my way part 3: freelancing

Freelancing can be a dream and nightmare at the same time. Working as your own boss can be liberating. It can also bring extra stress as you are the only one to blame. On the other hand you can choose to work without wearing pants…

Whatever your thrill is that you are freelancing you are a special breed. If takes special skills to be able to deal with life as a freelancer. You must have discipline to do work without someone pushing you. Knowing something about legal, taxes and other business related fields is also very useful. But how do you run a successful freelancing business?

My story

Starting as a freelancer is not always easy. I found myself with the age old problem… how do you get known? I had the luck to have some relatives and some friends that required my services. Some cheap and easy others without pay and very complicated. Doing things for free got me in contact with my first bigger clients. At that time I was 18 and doing this in my spare time next to a weekend job and university. Not the ideal situation but I got things done.

Growing client by client I found that most of my new work was coming in through former clients. I was lucky to catch this as this taught me the value of satisfied clients. These satisfied clients would not only return faster but they would also talk to their business friends about me. To date I do not have more than a small section in my portfolio to showcase that I am a freelancer. I never needed the extra advertisement.

I do work as a web-designer, web-developer, logo designer, photographer, PR consultant, social-media consultant, architect, project manager and many other roles. I’ve always been freelancing as web jack-of-all-trades. I make web solutions for many different types of clients; one-off campaigns, e-commerce, web-presence, portfolios and custom systems for clients with special needs. The type of companies are also very different. One of my clients was a goat cheese farmer, another was a holiday resort, several trading companies were also clients, another was a publishing company and of course I served stores and restaurants.

One thing none of these give me at this time is a challenge. All the needs are fairly standard; get more turnover from users, get more readers, promote this content or generate more revenue. Although these are interesting questions and they are not always easily solved. They are however standard questions. Not that all the work done is standard as clients to want exclusivity. But it is not as exiting as a start-up that is trying to change the world. That is why my freelance work is my day job and my day job is my hobby.

I do still get a lot of joy out of my freelance work. Clients still surprise me, I get to meet interesting people and visit interesting places. It is also something that pays the bills for me. I’m not cheap, I can tell you that! For all the work I’m getting in I can not take every request. I do only get a very select group of requests at this time due to the price but I still need some help! This is why next to my client network I’ve also created a nice professional network that I use. I hire other freelancers I know and trust to assist in projects. This way I can deal with more projects at the same time. This way I created some sort of mini company of freelancers. All type of companies, requests and projects are welcome in my book as long as they fit into my agenda…

I do have some things that really make me different from other freelancers. I work in a certain way to ensure maximum client satisfaction, my time and the result. Interested?

Agile projects only

I will tell anyone this up front. I do not do fixed price! Why? might you ask… Well, I have a good reason…

As a professional I cannot and will not tell you how much money you are going to spend on something. I can give an estimation, but I cannot give you a detailed description. In my experience nobody is able to do it accurately enough took keep a client happy. I do approximations of how much time it will cost me and then I’ll calculate the cost for that time. Contracts are never written down in functionality or delivered product. It only accounts for the time that will be spent on it.

I had mixed reactions at first. But as my clients were seeing the results and the open nature of things they began to understand it’s power and love it’s advantages.

The agile system

I got into contact with agile via one of my first jobs. I loved the openness, honesty and freedom of the methodologies. Centralizing around the work and the customer instead of centralizing around processes and procedures. This is why I use this way of working with all my clients.

During the first meeting with a client I will talk about what they want. While we have the meeting I will be planning things for them, creating feature stories, breaking them up into tasks and making a rough estimate of how long it will take. I will talk about this and make rough sketches of what the result might be like. By doing this I come to an agreement on how much time I will need to spend in total. This time will be split up into iterations that can be done and we’ll take it from there.

The iterations are important for the control I give to my clients. They have the power to change the complete assignment every iteration if they life. The estimated time will stay the same so a client will have to think about such a change carefully. Things can be added during the process but other things will have to drop. This allows the client to get the best result out of the budget that is given. If a clients wants more then the initial budget would allow he will need to expand the budget. This is why I always advise clients to “under budget” their project. This way at the end of the road the client has the choice to add extra’s as they are found important.

Taking the iterations, time budget and agility of this system has made my clients happier than with the other methods I used before.

Client involvement

In any freelancing project it is important to communicate with the client. In the system I use it is even more important than other systems. I also ask special time from client to involve themselves into the project. At the end the client should know just as much about the project as any other team member.

I want to involve the client more to get them to know the result better. This way it will meet the expectations of the client better. Continuously talking to the client also ensures that problems are spotter early. If I’m working on a piece of functionality we discussed and the client sees that it will not work for them it can be corrected on the spot. Continuous integration tools are very important in keeping the client up to date with the latest development. I also tend to open up the iteration and project backlog to the clients. This not only enhances the feeling of involvement by the client, it also helps clients to make better decisions when it comes to picking the right feature to do or not to do.

Involving the client this closely will basically boost overall satisfaction as the client was there when it happened and had control over what has been made.

