Freelance life, my first 42 days

On the 27th of August 2013 I officially quit my job as a Senior Digital Designer for a cool and award winning advertising/digital agency in Glasgow. Having worked my notice period for my now previous full time employers – I packed my desk up like a sad scene from a movie and left the building with the gift of a Wacom Bamboo graphics tablet, a bottle of JD and many good memories working with lots of talented people.

My journey into freelancing was somewhat of a knee jerk decision to be honest, I had freelanced in my own time in the past picking up the odd small job, usually completely different kinds of work to what I did full time (I’m primarily a digital designer, but most of my freelance work was graphic/print design). I had seen the potential in working for myself but never fully believed I could actually support myself and my family from it.

My full time job was actually pretty good, definitely the best place I had worked in my 8 year career anyway, but it still wasn’t enough. I’m quite opinionated at times, I’m easily bored, and I like to do things my own way… Both my Mum and Dad ran their own businesses so maybe it’s just in my blood? I’m also a people person and that side of me was never able to flourish working full time, always the “faceless designer” working away, making logo’s bigger, making things pop, changing blue to green, trying a greenish blue instead, then back to blue again at account managers/clients/bosses demands. I knew I could talk clients round when they’re worried about making a decision, I knew I could rationalise my design decisions in a concise manor thus avoiding re-doing hours worth of work on a daily basis but I’d never get the opportunity to do any of this working for someone else.

One day, I simply woke up at 6.45am to my alarm unsurprisingly in a bad mood – I came in to a half arsed email brief from one of my bosses, which pretty much was telling me to go back to a design that had been round the houses 25 times already, and I just cracked. I asked my direct boss for a chat and I handed my notice in – the whole time thinking in my head “OH. MY. GOD – WHAT AM I DOING?”

No regrets (yet)

While I worked my one month notice, I came to realise I had made the right decision as I was treated differently, like a traitor – which I guess was a bit of a back handed compliment but hey, it wasn’t a nice feeling and I honestly never expected it as I got on so well with everyone there. I went from crapping myself to looking forward and building new relationships with people purely because I knew there was no going back now.

It’s been just over a month for me as a full time freelancer… “how’s it going?” is the question I get asked regularly.

Quite honestly, it’s going better than I anticipated. I’ve landed a few new clients whom have already come back to me with repeat work and I took on a six month contract working three days a week for someone, which pays a reasonable day rate; this basically covers my living costs and more plus leaves me a couple of days a week to work on my own clients etc.. To be honest, I feel like I’m on a working holiday every day, it’s bizarre.

Before I made the leap, I read every “going freelance” article out there, I always read about cabin fever, loneliness etc… but I’m not suffering from that (yet), the contract gets me out the house and chatting to humans, and actually in the first few weeks I was working on location at other folks offices.

I’ve started working in a way that suits me more, I’ve even subscribed to Adobe CC so I can use the latest technology – which in itself is already paying off as going from Adobe CS5 to CC has lots of productivity improvements, things that used to take me 30 mins to achieve now take 2 mins for example.

Down sides

As with everything, there’s always a catch – in my case this has come in a couple of forms. In order to work my six month contract, I needed to buy a laptop which was of course an unforeseen expense, and naturally I had to buy a MacBook Pro in order to live up to the Starbucks designer stereotype so yeah, it wasn’t cheap.

I had some issues with my previous accountant, whom had incurred nearly £1300 worth of Companies House and HMRC fines on my behalf due to late fillings which he never bothered telling me about. When I switched accountant I also changed my legal trading address which was a stroke of luck as this now re-directed all mail to me. So not only was that a massive financial hit, it also really stressed me out. Thankfully he took my strongly worded email seriously and paid me back all the money he cost me, so I wasn’t out of pocket for too long.

I knew I would have to track all my income and expenses carefully, but I really underestimated how much work it actually is to be on top of it all daily. In my head it was as simple as tracking money spent and money earned, but in reality it’s not quite that simple. I charge some clients day rates, some hourly, some fixed prices – thats three different kinds of income to track, and I honestly haven’t figured out the best way to track fixed price jobs whom have also paid deposits – I’m still learning all this stuff. Tools like FreeAgent are probably the type of resource that I’m going to turn to sooner than I had expected to help ease the strain.

Expenses come in many forms too, direct debits, standing orders, if I take money out of a cash machine, how do I track every penny of that? Is that an expense or is it only the things I spend it on? Obviously I have figured all this out now but these are all things I never really thought of.

Talking about money with clients is harder than I thought, I’m still adjusting to saying big numbers to them expecting them to spit their coffee out and they just reply with “ok, that’s fine”. I’m always second guessing how much I should charge for work, do I charge based on the size of the client, the size of the job, the size of the companies I’m pitching against? What it’s worth to the client? Or simply what it’s worth to me?

Working with other people is still something I have yet to do as all my jobs have been design only, requiring just my own input. I can see how it’s going to be yet more time management though when and if it comes to it.

I had all these plans of awesome things I was going to create – products, services etc, none of them have happened – I’ve been way too busy for stuff like that and strangely the mundane tasks I used to dread at my full time job, I’ll take every day of the week for the right price – my priorities for work have completely flipped and there’s a danger that eventually the money isn’t worth the mundane tasks, only time will tell on that one but it’s easier when I’m the one deciding what jobs I do, and when I do them. I always think “I’ll create that thing when I have spare time” but actually, when I have spare time I spend it with my wife and kid, go out with friends, play xbox, or watch movies, you know… enjoy life.

