Four years of freelancing: what I’ve learned

I’ve been wanting to write this for a while, especially because I’ve seen so many listicles on this topic and they’re just always full of such banal advice. I hope what I provide below is helpful to others, no matter what stage of the process they’re at. I’ll leave out the platitudes that’ve been long overcooked: obviously you need to know how to price yourself, you have to have a good sales pitch, you have to know where to find clients and what they want to pay for, you have to be doing something you’re good at, etc. I’ll note that you do you, and YMMV, and I don’t pretend to be the ultimate authority on very much of anything, so on and so forth. As always, in the interests of transparency, I’ll try to make this post quite detailed.

What I do

I’ve been freelancing on the side for the past 4 years, it’s good money, and I don’t feel that my social life has suffered much at all. Freelancing has also helped me keep my skills sharp in an industry I half-left 5 years ago, and it’s meaningful work. I’m a political scientist by training, and because I needed to pay rent and eat at the same time, I left my nonprofit job once out of grad school to join a corporate intelligence consulting firm. ‘Twas a very long year and a half. I was very lucky to subsequently get a kickass offer from my current employer, but I left that corporate intel position with an extremely marketable skillset that’s sold very well thus far. I do research into people and companies in emerging markets with which my clients expect to do business, advising them on corruption, fraud, money laundering, hidden assets, bad lawsuits and negative publicity. It’s good work – at least it strives to be – in that I help keep dirty money out of the market, but the industry itself is still working out its own kinks, and clients vary widely.

Time and money

Most weeks, though not all, I freelance for anywhere between 4 and 20 hours, depending on the client, the project, the budget, the scope, etc. It’s usually closer to 4 than to 20, but I’ve started focusing more on longer, higher yield work. Again, depending on the project, I’ll charge either per hour or per report; my hourly rate starts at $65, and my project rate can be anywhere from $200 to $2,000. I set my rates based on the following factors:

1. Client longevity – how long have we been working together, how consistent has the flow of work from them been, and what have they gotten used to paying for comparable products.

2. Jurisdiction – U.S.-based projects are pretty much always the worst paid, even though they’re by far the most time-consuming, so I almost never take any. I prefer to work in the languages with which I’m most comfortable, like French or Russian, but I’ll also take most other Romance languages and/or anything with Slavic roots, both of which I can read at a decent speed. However, the more valuable (like Russian) or obscure (like Polish) the language required, the more I will generally charge.

3. Scope and turnaround time – the larger the scope and the shorter the turnaround time, the more it’ll cost, which is pretty self-explanatory. A simple Google search for negative publicity with a freeform narrative write-up may be $100, whereas a complex analytical report on hidden assets and embezzlement schemes can easily reach $1,000. My rush rates automatically double, primarily because I’ve learned that clients who require everything and faster and yesterday at 7 am London time are usually the ones to try to sneakily expand the scope beyond our contract after I submit my deliverables. This is true of any industry, of course, as Clients from Hell can confirm.

Me: I’m sorry, are you unhappy with the photos?

Client: Oh, I love them. But why do they cost money?

I always try to be unwavering in politeness yet firm as to the terms agreed upon, which can be a very delicate balancing act. I have vowed never to work with certain clients again for this reason.

When and how to work

I’ve learned that it’s very important to know when, where, and how you work best – for me it’s always at home, at a desk, evenings are best, and I need soft ambient light and no extraneous noise. No music with lyrics, and only light classical works, like Saint-Saëns or Tchaikovsky. In practice, however, it frequently looks like this:


In terms of accoutrements, the dawn of the millennial / side gig / sharing economy era has somehow convinced us millennials, reportedly the poorest paid and most undervalued generation ever, that we need all of the stuff!, and that it is only through the acquisition of said stuff! that we will become Real Profesh Freelance Slayers. The truth is, you almost certainly don’t need anything other than a computer, high-speed internet, and a comfortable place to work. I will say that I think co-working spaces are a total waste of time and money unless you’re a full-time freelancer and cannot, for whatever reason, work at home at all. In addition:

1. Pay attention to the type of lighting you prefer, which can make a huge difference in your mood and productivity. If you’re a bat like me and you prefer working after dark, invest (not too heavily) in the kind of light you like. I hate overhead lighting, so I got a $10 boule-shaped IKEA lamp that projects a soft glow from the corner. A former colleague of mine, a fantastic developer, used to hate light in general and would work in complete darkness in a freezing cold office (nicest guy in the world, for real). You do you, but if you feel yourself getting really tired or really annoyed by the work, change up your lighting and see if that helps.

2. Accessories, even cheap ones, can also provide a huge boost. I currently work on a 13″ Macbook Air, and I’ve had laptops with trackpads for the past 10 years, so I never really thought I needed to have a mouse. After having to put together an absolute nightmare of a report in split-screen windows with some pretty intense conversions of the dollar to the Ukrainian hryvnia, I figured maybe a mouse would make it a little easier to click back and forth. Night. And. Day. Now I don’t understand how I ever lived without a mouse. I got a Logitech one for $25 at my local Staples, it’s one of those fancy-shaped ones with precision scrolling, and it’s just been an absolute godsend. This is how I know I’m an adult.