Honest payment

Not having fixed price projects comes with a neat little advantage. A feature can be estimated as 8 hours of work. Due to some reason it only took 5 hours to build. The client will only pay for those 5 hours, not the 8 hours. Making estimations more accurate as I will not overestimate to ensure I get enough. This also goes the other way. As clients change their minds or want to have other functionality they will not pay the same for more work. If the original was estimated at 8 hours and eventually it took 12 hours due to changes the client will pay for the 12 hours of work.

Remember that the project budget it there. It will be more likely that a feature will be pushed outside of the time budget. If that feature is really important it can still be build by either swapping it with a less important feature or by extending the time budget and paying more. The choice is and can only be made by the client. This is where his freedom is most appreciated.

When it comes to sub-contractors, I charge nothing. Why not you ask? Why should I, I’m not doing the work. I find it more important to have a satisfied client and contractor then to have more money. If the contractor has another rate than me the client will pay those rates. I do discuss this before using a contractor to do a specific job… Keep it transparent for yourself and for the clients.

I try keeping it very transparent as it allows all parties to leave the project with a good feeling!

Client satisfaction

The agile methodologies are client and result oriented. This shows itself in the readiness to change in the middle of a project and the close client involvement into the project. I found my clients to be better understanding and more satisfied. This although the result might not be better when using other methods to manage the project. Communicating to the client in time and being open about the situation has helped me to serve customers better.

Centralize the work you do around the client. Keep the “enemy” closer!

Using your network

As I started I had no idea how important that network really was until I got my first enthusiastic referred client. I wasn’t that big on advertisement at that time so I had no idea where it was coming from. I figured it was just dumb luck. The second time got me thinking. I got two new clients out of one satisfied clients. So good work equals more work?

I talked about this a little bit. The network, the most important and most valuable piece of equipment you have as a freelancer. It starts with the Family, Friends and Fools but it becomes a valuable network of clients. I currently have a nice network with clients. I keep detailed records on this client, what I’ve done with them, what my previous experience is with that client, maybe a review from that client and the referred new clients I got through that client. This allows me to measure the value of that client. It also allows you to show potential clients what you’ve done for other clients. Keeping these kinds of records can be really helpful, even if it only were to send a winter holidays card to them every year.

As I said before, I don’t work alone. During my work at companies, projects as freelancer and visits to meeting I meet interesting professionals. I know people in software development, systems management, design, art, photography, copywriting and all other kinds of useful professions. I do with them the same as I do with my clients. Keeping this network updated allows me to pick the best professional for the right job. Basic information as project history, rates and specialism are all part of this. This helps me to determine the best match for a client and allows me to keep on the ball when it comes to separating the good from the bad.

I do use public networks like linkedIn, Facebook, Google+ and others but all important information is private. The black book is only meant for my eyes only. Be sure to keep this as it is your most valuable information and their privacy.

Ask help

As a jack-of-all-trades I know that I’m able to do everything myself. I also understand that I’m not the best in the world with everything, even I specialize. Getting help from sub-contractors really helps me out in several ways.

Sub-contractors are very useful for specific jobs. I do a lot of larger projects and it allows me to distribute the work to more specialist hands. Photographers have better studios and camera’s than I could ever have! Another advantage of sub-contractors is that they can take work away from you that you would not have time to do. Freelancing it not the only thing I do, it’s extra! Sub-contractors take work away from me that I would not be able to do. Distributing and specializing work like this get things done faster and better.

But there is still the question… How do you know how to find good contractors? This is where my network comes into play. I go to a lot of meeting, pub nights and geek fests to meet people. Not all are as good as the other but some are worth giving it a go. Sometimes sub-contractors did a bad job, sometimes a surprisingly good job! I always want to give people a chance to prove themselves so I try and get to do smaller projects with them. Currently I have a group of about 20 regular developers, artists, designers, photographers and copywriters I work with regularly.

Another hidden advantage of sub-contractors… They can also refer you to do work for them. I had a photographer connect me to modeling agency that needed a new website for their models. The photographer was pleased with the work that was done for me in the past so referred the agency to me. A good deed done can come back to you.

Having contractors on your side can help improve quality, speed and you can sometimes get something extra from them.

Do what your good at

I’m crap at financials and contracts. I had the opportunity to do some work for an accounting agency. They offered to help me with my legal and financial stuff I had to deal with as a freelancer. This way I could focus on what I was really good at. So now taxes, incoming and outgoing payments, contracts and other legal issues go directly to my accountant.

I understand that an accountant is expensive, I can only agree with you on that one! But I also see the value of paying a contractor to do a job better and more efficient than myself. An accountant is the same in that way. I would have probably had to pay more taxes, get less returned to me and I would have more issues with the contracts I sign with client. Yes, they cost money but in my case they have saved more as I would have had to put in a lot of hours I’m now spending working for clients.

Start

Interestingly enough I hear this from a lot of professionals they want to be a freelancer. I never see them actually doing it. My suggestion; Just start! Its not hard and you can start doing it on the side of a regular job or even during your time at university/college.

Do remember that being a freelancer is not easy. It’s not always certain and it does take a lot of work to get things going. Dealing with clients, negotiating contracts and having the uncertainty of not having a project can make it a different ball game all together. However, you are not the only one. Ask for help, seek out others that do freelancing work and try to stick with it long so it can grow.

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