Several friends have asked me for advice on freelancing. Since I’ve been at this for two years (!), I thought it’d be fun and helpful to write up a blog post.
Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from psychology class? I thought it was strangely appropriate to use it as inspiration for this post – except inverted. Because you gotta self-actualize first. Let’s start there.
I even made some graphics to go along with this post!
Whether you’re looking to do this full-time, or just make some money on the side, the most important step is defining what you want out of freelancing.
When I graduated from college, I wanted to travel, so I had two requirements: no full-time gigs, and I had to be able to work remotely. I said no to everything that didn’t fit that requirement (including job offers). One of my friends freelances to bootstrap his startup, so he limits his freelance work to 15 hours a week, working remotely.
Work backwards. Start at the end, then figure out how you’re going to get there. Start off with what you happy and successful means to you, no matter how mundane and obvious it sounds. Once you have that in hand, use that to filter for clients and make your constraints clear to them (“I can spend up to 15 hours a week on this project”).
Great. You’re already 20 steps ahead!
Clients don’t pay you for a website. They’re paying you to build something that will generate leads, market their product, or sell a service. It’s easy to get caught up in the nitty gritty of what you offer, but clients rarely care about technical intricacies – they care more that you deliver a product that achieves their goals.
In fact, if you’re worried about not being a “rockstar” developer/designer, here’s a dirty little secret: it doesn’t matter. Clients care equally, if not more, that you’re pleasant to work with, trustworthy, and deliver things when you say you will. Competence will get you very far.
When I talk to people about freelancing, their first concern is finding business. If you’re a designer and/or developer, particularly one living in a startup hub, the world is your oyster. Freelancing isn’t scary because you have to find clients, but because you have to chart your own path.
There aren’t performance reviews, bonuses, or promotions. There are no ladders to climb, and no benchmarks except your own. If your goal is to make $3k/month working 5 days a month, and you hit it – congratulations, you’ve been successful. Figuring out what’s next is up to you.
You need to be self-motivated and self-directed. That includes your social life. There isn’t the easy camaraderie and built-in social life of an office environment, and you’ll be working alone a lot. Plus, People Just Won’t Understand What the Hell You’re Doing. They’ll ask you, what’s next? a lot. Acquaintances won’t give you the respectful nod at cocktail parties that comes with names like “McKinsey” or “Google”. (Personally, I never enjoyed being judged by the institutions I was affiliated with.) If you’re the kind of person who craves social affirmation, this isn’t the right gig for you. You’ll get respect, too — it’ll just be a different kind, and from different people. And you’ll hear a lot of, “I wish I could do that,” to which you’ll reply, “You probably can.”
And it’ll be awesome. But sometimes clients will try to stiff you, or things will go pear-shaped. But things would go wrong in a traditional job, too – and besides, gotta fail forward.
Remember that time you waited an hour in line for a free Benny and Jerry’s ice cream cone? Yeah. Time to reevaluate.
As a freelancer, time – not money – is your most valuable resource. Let me elaborate.
MONEY: A salaried employee gets the same paycheck, regardless of how much they’ve actually done. If they take afternoon naps, they’re still getting paid. On the flip side, if they have to stay late and finish up a report, they’re not getting paid more.
As a freelancer, you won’t get paid if you aren’t working. But if you line up work and get it done efficiently, you can make multiples of what you would make in a salaried position.
TIME: Employees can’t just decide they’re going to work really hard for 2 months, take a month off, then come back. If they need Friday off to go to a best friend’s wedding, they need to ask permission first.
As a freelancer, you don’t need to ask anyone for permission. In fact, if you set your business up to serve your needs, you will only take on clients that respect your constraints (whether that be working remotely, responsiveness, or length of contract). Moreover, you can work really hard for 2 months then take a month off – if that’s what you want to do.
All of this has completely changed my view of the relationship between time and money. Waiting an hour in line for a free ice cream cone… a really dumb idea.
There’s a popular venn diagram in the service business that looks like this:
Here’s the trick to freelancing: forget about cheap. Don’t promise cheap. Cheap is a trap. It gets you cost-sensitive clients who view your work as a commodity. Price acts as a signal and a filter: I am worth this rate, and I will only work with people who are serious and respect my time. As demands on your time grow, your rate should go up accordingly.
Here are the other rules to freelancing:
Don’t work for free.*
Get money upfront.
Don’t compete on price.
(If you work for free, do it without strings attached, because you want to. Don’t do “I’ll do this for free now because they said they’ll have money in the future”. I have not heard of this working.)
Developers charge around $50-200 (most that I know run $100-150) per hour. Several I’ve talked to have day rates of $800-1000. I know fewer designers, but somewhere in the $30-100 range seems about standard. Start off with what feels comfortable, and experiment with raising your rates as you gain experience and build your portfolio.