Eight Lessons from Eight Months of Full-Time Freelancing
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I’ve been creating websites for about half of my life now — nearly 14 years focused on creating comps, writing code, and, of course, making designs look right in Internet Explorer. I’ve spent many of those years moonlighting, creating websites for clients who didn’t mind me working only at night. But it was only eight months ago that I decided to quit my third job in four years (all of which were decent jobs by the way) and launch out on my own.
Although I’ve really enjoyed the last eight months, I will say that I’ve learned quite a bit about freelancing and myself. Many of these lessons are the more obvious ones like “Work Hard” or “Budget Well,” but there are a number of lessons that are probably not so apparent. Here are eight that I’ve learned:
1. Focus Your Offering
An easy trap to fall into as a freelancer is to accept any work that is offered, even if the skill necessary is not really related to your field. You quickly find yourself promising the finest work in not only web design, but also in print work, content writing, photography, and business consultation. I guarantee that no individual can be all these things, and potential clients that hear you say this will be equally skeptical. Though there may be times when wearing multiple hats is necessary, in general, try to keep your offered skills focused. If your talent and skillset are up to snuff, there will always be work in your niche.
2. Business Skills Are More Important Than Freelancing Skills
A talented businessperson with subpar freelance skills (in whatever field) can still make a pretty good living. But a talented freelancer with subpar business skills is often found working 80-hour weeks for much less than what he/she could earn in the 40-hour corporate world. When you’re freelancing, you’re running a business, and thus, you need to develop those business skills (or find someone who can help or do it for you). There’s no reason why a freelancer should not be able to make a good salary.
3. It’s All About the Numbers
Expanding on point #2, keeping financially soluble as a freelancer comes down to simple math. You often hear people voice these types of concerns about freelancing: “What will I do about health insurance? What about my retirement account? How will I pay bills without a regular paycheck?” Well, I personally feel that these are red herrings and the real issue is simply, “Can I earn more than my expenses?” It takes less than 30 minutes to find out how much health insurance will cost or how to set up your own IRA, 401k, or other retirement account. Add those figures to your bills, mortgage, etc. and now you’ll know exactly how much you need to earn. Focus on the actual cashflow and it’s really not all that complicated or worrisome.
4. Go For More Work From Fewer Clients
Your greatest and most profitable clients are usually your current ones. Good relationships with current clients can cut out a lot of non-billable administrative and correspondence time trying to find new clients. Furthermore, when looking at new work, consider whether the potential client has long-term potential. A “one-and-done” job may pay a little more than a job with a current client, but be sure to take into account all the extra time and uncertainties associated with new clients.
5. The Customer Is Not Always Right
Chances are, one of the reasons you first considered becoming a freelancer was so you could create an environment with less stress and a happier workday. So why put yourself in a situation where you are daily stressed by certain clients that make you thoroughly unhappy? Understandably, there may be times when they’re paying your bills and you need to bear the pain for a little while. But remember that you are your own boss for a reason, and if a client isn’t working out, find replacement work and politely move on.
6. Structure Your Work and Time
Let’s be honest: it’s quite easy as a freelancer to take more breaks than you should and live in a sloppier work environment than you should. I know many will claim, “It’s my style and I’m just as productive,” as I also used the same line more often than not. But when tax season came or when it was time to add-up billable hours for a week, it’s hard to deny that a little structure would have helped. So try to add at least a little structure to your work environment and schedule, whether it be a few labeled envelopes or a small time slot where you always plan to work billable hours. A little structure will actually make you more free.
7. You Need Less “Stuff” Than You Think
When it comes to bootstrapping (operating your business as inexpensively as possible), everyone is different. When I first began to freelance, I thought the first thing that I needed was business cards and a portfolio website — I have had neither to date because I get steady work from current clients and referrals. Obviously, I’m not suggesting you forgo business cards (although I have met a couple other successful freelancers who still don’t have them), but you should not make business purchases unless you actually need them. Chances are, except for a few tools of the trade, there are many things you can go without or at least find a cheaper substitute for.
8. You’ll Always Have Your Skills and Friends
If ever your business fails or in the unlikely event that all your clients leave at once, remember that you always have the skills you’ve learned and the friends you’ve made. If you have these two well in hand, there will always be a place for you in the world of gainful employment. Stay confident that even when the cashflow is low, the worst case scenario is usually that you might have to go back into the corporate world (with additional skills to boot). And if you have supportive friends along the way, very few “troubles” are worth stressing too much about. Freelancing isn’t as big a risk as some would make it out to be, so just work hard and always be learning…