If you're working as a web professional for an employer, chances are you occasionally daydream about going it alone. Maybe you do some freelance work in your spare time and would love to extend that to full time, or maybe you just want the freedom of being your own boss.
Working freelance can be great, I've done it for almost half of my career and can't imagine working another way. But it can have its pitfalls, and doesn't necessarily suit everyone.
In this article I'll outline some of the key considerations you'll need to take into account before making the leap into going freelance. These are:
- work space
You'll need to get all of these working for you if becoming a freelancer is going to work, and hopefully this article will help you identify if that's something you can do before you take a leap into the uncharted territory of self-employment.
Some people are suited to working freelance and some aren't.
If you're self-motivated and comfortable working on your own initiative (and possibly alone), then freelancing could be ideal for you. But if you like to be directed in your work or you thrive on being part of a team, then freelancing may not suit you.
You also need to be able to cope with the ups and downs of self-employment. There will be times when you're working on great projects with fantastic clients, or when you've won an exciting or lucrative contract, and things are great. But there will also be times when you haven't had an invoice paid for weeks or there's no work on the horizon. Being able to cope with these hard times is important, or you'll become so demoralised that you can't go out and look for work.
You also need to be committed to developing your skills: to following advances in your industry, identifying what you need to learn and finding the best way to develop those skills. There are a lot of skills you can learn online at no cost but you need to be able to filter all the information out there and find what's most relevant to you as well as being of high quality. And it will take up time.
If you're easily distracted, working freelance will give you plenty of opportunities to procrastinate. There's no boss to know if you've spent the day idly surfing the web instead of doing focused research for a project, and if your project deadlines are loose it's easy to fall behind. Currently it's Summer where I live, and it would be tempting to go outside rather than write this article, but doing that won't pay my bills!
Mark Wilkinson took the leap to going freelance full-time in 2014. Despite some years' experience working freelance in addition to a day job, he found there were new challenges to overcome:
"To become a freelancer you need to be very self motivated. It could be all too easy to get up late and then procrastinate throughout the day as there is no-one holding you accountable. You need to be your own boss and be a bossy boss!"
You'll need to set your own deadlines and make yourself knuckle down and get on with work. After a while this becomes less of a challenge, as you learn that if you don't work, you don't earn. But if you find it hard to focus, freelancing may not be for you.
On the other hand, if you're the kind of person who likes to have control over their own destiny, who's self-motivated, loves change and an element of risk, and hates being told how to work, then freelancing could be perfect for you.
Marketing yourself as a generalist web designer or developer is unlikely to get you a lot of work these days. Agencies are becoming more specialized as mainstream web skills become more prevalent and the market gets more competitive, and when hiring freelancers they favour specialists over generalists.
Identify the specialism that you have the most experience with (and which you enjoy, as you'll never be motivated to do work you hate), and develop your skills so you can market yourself as a true expert.
If you've previously worked in the corporate, government or not for profit sectors or even for an agency you may have done well as a Jack or Jill of all trades, but clients don't hire those people as freelancers: they hire people with the skills they don't have in-house.
Once you've identified your specialism, you'll need to establish yourself as an expert. Join groups relevant to your area, both off- and online; find opportunities to talk and write about what you do, and share your expertise and knowledge. People won't steal that knowledge: they'll be impressed by it and be inspired to hire you.
You'll also need to be prepared to adapt your specialism as time moves on and the industry evolves: if the technology or language you specialize in starts to decline, you'll need to develop another specialism, maybe working on both for a while and then focusing on the new one over time. Being adaptable without losing your focus is a key ingredient to success as a freelancer.
Alternatively you might find it works for you to specialize in a target market, working just with not-for-profit clients or in the education sector, for example. Specializing in a given skill or market can help you develop your career.
You won't get any work as a freelancer unless there are people out there prepared to hire you. Identify any existing contacts you have and new ones you can make, and make sure they know that you're for hire and why they should hire you.
You may be restricted from working for your former employer's clients, but it pays to keep in contact with them anyway as they might recommend you to someone else. I got my first break as a freelancer when I was made redundant and an agency I'd contracted to work for my ex-employer gave me work. As they were my old employer's supplier and not their client, there was no conflict of interests. If your job involves commissioning agencies, find out if those agencies are hiring, as the prior relationship gives you a head start.
There are also plenty of places online where you can make contacts and get work. You should keep your LinkedIn profile up to date (I got my first book deal via LinkedIn, believe it or not). Use Twitter and other social media to reinforce your expertise and keep in contact with people. And use jobs boards to identify quality work that you can pitch for. A word of warning though: I would advise against seeking work via freelance sites that are purely based on cost. This won't help you develop a loyal client base or earn a decent living (but may be helpful at first for building a portfolio).
Identify events in your area where you can meet other freelancers and people who are hiring them. I'm active in my local WordPress group, and we get plenty of clients coming along to look for talent, as well as having experienced freelancers who can give tips to anyone starting out.
4. Work Space
Do you dream of working in a Google-style workspace complete with fake grass, table football and beanbags? There are spaces like this which you can access as a freelancer, but they're not where most of us work.
