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A Successful Freelance Practice Can be a Huge Credibility Boost: A Candid Interview with Vivian Cheng

Motivation plays an integral role in helping us keep trying harder for a better future. Whenever we feel down in our lives and tend to lose interest in doing the things we love, nothing can jolt the motivation back in us than getting a peek into the life of someone who has walked on the same road as we and found their calling.

Today, we are going to talk to one such individual, who has an inspiring journey as a successful freelancer to share with our readers. If you seek inspiration or insights into a successful freelance career, we recommend you to check out our interview with Vivian Cheng.

Q – Welcome Vivian Cheng, we really appreciate you for taking some time out for today’s interview. Would you please share a bit about yourself with our readers?

My name is Vivian Cheng, born and raised in Beijing, China, and moved to Vancouver, Canada at age of 18 to pursue my undergraduate education. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and a tough 6-month job hunt, I entered the workforce for my first full-time internship at a creative agency. 

Only two months after, the global pandemic hit Canada and I was laid off from this role. Reevaluating my options, I decided that it was a good time to pursue a master’s degree as it was already part of my plan for the next few years. After submitting my grad school applications, I set up a profile on a freelancing platform in early May 2020. 

In September 2020, I moved to London, UK from Canada to pursue my master’s degree in communications while working freelance on a part-time basis on the side. Fast forward to June 2021, towards the completion of my graduate degree requirements, I’ve established a freelance practice with a steady stream of income and a pool of great clients, feeling grateful every day for the kindness and help I’ve received along the way and want to give back to the community. 

Now, I share weekly articles on my Medium blog about the perks, pains, and solutions to a fulfilled and holistic freelance career. It covers my learnings, reflections, and tips for both new and experienced freelancers.

Q – You mentioned that you completed your master’s degree while doing freelancing. How tough was it to juggle between studies and freelancing?

It has been challenging, especially with surges of demands for my time and energy on both sides. However, I believe that it can be manageable. The very perk of freelancing is that it offers way more flexibility in day-to-day tasks. With no official office hours, I can fit in the work between university work during the day or in the evenings, even on the weekends sometimes. For example, if I have a 30 mins window between classes but can’t really get in the zone of studying, I can simply take this time to reply to work emails, optimizing my time altogether. 

Though, I don’t know how representative my experience is since the majority of my freelance career has been during a global pandemic. During my time in the “lockdown edition” of the UK, I wasn’t able to go out and explore to the extent I would in a “normal” time, or at all! It was challenging considering I moved alone to the other side of the world, not knowing everyone, in the middle of a pandemic. It was the freelance work that kept me occupied aside from university work - I stayed sane and positive seeing my freelance practice growing and that I’m making positive impacts on my client’s businesses.

Q – Would you agree when we say that if people – who are pursuing their academics – have any skills that they can sell should opt for freelancing than student loans?

Absolutely. I believe that we all have strengths and skills that can potentially offer value to other people. As individuals, we just have to put thoughts into it and come up with a minimal viable “product” based on what we like or things we seem to naturally do better than other people - we all have our “unfair” advantage. It doesn’t have to be linked to your formal education either! If you are a chemistry major and paint beautiful watercolor paintings, you can totally do customized pieces for other people’s pets, friends, lovers to help them prepare a meaningful and personal gift while earning commissions. 

With a financial incentive, freelancing is not only a great way to ease the financial burden of student loans. There are so many skills that impact a freelance project: communications, time management, project management… You name it! Having a successful freelance practice in any area can be a huge credibility boost for students to enter the wild job market, not to mention the sense of achievement and confidence you gain as a freelance professional!

Q – What was your motivation to start your career with freelancing?

I did start freelancing at a very early stage in my career -  I wonder sometimes if I started doing it too early. But technically, I didn’t START my career with freelancing. After graduating from university I was very much interested in working an office job full-time, freelance didn’t seem like an option at the time since I had very little experience. After getting laid off from my internship due to the pandemic, I spent some time putting together applications for my graduate degree and turned to freelance because I couldn’t even work as a barista (or any face-to-face roles). 

I started out a freelance career when I was unemployed. With the ultimate goal to establish a stable full-time freelance career, I was fully aware that I’ll be back in the traditional workforce, applying for full-time positions to stabilize myself in society as an adult. Hence, one key motivation for me to start freelancing is the potential it offers in a conventional career path.

Freelance experiences show future employers that you take initiative with dedication and your ability to manage complicated tasks from start to finish. If you succeed in projects, the positive client reviews will become a powerful differentiator to help you land your dream job. Most importantly, the learnings you acquire through trial and error will serve you well for the rest of your career, no matter which direction you end up choosing.

Yet, I didn’t start working as a freelancer with a temporary mindset. From the very beginning, I knew that this is something that I want to grow sustainably, over time. I also accepted the fact that it would take time before this path leads me anywhere — this mere recognition has offered me much strength and patience to power through the challenging times.

Here, in this article, I explained in detail why I started freelancing in the first place. 

Q – Some freelancers believe that getting work on pandemic days is tough. What advice would you like to give them regarding how to get clients?

There’s no doubt that the traditional job market IS tough right now - even my friends from worldly-renowned universities are struggling to find an entry-level position.

However, looking at the job market from a different perspective: companies on a global scale are forced to adopt a remote culture during the pandemic. While employees report higher job satisfaction and better work-life balance, employers are also realizing the perks of having freelance contractors and not having office overhead bills. With more companies going fully remote, there can be more opportunities for everyone since we don’t have to be restricted to our geographical locations anymore, isn’t that great?

Branch out from your own physical locations, instead of focusing on maximizing the financial return, focus on getting great reviews from your clients, no matter how small the project seems to be. You can never know the lifetime value of a client so treat each task with care and diligence. If you establish a great reputation in your space, soon enough clients will come to you.

Q – How high is too high when it comes to setting service costs? How a freelancer adjust their price bar so they do not put off clients or attract cheap clients?

Q – Freelancers join freelance platforms so they can avoid scams and fraud and get their rightful earnings for a job well done. But some platforms seem to cut away too much as commission from their earnings. Some would even go as high as 20%. Many freelancers don’t even like the idea of an exorbitant commission. What are your thoughts on it?

There’s not an absolute rate to be “too high” - it’s all about what the service platform does for you and would you have been able to make however you make after service fee if the platform wasn’t there. For a new freelancer, the cost of alternatives is extremely high if he/she wants to set up their freelance practice through a personal brand, the website, the business development, the branding - that’s a lot of headaches. Moreover, platforms provide mediations and protections for freelancers to get paid. I’ve personally been ghosted in the middle of the project by the client, and wouldn’t have got paid at all if it wasn’t for their support team. In that case, the service fee would be worth it. 

However, more experienced freelancers may be able to secure contracts and attract clients through their personal networks. In that case, even a small percentage of the service fee will seem redundant. 

Regarding the rate, at the end of the day, we are all working to survive. So instead of thinking about how the potential clients will react to your rate, think about what rate will generate a life that you expect. If your current level of skills and expertise doesn’t match your ambition, that’s even more reason to learn and grow in the professional space you have chosen. 

Here, in this article, I shared more of my thoughts on where to start a freelancing career and compare the pros and cons between starting a personal brand or working with freelancing platforms. 

Q – What freelance tips would you like to recommend to up-and-coming freelancers? How should they start as a beginner?

It’s the same with everything else in life, that the beginning is often the hardest time to get through. Not merely because of the lack of experience, but also issues with self-confidence, self-doubt, and imposter syndrome.

It breaks my heart to see people with much potential give up right before things start to get better. Knowing that they have much to offer, they quit due to the lack of understanding that it takes time, effort, and patience to build momentum.

To establish a sustainable and successful freelance practice, it is very likely that you will be overworked and underpaid, maybe even worse off than your barista days. But that’s the whole point! You have to give your clients a good deal to worth their while hiring you. Quality delivery in a cost-efficient manner will make it a no-brainer for your clients to write you a positive review. If you also manage to demonstrate great soft skills with communications, teamwork, and great personality, you will be the first one they call next time when a similar project surfaces.

I understand the frustration, and I’ve been there. But I promise you it won’t be forever. Soon enough you will realize that you are achieving exponential growth in earnings as more clients return with more lucrative projects, along with the new clients attracted by the stellar reviews you’ve earned!

Here, in this article, I talk about my proven strategy on how to land the first five clients when you first start working for yourself.

Q – You seem to be associated with an agency. Does it mean that you have switched to the in-house job? If so, then why?

I wouldn’t identify the structure as in-house. For the following reasons:

  1. The working hours are flexible. 

  2. I’m contract-based rather than full-time employed. 

  3. The clients that I work on are based on my skill sets and expertise in the niche. 

  4. I’m working with multiple agencies. This wouldn’t be viable for a traditional in-house role.

One of the aspects that I struggled with the most during my first year is that I always had to fly solo. The lack of teamwork can be very lonely and overwhelming sometimes. I enjoy very much that I can work with a team and have co-workers to talk through a challenge rather than spending hours in solitude and trying to figure things out myself.

Q – At TaskShift, we charge only 3% of the earnings, which means that freelancers get to take home 97% of their earnings. Would you be interested in trying out TaskShift now or anytime in the future?

It is always more than just financial incentives when picking a platform to base my career on. However, a very attractive rate can potentially provide a huge boost in freelancers’ income. I would be open to potentially try the platform in the future if the demand for projects/freelancers is a fit with my skills and styles.

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