6 Things I've Learnt Since Becoming a Freelancer

Posted on Saturday 22nd January 2011 at 00:00
You've done it. Congratulations! You've packed in your old job and are now ready to start using your considerable talents to make money that belongs to you, not your boss. You are your boss. That's right, you're a freelancer now. But what does this mean in reality? What is life like living under the "freelancer" banner? Well, sit back and let me fill you in on a few things I've learnt the hard way, and hopefully you can be a little better prepared.

In September 2010 my contract of employment ended and, due to financial restrictions, wasn't renewed. Having already changed jobs 3 times in the preceding year, I sighed, and began to cast around for what to do next. I'd previously been working in marketing, and had been pretty miserable with it. Now I wanted to try something new, and that was web development, which I'd been doing as a hobby for several years. There weren't very many jobs available at the time, and as the weeks passed I got more and more demotivated about the whole job hunting experience.

On the side I'd started doing a little development project for a friend of mine, as I often had before, and this gradually began to take up more and more of my time. The friend in question suggested that I might like to go to the St Mellion Business Show for a day and do a little networking. I began the day with the intention of finding someone who was looking to employ a developer. By the end of the day however, I'd been convinced by all the people I spoke to, that what I really wanted to do was to freelance. This was a pretty big decision to make and not one that I had planned for, and as a consequence I've had to learn some pretty harsh lessons, which I thought I'd share with you today

1. Look before you leap

I'm putting this one first, because it is the most important. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you shouldn't go freelance or follow your dreams. You should. If you are brave enough to actually take the chance, you definitely should. I'm saying plan. The hardest lesson I learnt, and am still learning, is that it takes a very long time indeed to build up a client base. Far longer than you expect or can possibly plan for. During that time you will almost certainly not earn enough to buy bread at the supermarket, and you can pretty much forget paying your rent or bills.

You've got two options open to you: The first, and to my mind, best option, is to keep working. If you can, try and build up your client base before you chuck in the towel. If you have the energy to freelance work whilst holding down a full time job then do so, though this will be more exhausting than most people can handle. Alternatively, work part time at a job that will definitely cover your expenses. The second option is to have at least 6 months, ideally 12 months, worth of savings from which to pay your rent. It will probably take at least this long to be consistently earning enough to be comfortable, and, in case you were wondering, not being able to afford your rent is a pretty miserable way to live. Don't try it.

2. Get your house in order

This is a step that most people seem to overlook when it comes to freelancing. Unless you are becoming a freelance banker, pop star or film actor, chances are your finances will restrict you to working at home. That doesn't mean sitting on the sofa or in bed with your laptop, it means having a designated, appropriate place to call work. I've read a lot of articles on home working from people who've tried it, and it seems that requirements vary from person to person. For me, the spare bedroom has made the perfect office, and has everything I need. My girlfriend has a desk in there as well, but when we are both in there we are there to work, not chat. At the end of the day, we leave the office and shut the door on our work.

Others have taken a different approach. One gentleman in the US found that the spare room didn't work for him, as he found it difficult be left in peace by his young children, so he build an office shed to allow greater separation from family life. Another man had his office at the opposite end of the house from the family. Whatever method works for you is the best, but working on your lap in the lounge, or at the family PC in the kitchen is not the way to get work done, especially if you have kids.

Work spaces can be virtual as well as physical. One of the first things I did when I became a freelancer was tidy up the file structure on my computer, so as to keep work and personal files separate. As a web developer, I also started using a development environment, and this is an important point, if you are doing the same. Many amateur coders take great pride in writing their code in Notepad or similar, because it is "proper coding", rather than relying on a program. I used to think it was cheating if I used anything else. It isn't. If you don't have the skills and know-how to write scripts, no amount of software will help you. But when you are coding against the clock and on a budget, you have to save as much time as possible, and a professional developing tool will help.

