Category Archives: Freelance

A Path to Freelance Success – Part 2

Yesterday, I talked about the first few steps in my path to freelance success. In this post, I’ll finish talking about the steps I took and how you could take advantage of those things. Just to review, the first three steps were:

  1. Figure out what you like doing
  2. Figure out if there is money in what you like doing
  3. Write a plan, including specifics for your finances and marketing

Now, onto the next steps.

Practice Your Craft

If you want someone to pay you to do something, you need to be good at doing that thing. That means you need to practice.

One of the best ways to practice your craft is to create high-quality stuff and give it away for free. There are lots of ways to do that:

  • Are you a developer? You can contribute to open source projects, create a library and give it away, or write tutorials related to your expertise
  • Are you a designer? You can give away a set of icons, create a single page website skin, or give advice on design practices
  • Are you a writer? Find something you’re interested in and write about it to show off your skills
  • Are you a freelance personal trainer? Record some videos that show people how to perform certain exercises

The ideas are endless. As long as it is related to your field, you can potentially profit from it. From a mindset standpoint, this is a marketing step. You are not seeking payment (although it can be nice). This is to get your name out there and establish expertise.

Seek Out and Nurture Your First Good Client

Once you know you’re good at something, its time to find your first client and nurture your relationship with them. There’s a bunch of different ways to find that client:

  1. Referral from a friend, family member, or business associated
  2. Inbound lead from you website (which you should definitely have up and running)
  3. From online job boards or on a freelance website like Elance, ODesk, or Freelancer.com

The first two scenarios are generally preferable to the last one. Once you find your first client, you need to do an awesome job on your first project. Work as hard as you possibly can to meet your client’s expectations while establishing a good rapport. Make sure you make it clear what is your responsibility and what isn’t, but going the extra mile on the first project won’t hurt you in the long run.

The most important thing here is to establish a relationship that allows you to be the person that this client goes to in the future.

Leverage Your First Client Into Multiple Contracts

Once you have your first client and have established a great relationship, you need to leverage that client to generate more business for yourself. There’s a few different ways to leverage your client:

  • You can get new contracts from the client, turning them into a repeat client
  • The client can refer others to you and your business
  • You can ask the client for a testimonial, write a case study about your project, or request credit within the project itself – this is indirect leverage

All of these things are valuable and relatively easy to do, assuming you do a good job following up.

After First Few Contracts – Examine Your Current Situation

After you complete a couple of projects, you need to step back and take a look at your freelance business. There are a lot of important questions you can ask yourself, but I recommend starting with at the following:

  • Do I really like doing this thing for money?
  • Who is my ideal client and what is my ideal project?
  • What have I learned so far and how can I use this knowledge?
  • How can I continue learning new things and bettering myself?

The first question is probably the most important, but they can all help you move forward with your business.

Solidify Marketing and Advertising – Push and Watch Your Business Grows

At this point, hopefully you’ve got a good feel for what it takes to be a freelancer and how you should be running your business. Assuming you want to keep freelancing and grow your business, there’s a lot of things you can do as you move forward. You can ramp up your marketing efforts by blogging, tweeting, attending conferences or meetups, or sponsoring the said events. You can advertise your services in a variety of ways and places.

Finishing Up

If you’re looking to start freelancing or are already freelancing and not sure how you can push forward, I hope you’ve found this set of articles helpful. Looking back, this is the exact path that I followed to grow my freelancing business to what it is.

If you have any questions or would like specific examples of some of the things I talked about, please leave a comment and I’ll be happy to provide as much help as I can.

A Path to Freelance Success – Part 1

My freelance career has been remarkably successful. I’ve worked with an amazing array of individuals and companies from around the world. I’ve gone places I never thought I would. I authored a book when I was 24, something I wanted to do sometime in my life but didn’t think would come until much later.

The money hasn’t been bad, either.

I had no idea what I was doing when I started freelancing. I figured I’d just wing it and hopefully things would work out in the end. I certainly didn’t jump in blindly – I did my research – but I never codified my plans in any way.

Discovering the Path

A couple of years ago, I was on a business retreat with some awesome associates of mine. Each person on the trip was invited to present to the group on a topic they considered interesting. I sat down in the weeks leading up to the event and thought about what I could talk about that would be applicable to a group of freelancers from disparate backgrounds and a variety of disciplines. I wanted to present on something that they would be able to apply to their professional lives.

That’s when I came up with the process that I credit with my success as a freelancer. I believe anyone with a marketable skill can follow the steps I’ll outline and be successful.

I’m not saying this is the path you MUST FOLLOW to have success as a freelancer. I don’t deal in absolutes like that. It has worked for me and I hope it will work for those of you who are interested in freelancing and aren’t sure how to get started.

In this post, I’m going to go through the first three steps of the path. Tomorrow, I’ll reveal the other steps. I look forward to hearing what you think!

Figure Out What You Like Doing

If you want to build a business as a freelancer, you need to choose the services you offer wisely. You’re going to be doing something every single day in order to pay the bills, so you better make sure you like doing it. Otherwise, you might as well go work as a nameless and faceless drone in some thankless corporate job.

I love developing software because it gives me a chance to craft unique solutions for a myriad of different problems. I get to think things through logically and architect artful solutions. I learn something new every day and I get a deep sense of personal satisfaction from knowing people use the things I build.

Figure Out if There is Money in What You Like Doing

To freelance professionally, you need to be marketing a service that people are willing to pay (and hopefully willing to pay well) for. No matter how much you like doing something, you’re not going to make it as a freelancer if the service you offer has no market.

Here’s how I found out that people were willing to pay for software development in general and WordPress plugin development in particular.

  • I found job boards centered on the service I was providing (like WordPress Jobs and the FreelanceSwitch Job Board)
  • I looked on Craigslist and saw there were job postings for freelance software developers
  • I found people already doing what I wanted to do

No matter what service you want to offer, you should be able to do the same.

Write a Plan

Once you determine that you can make money performing a service you can provide, you have to dig deeper and do some planning.

Finances

The first thing I did was figure out how much I needed to make per month to live the life that I wanted for my wife and I. After that, I worked backwards to determine a plan to start making that much money. In my first few months freelancing, I gradually built my business up and hit my “need this much money to live” goal.

The most important thing about financial planning for a freelancer is to be realistic. You can almost certainly make the money you need to get by if you plan appropriately, but you can’t expect to go from nothing to full income in a few days unless you already have a captive audience, prospective clients who will pay for your services without further convincing, and the ability to provide those services in a business context.

Marketing

The most important question you should ask yourself is “How am I going to get the word out about my services and the fact that I’m now offering them?”

If nobody knows you’re in business, you won’t be able to make any money. You need to find clients or have them come to you and request your services.

There are a variety of ways to do this, the simplest being word of mouth. Tell all of your friends and family members that you’re freelancing and let them know what you do and how people can get in touch with you.

As a follow up, you should register a domain name and put up a business website. Make sure it has a clear call to action that prompts people to contact you and that it clearly demonstrates your ability.

How do you demonstrate it? If you’re a developer, have code samples or links to your GitHub profile. If you’re a designer, portfolio pieces and a link to your Dribbble account might be in order. Writers should have writing samples in a variety of formats. Bottom line, demonstrate you’re good at what you you want people to pay you to do.

Part 2

Tomorrow, I’ll go through the final steps of the freelance path I discovered and flesh out a bit of the endgame. Getting started is tough enough, so if you have any questions or comments about the steps outlined so far, please let me know in the comments!

Update: You can read part two now!

As a Freelancer, Not Every Day is Great

I wrote the other day about not conflating your sense of self-worth with your work. That is particularly important on the days where your work isn’t going as well as you think it should.

When I started freelancing, I thought I would never have a bad day of work again. I’d be in control of my own destiny and, since I was going to do my best work without fail, every day was going to be more awesome than the last.

I don’t think this could be any further from the truth. Over the last five years of freelancing, I’ve definitely had more good days than bad, but I’ve had some days that were really, really terrible.

Most of the time, the bad days came because of something I couldn’t control. Maybe there was a storm and our power was knocked out, or my motherboard on my computer had a corrupted BIOS and wouldn’t boot, or a client was late getting me feedback but absolutely had to launch tomorrow because of some reason they hadn’t told me about.

There’s not much to do in these situations but buck up, do the best you can, and try to have a positive outcome to the day. Accomplish one thing and you’ll set yourself on the path to success tomorrow.

