Full-time freelancing: 10 things learned in 180 days
~ 28 November 2005 ~
This Friday will welcome two special events: 1) the birthday of my beloved wife (Happy B-day Suzanne!) and 2) the 6-month mark of freelancing full-time.
The first was an extremely solid decision — gratitude overflows at the thought of her saying ‘yes’ more than 7 years ago. The second, however, was a veritable leap of faith. I was physically and mentally tired from several years of doing the day job / side work thing, I’m the sole provider for our family, and our fourth son was to be born just 2 days after making the leap.
Somehow it’s all worked out. We’ve continued to pay the bills. There’s no shortage of requests for work. And I’ve enjoyed recapturing my evenings and Saturdays, filled with family and personal time.
Thus, here are 10 things learned over the last 6 months. This topic has been exhausted elsewhere by many others, so I hope I’ve avoided duplicating what’s already been said.
1. Err on the side of abundant contact. If choosing among infrequent contact vs. abundant contact with clients, always offer more than less. Currently only 2 of my clients reside in Utah. The rest are scattered abroad. That typically means a remote working environment, in which email, IM, and phone replace traditional face-to-face or in-house interaction. Do whatever each project requires to ensure clients feel cared for and attended to. I’ve even held daily phone calls with clients over an extended period of time when it meant keeping a project on task.
2. Care for the future. It’s extremely easy to get caught up in client work in the present and fail to give proper attention to the marketing of one’s business in the future. Roughly 90% of my work comes as a result my site, and I’d be foolish to fail to author articles or other fresh content. However, my writing has slowed at times because of workload, and it’s a constant battle to ensure I keep a fresh presence. Set aside at least one-half day a week to promoting your business, whether that means cold calling, blogging, direct marketing, or other forms of self-promotion.
3. Care for the present. A charge to care for the future comes only with the harsh reality of caring for the present. It’s impossible to be concerned about future business without first successfully executing what’s already on the table. Work in progress is by far the better revenue stream when compared to potential prospects that may or may not pan out, so treat existing clients with care.
4. Avoid Monday deadlines. A while back I asked many of you to test 37signal’s newly launched Writeboard by answering the question, “Mondays: Excellent or lousy for deadlines?” (You can still access the board here by entering the password “authentic”.) I’m not certain this is the best use of Writeboard, but the exercise was worth the effort. Some of you argued for Monday deadlines, others against. My take? Unless the thought of spending your weekend behind a PC gets you giddy, you’d be wise to avoid Monday. I, for one, made the leap to freelance precisely to avoid working the weekends. A Monday deadline is anything but elusive of weekend client work. Sure, I’ve had to work my share of Saturdays since making the leap — it’s inevitable at times. But when I have any say in a deadline or the preparation thereof, I avoid Mondays at all costs.
5. Be cautious responding to emails outside business hours. Though I typically check email on Saturdays and evenings, I tend not to respond unless urgent. I’m cognizant of the fact that if I respond on a Saturday at 2pm or a Wednesday evening at 9pm, that gives every reason for others to assume I work any and all hours of the day. Again, I made the leap to avoid hectic work schedules, and I make every attempt to let others know that my availability comes without restriction during normal business hours but on a limited basis after hours.
6. Say ‘no’ as often as you say ‘yes’. I quoted Michael Porter in my ALA article and I’ll do so again here: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” Realize that every project you say ‘yes’ to inevitably locks up time that may or may not be better spent elsewhere in terms of project revenue, portfolio depth, and overall work satisfaction. It’s a game of opportunity cost, so be sure you’re choosing those projects that maximize a) the talent you offer clients and b) what you take home at the end of the day.
7. Make project expenses justify themselves. Often a project requires expenses for “raw” materials (e.g. stock photography) or additional contractor assistance. When these occasions arise, do your best to anticipate these expenses when bidding, and disclose them accordingly. Should they arise halfway through a project, discuss them with the client to see if a bid addenda is warranted. If not, evaluate the necessity of the expense, if it can’t be included aside from other allocated costs (your time, taxes, etc.), consider alternatives. Don’t rob Peter’s up-front payment on Project X to pay for Paul’s raw materials on Project Y. It’s simply good business practice to force each expense to be paid for by the project it’s tied to.
