Going Freelance

Experiences from making the switch to freelancing

Background

I recently gave a talk on going freelance at a TechMeetup event in Edinburgh. The process of preparing for the talk really got me thinking about my experiences, and I will summarise some of the things I spoke about here.

Shortly after I began my first full-time job as a web developer, I began hearing about freelancers through general conversation. The comments associated with them were usually something about their high pay relative to equivalent full-time employed workers. Sometimes a colleague would mention that they had freelanced in the past, before returning to full-time work, which intrigued me.

Another thing I realised was that the app stores/marketplaces of the main mobile platforms were mature and I knew there were developers out there who could make a full-time living just by producing entirely their own applications.

A few years later, a colleague and good friend admitted that he was even making a small monthly income from the Android Market, for a couple of apps he had made in-between finishing his PhD and starting his first job. This excited me, whilst at the same time making myself feel somewhat underachieving! However my priority at the time was to keep building software development and cloud technology experience, so I filed these ideas away in the back of my mind.

A few years later, I found myself thinking about freelancing more and more, and eventually decided to set myself a firm target. I chose a nice round number and decided I wanted to be freelancing by that particular age. Later, a colleague decided to make the same jump before me, and told me all about his experiences throughout the process, and how much he was enjoying the benefits of freelancing. Another friend in London revealed he was also contracting in a different area of work. I chose a date in the following year by which I wanted to be freelancing, and an amount of money I'd need to have in the bank by then before making the jump (enough to live for at least 6 months without work).

I managed to beat my age target for beginning freelancing, which is a satisfying feeling. I have now been freelancing for two and a half years, so I thought it would be nice to write down the main pros and cons from my perspective.

The Switch

Once I had left my job, I began looking for work. It was an exciting period because time felt critical, and at the same time I was enjoying the absolute freedom of the break from work. Fortunately, my freelancing software developer friend was able to refer an enquiry to me, since my friend was busy at the time, and I ended up with a job just a few weeks later after a quick chat in a cafe. The feeling of satisfaction at succeeding with the first job was great. And once you have reached that point it is really up to you whether you want to continue with freelancing or not.

Over time, I found many great benefits to the freelancing lifestyle, including for me the ability to work home. But there can be drawbacks too, although it is easy to imagine the pros and cons being completely different for different people. If you find the cons outweigh the pros, you can always go back, so freelancing is the sort of thing I definitely recommend trying for someone who is considering it, because at the very least it is a great experience-building experience.

Benefits of freelancing (or contracting)

There's a subtle distinction between 'freelancing' and 'contracting'. But I use 'freelancing' loosely — for me it means the freedom to take on contract jobs, whilst also being responsible for your own learning and keeping up with the technology, and the potential for making money from personal projects. So it's to do with independence. These are the benefits I've experienced so far:

  • Independence. The feeling of personal independence is extremely rewarding.
  • Pay. You get more pay per hour, and as long as you can minimise the gaps between jobs, this results in higher overall income.

Potential Downsides of freelancing

  • Lower job security. This is an obvious one, but it will have different importance to different people, depending on their current circumstances. So you have to weight it based on personal considerations too.
  • Responsibility This can be scary to some, especially when it comes to tax. However if your income situation is complex, you probably want an accountant anyway. If your only source of income is from freelancing jobs, then I find it to actually be relatively simple (in the UK), despite the seemingly-complex rules. I know this is a controversial opinion!
    • Team integration You may be seen as more of an 'outsider' when working in a team of full-time employed people, resulting in weaker team relationships. Just try to be super easy to work with and helpful at all times.
    • More time spent on admin, marketing etc. instead of actual job As a result of the higher personal responsibility, a significant amount of your time will be spent not indulging in your passion for coding. However I always say that everybody needs variety, in both environment and day-to-day tasks. Breaks from strenuous thinking always promote creativity. Can you tell that I'm an incessant optimist?
    • Maybe you could just sell your own products instead? If independence is what you are after, then a possibility is to start working on personal projects whilst doing your full-time job, with the aim to monetise your products.
    • No company benefits. Such as holidays. Not having paid holiday means that whenever you are going on holiday, the true 'cost' of the holiday now includes the time you spent on holiday multiplied by your rate! When deciding your day rate, you need to take into account all of the monetary benefits you may be missing out on by going independent. And if you are making enough, then this will not be a worry.
  • Unpredictable work load This is one of those risk factors you must factor in when deciding your day rate, and you have to judge the risk of each project or job individually. Fortunately in software development at the moment, the demand is fairly high, so for a good developer making a consistent effort to build contacts and exposure, it is definitely possible to maintain a consistently-high work load. You can always fill your gaps with work on personal projects. Get to be thinking like an entrepreneur.

