Five Glorious Things That Will Keep You Freelancing Tomorrow, Maybe The Next Day

Posted: November 10th, 2010

Photo by Banlon1964 (Flickr)

Photo by Banlon1964 (Flickr)

Every day is a good day, right? Anyone?

There are many little joys to freelancing. Actually too many to even revel in them.

That fat check you got from Mr. Jones, spent a week later.

That week you finally took off because you were overworked… passed as if it were only a few hours.

A masterpiece of a project that gave you pride but not giving you the same feeling on a sort-of-blah-as-vanilla project being worked on now.

Then, of course, there are the so-called bad days. I’m not talking about Mondays or slaving away with bird flu and a bad back, but those days where the shit hits the fan and you see your career hit a breaking point.

Why? These stay in our memory forever as we look back on them like childhood memories saying to ourselves “boy was I reall that stupid.” Today, you can learn to do almost anything (actually more like learning to do something right) but there is only one way to really learn something.

The wrong way. Don’t tell me these are unfamiliar.

Month-To-Month Living

Many freelancers have jobs to back them up. Fraidy cats, I say. You never forget the experience of jumping in head first and blindfolded. Nor the wait until your head hits the bottom of that empty swimming pool.

Oh, such as the days where I used a decade-old laptop, worked in a dark room and ate hearty meals of beans day in and day out. Then the crumbs of work to earn those daily beans. Even charging clients in beans but, for a good client, an extra loaf of bread.

There is no greater joy, however, moving up to the can of tuna to accompany your meal.

Lesson: It gets better. It can only get better.

Getting Stiffed

It so happened that, years back, the first client I ever had offered me a great rate (better than beans) and all the work I could use at the time. I’ll admit, I did a half-ass job and was probably a quarter-ass skilled freelancer but work got done by golly.

Long story short, a lot of work and no beans make a freelancer hungry. Don’t sweat it. You’ll live to tell about it, albeit while suffering hunger along the way.

Lesson: Know whatever the hell it is you’re trying to do and don’t forget to collect the deposit.

Computer Crash(es)

Hmmm, computer isn’t booting up today. Restart (times 50) and we have… a blue screen. Dammit, you knew those strange choking sounds were the beginning of the end. Oh well, time to take the day off and hit up your friend to borrow that laptop. Problem solved.

Oh wait, there was still that project you were working on in there trapped on a useless hard drive.

Lesson: Backup. If you skip it, you won’t miss those lost photos pulled off the Victoria’s Secret website anyway.

Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

Being needy for projects is nothing new for anyone new to freelancing. Many projects equals a pretty hefty payday, if I’m correct. Taking on a request for a new, improved Twitter wannabe for big-budgeted Mr. Know-it-not isn’t quite the way to go though.

Sure, we all like to think we are the designer, developer and marketer all in one when all that can really be done is installing WordPress with a cheesy logo. Ambition eventaully comes to terms with ability and crashes back to earth.

Lesson: Before starting a project, stop counting your money as if it were in a big pile right in front of you. Count the hours you’ll spend on forums pleading for help instead.

Screwing Up

The granddaddy of all things that pervades freelancers. Right up there with shooting your friend in the face as the U.S. vice president. The bright side is that we’re neither flying airplanes nor have the doomsday button at out side (unless that is you’re fallback job). It’s only our clients’ businesses at stake.

Analyzing the situation brings thoughts of a coverup, escape plan or working like mad all night hoping it won’t be noticed the next day. Then realizing the best damage control is uncontrollable sobbing while offering an explanation.

Lesson: Just keep doing what you’re doing. You won’t mess this up this lesson.

4 Surefire Ways To Stay A Mediocre Freelancer

Posted: July 28th, 2009

Its almost guaranteed that as a new freelancer you will go through some major growing pains until things start to work out for you and your business. Right at that point we feel like we’re cruising and everything seems easy when we can juggle around our work while maintaining the business. We finally made it.

Believe it or not, we still have a ways to go before becoming the absolute best freelancer we can be. Until then, we may be paying the bills and things might be looking good but we may be falling into the traps that keep us just mediocre freelancers. The following are four ways to guarantee this:

1. Getting into a comfort zone.

When the time comes when we have clients that give us a lot of steady work, we take for granted the fact that steady work can disappear at any moment. This is in addition to the fact that, for developers and designers, technology is evolving fast and it is imperative we keep up with it.

