Here’s how we did it.
Starting out as a freelancer can be one of the most exciting experiences you’ll have. Since this is our first episode (and our first podcast together), we start with how we both ended up freelancing and why we love it so much. We also share our thought process when it comes to identifying a personal brand.
I remember when I was a student, asking working adults what life is like, and no one would really be very descriptive.
To be honest, I don’t think the questions ever end because even now, you know, I still look to other freelancing friends to ask them, oh, what’s the going rate for this sort of job now? And am I charging, you know, market rates? Or is it too low? It’s really important to have that sense of community as well. And this, I feel, could be that.
Hello, and thank you so much for tuning into Solo Sync – A podcast for the curious solo entrepreneur, we are your hosts, Sarah and
Jeannette, and we’re so excited to finally get this off the ground.
Okay, so Jeannette, why are we doing this? Why? Why did we even decide to call this “Solo Sync”?
I guess, you know, during our conversations, we realize that actually, being a solo entrepreneur is never really about going solo, it’s really important to have people that you can talk to about it as well, your experience and what you’re pursuing, even as you’re doing it alone, so to speak. You have people that you can actually talk to as well. So as I recall, we call this Solo Sync. Because it was our way of expressing how, as individuals, we’ve got huge potential to just step out of the conventional career path and discover ourselves. But there’s also a sense of joy when we’re able to do it as a community.
Yeah, that’s right. I guess the idea behind Solo Sync started from our own journeys as well, right? Like just sharing that journey of becoming a, well, I still feel more comfortable calling myself a freelancer at this point. I’m still getting used to, you know, just taking, I guess, myself seriously, and calling myself a solo entrepreneur. What do you think the difference is between those two… terms?
Well, to me, I think that the word entrepreneur has some meaning to it, like, you’re more than just working for someone. You’re trying to figure out solutions to problems, you are seeing yourself as more than just a worker for somebody else, you know. And to be very honest, I even after like five years of, you know, sort of like not really working for anyone, being self employed, or that sort of thing. I still feel very uncomfortable calling myself an entrepreneur, I do still think of myself as a freelancer. And I think that there is some freedom to that as well. There’s less pressure, sometimes I feel.
Well, what does this project mean to you personally? I mean, I know, you’ve definitely had a head start from me. Maybe you could talk a bit about that, like, why do you think its so important to do this?
So I think, because I’ve been doing it for quite a while, I realized that people who were either just getting into freelancing, or had been, you know, working full time for a while and wanted to sort of like, pick up, pick up a site hustle, or you know, to pretty much like, start doing something on this side, had a lot of questions to ask me. Things like, how do I charge for this? Or like, how do I find clients for this and that, and how do I start like a new business? And I thought that having something like this as a resource, specifically for a Malaysian audience would be… Yeah, would be really good. You know, because people are asking all the same questions. So maybe this could be a resource for them to turn to.
I was one of those people. I still am one of most people who asks you those questions! Yeah, I think for me also, like, I like that… I like that we have someone to ask questions about when we’re going to the next phase of life. I think when I was in college, especially, just coming out of college, or college and university, I felt like you know, and then going into the, at that time I was, I had a full time job. It was my first full time job. I felt like there were so many things that no one prepared me for. And, and I just thought like, Oh, you know, if I had a heads up, it would have been so much easier to help manage my expectations about work life, for example, because that was the next new chapter that I was going into. It was a new chapter that I was experiencing. And I remember asking, working adults, I remember when I was a student, asking working adults what work life is like, and no one would really be very descriptive. They would… the answers I would usually get is, oh, Sarah, you better enjoy being a student while you can! Which really isn’t very helpful you think about it. And so when I started work, I think my first and second year in, I felt that oh my gosh, if I could just at that time, blogging was still quite popular, I think. I thought I mean, Instagram was just picking up and I thought…
You’re giving away your age!
Oh my gosh.
