10 tips from 4 years of freelancing (Part 1)

On 8th April I gave a talk at the Untangle the Web meetup at Google Campus in London.

As a freelancer there is a lot of advice out there, especially in the web industry. You’ll probably have heard some of these tips before, some might be new. They’re not necessarily the best, or most important, they are just the ones that have made a positive difference in my short career. I hope they can work for you too.

What is freelancing?

Going right back to the beginning, the term ‘freelance’ was first coined in 1820 by Sir Walter Scott. He used it to refer to a mercenary, literally a free lance, or a soldier that wasn’t allied to a particular monarch.

Today’s definition of freelancing is blurry. At it’s most simple, it means someone who has multiple employers.

The pros

Many of the advantages of freelancing are fairly obvious. Mostly it comes down to freedom. Freedom:

  • to work the hours that you want
  • of location and avoiding commutes
  • to do the type of work that you want to do
  • to choose who you work with

It can also be very rewarding. It’s very satisfying when the hard work, to find and do great work, pays off.

The cons

Freelancing doesn’t come without it’s drawbacks. For me there are three main disadvantages:

  1. Doing it all
  2. Financial insecurity
  3. Isolation

Doing it all

As a freelancer, you don’t just have to be skilled in your area of expertise, you also have to be competent at:

  • accounting
  • marketing
  • project management
  • pitching
  • and more!

I think that this is where most people struggle. They put all their time into improving their key skill set and forget about these auxilliary, but essential extras.

Financial insecurity

As a freelancer there is no monthly paycheque, unless you’re on a long term contract. This can make it very difficult to plan your business and personal finances. Also, try applying for a mortgage! Smoothing out the typical boom and bust payment structure is essential.

Isolation

I find this one really difficult to manage. Sometimes I love being able to sit at home, put my head down and put in a good day’s work. Often though, I really miss having people around me. People to share triumphs, frustrations, idle chat and ideas with. It can be a very lonely career path.

Let’s have a look at some ways that we can hopefully leverage the positives and reduce the cons.

1. Find a niche

I started my web career as a ‘web designer’. I knew some HTML and CSS and I wanted to build websites for people. Turns out that I wasn’t alone.

In an effort to find work I signed up to a few job boards and freelance directories. I used “People Per Hour” a lot. There were loads of jobs posted on there that I knew I had the skills for. But every time I submitted a bid for a job, so did 100 other ‘web designers’. My odds weren’t good. I was spending too much time writing proposals that weren’t going anywhere (mostly because I was being undercut, but we’ll get to that).

The turning point for me was when I started using WordPress. Once I’d built my first WordPress site, I was hooked. After a couple of sites I added ‘WordPress development’ to my list of skills. Suddenly, instead of looking for projects, people were approaching me. I changed my title to ‘WordPress developer and web designer’ and I received even more enquires. That trend has continued. So what happened?

As a ‘web designer’ I was competing with a huge number of people and companies, using a very generic skill. What is ‘web design’ anyway? Is it producing wireframes? Designing mockups? Front-end development? Building full websites?

As a ‘WordPress developer’ I had a much clearer skill. People that had, or wanted, a WordPress website would see that I knew how to work with the platform.

Finding a niche isn’t limited to niche skills. It could be a niche industry (‘web designer for bands’), a location (‘Camden front-end dev’), personality trait (‘friendly UX consultant’), style (‘I like building funky, colourful websites!), anything. If you can combine a few of these, then great. Just be careful of not being too niche. There might not be a huge market for “funky pet profile websites in Islington”.

2. Raise your rates

I once met a potential client who, after agreeing to hire me, said, “I nearly didn’t call you, you’re too cheap to be really good at what you do.” That bit of rare honesty had a big effect on me. How much potential business had I lost this way?

‘Raise your rates’ is advice that you’ll hear a lot, but it can be hard to put this into action. The understanable fear is that you’ll price yourself out of potential work. You will. But there are two things to consider here:

  1. Will raising your rates actually bring you more enquiries?
  2. Is the work that you’ll miss out on the type of work that you want?

I would suggest the answers are yes and no. In my experience, every time that I’ve raised my rates I’ve noticed a drop off in the total number of enquiries, but an increase in the number of higher quality leads. This means that I spend less time on the ‘can you build me Facebook for £500’ enquiries and more time on the serious projects with sensible budgets.

