The Debate Continues: Would You Freelance If You Had Nothing?

The Freelance Parent team challenged us to a debate about the costs of freelancing. We launched into the discussion happily – who can resist a challenge, especially when you have different views?

They began their debate with the stance that less than $500 gets you started off in freelancing. In fact, Lorna and Tamara’s start-up costs rang in at much less than that amount. We responded by listing most of the start-up costs that we feel freelancers leave out of the picture.

Then something interesting happened. The Freelance Parent team posted their thoughts about our post – and revealed details that show starting up might not be that cheap after all.

Disclaimer: The following contains a little bit of my background and how I began freelancing online. It’s old, it’s been said before and most of you know it. I am totally not looking for pity, so please don’t leave comments that start with, “Aw, James…”

Besides. I have way more touching stories up my sleeve.

Lorna and Tamara come from what I consider a privileged situation. Both had partners, and both those partners provided family income while the girls started their business.

Lorna writes, “One of the reasons that we have been able to start and run our business for so little is because we both have spouses that work. Neither one of us needed to make enough income to pay the mortgage, buy the groceries, or (as several of you mentioned) pay for health insurance.”

That’s great! But a happy family with dual incomes isn’t the reality for everyone.

When I began my ventures online, I was single, facing a layoff and a long, damned cold Canadian winter. I had rent to pay, two children to feed and a nearly empty bank account. I rationed food. I didn’t know how I’d pay for heating that year. I even had a welfare application filled out and signed.

There are many other people who are in that same situation, or even worse. I had income that allowed me to sort of get by. I know many people that don’t. They have less than $500 and they can’t start a business, because they just don’t have enough money to do it.

Lorna and Tamara were privileged, too: “We were already online with the fast connections and had computers before we started this whole freelancing thing. In fact, that was part of helped us to make the decision to start our business. If we’d each needed to go out and buy a computer, desk, chair, etc, we would absolutely not be here right now.” They even already had personal cellphones.

Many comments we’ve read in the debate so far mentioned that “everyone” has a computer and that we “all” have internet connections and that the world all over is online. This is (sorry to say it) ignorance at its best. Not everyone has a computer. Not everyone has internet connections. Not everyone lives in an affluent country with technology at their fingertips.

Even when you do live in an affluent country, you may be one of the damned broke. And when you’re broke, the internet connection is one of the first luxuries to go.

I’ll admit I had an internet connection when I began online. I also had a 10-year old computer. It died – and I had to borrow money from my mother to buy another. Had I not had a lender available, I wouldn’t have had a computer at all. Even the used ones at the computer recycling shop would have been out of my financial reach.

I know many, many people who don’t have computers at home or who are still on dial-up connection (not by choice). Not everyone is in a good financial position, with support, friends, help and people who back their ventures.

Some people are desperate. Really desperate. To forget that others are not as fortunate as we are is sad indeed.

Is it possible to launch a business with next to nothing? Absolutely. RL David dropped a comment in our blog describing how she built her computer out of free parts, split on ‘net connections and phone lines, and basically showed how people with smarts, skills and connections could survive on almost nothing.

Maybe smarts, skills and support are the necessities of start-up costs, then. But that excludes people who don’t have skills, don’t have support and honestly can’t think of a way out of their bad situation. There are tons of those people, and I include myself in that group from time to time.

So let’s jump on the other side. Let’s say that, alright, we build our computer, share a ‘net connection or visit the library and launch ourselves into business. We’ve done it! It’s cheap, it’s good, and we’re making money!

From day one? Not damned likely.

That’s another point the Freelance Parent team brought up. Lorna wrote, “We definitely had time on our side, and that means that we’ve been able to grow our business over the last 14 months without having to constantly be worried about having our electricity shut off.”

That mental stress and very real worry was mine for quite some time, that first year. For weeks, all I made online was enough money to have a Happy Meal once a week. One meal. For one person. Once a week.

We were a family of three.

