B is for… business

The Letter BI’ve been a freelancer for over ten years, starting my career with a gig colouring comic books. Currently I’m focused on two areas, webdesign and writing. (I also currently work full-time, but in the past I’ve been completely self-employed).

During that time I’ve written articles and blog posts for money, taken commissions for artwork, and even experimented with things like Mechanical Turk. I’ve made some money – and also made lots and lots of mistakes. Here are some of the lessons I learned:

1. Always charge more than you think you should

There are an awful lot of desperate people out there. Students who build websites for free. Fans that colour comics just to get their name on the cover. People that fill out surveys for a few cents. Working for free is okay – sometimes – if it’s on your terms. I’ve done work for charities and the like, which has helped build my portfolio. But if you want to make a living, you have to charge. You have to charge enough to cover lean times, to save, to cover taxes. You have to charge enough to make it worth your while, so you don’t burn out out on a hundred tiny projects (trust me – I’ve been there).

I’m not going to tell you how much to charge, but I will give you some tips:

  1. The living wage in the UK for 2012 was worked out as £8.80 per hour. (The actual recommended wage was lowered, to make it easier for living wage employers to meet). Don’t forget to add National Insurance and Tax on top of that. I usually allow about 50% extra for all the additional taxes, pension, costs of running a business (e.g. software purchases) and unpaid time doing things like filling out your self-assessment form. 
  2. Whatever you charge, get it paid into a business account and then ‘pay yourself’ a salary out of that. Leave all the money ear-marked for other purposes alone.
  3. Figure out your desired annual salary, and divide it by the number of working hours in a year. (Don’t forget to exclude vacation time)
  4. Look at the industry averages.

If you sell a product, I’ve got less advice, but don’t ever underestimate the power of premium pricing.

2. Every project will take longer than you think

I have a little dream, where I can crank out websites and books at top-speed. After all, the work itself doesn’t take that long. I can type something like 50-100 words a minute. I’ve coded so many websites I can get a framework up in about an hour. Except… except…

Work doesn’t work like that. There’s those rabbit-paths, where you have what you think is a brilliant idea (I’ll make this website mint green! It will look so fresh!) and then it turns out to be a terrible idea and you spend hours and get nowhere. Writing is particularly prone to these. In my current WIP, for example, I randomly decided to have this strange romance-sex-scene with robots. I blame nanowrimo. Either way, it’s about 2000 words of complete rubbish. Then there’s that time when you have no ideas. The only solution is a long walk, a noodling session, or cleaning the house from top to bottom.

So I figure a book will take me six months, actually it will take a year. I figure a website will take 30 hours, actually it will take 60. Your mileage might vary, but when quoting for work it’s better to lean toward the far end of the scale.

 3. Choose your clients/customers

You know that advice about interviews, where it’s as much for the interviewee to check out the business and the job as it is for the employer to check out their potential new-hire? Yeah, it’s a bit bullshit when you are first starting out and are desperate to get a job (any job! I’ll lick shoes! Dance the cancan! Be on call for 29 hours a day!) but gradually it makes more sense. You start to have an actual career, and you want something more than just money from your job. Running a business works the same way. To start with you’ll take any old client that offers to pay you in shoe-laces, but you quickly realise this is a bad way to do business.

There are some terrible clients out there. Clients that won’t pay. Clients that have no idea what they want, and make you produce thirty thousand revisions before deciding to abandon the project altogether. Clients that will be rude, aggressive and over demanding. Clients that think they can do your job better than you.

Once you have a steady stream of business, focus on the good clients. The ones that pay on time, respect your opinion, and keep coming back. Those clients will be worth so much more than the nightmare client who might cough up £100 once in a blue moon. Remember, your skills are in demand. A good freelancer is much more than a dancing monkey.

4. Structure your day

So I work from home one day a week, and I don’t get dressed. It’s like, my dream, to work all day in my pyjamas  I love pyjamas  and would totally wear them all the time forever if it was acceptable. What I don’t do, however, is futz around. I have a set timetable to my day: I start at 8am. I take a break at 10am and then a lunch at 1pm. I finish at 6pm. It’s difficult, but there are things you can do. I use the pomodoro technique to keep myself focused for a solid chunk of time. I make sure I email my manager at least twice during the day with an update on what I’ve achieved.

If you’re running a business, you can do the same thing. Set yourself a chunk of time that you are going to work for. If it’s a writing business you’re doing in your own time that might be 4 hours on a Saturday, or a half hour every evening. Decide what you are going to achieve in that time, and then … do it.

Yeah, a lot of advice comes down to ‘just do it’.

5. Take regular breaks

The other thing I like about the pomodoro technique is that it forces you to stop for breaks. I spend those breaks making tea, stretching (try doing a search for five minute yoga on youtube), or stepping outside for some fresh air. The important thing is to step away from the computer and take five minutes to just recharge your energy. Let any frustrations and anger go, take a couple of deep breaths and then go back to the work feeling refreshed.

So those are my tips… but I bet you have a few tips of your own. Share them in the comments below (or write your own blog post and let me know about it) or let me know about them on twitter.