Everyone starts freelancing in different ways, and everyone has their own ways of working. I just want to share with you my experiences and hope it helps someone along the way.
Just to let you know a bit about my background, I went self employed straight out of University and got a full time freelance contract at a TV company for 6 months. When the contract ended I decided to brave it alone and go freelance from home.
That was 3 years ago, and I won’t lie, the first year was hard. I did a lot of free / cheap work to build up a portfolio until I finally got a freelance job doing design & development for a design agency remotely. It was then that things really picked up and haven’t stopped since.
I still remember all those initial worries and questions I had when I first went freelance – how will I keep motivated? When will I get paid? (if ever), What if I don’t understand the brief? The biggest thing I’ve realised now is that I was quite isolated and didn’t know any other freelancers, which is why I started Portsmouth Freelancers Meet (pfmeet)
So here’s some of my top tips for starting out as a freelancer.
1. Find other freelancers
This has been the most important thing I’ve learnt – don’t try and do it all by yourself! You can learn a wealth of knowledge from other freelancers, as well as let off steam with people who understand what you’re going through when times are hard. Not only that, you can swap skills, collaborate on projects and form great friendships.
There are various meetups you can attend, to name a few local ones along the South Coast there’s our own Heart & Sole Meet, Portsmouth Freelancers Meet, Winchester Web, Web Meet Guildford, Meetdraw (Bournemouth) and Brighton Farm. It’s worth picking one and attending regularly as you’ll form great relationships with people by going each month / week.
Online there are great communities like Twitter where you can connect with other web people, but there’s nothing like getting out of your house and seeing people face to face!
2. Get organised – some great tools to help you out
There’s so many great tools out there to help you stay on track. I’m going to list a couple, some free, some not, but these have all been life savers.
There is other accounting software out there, but this is my personal favourite, it ticks all the boxes and I couldn’t live without it. It automatically calculates invoices, you can create estimates, add in your expenses, and view your reports. And the best thing of all, it reminds clients when invoices are overdue, saving you many emails!
Your clients will love it as it looks professional – they can view all outstanding invoices in one place, and it’s great for collaborating with other freelancers and keeping track of what’s owed.
The cost? It’s free to try with a max of 3 clients, and if you need more then it starts at $19.95.
It’s an awesome project management tool. It only really becomes useful when collaborating with other people, or working on big projects with lot’s of to-do’s and deadlines to keep track of.
The cost? You can try it for free for 30 days then start with the basic plan at $24 a month.
For all your to-do list needs. Create lot’s of different to-do lists and it sends you reminders on the days they’re due (or overdue!). You can also create shared lists with your fellow freelancers.
The cost? It’s totally free! There’s also a web app, Mac/Windows apps, iPhone and android apps available so you’re never without it.
This has been a life saver during busy weeks. You can block out your time over days to ensure you know how much time you have and when you can schedule things in. You can also share your calendar with people so they can see when you’re free too!
The cost? Another free service, you just need to sign up for a Google account. You can also sync it with your iPhone and iCal.
3. Ask for help
This ties in with point 1 and making sure you surround yourself with other freelancers and have people with experience on hand to help answer any questions you might have. When you’re starting out you can feel like you’re failing or that you don’t know anything if you have to ask for help, but we all need to do it sometimes! I am always learning from my friends and colleagues new and exciting ways to tackle tasks, even the simplest of things sometimes.
You’ll soon find that you’ll get projects where sections of the brief are beyond your expertise or larger than you can handle on your own, and this is the time to outsource to other freelancers.
A lot of freelancers in the early stages feel like they have to take everything on, but you can produce better projects and learn a lot by working with others, as well the bonus of being able to concentrate on the work you most enjoy. There’s no harm in understanding and learning many skills, but its best to focus on just one and become an expert in that field.
When I first started I wanted to be a graphic designer, which soon turned into designing for web, then I really focused on the front-end development as I realised that’s where my strengths lie and it was what I enjoyed doing most.
5. Have a solid set of terms & conditions
Have these in place to cover your back, you’ll need these when clients start to ask too much, or don’t pay on time, and they will save you a lot of heartache. I could list many terms here, but here are a couple of the most important ones:
- Get 50% deposit upfront – This is especially important if you are outsourcing. I once had a project which required design work I was not well versed in, so I outsourced. The client then completely disappeared and I was left with the bill. Even if you’re really keen to get started and it’s the most exciting project ever, WAIT! Get a deposit first. The client may make you wait 5 months for the deposit, but if they take that long to pay a deposit imagine how much chasing you’ll have to do once you’ve spent 6 months working on something and want to get paid. And if they don’t pay a deposit at all, well, that tells you everything.
- Have a spec / brief in place – A lot of agencies / freelancers do these differently, but it’s effectively a list of everything you’re going to deliver for the price, which is a list of everything the client can expect from you. You can refer back to this at a later date when project scope starts to creep up and the client expects an extra 2 weeks work for nothing.
6. Try and meet clients before starting a project
This is a tricky one, as you will often be working remotely, and they won’t always be in the same country / area, but it’s a great opportunity to see what kind of client you’ll potentially be working with, and to see their business first hand which will reflect in your work. You may find you meet with a potential client and decide it’s not the project for you, or that the client will be more hassle to work with than the project is worth.
7. Don’t be afraid to say no!
This is one of the hardest things to get right as a freelancer, especially if you’re starting out and want to gain new clients and a good reputation. Only you can really judge the projects worth and whether the client is going to be worth working with. You don’t have to agree to every project that’s thrown at you, and you don’t have to agree straight away, mull it over and trust your gut feeling. You can always go back to point 3 and have a chat with some fellow freelancers over a pint to see whether this is the right venture for you.
Care to share with us your experiences when starting out as a freelancer, or got any specific questions? Post us a comment and let us know!