More Lessons in Freelancing

So, I’ve been freelancing now for 9 months. I did a post a while back about what was working and what wasn’t, and I still stand by those recommendations. But that was over 6 months ago. Since then a lot of things have happened. I’m happy to report that, so far, things are going great. My clients are happy, I’m happy, and I’m taking to the business end of things pretty well.

However, I’m learning more about the business, and myself, so I thought I’d share s’more thoughts on my freelancing experience to help those in the same boat, or who are thinking of making the leap:

You only *think* you’re organized

I thought I was pretty organized before I became a freelancer. I was always punctual, never missed appointments or meetings, didn’t miss deadlines — I was on top of things. I’m still doing all of that, but I’m finding that I have to organize things very differently from when I was a 9-to-5 employee.

This might not apply to you. You might already organize things in a way that would be easy to apply to a freelancing schedule. It wasn’t that way for me. I typically used to think of my life in terms of projects. I had projects I was working on, usually more than one at a time. Every week, I had a meeting with my boss to go over the status of the projects, if I had hit any roadblocks, etc. In retrospect, it was pretty nice.

Nowadays, I still have projects, but they all belong to different clients, and all of the clients need their own status, and they all have different personalities, different lingo, different businesses, and different priorities. Some client projects are heavily focused on a completion date. Others are heavily focused on a feature set. Still others are focused on a budget number. I have to interact with them all separately, and I have to think about how to present the status to each one to meet their expectations. So, I actually budget time to think about these things.

What’s more, since I do all of my work remotely on an hourly basis, if a client has to complete a task so that I can move forward, and it takes them three days, I may well have nothing I can work on and get paid for for that period of time. With some clients, this isn’t a very big deal: I offer them a discounted rate if they prepay for “bulk hours”, so they get a cheaper rate, and I’m not out of luck if there are delays. I also try to work in other smaller projects and do business development work for my company during these times.

So, the lesson is not to bother trying to come up with crazy Gantt charts and precise time lines. Your clients’ businesses don’t work that way, so yours will need to be flexible as well.

Nowadays I create more loosely defined, high-level project definitions with less detailed tasks and time lines. I still don’t lose sight of what needs to be done, and I’m still able to meet my clients’ needs.

I’m more paranoid than I thought

I’ve grown used to people asking me “How’s business?” I used to hate that question, because I didn’t really have a metric to go by that I thought was sufficient. Now I have several metrics, but I feel like I need to evaluate where I am with respect to those metrics almost daily. I guess it’s part of being a young business.

When you’re fully employed, “business”, to some degree, is always good, because you’re always employed, and always have a paycheck coming in. My stepfather worked for Exxon during the Valdez oil spill. Business for Exxon was horrible. But my stepfather’s job (i.e. “business”) was relatively unaffected.

My business has two services: consulting and training. I try to maintain training appointments for at least the next three months, and consulting projects for the next 4-5 months. If I look at my calendar and see lots of empty spots any time in the next three months, I have work to do. This methodology works for me, and makes me less stressed out than the method I used to use.

I used to just say “if at any time I have less than 6 months of expenses in the bank, I have work to do”, but looking at dollar figures every day is stressful, and I think in terms of the business it’s kinda like taking your eye off the ball. The ball isn’t money — the ball is your client list. Much like the ball brings with it the potential for a base hit or home run, your client list has the potential to pay your bills and grow your business.

More to Come

I can get a little long-winded, so I’ll stop here for now. I’m interested in your input, whether you’re a freelancer, or considering becoming one. Share your thoughts!

  • Matt Simmons

    I’ve never really considered freelancing, but it’s interesting to look at it from that perspective. I imagine it takes some practice to build mental walls around different clients when you’re working for several.

    How many projects do you run concurrently?

  • m0j0

    Oh yeah, that’s another thing about freelancing: you work on-site for a client, and by lunchtime you have 5 calls to return, or you schedule lunch at 1pm to get on a conference call with a client or business partner. Google chat, skype, IRC and email are always humming. The other day I serviced 4 clients in one day. I’m a little ADD and it can get kinda nuts. I knew that going in and thought it might be my downfall, but as it turns out my brain is far more at home in chaos than in boredom. 🙂

    Clients who force me to work on-site pay a higher rate, because it means being largely unavailable to other clients. I almost never work on-site unless I’m delivering training.

    Normally, I’m developing content for training while running 2 projects concurrently, and that’s an ok pace to run at. For whatever reason, clients who want on-site training always want *custom* training, not prepackaged training, so I do a lot of content development.