Freelancing

Invisible Handcuffs – The Illusion of Freelancing

One morning 4 years ago I walked into the the office to find that my boss had smashed up his PC keyboard and had left a fist shaped hole in the wall… all because he could not pick up his email. I immediately handed in my resignation but it wasn’t until a few weeks later when I was wondering what to do with my life, that I decided to try freelancing.

There seemed to be so many advantages.

I could work from home which meant that I could start work when I wanted to and I’d have time to work around, and renovate, the house. Also, as I’m a bit of a control freak, I didn’t like doing things the way I was told to and it annoyed me having to do things that were, in my opinion at least, the wrong way to develop. Freelancing to me meant just that.. “freedom”. It seemed perfect as I could finally carry out tasks the way I wanted to do them and when I wanted to do them.

First Steps

I quickly went about contacting everyone I could think of that might be able to put work my way. As a predominantly technical developer I needed to team up with non-technical designers to produce web sites and to find clients that didn’t just want a pretty brochure type site but functional sites where I knew that my talents would shine through. LinkedIn suddenly became useful, Twitter, networking meetings and even letters to recent start-ups too. I quickly teamed up with a designer on a few projects, working on back ends in PHP, where he handled all discussions with the client.

Despite the fact that there wasn’t very much money coming in, I was happy for the first time in a quite a long time but I needed to double up my efforts in marketing myself and the type of sites I knew I was capable of doing. I found myself spending days promoting my services and far more time was spent doing this than actually doing the work I loved. I remember being at a networking breakfast in a local hotel at 7am amongst seasoned networkers and I felt like a fish out of water, I hated every second.

Where to work

Working from home didn’t work out for me either. Firstly there were far too many distractions. There was always a reason to get out of doing what I really needed to do, and because I was at home I seemed to be called upon to help family and friends, which I could not say no to.

Secondly, I could not invite prospective clients to my house and coffee shops seemed a bit amateur. I needed to separate home life from work life, so I started to rent an office where there was a shared receptionist who could take calls for me. I guess it was a vain attempt at trying to make myself look bigger than I was. However, it did help me secure an ecommerce site. Small, but hopefully it would give a boost to my very limited portfolio. The person who wanted this site seemed very enthusiastic and I knew I could do a good job. However, it soon became apparent that I was going to have to do a lot of explaining how things worked as the client had no technical knowledge and no concept of the amount of work that goes into a website.

Workload

For the budget price he was after, this was taking up a lot of my time and I just wanted to get on and do what I liked doing best, coding. My day basically consisted of self-promotion, sending/chasing invoices and talking on the phone to the customer about the same thing over and over and over again, without actually producing anything.

The final straw came when I worked for three months on a magazine website leading up to a big event which unfortunately did not make as much money as they had initially hoped for. The other suppliers involved all got paid and this left the client with no money left to pay me. I was left frustrated, annoyed and with bills mounting up I decided that after a just over a year of freelancing, enough was enough.

Job Hunting

It didn’t take me long at all to find full time employment, just a few days via Twitter in fact and leaving the stress of doing tasks that I just wasn’t very good at, behind, was just heavenly. In hindsight, perhaps I could have become better at chasing invoices, keeping track of money, networking, marketing etc. but I really don’t think I would ever have got to the point where I enjoyed doing them. Working in a larger organisation means that other people do these things. People who spend all their time doing them and are actually good at, and enjoy doing them; not jack-of-all-trades, but specialists who know the best and quickest ways to achieve their goals.

Having seen that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, being spoon-fed tasks and not have to worry about where the tasks come from is so much easier.

Choosing the right jobs

Looking back, I firmly believe that traditional freelancing was not for me, not as a full-time occupation anyway. To be a successful freelancer I think you need to be a good people-person and not someone that is “too nice” and will get taken advantage of. However, I still do take on smaller items of work alongside my current position, but I am very picky about what I take on. I always make sure there is no conflict of interest with where I work. Typically an agency will contact me, not end-users. I don’t actively look for work anymore and instead I get approached via personal recommendations and the work needs to be completed with little or no communication from the actual customer. I am now in a position where I am not financially dependent on the work coming in which means I’m happy to turn down work if it doesn’t fit in with my requirements.

Conversely, when I do take on work, I know I can do it to the best of my ability with no interference, and who wouldn’t want that?

  • Great post Rob,
    I’ll not dispute that freelancing wasn’t for you – ultimately that’s a personal decision; but I would say that every freelancer who’s been in the game a while has horror stories; hell, these are badges of honour – bumps and scrapes which you’re just gonna pick up along the way. I’ve certainly learnt through bitter experience how NOT to do certain things!

    All the best for the future

    Joel

  • robertwilliams88

    Interesting article for sure.

    It’s cool you went for it, saw you it wasn’t for you, and corrected. I’ve been freelancing and can’t see myself ever going back to a normal 9-5 job (unless i totally fall flat on my face) – simply because of the freedom and control.

    Still, this is a good post for young freelancers to read and see that it will take weighing the good and the bad!

  • Nathan Powell

    Hey Rob,

    Great article, but I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you in the world of freelance. Truth be told it’s not for everyone but it can be worked through.

    I’d have to disagree with the part about being a people’s person, while there’s no doubt it can help, it’s no guarantee of success. I’ve always been incredibly shy and having to talk to new people, especially about money was always tricky but it does get easier and your freelance backbone begins to form over time.

    It’s tough for a lot of new younger designers who want to jump into the world of freelance, unless you have a seasoned freelancer on hand to help you out it can be scary, and even then…

    I came to realise this and got to writing about it, the results, “The Designer’s Guide to Freelancing”. http://nathanpowell.me/guide-to-freelancing/ (pitch over). I hope it can help at least a few new designers.

    Best of luck Rob.

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