3. Chargers, extension cords and other messy or uncomfortable things around you or in your line of vision can throw you off and quietly annoy you for hours, affecting your output without you even realizing it. Move everything out of sight and either create some visual horizon space in front of you or pack yourself cozily into a corner, depending on personal preference.

Invest in your business, but WISELY

Everyone has to invest in their business – I have to pay to retrieve certain documents from specific databases, for example. I’ll caveat this next bit by repeating that this is, of course, a matter of personal preference, you do you, we don’t know each other’s lives. However, dropping hundreds or even thousands of dollars on something just because it has a nice website and promises to completely transform your life, whether it’s access to a special portal, a B2B service, or a “coaching” program, is a bad, bad, very bad idea. Learn from my mistake: I just wasted $20+ buying individual documents from the paid version of a certain country’s corporate registry, then worried about whether I should be dropping $900 more on access to a fancy-looking portal, before realizing that all of the information I actually needed was available for free through a different section of the same website.

“Coaching” programs deserve a special shoutout as my most detested modern internet Thing, and when I watch people get conned into paying thousands of dollars for this nonsense, it gives me all of the angers. Whatever positive “effect” the followers of these programs claim is almost always a case of placebo buoyancy after weeks or months of being told that they’re super special unicorns endowed with magical powers to achieve unlimited greatness. Everyone likes being spoken to in those terms, but for most of us, that appropriately ended around age 5. Yet so many people, many of whom are already underfunded and already doubting themselves, still fall prey to the sleek marketing and the promises of grand life transformations, and when those transformations obviously fail, they’re left even worse off. The most perverse meta internet thing ever is people taking coaching courses to become coaches themselves (what?!); however, they’re clearly trying to learn how to con others, so I have little sympathy for them getting conned.

All successful people got to where they are through a random life lottery, which is a combination of family advantages, innate skills and talents, upbringing, and luck. No one has ever paid an online life coach $1,000 and risen astronomically to fame and fortune and a $1 billion valuation. Doesn’t work that way. Before investing in online courses and Facebook groups and anything with the word “success” in the title, think long and hard about what you hope to gain from it for your business, and really work out the pros and cons. A $1,000 vacation may give you a far bigger boost than a $1,000 lady in a hot pink frilled lizard nightmare telling you about your inner genius in a pre-recorded video that thousands of other schmucks are watching with you. Go to the shore and read some Kerouac or something. Chill. Think.

However, don’t scrimp where it could cost you in the long run. Buy reliable gadgets and keep a backup external hard drive. If you need to learn something new to simplify your workflow, invest in cheap skills-based courses like those on Udemy. (Note: Udemy frequently runs promotions where $300 courses drop to $20 or $30. Wait for any one of those before you buy anything. They’re usually offered every month).

Organize practically, not theoretically

An inevitable component of every listicle on freelancing ever is the organization bit – how important it is to schedule and plan and this and that. Yes, all of those things are true, but remain wary of spending too much time, effort or money on planning to do your work. This is a part of what I like to call my Just Fucking Do It approach, which involves sitting down and just fucking doing it. You don’t need a PhD in the theoretical underpinnings of time management. Don’t overthink it, use whatever feels right for you – I hate Google Calendar with the emotional intensity of an Hieronymous Bosch triptych, and I don’t know how they managed to make iCal even worse, so I use a $2 notebook in which I write with a standard pen of whatever color I happen to have handy. Some people like getting really creative with their planning, and the supposed superiority of these really involved lists is so heavily promoted that the temptation to sink into a washi taped ball pit of planners and highlighters is quite strong. If left to my own devices, I would live in a ball pit of highlighters, actually. However, if you’ve never been a “planner person”, which is the ultimate first world problem, buying a $50 Kate Spade one won’t help you. Point being, make it about the practice, not the theory, and focus on what works for you, not for others. How people learn the Morse code of these new bullet journal things I have no idea, because I, for one, scratch out my completed tasks in ink. Like a barbarian.

Don’t be afraid to say no

To clients who are a bad fit, to people who want you to do twice the work for half the price, to friends who may not understand why you need to stay home and finish your project, or to those you encounter who don’t know what they’re talking about. I once spent an afternoon explaining to a compliance team on Wall Street that the enactment of U.S. government sanctions against Serb war criminals does not, in fact, mean that we have severed diplomatic ties with Serbia. Really though. Also, Yugoslavia is no longer a country, and no, I do not speak Yugoslavakian, which has never actually been a thing. I refuse to put my name on anything that’s nonsensical or unethical, so I immediately turn down requests to “polish” investigative reports that reveal far more than what the client would like to send up to Legal. Consider not only liability but your reputation as well.


My cat believes in you. Godspeed.