I wouldn’t call myself a brilliant freelancer or businessman or anything like that. But over the past few years, I learned quite a few important things which I wished somebody could have told me sooner. Therefor, I’ll share some of what I learned here for people who are on the verge of going freelance (or have just started)… I hope it helps a few people.
Hard work + opportunity + some luck = success
I don’t care what anybody says: there’s no step-by-step guide for success as a freelancer. There are things you can do to improve your chances but the cold hard truth comes down to this: If you want to be successful (whatever that might mean to you), you have to work hard, keep going and look for opportunities. And when they come by, work even harder, pray for a little bit of luck and if things work out, you’ll find yourself in a position where you wanted to be when you first started off. For some this could take several years, for others it happens in a matter of weeks. But it all starts with hard work and not slowing down. Have patience. Eventually that one shot will come around. You’ll know it when you see it.
Freelance is a lifestyle. Not a job.
One of the first things I realized during my first months as a freelancer is that you no longer think about life as ‘business and pleasure‘. You become an always-calculating, always-analyzing, always-planning machine. Your mind is thinking about all the opportunities and projects, about new prospects, about taxes and about new ways of finding clients. You are always considering new ways of setting yourself apart. You are no longer working for a boss who defines the targets for you. You are the boss. You are in control. And you don’t just walk away from it at 5PM on a Friday. When the potential of new contracts becomes clear, it does something to your mind. Almost like a drug… Running your design/development business and trying to maximize every part of it becomes addictive. If I look back at who I used to be and how I do things now, I can’t believe how much it changed me.
Failure to commit = failure
Whenever I talk to people who consider going freelance, everybody worries about lacking enough clients and income. Everybody worries about having too little work or even failing their clients and losing them. People tend to spend a lot of energy thinking about all kinds of stuff that could go wrong. Why? You could get hit by a bus on your way to your job tomorrow. Why is that not on your mind? Because that’s probably not going to happen. So what makes ‘failing your client‘ so much more probable?
If you do freelance work while in the back of your head you worry about this stuff, you’ll be working with divided attention. Your client is 100% dependant on you to do this stuff right while you’re attention is only in it for 90%. Being a professional designer/developer, you know exactly what those extra 10% are worth.
Commit. You can’t plan for failure anyway. There’s no such thing as ‘gently breaking your leg‘. It will hurt; it will be painful; it will take you by surprise. So don’t spend your time on thinking about failure. It brings negative energy into your head. You don’t need that. Be positive. Believe in yourself. Commit fully to your cause. Give it your everything. If things do go bad, it’s still not a disaster. Shit happens. You’ll have to clean it up, go through the wreckage and figure out where it went wrong. And then start over. You will not die. Your career will not end. You will not go blind. Failure is just invitation to try things another way. As Edison once said: “I have not failed. I just found 10.000 ways that won’t work“.
Get your name out there
Clients don’t come easy; that’s true. But in the digital industry there’s always a project to needs to be completed by yesterday. The only thing you’ve got to do is make sure people are aware that you exist. Cold-call new prospects, follow Twitter and other channels for requests for new projects. And when you respond, make sure you stand out. Respond fast and keep it short. I’ve started to notice that people want emails to be short, so keep things simple and make it count. And while a nice website is a good tool, a portfolio.pdf and a CV.pdf are far more important. Your client can always close your website in his browser and never see it again. But that portolio.pdf will always be right there in your email response, ready to be printed and shared across the office or even get forwarded to partners 😉
You wouldn’t believe just how much good money from clients goes to waste on horrible agencies. It’s really shocking how many design- & devshops are out there creating complete and utter crap. Cheap designs, badly thought-out with no respect for mobile devices are any kind of user experience at all in general. Horrible pieces of code, neither extensible nor maintainable with no respect for any kind of best (or even good) practice… They are out there. And somebody paid good (aka: A LOT of) money for it.
I bring this up because I’ve come across clients that wanted me to work on their existing codebase. It turned out the client had been paying tons of money (enough to hire me fulltime 8 hours a day for 16 months straight) for a website that was barely holding together. Added insult to injury: That site was an online shop that served as the only income that company had. I spent hours explaining this to the client and positioned myself as the new (and only) developer for that client.
He got quality work and actual improvements for way less than they used to pay for. I found myself with steady work and income and a client that really trusted me. A total win-win for all parties (except for the dev-shop that lost a rather important client… Then again: if they had even done a half-decent job, I wouldn’t have been able to walk away with the client like that. Serves them right).
Extra: Be an asshole
Look, if you’re a freelancer, you’re running a business. The target is revenue. I don’t care about your ‘I want to make the world a better place through technology‘-bullshit. At the end of the day, you want to get paid. And that’s okay. Good philosophy and nice ideals won’t put food on the table. All businesses share 1 common interest: money. And I don’t mean the ‘I want to make a lot of it‘-aspect. I refer to the ‘If you don’t get paid, you’ll go bust‘-aspect.
In my experience, there’s 2 important aspects to money when running a business. The first is to price your services correctly. High enough to be able to make ends meet but not too high so you don’t push away new clients. The idea is to know how much you’re worth and to ‘not sell cheap‘. Check out prices from your fellow freelance friends/colleagues and see how you measure up against them. Once you’ve found what you’re worth, don’t let your clients bring that number down ‘because it’s expensive‘. I mean: I can’t walk into a Mercedes dealership and ask them to bring down the prices because I find their cars too expensive. They’ll tell me to go somewhere else. Quality is expensive. If the client threatens to walk away, let him. Trust me: You don’t want to do business with people that don’t understand the value of good work.
The other important thing is getting paid. It’s shocking how little respect some clients show when it comes down to paying their invoices. For that reason alone: make sure you have a good contract in place; inform your client about how you do business and how much time they get to pay the invoices. Make sure they understand how you work. Take away any confusion. You might be their best friend and help them out a lot but when push comes to shove, all that goes out the window when the client doesn’t pay what he owes you.
And when that (unavoidable) event presents itself, you have to be very clear in your communications. Tell them what they agreed upon and what the potential extra costs could be if they don’t pay soon. Be clear and direct but stay professional. This could scare that particular client away for future projects but again: If they don’t communicate clearly what is going on money-wise, you don’t want to do business again with them anyway.
And if you’re unlucky enough to have an asshole client who starts dodging your emails, phone calls, text messages etc. when you try to communicate about late invoices, make sure to get their attention. Make sure they understand that you’re not fucking around. You will take drastic measures if they don’t respond to you. You’d be surprised how efficient that is.
A lot of people disagreed with the way I approached this particular problem (see links above) but quite honestly: I don’t care. The client and I had an agreement. I held up my end. They didn’t. They’re lucky I didn’t put a massive ‘invoice-overdue‘ notification on their website and Twitter profile. I also refused to accept any new business from them.
So there you have it. I started about 18 months ago. I knew little about being a freelancer or running my own business (and I still do). The one thing I knew was to ‘get a fucking awesome accountant‘. Everything else, I had to figure out on my own. And while I’m glad it made that work, I wouldn’t have minded if anybody had given me some advice. So there it is. I really hope this helps some people who are on the verge of starting their own freelance business.
Being a freelancer is a lot of fun but things can get rough. When those days hit home, don’t give up. Push through and hang in there. When things start falling into place, you’ll be glad you did. Always remember what Casey Neistat said: