Going freelance can be pretty scary—especially if you’ve never done it before, you’ve just moved abroad, and haven't even figured out your new country's recycling system yet.
Here's the highs and lows that I’ve experienced during my first few months freelancing as a writer and editor in Switzerland.
Sometimes our CVs aren’t as portable as we’d like. Viewed within a different cultural context, our qualifications may be interpreted less favourably than those of local candidates.
For example, the apprenticeship system in Switzerland allows people to train for relatively specific roles from a young age, resulting in applicants whose certificates match the job title almost word-for-word. Meanwhile, employers may not understand as easily what your skills and experience “prove” about your suitability for the role—even if it seems obvious to you.
Rather than floundering in a system which appears to be conspiring against you, turning freelance enables you to be proactive and create a job for yourself.
Expat life can be unbelievably lonely. In a field like mine, freelancing adds an additional layer of isolation in that much of what I do involves sitting at home in front of a computer. (I literally have to schedule in time to make sure I go outside every day.)
The key is to build a support network as quickly as you can. Take advantage of your newfound flexibility and try to weave social interactions throughout your day. Join a class, a club, and go to networking events—even if, like me, the idea of walking into a room full of strangers fills you with dread. Once you get to know people, they’re not strangers any more.
Though we may have appointments and deadlines to stick to, freelancers can generally structure their time as they see fit. Why not get all your work out of the way while it’s raining, and plan excursions for when the weather’s good?
Con: Lack of formal support.
If you’re lucky enough to land a job abroad, your employer may offer assistance with settling in, from administrative support to implementing a “buddy system.”
Freelancers are on their own and must get creative about finding help.
For “life admin” issues like visas, taxes, and transport, don’t be afraid to get in touch with the relevant organization and ask questions. Things which look complicated on paper can often be cleared up with a simple phone call.
For work-related challenges, look out for workshops, courses, and—again—networking events, where you can either learn the necessary skills or meet people who already have.
Pro: A different perspective
Setting up a business allows you to experience your new country from a unique perspective. I’ve learned a lot about Swiss culture from networking with locals and other expats; practised my language skills in contexts I hadn’t anticipated; and learned important lessons about “how things work” here.
Con: Financial instability
Moving abroad is expensive. With fees, deposits, and insurance policies cropping up all over the place, your first few months overseas are not the best time to be running low on funds.
Growing a business takes time. Will you be able to support yourself if things don’t move as quickly as you’d like?
Ironically, becoming self-employed made me much more employable, as my resulting work permit allows me to work for organizations, too. I found a flexible, part-time job which I can carry out at home, letting me focus mainly on my business, safe in the knowledge that I can always pay my rent.
Importantly, check the small print of any insurance policies to find out how self-employment may affect your cover. In Switzerland, accident insurance is usually paid by your employer, while freelancers may have to foot the bill themselves. Speak with your insurer to see if you can protect yourself from any nasty surprises.
Con: Work-life balance
Oh, to have a work-life balance! Moving abroad brings with it the pressure to “get out there and explore”, and “live life to the full”. And yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that hours spent away from your laptop equals money lost.
Much as I try to keep evenings and weekends sacred, I can often be found checking my emails “one last time” before bed (and I suspect I’m not the only one).
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a start. I, for one, am pleased that I made the leap, and quite proud of how freelancing has helped me grow over the last few months. However, I do often find myself longing for a (larger) steady paycheque; colleagues to sidle up to in the kitchen; and an office I can physically leave at the end of the day.
It’s important to note that working for someone else doesn’t necessarily deny us all the perks listed above, nor can it solve every issue. It’s possible to feel lonely even when surrounded by people, or to find yourself sneaking into the office at weekends to “catch up.” Likewise, more and more workplaces seem to be exploring flexible hours and remote working opportunities, giving employees more freedom and control.
It’s up to us to examine our personal priorities and deal breakers to find the best fit.Add this article to your reading list