Survival Tips For Australian Freelancers

Survival Tips For Australian Freelancers

Gina’s recent post on starting out as a freelancer attracted quite a few emails to Lifehacker AU headquarters, with several readers asking for some more specific advice on competing as an Australian freelancer. Here’s some thoughts to get you started.

An email from reader Alex was pretty typical:

In a dog-eat-dog world in Adelaide, graphic design is hard to get work around here. So I stick to the odd freelancing job when I can.But I can never find a good place to find work. Even the Australian sites like still allow people from India and what not to sign up, and then undercut the Aussies on price.

Competition from lower-priced operatives (often, but not invariably overseas) is a major challenge in the freelancing market. I'm entering my tenth year as a freelance writer, and one of the most visible changes in that time has been the increasing globalisation of the writing market. Not all of the behaviour involved is ethical (there's plenty of sites and writers copying wholesale chunks of work from elsewhere), but it remains a major financial challenge to compete with someone who offers to write entire posts for just cents.

While I think Gina's advice on pricing yourself -- overestimate rather than underestimate -- is sound, it does rather ignore the reality that there's a lot of cheap options out there, especially for more basic tasks. The truth is, if the only way you can compete is by advertising for random work on listings sites, you're not going to make much money.

This is where a second point raised in the original post becomes even more important, though: the best sources of work are via people you already know. While it may seem easier to pitch for an anonymous job via an online exchange, the chances are good that you'll be underbid. On a job you score through personal contacts, you may not even have anyone to bid against. Scouting for work through existing contacts is more daunting, but likely to be more rewarding.

The other tactic is to identify skills that aren't so easily duplicated, and focus on those. As a writer, I've placed increasing emphasis in recent years on actually travelling to events to source unique stories, rather than merely relying on information that can be found online. The latter is available to everyone; the former is something that can't be immediately copied. (That's a basic journalism 101 approach in many ways, but it's one that is frequently ignored, and one that's not remotely viable if you're making a handful of dollars per article.)

The main financial tip I'd add is to register for an ABN, which enables you to charge GST (and claim it back against freelancing-related expenses). This may seem like overkill if you're not freelancing full time, but business clients will generally expect you to be registered and to include a GST component in your bills.If you don't have any income in a quarter, it's also easy to lodge a zero-activity BAS, thus ensuring you don't get frequent letters from the ATO, or to apply to lodge a BAS only once a year.

What other tactics have you found useful when working (or sidelining) as a freelancer? Share your ideas in the comments.

Lifehacker's weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money.


  • You mention GST and BAS statements in the article.

    One of the biggest issues besides finding work I’ve found is the whole “my own business” thing. I’ve got an ABN (too easy to get), but then what?

    Do I just wait until Tax time to report what I’ve earned? I can’t yet afford to be going out to Accountants for info everytime I think of a question, and Google results are almost always to do with American business.

    If you could do a quick article on sorting out the financial side (once you have work), that’d be great and help to make the transition for alot of us smoother!

  • I think my favourite part of freelancing has been that i’ve managed to keep a very flexible schedule – which has been great for my study. Means I don’t have to work when exams come around.

    Some of the not so awesome things – big clients often mean long payment cycles. Sometimes it’s quite easy to surprise a bigger business with a different approach and a quick turn around. But, i’ve had a few experiences where I haven’t gotten paid for up to 90 days. I think the worst story i’ve heard like this is someone who got told it was “company policy” to have a 180 day billing cycle.

    Also only work with ok people. If the client comes across as an asshat, they probably are. I think everyone has at least one run in with someone who wants to carry on and scream or rant for no real reason. With this in mind, keep people at an arms length too. If you can keep seperate phone, email and IM accounts just for business – absolutely do this. The latter are essential, but the phone can be a bit of a pain.

    Also, if you’re feeling as though you’re being undercut by those overseas, rather than focusing specifically on unusual/difficult to replicate skills maybe you can consider searching for markets that are less likely to appeal to overseas help for projects.

    In addition to contract type work, if you’ve got some nice design chops or some web development skills – there’s lots of sites around where you can put up a few pieces for sale the same way a photographer might offer stuff as stock photography. In some instances, if you’re short of work temporarily, this can still make you a bit of cash and hopefully your designs will have some longer tail value on such sites. My favourite is probably because I mostly do basic web development and a little graphic design work – but all of the Envato sites have great stuff on them (and Australian too!). These kind of places help you see what is current and trendy (not always what’s best though) but they also give you an opportunity to keep your own skills sharp with some potential return on investment.

    Along the same line of thought, If you can find people who don’t have existing web hosting (or are looking to grab a new plan) – lots of webhosts like dreamhost or bluechip have quite reasonable affiliate sales programs, which can net you a few dollars if you’re clever about it with either a fairly large initial payment (usually around $70-$100) or a percentage based payment every month for the life of the persons engagement with the host.

    I think those kind of more passive sources of income are probably hard to emulate if you’re purely a writer, but there’s analogous passive income sources for most creative pursuits at least.

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