Posted on Jul 9, 2013
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.
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:
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I live in the greater Kansas City area with my beautiful wife, our two great kids, and our dog. I've been programming using Open Source technologies since '97 and I'm currently an independent software developer specializing in Ruby on Rails and iOS. I am for hire.