8. Beware the inevitable check delay. Though I’d been doing side work for over 5 years before making the leap, I don’t know that I was as prepared as I could have been to deal with check delays. Think about it: You submit an invoice. Your contact submits the invoice for payment. The check is cut. The check is mailed. You deposit the check. Your bank may or may not place a hold. The cash is finally available. Typical, right? Well, it’s not so bad when it’s side work, but when it’s your sole income, you better prepare accordingly. I’ve had the invoice to cash-in-hand cycle take up to 60 days before, regardless of net 30, late fees, or other terms I’ve assessed. Have enough cash in the bank to fill in gaps between cycles, or consider alternative payment methods (e.g. PayPal).
9. Be chummy with your point of contact. Speaking of potential client point-of-contacts, if you don’t a) get along well with him or her and b) think he or she is web savvy, you might avoid the project altogether. I can’t stress how crucial a good point-of-contact is in determining the outcome of a project. I’ve been fortunate to have stellar contacts for the duration of my freelancing. Be sure it’s someone you can establish a good relationship with and someone you can confide in driving the project forward wisely and timely.
10. Don’t leap without solid footing. Some of you have sent emails in recent months, most of which began like this: “I’ve been thinking about going solo…” If I didn’t say it in my response to you, I’ll say it here: Don’t make the leap until you’ve got the necessary experience and exposure to make it all happen. I said earlier that my leap was one of faith, and though it was, I was also quite confident the timing was right. I had the necessary experience (portfolio, client roll, variety of projects) and exposure (Google search, incoming links, readership) to leave the ground with solid footing, as ironic as that sounds. Had I made the leap a year earlier, I imagine I’d be back at a day job by now. So leap when you’re confident you’ll land smoothly.
Hope that helps some of you aspiring to full-time contract work. Here’s to another solid 6 months.
Stock photography, type, and killer tees. Genuinely recommended by Authentic Boredom.
Thanks for the advice. I made the leap three months ago. You and Kristian provided great inspiration. BTW my one year old son just drooled all over me - working from home is heaven.
One additional comment: I’ve found that working out some sort of long-term care for your work is very rewarding. I’ve found that as a freelancer, you have little-to-no say regarding your hard work after you’ve left, and I’ve seen many of my ‘star’ projects starve to the death in the hands of an inept sysadmin, or a different-language-fanboi.
A small long-term commitment to baby your project for the following months can often be lucrative, too.
I think far too many clients expect websites to behave like a machine you lock away in the closet that makes money - web sites take TLC, and thinking about their long-term care is good for portfolio as well as pocketbook health.
The point about keeping in contact is the best point. I have won over clients on my contact alone, they felt comfortable that I actually wanted the job.
Amen to Number 10! I had been considering “the jump” for sometime, but decided to wait. What you have said is probably the best advice you can ever give to a newbie in the market.
#8 - Gets me every time!!
I’m no expert, but I agree with all that was said, except for the “cold calling” bit. From experience, I don’t enjoy receiving cold calls. However, I’ve never actually tried it. I’m wondering, does that usually lead to clients, or is it effective enough to justify the negative connotations associated with telemarketers?
Nathan - In the design industry, perhaps. Don’t know either as I have yet to do it. But in many other industries, yes. In fact, the company I left before going freelance (web-based medical software) did cold calls, and they were rather successful with it.
I’m confused. You don’t want your point-of-contact to be web-saavy?
These tips are not only applicable to freelancers, but are equally valuable to anyone who wants to take things a step farther and start an agency. I’ve been running an agency for five years, and every one of these is 100% applicable to my own experience.
One more I would add…don’t write an email calling a client/partner an idiot and then accidentally send it to the client/partner instead of the co-worker you meant to send it to.
I haven’t done this, but one of my employees did back when I was first starting my agency. In fact, just don’t badmouth clients at all. Hard to do sometimes, but worth it, even if you work by yourself.
Ah, that blasted #5. Congrats on the 6-month tenure, open evenings and weekends, and seasoned experience. That’s what it’s all about (well, mostley).
thank you so much for you insight and wisdom. this is why i love this site, it has tidbits of useful information, for when you are ready for them.
i just recently got into a discussion with a old art school buddy of mine, and we were talking about how profitable it is to maintain great connections with clients around holidays and birthdays or what not. remember, its not just a job, you are dealing with human beings that have feelings and families and kids and other things that make them human, just like you. be sensitive to that.
thanks cam for these 10 great tips!
I made the leap 3 weeks ago, and it’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done!
It’s where I always wanted my career to go though, and the timing couldn’t be better; I have no children to feed, and no mortgage to pay… and I was offered a 12 week contract to get me started! hurrah!
Great article Cameron, thanks. Let me add number 11: Schedule, schedule, schedule, then educate your clients about how you work.
