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Lessons learned from 3 years of freelancing

It's been almost 3 years since I decided to quit my perfectly stable job at a marketing agency to freelance full time. Turning off a guaranteed source of income was terrifying, but - for me - it's been one of the best decisions I've ever made.

There are a huge range of benefits to being able to work for yourself, but there are also some drawbacks - so if you're thinking about making the jump too, weigh up the decision carefully. Here's what I've learnt from almost 3 years of freelancing.

Make savings before you switch

Before making the jump, work out how much your living costs are for a month - and then save 6 months worth. Cash flow becomes a lot more important when you're freelancing because clients rarely pay their suppliers in the same way they pay employees. Invoices can often be paid late and you can't rely on them being paid on a set date.

There's also often a lag with payment when you first start out. You may find that you work a full month and then send an invoice (which is how I work). The client may then take a month or two to pay that invoice - which means it could be 3 months before you earn your first freelance paycheck. Of course, when you stop freelancing it means that you'll keep receiving an income for the next few months, which is useful - but it's at the expense of having that income at the start when you most need it.

Have a contract

You should never work without a contract. A contract protects you and helps to make sure you get paid for your work, and it protects the client and makes sure they get the work they're paying for. There are loads of sample templates out there that you can adapt, and The Next Web have a useful guide for what to include.

Try not to go insane in your first few months

Working from home is one of the best perks of being a full time freelancer, but being on your own all day can also feel pretty strange, especially at first. It's worth seeing whether there are any coworking spaces in your area. It's usually fairly cheap to rent a desk, and it's useful to be able to have an office that you can pop into every so often to save your own sanity.

Have a home office

When I first started freelancing I was working from a laptop on the kitchen table in a tiny flat in Brighton. It was the worst. Having a home office means you get to keep your work life and your home life seperate - and it's incredibly useful being able to leave your study, shut the door and not think about work any more.

Be disciplined

When freelancing, it's impossible to do a good job if you're not incredibly disciplined. Work doesn't get done if you're not putting any effort in. When I first started freelancing, I spoke to someone who'd been doing it for years and they gave me one bit of advice that's stuck with me: no daytime TV, ever.

Be picky about who you work with

A huge drawback of working a 9-5 - at least if you're working for an agency like I was - is that you don't always get to pick which clients you work with. While some can be amazing, there are others who you may be less keen on. As a freelancer, you have control over who you choose to work with. Don't be afraid to turn potential clients down if you don't think you'd be a good fit.

It can be less profitable, but by being picky about who you work with means that you'll always work with people that you get on with and whose product you're interested in, which means you can enjoy your work.

Don't feel guilty about taking the day off to recharge

When I worked a 9-5 job, I found that there'd be times when I wouldn't feel productive at all. Sometimes the working day felt a bit like I was trying to run underwater, and I wouldn't really get anything done. It also usually took a couple of days to shake the feeling and be productive again. In reality, I just needed to take a break and recharge - but you can't really do that with a regular day job. You have to keep turning up to the office, even if you're not doing your best work.

I've found - as a freelancer - that days where you feel sluggish and unproductive can be written off. Take the day off to recharge, and you'll find that the next day you'll be much more productive - and what would otherwise be a few days of dreary, unproductive work can instead be just one relaxed day. The hard part of this is the feeling of guilt that comes with taking a day off, which leads me to my next point.

Don't fill your entire month

The above method doesn't work out well if you've filled your capacity completely. There's around 21 workable days in a month, but if you book out all of that time with client work - despite being profitable - you'll find that you can't take days off here or there. You'll also have to fit in time to do all of the non-billable admin work, like invoicing, so leave some room in your schedule.

You can give yourself 20% time

Google is famous for giving their engineers 20% time - where 20% of their time can be spent working on any side projects they want (which is where things like Gmail and Google Maps came from). But as a freelancer, you can do that too. I've spent 3 years with 20% time, and in that time I've built all kinds of projects, including Recon and Submarine. Without 20% time, I wouldn't have gotten around to it.

Getting a mortgage is harder - but not impossible

One word of warning - if you live in the UK and want to freelance fulltime, mortgage providers usually want you to have been doing it for a minimum of 2 years. So, if you're thinking about making the switch and want to buy a house in the next year - it may be worth waiting.

No regrets

It was pretty terrifying when I made the jump, but it needn't have been. I found there was a lot of work out there, the transition was pretty easy, it was more profitable than working for someone else and the upsides massively outweighed the downsides.

If you think you'd be happier with the freelance life, I'd suggest giving it a try. And I'm serious about the daytime TV thing.

Published March, 2014

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