I didn’t know where to look for work or how to get it. I was clueless to the online business world, and didn’t know a damned thing about bidding sites, Craigslist or job feeds. Had I not had any income at all during my startup period, I would have literally starved to death with my kids in a cold apartment in January.

The good thing about my situation? I didn’t have a damned thing to lose and everything to gain.

Do I still worry about the electricity being shut off? You bet. I always will, no matter how well the business is doing, because there are never any guarantees in the freelancing world. There aren’t guarantees in traditional business either, I suppose. It’s a moot point.

The interesting thing is that I suppose my post has demonstrated that the Freelance Parent team is right. Anyone can start from nothing, because I have, and I’ve built a six-figure business that provides for many people.

Do I still stand on my side that there are no costs to starting out in freelancing? Absolutely. Having done it the hard way on my own, I know first-hand the costs involved, and I’ll be the last person in the world to tell people it’s easy or cheap.

I’ll be the last person in the world to say that everyone should take a leap of faith without a safety net to catch them. I’m glad that Lorna and Tamara had that safety net handy.

We’ve determined (all four of us) that it’s possible (but not preferable) to start a freelancing business on less than $500. (Hell, I started mine in debt.) So here’s a question I’ll toss out to the comment section and to the Freelance Parent team:

If you had less than $500 in your pocket with no partner, no financial backup and no other income in sight, what would you do? Would you hit local stores? Would you sell some gadgets? Or would you freelance?

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. I admire your guts. To be honest I don’t think that I could do it without some form of Plan B – especially as I have a young family to think about as well. At least (being in Australia) I wouldn’t have to worry about the heating bill 🙂

    It’s good that you are showing that freelancing isn’t as cheap as some people believe.

    Sally, Snappy Sentencess last blog post..Would you prefer to see it, feel it, smell it, taste it, or hear it?

  2. James –

    That’s a damn good question, I’ll have to think about that for a bit.

    One thing I’m sure of is that I wouldn’t make any excuses. And I would totally freelance. It’s the only way to build something that’s “yours” and that can become an asset you can grow each month.

    I will say that the cost of computers has dropped considerably since each of us has started, and that’s a good thing. And that there are more free wireless connections in stores than ever. Early in my online career I used to take my low-end laptop and sit outside a bagel shop on my lunch break, doing my coaching calls on Skype via the free wireless connection I could tap from the parking lot.

    Even if it seems like you have nothing, there are ways to leverage what you do have. And it’s the people who will make the most of scrappy opportunities that will succeed over the long run.

    Opportunity? It’s always there, though it may be hard as hell to dig down and mine it. That’s where tenacity and persistence comes in.

  3. I started freelancing with less than $500, but I already had a sturdy laptop and a relatively stable internet connection. I also live in Thailand, which means my cost of living is not too high.

    So, less than $500? I’d do it. But absolutely nothing? Well, if I didn’t have a computer in the first place, I don’t think I’d have thought of an online business as my saving grace. Truth is, I spend so much time online now it’s hard to really imagine what it’d be like otherwise.

  4. You wrote: “Lorna and Tamara come from what I consider a privileged situation. Both had partners, and both those partners provided family income while the girls started their business.”

    It’s insulting and inappropriate to call them girls.

  5. Obviously everyone’s situation is different with different mindsets to contend with. There is an old saying “Until one is committed there is hesitancy, a chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless dreams and spendid plans. That the moment one definitely commits oneself, that providence moves too.”

    If you have a fall back plan and a safety net can you really fully commit yourself. Or do you move foward with too much caution? I think if you are in dire straights then you have a better chance at making something work because you don’t have anything to lose and the only way you can go when you are on the bottom is up.

    Then again maybe it’s better to be privileged and not have the anguish when you are broke but many broke people have succeeded where others have given up. Each individual has to make their own choices and the heart, effort and time you put into whatever it is you are trying to do will determine whether or not it is going to work. I am not a philosopher. This is just my two cents worth. Thanks for listening.

