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Survival Skills for Freelancers

Survival Skills for Freelancers

Survival Skills for Freelancers begins with Sarah Townsend’s own freelancing journey. It is a story from the trenches of what it’s really like, and is followed by a rather scary list of all the personal qualities required to make freelancing work … luckily this is followed by a proviso that you don’t need to have ALL of these qualities. I agree that being self-motivated, organised and persistent are valuable qualities to have when running your own business.

The most interesting section is Part Three – Busting the Myths of Freelance Life, which is packed with valuable advice. Here are the insights which resonated most with me.


Co-working spaces/working in coffee shops, online communities and networking groups are ways to overcome isolation when working for yourself. If, like me, one of the absolute joys of freelancing is having ‘a room of one’s own’ you can still create a supportive network. I have particularly benefited from joining classes for start up businesses, taking part in small business networking events, connecting via LinkedIn, and catching up with local freelancers on a one-to-one basis. However you do it, it is important to ‘find your tribe’ in a way that supports you, and still leaves you enough time to get your work done.


Here’s a quote from the Survival Skills for Freelancers: “Outsourcing the tasks you don’t enjoy, you’re not skilled at, and which aren’t a good use of your time frees you up to focus on the things that really matter – both to you and your business.”

Like the author, I initially spent too much time on things I was not particularly good at – trying to fix computer issues, fiddling with the back end of website design, and doing accounts in a spreadsheet rather than signing up for software to do most of the job for me.

On the other hand, there is value in gaining experience in all aspects of your business. This helps you to keep to a tight budget in the early days when you have more time than money. It’s also valuable to know how these aspects of your business work. I like Michelle Warner’s approach, which is to do some hard yards yourself (e.g. in writing your own website copy, or crafting an online course) and then handing it over to an expert to refine. That way you’re not at arm’s length from these things, you can handle the smaller issues without being reliant on help, and your online voice is authentically yours.

But yes, I love having a computer person to call with anything I can’t fix, access to a graphic designer to jazz up the most important images, a website maintenance service to keep my website secure and updated, and an easy accounting system that makes sorting out GST and income tax a half day job, rather than a mind-blowing mission.


Being prepared to invest in the tools you need to do a high quality job is important. Here are the things Sarah Townsend covers in her guide:

  • technology, tools and equipment
  • your brand
  • your online presence
  • a professional website.

It’s definitely worthwhile to spend what you can on reliable technology. It is also well worth investing in a website done for you once you have been in business for a while and have a clear idea of who your ideal clients are, and what you do for them. You can adapt your website over time to reflect any changes in your services. At a minimum, make sure you know how to add blog articles, and to make changes to the text on the website pages.

I also agree with the author that it’s best to focus on just one or two social media platforms where your ideal clients are most likely to be. I spent too long learning about Facebook and posting on this platform before realising that LinkedIn was the natural home for building connections and talking about my services.


The fear of not having enough work leads many of us to under-charge for our services when we first set up in business. There’s such a feeling of relief at being fully booked that it doesn’t feel such a sacrifice, but this is unsustainable over the long term.

When you charge a reasonable price, putting a higher value on your time, you are less likely to rush through a job, and more able to give dedicated attention to the work at hand – providing a higher value service you can be proud of. This is why it’s so important to choose your niche wisely – you need to have clients who are able to pay enough for your business to be sustainable.

I love this line in the guide: “It’s a universal truth that the clients who question costs (or refuse to pay) always – without exception – end up being the biggest pain in the butt.”

Sarah Townsend also recommends charging a fixed fee that’s based on the value of the work you’re delivering, and not just the time and effort involved. I have found this works better in some circumstances than others. For example, it’s great for discrete pieces of work of a type you have done several times before, where there is limited risk of scope creep. This gives certainty to both you and the client, particularly when you are working with them for the first time. However, it can be a stressful (and costly) way to go with work that is vulnerable to expanding to meet the changing needs of the client. In these cases, charging by the hour is a lower risk approach.

Charging by the hour can be valuable early on in your freelancing life, while you are still learning how many hours a particular type of project takes. It also avoids the risk that you will massively undercharge out of a desire to land the job. And some clients and some sectors simply prefer an hourly rate.

Saying no to work

The book includes an excellent list of criteria for ideal clients – it’s worth buying the book for this alone. And the guts of it is – listen to your gut. Almost every freelancer will have taken on work even though they have a hunch it isn’t a great match for them. This almost always leads to regret.

Here’s the pay-off for saying no when an opportunity doesn’t feel right: “By being selective about the work you take on – and spending more of your time and energy on projects that bring you joy – you’ll gradually refine your offer.”

Planning time off – and sticking to the plan

It’s so hard to plan time off when your first instinct is to say yes to any work that comes along, regardless of the timing. But if you do that for too long, you risk becoming bitter and twisted when hearing about other people’s holidays!


The self-care section includes all the usual suspects of meditation, exercise and sleeping well. Going to my yoga class on a Wednesday morning feels like an absolute luxury. But as the author says, this is the pay-off for being in charge of your own time and workload, so don’t feel guilty about it.

Ongoing learning

The author outlines some valuable strategies for dealing with self-doubt, and finishes with a proactive section on the importance of learning – to take notice of where we have gaps in our knowledge and use those feelings as motivation to keep learning.

The need to allocate time for upskilling and marketing is a good reason to charge enough, so that you can afford to spend time on this unpaid work.

Survival Skills for Freelancers is particularly targeted at people at the beginning of their freelance journey – telling them all the things the author would have liked to know at the beginning of her freelance career. It’s also a highly valuable read for those of us who are further down the track. It provides an opportunity to reflect on our own experience so far, to identify areas where we are still tripping ourselves up, and to commit to new approaches in these areas.

Here’s a related article on reducing the risks and maximising the benefits of working with consultants.

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