I didn’t sit down and plan my transition from permanent to freelance IT software developer, over 30 years ago, but I have successfully negotiated the freelance employment landscape in the UK, US, Europe and Australia since. Along the way I’ve developed some very useful techniques for anyone contemplating or currently enjoying a freelance career.
At first glance there appear to be significant financial advantages in moving from a permanent role to freelancing, but it’s not as simple as that. Freedom of choice (where, when and how to work) is not always possible and there are also challenges with staying current with technologies, techniques and the market. So how do you go about having a successful freelance career?
1) Make sure you have (and continue to have) marketable skills. This one may seem really obvious but there is no point in expecting to be continuously employed if you have skills that only a handful of organisations worldwide will want to utilise.
2) Invest in your skill set. I allocated a MINIMUM of 4 weeks EVERY year to my own professional training and development. This didn’t always take the form of expensive commercial training courses and with the technology available today it is even easier to achieve.
3) Develop an “Annual Goals” Plan (even better if you can make a 3 year plan). Only you know what goals you need to achieve, but you need to write them down and commit to them. I still set financial, academic, physical, social and philosophical goals every year – I don’t always achieve them all, but then some are more aspirational than practical.
4) Create an annual budget. I developed a spreadsheet (available upon request) that broke down each 12 month period into time allocated to working, training/development, holidaying/resting etc. to ensure that I achieved my annual goals.
5) Plan to work 200 days each year. For me, 200 is the magic number – it’s an easy multiplier and equates to 40 standard (5-day) weeks. This means my budget is built around 200 days of income and 365 days of expenditure! I allocate a percentage of each days’ income to a series of non-working day buckets (holidays, training/development, sickness and investment in the future). If I work more than 200 days I treat this as a financial bonus (by allocating the extra funds to wherever I need them most). I usually set aside around 40% of my daily rate for non day to day living expenses.
6) Be flexible when negotiating a contract. I never hold out for the ideal daily rate. If you create an annual budget you’ll know what your annual spend is so as long as you can service your basic requirements don’t play hardball for another $10 or $20 dollars a day. Remember, each day you’re not working is another you have to compensate by dipping into your non-working day bucket.
7) Plan your next contract as soon as practically possible. If there is a possibility to renew your current contract (assuming you want to) make sure it’s sorted at least 4 weeks before it’s due to expire. If there is no renewal in the pipeline I start checking the market about 8 weeks out from my contracted end date. This gives me the chance to have choices regarding my next contract.
8) Be prepared to travel. I regularly travel inter-state or sometimes overseas for work. If you aren’t prepared to be flexible regarding location then plan to be out of work more often. You don’t have to travel long distances but a 2-hour commute (each way) is sometimes necessary.
9) Be prepared to take on roles that aren’t necessarily your core business. I have traversed into many alternate roles. While initially being employed as a Test Manager I have morphed into Business Continuity Planning, Project & Program Management, Environment Management, Change & Release Management and many others. I have always enjoyed these excursions as they provide perspective and breadth to my main skill-set as a Test Manager / Consultant.
10) Don’t over-promise. There is a big difference between taking on a stretch role and being out of your depth. I have never taken on a role I wasn’t qualified to perform.
11) Don’t get involved in internal/company politics. It’s essential to know who the real decision makers are and those with real power, but don’t ever assume that you have a role to play in policy or strategic direction (unless that’s what you were hired to do!).
12) Build and maintain a professional network. The power of my professional network is more important today than at any time in my career. Every job that I have undertaken since 2001 has come from my professional network and not from me contacting recruitment companies.
13) Be comfortable with interviews. I have probably been interviewed more than 100 times in my career and I’ve have a success rate of around 90%. Not bad when that spans almost 40 years and includes interviews I attended “just for practice”.
14) Be resilient in the job market. Not every job opportunity will lead to a job so be prepared for rejection. I’m philosophical when it comes to job offers – if I am unsuccessful at interview I see that as a decision based upon cultural fit or technical misalignment. Given that I’ve also hired hundreds of people over my career, I know it’s not personal.
15) Don’t be desperate for work. Feeling and/or acting desperate comes across to those interviewing you. Be confident, open and honest about your capabilities. I’ve got jobs in the past even though I wasn’t necessarily the best qualified, but I did fit the culture or improve the team balance.
16) Arrive early or stay late (whichever suits your body clock). I have always been an early starter and therefore I like to be the first one in the office each day. I’m rarely the last to leave, but I always put in more time and effort than is necessary – it’s easy when you are passionate about the work you do!!
17) Learn to really listen and observe. Listening is an under-estimated skill. I have found that by listening to and observing what is really happening around me I can anticipate what is required. Be prepared to go above and beyond in terms of contributing to the goals of the project. I am far more of an observer and doer than a talker or shower.
18) Be yourself. Don’t ever try to be something you’re not, whether it be professionally or personally. You are good enough as you are and you don’t need to impress others.
19) Stay true to your ethics, morals and belief system. I never compromise my ethics, morals or beliefs either professionally or privately. I have refused to work for specific organisations or businesses because I disapprove of their ethics or business models.
20) Don’t worry, be happy. If you are unhappy, make changes or leave. Sometimes you can change a situation but be realistic when you can’t. There is no need to be a martyr, if a situation makes you unhappy, don’t tolerate it, just walk away. I have walked away from many situations that made me unhappy – it’s just not worth the aggro…
21) Only work with/for people you like. It took me many years, but I finally decided that I would only work for people I like. It’s usually pretty obvious during an interview whether you get on with those who are interviewing you. If you don’t gel with each other from the outset it’s unlikely that magic will happen!! I want to be happy at work and the people around me are the biggest obstacle to me achieving that.
22) Don’t be obsessed or a “slave” to the money. If your only reason for working freelance is the money, you’ll never be happy. Money is important, but it’s not everything. I would always take less money if it meant being happier in my surroundings.
23) Focus on your strengths but be very aware of your weaknesses. It is essential to work to your strengths, but always try and eliminate your weaknesses. Self-awareness is critical to being successful in the marketplace.
24) Take regular and relaxing holidays. It is essential to recharge your batteries regularly and not become jaded or stressed. I have always taken at least two holidays each year with at least one of them being overseas in order that I completely get away from my work.
25) Find a Mentor and/or Coach. I have been very fortunate over the years to have excellent Mentors and Coaches who have guided me throughout my career and have been there when I really needed them. I have also become a mentor and coach for others, it’s incredibly rewarding and fulfilling.
Dateline: Monday August 4, 2014