Freelancing

Freelance to permanent and back again

I have been working as a professional web developer since 1999, mostly for web design agencies. Back in 2007 I quit my agency job as a full-time web developer and went freelance. In 2012 I went back into a permanent job, but then 12 months later I had a bad case of “freelancer’s itch” and went freelance again. So why did I go from permanent to freelance originally and then back to permanent and back to freelance again!?

So, looking back to 2007 when I first went freelance, I was a few years into a contented life as a full-time web developer, spending most of my time building CMS-driven websites. I was happy there – the company looked after their employees, and there were a number of perks including paid attendance of conferences (including trips to Vienna, Göteborg and Seattle) and code sprints. Aside from the occasional late night to meet a looming deadline, I didn’t have too many complaints.

Assessing my income

With a victorian house to renovate, I needed some extra cash on top of my salary, and so I started doing a bit of freelance work evenings and weekends to make ends meet. One month, after a few late nights and working through the weekend, my freelance earnings exceeded my day job pay. It occurred to me that I might be financially better off as a full-time freelancer. I had sufficient freelance work lined up to take the gamble and quit my job to go full time freelance. I was in my early thirties, I had a mortgage and young family to support, and barely two pennies to rub together, so it wasn’t a decision I took lightly.

One of my goals of freelance was to work less – freelance (theoretically) pays more than permanent work, so I was hoping that I could work part-time and still bring in the same type of net yearly pay that I would get on a salary. Things went off track on that front fairly quickly – I took on too much work, and ended up working ridiculous hours. Another goal was to spend time building some kind of product, that might lead to another independent income stream. I never got very far with that – because I was too busy with paid work.

There are two distinct types of freelance work that I do – the true freelancer e.g. “web developer for hire by the hour”, usually hired by an agency to work on-site alongside their regular staff and the “one-man-band web development business”, where you have your own direct clients and manage your own projects – effectively acting as a small agency. Juggling the two of these is a bad idea in my experience, as it inevitably leads to late nights and weekend work, and can get very awkward when a client wants a meeting or phone call when you are due to be working on-site.

So why did I end up juggling?

The advantage of on-site freelance is that you can invoice regularly, as you are basically selling services by the hour or day, this means that it is attractive in the short term as the gaps between invoice payments are smaller. The disadvantage is that maybe by going freelance you were hoping to escape the need to turn up at a workplace 9 – 5. Also, often this type of work is only offered by an agency when they are in trouble with a deadline – they don’t really want to be hiring a freelancer as it eats into their potential profits (or further adds to budget overrun), so the work may be sporadic and last-minute, and not always in ideal working conditions.

The advantage of project work is that you can work from home (or co-working space or coffee shop etc.), and the income is more “slow burning” – you would usually take a deposit to start the job, one or more staged payments throughout the project (depending ion the size of the project) and then the final balance when the project is completed. I could write a whole article on ways in which direct clients and project work can go awry, but as I touched on earlier – my mistake was thinking that I could take on both types of work at once.

The work/life balance

So, my first year of freelance was fine financially, but I worked a ridiculous and unsustainable amount of hours. At the start of my second year I had a few months “wages” in the bank, so in theory could work less and have a more balanced work life, but I made a few bad choices on project work and sub-contracting work which I inevitably ended up finishing myself after the budget had long gone, and any dreams of taking time off diminished, along with my bank balance.

The next couple of years were somewhere in-between – I was doing mostly project work, but always found myself working very long hours, and as my client list grew, the amount of time I spent doing unpaid consulting – attending meetings, writing proposals etc., increased. Combined with all the admin of running a business, along with time spent chasing late invoice payments, I reached a stage where the amount of “un-billable hours” was getting unsustainable. I also rarely took any time off – working through weekends and family holidays, because any time not working felt like I was letting clients down.

Simplifying

One solution at that point might have been to expand – to turn my one-man business into a small agency, delegate the admin and project management to other people and increase the amount of project work, and chase bigger projects. I spoke to a number of other freelancers about teaming up to start an agency, but it never went anywhere. I didn’t have the funds to employ someone, and after my sub-contracting experiences I was also concerned that getting an employee to be profitable might take too long. I decided to go in a different direction – to simplify my business, part company from all but a few regular clients and try to get things under control again.

A major part of that strategy was lining up some regular clients for on-site work, where I could just concentrate on being a web developer, leave the project management to other people, turn up, write some code and have invoices paid monthly and regularly.

