How to become a freelancer in Berlin
I’m a freelance copywriter from Ireland, who’s been working in Berlin for six years (freelance for four). Here are some of the steps I would recommend taking if you want to become a freelancer in this spectacularly unfriendly but wonderful city:
1. Move to Berlin from a worse place
Even after all these years, this still helps me feel like I did the right thing moving here. I had lived in London before. While London has generally better food, theatre, creative ideas and ad agencies, it’s busier, it’s more competitive, it’s expensive, it’s full of Russian oligarchs, the summers can be grey, it’s cramped and overcrowded. Berlin is the antidote to all those things. While the riots raged in London a few years ago, and my old flat was showing on the evening news, I was sitting under a tree in a quiet street eating cheap pizza. And coming from Dublin/London I think the summers (except maybe this year) are positively tropical. Most of the Australians I know have moved back there, or to Kuala Lumpur, or to the heart of the sun. Meanwhile I cycle round here thinking it’s paradise (in summer, only in summer).
2. Get a tax number straight away
When I arrived, I didn’t know if I’d be employed or freelancing. I went to the finanzamt and got myself a freelance tax number anyway. I then ended up getting a ‘proper’ job so didn’t need it, but when I did ‘decide’ to go freelance (see point 4) I was ready, and didn’t have to face the wrath of the Finanzämter again.
3. Get a job at a startup
I was lucky to get a job in a very new and thriving startup. It was madness. I laughed. I cried. I drank Club Mate. I learned so much. It was good to have had a full-time job at the beginning. It helped me settle in Berlin, but without needing German straight away – with the added comfort of a regular pay cheque (see point 4). Turnover at startups is fast and furious, and that meant that I met some of Berlin’s brightest and most talented people, some of whom helped me again later when I went out on my own.
4. Lose your job at a startup
Two years later, my department closed down. This is startup life. I happily took my redundancy money and went to South America for two months, far from the Berlin winter. Back in Berlin with a clearer head, I decided to started freelancing, and that was that. Sometimes you need a push.
5. Work for former employers
I’m a big believer in having a few full-time jobs before going freelance. It helps you get an insight into both agencies and clients. It looks good on CVs. It forces you to dive deep into certain clients. It makes you more rounded. And it gives you contacts. It helped a lot when I was starting out that I had very nice clients in the UK to call upon. They gave me work, and tided me over until I built my client list here (and abroad).
6. Get pregnant (twice)
Wouldn’t it be nice to think that having babies doesn’t ruin your career? Maternity pay is blessedly generous in Germany, and I chose to stay home for over a year for both of my babies. I had them in quite quick succession with only five months working in between, so didn’t work for most of three years. I wanted to use this time to get to know my children, and I’m so glad I did – and grateful for the privilege of doing so. A surprising outcome of this was that I had a fair amount of enquiries while I was off work, through LinkedIn and Xing (though a lot less). I kept a ‘contact after maternity leave’ list for when I got back to work, and managed to hit the ground running both times. Another unforeseen outcome was meeting many amazing, strong, powerful, smart mothers. Where previously, I would have shied away from these things, I joined mum groups and baby Facebook pages all over the place, and they have been an endless source of knowledge and friendship and advice and support. Even when I wasn’t working, I went to Melanie Fieseler’s brilliant Barcomi’s lunches , and her MumsLikeUs group is a vibrant, friendly resource and really worth joining (see point 12).
7. Hang out at Betahaus
I always tell people to go to here when they’re getting started. Sign up for their brilliant Office Hours (I got free tax advice and invoicing help from Moneybird that I still use today), go to their Thursday morning breakfast talks (they make everyone introduce yourself so you can easily get to know people), put up a poster advertising your services. Feel like you’re not alone. Even if you don’t talk to anyone. And if you’re not a startup, or a programmer, or a designer, even better, you’re a rare breed and will stand out even more. Give an Office Hour yourself if you have something to offer. I then got myself a shared office space in Mitte for a while which was well worth the money. These days, I’m more likely to go to JuggleHub as it’s nearer where I live (they do a Wednesday community lunch, and offer childcare too). Coworking in general is a great idea, and thank goodness we’re in an era, and a city, where it’s a very real option. (Also try Agora , The Factory and The Place . There are many more.)
