Freelancing: What’s working, what isn’t

So, I’ve been a full-time freelance consultant now for almost 3 months, and I’m happy to say that business is going well so far. I’ll be coming off of a 3-month contract at the end of this month, and I’ve already had some success in building the business in that time. I’ve also had a really important “lesson learned”. I have clients and projects to carry me through the next few months, and a few contracts that are still “pending”. Here’s a list of things that are working, and a couple that aren’t:

What’s working…

  • Face time: Being able to meet people one-on-one has been invaluable in ways I hadn’t even imagined. I spend all kinds of time in front of a computer, answering emails and such. The conversations are very different when you can hear a voice, read body language, and make a personal connection with people. They feel more comfortable with me, and I feel more comfortable with them as well.
  • FreshBooks: I tested out 3 or 4 different systems for invoicing, time tracking, estimates, and the like, and I settled on FreshBooks, and I’m very happy with it. It’s not the most AJAX-y slicker-than-snot-on-a-doorknob web2.0 gooey application on the planet, but it’s quite mature, well-supported, bug free so far, and it helps me maintain a professional image *and* track sent/paid invoices. It admits defeat in certain areas, like project collaboration, but for things outside of its core competency, it integrates with existing tools like BaseCamp.
  • Google Apps for Your Domain: I got my business “brochure” web site up and running in no time (though I really want to create a new one with more features, probably using Django). With the domain registration and web site out of the way, the next thing to do was set up email. I’ve deployed Google Apps before, and was surprised at how much I used features I didn’t put much value in at first. Long story short, it took me less than an hour to set up Google Apps, change my DNS records, set up the SPF record, and verify to Google that I owned the domain. After that, everything ‘just worked’.
  • Networking: Almost 100% of my income can be traced to a friend, associate, someone I’ve helped in some way, or a former employer. I read a blog post once that networking doesn’t make that big of a difference. Turns out it was written by someone who hit a dry spell, and then tried to dive into networking, as if it were some kind of quick fix. Don’t do that. Don’t network because you have to. Don’t network as an “angle” to get more business. I’ve done the exact opposite: instead of consulting and then networking to help my business, I have *always* networked, and the friends I’ve made by just being social and being involved in things that interest me gave me a lot of encouragement to “go solo”.
  • Digital Ubiquity: I have accounts on LinkedIn, facebook, twitter, brightkite, yelp, guru, myspace, and jaiku. I’m a regular on probably 10-12 different IRC channels. I’m on several different mailing lists at any given point in time. I write on my blog here, which is syndicated in a few places, and I write for other sites and publications as well. I make an effort to contribute code to the projects I use, or otherwise release code I write in the course of doing my work, either on my blog, my old web site (well, it’s still mine, but it’s old), or on a project hosting site. The income I have which is not traceable to someone I know is traceable to one of these online presences. One client found me because he was looking for a local presence that could complement his business, so he found me on by searching for people in his area. That’s actually the only good Guru has ever really done me, to be honest, but it was worth it! Others have found me on O’Reilly,, or my blog.

What’s Not Working…

  • Trying to be a bargain: I have a client who is also someone I consider a friend. A long time ago he told me to give him a rate that is low enough that I could make money, but they could get some of their mounting projects done. I gave them a really low rate, and you know what? It turned out to be a complete disservice to him. I didn’t do him any favors at all. By giving him a steeply discounted rate, I was basically forced to turn down all of his projects because even contracts that came in that were relatively cheap were still paying quite a lot more than I was charging him. I wound up with enough work that I could no longer justify doing work at the lower rate. In a way, it’s good news for me, but it’s bad news for my friend, and it wasn’t intentional at all.
  • Working at “hotspots”: I have a great working environment at home, but occasionally I used to try to work outside the house for a change of scenery. It was a bust. Panera would be great, except that they only allow 30 minutes of internet access between 11am and 1:30pm. I can’t be disconnected for that long, so if I go there, it’s at 7:30am, I have breakfast there, and then I’m cut off at 11:30. At that point, I leave. I’m not going to eat lunch for 2 hours, and I’m not going to kill time waiting for the ‘net to come back. Border’s isn’t bad as a working environment, but they charge a lot for ‘net access, and the food there has never been anything short of horrid. Other places are further away, or are too loud, or don’t have enough power outlets, or…. whatever. I haven’t found a reliable spot yet. I’ll let you know if I do.
  • Recruiters: In the past few months, I’ve received *AT LEAST* 100 “opportunities” from recruiters. Useless. They fail to read even the first sentence on my CV or profile. I’m a hands-on system/db admin and trainer and project manager in NJ. They’re contacting me for 6 month senior java developer positions in Massachussetts. No, I’m not kidding. I have not only not received a suitable opportunity from a recruiter, I haven’t even seen a single one that was in the ballpark enough to respond to. The problem with recruiters is that it’s all automated, and the automation systems SUCK. As a result, they end up becoming what amounts to a spam shop: they fire off 5000 emails to fill one position in the hopes that 5 people respond.

What’s working for you? What’s gone horribly wrong?

  • Tennessee Leeuwenburg

    Thanks for this interesting post. Read with interest.

  • Roger

    The good thing about running your own email server is you can email ban the spam recruiters. I keep contemplating publishing a list like Chris Anderson of Wired did with PR people. In the end I wrote a “note to recruiters” and linked to it from my resume – see my link for this comment. It seems to have helped a lot and I have also had quite a few people comment on it being exactly what is needed 🙂

  • Zoe

    Networking has been really powerful. Most of my work has come from former employers, and I’ve found that online groups and forums have been brilliant at providing contacts and recommendations.
    What’s not working is stopping working – I find it hard to close the office door, so next step is to stick to working hours and stop answering the phone to clients outside of this time!