Going Freelance: How to Thrive When Working For Yourself

Going freelance can be incredibly liberating. But starting out as a freelancer can be a daunting experience. There are loads of things to worry about past building websites. The truth is that you’re going to make mistakes, we all do.

In this post I want to share with you some of the lessons that I have learned after spending the past four years as a freelance web developer.

Branding

A common question that comes up when starting out is how should you brand yourself? Do you set up an agency, or do you just use your own name. There’s not really a right or wrong answer to this.

When I started out, I set up an agency called ‘Developer City’. I figured that I’d probably be employing people someday, so it would be better to create a new brand. As it turned out my priorities changed over the next few years and I became comfortable working as an ‘agency of one’. If I started over again I’d choose to just use my name. I think that there’s a lot of value to be had by developing your personal brand rather than creating something entirely new.

My advice is to use your name if you plan to work alone. Start an agency with a new brand if you plan to build a team.

Where to Work?

Co-working space in Chandler, AZ

Photograph by flickr user .dh

Another common question that new freelancers ask is “Should I work from home or get an office?”. There are lots of options open to you when it comes to where you do your work. The key is to find somewhere that is separate to your non-work life. If you want to work from home this could mean a spare room, a garage, or even a large shed. Any comfortable space that’s closed-off from outside distractions will do fine.

If you cannot find this space at home, renting a dedicated office could be a good option for you. This not only provides you with somewhere to get your work done, but may also come with other benefits, like picking up new customers (if you work in a business center) or having access to meeting rooms.

Renting a dedicated office is often costly so it’s not always an option available to people that are just starting out. A good middle-ground is to work from a co-working space. Co-working spaces have been popping up all over during the past few years and offer a great place to work as well as meet new people. One of the biggest challenges when going freelance is dealing with loneliness. Now if you’re an introvert (like me) this might not bother you too much, but if you’re used to being the life of the office you could find working alone to be quite a shock. Working from a co-working space is a great way to surround yourself with like-minded people and reduce the feeling of loneliness.

Of course when you have no boss insisting that you’re glued to a seat for 8 hours a day you can pretty much work from anywhere you want. I like to vary my surroundings so I’ll quite regularly venture out to a coffee shop for a few hours, or work from the local park. There’s no one-size-fits-all option when it comes to workspaces. Just experiment a little and set up shop wherever you do your best work.

Working Hours

The best thing about freelancing is that you get to work to your own schedule. I keep a general rule that I need to be contactable during standard business hours, but other than that I work when I feel most inspired. For me that’s usually first thing in the morning and late afternoon through to the evening.

Having the freedom to work when you want swings both ways though. You need to be conscious of how many hours you’re working to avoid burning out. Burn out is the freelancers kryptonite. Working until 2am might be necessary every now and then, but if it becomes the norm you have a problem. Burning out leaves you exhausted to the point that you find it hard to work on anything. This feeling can sometimes last for weeks or months so you need to be really careful not to push yourself too hard.

Learn to switch off. It’s not always easy, but it’s important.

Charging For Your Time

Putting a price on your time is not easy. It’ll take a bit of trial and error before you’ll find a price that you’re comfortable working for (and your clients are comfortable paying). If you’re wondering where to start, check out the results from Cole Henley’s annual freelancer survey. You should be able to get an idea of a reasonable price for your experience level from the data Cole has collected.

Getting Paid

Mike Monteiro is responsible for the greatest talk ever given on how to make sure you get paid for your work. His talk, F*** You Pay Me emphasizes the importance of having a contract in place that outlines how you’re going to get paid and what happens if problems occur during a project.

Working without a contract leaves you vulnerable to a whole bunch of scenarios that could make it difficult for you to get paid. Ideally you will want to spend some time with a lawyer to draw up your contracts. If this isn’t an option to begin with, you should be able to piece together a contract by looking at examples online. It’s important that you get this reviewed by a professional as soon as possible though.


Hint: Andy Clarke’s contract killer could be a good place to start.


Having contracts in place has helped to get me out of a few tight spots in the past. Taking a bit of time to get your contracts in order can save you a lot of stress down the line.

Trust Your Gut

This is probably the most important thing that I’ve learned while freelancing. You need to trust your gut.

If you’re talking to a prospective client and something doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t. Ignoring red flags at the start of a project almost always leads to problems further down the road. As hard as it can be to walk away from a project, it’s better than doing lots of work and then having a client refuse to pay you. Again, refer to Mike Monteiro’s talk for advice about these sorts of situations.

Find Your Ideal Clients

One of the best things about freelancing is that you get to pick your clients. As you complete more projects you’ll get to know the type of clients that you like working with the best.

For me it’s small businesses. I’m usually dealing with the owner of the company (i.e. the decision maker) so projects tend to move quickly.

Others like to pursue work with larger companies, or freelance for other agencies. Just go with whatever enables you to do your best work.

When you’re just starting out you might feel like you don’t have the power to pick and choose your clients. The trick is to seek out your ideal clients as soon as you figure out who they are. Don’t wait for them to come to you. There’s a lot of competition out there and you need to be pro-active.

Summary

Hopefully the ideas that I’ve discussed in this post will help you to navigate around some of the roadblocks that will inevitably appear during your freelance career. There’s so much more that I could have covered, but in the interest of keeping this post a reasonable length I’ve opted to pick the things I think are most important.

If you’re a freelancer with some thoughts to pass on, feel free to share your ideas in the comments.

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Comments

12 comments on “Going Freelance: How to Thrive When Working For Yourself

  1. Really solid freelancing advice, Matt. Always working with a contract is a must. Deciding who your ideal clients are is also an oft-overlooked aspect of freelancing.

    Some caveats I would like to add to your advice on branding is always be honest. If you are a one-person company, let people know that. Chris Sacca might have been able to get away with pretending to be a group of people early on, but today clients will be confused if you present yourself as a company of several people, and it is a one-person show.

    It is also a good idea to position your services based on who your ideal clients are. If you are targeting small businesses, then your portfolio, brand message, and value offers should reflect that as well. It seems counter-intuitive when you are first starting out, but it is better to be narrowly focused on a particular client base rather than have a scattershot approach.

    • Fantastic advice John!

      I completely agree with you. It’s so important to be honest and upfront from the start. I’ve never had a client turn me down when I told them I worked alone. I think we worry too much about how lone freelancers are perceived by clients.

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  3. Great advice, Matt, and well written! Personal branding (my own name vs a company name) is something I’ve always struggled with, but I’ve learned (and have been told) that pretty soon folks will recognize you as “Your Name of Your Company Name”.

    As far as where I work, I unfortunately am usually at a desk in my bedroom. There’s a co-op space that’s about a 25 minute walk… and plenty of coffee shops, but I hope someone opens up a co-op space a little closer to where I am soon!

  4. I can’t emphasize to my clients enough how smart it is to use one’s name, as i do. It avoids confusion, it simplifies communication, it simplifies your own marketing, and it presents you in a more honest and authentic way.

    Too many times people get caught in over thinking their services and confuse that with their own inspirations/aspirations and their final name choice becomes a vanity plate.

    KISS is a good acronym to live by (keep it simple stupid)

    Thanks for great articale