Nicolas Alpi, Web developer

A blog about productivity, startups and me.

Starting as a Freelance

I’ve been self employed for most of my working life. When I was in France I went self employed straight after school, then when I arrived in England, it took me a year to settle properly and I was back on the self employed saddle again.In total, I cumulate nearly 8 years of self employment, most of them Freelancing.

I’m writing this post to share my experiences and mistakes with people who are thinking about starting solo. My market is UK-based small businesses and my area of work is web development, but I’m sure that most of it can apply to any branch of work.

Freelancing is harder than it sounds

Most of the time, people picture freelancers in their pyjamas, waking up at 1pm and working in bed. I can safely say that I don’t think it ever happened to me. In fact, maybe it did, when I was really sick, but had something really urgent to finish.

Freelancing is about building a business where you are the only asset. People will pay for your time and your expertise. This is the only thing you will sell.

I’m certainly not saying that you will have to work up to stupid o’clock every day (and if it does happen you’re on the wrong track), but from time to time that might happen.

On top of your normal workload, you need to keep finding clients. So you need to market yourself and find new leads but also send invoices, do your bookkeeping, etc.

Freelancing is not just about working on your passion unfortunately, it is about building a business.

(I know this sounds a bit bitter, but there are also many fun and rewarding parts of being a freelance, I just like to warn people.)

Ask yourself why you want to be freelance

Before you go to the HMRC website and register yourself as self-employed, you should take some time and think about why you want to be freelance and what you want out of it.

There could be multiple reasons, from having more freedom, more free time, or working on projects that you choose, technologies that you choose, or being able to work anywhere, having no boss.There are hundreds of valid reasons. Taking the time to think about them before you start will allow you to clarify what type of work you want to accept, what type of clients you want to bring in and what you will consider as a success.

Where to find clients and how to keep them

You’re now ready to start, you know why you want to go freelance. Now it’s time to find your first clients.

Where to find them?

Asking all friends of friends who might be after the service you offer.

If your network is small or irrelevant to your service, then you’ll have to show up at Meetup groups, conferences and random events organised where your potential clients might be.

Networking is an art, and not every event you will go to will bring a new client, but there is a big chance that you will make good connections and who know what can happen in the future.

Don’t take every single lead on board

Starting as a freelance, there are 4 things you need to consider before taking any new client on board:

  • Who do you want to work with?
  • Do they have the money to pay me?
  • Will they pay me?
  • Do they value my expertise?

One mistake that many freelancers do is to take any project from anyone who can pay them. While it sounds sensible, it can turn out to be a massive mistake if you’re not very careful.

Your clients need to value your time and your expertise. With time you will learn to detect and avoid the potential painful clients. If they don’t value your work, they will never be happy and suck everything they can from your soul.

Keep them happy

One thing you will hear a lot is that to keep your clients happy you have to “under promise and over deliver”. I don’t really agree with that idea.

I don’t like the idea of underpromising. For me it’s as bad as overpromising. If you’re expert, you should know of long it will take to achieve X, Y or Z task. Point.

Over delivering is another danger. It’s ok if you rely on that client for a short term. But I like to think of my client relationships as long term. If you over deliver all the time, then what will they think when you can only do what you agreed to do?

So for me, keeping a client happy is about delivering on time and on budget what they were expecting. If we have a good surprise and it went faster than expected then we can over deliver but we will explain to them why we went faster.

What about money?

Here it’s easy. 2 rules:

1. Calculate your day rate

Calculate your day rate based on all your costs: sick days, holidays, bank holidays, days off, shit days, days spent finding new clients, office/house rent, internet costs, software costs …. see it’s not just about working days.

Here are a few resources that can help you sorting this out:

2. Don’t be stupid

Never take a new client without a contract and always ask for a deposit. Contracts can save your a$$ sometimes, and if your potential client refuses to sign them (usually they don’t refuse they just delay and delay and delay), it’s a sign that something is wrong.

The amount of the deposit is up to you, but you should ask for at least 30% of the total amount as a deposit.

If the contract is running for more that a month, then you should include mid-term payments.

You can help yourself with Andy Clarke’s contract killer template

Time management

Time managment is what makes the difference between good freelancers and excellent ones. You have to manage your working time, your marketing time, your rest time, your family time, your gym time and your buddy beer time. Ho and still find time to learn new tech in your field.

A good weekly planning for all this will usually sort you out, but be careful as it’s too easy to burry you head in the sand. Burnout is round the corner.

Then what’s next?

Well hopefully you will be a successful freelancer, you will become a better actor in your field of expertise, and you will become a better person. It did work well for me for 8 years, and I’m now facing new challenges on how to move from a solo business to create a team and a development stdio. If you have any resources that can help me on this path I would love to hear about them.

Good luck to everyone out there who is thinking about starting as a freelancer!