Dabbling In The Freelance Zone

By June Ramli

Freelancing is a tough act but as days go by and with more job cuts taking place in the newsrooms, plenty of journalists have pivoted their skills into this foray.

But how do they make it work? What is the secret recipe? Can such a gig pay the bills? Would one need to supplement it with another part-time job?

One such person who has dabbled into the freelancing world is seasoned journalist Sharmila Ganapathy who started her one-woman writing business in 2017. 

And thankfully, it has worked out tremendously well for her. 

Having worked in the media business for the past 18 years with countless bylines in reputable companies such as The Edge, KiniBiz (now defunct) and Smart Investor, Sharmila conceded that it was not an easy transition at first, having even gone back to full-time employment multiple times, whenever she had a panic attack.

Just like the song by the late Aaliyah goes “at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again.”

And that was what Sharmila did and after the fourth attempt, she finally managed to stabilize her business into a desirable position with hopes of growing it further to greater heights.

“I am still earning 65 per cent lesser than my last full-time role whereby I got paid in Singapore dollars,” she told the dailystraits.com in a recent interview.

Sharmila’s last full-time job was working for a Singapore-based company as an editor, a job that gave her regional exposure and also the opportunity to mentor younger journalists which ended mid-last year.

Break time! Sharmila seen here with her cats

The former university lecturer also said the trick in making it as a freelance writer was to get a couple of retainer clients.

Retainer clients meant that a freelance writer gets paid on a monthly basis for a set of work akin to a salary received in full-time employment except without the fringe benefits such as retirement or social security payouts. 

“Before one starts to freelance they should have a good buffer of savings between three to six months set aside as your income tends to fluctuate when you start,” said Sharmila who is currently running her business from Penang.

Sharmila who specializes in business and tech write-ups decided that a move to the island would be good career-wise as it was known as a hub for technology companies. 

Today, Sharmila writes from her quaint looking apartment overlooking the Batu Ferringhi beach while engaging with her clients through Zoom meetings.

But this wasn’t always the case.

“I didn’t want to be a media person for much longer and I had the hunger to try out things on my own. 

“I got my first client in 2017 and that was when I decided to quit my job and take a leap into freelancing,” she said. 

She added that it was a bit scary at first.

“After many years in full-time employment, the onus is now on me to manage my retirement savings and medical insurance as you are no longer under a company’s scheme,” she said. 

But the tenacity to make things work soon began to dawn on Sharmila that her clientele was growing in three months and some were even keeping her in their books for as long as a six month period.

Sharmila said she grew her business by networking, word of mouth, approaching public relations companies and maintaining a technology blog where clients could assess her work first-hand.

“My business began to stabilise last May when I managed to get a few retainer clients and I have become more selective, I no longer take on projects that I don’t like,” she said. 

She said freelance writing was mainly writing blogs and articles for other people anonymously.

“We usually sign an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) before I start working on their projects,” she said.

Sharmila also has an up-to-date portfolio of her past projects which includes her referrals that she shows to potential clients.

This information is not plastered on her website because of the NDA signed between her and her previous clients.

“In freelancing you need to be brave, there is a lot of cold pitching involved,” she said. 

Sharmila also said before a freelancer takes on any jobs, they should have everything on paper such as a simple contract indicating the scope of work, the delivery times and the costs involved. 

She warned that freelancers should never start working for the company until the contract is signed and payment is received in full if the project is under the RM1,000 mark. 

For contracts above the said amount, she takes a 30 per cent deposit.

Sharmila said freelancers should also include a clause for late payment and a kill fee for projects that needed to be abandoned halfway for unforeseen reasons. 

Having such an agreement in place helps the freelancers from being fleeced.

“I’ve known of freelance writers who had to take their matter to the small claims court, thankfully nothing such as that has happened to me,” she said.

Sharmila also said that she does not agree to take on writing test as required by the clients unless it is paid.

“If they want to test my writing capabilities before giving me the job then they will have to pay me for it,” she said.

This was a common stance taken by most freelance writers in Malaysia. 

The maximum revisions that Sharmila offers are two and beyond that incurs a fee. 

She said freelance writers should always communicate with their clients to get a full understanding of what is required in order to make their jobs easier.

She said those wanting to make it in the business should steer clear from advertising their services on Fiverr and Upwork as this was a competitive and crowded marketplace and one would be unsuccessful in those platforms.

Sharmila has taken things a notch higher by making things official by setting up her own company and soliciting clients through it.

“Despite being on my own, I still make it a point to contribute my earnings to my retirement fund and pay my taxes like I always use to do while I was working in a full-time job,” she said.

To contact this reporter, email editor@dailystraits.com

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