If you are competing on price alone, then everybody loses. You’ll end up being stressed and resentful of the tiny budget, and your client will be disappointed by the rushed job. Also, your portfolio will never have anything decent in it, therefore making it difficult to attract the better clients.

You’re now an expert in your niche, so your rates should reflect that. After all, people know that if you pay peanuts you’re probably eating horse.

Think about how much you should earn as an expert and work out your rates from there. Here’s a quick calculation:

  • Jeff is a middle-weight front-end developer. He might be able to attract a full-time salary of £35,000.
  • As a freelancer,his expenses for the year might be £5,000.
  • He probably does 30 billable hours per week (remember all that auxiliary stuff we talked about!)
  • He might work about 45 weeks in the year. Sometimes he’ll be between contracts.
  • That comes in at 1,350 hours of work in a year.
  • His hourly rate would have to be around £30. A daily rate of £240.
An expert in London should be charging at least this amount. Maybe more depending on your level of expertise, skill set and industry.

3. Don’t feed the monster

Crap, low-budget work leads to more crap, low-budget work. We touched on this vicious cycle earlier. There’s a bit more to it though.

I was inspired by Andy Budd when I went to see him talk at the London Web meetup. He was giving at talk called “7 tips from 7 years running Clearleft”. One of Andy’s tips was to have at least 6 months ‘in the bank’.

The idea behind this was that you would never get to the stage where you had to take on work. You’ll have been there before. The end of your current project is approaching and you have nothing lined up. A job appears in your inbox. The budget is tight and the project isn’t well thought out, but you have bills to pay so you accept it.

The job turns out to be worse than you imagined. It drags on and you have long since lost any kind of profit. To make matters worse, while you’re in the middle of it your dream client calls with a project starting next week. You have to turn it down.

If you could have held out for a week or two, with no work, you could have taken that dream job.

OK, so maybe your dream job wouldn’t have come along. The point is though that it pays to be picky. You won’t win great work with crap stuff in your portfolio.

4. Use a contract

This is one of the most common bits of advice, and for good reason. Contracts not only give you something to fall back on when things go wrong, they also help to make sure that things go right.

A good contract will set expectations and may raise important questions that are better to be resolved at this stage than during a project.

Using a contract will also make you appear more professional, because you will be more professional.

If you’re scared of contracts have a look at Andy Clarke’s Contract Killer. Another great resource for this area is ‘Design is a Job’ by Mike Monteiro.

5. The client isn’t always wrong

Have you seen the site Clients from Hell? It’s pretty funny. You’ll no doubt sympathise with some of the designers on there. We’ve all had ‘interesting’ requests.

However, this ‘clients are always wrong’ mindset is a dangerous one to fall into. The client blaming culture in our industry is getting out of control. I think that it’s time to take some responsibility for when projects go bad.

From my point of view, there are many more bad project managers than bad clients. There are bad clients out there, but using tips 2 and 3 should help you weed those guys out.

YOU are the web design (or other industry) expert. YOU need to be leading the process (see below). This includes structuring the project in a way that the client ‘buys in’ to the decisions, and controlling the type of feedback that you receive. That means no more emails like:

Hey Mike, Here’s the design I’ve been working on for three months. What do you think?

You tend to get the feedback that you ask for.

Part 2 to follow…

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7 Responses to “10 tips from 4 years of freelancing (Part 1)”

  1. julie

    A very concise and interesting article. I’m in the process of working out how to get out of my full time job learn new skills, possibly go part time and do some freelance work. Years ago I worked ‘Freelance’/casual in Market Research. It eventually took it’s toll, even with a few clients it can be difficult.
    This article has given me a lot of food for thought. Though if your an expert in your field, your unlikely to go hungry!!

    Reply
  2. eckoweb

    Beware of firms and individuals who declare to be Net designers
    and developers however carry out principally graphic
    design and work in print media.

    Reply
  3. Dan Neamtu

    Great tips. For isolation you can go to diferent courses, trainings or conferences. I’m also freelancer and sometimes I need to breed outside and meet new people. Try something new and fun like acting courses.

    Reply
  4. Jim C

    Good to get your thoughts on this Keith. Best wishes for your next venture and keep us in mind for future collaborative projects. Cheers, Jim @jimcallender

    Reply

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