  6. I think both approaches can work and it rally depends on the individual’s tolerances for stress and circumstances.

    in my case I can definitely say no – I would not freelance. I don’t have enough experience in the right areas to be comfortable with that. What I would do is take up a job and freelance as a part time business. Once I learned enough to make a real go of it, then I would cut myself loose.

    I hear what people saying about desperation being a good motivator. But the important thing for me is I want to choose when I am desperate on my own terms.

  7. It all depends on how much you’re willing to compromise.

    I started freelancing with £2,000 in savings, a rental flat in London, a student loan, broadband internet, and a laptop. I estimated that I could get by on my meager savings for about 3 months. That wasn’t a long time to set myself up, but it did give me the push to set up a website and start making some contacts.

    My dream is to write about food and travel, but to make ends meet, I compromised by leveraging my background in math and science to obtain freelance writing gigs in those genres. Turns out there’s alot out there in the corporate and market research world, and this has helped me stay afload while I go after my “dream”.

    monicas last blog post..Writing as a Business

  8. With the economy the way it is right now, it may be easier or even necessary to freelance rather than to get a job. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

    Oh, and you can call me a girl, anytime. Sheesh.

    Betsys last blog post..GHOSTS

  9. Aw, James…

    (Couldn’t resist).

  10. It is probably easy to say that I would still do it because I know now that I can freelance. However, I started with a computer. If I had nothing, and I have been there, I am not sure what I would do. It is humbling to think about it.

    Nicole LaMarcos last blog post..Barnes & Noble Celebrates Halloween!

  11. James,

    I think that this is a good discussion. The thing I like the most, whether or not an exact cost is determined, is that this discussion makes people think seriously about freelancing before they dive in.

    Back when I blogged at Work From Home Momma I used to get e-mails from people who were absolutely desperate. They were hoping that freelancing could magically rescue them from their plight – but I always pointed out that not everyone is ready to jump into freelancing.

    For one thing, you have to have a marketable skill (preferrably a proven skill) that you can sell. Not everybody has such a skill. For another thing, some people don’t have the self-discipline that owning your own business takes.

    I think that Graham’s comment about starting freelance part-time is a wise one and that is the direction that I would recommend for most people.

    On the other hand, I’m really glad that James’ bold step into freelancing when he had little else has worked out so well. I really enjoy having him as a colleague and this blog is one of several that I read regularly.

    Laura Spencers last blog post..Of Note, The Blood Red Pencil

  12. Graham Strong says:

    Hey James,

    Sorry to hear you had such a challenging start. I guess many of us have started from privilege, and worked our way from there. I started shortly before we had kids, simply freelancing in the day and working at night. Both my wife and I worked, so freelance money was fun money — the electricity was always on.

    But everything I have read suggests that this is the way you approach it. Moonlight while you have your “main” source of income, and grow your freelance business. Jump out on your own when you are secure. So I maintain that you could still start a freelance writing business for $0 if you already had a computer and an Internet connection (and a dining room chair, of course…).

    Your situation was obviously very different from this scenario, and I do not envy it at all. When you have two kids to feed, you need to do whatever you have to do. Personally, I would probably take the same path as I took initially: waiter at night to pay the bills, and expand my writing business during the day. If that meant buying a computer and getting an Internet connection, so be it.


    Graham Strongs last blog post..The Art of Perception (Part III): Are Customers Getting The Right Perception of Your Business?

  13. The nice thing about freelancing is that it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing situation. You can ease your way into a freelancing career.

    I worked full-time for an ad agency as an account coordinator when I was starting out but freelanced as a writer for several small clients in the evenings. Slowly, I built up the freelance business and was able to eventually leave the full-time ad agency job.

    Many years later when I relocated to a different state, I had to start the process of building up my freelance business again in a new area (this was pre-Internet when you really depended on having a local clientele). I worked various temp jobs (some were downright demeaning) to pay my bills while I scrounged up enough new clients to go full-time freelance.

