Nathan Ingram has been freelancing as a web developer since 1995. Over the course of his 20 years in the business, he’s dealt with clients good and bad and has learned how to be a successful freelancer.
He shares 10 things he wishes he’d known about freelancing when he started …
1. Choose your partners wisely.
“Walk with the wise and become wise. Associate with fools and get into trouble.”
Be careful about who you go into business with. Especially if it’s friends or family. You shouldn’t hire somebody you can’t fire.
2. Ultimately, we are all in the business of customer service.
Regular, honest communication is key.
You’re not selling a website. You’re selling expertise. You’re selling good customer service. That will set you apart from the competition. Often just delivering—doing what you say you will—will set you apart.
(But you also need to be smart and protect yourself against terrible clients.)
3. Good clients are worth their weight in gold.
Bad clients aren’t worth the hassle.
Sometimes you have to take a bad client to put food on the table. Do what you have to do. But there are other times when you’re doing OK, and you take a bad job just for the paycheck. That’s never worth it.
A client meeting is like a first date. You’re trying to figure out if this relationship is going to work. Pay attention to character. If you’re having a lunch meeting and someone treats the wait staff poorly, they’ll likely treat you the same way some day. You don’t have to work with everybody, and you shouldn’t work with everybody.
If you have a bad feeling about a potential client, walk away.
4. Be awesome at something.
Don’t settle for being mediocre at a lot of different things.
Freelancers often do whatever they can to bring in the money. But that usually means you don’t get good at anything. You need to narrow your focus—and “web design” isn’t narrow enough. You need to find your niche and be known for something.
Figure out what you’re good at and play to your strengths.
Farm out what you’re not good at.
5. You are your most important asset. Take care of yourself.
Two common challenges freelancers face: stress and isolation.
Even though work ebbs and flows, the stress doesn’t. You’ll be stressed because you’re not busy. So when you’re not busy, go do something else. Take the afternoon off. De-stress yourself.
When we’re isolated, we have no accountability. We do what we enjoy or what we’re good at, and we ignore the necessary annoyances of business. You do what you want, not what you need to. You need to be intentional about being around other people and challenging yourself to not put off the work you need to do.
6. Time is your most valuable commodity.
Become an expert in personal productivity.
Time is how you make money. Freeing up time means you can make more money. So if you’re wasting time all day, you’re going to be limiting your income potential.
Doing whatever you feel like doing is a good way to spin your wheels. Days when you just grease the squeaky wheel are full of waste. You have to learn to be more productive.
- If you’re being ruled by the tyranny of the urgent in your business, you have to find ways to create systems or get organized so you’re not just putting out fires all the time.
- Recognize when you’re struck, and reach out to someone who has the answer. Even if you have to pay them, it’s worth it because it will free up your time.
- Interruptions will cost you 20 minutes and 10 IQ points.
7. Yes it sucks, but you can’t ignore accounting.
Money mistakes will cripple your business.
- You can’t get paid if you don’t invoice. When you finish a job, send the invoice immediately.
- Create a system to automate recurring payments.
- Find an accountant who thinks strategically about small business.
If you’re not a self-disciplined person, you can become one. You’ll need to learn these things and put practices into place to protect you from yourself. It’s hard to be successful as a freelancer until you take care of the money.
8. There are seasons in freelance work.
Prepare for the slow times and don’t worry about it.
Some people can track trends and can plan for it. For other people there are no trends—just busy times and slow times.
Recurring income is the key to surviving the slow seasons (we’ve got lots of help on recurring income).
Another approach is to simply be prepared for slow times and act accordingly. Keep a Trello board with ideas of things to do when it gets slow: Work on your website. Do some marketing. Take a few networking lunches. Or just take a vacation.
9. It is possible to have financial security as a freelancer.
It comes from a wide client base, recurring income and strategic budgeting.
People think freelancing is scary and unsafe. But corporate America is just as unsafe today. The corporate world does not offer job security. At least with freelancing your fate is in your own hands.
- You need to develop a wide client base so you’re not dependent on a single client for your livelihood.
- Recurring income (again) is key. It takes time to build up a base of recurring clients though.
- Get out of personal debt as quickly as possible so you can reduce your income needs.
10. There are more important things in life than work.
It’s easy to become a workaholic as a freelancer. Don’t do it.
Most of us are freelancing because we enjoy the work we do. But that means it’s easy to put too much focus on work. There’s a tendency to ignore our families and friends, especially if you work from home.
You need to be productive and get your work done, yes, but also be intentional about creating boundaries to protect your non-work life. You’re working in order to live. So don’t stop living so you can do more work.
About Nathan Ingram
Nathan Ingram specializes in building easy-to-use web sites that help small businesses, professional firms, and nonprofit organizations look great on the web. He’s a regular instructor at iThemes Training where he teaches WordPress, Web Design, and Freelance Business Development via live webinar. Nathan works with web developers individually and in groups to help them be more successful in their freelance businesses.