When you’re a solo designer or small shop, there isn’t a lot of slack in your schedule, so it’s important that your clients understand that delays on their end will bump them out of your work flow. This is vital. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of having 4 dormant projects come to life simultaneously. Especially if all 4 clients expect that you’ll have the capacity to jump to it.
Trust me on this one.
Ah yes the freelancing list. If only I had the benefit of making the choice myself when I went freelance. Now I just need to make the choice to follow this advice ;^)
Thank you for writing it so well.
Cameron this article has helped me tremendously. I wish I had read this about a year ago. My leap of faith was not executed with a solid strategy in place. Right now, I don’t have your level of experience, but I am learning and I have great passion for what I do. Your work truly inspires me and I can always learn from you. My faith is not only in my God-given abilities, but in Jesus Christ who has strengthen me to endure the ups and downs of freelancing. God bless you and your family. Happy freelancing!
Peter took the words right out of my mouth … scheduling is still one of the most difficult things to master for me, and I’ve been solo for close to two years.
I often stumble on this most basic question from potential clients, “What’s your availability like in the next month?” Uhhh … running through my head is the four other potential clients I’ve been talking with who may or may not hire me and the other two projects that are at a standstill waiting for clients to get their content to me but which can and will suddenly spring to life maybe tomorrow, maybe next week - who knows!
Sometimes I’ve been afraid of over-commiting myself and then I don’t have enough work. Or at other times it’s the opposite.
If anyone has pearls of wisdom on this aspect of running your own business I’d love to hear ‘em.
Oh, and another amen to #8 … there have been more times than I would care to admit when I have had about $37 in my bank account and thousands invoiced. Ugh.
I’ve learned number eight the hard way; kind of drifted into freelance work without a plan after the summer ended. Not the best idea in the world, but I’ve been living as a student for the last five years and don’t have a family to support. Thanks for the pointers, they come at a good time.
It’s been 5 years for me (started Modal, Inc. an experience design firm) and I hope the best for you. It would not have been done without my supportive wife. I agree with your points about work hours. I know that I’ve worked many a weekend and continue to from time to time. Word of mouth has really helped as well. I’d encourage you and all of those interested to build up a really good community. Don’t be “salesy” but don’t be afraid to say what you do. Best to you!
I wholeheartedly must agree and laugh about the scheduling comments. It is by far the most anxiety-ridden part of my life as a freelancer. I have yet to figure out a system that works for me, doesn’t turn away clients, but keeps me sane.
I must respectfully disagree with #1, mainly because of my aforementioned issues with scheduling. Rarely do I do phone contact, and I’m not at a loss for work. I’ve found many clients will abuse the phone, and I find it insecure to not have certain agreements (changes, timelines, etc) in writing (email). Part of my goal is to “train” my clients to fit into a schedule and workflow that makes for the most efficient process possible. When I explain that containing things to email (excepting the occassional introductory phone call to reassure an uncertain prospect) helps ensure deadlines are met, the client generally jumps on board with that and sticks with email contact without complaint.
Reese - Agreed. I’ve been in plenty of situations in previous employed environments where clients abuse communication privileges. I’ve been fortunate, however, not to encounter that situation while freelancing… yet.
Very nice article
Great article, Cameron. This is my first post on your site, but I’ve been watching it for a while. Lots of good stuff here.
I had to swallow a #9 dripping in #8 gravy. I will always investigate how tech savvy a potential client is from now on. There’s nothing worse than getting a daily phone call saying “Hi, can you put a cute, purple frog on all my web pages and teach me how to download AOL?” Sheesh. Worse yet, checks took forever.
I actually no longer freelance. I’m doing web-based training for American Express. Corporate work is steady but doesn’t give you the buzz freelancing does. One of my biggest concerns with freelancing is benefits. Cameron, what do you do to give your family health care? I just got married (www.labrum.org), so I’ve got a Gorgeous Liability. Thoughts?
Funny, I’ve been considering making the leap for some time now as well. Looks like I’ll make sure to have my ducks in a row and leap cautiously. Thanks!
Great article and excellent, professional thoughts about being an independent contractor. Further, I think that the point that you highlight set the foundation for a solid business model that will allow for the growth of your (any) operation. Keeping these things in mind will prove to be good way-finders for maintaining happiness as a designer.
Best wishes for your continued success.
Great points, Cameron. Thanks.
I might add these two …
Separate Church and State - Income does tend to come in waves, due to several factors (especially if you invoice at milestones rather than monthly or bimonthly). But when that whoppingly huge check comes in, don’t even think about buying the 50” plasma you’ve been drooling over. Think about next month’s possible delay. Set yourself up as a corporation, LLC, or even use a simple savings account as a buffer for revenue. Then pay yourself a regular, steady amount every two weeks from the business account, just like normal folks.
