The Freelance Creative

The Gig Economy is Global Now. Here’s How to Navigate It.

freelance international

A client emails you asking to set up a call at 1:00 p.m. “That sounds great,” you think to yourself. “I’ll have time to grab a little lunch and then get back to it.” You draft a confirmation email, but you stop halfway, remembering this client is based in India. You’re in New York, where 1:00 p.m. for them is actually, uh, hold on, let’s Google it…3:30 a.m. for you. Not great.

For a moment, you consider going to bed now, starting your workday and 2:00 a.m. and calling that a gift because, hey, at least you get to make your own schedule! But then, of course, reality hits, and you drag that email draft—“Perfect, looking forward to it!”—right into the trash.

If this scenario feels familiar, and you often find yourself struggling to work seamlessly with companies abroad, know that you’re not alone. It’s not just a gig economy anymore—according to recent data, it’s a global gig economy, which means our virtual offices span multiple timezones and cultures.

In 2018 PayPal published its Global Freelancer Insights Report, which estimated that 58 percent of US freelancers have at least one international client. The same year, the Payoneer Freelancer Income Survey reported that 34 percent of freelancers are looking to work with more international clients. In fact, the survey found that global expansion is one of freelancers’ top goals, right after making more money (duh) and finding new ways to get clients (double duh).

To help navigate these murky, international waters, we asked seasoned freelancers how they handle some of the biggest challenges that come with working across borders.

Working across time zones

Suzannah Weiss, a freelance writer and editor based in Germany, knows the international freelance struggle all too well. “The main challenge is working very odd hours in order to keep up with the news cycle in different countries and setting up calls with clients in different time zones,” said Weiss, who is currently an editor for Complex and a writer at publications like Vice, Teen Vogue, and Bustle. “The calls themselves can also be difficult due to connectivity issues.”

For example, she once worked for an editor based in LA who wanted her to take evening shifts. Those shifts started at 3:00 p.m. in California, but at midnight in Germany. “I was regularly staying up until 5 a.m. to write timely stories for him,” she said.

As a solution, Weiss stresses the importance of communicating candidly with your client. Be honest about your hours and make it clear when you can be available. If you don’t draw your boundaries upfront, you’re letting clients to do it for you.

“If I think someone’s going to be expecting me to be around when I’m not, I’ll explain that I’m in a different time zone and will be gone by X time, but I’ll be back extra early in the morning,” she said.

That said, working weird hours just comes with the territory, to some degree. With that in mind, get that sleep when you can. “With shifts at odd hours, I just accept that I’ll be on an odd schedule and make up for staying late by sleeping late,” Weiss said. “My clients aren’t around in the morning anyway.”

Dealing with foreign currencies

If a foreign client’s currency differs from yours, you’ll need to consider how that might affect your rate and method of payment. For example, if you’re used to charging $350 for a blog post, but you’re working with a UK client, $350 translates to £266.97 pounds. In my experience, I charge my going rate regardless of the currency. So if I charge a US client $350, I’ll charge a UK client £350, for which I end up earning roughly $392.

Freelance food industry writer Andrea Tolu, based in Spain, has encountered this obstacle when he’s worked with clients in the U.K., U.S., New Zealand, and Denmark.

“There’s always more payment fees involved or an exchange rate,” Tolu said, “which can become costly.” He found his solution in TransferWise, an easy-to-use money transfer service that charges lower transaction fees than PayPal.

Freelancers can also use a platform like Contently or Upwork to act as the middleman and handle these discrepancies for you.

“There’s certainly a trend with journalists doing more and more branded work, and perhaps unexpectedly, that’s resulted in journalists partnering with global teams, given that brands are trying to reach markets around the world,” said Brian Maehl, talent and editorial services manager at Contently. “Platforms play a role in [global communications] too. When brands have access to writers outside of their own backyard, it makes the world a little bit smaller.”

Preparing taxes and 1099s

If you’re based in the US, your international client may not provide 1099s. They’re only an American tax provision. If this is the case, you should still confirm your yearly income with your client, just to be sure your records match and your tax information is accurate.

One of my clients, for example, is based in Australia and doesn’t issue a 1099. Still, I check in with the company each tax season to confirm that my income matches up with their payments. Another client, based in France, works with a financial services company in the US, so I know I can communicate with the client through that channel for my tax information.

Rarely meeting clients face-to-face

The freelance life can be isolating. Sometimes you want to grab coffee with a client to seal the deal on a new partnership or head into their office to work out the details of your next big project. There’s a reason for this: According to Harvard Business Review, a face-to-face request is 34 times more successful than a request made via email.

Face time is tough to coordinate with international clients. “Meeting them in person becomes more like a welcome exception,” Tolu said. And it can be a drag on the relationship: “If I were able to meet them personally, I might be able to understand much more about them and do better what I do for them.”

To make up for it, find ways to check in with clients outside of email. Tell them when you’ll be available on Slack or Skype, set up a weekly or monthly video chat, and make it clear that you’re committed to providing personalized service despite the distance.

Getting international clients on board

You may be searching for work around the world, but that doesn’t mean the company you’re contacting will be ready to reach across borders and hire you.

“We actually do a fair amount of re-education in hiring freelancers internationally,” said Contently’s Maehl. He tells clients that good reporting chops and the right subject matter expertise can trump location and nationality. For example, if a client is looking for a story on the best bars in Berlin, Maehl said they’d be remiss to discount the person who’s written a ton about Berlin nightlife for Travel & Leisure but happens to live in Philadelphia.

Tolu, luckily, has never perceived any hesitation from his clients. In fact, he has always seen the international client-freelancer relationship as symbiotic. “You can specialize in an industry, which tends to narrow down your market, but then you can expand your market by working with international clients,” he said. “And for clients, when they have to find specific talent, they’re not restricted by geography.”

Irrefutably, working with international clients comes with a host of unique obstacles. But ultimately, hopping the fence can open up opportunities to expand your client list and diversify your portfolio. In exchange, the occasional call at the crack of dawn or extra email during tax season might be worth the trouble. Of course, you’ll have to be proactive and protect your interests when you’re negotiating—but that’s nothing new.

To begin writing for international clients, build a Contently portfolio.

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