In November of 2012, after a couple of years of building sites for myself and friends, the time had come to make the plunge to building websites full-time and start freelancing. These are the things that I learned from my own experiences.
Community matters. This rule applies not only to the web industry, but all business. You can’t do it all alone. People have to want to see you succeed. Establishing connections within the web community when you’re freelancing, is critical. Attending conferences to network is not always practical for those just starting out, but attending local Meetups or even helping others in forums can help. For some odd reason, face-time is always better, but Skype or a phone call can help people feel connected to you. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people.
Helping others whenever you can is important. Be genuinely interested in other people and how you can help them.
Share what you know. Sharing what you have learned, either through repos or a blog is a way that you can give back to the community and establish yourself as a voice of authority. The best way to learn is to teach others, and even if you feel you do not know that much, you will know more than someone else out there. Learning to write effectively is the #1 thing that you can do to help establish what makes you different from everyone else.
It matters what types of gigs you accept. Ideally, you’ll begin your freelancing career with a few paying gigs lined up already. After that, you may be able to get referrals from people who are familiar with your work. Be wary of sites like Elance or ODesk. My own experience is that people shopping for services there are primarily concerned with finding the lowest price. The same applies for sites that make you pay a fee to apply to a gig, such as Thumbtack. I don’t like these sites because discovering what the clients needs are is very difficult. I experimented with these sorts of sites in the first few months of freelancing, but I quickly found them to consume a lot of time for very little return.
You won’t always have the luxury of being picky. There will be times you just need to earn some cheddar for your bills. Designing full websites is far superior to fix-it or maintenance gigs; you can quantify what you did and the effect it had on the business. Consultants are more valuable than mechanics, so putting case studies in your portfolio should be your goal. The case studies you put in your portfolio should be similar to the type of work you want to do in the future.
Spend some time figuring out what sort of clients you want. This takes a little time, but it is vital. Defining your ideal client will keep you from chasing clients that are not a good fit for you. In the long run, this will save you a lot of time, and generate a client base that is best suited to your skills and expertise. In a related note: you sometimes have to say no to good things to make room for better things.
NEVER work without a contract. Although hundreds of respected web professionals have already said this, freelancers still get caught in this trap. Even if you think the job is so small that you won’t need a contract, please use one. I ignored this rule once, I won’t ever do it again. If the client balks at signing a contract, then feel free to run for the hills. A web project cannot succeed without trust between the designer and client. Unwillingness to sign a contract is a huge red flag.
Don’t do spec work. Fortunately, this has never happened to me, but I have seen it happen to others. Your time is valuable, and you must respect it before anyone else does. Also avoid any client who states that “if this job goes well, there will be more work for you in the future”. SPOILER ALERT: There won’t be any more work in the future.
Projects you can share are better than ones you can’t. Whenever possible, work on projects that you can write about in the form of a case study. If a client makes you sign an NDA, charge accordingly, because that work will likely never go in your portfolio.
Don’t undervalue your work. Freelancing is a feast and famine cycle. You don’t always know when gigs will line up, so you have to charge enough for those lean months. Things seem to slow down around the holidays, so keep that in mind. Be sure to charge enough to cover taxes and business expenses. If you can, find a good accountant who has handled web consultants before, who will understand your particular needs. Remember that clients are paying not just for your time, but also your expertise.
Avoid client blaming. I realize that sites like Clients From Hell have popularized the notion that the designer is always right, and the client is always at fault, but I find the Clients from Hell attitude to be repulsive. Clients come to us because they need our expertise and guidance. If there is a problem with client expectations, the first place we should look is within our own process. Refining our client onboarding, discovery, and design experience is the key to our survival as freelancers. Learn from your past mistakes, and provide professionalism not only in your design work, but in the overall experience.
Always be learning. Always be expanding your skills not only in design and code, but in business and presentation. I learn something new from every freelancing project and every client. You are always a work in progress.
Remember what’s important. Give yourself time to spend with family and loved ones. You cannot be on call 24/7. Set reasonable expectations and stick to them. Your family is who will keep you strong through the hard times (and there will likely be some dark times). You need them in your corner. If they aren’t in your corner, you aren’t going to make it. Remember why you are doing what you are doing and always be grateful. Peace.