After a few months, one of my clients offered me a permanent job which came along with a regular pay cheque, paid holiday and other benefits, and as I had been enjoying working in a team, with talented people on interesting projects, I accepted.

Fulfilment

For about eight months I was happy with this, but there was one thing nagging at me – I still wanted to build my own product or online business, something that could provide an income stream that wasn’t based on selling web development services – the entrepreneurial part of my brain wouldn’t let it go. To buy some time to work on this, I knew that only freelance would bring in the funds. So, after lining up a few months on-site freelance work with a small games company, I handed in my notice only 12 months after taking a permanent job.

I’m now 10 months into “freelance part 2” and so far it is going well – I am focussing on on-site work, usually 4 days a week and am trying to use the other few days a month to move my own e-commerce venture forwards. I’ve also for the first time ever as a freelancer managed to take (and enjoy) a decent amount of time off over the summer. I continue to learn and re-evaluate what works for me, but at the moment, freelance “done right” feels like a good fit. If the on-site work ever dries up, I may consider project work again, but I’m currently actively avoiding it.

What lies ahead

Would I go permanent again? Who knows – circumstances change, I also have regular career dilemmas where I wonder if I should be looking to go in a completely different direction. Sometimes I wonder whether I should be moving away from writing code all day and seeking out more of a managerial/ consultancy role, or maybe an R&D role. I can only really talk about the present, and right now I’m pretty content with my situation and excited about what I’m working on, so lets see how it goes!

  • Rich Smith

    Great read mate, it’s nice to see that my own anxieties about freelancing [as a designer] are not completely unfounded… You basically said everything out loud that I worry about. Right now i’m “juggling” as you were but it’s manageable and i’m not working too many hours. It can get hectic at times when a few people want something at the same time but I accept that for the pay cheque at the end of it. The hardest thing about having your own clients is definitely collecting money from them on a regular basis, especially when you can’t finish a project because of them holding things up, or when they need something done yesterday and “promise” you’re deposit the same day, yet you’re still waiting on it a month down the line etc…

    Contracting is nice to have to keep the money rolling, and it’s very lucrative at times but I get what you mean about it not scratching the entrepreneurial itch too but it sets my mind at ease on the financial front, I genuinely think it’s very tricky to balance everything – I sometimes wonder if it’s worth taking another leap into creating an agency as seeing what happens, it can’t be any worse than leaping from FT to freelance?

    • Cheers! I think the barriers to creating an agency for me were a) not having the funds to risk employing someone, b) when I discussed teaming up with other freelancers, people were reluctant to to commit to the idea of throwing all our clients and earnings into one pot and dividing up the potential profits/ losses. In either scenario, you just need to find the right people I guess!

      • Rich Smith

        Yep, exactly the same “questions” I have around creating a single entity with someone else… Also that the people I would do it with are my friends too, and you know what they say about mixing friendship and business; not that it can’t work but you know, I’d hate to lose a good friend over business/money.

      • Vicki Kunkel

        One thing that I found works as an agency approach is to hire other freelancers for projects. Don’t “throw all your clients into one bag,” as it were; you just hire freealancers on an hourly basis. Granted, you don’t make as much per project, but you can then handle many more projects. The downside, of course, is that then you are spending yet more time managing more people (freelancers) in addition to managing contracts, invoicing, proposals, etc.

  • benjee

    Interesting read thanks Rick.

  • Great stuff. I’ve been thinking a lot of about these independent income streams, and one thing that has been constantly popping up as of late is the community aspect. Have to get your work noticed, and only then think of a product, makes it easier to market, or even sell.

  • Awesome Blog. Thanks for sharing. Freelance Web Developer

  • Steeve Ave

    This is a very great article. Thanks a lot for sharing the post. Keep sharing.!

    Freelance Web Designer in Hyderabad,India,France,India,Germany,Malaysia

  • deepak kapoor

    Great, But i have one question. I left regular job in year 2009 and went freelancer. I have been freelancing and earning good (of course on hourly basis). But after 5 years almost all my clients are gone and i don’t have interest working as a feelancer anymore. So I started looking for a job few months back but I am not getting any job (I am failed to understand what is wrong with my profile). I have around 10 years of experience and i know i can do well but maybe it is the company they don;t want to hire freelancer?? It so, Can you suggest what should i do? I really want to go back and work normal hours within a company. Please help, thanks in advance.

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