8. Network like the blazes
This is not just to get business, but to soothe your soul. Get out and go to events as much as you can. Things to inspire you, things to inform you, things to get you talking to other humans. Or stay in and go online: join groups, comment on posts, offer people help (please do this, it’s good to give too), ask for advice. You never know what can happen, and who will remember you. Having said all this, I’m not a big fan of ‘networking events’. I’ve dragged myself to some and have had to listen to the most boring of slide presentations, and then awkwardly stand there holding a sausage while someone frisbees me a business card, and tells me their new unique business idea which is the Airbnb of… please can I go home now? Be creative, go to events that sound interesting to you, without thinking about whether it’ll bring you business. That’s the great thing about freelancing, you never know which path you’ll go down next.
9. Become nerdy and boring about being organised
When you go freelance, after being used to working for someone, you kind of forget you’re now running a business. Don’t. You are now a business person. You are a CEO. That means you have other things to think about asides the actual work. That means you need to plan your weeks properly, like your account manager used to do. You need to sort out your finances like your HR person used to do. And so on. I’m saying this through hard-earned experience. Also, what I recently learned is, planning is not just about slotting in work, but also planning in sports, time to cook, do music, sit in a candlelit room with your eyes closed, things that make you feel human and alive.
10. Face up to finances
It’s easy to ignore this stuff, until May. Get it sorted as soon as you start freelancing. I got free tax advice at the Betahaus Office Hours, which was very helpful, and I am lucky to have a German husband to do the Steuererklärung. Now, after three years, I got an accountant ( Klier & Ott , they’re great) to help me with some questions I had – and thank God I did. I’ll admit I didn’t know you needed a separate bank account until I met Kontist , but I’m on that now, honestly.
11. Meet people from your own profession
This kind of comes under networking, but I mean it differently. I always want people to know they’re not in competition with other writers/designers/fire breathers/whatever it is you do. You can help each other. The world is big. There’s enough work. And even if you do feel like you’re in competition, this is also good, it will motivate you, and make your work all the better. This is a big reason I set up a freelance group for copywriters in Berlin , holding regular(ish) events and sharing info and jobs on Facebook. It’s been a great outlet for me, and it seems like others find it useful too. Another reason to know other good people in your line of work is, if you have a job offer and are too busy, you can pass the client on to someone else. They will be thankful they didn’t hit a dead end, and may come back to you in the future.
12. Seek help if you need it
Thankfully, the world seems to be ever more welcoming to people admitting that things are getting hard for them. After I got back to work I started with great energy. A few months later, realised I was doing too much, and couldn’t quite work out how to juggle job, kids and home. I felt like I wasn’t finishing things and had no time for myself (quite honestly, the work part was fine, but other things were suffering). I went to see a business coach ( Melanie Fieseler , see point 6) and she truly saved me. She helped me plan my weeks better, and focus only on important things. I still drop balls, but not so many, and I don’t feel so bad about it anymore. If you don’t have the funds for a coach right now, try a massage, a weekly lunch somewhere decent. Treat yourself. You’re earning money to live your life, as well as pay the bills.
13. Don’t work in your pyjamas
It’s a good idea to get dressed. First thing. Your work will be better for it. You’ll feel better in your head. And get outside, too. Berlin is lovely in most weathers. Enjoy living in this beautiful city, and being able to go for a swim in an outdoor pool, or sleigh down a snowy slope, when everyone else is sitting in an office.
So really, if you’re looking to go freelance, just do it, now. It’s like having a baby, there’s never a right time. And on with this metaphor... it’s hard at times, and always uncertain, but the work you put into it will help you grow into a better person, and it’s so incredibly rewarding. Your future self will look back and ask you why didn’t you just make the jump, what did you have to lose (especially in Berlin)? If you’re still uncertain perhaps you could work out a way to get fired from your job?
If you’re already freelancing, congratulations, I’m happy to call you a colleague and I hope we can meet sometime and discuss our best Finanzamt experiences/useful software packages/easiest website builders/most challenging payment issues/favourite work pyjamas.