In certain circles, I get a lot of attention when I mention I’m an independent
developer (i.e. freelancer). The questions range from “isn’t it risky?” to “how
long have you been doing it?”, but most of the questions revolve around how to
get started. For some, such as myself, the transition happens gradually as “side
work” slowly evolves into just “work”. For others a more daring trajectory is
chosen and they quit their full-time job and dive in without fear of the
ramifications. Still others turn to freelancing, not as a choice, but as the
only option left for them.
I understand the allure of freelancing: the freedom and independence, setting
your own hours, choosing the clients you want, more time to spend with your
family, choosing your own rates. The siren’s song of freelancing is very
powerful. And like the myth, if you’re not careful, your ship may end up
shattered on the rocks.
The Cake is a Lie
If I can offer you just one piece (cake pun) of advice concerning freelancing,
it’s this: Don’t do it. I’m serious. All that rubbish about free-time,
family-time, money, and freedom? It’s there - mostly - but it comes with a
price. Let’s look at a few of the costs:
- Free-time and family-time: You can get more free time and family time, but
often you’ll have to be very intentional to do so. You’ll have plenty while
waiting for clients to sign off on projects, or when you’re looking for your
- Freedom and independence: yes and no. If you’re too independent you may find
yourself with a little more freedom. If you’re not independent enough, you’ll
become a slave to your clients.
- Choosing your own rates: Yup, you get to do that. Don’t screw it up.
- More money: Yes, but it’s entirely dependent upon how much work you get, what
rate you charge, and if your clients pay.
When you talk with a freelancer - myself included - you’re going to hear the
highlights. You’re not going to hear about sales, marketing, taxes, problem
clients, accounting and bookkeeping, the never-ending flow of email, the
constant hustling, late nights, sleepless nights, angry spouses, etc. No.
You’re mostly going to hear the highlights.
Really, you have to be either arrogant or ignorant to go into this business; if
you had any sense, you’d run screaming away in terror from this decision.
But you’re not going to, are you?
First Things First
Chances are, you currently have a “normal”, 9-5 job. Congratulations, they are
your first client. The place may be an institutional, bureaucratic hell which is
slowly draining you of any will to achieve in life, but like it or not, they’re
your first client and you need to treat them as such. That means doing your best
work, helping out your coworkers, making good connections; basically leaving a
positive impression on as many people as you can.
There are at least two reasons for this:
- Your current employer may end up needing you after you leave. They’ll be more
inclined to hire you as a freelancer if you’ve left on good terms.
- Many of the people you currently work with are going to leave for other
companies. Those are all potential opportunities for future work.
One more thing, don’t talk to your current employer about freelancing - I’m
speaking from experience. Your current employer wants to know that you are
focused on them. That also goes for when you have clients: Client A doesn’t care
about your problems with Client B.
From This Point Forward
There is a misconception that freelancing allows a person to focus solely on
one’s craft. It surprises many to find out that a busy week may only net 30
billable hours. Where’d the rest of the time go?
You are no longer just a writer, designer, programmer, sysadmin. You are now a
business owner. And with that change in title, also comes a change in
responsibility. You’re now responsible for responding to clients, creating
estimates, meeting people for lunch, increasing your network, marketing,
invoicing, bookkeeping, and on, and on, and on.
You will find that you are always selling. While talking to a parent at your
kid’s soccer game, in the back of your mind you’ll wonder, “would they or their
company need my services?” You just never know where that next sale or
opportunity will come from. Everyone’s a potential future client.
Selling Your Life, an Hour at a Time
There are basically two types of pricing: value-based (project), and time &
materials (hourly). Most people start out as hourly, or if they don’t, they
switch to it shortly after enduring a project that wouldn’t die. Later on, as
freelancers move toward becoming agencies, they figure out how to crack the nut
that is value-based pricing. It’s a tough nut.
To begin with, however, you’ll likely want to charge by the hour. What you bill
is up to you, but I advise people to figure out their current annual salary, and
divide that by 1,000.
hourly rate = annual salary / 1000
That may appear at first to be a really big number, but remember, you have to
pay for your own insurance, vacation time, sick time, 401K, and so on. This is
not the time for “imposter syndrome”. Believe you are worth your rate, or be
prepared to be negotiated downward.
