Have you any advice for a freelancer starting out?

The feedback from the Freelance Rates survey has been fantastic and a few people have gotten in touch for tips and advice for those contemplating going freelance. I thought I’d post up a quick response to one such query I fired over in the hope that it is of use to others.

Please note that I’ve only been working freelance for 9 months or so, so the folllowing is by no means authoritative or exhaustive and may not apply to everyone.

Have you any advice for a freelancer starting out?

Three quick tips all kinda related:

The first two are closely related – it’s easy when starting out to try and do everything yourself. This can certainly be a good thing to find out what you are good and what you are bad at and where you should specialise. However time spent on things you aren’t good at (whether that is client work or admin) or don’t especially enjoy is a bad use of your time.

If you can put a value on your time, in terms of what your time is worth to you (not necessarily what your time is worth for paying the bills, etc) then this makes it easier to realise when you should sub-contract work out to someone else, and when you should pay for a service that might otherwise be free.

Knowing the value of your time also makes it much easier to say no to clients when they request particular functionality which might be outside your skillset or comfort zone.

Knowing this also means that it is easier to justify where and when you should pay for software and services. For example, I heartily recommend using Freeagent to manage the financial aspects of your business when freelancing (wee referral code for 10% off: http://fre.ag/1c8frs9e). When you’re starting out £15/month (+VAT) sounds a lot of money but if that saves you an hour a month then it is worth it – and it will!

With this in mind I also found it much easier to justify moving to a paid-for CMS with client work (Perch and ExpressionEngine) rather than open source. Getting dedicated support on a product rather than being community-dependent makes a massive difference!

Finally make time for personal and business development. It is tempting (especially if you’re young) to work all hours God sends but it is really important to try and work a 9-5 and to carve out one day a week to further yourself and your business, be that for paperwork, personal projects, blog writing, finding new clients or learning new skills.

So what tips do you have for those starting out or considering a move to freelancing?


I’d like to add two things…
1: Use the forums that are out there such as the one at http://boagworld.com – You are not alone, talk to your peers.
2: Remember it is okay to say no to a client… you may be starting out but you don’t have to take every job on. There are some clients and projects that you don’t need. A lesson I just learned to my cost.

Don’t be afraid to walk away from a client if you sense things are not right. Your sanity is worth more than a couple of hundred quid in the bank.

I completely agree with what you’ve written, Cole, and would like to add…

The first year is the hardest. Going from no clients to being comfortably booked up for a while takes time, especially if you’re freelancing rather than contracting, and the early days can be all about survival and finding your feet unless you’re lucky or already have a very good reputation online.

It took me three years of freelancing to realise that I was pretty much booked up for the next two weeks (but not longer) and had been for a couple of years, so I should probably stop worrying about not being booked up for longer than that. Eventually I started being completely booked up for the next one or two months, but that can have it’s own hassles.

Once you get good at sourcing work, you have to remember to leave time for small amounts of repeat work from on-going clients, often they’re the ones who actually pay the bills long term.

If you’re freelancing, it can be good to be juggling a few clients, either a few small ones or a biggie or two and a couple of small ones, e.g. a full site build or two, and just maintenance updates for the small bits. This lets you bill various people across the month and helps you get some sort of cashflow. If you end up relying solely on one large client, if they have a change of management and the new one wants “new blood” or if they mess something up and go out of business, generally you go out of business too.

As well as forums and mailing lists, try to find people near you who are also freelancers and get together for a chat or pint occasionally. It can really help you not go mad, especially if you’re working from home, and especially if you don’t live with anyone.

From what you’ve said Cole, the third point about business/personal development is really important, especially when you start getting chunks of work in. Doing stuff to expand your skills and mind is a really good way of avoiding feeling burnt out by doing lots of work, and it’s hard to leave time for it unless you’re disciplined about it. I’m not a good example of this, as I’ve been doing far too much client work and not enough personal stuff for a couple of years, but I’m trying to get back more in balance now.