If I could just start this blog for college kids, everything you wanted to know about the working life as a college kid, or you know, something like that Then then that would be so helpful, right? But then, I don’t know, as a college kid, sometimes you’re like, naaah… you don’t really want to take the advice of people older than you. You just learn the hard way, I guess. But I think maybe that same spirit of wanting to share my knowledge and share everything that I’ve learned. Kind of carried into this, into what we’re doing now. And because the questions will always be there. And I find you and I have mutual friends who are also starting to take on side gigs, in addition to whatever is going on in their lives. Whether they have a full time job, or whether they’re full time moms. Right?
Yeah. So I think it’s really exciting, what we’re doing now.
Yeah. And to be honest, I don’t think the questions ever end because even now, I still look to other freelancing friends to ask them like, oh, what’s the going rate for this sort of job now? And am I charging market rates? Or is it too low? Should I be increasing my fee? I think it’s really important to have that sense of community as well. And this I feel, could be that.
Alright. So we talked a bit about why we started now. I think, actually, we were having this conversation… So the epidemic hit us this year. Still in the year 2020, this never ending year. And it was during our lockdown in Malaysia, or our movement control order, that we started having a more serious conversation about this. And why do you think like, Why now? Why did we say we wanted to start doing this now for freelancers and solo entrepreneurs?
I think one one thing that I realized during the pandemic was that just jobs are never as secure as you think they are. And as freelancers we sort of like to account for that, you know, we know that clients can end contracts, they can, you know, not decide not to give us new jobs in the next round or something like that. And we’re always prepared for uncertainty. But what I realised was that a lot of my friends who were working full time jobs, were not prepared for that at all, like, you know, for their salary cuts. And many of them actually had to look for side hustles during that time. And I think it was definitely a very difficult season for a lot of people. I mean, even for me, as well, because, you know, clients came to me saying that they had no budget and things like that. But I felt like I was sort of prepared for that as well. Like, I had a runway and I knew that oh, okay, this, this sort of thing happens, whereas, people with full time jobs might have this false sense of security that, oh, next month, I’ll get my salary. So I can spend it all this month. You know,
Actually let’s talk a bit about that as well. When did your freelancing journey start? And, yeah, maybe you could just walk us through that.
Right. Um, so I started freelancing in 2015, I guess when I decided corporate life is not for me, and I just quit without a real plan, decided to pick up coding and see where my life went from there. And somehow…
That was your CSR role, right.
Yeah, I was at a bank. And before that, before that I was working as a journalist in The Star. Yeah. So yeah, I guess the jump from journalism to corporate was quite a leap as well. And yeah, I guess I’ve realised that, that wasn’t for me, decided to do my own thing, and somehow never went back to work. So I’ve been “unemployed” for the last five years!
Self-employed. So you did coding but the kind of services that you offer as a freelancer are…. they range. It’s quite a large range, right?
Yeah. So I do everything. Well, I don’t want to say that I do everything because it sounds like I have no specialty, but mostly I do a lot of writing and editing and content production. And then because I’ve been doing this pretty much almost on my own for the last five years, I’ve picked up skills like project management and things like admin along the way, I guess. So that’s very helpful.
Yeah, that’s like inevitable right? The admin part of stuff.
I always kind of found that very inspiring. Just seeing how you’ve gone from one thing to another. I mean, we go way back, right. So I remember just seeing how you were a science student in school, since in Malaysia, our studies are divided into two streams, but you always had a very good sense of both the sciences and the arts. And you always found a way to kind of marry the two. I think you were writing for, you’re doing some science-based writing at some point, for an international client, I think?
Oh yeah. It was a UK-based publication that was very science-focused. And I guess that’s how I brought my science knowledge into my writing as well.
Yeah, I love that, like nothing goes to waste. I think life really isn’t so straightforward. For many people.
