6 Critical Lessons I Learned After 6 Years of Freelancing

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My new company logo, from my dad

My new company logo, from my dad

This summer, I’m celebrating the six-year anniversary of my company, Maple World Translation. I’m still a full-time freelancer and despite the ups and downs, I love my status.

I enjoy the flexibility, I love the core of my business (who wouldn’t want to play with words all day??) but above all, I feel like I’m learning life lessons and acquiring new skills along the way.

So here are 6 critical skills I learned after six years of freelancing!

It’s okay to say no

For freelancers, each new assignment is like a birthday gift. Work! Money! Life is beautiful, I’m needed again! At first, it’s very tempting to accept every single request, but I found out that it’s also okay to say “no”.

There are different options depending on the scenario:

  • When I’m offered a genuine opportunity for which I don’t think I have the skills set, I refer the client to a colleague if I know a better-suited person. For instance, I turned down an English-to-Mandarin assignment because the document was extremely technical and it just wasn’t worth the time and effort for what I feel would have been a mediocre result. I can speak Mandarin but I don’t know anything about Mandarin legalese.
  • If the request is unrealistic and problematic parameters can’t be negotiated, I’m out. Last year a staffing agency contacted me to work as an English-to-French interpreter for a congress. It sounded like a good opportunity at first, but the client expected one person to be on-site 12 hours a day for three days with zero backup and just translate all discussions and materials “on the fly”. Oh, and did I mention it paid minimum wage and that I’m not an interpreter in the first place? Yes, I bailed out, even if the client couldn’t understand why I would “pass on such an amazing opportunity”.

Bottom line is, if I don’t think I can do a good job, I turn down the request. My reputation and my sanity matter most on the long run.

Invoice chasing is a new sport

I’m pretty lucky: in six years of freelancing, I only had to chase my money twice. Once was with Adecco, the middleman a client used. Adecco somehow thought the “total” line on my invoices was merely a suggestion and I fought for months to have them paid in full. This was a case of incompetence—like I said at one point, exasperated, “you only had one job: deal with my invoices!”

More recently, I worked with a smaller company with terrible communication practices. This became clear during the assignment—they were constantly losing documents, not returning phone calls or emails, etc. Nonetheless, I completed the job and, unsurprisingly, getting my invoices paid proved difficult. I don’t think it was done on purpose, I assume nobody cared enough to follow up. Well, I did care. It took a few weeks of regular phone calls to get my money but I was paid in full… including the late-payment fee I added on top of the bill because, you know, fuck it.

It’s okay to fire clients

The company I just mentioned above? They contacted me again after the invoice debacle for another assignment. I stared at the email for five minutes, torn between laughing out loud and crying. I typed a very satisfying yet respectful reply in which I explained that chasing payment wasn’t my favourite sport and that accepting another assignment was too risky considering I had spent a month getting my previous invoices paid. Come on, guys, seriously…

Bottom line is, if a client is rude, difficult and doesn’t pay, it’s not a client but a liability.

Time management is the key

I never wait by the computer for new assignments. Time is a finite resource and I’d rather put my awake hours to good use. When I’m not busy, I use my free time to tackle other parts of the business (marketing, invoicing, etc.), run errands (it’s much more pleasant to shop at 11 a.m. on weekdays than at 4 p.m. on Saturdays) or just relax. I don’t mind working on weekends because I had my days off sometime during the week.

I always carry my smartphone with me, so I can check my emails and reply to clients if needed. I accept new assignments and complete them when I’m back—as simple as that! It requires some flexibility but it works for us since Feng also has his own flexible schedule.

Leverage all the professional help you can get

There are hundreds of tasks I can do by myself, but they are a hundred more I’m not skilled for. I can’t do it all alone, so I leverage all the professional help I need to keep my sanity. For instance, I do my monthly invoicing and bookkeeping alone but a certified accountant prepares my corporation taxes and HST returns. Whenever I’m assigned a large project I can’t complete alone, I hire some of my translator friends to help out. Last month, I even hired my father to create a fancy logo for my company, something I never got around doing!

Keep all your skills up to date… and never stop learning new ones!