That means freelancers have to consitently dedicate a portion of their time marketing their services and searching for new clients. It is a myth that all your time should be spent working on projects and earning the dough. And for those who rely on the latest developments for their work (hello jQuery), visiting a few tutorials every once in a while will keep your skills fresh and your services at a premium.

2. Not organizing your business.

Once a freelancer’s business gets rolling and and the work starts piling on, its easy to overlook essential tasks like accounting and time tracking.  Keeping on top of accounting and hours worked helps make the freelancer more efficient and keeps him from scrambling to find those receipts come tax day. Plus it helps to have some hard figures to see how your business is doing and if you are meeting income goals.

If you are not quite at the level to hire your own accountant, here are some recommended free tools:

Time tracking: Paymo Timetracker

Accounting: Quickbooks Quick Start

3. Faulty communication with clients.

Most freelancers work over the internet so the primary form of communication is usually email and instant messaging to a lesser extent. Let’s face it, its hard for typed words to clearly express what you or your clients want to. Plus there is huge potential for miscommunication. Speaking from experience, it is very important to word emails and explain whatever you have to in a very clear, simple manner.

Likewise, on your part, it is important to get to know the style of communication from the client. Many of them are unaware that, they too, need to explain their needs clearly to you. It is you job to pry it out of them by asking questions until you understand the tasks at hand fully.

It also helps to read every email completely and even multiple times if you have to. Nothing is worse than making mistakes and having to redo work due to something you missed in a message.

In the long run, good communication will inspire confidence from your clients and helps those projects go smoothly and more efficiently. More importantly, you virtually guarantee yourself repeat business in the process.

4. Not bothering with networking.

Many freelancers do not want to bother with networking their business since it is more or less viewed as asking complete strangers for work or, in other words, begging for jobs. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, getting to know other freelancers, especially in your own field, have the following benefits:

  • You keep up with the latest going on in your industry
  • Sometimes collaborations on projects in your network can come around
  • Sometimes work gets referred to you
  • You can turn to your network for advice  (and even social stimulation)

Networking is not hard, either, especially with Twitter and Linkedin perfectly suited to freelancers. It just takes a little action on your part to say hi and meet others.

Take it from a once-mediocre freelancer

These ways of the mediocre freelancer weren’t observed from others but were all things I went through personally in my journey. The truth is we are all constantly learning and evolving in our careers and mistakes are a just part of the process. It helps to learn from those of others so I hope this can help you recognize what can hold you back so you it doesn’t happen to you.

If you have any stories of personal mediocrity in freelancing, I’d love to hear them. Send a comment below.

Planning, So Your Project Doesn’t Kick You In The Ass

Posted: March 25th, 2009

Today, after a week and a half of balls-to-the-wall work to get a project done by today (on time!), I learned a valuable lesson which I repeated as a fledgling freelancer. One single word: PLAN.

Normally, new freelancers do not give much consideration to the planning stages before bidding or starting on projects. The misconception is that time spent planning is not time spent working. The truth is that even a few hours of planning, or however long you need, can help you find and uncover those important details to help you make accurate estimates. By an accurate estimate, I mean you don’t severely underprice which is often the case when you hurry through this process.

Surely, you create a project agreement or project specifications (I’ll save this for another post) for every project you undertake. If not, lots of luck to you. Before creating an agreement or spec, though, is an exact outline of what you will do to complete a project has to be done. This is where the details come in. You have to list every last one of them.

The following is a good procedure for outlining your project:

1. Break your project down into smaller tasks. If necessary, break them down further into even smaller tasks. Write down these tasks in an outline form. By breaking down you can usually find parts of a project that are more time consuming than others. Others may be new and not have been done before which leads to. . .

2. For those “new” tasks, do the research and come up with a method to complete them. Don’t just wing it. Be 100% sure you can do them.

3. For smaller projects, create a calendar and set a goal to complete one or more tasks on a particular day and chart this until the end of the project date you set. For larger projects, this could be done on a weekly basis, but I highly recommend charting it daily even though it is cumbersome.

4. After charting your project tasks on a calendar, you should be more able to calculate the time required for the entire project. A pretty reliable rule of thumb is to add an extra 15% overhead time to this since poop happens.

