Posted on Jul 25, 2014
I’ve been independent for almost six years. I’m not wildly successful, but I’ve always had work and I have a good reputation. In light of that, I wanted to compile a list of helpful hints for other freelancers based on some of my own experiences as well as observations from other freelancers.
These are all meant in good fun and not at all to mock those who’ve failed miserably in their freelance careers.
This comes as a great shock to many people, but success isn’t going to come knocking at your door. It’s not playing hide-n-seek with you, but it does require you to work for it. This means that you have to show up to meetings. It also means that you need to be places on time. And it means you need to do the tasks that you’ve hired yourself out to do!
“80 percent of life is showing up.” – Woody Allen
I can’t begin to count the number of phone calls I’ve had with a potential clients who’ve said something along the lines of, “well, we had this person working on it, but one day they just stopped. They wouldn’t respond to email or phone calls. They just disappeared.”
Where’s Mulder and Scully when you need ‘em?
I hate these conversations. I hate them, because it means I have to combat the notion that all freelancers are flakes. Worse still, I have to work harder to gain and keep that client’s trust.
If you need to fire a client, by all means, do it; don’t be a flake and just disappear. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, and awkward, and it sucks, but you need to put on your bigboy pants and do it.
Note: This tip was the impetus for this entire article.
I’ve needed help in one way or another as a freelancer: sometimes for design work, sometimes development. And the number of times I’ve reached out to other freelancers for help and heard nary a peep back is frightening (worse still, receiving a response months after the fact).
For those of you who do this, how do you survive? How do you just let an inquiry sit in your inbox and do nothing about it?
Even when I have no interest in a project, I still respond in some way (usually within a couple hours). Maybe there’s a way I can still help this person out. Maybe I can point them to an associate and help out both parties.
Which brings me to my next point…
There’s always some way you can help someone else out: maybe it’s advice, maybe it’s a referral, or maybe it’s just encouragement, but there’s likely something you can do.
Queue whining: “But, but, but, if I help them out, they might win the job, or they might not need me, or they might succeed where I failed.”
Are you really that petty? Are you that short-sighted? Establishing a reputation as the person to go to for advice, referrals, and help has its own advantages. I’ve only gained business by helping other freelancers and organizations I knew would never need my specific services.
This isn’t a zero-sum game, we’re all in this together.
It looks like we’re going with the whole “don’t be selfish” motif.
“What’s a diva?”, you might ask. Divas used to be opera singers who were very demanding, because they were famous. Anymore, divas are usually found on professional football or basketball teams.
You’ll never survive as a diva in a freelance career. On the other hand, you can be the most brain-dead developer in the world, but if you’re accomodating, easy to work with, responsive, and generally an all around nice guy, your clients will love you.
This is a little thing, and it’s usually a newb freelancer mistake. Regardless of how little you worked in a month, send the invoice. I know it seems silly to invoice for $25, $50, or even $100, but customers don’t want to get an invoice which covers six months of work.
I use Harvest (referral link) to track my time and send invoices. It’s super easy and it takes me less than twenty minutes a month.
I mentioned this offhandedly in So You Want to Be A Freelancer…, but it bares repeating: Put away 1⁄3 of your freelancing income for taxes.
It’s hard to do and it’s frustrating, but you’ll thank me come April 15.
Shocking, I know, but being awesome just isn’t enough to be found. True, it seems like the majesty of your awesomeness would radiate outwardly, drawing people to your doorstep to throw money at you, but it just never materializes.
In order for people to see your awesomeness, they must know where to look, and in order to know where to look, they need to be told. Some freelancers blog, and some have mailing lists, and most use social networking; podcasts and screencasts are also really good options. The point is more about doing something consistently and less about what that “something” is.
If Google doesn’t know about you, no one else does either.
It sucks, but just like you have to market yourself, you also have to sell yourself. This doesn’t mean you have to turn into a used-car salesman, but you do need to learn how to convince potential customers that you’re the best choice.
Bonus ProTip: Lowering your rate isn’t the way to win sales.
“But, but, but, I didn’t go into freelancing to be a salesperson.” Tough. You didn’t become a freelancer to do marketing, taxes, handhold your customers, or deal with invoicing either. It’s part of the job description; embrace the suck.
Amongst programmers, LinkedIn is a four-letter word, and up until a couple years ago, I made fun of it too; until I got a contract through it. Programmers are elitist snobs, and unless a tool or service meets some arbitrary criteria, they mock it, and LinkedIn falls into that category.
Here’s the reality: programmers eschew the service, but business people - y’know, the people with money, and who want to give that money to you - use it. They use LinkedIn to search for people and businesses who can solve their problems.
Build out your profile, connect with everyone under the sun (especially people with lots of connections), join the max number of groups (50, I think), and contribute content regularly.
As of this writing, two of my current clients and an upcoming contract were all landed because of LinkedIn. A number of past clients were also through LinkedIn.
This does not mean talk down to the customer (unless they’re really short), this means you need to meet them and speak to them where they are at. It means you, as the expert, communicate with those who aren’t experts in a manner that enables them to make better decisions and which helps them understand their business better.
Sometimes the customer wants to learn and sometimes they don’t, but firing them because they aren’t at your level and don’t immediately grasp your genius and therefore ask questions, makes you an arrogant jerk.
Yeah, I’m not bitter at all about this one.
Last one, and this is one I’m having a hell of a time learning. You’re a freelancer and you work all kinds of stupid hours, and vacations, and holidays, and anniversaries, but you have the power to say, “no”. Clients will take all that you allow them, but you can say, “no”, and they’ll be just fine.
If you’re at the beck and mercy of your clients, or if you feel your blood pressure spike with every email, text, or skype alert, something’s gone horribly wrong and you need to find some space or you’ll end up hating everything about being independent.
You need to have periods of time set aside in the day where you can be unavailable. Periods of time where you can gather your thoughts and muster your energies. You’re only doing yourself harm and your clients a disservice by not doing so.
These have just been a handful of things I’ve either experienced personally or been witness to - I’m not going to tell you which. It’s snarkier than my normal ramblings, but I hope it’s at least been a bit amusing. I’m opening up comments on this, and I hope you’ll share your own ProTips.
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.