Freelance Interview with Paul Silver. Paul is based just outside Brighton on the south coast of the UK and has been a freelancer for almost nine years. He has a Portfolio Career as he does website programming, search engine promotion (or ‘optimisation’ – SEO), and a bit of email marketing. Paul also runs a weekly networking group for freelancers in the web industry called The Farm.
What Did You Do Before You Went Freelance?
I was a Web Developer at an International Recruitment Agency, and then at a small web agency just before going Freelance. Before that I had a portfolio job at a charity in Brighton where my main job was being a fundraiser, but I was also the website maintainer, computer/photocopier fixer, some time taxi service, fill-in IT trainer, fill-in receptionist, and a few other things.
What Triggered You Going Freelance?
I was made redundant when the web agency I was working for was closed.
Where Did You Find The Help Or Advice You Needed?
I had a lot of help from the people in the freelancers networking group I go to (The Farm) they convinced me freelancing was a good idea and helped me through the struggles of the early days. My friend David Rosam, who used to run an Ecademy networking event I was going to, was also a great help and we ended up collaborating as an SEO company. I now run The Farm meetings, so these days I’m the one giving help to newbies.
What’s The Best Thing About Being A Freelancer?
Being able to work flexibly, so I can work around my young son’s schedule to a certain extent, and getting variety. I really like being able to work on lots of different things, and being able to do lots of work, or relatively little, depending on how much money I need to make. When I was full time I found I started to feel stale after a while as my work tended to be the same sort of stuff one month to the next, I don’t have that problem any more as the different parts of my ‘Portfolio Career’ give me variety.
A few years ago we saved up the deposit to buy a house mainly by me taking on lots more work. It was very stressful, but we saved the money in about 15 months. I don’t know how I could have done that in a full time job.
What’s The Hardest Thing About Being A Freelancer?
Cracking how to find work was by far the hardest thing. Now I’ve done that, keeping motivated and not burning out are my current biggest problems.
How Do You Find Your Clients?
Now I’ve been freelance for over eight years, I’ve got to the point where I’m mainly working for clients I’ve worked for before. I work each month for three clients, and have several others who need bits and bobs done occasionally, and altogether this adds up to a full month of work.
A few years ago I looked through all my work and back-tracked how I got it. 45% came from referrals from people I’d met networking, and the rest was split pretty evenly between people finding my websites (mainly through SEO), partnerships with other freelancers like Web Designers, and work from the group of companies I used to work for before my part was shut down. Occasionally I get a referral from a client, but I haven’t had very many of those.
I get on well with most of my clients, so long term my freelancing career has involved working for a large enough set of clients that eventually I’ve found some who need work done all the time and they keep me going. If I’d known that was going to happen when I started, I’d have found it less stressful. I still occasionally do work for new clients if I can fit in their project, as it’s nice to have more variety.
How Do You Manage Your Time?
I know how much time I need to give to the clients I do work for every month, and I keep a spreadsheet for the one I the most work for, keeping track of the hours I take on various tasks. When I’m adding extra project-based work to do this, I try to remember it has to fit around my existing booked work.
I have a to-do list for the whole month, which is currently sitting on an A4 sheet on my desk. I have a notebook (for the stationery freaks out there: a Paperchase A5 blank page one, about an inch thick) and every day has a double-page spread. On the right goes my to-do list for the day, on the left and remaining space go my working notes for whatever I’m doing that minute. So I end up with a very scrappy, battered looking notebook which I can flick back and forth in if I need to check something I’ve done recently.
For some clients I keep track of the time I’m spending on tasks. Often the client won’t get to see the timesheet because I’m billing for the project rather than time, the tracking is there to make me get better at estimating how long things take. I know some people use programs like Rescue Time to track this for them, personally I write the start/end time in my notebook then add it to a spreadsheet when I’ve finished the work for that client in that day.
Do You Have A Daily Routine Or Work To Set Hours?
I work about 9.30am – 6pm, Monday to Friday. I used to do a late Thursday to catch up on things, but that’s out now I have a young son. I haven’t worked at the weekend for a long time because I find if I work longer, or more days a week, I get burnt out very quickly. Now I have a family that time is better spent with them.
What Technology, Websites, Or Apps Are Invaluable To Your Working Life?
OpenOffice – the open source alternative to Microsoft Office is one I use daily. The spreadsheets for my accounts and time tracking, and the equivalent of Word for my proposals and invoices. It can open Word and Excel files clients send me, and it’s legally free!