And, you know, we’re kind of taught at least in this part of the world, we’re kind of taught like, you know, you finish school, you go to work in your field of study, and then you just kind of keep working hard and climbing that industry ladder till you retire, right? But for a lot of us, it doesn’t work that way. And I think I like it when some people are able to see that and make it work for them. Like, we have this friend Leon. I remember, he told me he did an accounting degree because he knew he would one day use it for himself, because he was going to run his own business. And at that time, that was just so mind blowing, because, oh, you were gonna do accounting – an accounting degree not to be an accountant, you know what I mean? And I just thought that was so great. Just having this sense, where you can go through life and collect / pick up skills and collect information left, right, and center, because you know that someday, it’s going to form and help who you want to be and what you want to offer to other people one day.
Yeah, really, I think no knowledge goes to waste. If you know how to connect everything into what you want to do with your life, you know?
Yeah. And you don’t even need to have… I mean, that’s how I approach life la. You don’t really need to have a clear plan for the next 20 years or something like that. Sometimes you just figure things out.
Yeah, so I think that was me for a really long time. So my story… I guess, I had this fixed idea of what I wanted to do with my life. I actually wanted to be a… I was 16 at the time, and I loved watching National Geographic and Discovery Channel and I loved traveling. And I thought, okay, you know what? how can I do it? And I really loved the idea of being able to help others, right? So I thought, okay, how can I marry all these ideas together? I thought, okay, one day, I’m gonna be a travel TV host, so I can get paid to travel. But then I’m gonna move up those so called ranks. I mean, in my head, I thought, Oh, it was like a rank thing. And one day direct documentaries on my own, that would give me a chance to travel but also cover stories that will shed more light and awareness on social issues around the world, you know? And I just had this very fixed idea of how that was going to pan out. That didn’t work out. I studied overseas, I did a sociology degree, I came back. I still had writing in my pocket just as something that I enjoy. I did mass communication college, and ended up working for an edutech company as one of the writers, not knowing that being a writer in a marketing team, will possibly mean that you end up in marketing, and that’s something that I never imagined I’d be doing. And then I think just before the pandemic hit, well, not just before, like a year before, when things really didn’t work out. I felt at that time, I was already in my third job, I think? Still in marketing in a social enterprise. And I had quit and not… I didn’t know what to do next. And I think that’s when the freelance opportunities started coming. And more on that later, but, that just taught me that… Yeah, like what you say, life doesn’t have to be so straightforward. Nothing goes to waste, and you kind of just take it one day at a time sometimes. And I feel so grateful that I had that chance to have that perspective change. Because that really helped. Well, I think he really helped us doing our movement control order. During everything that we had to go through this year. Right?
Yeah, that was really helpful. So yeah, I think you can definitely evolve, allow yourself to evolve and stay open to new opportunities. And one way to do this is to have something on the side. Let’s say, if you’re still working full time for a company, it feels good to have something of your own, you know. To have something to come home to and know that, okay, this is my personal thing. I’m going to get paid a little bit of money to do what I really love. I mean, if you really love your job, and that’s taking all your time, that’s fantastic. But otherwise, this is also something else that I would highly recommend for people to try out, having a side gig as well, right?
Yeah. Like I think even while I was working full time, I enjoyed having side gigs. People always say I’m a workaholic. But no, I just have hobbies that make money.
I like the hobbies that make money! Oh my gosh, that could be a tagline. So true. Okay, let’s talk about if someone was now in a full time role, and they wanted to start being a freelancer. Okay, so two scenarios, right? Either they decide that, okay, someday, they’re going to be running their own business, they don’t have a business idea yet. But when I say run your own business, they want to be a freelancer, like a full-time freelancer, or they’re still keeping to their full time job, but they want to start working on the side. How can that person start? Where do they start?
Yeah, I think I think that that person should actually look at, you know, where, where their skills are and what they’re interested in. Because I mean, that was how I started out as well, I knew that I enjoyed writing. So that’s the freelance work that I started with. But these days, sometimes I feel I want to learn a new skill. So even as I’m learning, I look for work that I can do within that field, so that I can put my learning into practice as well. So I guess what the point of that is, think about what you want to offer, and what skills you have and find a place of overlap between the two.
Yeah. Snd talk to people. I find that really helpful. I rely a lot on conversations to learn. Talk to the right people, I would say, well what does that mean? I guess, people who run their own business as well. Get a realistic idea of what that’s like, right?