If you need to rent work space, you'll have to factor this in to your costs. There can be huge benefits from using a co-working space, such as the opportunity to make contacts, learn from other freelancers, and form teams to work on larger projects together. But not all workspaces offer these, or do them very well. And they'll cost more than four walls and a desk. So do your research: talk to people who work there and find out what they like about it. If you can, find someone who no longer works there and find out why they left. And trust your instinct: does this place feel like a fit for you?
"I've tried a lot of different types of co-working over the years and none of them were quite the right fit. I found the space I currently share because of ShropGeek, our local tech meetup, and its fantastic! I get the joy of "going to work" each day (seriously, it really is a joy to walk into Shrewsbury over the river each morning), I'm surrounded by other people all day that work in the same industry as me and work similar hours, and I'm so much more focussed during the day that I very rarely have to work evenings and weekends any more. So much joy!"
If all you need is a desk to work from, at least in the early days, you might not need to pay for use of a workspace. I know freelancers who successfully work from libraries, as these are quiet places with few disturbances and may even offer small private work rooms you can rent out. If you have a friend or family member with a spare room they're not using, ask if you can make use of it: they might be happy to let you use it for free and help you get off the ground. Some people even manage to successfully work from coffee shops, although I find the constant noise and uncomfortable chairs mean I can never do this for more than a couple of hours at a time. And you'll need to pay for the coffee.
A practical (and cheap) alternative for a large proportion of freelancers is to work from home. If you've got commitments you need to fit your work around, such as children, working from home can be successful. However you do need a dedicated workspace. Working from the sofa or the kitchen table will do nothing for your focus, will damage your back and will lead to interruptions from family or housemates if you have them.
Identify a space (or even better a room) to work from and kit it out as if you were in a professional office. Make sure you've got a comfortable, supportive chair and good light, as well as storage if you need it. This will cost you money but is worth it, as if you're comfortable you will be more productive and healthier. Learn more in our guide to creating a healthier home office.
Having a room you can shut the door on will help you shut the people you live with out when you're working and let you switch off at the weekend. One of the biggest downsides to freelancing is the feeling of never being off-duty, and not having a dedicated workspace can really contribute to this.
Looking after your money as a freelancer isn't just about earning enough to make ends meet. It's also about the practicalities that come with earning a self-employed living, many of which are very dull and some of which are quite stressful.
If you're currently working for an agency that charges for your time at rates that are way higher than you're getting paid, it's easy to think that you can double your pay overnight by going freelance. But things aren't quite as simple as that!
When you first start out, you may need to spend a lot of time doing work that earns you nothing, such as marketing yourself and pitching to potential clients. And you won't be able to charge as much as more established freelancers or agencies: so you'll be spending less time earning and when you are earning, it won't be at the rates you dream of. If you're able to, try taking on client work in your spare time beforehand, so that when you do take the leap, you'll have work lined up and money in the bank.
Marc Jenkins has been freelancing full time since November 2014 and is pleased he was well prepared:
"Do as much setup work as you can before you quit your job - I had registered with HMRC, got an accountant, had a few clients, sorted an invoicing/expenses system, had a website, etc. all before quitting my job, so that when I left I was able to focus on client work rather than setting up my business."
You'll also need to spend time administering your business and your money. You'll need to send out invoices, chase unpaid bills, keep track of your income and expenditure, and submit accounts every year. You won't get paid for any of this time and it may cost you money, for example accountant's fees.
One of the reasons the agency you may have been working for charges out your time at a higher rate than they pay you is that it costs them money to employ you. There may be direct costs such as pension contributions or health insurance, and there will also be indirect costs relating to the projects you're working on and the setup you work in. Think about all the benefits you get from your current employer and the services you use to help you do your job, as well as the software you need, and identify how much it will cost to pay for yourself. All of this will have to come from the money you earn before you can pay yourself.
Keith Devon has been freelancing for six years, and learned this lesson through experience:
"For years I massively undercharged for my services. I based my hourly rate on rough 'back of a napkin' calculations and what I thought the 'market rate' was. I started at about £150 per day. Back then I was thinking "I can't get away with this, no-one will pay it"! Quickly though, I realised that £150 per day does not equal a salary of £36,000: you need to be charging much more, closer to £300 per day, to stand any chance of earning the equivalent of £36,000."
Are you the kind of person who is comfortable chasing clients for money they owe you? Are you happy to spend hours every year going over spreadsheets? These are things you'll have to do as a freelancer, and they're a big reason why many people choose not to go freelance despite the benefits.
If you're feeling underprepared, then jump into our series Freelance Financial Bootcamp, which will help you get your freelance accounts in order, start tracking your budget, and giving proper estimates.
I'm a big fan of freelance working: it's what I've done for a large proportion of my career and it works well for me. But it doesn't necessary suit everyone. If you're considering going freelance, it's worth taking some time to identify what it really means over and above freedom from your boss. Think about how much it will cost you to be self-employed; what skills you can market; who you'll market them to; where you'll work; and whether freelancing really suits your personality.
If after careful consideration you decide that freelancing is the best step for you, then go for it and I wish you every success!