If you’re getting into freelancing and think everything will always be awesome, you’re wrong. Accept that fact, prepare to deal with it, and you’ll be better for it.

Testimonials: Why and How

Testimonials have been an extremely important part of my business. I’m pretty sure, based on traffic analysis, that my testimonials drive more of my business than anything else.

Why are Testimonials so Important?

The obvious reason is that they’re a form of social proof. Other people running businesses have trusted their projects with you and had success so you’re probably a smart bet. You have obviously shown the ability to get stuff done in the past, so you’re likely to do so in the future.

How about another reason? For me, testimonials have been a life-saver when I’m working on a challenging project. Being able to look back and see the positive outcomes I’ve had on other projects and being reminded of how highly people regard my work gets me excited to do my best all over again. Here’s one of my favorite testimonials:

Nick was incredibly fast and efficient. He went above and beyond our expectations and was very pleasant to work with. We have yet to encounter a truer professional. We were also extremely impressed by his huge guns.

Aaron Gibraltar – Urtak, Inc.

How could I read that and not get pumped about my work?

How to Ask for a Testimonial

First, do your absolute best work at all times. Provide real value to your clients and they’ll be more willing to talk about your services.

Second, ask for a testimonial as soon as you finish a project. You want your client’s experience with you to be as fresh in their mind as possible. I try to ask for a testimonial in my final delivery message.

Next, make sure the client knows what you’re looking for. Specifically, ask for a sentence or two and nothing more. Writing a sentence takes so little effort that oftentimes people will just do it right away. Any larger commitment will cause your request to be put on the back burner.

You’ll probably need to follow up once or twice. If the client doesn’t get back to you immediately, send them a note via email in a week saying something like:

Joe, I really enjoyed working with you and I feel like we had a really successful project together. If you thought the same, I’d love to have a sentence or two from you about your experiences with me to post on my testimonials page.

As you can see, the request mentions your existing testimonials. There are two reasons for this:

  1. The client will see that you’re not asking for something out of the ordinary because others have already gone through the process of giving you a testimonial
  2. They will understand that you’re not looking for much more than a sentence or two and are more likely to follow through

Finally, move on quietly if the client can’t (because of corporate policy) or won’t write you a testimonial. It isn’t the end of the world as there will always be new clients you can try to impress.

Have you found that testimonials are an important part of your business? How do you go about getting them from clients?

Remember: You Are Not Your Work

Freelancers (myself definitely included) often feel a strong emotional attachment to their work. This attachment has some notable benefits:

  • An intrinsic desire to produce the best work possible
  • A sense of purpose when you’re working through a project, especially when you’re working alone
  • Pride in the end result of all your work

The danger comes when you take that emotional attachment too far and start conflating your sense of self with the success of your projects. This might be fine if every single thing you work on is successful and proceeds smoothly.

Realistically, that just isn’t an appropriate expectation. You are going to have at least a few bad projects, even if it is because of things that are outside of your control.

This is something I’ve been dealing with for the last month or so. A project went off the rails and, while I’ve been working as hard as possible to finish it in a satisfactory way, it just hasn’t gotten any better. Because of this project, I’ve been depressed, angry, and not a ton of fun to be around.

I’m trying to take a step back, now, and see my work as separate from myself. Things are slowly getting better, but it is still a struggle for me to not conflate my sense of self worth with my work success.

If you are experiencing the same or similar feelings, take this opportunity to realize you are not your work. Remind yourself every day – that’s what I’ve done and it is helping.

If you’ve got other ways to deal with this, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Fixed Price Contracts and Freelancing

I’ve been using fixed price contracts almost exclusively since I started freelancing in 2008. If you’re not familiar with the term, a fixed price contract is a contract where the amount of payment depends on producing some deliverable and does not take into account the time taken or resources expended to produce that deliverable. This is in contrast to a time-based contract where the client pays for every unit of time spent on their project, or a cost-plus contract where the client agrees to pay for the contractor’s costs plus some predefined profit margin.

Fixed price contracts appeal to prospective clients for a number of important reasons:

  1. Most of the risk of the project is shifted from the client to the contractor
  2. The client knows upfront exactly how much they will pay to receive what is specified
  3. There is very little administrative burden for the client – they don’t have to review time sheets or address itemized expenses

What’s In It for Freelancers?

While the benefits of fixed price contracts for freelancers are a bit more nuanced than the benefits for clients, I believe they are worth it.

More Money

You’ll make more money with fixed price contracts by taking advantage of value-based pricing. Value-based pricing means you charge the amount that your work is worth to your client, not the amount it costs you to produce it. This is a game-changer if implemented correctly.

An example is easy to come by. Recently, a prospect approached me and asked if I could fix some issues on their website for them. They obviously needed it done in short order and it was apparent that the issues were hampering their ability to run their business the way they wanted to.

I proposed an amount I thought would be acceptable to them based on their circumstances (it was in the low four figures), it was accepted, and I went ahead with the work. It took me a total of two hours to finish.

The client was super happy their problems had been resolved so quickly and I made a ton of money for my time. That’s the best possible outcome for any project.

Cash Flow

Fixed price contracts lead to a better understanding of your cash flow. This is a really good thing – one of the scariest parts of freelancing is the uncertainty of not knowing when money is going to come in.

For example, you set the price for a particular project at $5,000. Assuming a 40% deposit, you’ll receive $2,000 at the start of the project and $3,000 when it is over. If you stay on schedule for the project, you’ll have a really good idea of when you’ll receive that money. This knowledge allows you to schedule the rest of your work so that you have the money you need when you need it.

Motivation

One of the big dangers of freelancing is losing motivation to work on a project. In my experience, this is much more likely to happen with an hourly project where you’re unsure of the end then a well-specified fixed price contract where you know you’ve delivered the appropriate items and are going to get paid.

Things To Look Out For

Fixed price contracts aren’t always rosy. There’s a number of situations where they’re going to cause more trouble then they’re worth.

Ambiguous Project Definitions

This is an issue that has bit me (and other freelancers that I’ve talked to) more than any other. You start a project, build something you think the client is going to love based on the documentation you’ve received or produced, and then you deliver. Great! You’re done and getting ready to move on to the next project when your client sends you an email.

Wait, the client says, where is Feature X, Page Y, and instruction Z? You go back and try to explain that those things obviously weren’t part of the project (they’re going to take you 15 hours each, you’re thinking) until you look over your statement of work. That’s when you spot it – an ambiguous paragraph or sentence that could have led the client to believe that what they are asking for was included.

Now you’re stuck. You can either provide what they want, lose money and sleep, and get on with your life or you can put your foot down and insist that the requested items will have to be part of a separate work order. The first option makes things bad for you, the second makes things bad for the client, and this awesome project just turned into a cesspool.

If you’re going to work on fixed price contracts, you need to make sure the project is specified as well as it can be. There can’t be any questions about what is going to be built. That leads directly to the next danger.

Protracted Specification Period

If you’re going to specify a fixed price for a new project and you want to have a good experience, you need to know exactly what you’re building. This can sometimes lead to dozens of emails back and forth where you’re asking for clarifications on seemingly minute details.

While you can probably narrow down the price to a range during this process, it takes time and effort and you can’t be totally sure that your price is even going to be accepted by the prospect. Also, the prospect can get frustrated by all the back and forth and move on to another freelancer that will push forward with the project immediately.

You can mitigate this danger by charging for the specification process, but unless you have an existing point of contact or relationship with the prospect, that doesn’t always work.

Mid-Project Change Requests

Sometimes you’ll get into the middle of a project and a client changes their mind. They want to implement X instead of Y and change A to B. Sure, you say, we can do that, but I need you to specify exactly the changes you want, formalize it into a change request, and I can give you a quote on top of what we already specified.

These conversations are hard. They’re even harder when you have X half-built and the client can’t see it, but wants to swap it out for Y. It can be hard to explain that, while there isn’t a visible component of feature X, you spent time on it and will need to charge the complete price of switching to Y even though they never saw X.

I haven’t found a good way to deal with these things that makes everyone happy. If you’ve found something, I’d love to hear it.

What Do You Think?

I’ve tried to make the benefits of fixed price contracts clear in this post. I’ve had great success with them and I know others have as well. What about you? Do you use fixed price contracts and how have you dealt with some of the dangers involved? Have you encountered other things that make you shy away from fixed price projects? If you use another billing method, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.