Going Freelance: One Year In

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Today my business is one year old and I’m still here to tell the tale! I’m returning to my “Going Freelance” diary to discuss my year, hopefully to give you some helpful pointers and insights into the web design business (and self employment in general) as well as to help myself by going over what I’ve spent the year doing, what I’ve learnt and how I will approach freelance life next year.

What I’ve Been Doing This Year

Starting and Maintaining a Business

Ian Lunn Design officially opened for business November 11th 2010 but I started planning and preparing in August 2010. I didn’t get my first job until December but thankfully, ever since then work has rolled in steadily.

I feel quite lucky to have got early clients that I can proudly say I am still doing work for today. In fact, looking back, I really haven’t had a huge number of clients but the ones I have had, I’ve formed a good relationship with and they’ve continued to come back to me with new projects.

All of my work this past year has been remote. I’ve worked with people in America, Australia and the UK which completely went against my business plan. My original plan was to start off with local clients, build a name for myself and then hopefully take on clients over the Internet. I wanted to take on clients over the Internet because I felt they would be more tech savvy and I could get my hands on more creative and complex projects. This is important to note if you’re starting out as a freelance web designer: don’t just take on any projects that come along, decide what work you feel you would like to do and aim to take on those type of projects. I’ll come to this later on when I talk about blogging.

Being able to take on Internet based clients has been great and is something that happened quicker than expected. I’ve already worked for some well known clients along side web professionals I have a lot of respect for.

Maintaining a business was something completely new to me. I’ve never worked for myself before although I’ve actually found the experience quite enjoyable. I like to learn (any subject) and there’s a lot to learn about running your own business. As mentioned in previous diary entries, Business Link were a big help to me and pointed me in the right direction. I have been using FreeAgent for accounting and admin, which is a truly amazing service. I consider where my business would be today if I hadn’t of used that.

Blogging

Blogging is something I started in August 2010 as soon as I knew I was going to become self employed. It has probably been the catalyst for this year’s successes but also my biggest regret.

I decided to start blogging based on the success and recommendation of Chris Spooner — who now blogs full-time.

I didn’t initially get much success from my blogging. Stats in Google Analytics were starting to increase but I wasn’t getting any comments and nobody was getting in touch regarding potential projects. I quickly realised that writing a post each week was way too much work (especially when creating a demo or graphical piece to go along with that post). For a while I managed to post every fornight.

I started chatting to a few people via Twitter that had read my “Going Freelance” series and as I watched Google Analytics, it became clear that my JavaScript tutorials were starting to be of interest to people.

I eventually decided to make a big change and solely concentrate on JavaScript tutorials for my blog. Why? Because they were getting the most interest out of all the posts. This led me to make quite a big decision about my career in general which I’ll come to shortly.

My post about creating a jQuery map interested somebody who found the post via Google and they eventually became the first client achieved from my blog.

I continued writing tutorials — which is also a great opportunity for you to improve your own knowledge, I may add — and eventually wrote my recreation of the Nike Better World parallax effect. This post was probably online for about 3 months before it started getting popular. I’ve since received a lot of work from that tutorial.

As mentioned earlier, when working for yourself, you have a lot of freedom and can choose what work you take on. Blogging is the perfect way to stand out and show people what you’re capable of doing. Write about the work you love, and people will approach you with project proposals of a similar nature. Not only that, but blogging is a chance for you to improve your own knowledge of a subject and writing about something you may think you know, always reveals something you didn’t!

So, blogging has got me some great projects and work that I’ve really enjoyed. Because I write tutorials though, it takes up a lot of time and when I started getting really busy, blogging was the first thing I had to drop.

Deciding not to blog is something I’ve really regretted and I will try my hardest next year to get back into it, especially as it’s so important for increasing exposure and getting new and interesting work.

Feelings Toward Freelance Life

Freelancing/self employment is harder than I thought it would be but more rewarding too. It’s naive to think that when you work for yourself, you can just wake up one morning and decide to play video games instead of work — but I did! Maybe I’m the type of person to worry a lot but whenever I’m not working during 9 – 5, I feel guilty. Perhaps that’s what got me through my first year though — I’ve cared about my business and the relationship with my clients so I’ve given everything I’ve got, that has meant a lot more of my time than just 9 – 5, and my personal life has changed quite a bit too.

