Switching to freelance

Having been asked recently to contribute to a cover feature in .net magazine about tips for working freelance (issue 239, p43-44), I thought that I’d use my blog to elaborate on my answers a bit.

I’m obviously a pretty recent ‘switcher’, so I by no means consider myself an expert on the wonderful and crazy world that is self-employment. I have however learnt an awful lot in the last few months, so if my anecdotes can be of help to anyone considering a similar leap then great. Please feel free to get in touch if you’d like any further information, or leave some thoughts in the comments if you have any other advice – there’s lots I’m still looking to learn!

Before I jump into individual points, I wanted to say that so far freelancing has been incredibly challenging, but also incredibly enjoyable. So much so that I recently made a very difficult decision to turn down a great full-time opportunity in favour of continuing down this road for the foreseeable future. You’ll find there are lots of things which you didn’t anticipate, and that your outlook can turn around completely in a day, or even a matter of hours. An email coming in out of the blue may mean your next 6 months get booked up just like that, but not winning something you thought was a given may throw you back into a sea of speculative emails and new business work in order to fill gaps. Be prepared to stick it out and grow a thick skin, and don’t underestimate that it can be incredibly frustrating at times, as well as all-consuming if you let it. That said, it does however offer fantastic opportunities to meet a huge range of people, to experience ways of working and practices that you may not get in a single organisation, to work across a range of technologies and tasks, and most importantly to do what you love. I’m relishing the ability to learn, to structure my work in the way that I want, and to work with people who really inspire me. I love being able to work a slightly shifted work day because it better fits my productivity patterns. I love that I can go to gigs and not have to worry about getting up at stupid o’clock the next morning. I love that if I get an (extremely infrequent) urge to go for a run in the middle of the day, or need to shoot out for less virtuous reasons I can do it. More than anything I love being the master of my own destiny. I’m a big believer in things not falling into your lap unless you make them happen, so having this control is very rewarding for me.

And so on to the tips…

Contacts

Contacts have been absolutely key to me getting my first bookings. If you can, build up a contact list and start tentatively speaking to people before you make the leap. Be prepared to do quite a lot of emailing and chatting in order to let people know what you’re doing, and be prepared to go to a lot of meetings to (re)introduce yourself and your services in person, though this is one of the things I have enjoyed most. It has genuinely been great to have an excuse to catch up with some people who I don’t see socially, but love hearing from.

Who are you and what do you do?

I’ve found that it’s incredibly important to keep in sight what work you are looking to take on. After all, that’s probably one of the main reasons that you choose to freelance in the first place. Knowing what you enjoy, what principles you want to stick to, and where your strengths lie will help you keep focus both in finding work and providing effective services. You may be in the fortunate position where you have to decide between two offers of work, so knowing what you enjoy and what you want to get out of any engagements will help if this happens.

As you’ll be looking to speak to lots of people, make sure to get your elevator pitch down. You may be used to reeling off the core services that your previous employer offered, but you’d be surprised at how hard you may find it to define yourself. Update your website to state clearly and concisely what you can offer and why you’re good at what you do. Knowing your unique selling points will really help you to communicate to people what you do best and how you can fit in with what they need.

Take more (calculated!) risks

It’s easy to fall into the safe routine of doing what we’ve always known, however stepping out of this and deliberately doing things that scare you can have huge pay-offs. If you’ve always wanted to speak at a conference but nobody has ever approached you, contact some organisers. If you don’t think you’re experienced enough to win a job, try anyway. Putting yourself out there can be difficult at first if you’re not used to doing it, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get! Stop being afraid and just do it.

When speaking to people about whether there are any opportunities for you, be polite, but be a bit shameless at the same time. If you’re on the hunt for work, explain that. Don’t feel that you need to skirt around the issue – you don’t want to be pushy or annoy anyone, but making enquiries in a professional manner shouldn’t make you feel apologetic. Rejection will naturally be a part of this, but try to be objective – this isn’t necessarily a rejection of you as a person. It may just be that there’s not a business need for your services at that point. Give it 6 months and check back just in case.

Surround yourself with great people

The life of a freelancer can be a lonely one. Having people that you can bounce ideas off and who will inspire and support you can make all the difference at certain points. This may be an understanding family or partner, but could be from using a co-working space, Skyping fellow professionals, or engaging with the community on networks such as Twitter.

**Check out who is in your local area

** Your instinct may be to see everyone as competition, but instead use it to work out your USPs, as well as potentially hooking up with others to be able to fill gaps where they can’t.

Create a workspace you enjoy using

Spending all day, every day in a miserable environment is not conducive to creative output. Try to make it so you enjoy spending time in your place of work, whether it’s an office, a corner of a room at home or anything in between. For me that means being surrounded by as many post-its, toys, books and guitars as possible, but others may relish a clutter-free, minimalistic environment. Having a dedicated workspace will also help with a routine, and to shut work away at the end of each day.

Present yourself well

In the Netmag article, Todd Motto talks about developing a great personal brand in everything you to. To paraphrase, I would simply state Wheaton’s Law of “don’t be a dick”. He does however go on to state that “Swearing isn’t going to do you any favours”, so perhaps don’t listen to me on that one. In all seriousness, being pleasant, helpful, and conducting yourself professionally can really help leave a favourable impression on potential employers or colleagues. Likewise don’t be a scruff when meeting people – if you got into freelancing to sit in your pants all day then great, but make at least a bit of effort when you’re out and about.

Your personal brand extends more than your physical presence. Think about what a potential employers sees when they search for you online, and where possible try to tie everything into a uniform presence. Rather than churn out Times New Roman quotes, maybe put some effort into developing some kind of branding which you use across documentation, your site, business cards, and any social presences. Be prepared to sharpen up/struggle with a variety of basic software that you thought you could handle (curse you, Word). This could make you stand out above that other guy who didn’t bother and simply sent over an email – you’ve made some extra effort with your personal brand.

**Get a bit of cash behind you

** Take the pressure off yourself. Having a bit of a buffer financially will give you time to establish yourself and do the all-important early setup tasks, but will also allow you to focus on jobs you want to do rather than getting desperate and taking ones you otherwise wouldn’t. Give yourself some time to settle in – it likely won’t happen overnight. Make sure to factor in that even if you win some work and ask for a deposit, it may be 30 days until your invoice is paid.

**Other important things

** There are people far more qualified than me to talk about contracts, accountancy, tax, self-employed vs company, VAT, and all of the other necessary evils that you’ll need to consider. I’ll probably write up some thoughts once I get to the end of my first year and have experienced the realities, because there’s a lot which I know I’m not doing well enough yet. Nobody say “tax return”!  There are however some great resources out there which I found useful and I’d strongly advise you give a look before making any decisions:

HMRC – Thinking of working for yourself? http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/leaflets/se1.pdf

HMRC – Giving your business the best start with tax – http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/startingup/working-yourself.pdf

Smashing MagazineThe roadmap to becoming a professional freelance web designer

Unfinished Businesswww.unfinished.bz

This podcast has been one I’ve followed closely, and have found that it has given some great advice around situations that I was experiencing myself.

Freelance Switchwww.freelanceswitch.com

Another commonly referenced site, this has an awful lot of resources spanning all sorts of different practical advice.

You may also find the precursor to Netmag’s feature, “The ultimate freelance web design tools” in issue 228 useful. As opposed to tips and hints that we covered in the recent article, this one covers anything and everything you may want to know about managing your work and finances with handy bits of software and apps.