I’ve been passionate about doing business for as long as I can remember. This probably came from watching my mum successfully run several businesses, from a dress making shop to a cosmetics line. Watching her turn ideas into gold made me confident that success was in my DNA.
I believed I was going to become a millionaire at 21, or 25 at most. I was in a haste to get over my university education, which wasn’t optional for a girl child born to middle class African parents in the 80’s. Although I struggled through it, I earned my first degree at 21. I was excited; I could finally decide on what to do with my time and knew exactly what I wanted– make money and become totally independent. My goal was simple but I was in for a long and painful ride.
By the age of 25 I had started more businesses than I could count. Just to name a few, I went into food vending which ended because I couldn’t handle the stress and impact on my health. During my para-military service year in my country, Nigeria, I decided to try livestock farming. My farm failed on a massive scale. I was thoroughly heartbroken to say the least.
I soon delved into fashion design just like my Mum but my quest for perfection in my designs and the backbreaking demands of running a one-woman fashion shop slowly drained me. During this time, I would write African fiction as a way of escaping reality. I was just as passionate about writing as I was about business, if not more.
During my string of disappointments with these businesses, a friend gave me his laptop. It was in 2012 and I’d never owned a computer. I soon got sucked into the laptop lifestyle when I discovered I could make money online. I was intrigued by the possibility of working from home. This meant I could finally fulfil my life-long dream of becoming financially independent! As with every business I started, I believed working online was finally going to be my big break. I gave it everything. However, it wasn’t a smooth ride. When I started the laptop lifestyle, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: write.
The Non-Native Speaker Factor
I joined several freelance platforms and sent out proposals. I remember having a bright smile on my face and a deep confidence as I applied to various jobs. For the first few days, I sent out proposals without getting any replies. I was still hopeful, but a deep fear was beginning to brew. By the second week, I was utterly devastated. No replies, nojobs, and of course, no money. After a few weeks of constantly refreshing my emails and googling, “How to land freelance writing jobs,” I finally started getting replies, but they weren’t what I expected.
I got responses from prospective clients stating that I was a non-native speaker and therefore wasn’t qualified for the positions. I wasn’t even able to apply to some jobs because of the non-native speaker factor! I couldn’t believe it. I grew up speaking, reading, and writing the English language, but because I was a non-native speaker I was ineligible?
I suddenly started questioning my own identity. I spoke another Nigerian language known as Igbo but wasn’t as good at it as I was with English. I spoke English, dreamt in English, thought in English, prayed in English and had most childhood memories in English. I was so devastated that I ended up googling what “native English speaker” meant. Several sources defined a native English speaker as someone who has learned and used English from early childhood – which is me. It didn’t matter anyway. Not on those platforms.
Here I was with a degree in English and what others have described as great writing skills but I couldn’t land a job because I wasn’t a ‘native speaker’? I sucked it in and continued to apply to jobs. I did get jobs but they were the perfect description of working like an elephant and eating like an ant! I once wrote a 750 word article for less than $5. I’m too embarrassed to state the actual number.
The Nigerian Factor
I didn’t just have to bear the sting of being rated 2nd class or lower in English. I also had to deal with my national identity. I came across jobs that explicitly stated “No Indians or Nigerians!” Some went ahead to say they didn’t care if you had power issues in your country or bad internet connectivity.
If you’ve ever had to run around the streets looking for a café with power to charge your laptop, or had to pour fuel into a hot generator that has been running all day or even had to write with the crackling noise of that same generator clanging in your ear, all to make your clients happy, then those words might burn.
I knew many clients were trying to get the best value for their money but doing so with such terrible generalisations and a lack of empathy was hurtful to me at the time. Today I realise that it’s obviously a mirror of the Job poster’s own myopic beliefs.
The Third-World Country Factor
Since the dawn of industrialisation, businesses have always chased after cheap labour. They get it because people either don’t know they deserve better or are too desperate to wait for better. Despite being a writer in a third world country, I knew what global standards were and I set those exact standards for myself. I wish my standards were enough to get me dreams jobs. I continued to work for peanuts despite my strong skills. That was until I realised what was wrong.
Something Had to Change
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt building several businesses is the immense benefit of criticism. Think about this: Global companies shell out millions of dollars in surveys every year for one reason: to be criticised by their customers. I used to think I was the greatest writer to ever live, but the feedback I got from a few honest clients did not mirror those beliefs. I realised that if I didn’t do something soon, I was going to keep earning peanuts.