I use Google’s “Apps for your domain” system to give me free, branded email, calendar, and shared documents, which I use a lot with my business partner for the SEO side of what I do. Their email and spam filtering is great, and they have good apps for my Android phone so all my contacts are up to date and I can get alerts on my phone from my calendar without fiddling with it.
How Do You Manage Your Clients?
With a lot of email and phone calls, and occasional face to face meetings. I’ve had several clients who I’ve never met and we’ve just dealt over the phone and e-mail. Currently most of my repeat work clients I see once or twice a year, and we talk over e-mail or the phone at least a couple of times a month, or daily, depending on the work.
For my repeat work, I’ve got agreements for how much work gets done each month, which for most clients is a fixed cost, and for one is an upper limit as their work varies a bit. For project work, I write up a simple contract before the work starts stating what they’ve asked for, how much it’ll cost, a timeline for when it’ll get done, and Terms and Conditions of how I work, which is mainly about me getting paid on time and how long I do free bug fixes. I get them to sign this and usually pay 25-33% of the cost up front before the work starts.
I picked up asking for a deposit from my friend David Rosam, who has been freelance for over 25 years, as a good way of weeding out clients who don’t pay at the end. Clients who are willing to pay a deposit are generally good payers at the end of the project.
Would You Do Anything Differently If You Had To Start Again?
In my fourth year of freelancing I helped organise two free events (the first Barcamp Brighton and a Hack Day) and spoke at a friend’s event. It was interesting to do, but it took up a lot of time and had a bad impact on the amount I earned that year. I would have been much better off holding the Hack Day six months or so later, which would have given me more time to concentrate on working enough to pay the bills.
I wish I’d got a standard contract in place much earlier and been stricter about getting it signed. That would have saved me a very stressful time when I got paid for half a job, even after putting in more hours than the full job should have taken trying to help a client out. With a contract in place I’d have been in a much better position to get all the money I was owed.
I’d also be more brutal about not working for some of my clients. Occasionally you get people who are awkward, or very late payers, or disorganised and nothing you can do can sort the situation out. There are a couple of people I’d have stopped working for much earlier if I had the experience I have now.
What Advice Would You Give To Anyone Considering Going Freelance?
Freelancing is great, but getting up and running is tough. You’ll need to be stubborn to get through the first year or so. If you’re reading this before you’re freelance, find some local networking events and go to them to get a feel for who is out there. You will probably find some helpful Freelancers who can talk to you about what’s going on locally.
Get a simple website up saying what you do. Don’t worry too much about how it looks unless you’re a designer (in which case, still don’t worry as much as you do about it as most people won’t see the imperfections). Go and find some networking groups – try a lot of them until you find ones you’re happy with.
Freelancers who do the same thing as you are not your enemy, they can be your best source of work. Once you get good at finding work, you end up getting more offers than you can fulfil, and it’s much nicer to be able to refer those people to someone you know than just tell them you can’t help. Early on you need to find freelancers who are at that stage of having too much work coming their way. Later on when you’re getting lots of offers, you need to remember to pay the karma back by referring the leads to others.
Narrow down what you do in to some simple messages, so people outside your industry know what you do. Most of my clients are small businesses with non-technical staff, so my card doesn’t say “I do PHP and ColdFusion programming and SEO” it says “I make websites do stuff, and help people find them.” – That’s something they can understand.
Don’t rely on a single client. Everyone I’ve known who has done this ends up in trouble in some way. It might be they go bust, or they have a change of management and the new manager wants someone new, or their nephew gets out of college and they give him the work you’re doing. Something happens, and because you’ll have no other clients and your source of work has disappeared, you’ll either have to look for a full time job, or effectively start again freelancing by looking for new clients.
Having a spread of clients means there’s always some work to fill gaps. It’s fine to just have a single client for a while, but if it’s month after month and you’re not finding others because it’s easier to just bumble along doing the work and not bothering with the hassle of selling yourself to someone new – take this as a warning sign. You may go out of business soon. Sort yourself out!
Always look for more work, especially if you have a big job on. I know freelancers I only see when they have no work and they’re desperate to find more, that’s because they weren’t looking when they had work on. It takes lots of companies a while to agree work and sign off on a project starting, so it’s best to get that bit done while you’ve got other work on.
If you’re not self-motivated, don’t do it. No one’s going to be looking over your shoulder telling you to get to work all day, not unless you have a very disapproving cat.