Yeah. Or even like, you know, it helps to put feelers out to say oh, actually, I’m looking for this sort of work. If you hear anything, let me know.
That’s a great idea. Because it’s true, until the world knows that you’re open for jobs, no one will… the opportunities won’t really come. They’ll just fly by you and go to the other person who’s saying, Hey, I’m available.
Yeah. So like one of the things I did last year, when I was very interested in F&B and wanted to write more about it. I just put feelers out and said oh, hey, I’m looking for anything that’s F&B related. If you hear anything, let me know. And then people started really coming to me saying I have a client in F&B, would you want to take it on? and things like that.
The power of word of mouth. What kind of questions do you think people can ask themselves to help them understand what they can offer?
First of all, you need to figure out what you want. What do you want out of this freelancing experience? Is it just money? Or do you want to learn something new? Or, you know, basically, ask yourself what your purpose is, I guess.
Okay, that’s really important. Because if you’re just doing it for the money, well, that’s not a bad thing. It’s just that you would then pick and choose your jobs differently. But if you’re doing it more for something that you want to enjoy and get paid for, that will also affect how you make your decisions. Right?
Yeah. So besides knowing what you can offer, like the skills you have available, I guess it’s also knowing about what you want to offer. You may be able to manage projects or events really well, but maybe you already do that in your full time job and you don’t want to do that on the side anymore. And that’s perfectly fine as well.
Yeah. I remember at an early stage when I quit my job, and I wasn’t really sure what to do next. And there were friends who were so kind to give / send jobs my way. That just kind of helped me get by for those two, three months just to get the bills paid. That was at the end of the year. And in the following year, I met up with a friend of ours. He is quite a renowned business owner in an F&B. He was really kind enough to sit down with me. He basically asked me… he gave me this whole list of questions that I had to go home and ask myself. I met up with him because I wanted him to give me an idea of how I should price myself. Like how do I price my services, I think? and how do I manage running my own business financially. Instead of giving me all the information, he gave me a pep talk! He said, Okay, first you need to know, like you’re saying, know your purpose, and you need to know what you can offer, what you want to offer, and why you’re different from others. And I think what he meant was not, why you’re different, like, okay, other people can write, but I can write with flair or something like that. I think he meant, how your values define who you are, you know. So those are really big questions. And then, and then like you say, you know, bridging the gap between what you think you can provide and what you think people need. But I think ultimately, it boiled down to what you believed in. And that will really form what people perceive you as, and that kind of forms your personal brand, I guess? It gives people something to remember you by. Because, say in the context or writing, there are plenty of writers out there. Everyone can write.
… they can write, badly.
Not everyone writes well, I think.
Yeah, and even if everyone does write, well, I guess everyone’s different, so their approach to work would be different. And I think a lot of times, when you choose someone that you want to work with, let’s say if I were a company and I need to outsource a freelancer. I want to make sure that the person that I outsource is someone that I’m on the same wavelength with. Someone that I can trust, someone that I can get along with. So how would I know if that Freelancer is this person? Without that Freelancer knowing, if he or she is that person or not? Does that make sense? Like how can people hire me? If I’m not even sure of who I am? Yeah. Or what I can bring to the table? Right?
Yeah, that makes sense. Yes. It’s how you present yourself as well. If you don’t know who you are, and you’re wishy washy about the whole thing, it makes it, I guess, difficult for people to figure out what you are good at as well, or what you can do for them.
So this is a question of skill sets, like you have to be clear about what you can offer. But it’s also the question of who you are as a person, like, what is Sarah? or what is Jeannette going to be able to bring to the table that no other writer can? And maybe that could be, you know, people have said, oh, Sarah, I think you’re really good with coming up with ideas. And we may not use all these ideas, but I really appreciate your enthusiasm. And so I’m like, okay, if so many people are saying that. It must be something that I can offer as well. So I think also something you find out over time, right?
