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Going Freelance - First Impressions

The Good

There are two reasons, I suspect, that most people set up shop for themselves. One is to build something they have a real stake in and something that, if successful, they share in the profits of. The other is to have a greater control of their work - their environment, which work they do, and how that work is valued.

The first of those is measurable, to start with, really only by income. And so far, I've invoiced more than my targets for my first month. So that's good! Ultimately the aim is to replace freelance income with residual recurring income from web apps like Cheatography and FeedbackFair, but for the time being my targets are all based on freelance income, and that's exactly at the level it should be.

The second of those motivations is why I'm enjoying this so much, so far. My working environment (on which a future post) is exactly the way I want it. When I'm in the office - standing desk, decent hardware, good light, open window, music, plenty of tea. If I'm out - laptop or netbook for remote work, invoicing, emails, estimates. My working hours are also just right for me - I start early (6-7 am), and the morning is usually then two stretches of wonderful uninterrupted productive time. The afternoon is fairly flexible, and I usually save admin work, estimates and so on for then. In the late afternoon or evening I have a third productive stretch, if needed. And that works brilliantly.

Historically, I've found organising myself tricky. It's all too easy to let work items sit in emails, on notes, or try to remember them. This is, of course, a crazy way to try and manage work. Fortunately, I've been building my own work management tool for ages (Envoy) and that's been working well for me so far to manage work items and track time, and I've been using the wiki as well fairly extensively.

I've been using the amazing FreeAgent to handle all of my accounting needs so far and am very impressed - it connects to both my business bank and Paypal accounts, handles all invoices with minimal fuss, logs expenses - and at the end of the year will do most of the legwork for my tax returns.

Remember The Milk is great, and runs on my mobile and desktops. I use it to manage sales tasks and as a general repository for ideas (for clients and for my own apps). The app collection is rounded out with GMail (email), Google Calender (meetings) and PassPack (for passwords).

The Bad

My nerves have taken a thorough pounding. Despite being busy, and lining work up for more than a month ahead, there's always that nagging thought at the back of your mind that the work could dry up in an instant. That might be because I'm just starting out, but I doubt it will ever fade completely. I think it's probably a good thing - I doubt that complacency is good for business!

Again, this is likely to be largely the result of just starting out, but I'm working far more hours than previous workplaces. Partly this is a result of having ownership of the company I'm working for, of course - much easier to justify working long hours when you're rewarded for it. But partly it is because the first months are about building relationships with new and prospective clients and contacts. This might change, but from talking to other freelancers I'm not expecting it to happen any time soon! Unfortunately, a side-effect of this is that my current Open University courses have been rather badly affected.

It's pretty easy to go for long periods of time without human contact when working as a freelancer. Apparently. For me, it's not been an issue so far - between taking on consultancy work and going to the Brighton Farm regularly, I'm spending more time with more people than ever before. I can see how easy it would be to skip a few networking events, though, when things are very busy, and that's when the cabin fever will start to set in.

The Ugly

The sales process is, at the moment, expensive. With a one-hour meeting a short distance away, and a typical estimate document, each project takes around half a day of sales time, at a minimum. If a sale results in one or two days of work, that's time becomes a very significant cost. The time to write an estimate will come down, and smart organisation of meetings - as well as developing a sense of when it is worth having the meeting at all - will help improve this.

I still am not quite used to asking for money from clients, especially when their payments are overdue. I find myself being almost apologetic about it. With any luck, I'll have plenty of practice and this and will get better in no time.

Being so busy means that writing blog posts is taking a back seat. I'd hoped (and planned) to write much more often, about web development and freelancing, and about web apps and building an income from my own products. I'm still planning to do that, but it's not been a good start!

The Future

By and large, it's been a great start. One month in and I'm going strong, with work lined up and more in the pipeline. I'm determined to improve my working environment even more, write more blog posts, and keep heading out to events and gatherings of other local freelancers.

Are you a freelancer? How were your first few months? Do you have any tips or advice for me (or other people just starting out)?