    My advice to people looking to start a freelance copywriting business is to try to land at least a few bread-and-butter clients as a base before quitting your day job. It’s hard to do but not quite as scary as the all-or-nothing approach James described.


  14. I would, and did, freelance. Even with nothing to start with, which is fairly close to the truth for me as well.

    This girl didn’t do it the “smart” way. I was fed up, burnt out, and I QUIT my job with no more than $50 in the bank. My hubby worked, but we were struggling with two incomes, let alone one.

    I started out on dial-up (in fact, I just switched to broadband this spring!). I wrote for peanuts. I got frustrated, spent hours at the library reading up on marketing, business, and journalism, and I made connections.

    I prayed a lot. I cried a lot. But in the end it all paid off. I’ve made some great friends and am doing what I love everyday. I even make enough for the electric bill and a few Happy Meals! Would I freelance if I had nothing? Absolutely.

    It’s the second best decision I ever made.

    Jamie Simmermans last blog post..Who’s Running This Place, Anyway?

  15. Urban Panther says:

    If you had less than $500 in your pocket with no partner, no financial backup and no other income in sight, what would you do?

    I not only filled out the welfare application, I submitted it, and collected it. I went back to school full time for two years with three small children at home. I now make awfully darn close to a 6-digit salary.

    We do what we have to do, and that is rarely what works for the next person.

    Kudos to the Ladies for putting up a second post, explaining their situation. I find it very frustrating having people preach how easy something is, when the situation they are in is safe and secure to begin with. I don’t mind hearing how they did it, but their starting situation needs to be stated as part of the equation.

    Urban Panthers last blog post..The Lion versus the Call Centre

  16. Christopher Garlington says:

    No way. I’d get a job. I’d hit the temp agencies. I have a friend who relocated to Chicago to be a freelancer and was working right away by using temp agencies. I was not aware that temp agencies can find work for writers but he got work as a freelance PR specialist for a social services organization.

    Christopher Garlingtons last blog post..Free Illustrations Illustrate How Free Illustrations Illustrate

  17. I had always thought about freelancing but was too scared to actually do it full-time. I did a little writing on the side, but nothing serious. My husband is a freelance designer and has been self-employed for nearly 30 years so I had a bird’s eye view of what it was like to have no safety net. (Actually I guess I was his safety net with the steady income, the health insurance, the taxes, etc.)

    Then I was laid off on 9-11. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

    I had nothing. No computer. No cell phone. No savings to speak of. Thankfully, though, we had no children and had only ourselves to worry about. But that doesn’t make it much easier to pay your own health insurance, pay your own social security/taxes, buy your own equipment and stay afloat. That was seven years ago. And I’m still able to pay my bills, save a little money and have fun at the same time.

    Scary? You’re darned tootin’ it was scary ,and it still is, but I wouldn’t trade this life for anything. I’m in control of my own destiny. And I know what I’ll do for money. If I have to. There were times when I stuffed and addressed envelopes for a former employer just to keep my name in play and when I sold beauty products from a catalog to help pay the bills. (Not nearly as dramatic as what James went through I’ll grant you that.) You do what you have to do.

    If you’re good, reliable and easy to work with, the work will come.

  18. @Sally: Always have a plan B!

    @Dave: You’re right, opportunity is always there and when you don’t have a lot to work with you’re going to have to be resourceful and think of very creative alternatives.

    @Zoe: That’s an interesting perspective. We’re all so entrenched in the internet it’s hard to think of being without it. If it’s not an option to begin with, if you’ve never had it (internet that is), I doubt that starting an online business would be the first thing to come to mind either. For me my fallback in tough times was always doing temp work to keep the money coming in.

