A Fascinating Glimpse Into the Real World of Freelancing

How much do freelancers earn? How do they really feel about being self-employed? Why do they do what they do? How badly have freelancers been affected by the slowing economy? Would they go back to being an employee if they had the chance?

You won’t find the answers to these questions, or questions like them, in any business publication.

In fact, when it comes to freelancers and their concerns, the popular media seems to completely ignore this critical segment of the workforce! (Which I find baffling, considering how many reporters and journalists are freelancers themselves!)

Policy makers and government officials also have no clue about who we are or what we’re about. The fact that freelancing and self-employment is not part of the unemployment conversation going on right now is shocking.

Well, I’m on a mission to change that! That’s why last month I set out to find the truth about freelancers and the freelance industry as a whole. I surveyed more than 1,200 freelancers in 37 different professions and from every corner of the globe.

Where the Information Came From

To find participants for this survey, I used a combination of social media and email. I started by posting an update on Facebook announcing the survey and inviting freelancers in all professions to participate. I also announced the survey on Twitter, and that message ended up getting re-tweeted hundreds of times. Finally, a list of 13,000 freelancers was emailed and asked to take the survey, which was open for nine days only.

Over the last six weeks I’ve been working on analyzing and synthesizing the information from that survey into what I believe is the most comprehensive study of the freelance industry ever published: the 2011 Freelance Industry Report (which is free to all self-employed professionals).

You’ll find dozens of fascinating statistics and insights in that report, but I wanted to point out a few key findings about freelancers’ attitudes toward self-employment, as well as how the industry has been impacted by the economy.

Attitudes Toward Self-Employment

Not surprisingly, most freelancers enjoy being self-employed. But what I found especially interesting is how strongly they felt about it. Specifically, 59% of freelancers are happier now than they were before going solo. And even though both men and women felt strongly about this, women seemed to be even more passionate (61%) than men (55%) about freelancing for a living.

There was also a direct relationship between how long freelancers have been self-employed and how strongly they felt about being on their own. For instance, 66% of those who have been freelancing for 10 years or longer felt strongly about being self-employed, vs. 51% of those who have been freelancing for one year or less.

Why do freelancers go solo? For most, the biggest reason is to have more freedom and flexibility in their schedules, followed by the desire to pursue a passion. “To be my own boss” was also a popular reason.

Of course, that always sounds good on paper. But do freelancers actually have more free time once they go out on their own? Forty-eight percent said they did. And another 18% said it was about the same. These figures are certainly higher than what traditional brick-and-mortar entrepreneurs report after leaving employment to start a business.

Get a Traditional Job Again? No Way!

Most freelancers (54%) feel so strongly about their solo business that they wouldn’t even consider working as an employee, regardless of what the job paid or what it entailed! Thirty-six percent would consider the offer, and only 2% would definitely take the “out” if they had the chance.

In terms of “job security,” 59% of freelancers either strongly agree or moderately agree that they feel more secure today than they did working for someone else — a figure that contradicts the negativism much of the mainstream media seems to want to attach to self-employment.

In fact, only 4% of freelancers strongly disagree with the idea that they’re more secure working for themselves than for an employer.

Economic Impact on Freelance Businesses

You hear a lot of conflicting information about what’s going on in the freelance marketplace, so I wanted to see how solos are doing in this difficult economic environment.

It was encouraging to see that the majority of freelancers (52%) either have not been impacted by the economy or have faced only a very minor impact. Only 19% said that the impact of the economic downturn on their business has been significant.

The biggest negative impact has been felt by business consultants, marketing professionals and designers. Copywriters and web developers seem to be the least affected group, with 29% of copywriters and 27% of web developers saying that the slow economy has had no negative impact whatsoever on their businesses.

Interestingly, there was an inverse relationship between a freelancer’s experience level and the impact of the economic downturn on his or her business. The more seasoned the freelancer, the more he or she has been impacted by the economic downturn, according to the study.

This relationship appears counterintuitive on the surface. However, one hypothesis could be that more experienced freelancers tend to stop or slow down their marketing efforts altogether as they get more deeply entrenched with one or two clients. This strategy can work OK in a healthy economy, but when conditions deteriorate, many are left without a viable prospect pipeline.

Outlook for the Next 12 Months?

The evening news may be filled with doom and gloom, but freelancers seem to be very optimistic about their business prospects over the next 12 months. Fully 78% of respondents said that they are optimistic about what lies ahead. And 37% even said they are “extremely optimistic.”

Web developers (46%), writers (45%) and marketing professionals (44%) were more likely to feel extremely optimistic about their respective businesses’ outlook over the next year than their counterparts in other professions. Conversely, translators (14%) and business consultants (13%) were the most pessimistic.

What Do You Think?

This is just a glimpse of the what’s contained in this comprehensive report, which contains more than 70 charts and graphs covering several key aspects of the freelancing.

So if you grab a copy, make sure to come back here and let me know what you think of the information and analysis. Are you surprised by some of these findings? What did you find most interesting?