I put my freelance writing career on hold around 2014 and decided to get a Master’s Degree. I opted for a pretty expensive school in Nigeria, not because of the prestige but because of the calibre of communication specialists they had produced over the years. My Master’s degree challenged me like nothing ever had. My lecturers brutally tore down my lofty belief of being a great writer and exposed my many writing inadequacies. By the end of November 2016, I had an M.sc in Media and Communications, was a million times better at content writing and very humbled.
Back to the 9 to 5
After my Master’s degree, I went back to working a 9 to 5 job with a renowned News Media firm in Lagos. If you wonder why this paragraph is so short, it mirrors the time I spent at this company.
Not yet Paradise
After giving in to the irresistible urge to work from home, I was encouraged by my then fiancé to return to freelance writing. I resisted. At first I did not want to go back to working so much and earning so little. By November 2016 I gave in and took up freelance writing once again. It started out better than it had two years previously. I hadn’t reached my goal of earning what was considered globally acceptable (and by that I mean a writers’ average fee in most developed countries). I was getting more clients and great feedback, though, which was a benefit. At the beginning of 2018, after a brief fling with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, I landed a project that paid me over $4,000! That was huge for me but something still wasn’t right.
The Freelance Platform Itch
Did I mention that I find a large percentage of my writing jobs on popular freelance platforms? If you’ve ever worked on any freelance platform, you know the working conditions are less than ideal not to talk of unfair.
First, you have to search through a lot of spam to find real jobs, then you have to deal with the terrible possibility of losing your account for breaking some rule. Worst of all, you have to deal with the back breaking percentages most of these platforms charge.
The nasty itch that comes from working on these freelance platforms shaped my decision to start my own thing. Using my years of content marketing and all around digital marketing experience, I started working on my business, a marketing agency known as Penning Solutions; and I’m still working on it. I hope one day to use my fledgling company to help small and medium scale businesses all over Africa establish a digital footprint in the global marketplace.
My Long Awaited Big Break
If I were asked to describe the freelance writing lifestyle using a diagram, it would be a bell shaped curve. Some days you believe you’d finally buy your dream house, other days you’re curled up in your bed wondering how you’re going to survive the next month.
The only freelancers who might not have this problem are freelancers who hit what I call the bull’s eye of freelancing. What’s that? Finding a client/business that gives you full-time hourly contracts or consistent inflow of well-paying projects. I hit the bull’s eye.
By June 2018. I applied for a job on a freelance platform. I put in my rate as $25 per hour and availability as 40 hours per week. I spent some extra time refining my proposal for this job because it was exactly the kind of thing I wanted. This job was by a young tech firm looking to revolutionise business management and most importantly to me, provide equal opportunities to professionals all over the world.
I received a message the next day saying that I was hired for a few hours for a start. I was thrilled. Here’s the exact message:
Thanks for your application. I will hire you for 5 hours/week for this week. Please use that time to register with s**ilimes, self-explore the ecosystem, and get familiar with the tools we provide. Please take notes while you're doing that. I want to know about your unbiased first-time user and brand experience with s**ilimes. We will then have a video call via s**ilimes messenger to discuss the next steps.
Please contact me via my personal profile on semilimes/Community/People. ;)
Looking forward to speaking to you, soon.
Still, when you’ve applied to so many jobs and had clients cut down hours or totally end a project abruptly, you learn to contain your excitement. This wasn’t one of those clients though. It’s been almost three months now, I’m a full member of the s**milimes marketing team and working 25+ hours each week with a great team of people all over the world.
I’ve had a lot of jobs and some great clients but my job with this start-up has both challenged and groomed me. I’m learning to go beyond just putting words together to rank on Google, to actually telling my story in a way that helps others.
I’ll end now but not before I share some vital lessons I learnt working as a freelance writer from a third-world country:
- Being from a third world country is not an excuse.
- You might not be as great as you think so don’t stop learning and getting better.
- Value and attitude combined is the best way to keep clients coming back.
- Landing great jobs as a freelancer is 20% skill and 80% pitch.
- You’re way stronger than you think – I learnt that working on a $4,000 contract while battling GAD.
- Know your worth and stick to it – this is the main difference between writers in third world countries and those in developed countries.