Freelancing: 5 Things to Consider Before Going Solo

Many people dream of working their own hours from home. Freelancing sounds like a great alternative to the traditional job. And it is. But it's not for everyone. Here's a few things to think about before taking the plunge.

Freelancing: 5 things to consider before going solo

Working from home is the same as living at work

Often, when people I meet learn I work from home, they ask if I find it hard to stay motivated. The common perception is that it's too easy to sleep in, or watch TV all day.

The reality is the exact opposite.

Imagine, you're half way through a 2 week project building a new website. It's turned out to be a larger job than you anticipated and you're stuck on a PHP problem that's taken up your whole day. You're starting to worry about missing your delivery date. Another client just emailed you requesting urgent changes to their site which will take you a day or so. They are expecting a call back. Several sites you manage need updates applied. There's a dozen unanswered emails in your inbox.

Your wife pops her head in your office. "Dinner's ready." (she's awesome). Is it that time already?!

There's no drive home. No soothing train ride. No winding down.

With a frazzled head still in work mode, it's a 30 second walk to the dining room. Through dinner all you can think about is your looming deadlines and all the work silently calling out to you from a few rooms away.

There's no time for TV or relaxing for you, Mr. I Work From Home. 

If you're committed to your freelance business - and you should be - switching off is VERY hard when work is in the next room. That's why I often tell people working from home is the same as living at work.

Two things to do to combat this.

  1. Unless you have an urgent task pending, try to finish by 5:00pm every night and get some exercise. A 30 minute session between work and family time makes an incredible difference to your frame of mind. Without it, I'm in work mode all night and can't focus on anything else.
  2. Turn off your work phone and avoid email from Friday night to Monday morning. Clients will email you and call you at all times. You've got no idea. If you happen to see an email on Saturday morning requiring your attention you'll find it hard to think about anything else until you've attended to it. The reality is, it can wait to Monday and your client will understand.

You know your profession but do you know your business?

This freelancing gig is easy. You get enquiries from customers. You make nice stuff for them. They send you money! Right?

Ugh... No!

A business is much, much more than the product or service it offers.

So much so that your actual billable time will only occupy about 50% of your work week. The other 50% of your time will be dedicated to the business side of things.

You will have plenty of other tasks to do.

  • Checking and responding to email. Can take a lot longer than you think.
  • Updating social media. You should be active on Twitter and Facebook.
  • Marketing and Advertising. Google Analytics, AdWords, Search Engine Optimisation, local SEO, blogging, conventional advertising, etc.
  • Updating and maintaining your website. An out-of-date website is a big turn off to potential customers. Keep it fresh with new content.
  • Discussing projects with potential clients. If you're hired as a "consultant" you may be able to charge for the time to scope out a project. Potential clients will expect you to spend a considerable amount of time discussing their requirements. For free.
  • Research. You'll need to come up with a solution BEFORE you offer your client pricing and a contract. If you don't spend time researching the best solution you may find out too late that you've under quoted.
  • Putting together quotations and contracts. After you've done this a few times, you should have a template to work from. Expect to spend at least an hour assembling the quote. Triple check it before sending it off.
  • Invoicing, record keeping and accounting. *Yawn* I know, but you have to do it.
  • Project Management. Don't rely on email as a to do list.  Emails get lost. Tasks on a list don't get lost, they get ticked off when they are done. You'll need to spend time managing your time. Find a good project management tool. I love Asana. It's also free.
  • Training. You don't have a boss to pay you while you take that PHP/Javascript/GIT/Joomla course you need. It's on your time. In 2010, responsive web design wasn't even a thing. Neither was HTML5, CSS3, Modernizr or Composer. Everyone in web development uses these daily now. You need to be up to speed with the latest technologies.
  • Keeping up to date with your industry. If you're a designer you need to know what's new in the latest version of Photoshop. If you're a developer you need to know when a CMS or extension releases a security update. If you manage web servers you need to know when new software is launching. Subscribe to important blogs and authoritative sites and spend some time on them.

I know, I know. You just wanted to write great code. But, you're more than a coder now. You're a Business Development Manager, Project Manager, Server Adminstrator, Receptionist, Strategist, Marketer and coffee maker.

If you haven't read The E-Myth by Michael Gerber then please read it. Go and get yourself a copy right now. Here's a link for you. It explains these concepts much better than I can. It's an eye-opener.

Of course, none of the time spent on admin tasks as actual billable time. So, your hourly rates must cover the time involved in these tasks. Which leads us to the next issue.

Most new freelancers don't charge enough.

As a regular employee earning $40/hour is great. That's because you're paid for 8 hours a day to do the work you were hired to do. Your freelancing rate will need to be at least double that. You need to account for all the time spent on administration, software, licenses, vacations and possible downturns in business. Plus you need to make a profit because... well... you're in business and businesses make profit. To be viable you need to be charging around $100/hour to achieve the same income as your $40/hour job.

Can you sell that to your clients? Are you confident enough in your ability to charge the appropriate rate?

It's a lonely road

Freelancing is a lonely road

Interacting with like minded people in an office environment can be a good way to stimulate creativity and expand on ideas. It's helpful to have people you can discuss issues with, ask for advice or just chat about the weather.