Yeah, I think it’s definitely something you figure out along the way as well. For me, one of the things I’ve realised is that, because of my technical background, as well, the fact that I can code I have a science background. It’s something that people know me for as well. That I can do more than just like the usual fluff piece.
That really brings value to the table.
Yeah, added value. So it’s about figuring out what other skills you have that you can add value to your clients as well.
You’re right. I think when I first started also, I was kind of deciding, like, what writer am I right? And so still trying to hold on to that fantasy of being able to travel and get paid for it. I thought, okay, I want to be a travel writer. So okay la. Start taking on travel pieces. And then after a while, I realised like, yeah, travel writing is fun in a way that you get to research and do all these really nerdy things like read up about the history and culture of a place, of its food and stuff that I get excited about. Because the truth is, a lot of times we don’t actually travel to the place. Later I found out! You’re just kind of traveling in your head from your desktop at home. But I think I started to feel oh, this is not good enough and when people ask me “So okay, you’re a content writer, what do you write about?” And then I realised, oh, it has to be just more than just that. I realised that a lot of the work that I do, has this reoccurring theme of being very community-related: education, family, just the kind of content writing that I believe, is able to make a difference and help people. So that kind of became my clarion call, I guess if you will put it that way.
It became your thing.
Yeah, my thing. Would you say that stuff like this forms a personal brand?
Yeah, I would think so. It’s something that you discover along the way as well, and you become good at and people know you for? And if it’s something that you can embrace, like, you know, jives with your personal values, then yeah, I think that is definitely something that can add to your personal brand.
Okay, so let’s see. I mean, there’s so many ways to describe yourself. I constantly find myself changing how I introduce who I am and what I offer. Actually, sometimes it changes depending on who I talk to! But I suppose at some point, you need an elevator pitch about yourself, just to simplify it and have some consistency across the board. I mean, you’ll have two people talking oh, hey, I met Sarah too but she said that she does this. And then the other person is like, no but she told me she does that. So that’s not very good. Or maybe she does both. I don’t know. But let’s talk about some examples of branding yourself as someone who can write, what kind of words might we use? And I mean, for those listening, this conversation at this point right now is a little bit skewed to freelancing as a writer, but as you’re listening to this, I guess, start thinking about what this might mean for your line of work, because you could be freelancing, doing other things, you know, designing or just coding or even being someone’s personal financial analyst or accountant. Okay, so what words might you use? You were using the term ghostwriter for a while, what do you think using the term? Like if you say, Hey, I’m a ghost writer? What would that make people think? These words matter, right?
Yeah, it definitely matters. Because for the longest time, I was calling myself a writer. And the question I would always get was like, oh, writer, like a copywriter? Or what kind of writer are you? A book writer? Yeah. And it’s such a wide field, right? To me it’s enough. I don’t feel the need to give too much. If I don’t feel like I want to overshare. But at the same time, it’s not specific enough for, say, your LinkedIn profile, you know? If you put something vague, or that seems quite vague or too wide of a range on your profile, you can get a lot of requests that are not relevant to you and it can be a time waster. So for a while, I was calling myself a ghost writer, because I found that I enjoyed doing that sort of work. A lot of people didn’t really know what it was. But the people who knew were able to find me.
And I think, yeah, you’re right. It’s really important. Because, okay, let’s say you’re using a platform like LinkedIn. Someone who is really looking for a specific writer would already be willing to hire. And if you’re going to be vague about it, there’s a chance that person might not have that confidence to pick you up out of the crowd, right? Yeah, so again, personal branding. I started out by saying, oh, I am a copywriter. And then I realised actually, that’s like advertising jargon. And I personally don’t think that I’m the most creative person in terms of, say, short copy, like catchy copy. And I prefer doing research on stuff. So then I started realising, Oh, I should start saying, I’m a content writer. Or what about content and copywriting? And then it just gets so confusing after a while.
These days, I tell people, I’m jobless. And I’m an unemployed person.
And how does that work for you like what kind of reaction do you get?