Minimize Surprises - Scope creep happens. It’s just a fact of life. So do those little bumps that add time/costs to projects. Track everything as closely as you can so that you can warn a client as early as possible. A simple XLS spreadsheet that pulls hours from your timesheet and synchs with an estimate can be a big help, and much appreciated by clients.
These are all great points! I need to work on #4 and #5. Though I don’t mind working on the weekends if I have nothing scheduled away from the computer!
#2 - One quick way to warm up cold calls. Each month we pick up a report of “New Business Licenses” issued by surrounding county’s Revenue Departments. Easiest way we’ve found to find QUALIFIED prospects. Everyone starting a business wants it to be a success. Show them how you can help.
It’s articles like this that really help when deciding to make the leap. Extremely helpful and eye opening.
Along the lines of “eye opening”, Clifton brought up an excellent question that never seem to get much mention. What about benefits (health care, dental, etc.)? This often times goes unnoticed when you’re workin’ for the man.
Regarding benefits, in the US, the Nat’l Association for the Self Employed (www.nase.org) has a health plan (among other benefits) that is completely ala carte with regards to options and coverages. It is part of a large group, as opposed to an individual policy, and is also very competitively priced. I just signed up as a member, but my consulting partner has been with them for years and never had a problem with a claim.
Thanks for the list. This is my 7th year (solo) and I occasionally get burned by #8’s length on non-profits… but the work is fun. One thing that helps is having clients buy chunks of time. Then I can move these “chunks” around to schedule better.
This is a very timely article for me. Thank you.
I’ve been working abroad making web apps (not my usual line of work) in a huge public health organisation and have enjoyed it so much, I’ve been considering what I am going to do when I get back home. I need to pay close attention to numbers 2 and 10. Number 8 just scares me. Especially considering I also have a new arrival in the house.
(Happy birthday for Suzanne.)
Check out my website http://www.bscene.com.au I am truly burnt out…
I went full-time freelance in July, and point 8 was the tipping point that has forced me back into the working world for the time being. My checks started to get further and further behind; the stress became unbearable.
I’ve returned to freelancing as side work, but hope to get back to full-time soon. I LOOOOOOOOOVED working at home.
I’ve been freelancing for 10 years, and I can vouch that everything you’ve said here, Cameron, is wise advice. Lucky you, to have it figured out early on!
I’ve been blessed w/ clients who pay quickly, so I haven’t had to sweat that too often. “Care for the future” is my biggest failing; I’m always too busy w/ today. And let me know, ANYone, when you get that scheduling thing figured out!
Great summary! Nothing like being out on your own, though, and the rewards are infinite when compared to working for mindless martinets who are unprogressive and rule bound….i.e. the antithesis of how to get things done in real life.
I just wanted to say that I appreciate your insight, and your willingness to share your experiences with other freelancers. I’m the Guide for the new Consulting / Freelance site on About.com, and I just wanted to thank you for providing a resource that I felt was worth making available to my readers. If you want to see the blog entry w/ the link to this article, you can find it here: http://consulting.about.com/b/a/224078.htm
Good tips! A lot of these are things I know through experience, but tend to forget when the work gets thick.
I’ve been freelancing as a graphic designer for four years, and getting the balance between not enough work and too much work has always been my biggest hurdle.
Some of the most successful freelancers I know don’t worry about having too much work; instead, they network with other designers, writers, whatever, and farm out work if they have too much on their plate. I’ve haven’t yet tried that approach, but it does seem to have a lot going for it. Also holds the possibility of getting work from those you network with that have too much on their plates. Anyone else had success with this?
Good tips, I started as freelancer about three months ago, my plan was to be freelancer for full-time, but first I was a new fresh graduated and I haven’t no portfolio, no real experience (only a couple of school projects working in a real environment, but not much really).
In the begginning was really awful since I got many bad experiences that leave to me few money but at least experience in the real world. Now I’m a day worker, and the other half of the day I’m on freelance. I really want to be freelance full-time, but of course I’m now setting out the point 10 =). And now I’m getting good jobs, hoping to find soon my dream salary working from home =).
Regards, and thanks for your advices =).
Question for all:
When I have a W-2 job and if I get laid off, I get unemployment benefits, right? Is there anything like that while freelancing?
Great list, I’m freelancing for few year. I�m specializing in IT administration, sometimes do some webdesigns. In my experience, most problems are with communication with clients. I spend so much time on phone, mail (only one time I use some king of internet communicator - it was disaster) that some times I have almost no time for the job.