Switching off is literally impossible! Even if I’ve not “worked” for 3-4 days, my head is always working! Thinking about current projects, marketing, money, accountants, fines, my own brand, my own web site, what’s next, why did that happen, I wonder when this will start, what’s the deal with this or that – it’s a bit like a really annoying version of yourself in your head just constantly on your back, making you feel guilty you’re not working 23 hours a day. I know that even if I go on holiday, I’ll take my laptop “just in case”.

Honeymoon Period

I’m under no illusions, I know that it’s not going to be great all the time, I’m definitely in a bit of a honeymoon period with freelancing, I have a new lease of life, everything is awesome, I’m my own boss, I make my own plans, manage my own time and work the way that suits me best, be that for an hour at a time or for a 4 hours sitting up until midnight. I’ve got plenty cash flow right now that I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to pay the mortgage or where the next job is coming from.

Admittedly, I’m letting all this happen – I feel like I need to just sit back and enjoy it for a while and just take each day as it comes. I don’t know where it’s taking me yet and I quite like that for now – one less thing to worry about really. I’m paying myself less but I’m earning way more than I was working full time, albeit most of that is on paper, in terms of amount of money I’ve invoiced as opposed to amount of invoices paid. I can see how if I didn’t have the six month contract, I’d probably be up all night worrying about getting invoices out and getting them paid – but hey, let’s worry about that later eh?

Reality Check

I know deep down I’m being a bit irresponsible living day by day, and not planning at least six months ahead, so at some point soon I’m going to have to come back down to earth and start looking to the future but admittedly, the selfish side of me just wants to enjoy life for a while – after all, I’ve put in nearly 10 years working for other people, so I’m allowed a bit of “me time”.

I have a decent (but small) bank of repeat clients for now, and they’re generally good timely payers, but I’ve realised that I need to have more jobs than I think I can handle to make sure the cash is flowing, this is probably one of the most overlooked things about freelancing in my opinion, nobody talks about it that much. Clients might not pay upfront, especially if they’re first time clients – trusted clients will probably part with deposits given that they have a degree of trust in you but that’s harder to collect if you’re charging an hourly or day rate.

Many clients say they need things done “yesterday” but when you ask them for something it takes them a week or more to get it to you so figuring out which deadlines are moving targets and which ones aren’t is a bit of a lottery. I’ve turned work around really quickly thinking it will impress my client, but in fact it was bad, so very very bad… The reaction I got was along the lines of “is that all the time you’re spending on it?”, which is exactly why I don’t usually charge for my time, as I’d be broke pretty quickly.

These are all small but amazing lessons I’ve learned in just this short amount of time. It’s a bit “all or nothing” with freelance most of the time but I don’t mind that, it means when I’m busy I’m really busy and I get my head down, but when I’m not I just relax.

As my 6 month contract nears an end, I’m going to have to decide whether I want to extend it (I have the option of a 24 month extension, provided the project continues and the client is happy of course), or leave it behind and focus on finding more of my own clients, or maybe move onto a new contract – this would feel a little like handing in my notice again, as I’m leaving behind a bit of a stable income… Have I just switched from working full time at one company, to working (almost) full time for multiple company’s one after another? Maybe I am but honestly that’s what I was doing before I quit the full time circuit, my average life span at a full time job was about a year so is it really any different?

Another long term worry is that I’ve not had an accountant or tax bill yet, and won’t for another 6 months – I’m sure when that comes I’m going to be in a bad mood that day, so hopefully I don’t get that bill on the same day I have to decide whether or not to renew my contract as I am liable to just get on a plane or something!

What’s next?

I don’t know is the honest answer, I still have “things” I want to create but I know they’re always going to take a back seat to actual paying work regardless of how much money I’ve got put aside for slow periods.

As of right now, I can’t see past freelancing – it’s the best thing I’ve ever done despite all the little niggling things i’ve raised here, they’re completely worth it when you can please yourself and play GTA5 all day as soon as it came out without having to put in a holiday request. I honestly can’t stand the thought of going back to the daily 9-5.30 grind, but it’s only been a month (and a bit), and I’ve felt like this before – one month into a new job, it’s all great and I can see myself working there for the rest of my days – but something always changes, company’s grow, people move on and new people arrive, office politics change and the vibe of the office ebbs and flows with the comings and goings of people and jobs, there’s the very real possibility that the same thing will happen with my freelance venture, I may end up having the same feelings I had as a full timer and if that happens, I have no idea what I’ll do.

I’d like to think I can grow as an individual as well as a business. Ideally I’d like to have more of my own clients but I think I’ll be faced with the option of continuing as a solo freelancer doing what I like when I like, and settling for how much work I can do along with how much money I can earn versus growing a business and returning to 9-5.30 albeit as the boss but reaping potentially larger financial rewards. Right now, freelance suits me so I’m happy to just continue as is and see where it takes me naturally.

My Advice (so far)

Now that I’m living the life of a freelancer I can see there’s a few things that people probably take lightly when considering freelance and I honestly couldn’t stress the following list of things to consider enough. Don’t just jump into this line of work if you can’t tick all of these boxes and make sure you really think you can succeed, you have to believe in yourself.

  • Pay your dues, work in your trade and learn it – all of my client contacts have come via past colleague referrals.
  • Make sure you have a few stable or repeat clients already.
  • Have at least 6 months worth of cash to bank roll your living costs (the more the better).
  • Understand that just because you’ve done the work doesn’t mean you’ll get paid right
  • Consider a 3/6/12 month contract, financially it’s gives you stability if you’re worried but
    allows you start to grow your business.
  • Get a good referred accountant, that you know you can trust.
  • Don’t assume your accountant is handling everything, you need to know that the
    responsibility lies with you – the company owner.
  • Be confident in what you’re selling, and how much you’re charging.
  • Don’t ever under sell what you do.
  • Enjoy getting up at 10.30am, playing Xbox for breakfast and not working on a Monday 🙂

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