When I started freelancing, I made the decision to stop playing video games so I wouldn’t be distracted by the “quick” game at lunch. It turned out I dropped a lot more than this hobby though. I found I had no time for growing veg in the spring and summer (something I like to do), and time spent with my girlfriend had to become a little more scheduled. I was generally not doing minor stuff because I thought it was time wasted — like sitting in an armchair, looking out the window, eating crisps — and I got a little too strict on myself. Towards the end of this first year though, I realised that personal life and wasting time eating crisps is important. To quote Bertrand Russell: “The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time”.

About 4 months into self employment, I went for an interview for a permanent job. I was in two minds whether to go or not. I was yet to make money consistently in my self employment. I was offered the job but eventually turned it down based on the fact that I had taken the leap into self employment and I’d be disappointed if I didn’t see it through. Only a few weeks after turning the role down, I got a big client. I earnt a good amount of money but more importantly, the potential of self employment presented itself. I’m so glad I continued.

I still talk to companies and agencies regarding potential work simply because a job interview is a great opportunity to have people listen to you talk about yourself and how good you think you are! Don’t miss opportunities like this; you get to meet new people in a similar field, improve your interview skills and if you don’t want the job, you get to say no — which is a very powerful thing!

Saying no is scary, especially in the early days when you need to earn money, but don’t underestimate its power. Saying no doesn’t mean that a situation won’t have an outcome; it means you feel confident in your position, you know what you want and won’t take anything less. It helps you and the people you interact with to understand who you are and what you do — knowing and making clear your limits defines you as a person.

I also defined myself as a professional — finally! I studied Internet Technology at university and when my career started, I ended up in more of a designers position. I’ve always been an “all-rounder” that can design, develop and market a website. I feel I have a strong level in all three but to really be successful and set yourself apart, you need to truly excel in one. My blog helped me with this decision, it was clear that people were more interested in my JavaScript tutorials and I felt more comfortable and happier writing them. I asked around and people saw me as a front end developer more than anything else. I made the leap and I’m glad I did. I’ve been able to learn so much more by just concentrating on one profession.

Feelings Toward the Year

Pleased About

I woke up this morning super excited to start geeking out in the statistics of my business. I’ve finally completed a year and jumped at the chance to gather up lots of different stats.

Financially, for a first year, I am very pleased. I earnt more than I have ever done in employment and I also earnt more than what was on offer for the job I turned down so gladly I can say I did make the right decision there.

My blog — despite the fact I have neglected it — has achieved over 10,000 visitors a month for the last few months with an average read time of over two and a half minutes — the latter being more important to me as it shows my content is valuable to people.

So, as it was my first year, everything has gone from zero to a reasonable figure that can be built on next year and at some point before the end of the year, I plan to work out some targets I’d like to reach this time next year. It’s more fun when you have stats to compare and beat!

Possibly the biggest plus-point of self employment is the fact you get to choose what work you want to take on and what you learn. I have learnt so much this year! I’ve dedicated a big amount of my time to personal projects and really got to grips with new technologies such as HTML5 (including the APIs), CSS3 and jQuery. I could never have learnt so much in a full time position.

Regrets

As already mentioned, the fact I neglected my blog when I got too busy is my biggest regret. That might not sound so bad but my blog really increased my exposure and won me a lot of work. Looking at my stats, I also consider how impressive they might be if I was able to blog on a regular basis.

Second to this, would probably be procrastination. I guess it’s a natural thing for a person to procrastinate, so maybe it shouldn’t be regretted but I certainly did a lot of it when I didn’t have work to complete — more so than in full time employment.

The problem with working from home is the distractions. I removed video games, as mentioned previously, but the fact I was at home and didn’t really seperate home life from work life had an impact. When I say I procrastinated, I don’t mean I spent half the day watching TV, I was at my computer, but checking Facebook/Twitter and day dreaming became a big distraction and the most difficult thing was just getting started and motivated.

I haven’t quite yet worked out how to better get into a productive state of mind — I think jumping straight into whatever it is you want to do is probably the only way — but I did find that managing tasks around my mood helped. For example, if I started coding but found that I was spending more time tweeting and watching videos of cats on YouTube, I’d stop that task and move onto another that maybe didn’t require as much concentration. I might have done my accounting, sent emails etc and waited for the next day where hopefully, I’d be in the right state of mind to stare at code all day. Ironically, I find I code best in a hazy “I’m not here today” type of mood — but that’s for a different blog post!

