The Freelancing Series: A Short Intro. Pros and Cons of Becoming a Freelance Web Developer

There are copious amounts of information online about whether or not one should become a freelancer. What I’m trying to accomplish with this series is present a very sincere, clear, informal but structured view of the main aspects of becoming a freelance web developer.

This is the first article in The Freelancing Series. It’s about how I became a freelance web developer and what I’ve learned in the last 5+ years of doing this.¬†You’ll read about the challenges, the fears, the horrors, the chaos. Oh, and the fun, the rewards, the money and the ability to take a bubble bath in the middle of a work day while watching episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on your laptop.

Should I do it?

There is basically no one out there that will have a definite “yes” as an answer to this question. At least not when they’re young and inexperienced. The decision to actually do it might spawn from various reasons:

- a long lasting dissatisfaction with your current job;

- a need to challenge yourself, a need to prove your own worth;

- the desire to move away from mainstream companies and practices.

In may case, it was a mix: I was happy with what I earned but I wasn’t happy with my status in the company. I was happy about what I did, my daily tasks, but unhappy about the relationship with the manager.

The atmosphere in the workplace was no longer relaxed

I felt a need for change and, without thinking too much about it, I did it.

That was 5 years ago and I’m sure now that it was the right choice.

I registered a company name, I stole 1 (one) client from my old workplace (yes, I have high moral standards – I actually referred each and every old customer that was still contacting me by phone back to the company I had left).

With that first customer came my first 500$ website built as a free man. Two months later, an old partner stepped in with some minor CSS jobs. Five months later, that first customer returned with a larger project. I’ve been building business relationships ever since and today I count about 60 solo websites and about other 60 various projects. I’ve no idea if that’s little or a lot, but it makes no difference to me. Those projects kept me happy and sane.

Pros and Cons

I think these should be obvious to most people, but let me just point out a few that were not that obvious to me. Also, your focus shifts over time, you get to know yourself better, you discover passions or hobbies. Sometimes pros turn into cons and the other way around.

Con: It’s damn hard at first!

People will tell you that it’s hard and you will expect it yourself. But it’s harder than that. Because you’ll always doubt yourself, because (in my case) most of my friends thought that quitting my job is too risky so they weren’t very supportive, because my family always adviced me to play it safe, because you’ll think you made the wrong decision every day.

If you’re like me, you’ll have no extra income, so money will soon become an important source of stress.

But you don’t need to be superhuman to get through this. If I did it, anyone can. Really, you don’t know me. If I could do it, anyone (well, most people) can do it too.

Con: You are responsible for each and every little decision that you make

After a few years this will most likely become a “Pro”. But at first, you will hit yourself for every little mistake. You will feel like you lost the client because:

- you weren’t convincing enough;

- they thought you were too young;

- you weren’t dressed properly for the meeting;

- you stuttered too often;

- you weren’t good at negotiating;

- you forgot to mention something;

- your email message didn’t look professional enough;

- your business card doesn’t look good enough.

You soon realize that you pay dearly for every little omission, every little mistake. Clients make up their minds quickly and they base their decision on a variety of factors. You’re not familiar with “the game” yet, so big fish always seem to get away.

But you’re learning. There’s tons of resources available (like this one) and you’re improving every day. You learn how to negotiate, how to sell yourself at meetings without selling yourself, how to attract bigger and better clients.

Con: The pay is not steady

You need to take you current monthly expenses into account and prepare for a roller-coaster. Some months will be good and some will be horrible. Making a big fat zero three months in a row is not unheard of.

For me, this didn’t get better with time, but it isn’t an issue anymore. I make enough in a good month to more than make up for the horrible months.

Pro: Working from home means fewer expenses

Maybe you’ve already thought about this and figured that gas or public transport costs almost disappear. But there are quite a few other expenses that might go down dramatically, things like food, clothing and other expenses associated with going out. You will spend less on shoes, trust me.

Pro: You are once again the master of your own time

Remember when you were a child and you just had a full, sunny summer’s day to waste? That’s what freelancing is all about. No, I’m just joking.

For most people, making plans outside the annual paid vacations is difficult. But imagine that the whole day is yours to spend as you like. You can work in the morning, like I do, for 4-6 hours. You could choose to sleep late and start work at noon. You can take huge 3-hour-long lunch breaks. You could work during the night, when it’s cool and quiet. You can easily take time off in case of an emergency. And you can plan your vacations on a whole new level. Just remember that the rest of the world might not sync with you that easily.

Pro: You can focus on personal projects as well

Being able to choose your working hours also frees your mind in an unexpected way. You’re more relaxed and you have more time to dream, to get inspired, to fantasize. After a while, when you’re more comfortable with yourself and your schedule, you will realize that new ideas surface and you now have the time and the resources to turn those ideas into reality.

Pro: You choose who you want to work with

This comes with time, but it’s such a pleasant and unexpected benefit of working as a freelancer… You can just say “no” to those rude, stressful, needy, demanding and unappreciative clients. You no longer have a boss. You’re allowed to say “no” even based on gut feeling. And I suggest you do.

Pro: You get better at managing and planning, especially your personal finances

Managing your business usually means keeping tabs on income and expenses, keeping track of projects, customers, versions, deadlines, your invoices, your monthly fees. You will quickly become more organized and better at keeping track of your money.

Pro: Even if it might help, you don’t need a college education

I am the proud owner of a (completely unrelated) college education. I am a fully certified constructions engineer. Although education is always a good thing, you don’t need a college degree to become a freelancer. Some might even call it a waste of time.

Pro: You can temporarily or permanently go mobile

There’s always been this idea flickering in the back of my mind that I would someday work on my MacBook Pro while sipping some cocktail in the shade of the palm trees on some beautiful sunny beach. That exact scenario hasn’t become reality yet, but I did get some work done while traveling. Finding WiFi in India is not always easy, but I managed to do some troubleshooting and also launch a website during my two-month trip there. It’s not as comfortable as my home setup, but it works.

Pro: I’m not going to mention “working in your underwear” in this section. Mainly because I work butt-naked. Creative types…

Have you got what it takes?

As painful and cliched as this may sound: you are the only one that can answer that question. Look within…

Sometimes you come to realize this very simple point: most people will just think or talk about their desires and ideas, but never turn them into reality. Successful, happy people just go for it. They make mistakes, but learning and recovering from your mistakes is more valuable than not having tried anything at all.

The truths of life are amazingly basic. But we all need a smack upside the head from time to time.


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