If you follow the above, it can be time consuming but you come out ahead in the end. From what I learned, though, is that even if you spend an entire day planning a project down to the last day, you can probably save anywhere from a few days up to a week in added time completing it. Projects that drag on and on end up costing you time and money, WAY more then the planning time, itself.

Which leads me to my last point. Your time planning is also a part of any project. Include this time in any project estimate.

Odds are you’ll repeat my mistake of not planning carefully but better to learn sooner than later.

Freelance No-No: How To Not Get Taken Advantage Of

Posted: January 24th, 2009

Every freelancer has gone through a trial period where they learn what works and what doesn’t work in order to make money in the business. The hardest lesson to learn is arguably how to keep your clients from walking all over you. I’ve experienced this myself and, unfortunately, still see this happening to some of my freelancing friends.

The result of having a client take advantage of you is obvious. You lose money, time and a bit of your pride. It’s usually not the intention of clients, however, to bilk freelancers. You have to remember, though, they tend to see the services of freelancers as costly and try to keep costs down to a minimum.

On that note, here are some ways to keep this from happening in the first place:

Continue Reading »

Freelancing For Dummies: Just Ask Me

Posted: October 25th, 2008

I’ve been a freelancer for a little over five years now and I’ve finally come to a point where I am really taking time to evaluate my business to see how I can improve…  which is more or less thinking about how to earn more money. My primary conclusion: I could be doing A LOT better.

I know a lot of people would kill to be in the position I’m in working without a boss and making a good living out of it (though I won’t give it out here). I could easily sit back, continue my routine as usual and cash those checks at the end of the month. At least that’s what we are molded to do in the J-O-B.

Well, this is freelance and you get the green light to do whatever the hell you want. To grow in your freelance career, though, it’s a pretty good idea to break your routine, no matter how comfortable you are in it, and do a self-evaluation. After five years, I guess it would be a good time to give myself a performance review.

To my own relief, I found I was doing a lot of important things right. Not surprisingly though, I was doing a lot of things wrong, too. What was interesting to me was that nearly all of the things I do right had to do with my work ethic, working habits and good instincts. All of the things that I was doing wrong, however, was strictly business related. I’m sure I’m not the only freelancer in the same boat so I’ll go ahead and outline the major ones here. Who knows, maybe someone else can learn from this.

The Rights

First of all, I pride myself in the work I do. And it gets done when I say it will get done. Period. My reputation developed as a hard worker who could solve problems and I’ve done that since day one. I wouldn’t say people were lining up at my door to hire me for projects (I’m a web programmer), but most of my work were from referrals and I’m contracted full time for a small company which provides very steady work.

Next, I take care of my clients. If something goes wrong, I fix it. If I make a mistake, I fess up to it and fix it as soon as possible. Also communication is key, never leaving a client in the dark about anything. These are also things I pride myself on. Given that I have never met most of my clients face to face, any way I can build trust works in my favor. That’s not a hard one to learn.

Last, I manage my projects in a way where I have no down time. No downtime = steady stream of income. This took me a while to become a habit but I developed a sense to always plan ahead even when your current situation looks great. I try to have at at least two projects to work on simultaneously and in slow times I’m always working on one. It’s as simple as looking for more work while your working. It should always be a part of your routine.

The Wrongs

Finances – I am pretty good about spending. Don’t spend more than you earn and save when you can. Check. An example of the bad is that I had to pay the IRS a $200 fine for not paying my quarterly taxes. Taxes have always been a nightmare since I didn’t save receipts or track business spending. If you have your own business these should be a priority! Needless to say, I’m still looking in the trash for those receipts.

Marketing – My business has been primarily on referrals, but I’ve never actually marketed myself to attract new clients. I realized that this hurt me by not getting those clients willing to pay a premium for my service since I do have quite a portfolio. You can guess that equals a smaller check at the end of the month.

Branding – This relates to the above but I also haven’t branded my business. I’m just Johnny that does web programming. With a nice portfolio and putting a name to your services, however, you have half your marketing already done for you. The rest is just letting those in need of your service know you exist.

. . .

During my years as a freelancer I’ve always come across advice through the occasional web page and friends who are also freelancers. I never really noticed that much of that advice has gone between the ears.  Maybe it’s time to take notice… or essentially leave a bunch of cash on the table for someone else.