Simple things like colour coding of various code elements, on the fly syntax debugging and auto fill of the commands you type will not take away the feeling of being a "real coder" but they will make the job quicker and easier to complete. Incidentally, for a light-weight code writing program I can highly recommend Notepad++, or for a complete IDE package including full project management and versioning integration, Netbeans IDE is well worth installing.

3. Keep costs down

As Jason Fried has pointed out, businesses that spend money get really good at spending money. Those that make money get really good at making it. In short, most people when they start out make the mistake of splashing out on as much "professional" equipment as they can and spending a lot on it. Sure, you need the tools to do the job, of course you do, but don't spend money if you don't need to, especially not when you aren't earning it. My computer is 6 years old and, frankly, so slow I'm worried it might get overtaken by continental drift. But it works, and it doesn't cost me anything.

Over the last few months I've made very little money indeed from my freelancing work. It's put an incredible squeeze on my finances, far worse than I could have imagined, but freelancing isn't costing me anything. Ok, I pay a little more in electricity than I did before as I have my computer on all day, but that's it. In all other respects I pay nothing more for freelancing than I did when I was employed. In fact, since I no longer have to drive to work, I actually spend less than I was before. The up shot of this is that I've managed to stick with my low income for longer without going bust, and when I do start making money, I won't have to spend it on any increased costs or paying back a business loan, it'll be all mine.

4. Work as hard as you can for your client, but not for free

This may sound obvious, but many people, in my industry at least, seem to ignore it. If your client asks you to do something and you possibly can do it for them, do it. The last thing a client wants to hear, after being persuaded to employ you, is that you can't do what they want. If you don't know how to do it then learn. If you're good at what you do, it shouldn't take that long, but don't be afraid to tell them that you'll have to learn how to do it, this'll help them to manage their expectations regarding deadlines.

Charging for what a client wants can be tricky. It took me about 5 minutes to realise that most clients want to pay a flat project fee. They don't want to be charged by the hour for an unknown number of hours work and they don't want to be charged by the feature. If what your client is asking to be added or changed is small, take the hit and do the work for no extra charge. The opinion they will have of your service will be worth far more in the long term than the money you would have made. If, on the other hand, what they are asking for is a large job and will take you a long time, tell them it is a lot of work and quote them for it. If you carry out a lot of work for free, you will only come to resent the project and the client, and the work you produce will be lower in quality, which is never a good thing.

5. Don't Undercharge

When I worked for other companies, I used to scoff at the way they would constantly reduce their prices because they felt bad about the amount they were asking their clients for. But when I came to work for myself, I found that asking other people for money, even though you know it to be a fair amount, is possibly the hardest thing you will ever do. If you are at all modest, admitting to yourself that you are worth several hundred or thousand pounds is very difficult. But you are worth it, and as such, you must bill for it.

In the past, I've found myself making wildly optimistic predictions about how long a project will take me to complete, in the hope of reducing my costs to levels that sound reasonable. All that this will achieve is to leave you out of pocket and working for free to finish projects that are worth a lot more money, both to yourself and your client. The longer term consequence is that your clients will come to expect your fees to be low, making it harder to raise them in the future.

6. Network

I thought I'd end on another really important point. So far, I could count the number of clients I've had on the fingers of one hand. But all those I have had, I've gained through networking. All of them. I've never advertised, not even in the local paper, and I've never set up a stand at a business show with a glossy logo and a laptop (although I might try that one day). What I have done is spent a lot of time building relationships with interesting and intelligent people on Twitter, as well as making use of Facebook and Linkedin and letting it be known that I am a freelance web developer who is seeking new clients. Not only has this strategy worked well for me so far, but it seems to work for everyone I've discussed the issue with, all of whom tell me that networking is the easiest, cheapest and most effective way of getting known. Remember, everyone knows someone, and you never know who might know your next client.

So, those are 6 things I've learnt since becoming a freelancer, and if you are considering freelancing yourself, I hope that the advice I've given will help you in your chosen field. If you are about to go freelance, or are just considering it, or already have done so, I would love the opportunity to network with you and to hear your story. Please leave a comment below, this could be the beginning of a marvellous working relationship!

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