    @Elaine: Sorry, but I have to agree that the use of “girls” is inappropriate and insulting. James, Lorna and Tamara are good friends and I doubt very much it was intended as anything else other than a term of endearment. As for the PC term to use? I have no idea. I’ve been slammed for using “Ladies” on occasion and I’m the last person who’s going to try to insult anyone.

    @Nicole L.: I think starting any new venture requires you to start with the tools you have if your resources are limited. Like Dave said, it’s all about being resourceful.

    @Rich: Times of desperation often push people to do things they never thought they were capable of doing. Look at how many success stories came out of the Great Depression back in the 30s. A lot of people were driven to make their fortunes on less than nothing. As the saying goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

    @Patrick: Experience is the one key that hasn’t been discussed. When I first got out of college I tried making a go of being a freelance artist. I had no real portfolio to speak of, no contacts, nothing. I was lost and discouraged. Today if I had to do that, I’d be in a much better position considering I have a huge stockpile of jobs, sites and experience to back everything up.

    @Monica: Yes, many times the starting freelancer will have to do “filler” work to keep the money coming in while maintaining the overall goal.

    @Betsy: Hey girl! ? Again, yes, where there’s a will there’s a way.

    @Karen: “Aw James” is right. The poor guy is sick as a dog today. Send him some chicken soup and ginger ale, would you?

    @Graham: Do what you gotta do, right? My parents did it (both of them working alternate day/night shifts so someone would always be home to watch my brother and I), I did it and so does every other responsible adult on the planet. Such is the way of survival.

    @Laura: Marketable skills are a must, I agree. But even if you feel you don’t have one, you could still try to take the skills you do have and try to turn them into something totally unique. Still, this takes time and there is no magic overnight solution like you said.

    @Panther: You’re absolutely right, the starting situation does have to be taken into account. It’s like the diet commercials that put the disclaimer “Results not typical”

    @Chris: Temp agencies are tricky. When I first moved to Vegas I let my agent know I was looking for graphics work. They said they did get jobs like that from time to time, but it wasn’t the norm. I think there’s a whole market out there waiting for a writing/graphics temp agency.

    @Jamie S: Yay for persistence!

    @Nan: I also jumped into self-employment after losing a job. It is scary, even with a safety net. It’s still scary from time to time, but the pros far outweigh the cons.

  19. It’s pretty bad when you crawl out of bed after tossing your cookies for two days to ask, “What’s wrong with ‘girls’?”

    Seriously. Someone explain that one, because I’m puzzled.

    *goes back to bed*

  20. When I started my organizing business, I was single. The Professional Organizing industry started as a second income industry and it was really hard as the sole income. In 2003 in Canada, organizing still had a low profile. Fortunately I had the equity in my house to live off of and I did so for three years.Now I’m fortunate to have my bf who helps support me while I work part time and write. At some point, however, I need to start generating more than scraping-by income and I’m on plan for that, but if I didn’t have Raul, I would not be doing what I’m doing now.

    What would I be doing? I think I’d be working in a restaurant or teaching English full time while having roommates in a shared apartment. Knowing me, I’d therefore not be building the business because I wouldn’t have the energy.

    So to answer your question, would I start the business with less than $500? I did that last time and went into major debt. I’m not sure I’d do it again (this time I’ve gone into only minor debt).

    Alex Fayle | Someday Syndromes last blog post..Destuckifying Your Life: Havi Brooks Interview

  21. @James
    Ugh on the tossing the cookies thing – get better!

    As for the girls thing – it gets used often to be the female counterpart of guys, but in reality it’s the female counterpart of boys. Because we live in a world that spends a lot of its time demeaning women and the work they do, “girls” comes across as dismissive. Rarely do people talk about boys – they say guys or men, but not boys. Ladies can also be dismissive because a lady is someone who has a role as someone in a dress they can’t move in who does nothing but support her gentleman husband in loving, wife-y ways.