#6 Very important, but some times very hard.
Excellent tips. Although I know I’m not at the point to make that leap yet, the tips could apply elsewhere. *thumbs up*
Really good article. I really wanted to print the article to keep around but you don’t have a print stylesheet and when I print preview from FF 1.0 I get overlap w/ the content and navigation columns.
As blog entries are more or less just articles, I would think printability would be high on the list of priorities.
Best of luck in the next 6 months!
As I will enter my third fiscal year as a freelancer I can give some tips to newcomers. My perspective on this ‘trade’ is quite unusual because I’m spastic. If you would run into me in the supermarket you would think I was retarded.
First: your network is of the utmost importance. You need to get a foot between the door. If they know you and they like your work, they’ll recommend you to other people. I get all of my jobs through my network. Sure, it’s harder for me to get a job at a company that hasn’t heard of me, but still.
Second: 50% of the offers/talks don’t pan out. Don’t get frustrated by it. It’s just the way it goes. You should always have some jobs lingering on the horizon.
Third: you need skills and social intelligence. People will pay you good money but they expect good value. If you are not willing to go all the way with your skill building then you will not succeed in the end, unless you’re a smooth talker or something. In this respect I tend to take a different standpoint on #5. Work hard if you have time and energy but plan your holidays in advance and let your clients know when you’re going away.
Brandon - Yes, a print stylesheet is (sadly) another item on my list of updates/fixes/wizardry at the moment. Thanks for the nudge.
Marijn - 50% don’t pan out? Shoot, that’s good. I’d say only 1 in 10 of my requests for work ever make it to signing (10%). Though that’s partly due to my availability saying ‘no’ for me half of the time.
#8. Oh, #8. You are inspiration for desperation, #8. I just finished writing my first book. Throughout the four month process, I had three check points with the publisher. At each check point, I was due a portion of the advance. The first was delayed so long that it had to be included with the second. The combined payment then took sixty days. I received it a week and a half before the entire project was complete. The third installment of the advance is currently being “processed.” #8, I hate you.
This is great advice, Cameron. Definitely good for people to know BEFORE entering into this line of work. A few years back I was doing full-time freelance as a result of being laid off when the dot.com I was working for went under. It lasted 2 years and it didn’t take me long to figure out that going freelance only really works well when you’ve been able to put some kind of business plan together.
So, my biggest addition to your list is, “BE PREPARED”
Nice post! Although i’ve read your post a few days ago, i still keep it in my bookmarks, just in case i need to refresh my idea on different aspects i encounter on my freelancing career.
I like the part, on picking the right clients. I recommend it highly, it had work wonders with me, and keeps me working on great projects that i like, not to mention keeps my clients happy as well. You’ll need to be picky, to keep that level of satisfaction among your clients, and also on yourself — as the more you make your clients happy, the better you’ll build-up your confidence. :)
Nearly two years ago I went through the same emotions as you. With my three children and a wife who’s salary is $0 (full-time mom), I was riddled with fear about their financial security when considering the transition from full-time work to freelancing. But as it were, I “landed on my feet,” as you put it. Why? Your #10. Without this I never would have made it, same as you.
But I’m happy to say that I’m the luckiest web designer in the world, as I’ve had to turn down more work in the past two years than I’ve had to seek because of the overwhelming number of clients coming my way. This is because 100% of my clients have come to me by referral, and nearly half are return clients. Happy clients send their friends and colleagues to your door.
Which brings me to what I believe is the most valuable item on your list: 3, care for the present.
I have found it incredibly easy to get caught up in the excitement of new prospects, but learned quickly that sacrificing the integrity of a project to send out countless proposals was a mistake. Take care of your clients, and they’ll take care of you.
Thanks for the post. I have been preparing for business for almost two years now — planning, working, creating, learning… Is there such as a thing as too much waiting?
I love the top ten tips. I’m keeping a blog at www.realmoneywebdesign.com to keep a journal of going freelance in 2006. It’ll showcase my ups and downs along with a running total of freelance $ earned. With the tips you’ve shared, I’m sure it will help! Many thanks!
Suggestion for payments? Open up a paypal merchant account. Get a paypal ATM debit card. Makes it easy to have your smaller clients pay you on the spot, and you can walk down the block and pull out the loot! :-)
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1 Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain ~ 28 November 2005 at 02:03 PM
Good call on points #5 and #6. These are the 2 largest errors that I’ve made with my own business. I’m going to keep this one bookmarked.