The Way We Work
September 28, 2011 by Brian McDonough

Many contractors use their freelance career to supplement a full-time income, or mix remote work with part-time office or retail jobs. Making the jump to full-time contracting — and making a good living at it — takes some special, but entirely attainable, skills.

We recently asked two contractors how they made oDesk their full-time career. Both came to remote work after recession-fueled layoffs and are now such busy full-timers that they routinely turn down new job offers.

Meet & Greet
Jill Jankoski, an administrative assistant from North Carolina, was laid off twice from jobs with real estate and construction companies that were hit hard by the recession.

Jill Jankoski

“I started thinking about working for myself, mostly because there was no other option,” says Jankoski, adding that she applied to more than 1,000 in-house local jobs before turning to online work. “I set up my profile on oDesk and got my first job. And now I’m having a ball. I love working through oDesk.”

Dennis Peacock was also laid off. A web developer in rural Wisconsin, he didn’t find a lot of local options. “As I already did freelance work and enjoyed the freedom it gave, when I came to oDesk I was looking at turning freelancing into a full-time career.”

Both succeeded at exactly that, maintaining a mix of steady clients, frequent return employers, and entirely new jobs. Having reliable, steady work is a big plus, Jankoski says.

“I have clients I do work for on a weekly basis that I know will be there indefinitely, so there are hours that the money is pretty much guaranteed for,” she says. “Also, I get invited to interview on a relatively regular basis at this point, so I take some of those and see where they go. On the flip side, I look for work I consider interesting that fits my skill set. If I’m not slammed with work from clients, with projects going continuously for a few weeks into the future or longer, I’m looking.”

No Magic Formula
To hear these two tell it, once you have begun to establish yourself on oDesk, the leap to the next level is less about luck or genius than it is about simple hard work, the patience to stick with it, and to act not just a worker, but as a business owner building a one-person company.

Being Serious About It

Jill Jankoski says discipline is what lets someone go full-time as a contractor.

“When someone wants to be a full-time freelancer and make a living at it, they’re serious about it. To thrive full-time, you’ve got to be driven, literally self-motivated — you’re not just saying it — and self-directed,” she says.

“You’ve got to have excellent time management skills,” she adds. “And you’ve got to be able to communicate clearly both by phone and in writing, keeping clients abreast of what’s going on, the status of projects and any issues that might make a deadline impossible to meet. Clients should never have to ask, because you’re always ahead of them.”

“I would say the biggest change between part-time and full-time work online is that you just have to stay motivated,” Peacock says. “Actually, I would say anyone who can succeed as a part-timer already has the skills to do full-time online work. Stepping up to full time is just a matter of putting in more applications to jobs.”

The Key Differentiator
We asked both contractors what singular quality they felt kept them both busy on a steady, sustainable basis, and they had similar answers.

“Be dedicated to your clients, “ Peacock says. “I cannot list how many times being really dedicated and helpful with a client lead to great reviews, and especially more work.”

“You can’t do the work half-heartedly,” Jankoski agrees, “because your work is your reputation, and if you’re not at the top of your game, it’ll come back to bite you.”

Early Efforts
Contractors still getting established in the virtual marketplace might find it hard to relate to a pair of contractors whose experience and high feedback ratings mean that employers approach them with jobs. But Peacock and Jankoski say they both got there the hard way — with pure persistence.

Dennis Peacock

“I had a pretty simple rule,” Peacock says. “If I didn’t have 15 out of my 20-slot application quota out there, I spent time looking through the jobs ’til I did. As long as you are pushing applications out to the best jobs to suit your ability, and making sure that your clients give feedback on completed projects, you will tend to find work fairly quickly.”

Sometimes you have to look for the overlooked opportunity, Jankoski notes. “When I first started, I used to look at jobs that had been posted for two or three weeks but they hadn’t hired anybody. There had to be a reason for that, and it gave me the idea that they hadn’t found the right person, so I would apply.”

Peacock specialized in quick-turnaround jobs in his early days. “I started bidding on things that I could turn out in a day or two and get the feedback. That really pushed me over the edge into successfully competing, and now I am getting invitations every week and working steadily.”

With more and more people turning to full-time online contracting, either out of necessity or as a lifestyle choice, it’s good to see that path to success isn’t hard to find — you’ve just got to have the persistence to walk it.

Have you made the jump to full-time contractor? How’d you do it? If you’re thinking about it, what’s holding you back?

Brian McDonough

Freelance Writer

Brian McDonough has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years, and has managed teams of in-house and freelance writers for newspapers, magazines and web sites.