Benefits to working from home

  • The ability to work in your own environment. We can be more efficient when we can have our surroundings exactly how we want them. Once you have setup your own personal office, it takes a big variable out of the equation. You can also cook breakfast and lunch.
  • Avoiding commutes. Doing no commuting at all literally returns hours of the day back to you, to use however you want. It also means that whilst everybody else in the outside world is stressfully trying to get to work on time, and back, you have the leisure to spend that on whatever you want. If you like to enjoy hobbies in your spare time, this is a real benefit. All the good developers have some personal project they'd like to spend more time on.
  • Flexibility. If you are the sort of person who naturally tends towards the most efficient ways of doing things, this can increase your efficiency a lot. Working from home leads to being able to precisely setting your own schedule — when to start work, when to have lunch, for how long, and when to finish. If you need to pop out to do some errand during the day, you can just find a convenient time and go and do it. Parcels? You are always in, so these are never a problem either. I find this benefit to be priceless.
  • Added motivation to socialise. Working from home can feel isolating at times, but you can turn it into a positive thing by using that to motivate yourself to socialise more in ways that you may not have otherwise. When you're around people in an office all day, you may not want to go and be around even more people in the evening. But when working from home, you really relish it. So start some sociable hobbies that you may not otherwise have done.

Possible downsides to working from home

  • Time-management discipline. With the increase in flexibility with your time, comes a great responsibility to manage it well and be efficient. When you can choose your working hours, you will naturally want to work when it most suits you. But it can also be tempting to become lazy, even without realising it. Even when you see yourself as a non-lazy person! If you find yourself getting up later than you'd like, and doing less hours, or working during hours in which you're less productive, or working at the weekends, it's important to notice and self-correct these things. You can come out of it with much clearer goals about what you actually want to achieve, and more therefore motivation and discipline towards achieving those goals.
  • Loneliness. This can take some time to have its effect, but the effect of rarely interacting with people in person during your working day can be quite profound. It can lead to a massive loss in productivity in all areas of your life, and you may not even notice it for a while either. You need to recognise it and find a solution, like changing to a job where you are working on-site, or a combination of that and working from home. Or working in coffee shops for some of the day. The great thing is you have the freedom to do something really novel.
  • You get sick of your home. As well as sapping your motivation for work, this can even put you off doing hobbies that you would usually do at home. The solutions are similar to the ones for loneliness above.

Conclusion

The importance of cleanly dividing your work and leisure time I found to be fundamental. My personal choice is actually to work from 8am-4pm, as these are the hours when I am most productive. It also keeps me in sync with the schedules of friends, with obvious benefits. As much as we sometimes malign it, the working week is actually pretty-effectively designed!

To achieve my aim of making a living by freelancing has been very gratifying. The challenge and process of doing your own marketing and network-building I find to be great fun. There are ways in which I could have being doing these much better, and I've recently learned a lot about this subject. I will be writing about it soon.

Going into the future, I am completely open-minded about whether I continue freelancing or go back into a full-time employed position. I can clearly see the advantages of either. At the moment, I am actually swaying towards the latter. I am neither an evangelist nor detractor for freelancing — everybody can gain something out of it, and it will be different things to different people. People also change, but the one thing that you should aim to keep constant is your enthusiasm for your craft, and for people.