with initial estimates of all costs I would incur, and then budgeted for it. I knew then how much cash flow I’d need to be able to pay for everything without going bankrupt. Some of these costs will include those you didn’t even think about (the struggle is real). My own costs included the following: the permit/licence; what’s known as an establishment card (if you’re getting your own visa rather than staying on your father’s or husband’s); visa; visa amendment (paperwork related to my previous visa); website hosting costs; website design costs; express service for the visa (I had to travel very soon but this is not essential); health insurance. Please, please, please have enough money to pay for all these and still have a comfortable amount left over for living costs for the next few months. You need to have enough so that if you earned little to nothing for a month or two, you won’t struggle.
  • Find out right then what paperwork you’ll need for all the steps of the process. Get started with keeping these ready way before you even start filing everything.
  • You know what else is part of the planning process? Reaching out to your contacts. Speak to them to let them know about your move and when you will be ‘open for business’. While this could potentially help with future business, it’s also best practice for your interaction with people you may have developed a good working relationship with. Sometimes that leads to business, sometimes it doesn’t. But never underestimate the value of your contact book.
  • Pricing. This is SO important, and was actually one of the things I left to the last minute. I wish I hadn’t! There’s a lot of ways to figure out your rates for the services you offer. You may work in an industry where rates are fairly standardised so price yourself correctly. Remember this, you have to account for EVERYTHING now, it’s not just about the service but about the equipment you use, wear-and-tear, even software you may need to do your job. I used this infographic to help me work out my charges.
  • Also, plan for when you’re actually going to submit your application to be a registered or licensed freelancer. My advice is leaving enough time between your leaving your full-time role and applying for your freelance permit so the processes tick over in the background. Do NOT quit your job before you have the alternative confirmed – whether that’s a freelance permit or visa, or even your first client.
Just do it!

This section is quite specific to Dubai folk – you can skip to the next section if this isn’t relevant to you!

  • I applied for my freelance permit at the end of June, knowing I’d be leaving my full-time job at the end of July. If you’ve already got all the paperwork ready, then it’s a simple matter of submitting all the information.
  • I personally found GoFreelance amazing to deal with. When I applied, just ‘education’ and ‘media’ activities were on the roster, now ‘tech’ is also available. What I also loved that it outlines exactly what you need for the application which goes back to my point about preparing all your paperwork in advance. The team there are also super helpful. Follow the instructions, and go for it!
  • Extra tip: Start the health insurance process well before you have to apply for your visa. When you submit the visa paperwork + get your medical done, the visa cannot be processed unless you have health insurance. Shopping around for insurance and getting it underwritten takes time. I got a basic insurance at the time because I needed my visa quickly in order to travel soon, but it’s been months of searching for the right one and I finally signed off on one I was satisfied with at the end of December 2018.
Living that freelancer life

OK so you have taken the plunge. You’re a freelancer. Congratulations. Now what? Now…you hustle.

  • Remember all those contacts you reached out to? Well, if you haven’t posted about your move on LinkedIn already, then post away. Let the world know you’re ready for business.
  • Do you have a website yet? On a personal level, I decided to include the website in the planning phase (I worked with the amazing Rubber Design for this) and had it ready to go just before my last day at my full-time job. I personally felt it was important to have a place where all my skills were outlined, and in a professional manner. Vicki from Rubber Design created my logo and the website, and I also had a photoshoot with Aasiya Jagadeesh.
  • What about your social media? Can you use it to your advantage? Don’t forget to post updates about your work, being out and about, or just plugging away your services. It was hard for me to do this, I almost felt a sense of being shameless, but hey, you have to hustle.
  • Network! Depending on what your work is, find a way to connect with both existing contacts regularly and make new ones. Hustle away, go out to events, hand out business cards (on that note, if you’re in the UAE and want business cards – or anything else – printed, head to Pearl Printing Press; you can email Joel at pearlpp.dxb@gmail.com).
  • Be methodical. OK, some of your freelance work may mean you have to go into an office to work – in which case you’re still experiencing a sense of structure. Or your work may mean you can be huddled in a tent on top of a mountain with portable Wi-FI getting your emails out (unlikely, but who knows?!). In the former, OK, you’re sorted in that you have to be there at 9am, or whatever the case may be, and work through the day. For the latter, or more realistically, if you work from home or from a café or a co-working space, have some structure. Wake up at the same time every day, start work at a similar time every day. It’s up to you whether you’re a morning person or a night owl, set your own work timings and largely stick to them. It will help you get work done. No structure altogether seriously does not help.

So, here’s my guide and my experience taking the freelance plunge. What questions, if any, do you have for me? Comment here, and I’ll try to answer as many as I can! And good luck with your freelance journey!

And finally, because I now have to continuously hustle, check out my website and let me know if you have any professional needs I can help with!

cropped-fq8a1206P.S. – I am considering writing posts about apps I’m using as a freelancer and where I enjoy working from in Dubai; if that’s of interest, do let me know!

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5 thoughts on “Becoming a freelancer – what you need to know

  1. Very well written Devina and some great tips. I’m too scared to let go of the structure and stability of a corporate job but I eventually wish to have the expertise and courage to take the plunge. Good luck with all that your doing!

  2. Great post – lots of excellent info. I have been a freelance writer for about 12 years here in the US. I am not a niche (educational publishing) so I don’t spend much time searching for work because of prior networking and my record of work.

    One major thing that allows me to freelance is the fact that my partner has a regular job with a regular pay schedule and insurance coverage for both of us. Though I make an okay income paying insurance on my own would make it difficult.

    Taxes also suck because I pay a minimum of 15 percent more than regular employees but don’t make that much more in income.

    Still, I love it. The work I do is satisfying and I get to stay home with my dogs. I have to schedule time to get out for walks and lunches with friends so I get social interaction other than with dogs though lol!

    If you are ever looking for a blog post about my experiences I would be happy to help with.

    1. Great points – I don’t have to pay tax (currently) where I live, so that made one less point to consider. Insurance was rough, but I managed to get a happy compromise at the end. The flexibility I have is something I am really loving.

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