Before my current job I spent quite a few years freelancing as an SEO and have always wanted to write a post about the experience. This isn’t a guide to going freelance, but it does discuss some points that I think anyone considering taking the leap and working for themselves should think about. A lot of people consider being your own boss and working from home the ultimate dream; getting up when you want and taking the odd day off when you don’t feel like working. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. If you do decide to go it alone you’ll find yourself working twice as hard as your counterparts with ‘proper jobs’. Be prepared to be up early, work late into the night, work weekends and deal with problems when you’re on holiday. In short, there is no such thing as true ‘time off’. Added to that you’re going to have to quickly learn how to run a business and suffer the mistakes when you make them.
There are also some immense benefits, but not in the way that most people expect. One guarantee is that you will come out the other end with a work ethic that I don’t think you can develop in any other way. If you’ve had to deal with being in a situation where you do the work or face earning no money; suddenly most day to day issues simply won’t be a problem anymore – you’ll just fix them because it’s what you’re used to doing. Not being tied into a particular role also means you can develop in the way that you want to, when you want to. If there’s a training event you feel you need to attend you can; if you decide to spend time developing a new skill you can.
Ok, so here are some honest thoughts and reflections on what’s involved in working as a freelancer!
Bringing in Business
The first thing to figure out is how to start bringing in business. By far the best way to attract new clients is to do an incredibly good job to the point where people can’t help but spread the word. However, even getting to that point can be incredibly difficult. It sounds so obvious but the phone really doesn’t call itself and that can be a brutal first lesson to learn. If I could rewind the clock I’d probably spend a lot more of that initial ‘start up’ time getting out and meeting new people. With so many events and meetups to go to it’s actually quite easy to start making inroads.
Pricing yourself as a freelancer is another big challenge. Charge too much and you won’t get any work and charge too little and you’ll end up working yourself into the ground with no money to show for it. One thing to accept is that many clients will start looking for freelancers to find a slightly cheaper alternative to agency fees. A good move to make is to decide on a day rate or project fee that puts you lower than agencies but still gives you enough to live on. In all honesty this is always going to be a bit of a learning curve, you just have to find a price point that feels comfortable and works for your business.
With all the other day to day tasks such as admin, keeping accounts and marketing your new business you need to work out how many days per month you can actually use for chargeable client work. Whilst £500 a day might sound like a lot; take off your tax, general business costs, travel costs and then think about how many days you can realistically charge for per month. You’d be surprised how soon what initially seems like a lot of money disappears.
Working with Small Businesses
As a freelancer you’ll find that bigger businesses tend to approach agencies and the people that you will really appeal to are small to medium sized businesses. Working with a client that doesn’t suffer from inter-department politics provides a great deal of flexibility and pace of work. Imagine submitting a technical review and seeing the work implemented the very next day; it’s pretty cool! However, small businesses can also be notoriously hard work. What is actually quite a small marketing budget in the grand scheme of things is likely to be a significant investment for many small businesses, and as such they want to see results and a return quickly. The mixture of a small budget and high expectations sounds like a recipe for disaster but it can work out well if managed effectively. The positive side here is that when things go well it is hugely, hugely rewarding to see your hard work pay off and make a difference.
Jack of All, Master of None
When working for yourself you can easily end up doing a little bit of everything which can equally be both a blessing and a curse. Whilst it gives you the chance to gain a good all round knowledge of your industry, it also carries the danger that you’ll never quite master anything. Some of the most successful freelancers I know have a speciality in one area and they do that one thing better than anyone else. They of course have a good knowledge base, but at the same time they’ve worked hard to become the ‘go to person’ for a particular skillset. If you can find an area to specialise in you’ll benefit from being in a position where people will want to work with you above anyone else. That then gives you the chance to start charging more for your expertise and should also really help to avoid the situation of running out of work.
Dealing with the Stress
Sooner or later you will inevitably end up in the position where one or more people are late to pay you. No matter how good you are at managing clients, this will happen at some stage so it’s something to be prepared for. Trust me, being in a position where the rent is due in a matter of days, your bank balance is in single digits and all your clients are late to pay is pretty damn stressful. I was lucky enough to work with some very reliable clients but in the early days this situation happened a few more times than I would have liked. When you haven’t got enough inquiries to be selective it’s a hard lesson to pick up on, but you quickly realise that people who regularly pay late simply aren’t worth working with. You also learn to be very clear on payment terms which I found really helps in avoiding most bad payers. You’ll soon be able to spot potential problem clients a mile off which I think is a real skill in itself!
Deadlines, late payments, tax bills and more work than you previously thought you could handle would lead even the hardest of people to feeling a little stressed out. You either learn to deal with it or you’ll move on pretty quickly.
I hope the above doesn’t come across as a rant because it really isn’t supposed to be. To summarise I’d definitely have to say that just like everything else there’s as many ups to freelancing as there are downs. To anyone considering going it alone, it’s a ‘life experience’ I’d highly recommend J