Transitioning from a busy office full of cheerful people to a lonely home office can be difficult for some people. Especially, if your an extroverted type. 

Will you enjoy the solitary working life? Will you still enjoy it in 6 months, a year or 5 years down the road?

There are ways to keep the social stimulus up while working solo.

  1. Coworking spaces offer a way for individuals to collaborate, network and work in a central location. Spacecubed is a popular coworking space in Perth. It offers unlimited high-speed internet, use of a CBD address, conference and meeting rooms, events, workshops and much more. They offer flexible rates from an affordable day rate to various monthly rates. 
  2. Business Incubators. Many state and local governments run Small Business Incubators. Similar to coworking spaces, business incubators offer a location where you have access to services like conference rooms, internet access, shared office services and a central address. Unlike coworking spaces, incubators are considered more of a stepping stone. They have a goal of seeing you graduate from the incubator within a year or two to make room for someone else. The focus is more on mentoring, support and education.
  3. Find a business partner that compliments your skillset. I personally worked as a freelancer for around 5 years before I started working with a partner and we formed Joomstore. My new business partner, Noah Greenstone, was previously a project manager for one of my agency clients. Together we formed Joomstore. Noah loves project management but he's not a developer. I just want to write code. Together we compliment each others skills. I can bury myself in development all day without interruptions from clients. Noah is always available and loves the sales and project management side of things. We schedule time each day to discuss projects and keep up to date using Asana. 
  4. Joomla User Groups. There's about 250 Joomla User Groups in the JUG directory. Go to a meeting, have a drink and a chat. It's always good to meet other Joomla devs. It's even better making new friends and adding them on Skype. 

What's your niche?

The most successful individuals in any field are the one's that specialise their skills in a particular area. Sure, it's good to know a bit about everything. But, specialising in one or two things makes you an expert. Remember, people rarely hire generalists. They hire experts.

When a government office or design agency outsources work they hire people who are specialists in the skill they are lacking in house. 

Specialising doesn't just apply to the technology. It also applies to target markets. A developer can specialise in website development for non-profits, or churches or town councils or personal trainers, mobile mechanics or whatever. Specialising in a particular market gives you and your clients several benefits.

  • You have insight into your customers business through your past experience.
  • You can provide better advice and better solutions.
  • Being able to target your marketing to a smaller market.
  • Working from templates. Previous proposals, contracts and - to a certain extent - the work you produce can be duplicated from templates and modified to suit the individual client. There's no need to start from scratch when many of the elements are the same. This saves you time and allows you to provide better value. 

Can you handle tough clients?

Sometimes you need to be tough with your clients

Your time is valuable. It's all you have to sell. You have to be disciplined in the way you spend your time and sometimes you have to say "No!" to your client. In extreme cases, you'll need to fire them.

Clients get enthusiastic when projects kick off. They want to contribute and make suggestions which makes it very easy for projects to go off the rails and your scope to blow out. Especially, when working with a committee of decision makers. The problem with "decision by committee" is everybody feels they have an equal and important say in the final outcome. Nobody wants to lose face or have their opinions belittled. Often, change requests are based on members individual personal feelings or they simply felt they had to contribute something.

Change requests often go against what you know as a professional about design theory, colour, consistency, usability and the like. So you have to put your foot down and that can be tough.

Saying "No" can cause friction and sour a working relationship if not handled carefully. Always be professional. The trick is to say no without saying no. Give a little but make it clear your time isn't unlimited. Provide options to move the project forward in the right direction.

If you find yourself at the fourth or fifth round of revision it's time to remind them of this and let them know that the time allocated to design has been used and it's time to move forward. As an alternative, offer to put together a new brief and start a new round of design.

Something like this...

"...thanks for the latest list of changes to the design. I'll go through this in the morning and send the next revision through as soon as possible.

I am a little concerned that we are now at the 4th round of revision. The budget allocated to design work has been used. It's important we move forward after this round to ensure your project stays on track and on budget. 

If [you/the team/your committee] would like to put together a new brief and see a second design I'm more than happy to do that at the rate in my proposal and add the cost to my final invoice. Talk tomorrow..."

The other issue is scope creep. Normally, this happens towards the end of a project. When clients see a working site nearing completion they get ideas on what can be improved. There's nothing wrong with tweaks. But, outright changes to functionality or new features need to be handled tactfully. These requests are very easy to deal with.

Reply positively with something like the following...

"...thanks for suggesting [the new feature]. It would offer a lot of value. Unfortunately, it's not a quick addition and it wasn't included in the brief or in our proposal. I estimate it would take an additional 8 hours to set that up.

With your approval, I can add the time to the project plan and invoice it when completed.

Alternatively, I suggest we put together a list of new items like this which we can consider as a second stage after this initial project has been completed. Websites are never finished."

You don't work for free. Reminding your client of that fact. Always bring requests back to the amount of time involved and the amount quoted in your proposals. 

In conclusion

Getting to grips with the issues of running a business, loneliness or financial issues mean many people that embark on a freelance career don't last more than a year or two. For those that specialise, know their market, stay relevant and are self-motivated, freelancing can be the most rewarding career in the world.

John PitchersSince 2005, I've supported my family working from home building Joomla sites for paying clients.

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