Even if I occasionally hire professionals, I still do a lot more than “just” translating or editing documents, the core of my business. I learned to draft proposals, to negotiate deadlines, to set my rates, to collect HST, to deal with all kinds of personalities, to manage multiple assignments, to market my services and much more. Just last month, I had to update my Excel skills to design a better invoice template that calculates HST automatically and yes, I’m very proud of it!

I have yet to become rich, famous and super successful… but I can say proudly that I love my job. That counts for something, right?



About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. I think I’ve already told you but I envy your job 🙂 Sadly there isn’t much of a need for translation here, everything is done in English… And circumstances just weren’t right for me…
    And part of my job is chasing money too, and I agree, not a fun sport 😉
    “Keep all your skills up to date… and never stop learning new ones!” I think that’s good advice, not matter which career you embarked upon.

      • Aw, thank you. I came up with the name in about one minute, in front of my accountant. You don’t have to have a company name to incorporate, a business number is enough. And I didn’t think long term, I just needed to incorporate for a one-time big contract. The name stuck though!

    • Are you sure there is no demand? I haven’t dealt with Alberta, but even Sask. and Manitoba have sizeable French communities, and everything needs to be translated at the federal and maybe provincial level. Plus, your clients don’t have to be local! Just saying…

      What field are you in? I don’t even know!

      • Love that you came up with it on the spot 🙂
        I worked in so many fields since I’m here… I actually studied Law and economics but I worked in IT, marketing, social media manager and as an admin. I also did HR consulting on the side…
        Et je vais bientot etre une fonctionnaire 😉
        Comme tu le dis plus bas, tu as commence quand tu n’avais rien a perdre. Du coup j’ai dans un coin de ma tete qu’un jour peut-etre je me lancerais, au moins a temps partiel

  2. Martin Penwald on

    Congratulations to your father, the logo is very nice : sober and astute.
    I think that some of these skills could be applied to employees as well (like say no if the task is not doable or, depending of the branch, dangerous), but a newcomer will have trouble to say no, whatever the situation. And rookies probably don’t have a clear view of their own limits (up and down), which render the exercise difficult.

    So, yeeaaah! 6 years! Only 84 left before retirement.

    • My dad rocks. It’s only recently that I had this “duh” moment, he went back to art full time a few years ago but in the 1990s, he was working as a freelance graphic designer and made many logo (ahem, including for big companies who would never pay…).

      I can’t think of not working. Seriously. Retirement for me is this old-fashioned word. I think my parents would have loved to retire at one point (they are both still under 60) but that’s not going to happen any time soon, and both were self-employed for most of their career.

      • Martin Penwald on

        When I set up my company, I would have to do a search through a database which would have taken between a few hours and a day, and I didn’t want to delay the incorporation, so, I just took a number.
        I don’t really want to retire either, but on my job, it is inevitable. However, where I work there is a guy who is almost 80 (I don’t know exactly, but between 77 and 79).

        • If I remember correctly, the accountant did the search for me in a matter of seconds. My first choice was taken (Can Translate, duh!) so I had to come up with something on the spot.

          So you’re incorporated as well?

          • Martin Penwald on

            Yes, I think it was the best option. The choice was between that or a personal company, but I think that it is safer to have a limited liability when you have to deal with relatively big investments, even if there are insurances and so on.
            If I had to do your job, I probably would have chosen a personal company, but even there there is some advantages to set up a LLC.
            And it seems that rules for LLC are different depending on the province. It is a little bit complicated.

  3. The flexibility, the good thing about being free lancer although it is not easy as it seems. I fed up with Jakarta’s traffic that it crossed my mind to be financial planner (for individual). still I’m suck at time management and self discipline and ……the courage to start

    • I think it was easier for me to start because I was at a stage of my life I had nothing to lose. I didn’t really have a career per se and I was very frustrated with 1) the way employers fire employees in North America (didn’t happen to me yet I think it would have at one point) 2) the two-week holiday time per year.

      • Martin Penwald on

        Technically, the two-week holiday time/year is an evil leftist librul lazy moocher Canadian thing, there is no mandatory paid vacation time in the US.

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