    Yes, the English language is a minefield, James! And you just walked into it…

    Alex Fayle | Someday Syndromes last blog post..Destuckifying Your Life: Havi Brooks Interview

  22. Here’s the thing: with writing you create something out of nothing. You can make money with only your thoughts, ideas, put on paper, or screen.

  23. Louis Burns says:

    It really depends on the kind of life you want. Can you deal with as much stress and heartache as the hero of “The Pursuit of Happyness”? He freelanced without a net and is probably glad he did now.

    I’d take a good hard look at your aversion to risk, what the worst case scenario would be, and what your highest values are and then make the decision that’s most true to who you are. Would you endure 5 years of abject poverty if you knew you’d be a millionaire after that? Some people would.

    It really just depends on the kinds of experiences you want to have had when it’s all said and done. I was at a seminar one time and explaining to a couple of guys the experience of getting thrown out of the military for my beliefs that what we were doing was wrong. I didn’t realize until that point that it’s those huge adversities in life that determine how far our roots go and therefore how high our branches can grow. Running headlong into hardship carries some pretty big rewards if you can stomach the risks.

  24. The ‘girls’ thing really depends on the person.

    Some find it ok, some don’t…

    Personally I find ladies or women old fashioned and so always use ‘girls’, but I have the uptmost respect for women and see them as equals.

    I think it’s a mistake to read values behind words into these words that are simply part of modern English.

    Patrick Vuleta – Lawfully Greens last blog post..Pandelaw Becomes Lawfully Green

  25. @ Alex/Pat – Well, considering that we often call ourselves boys and have been called boys frequently by clients, and don’t demean women… yeah. No one should read intention into my words.

    ‘Nuff said!

  26. I would absolutely “freelance”. If desperate, I might consider a temporary job but I’d be planning to leave it asap.

    Ordinary employment ties you down, locks you up from other opportunity, wears you out and never pays you what you are worth.

    Yes, it has risk. What doesn’t? You can get fired because somebody in an office three thousand miles away needs to balance a budget. Poof – there goes all your income. When you work for yourself, you may be doing badly, but you probably have something coming in and you always have hope.

  27. Well, it may not be fair for me to answer because I had less than $500 and I chose freelancing. It was not easy and I would not recommend it for the faint of heart. You have to really be willing to go all in and give as much to your business (more really) than you’ve ever given to an employer. 60 hour weeks in Corporate are nothing to the blood, sweat and tears of working your tail off to build a business and keep yourself out of a homeless shelter at the same time. I am really glad that you and the FPs are debating this subject. People need to understand the reality, and reality is not always easy or pretty. Thank you for presenting the balanced truth.

    Karen Swims last blog post..Paralyzing Perfectionism

  28. I started freelancing with much less than $500. Nothing would be a closer estimate. So yes, I know it CAN be done. Would I do it again? Probably… because writing was one of the few things I knew I could do that wouldn’t put me back working in an office.

    Had I had a family to support, I don’t know if I would have made the same decision. I was on my own, so I had the option of taking the risk and not making it work…

    Great discussion.

  29. I keep reciting that “nothing to fear but fear itself” line, but nothing is helping…

  30. “If you had less than $500 in your pocket with no partner, no financial backup and no other income in sight, what would you do? Would you hit local stores? Would you sell some gadgets? Or would you freelance?”

    If it was just me? Then I would probably sell off anything that I could to build up a little money and then go after freelancing. I think that in some ways freelancing IS much easier today than it was 15 years ago. The internet has opened up opportunities that I would never have seen other wise. Writing is one of those few “jobs” that doesn’t require a partner or other financial means.

    For the record, I started freelancing with a hand me down computer, dial up and two toddlers at home :D. Money can make things easier, but it is not the only route. You do have to be a bit more patient (I could write 5 articles in the time it would take me to upload one), a bit of boldness and a blind faith that can carry you through fear. Nothing to it.

    Kathryn’s last blog post…Freelance Writers Need to Procrastinate

  31. Many thanks to the useful write-up, this must have taken like years to construct with super info.


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