I was talking to some of my friends recently about my freelance experience, and I realized that I had finally reached some conclusions about how it was for me and what I learned — so I wanted to share them quickly in a blog post.
For anyone who does not know, I quit my first full-time job as a Software Engineer, with about a year and a half of experience, and decided to try freelancing. I made this decision because I have always wanted to be my own boss. My most enjoyable "job" up until that point had been buying, selling, and fixing iPhones during my high-school and college years, so it seemed fitting to try to be a freelance software developer.
📊 Quick Stats
Duration: 8 Months
No. Paying Clients: 6
% Income from 1 Client: 83%
Additionally, only one paying client was the result of a cold email, and was only 5% of my income (~$500) during that time.
Two of the paying clients were family or friends. One additional client was found through a recruiter.
The behemoth client – who effectively allowed me to sustain myself for as long as I did – was found through a previous coworker and friend (thanks Evan!).
👨🏫 Lessons Learned
What are the key takeaways from my brief stunt?
1. Don't Underestimate Yourself
I think my number one regret is that I started my quest assuming that I had to start small and build myself up. I assumed that I had to start by cold emailing small local businesses and offer to do odd wordpress jobs. This was the wrong approach for me.
The first reason that this was wrong, is because it was an underestimation of myself. I may have been young (23?), but I had a degree in Computer Science, nearly two years of professional experience, and plenty of projects that I had built on my own. I truly enjoyed the clients that I did end up working with, but I should have set my sights on larger businesses, like startups.
The second reason that this approach was wrong is because I did not want to do it. To be blunt, I don't enjoy WordPress development. I wanted to do custom websites and applications. By the end of my eight months I was burnt out on trying to source clients because I simply did not want to do the work I anticipated receiving.
2. Ask For More Money
This is literally the advice of every freelancer ever. I do not regret the amounts that I asked for, but I wanted to reiterate this advice because it is true.
However, I want to add a touch of nuance. It has been my experience that as I take on lucrative self-owned projects, it becomes way easier to make money after a certain amount of time. Like, 80% more money, with only 20% of the work. The first six months to a year is simply not an indicator of how the remaining years will go.
As a short anecdote, I want to talk about my teenage iPhone repair business...
A Short Diversion
I started my journey by buying two of the iPhone 1st Gen phones on eBay with broken screens, along with two new screens. I replaced them, I only bent one of the metal shells, and I sold them back on eBay at a small loss.
This was at a time when the iPhone 3GS had just launched, so working on iPhone 1st Gen wasn't necessarily smart. So, I went ahead and found an iPhone 3G with a broken screen on eBay, as well as a new screen. After fixing this phone, I probably sold it back on eBay with a profit of something like $10 or $20. It was not much, but it was incredibly exciting for teenage me.
Sadly, I do not have the records I kept anymore, but after a year of spending a few hours every day buying, fixing, or selling phones on eBay I had made few hundred dollars. This was a lot work for only a little bit of money, but the next year yielded much better results.
I had learned that buying phones locally on Craigslist meant I would be able to buy them much cheaper. Furthermore, I learned that the costs of parts were nearly as big as the gap between "Broken" iPhones and "Used" iPhones on eBay. In summary, it was not worth my time to fix the phones.
So, I barely spent any time on my "business" during my second year, and rarely fixed any phones, yet I nearly hit one thousand dollars in profit, just by buying local and selling online. I was doing less work and making more money.
Back on Track
This pattern also applied to my career as a freelance software developer. I did eject after eight months, but I still get requests for work which I occassionally take on during my free time.
Since I have much less time to work on freelance projects, I considerably raised my rates. My clients are still happy to accept my new rates and I have received no complaints yet.
Does this mean I should have asked for more money all along? Probably not, but I think it goes to show that it does get easier over time.
3. Network, Network, Network
This may not be a key takeaway, but I wanted to put it out there for anyone reading this who wants to start pursuing freelancing themselves. You will have to spend a lot of time networking. I sent at least 50 cold emails (each one was personalized!) and landed one client from it. My best clients were sourced from people I already knew.
It is okay to network. It is okay to ask friends and family. Don't be ashamed!
That's all I have. I hope this blog post was interesting for you. If you have any questions, I happily take Twitter DMs: @NickOnTheWeb.