The First Month
Whether you’re a designer or an engineer, doctor or teacher, one thing is for certain: There’s a big difference between thinking about something and doing something. No matter how much you plan or prepare for something, it all comes down to the execution. Will everything work out, or are you going to crash and burn?
As of today, I’ve been freelancing full time for a month. It feels both longer and shorter than a month, and through that short period of a time I’ve learned some things along the way. Here are a few of the lessons I learned, my hope is they’re beneficial to you, whether you’re considering freelancing or have been for a while.
1. Full time isn’t full time
When I first started freelancing, I had the great debate of figuring out what a good hourly rate would be. I decided on a rate that was in line with my experience and seemed a good standard from friends I talked to. After calculating what that ended up being per month at 40 hours a week, I was floored. It was above and beyond what I had ever made before, and that was exciting.
However, as I started to work, I quickly realize that full time isn’t full time. In my month of freelancing, I’ve averaged around 31 billable hours per week. How could that be? Well, you quickly realize that every meeting you take with potential clients, every time you grab coffee with a friend, and all the other random things that come up can eat away at your billable hours. This isn’t a horrible thing, it’s simply a reality of being your own boss.
So what’s the solution? Well, for me, making sure I’m not wasting time throughout the day is crucial, so I cut back on extra outings or spending too much time at lunch. I also learned very quickly that if I schedule a meeting in the afternoon (my most productive time), the day generally is shot. I prefer to make meetings first thing in the morning so that I can continue to focus on my work in the afternoon. I’m learning more strategies like this to make sure that my time is best spent in the right places.
This is, yet again, a good reason for you to set your rate a bit higher than you think it should be, or consider booking your time on a project basis. If you need to make a certain amount per month, don’t base your hourly rate on a 40 hour work week, because it’s going to come back to bite you.
2. Routine is your friend (unless it’s not)
I quickly realized that, as my own boss, it would be relatively easy to not begin work until 10am. I can also take as long of a lunch as I’d like, or even take a day or two off. However, as I've set up a workflow, I’ve realized that it’s very important for me to develop a routine to help me stay on task. During work days, I’ve stuck to a pretty good schedule, and that’s helped me remain largely productive. Here’s what my normal day looks like:
- 6:30 - 7:30: Wake up, coffee, read scripture
- 7:30 - 8:30: Work out
- 8:30 - 9:15: Breakfast and Shower
- 9:15 - 9:45: Email and planning my day
- 9:45 - 12:30: Design work
- 12:30 - 1:30: Lunch
- 1:30 - 6:00: Design work
- 6:00 - 6:30: Any emails/correspondance to wrap the day
- 6:30 - 7:00: Dinner
- 7:00 - 10:30: Leisure.
- 10:30 - 6:30: Sleep
Now, that’s really helped me to get stuff done and be largely productive. I do, however, know other freelancers who like to keep a more flexible and open schedule. They also know that they can get lots done late at night. If that works for you, go for it. My point is that it’s important to find how you get stuff done and make it happen.
3. Take note
When you work in an agency or office, it’s easy to not always be jotting down questions clients have or exact deliverables, because you’ll generally have a Project Manager and Basecamp to help remind you of all the stuff that was said in the meeting. When you’re freelancing, you’re the project manager (at least managing yourself).
I’ve tried a lot of to-do apps, and as nice as all of these app are, I always find myself coming back to paper and pen to keep things straight. I personally love Field Notes brand for my note taking, but anything works. I keep them on hand during all meetings, jotting down questions, tasks, and thoughts as I talk with the client or creative team that I’m working with. It’s worked well so far.
4. Go with your gut
As your own entity, there’s a lot you’re going to need to take care of, including scoping out new clients to work with. Largely, it can be easy to say yes to anyone and everyone when you’re starting out due to the fact that you need the work. Many times when you’re meeting potential clients it’s hard to know if they’ll be a good fit (or if you’ll be a good fit for them), but sometimes you’ll know that it’s not a good fit.
Unfortunately, I had a gut feeling in my first client experience that I ignored because I needed the work. I was going to be working with someone I greatly respected, and even though I didn’t feel it was a great fit I went forward anyway. It ended up being a very strained relationship, and it caused a lot of stress due the fact that it wasn’t working well. I had to do the hard (but right) thing and let that client know that it wasn’t going to be a long term relationship due to the fact that things weren’t clicking. It was a difficult decision, but their response only confirmed my decision, and I’m grateful that I made the decision sooner rather than later.
I would have saved myself (and them) a lot of frustration if I had owned up to the fact that it didn’t feel like a good fit in the first place. Instead, I foolishly took on the project only to have it not work out in the end. It’s the only time that something like that has happened to me with a connection, but it’s a lesson I definitely took to heart. Trust your instincts, especially if there are any red flags in the early stages.
5. Get out and about
As a freelancer, I spend a lot of time working at home. All in all, it’s pretty great, and I love spending time with my wife and daughter. However, it’s rather easy to not leave the house for a day or two. I’m a pretty extroverted guy, so I made a rule for myself to get out at least once per day. It doesn’t have to be a huge outing or even for that long, I just make sure I either go for a walk with Grace or go to a coffee shop for a few hours to get some time outside of our home.
Getting out in these small doses will also help prevent you from becoming the freelancer who never leaves the house and then goes to networking events looking like a crazy person. Don’t be the wide-eyed freelancer who corners folks because they haven’t talked to anyone besides their cats for two months. Don’t do it.