This is more of a food-for-thought post than a helpful hints post, and please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments! In working with the students in my online courses and talking to other translators who have been in the business longer than I have, I’ve developed a theory about the three phases that most freelancers seem to go through:
Phase 1: You’ve been plugging away at your startup phase for some months or years. Work is starting to flow in with some regularity. You still have peaks and valleys, but you are making what might be termed real money, or at least semi-real money. You’re probably still working at another job, dipping into savings, or depending on a spouse’s or partner’s income, but you feel that your freelance business is a going concern: you’re going to make it! For me, this described (approximately) years 1.5 through 3 of my freelance business.
Phase 2: Reality check. Your freelance business is a going concern, but you start to realize that if you want freelancing to be your “forever” job, you need to earn more, and possibly a lot more money than what you’re currently making. If you want a similar level of financial security to someone with a salaried job, you need to be putting money into retirement, earning enough that you can afford to take a reasonable amount of time off, earmarking money for professional development, training and tools such as computer equipment and software. The euphoria that you felt at the end of Phase 1 starts to fade, as you look at the (large) number that you need to hit in order to achieve that level of security. But, hopefully, you forge ahead, maybe adding direct clients to your roster, or assertively marketing to better-paying clients of various flavors. For me, this described (approximately) years 3-6 of my freelance business, in the sense that after year 3, I managed to break out of Phase 1, but I wasn’t fully into Phase 2 for about another 3 years after that. After 12 years of freelancing, I’d say that I’m still firmly in Phase 2 but now contemplating…
Phase 3: After putting in X number of years as a freelancer and earning a healthy income in order to achieve the level of financial security you targeted in Phase 2, you start to be more motivated by doing work that is meaningful, enjoyable, and that perhaps allows more time or flexibility for your non-work interests. I’m not at this phase yet, but I’m observing it in other translators I work with: they’re still very excited by their work, but maybe they translate more books, or maybe they assertively look for work that matters to them, whether it’s lucrative or not, or they do work that fills a need for a cause they support. Although I’m not there yet (and with my child’s college tuition coming in the next decade, won’t be for a while!), I can see this on the horizon: a time when I’ll still love this job, but when I will want to look for work that lets me ride my bike and play my lute (preferably in Italy!) while doing work that I enjoy.
My observation is that a lot of freelancers get a bit stuck between Phase 1 and Phase 2: having sort-of-enough work, earning sort-of-enough money and enjoying the job sort-of-enough. That’s a great place to be when you compare it to your startup phase, but it’s not a great place to hang out for 20 years. Breaking out of that phase is another series of posts, but it might be helpful to identify which phase you’re in!