Are You A Stealth Freelancer?

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Many pundits have predicted that the number of self-employed individuals will increase considerably over time. However, at least according to the latest numbers provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on self-employed workers, this isn’t happening at all. In fact, far from actually growing, the BLS numbers show the number of freelancers actually decreasing. Why might this be happening? One possible reason, at least according to GroupTalent (an online design/development talent match service), is that many freelancers have gone into stealth mode. In essence, stealth freelancers perform freelance work while maintaining full-time jobs elsewhere. Such an approach provides many stealth freelancers with the security of a with-benefits “real” job and side income to boot.

Other reasons include the following:

A bad economy The faltering economy has made it necessary for many individuals to earn money “on the side” in order to make ends meet. Many of these individuals can’t afford to let their current job go because they need it to pay for their benefits as well as to get them through freelance “dry spells” when no clients come calling. The downside to this approach is that, when the clients do come around, these freelancers get no sleep.

Business needs Workers aren’t the only ones who’ve been affected by the lackluster economy. Businesses have also been hurt by the Great Recession and have done what they can to keep costs down. In many cases, a major cost-control measure has involved hiring freelance workers and contractors instead of full-fledged employees. The savings of such a measure are huge; as opposed to employees, freelancers don’t require benefits packages that include health insurance, 401(k)s, etc. Also, many freelancers work from home, saving companies office space and equipment. As a result, it has become easier to land freelance gigs.

Lower barrier to entry The online world has enabled many small business people to launch their operations straight from home (or their garage). Sites like Etsy make it easier and cheaper for someone who makes crafts to sell his or her wares online, whereas in the past this person would’ve had to open a brick-and-mortar store or at least pay for a table at a craft fair. Likewise, raising funds to start a business venture has also become easier thanks to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter.

Technology upgrades Internet connections have grown more reliable, major cities and businesses offer WiFi access, and a cell phone can do many of the tasks of a desktop computer. As a result, stealth freelance workers can work on freelance projects over their lunch breaks while at their regular jobs. Some stealth freelancers even “double dip”- until they are caught, that is.

Speaking from personal experience, I too was once a stealth freelancer. Every weekday, I would go to my “real job”, put in my daily 8 or so hours, then come home to put in another 4+ hours as a freelance writer/webmaster. On weekends, my time was booked with freelance projects. I certainly got things done- and made good money too- but after six months of working two jobs I was exhausted. I realized that I had to let one of my jobs go; otherwise, I would fail at both. However, this realization did not come easily or without a lot of personal angst. Let’s face it: letting go of a perfectly good-paying and with-benefits job is counterintuitive in today’s shaky economy. I was even told that quitting my day job was “not very wise in this job market”. Thus, before you decide to let go of your stealth freelancer designation, ask yourself these questions first:

Do I have a one year financial cushion? Do you have enough money to cover your monthly expenses (e.g., mortgage) for at least one year? In other words, if you can’t make any money from your freelance work for at least a year, will this be a serious issue for your household bottom line?

Do I like my freelance work? Do your freelance endeavors capture your imagination and excite you? Are you motivated by your work? Do you actually look forward to promoting your freelance business and helping clients? If you answered no to any one of these questions, your freelance operation may eventually fail. Carefully consider if you can see yourself doing this type of work for years or even decades down the line.

Will my freelance business make enough money to support me (and my family)? As a stealth and therefore probably part-time freelancer, this question is the hardest to answer because, until you’re fully engaged in your freelance venture, you don’t know just how much money your work will generate. One way I tried to answer this question in my own life was to chart my freelance earnings over several months. I figured that, even on a part-time basis, if my freelance work could at least pay my monthly mortgage bill, I would be in a good position to take this gig full-time.

Do I have at least one long-term client? Clients are the lifeblood of a freelance business; thus, make sure that you have at least one long-term and steady client in your pocket before leaving your “other job”. This way, you’ll be earning at least some money while you’re setting up your new business and trying to land additional clients.

Do I have a backup plan? Let’s say that, after one year of working freelance, you undergo a major life event (e.g., have a baby) and realize that your earnings can no longer support your new lifestyle. Alternately, you become bored with your freelance work. Can you still go back to your old employer and/or find a new job? Having a backup plan need not signify defeat; however, you must be realistic and keep your options open. On that note, do not burn any bridges when leaving your old employer; for example, it’s far better to simply quit your old job rather than try to get fired, even if that does mean you lose out on collecting unemployment benefits.

Whether or not you decide to ever leave stealth freelancing is your call. My parents, for example, were always doing some kind of side hustle while fully employed at their other jobs, whether that involved renting apartments or fixing up old houses for sale. Some people might be motivated by the challenge of a startup business, regardless of whether the venture is eventually successful. Other folks occupy themselves with side projects instead of spending their weekends in front of the TV. If you are of that caliber, stealth freelancing could be right where you need to be.

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