Usually people know that I’m being humorous. And that sort of gives them a clue that I have a sense of humor as well. Even that is kind of personal branding. I would say, I guess everything that you do can add to your personal brand. And it’s just something that you want to think about as well.
Yeah, that’s true. Sometimes it helps to not take things so seriously either. Well, there are so many other ways, other areas of writing. You’ve got social media writing, which I really feel will eventually lead to social media management. Coz for me, I feel if you’re just writing the post without knowing how your writing is doing, and then not being able to offer more value, that’s just a very small area, and you can only charge so much anyway. I don’t know what your thoughts about that are?
Yeah, I think there are definitely overlaps in all the different kinds of writing fields. Even a UX writer, if you’re writing UX, it’s pretty much copy as well, that makes you a copywriter. But there is a nuance to it.
UX, like user experience for anything, right? Whether it’s a website and app?
Yeah, and the job scope may be a little different as well, because you have to think about things like user flow, you have to approach it from like, maybe even in a scientific kind of way. You know, like testing and experimenting with which copy works better. These are things that copywriters may or may not look into. I would say the good copywriters will look into it. But I guess there are a lot of different ways or words that you can use to “so call”… “brand yourself”. Because words matter, and it gives people an image or a sense of what you can and cannot do for them.
Yeah, I think a good writer in general will be able to put their audience first in a sense that you think you’re constantly thinking about your audience. Whether it’s article writing, long form article writing, or even UX writing, or social media writing. And maybe that’s what we were really trying to apply here. When we are even trying to describe who we are, come up with a few words to describe our personal brand, we gotta think about our audience. Who are we saying this to, you know, it’s not like, oh, I think I like the sound of that word. And so I’m just gonna give myself that title, right? It’s really about the perception that each phrase or each term that you use has, and what kind of people you want to attract into your network, in your workspace. So do you have any other creative exercises that you could help in this thought process of forming, say, a personal brand, or knowing what you want to offer?
One thing that, like, when I’m doing branding exercises for clients, I always ask them to describe… if their brand was a person, what would he or she look like, or be like, and that always helps me to get a sense of what they’re imagining. And I think it applies to developing your own brand as well.
Yeah, sometimes it helps to kind of get out of your headspace and look at yourself, from a third person point of view, right? And then just practice that exercise on yourself.
So before we end, let’s recap. We talked about how being a freelancer or even having something on a side can be very liberating. And it helps you kind of see the world differently, and helps you navigate this really uncertain world as well, in more ways than one, like not, not just being entirely reliant on your full time job. I think if I could sum it in one word, it would be creativity, it keeps you on your creative toes. And then we talked about, I think we talked about how to start?
Yeah, pretty much figuring out what you have to offer, what you want to do, and then finding ways to do them.
Yeah. And then just being a little bit more careful with the kind of words that you use to describe who you are as a freelancer. So that has to do with personal branding. So thinking about what each term means and what kind of perception that gives of you, you know, to your audience. To your potential clients. To the people that you want to work with, or even collaborate with, right?
Yeah, I mean, there is a cliche, right, your vibe attracts your tribe. And that’s very true. The way you put yourself out there attracts the people that you are attracting, I guess.
You’re right, or birds of a feather flock together. Yeah. And I guess the final thing, would you say, the brand that you create for yourself follows who you truly are. But is that something that you think can change over time?
Yeah, definitely. I think it’s something that should be fluid because as people we’re constantly changing, we’re discovering new things about ourselves as well. So I would say, don’t feel the need to like stick to just one thing if it doesn’t feel like you anymore.
Yeah, no pressure, we go through different seasons.
Like two months ago, I was a ghost writer.
and now I’m a “media researcher”!
Nice. I’ll ask you this question again in our next episode.
Okay. It was so great doing this with you, Jeanette. I’m so glad that we finally got this started. So that’s a wrap. Stay tuned for our next episode, we’ll be talking about how to charge as a freelancer. If you have any questions about freelancing or if you have a topic suggestion for this podcast, we are all ears! You can drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a message on Instagram. Our handle is solosyncpodcast. Thanks for listening guys.