My name is
This is the story of how I went from
hating freelancers to becoming one.
My name is Emily Mills.
This is the story of how I went from thinking all freelancers were fools to becoming one.
“I will NEVER be a full-time freelancer. They’re all fools.”
Those were my words when I was about 22 years old… little did I know that just 6 years later, I would be a full-time freelancer. So, what happened? Let me tell you my story.
If you aren’t familiar with me already, my name Is Emily Mills. I’m a freelance illustrator and designer based in Nashville, TN. I took on my first freelance project in college in 2008, and I’ve been a full-time freelancer since 2016.
If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I am a planner. Don’t be fooled, though… I don’t love planning because I love seeing it all come together like “Hannibal” in A-Team…
No, the root of my planning behavior was more sinister: My aversion to risk, my fear of failure, and my desire to please others is what fueled my voracious need to plan. I planned so that I could avoid looking foolish, have enough money to not need anyone else, and never have to do anything scary. This driving force was due to my personal issues, but it was also a byproduct of the times: I went to college in the height of the Recession of 2008. People lost a lot of savings in the stock market (my family included!). The housing bubble burst. Layoffs were plentiful. There were virtually no job openings, and those openings were filled by overqualified people who had been laid off. I had a lot of scarcity mindset about my future, and so I went into planning mode so I could land a good job when I graduated.
I took on my first freelance project in 2008 during my junior year in college. The local library in my college town needed a poster for a special author event, and my college internship boss referred the project to me. That first project paid just $20, but it really opened my eyes to the possibilities of doing freelance work.
Fast forward: I landed a full-time job as a designer in Texas at Texas A&M University. With my new “adult” job, I could afford to do SO MANY THINGS! I could travel! I could buy expensive toys! I could go out to eat! I could buy a new-to-me car! After a year and a half, I even found a better-paying job and become the graphic designer at my church. Before I knew it, I looked at my life and didn’t like what I saw. I had debt from a car-loan and credit card, and I calculated that it would take me years to pay off my debt if I budgeted perfectly… and that was not appealing. I wanted that debt gone YESTERDAY! It was time to make a new plan.
To increase my income beyond my full-time day job, I started doing more freelance projects: I took photos for local adventure races on weekends. I made logos for friends and their friends. I got connected with a local direct mail company to do some one-off projects. After 8 months of hard work and dedication, I paid off about $8,000 in debt and found myself with a decent design portfolio. Paying off debt taught me a LOT about setting goals and also about myself. I started to think bigger. “If I could pay off that much debt in that amount of time, what else can I accomplish?” I started dreaming about my future, and I envisioned something very different from the life I was currently living.
My 10-year freelance plan that didn’t work:
I set a stretch goal of becoming a freelancer, maybe in 10 years or so. My plan was:
- Continue working in full-time jobs and learn about business & personal development
- Freelance on the side until I could…
- Go full-time freelance when I made enough to pay bills with freelance income.
I knew I’d never reach this goal in the small, Texas town where I lived, so I took a job at a startup and moved to Nashville. Being freelance wasn’t just a random goal, it was intentional. I had been learning a lot about personal growth and leadership, and I felt like I could lead myself in my work better than anyone else had so far. My new job in Nashville wasn’t any different than my previous jobs. I kept my head down and freelanced on the side, even taking vacation time to do other work! I saw a lot of problems with full-time jobs:
- I hated bureaucracy, butt-kissing, and office politics
- I hated seeing bad leaders fail their teams and not have any desire improve
- I experienced burnout and hated that it was normal
- I didn’t like the pre-existing mistrust between managers and employees
A few months after being in Nashville, I was at gathering for creative professionals at my church when I heard God tell me, “I want you to go freelance.” I knew he meant “now” but I wasn’t ready. I cried in my car the entire way home from the event because I knew I wouldn’t do it. “I’m not ready! I don’t have enough in savings! I don’t have enough clients to sustain my bills! I just moved here a few months ago! I have no friends, no network! God can’t ask me to go freelance now because it’s impossible!”
Whether you follow a religion or believe in a higher power or not, I think we can all agree that it’s hard to step into something with a lot of unknowns.
I spent the next year in quiet rebellion, trying to do my freelance plan my way. I got more clients and took more time off my day job to do other work. I even used my lunch breaks a couple of times to work at another client’s office!
Suddenly, things changed.
All of my freelance work dried up. I had to fire my best-paying recurring client. Other clients stopped contacting me for work. People suddenly didn’t need me anymore, and I was even more convinced that I shouldn’t go freelance because of what a roller coaster it could be. How could I possibly do that full-time and pay bills?! I even applied to another job. It sounded perfect, I rocked the interviews, and the bosses loved me, I got the offer…. and it just didn’t feel right. I felt like God was nudging me to go freelance. I turned the job offer down.
6 months later, everything at my day-job started to go downhill. I couldn’t stand it anymore, but I felt like I didn’t have any options. I felt like wasn’t supposed to get another job, and my freelance clients dried up, so I told God one Sunday morning in church, “If you force me out of my job, I’ll do freelance full-time like you asked.”
3 days later, a crappy situation with a boss arose and I asked my company to fire me (so I could get severance pay) because I refused to bow to their unethical demands. I was escorted out of the office that day with my box of belongings and my head held high. I had complete peace over the situation because I had asked for it to happen! This was a HUGE deal for me, the saver and planner, to have peace in that moment because normally I would have been a wreck! My plans failed! I just had a lot of faith that God would take care of me, even though I didn’t know how.
Full-time Freelancing with not enough savings and no plan
The next day, I left town to attend a creative conference where I met awesome creative industry peers who encouraged me gave me confidence to move forward into the unknown. One person I met there offered me a 3-month contract gig, which was extended and renewed for a year and a half! (Plot twist: This contract job was at the same place where I had turned down the job 6 months earlier.) During that time, I worked 3 days a week for the company on a contract, and the other days I did my own freelance work. The best part was that I was making way more money than I was at my old job and had perks of flexibility! Eventually I was able to support myself with my own clients. (I was single during all of this… no spouse for other income!)
I’m not saying there have never been hard times, but I’m making it! It’s been a hard journey with lots of ups and downs, but incredibly rewarding. I want to help you like I wish someone could have helped me. I had to figure out so much on my own, so my goal is to give you information to help you make decisions for yourself and your own freelance work.
Thanks for reading my story!