But having an hourly rate can mess with you, and I’ve spoken with people who
refuse to freelance for this fact alone. You can now determine how many hours it
will take you to pay for that new computer, but you also know how much it costs
you to spend time with your family. It’s surprising how much a little league
game costs ([40 minutes travel time + 2 hour game] * hourly rate = much weeping
and gnashing of teeth.)
But you get over it…mostly.
Oh, there is one more tiny matter: taxes. Make sure to take a 1/3 of each
invoice you are paid and put it into savings for taxes. Seriously, you don’t
want to make this mistake.
Perform the Most Uncomplicated Procedures and Processes Which Stand To Produce the Most Favorable Outcome in a Consistent and Regular Manner
Exactly. Do the simplest thing that can possibly work.
When you’re starting out, you don’t need a website, special Twitter account,
legal entity, business cards, logo, t-shirt, etc. You’re a freelancer, all you
really need is work and someone to send the invoices.
When you are first setting out, it’s easily to look around and see what the more
established independents are doing and get caught up in where you aren’t. Just
take a deep breath. Relax. You have time. If you have work, focus on that. If
you don’t have work, focus on finding work. The rest is ancillary and can be
done a little at a time.
Just write down the things which need to get done; prioritize them; and complete
them when and as you are able.
When you start a “real” job at a company, you have the benefit of coworkers
(yes, I actually said that). Coworkers can be great resources for discovering
where to go for files or paperwork, learning how things are done in the
organization, and how to navigate the political waters.
As an independent, however, you don’t have all of that, so it is useful to find
other people in your area who also freelance. From more seasoned freelancers and
from those in other disciplines, you can learn about a host of topics you might
not be aware of such as contracts and legal issues, insurance, accounting
matters and bookkeeping, outsourcing and subcontracting, and so on.
Not only is having a good network of like-minded peers great for discovering
better ways of doings things, it’s also great for finding new work, or being
able to offload work. Developers need designers and dev ops; designers need
developers and copywriters; and we can all learn from one another, because not a
single one of us has it all figured out.
Freelancing is a solo gig, but you don’t have to go it alone.
The Next Client
Earlier, I said you will be doing both sales and marketing. This is why: you’ll
always be on the hunt for the next client. When you find them, you’re going to
have to close the sale.
Remember that guy in high school who just did his homework, kept to himself,
didn’t really get involved in anything, and never made a commotion? No one else
does either. Like it or not, you’re going to have to market yourself, and that
means promoting yourself and getting your name out there. To do that, you’ll
need to find the marketing strategy that works for you.
Blogging and social media work well for some people. I know other freelancers
who offer products to increase their image as an authority. Still others do the
conference circuit, screen casts, and some actually go out and meet people face
to face (what’s up with that?)
There are a lot of options out there, and to help you figure out your own
strategy, you should check out the following books:
Assuming your marketing strategy is successful, then it’s time to close the
sale, and every sale is different. Some clients will sign you on after a first
meeting while others will drag out the process over a period of months. Some
people want to haggle, while others just sign on the bottom line.
If there’s any advice I have about sales, and I don’t have much, it’s to try to
understand the client. It shouldn’t be you vs. them, but a partnership to help
them achieve their objective. Listen to them, try to understand what their
real needs are, and do your best to communicate how you can meet those needs
in the manner in which they need to hear it.
Regardless of the sale, you’re going to get moved outside of your comfort zone.
You’ll be intimidated in some instances and totally in charge in others. You’re
going to nail some sales, while others are going to go so badly you’ll want to
move out of state. Sales is hard, but you’ll get better with experience, and you
may eventually enjoy the hunt.
If I’ve not made it clear yet, freelancing isn’t always easy, and it’s not the
career choice most “normal” people would choose for themselves. It solves
some problems, but it brings along with it a host of others (and opportunities).
It really helps to have the right personality for it, and not everyone has that.
I’ve been freelancing now for about four years: part-time for two years, and
full-time for two. There are days when I want to chuck it all and become a
greeter at Walmart, but in general things are great. I get to spend a lot of
time with my family, I’m growing in my field, I have time to exercise, and I
just get to enjoy what I do.
I love freelancing.