Another minor gripe I have and feel bitter enough about to mention is Thomson Local. I’ll keep it short! Thomson Local are a business directory that I signed up with to get my business details in their printed book as well as online. I paid around £350 for the year. I didn’t get a single phone call regarding potential work but I did get a hell of a lot of calls from companies that Thomson Local had sold my details to. So, I paid £350 to Thomson Local so they could make more money out of selling my details. Their sales team are also liars and very unhelpful. Don’t go with them.

What I’ve Learnt

I love to learn, not just web related subjects but absolutely everything. I’ve already mentioned that I spent a lot of time learning HTML5, CSS3 and jQuery but I’ve also learnt a lot about myself, general life skills as well as dealing with clients.

Self employment throughs a hell of a lot of stuff your way, you’ll be the “web professional” you set out to be but also an accountant, a project manager, a client liasion manager, a receptionist (turning away a lot of sales calls), a marketeer, and a tea boy/girl.

I was again, naive in my approach to self employment. The amount of time spent just getting a project started is way more than I expected. Talking to a client, telling them about how you operate, writing contracts, sending quotes and invoices is a big job and it can get a little frustrating at times but it’s something you must do and do well because it’s the foundation for your business.

I think these types of jobs I will continue to learn and get better at for a long time to come.

Some quick tips regarding this:

  • Do your accounts weekly and don’t forget. Doing them often means you’ll only need to spend an hour or two a week rather than waiting a few months and spending days struggling to remember what a particular transaction was.
  • If you have a client that keeps sending you little jobs (the ones that make you feel like your losing money because of the formalities involved with starting new projects), let them know it’s cost effective for you both to build up those little jobs into a bigger project. If it’s not an urgent task, they’ll be happy to wait a few weeks and save some money.
  • Your contract is an evolving document, change it often to meet evolving technologies as well as to match the specific tasks for a project. If a client raises a concern because something isn’t clear, change it in your overall template so it applies to all future contracts. Get your contract read over by the company you’ve chosen for professional indemnity insurance too.
  • Invest in software packages that will help with these tasks. For accounting, I recommend FreeAgent and for project management, BaseCamp. I also use eSign to send out contracts that can be signed digitally.
  • Send out questionnaires to your clients after a project is signed off to ask them for feedback. Set up a questionnaire on Google Docs and send it out via MailChimp, all for free!

Plans for Next Year

To Beat this Year in Every Way

I want to earn more, learn more, and better improve my exposure.

Release Personal Projects

This year I worked on a lot of personal projects. I guess the tutorials and demos on my blog could be classed as personal projects but aside from those, I didn’t actually finish any other personal projects despite starting quite a few.

Very early on, I started working on a novelty site with a friend that looked at your Twitter account and gave you a score based on how nerdy you were. This unfortunately, I don’t think will ever be released as I have too many other personal projects I want to complete before that.

Right now, I am working on a jQuery slideshow that uses CSS3 animations. I am very excited about this as it is a plugin that is very easy to use but can be customized greatly. I expect to see lots of creative uses for it. I aim to release this before 2012.

Another project I am working on is a very small jQuery plugin and browser extension. It is based on an idea I implemented for Mozilla’s Dev Derby (which I came 3rd for!). I hope it will spur browser vendors to eventually build its functionality straight into their browsers.

Finally, I’m working on a game utilising JavaScript and HTML5s Canvas API. I plan to break this down into stages of development and create a series of tutorials on my blog. Currently the game is in a very basic form, allowing for player movement and randomly generated falling objects that the player must catch.

To Take on More Great Clients with Interesting Projects

For my first year, I’ve already taken on some amazing clients and projects. Next year, I’d like to do the same and take on interactive projects that make use of HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript.

Conclusion

Having written this post, I am very excited for next year. I made the right decision by “Going Freelance”. Not only did I exceed my expectations regarding the type of work and clients I’d take on but I’ve also had a lot of time to spend learning and working on my own projects.

I’ve dedicated a lot of time to my first year but it’s paid off and I’m now in a position to be able to step back, take a look at what I’ve achieved and improve upon it next year.

Written by Ian Lunn

is a WordPress & Front-end Developer producing high quality responsive websites and exceptional user experience. Author of CSS3 Foundations and creator of Hover.css & Sequence.js.

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