Getting it right as a first-time freelancer
Taking the leap and starting your freelance career is like setting up any other business, it's a time filled with excitement, but it can be daunting. You’ve made your decision for all of the right reasons; you want some more autonomy, you’re excited about meeting new people, working on different products and you’re loving the idea of learning new technologies. That’s without even mentioning the increase in pay.
Hopefully in this article you can pick up some useful points I’ve taken from client feedback and the feedback of more experienced freelancers.
Preparing to freelance
Logistics - freelancing usually requires an extra degree of geographical flexibility. It helps to find how far you can feasibly travel on a daily basis. 60km may sound achievable in theory, but you don’t want to have to let your very first client down because you misjudged the traffic on that route. Try to figure out which main towns and cities you can easily reach.
Rate – this is often the most under-researched aspectwith new freelancers. I often have conversations where the only research has been to ask a far more experienced freelancer at their current company what they are making. My advice would be to seek the advice of people you trust. This might be a specialist recruiter; someone you respect in a managerial position or maybe seek out a freelancer of a similar experience level through LinkedIn.
Availability - leaving a secure job and jumping into the unknown is a tough thing to do, but the most successful first-time freelancers I’ve worked with have always either handed in their notice already or negotiated a reduced notice with their current company. Availability comes up in every single interview and in my experience when a client has multiple options, they will lean towards the person who is available sooner.
Skill set - this is for those of you who plan on going freelance eventually but aren’t ready yet. Don’t get stuck working with outdated technologies and try to avoid becoming a “generalist”. Freelancer roles are often created when an expert is needed. It’s rare that a company will hire a freelancer to do general tasks. They are usually brought on for their in-depth knowledge of a particular language or framework.
Keep an open mind - in an ideal world your first freelance role would be a 12-month contract with your dream company. In reality it might be only for 2-months, but that’s okay. That 2-month contract could be extended and last for 3 years. Alternatively, something you learn in those 2-months might help to secure you the dream job we were just talking about next time around.
Building your personal brand
References - when you’re up and running as a freelancer try to get a written reference from every client you’ve worked at. It might sound obvious, and you might not want to share them with every recruiter you speak to. However, surprisingly few people actually keep a list of references and it's a simple way to stand out from the crowd.
LinkedIn - keeping your LinkedIn up to date, populated in detail and maintaining a good network is excellent marketing for your business. Clients will often look up your profile ahead of an interview, a mutual connection can be a great conversation starter or even offer up a recommendation.
Take pride in your CV – as a freelancer your CV is a window to your business and the portfolio of your work so far. Would you brush past typos in your code, or leave formatting errors on your company website?
Self-develop - study the trends in the market and make sure you get ahead of them. Take up certifications and go to seminars on the next big technological advancement. The best developers I’ve worked with are active within their commmunity. Attending conferences, meet ups and completing courses will keep your CV up-to-date and improve your network.
The best characteristics of a freelancer
Communication - this is the most under-rated tool available to any freelancer. If I was going to pinpoint the number 1 reason that freelancers don’t work out, it’s definitely not technical ability.
- Clear and regular communication around the progress of your work. Be honest, give detailed reports and manage expectations.
- Don't be afraid to ask questions. There is nothing more frustrating for a client than having someone take a day to figure something out which could have been resolved with a simple question (especially if that day costs them €700).
- Phone ahead - if you're unwell or your train is running late, 99% of clients don't mind as long as you call ahead to let them know. It might feel like this is unnecessary when you're self-employed but as a professional courtesy, it should be standard practice.
Willingness to learn and take responsibility - while a client will hire you for your specialist knowledge, they might also need to utilize your experience on different parts of the project. Try to view this as a positive thing. A common theme in positive references I receive point to freelancers using their initiative to solve a problem outside of their field of expertise.