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3 Lessons Learned From My First Year of Freelancing

Freelancing Lessons

In October of 2009, I was hired for my first freelancing gig. I was in my Senior year of college at the time, and as I had (I remember the amount exactly…)  $8 left to my name, I agreed to do what turned out to be a weeks worth of work for $250. At the time, I was stoked that I would be able to give myself another few weeks of runway, and, as a treat to myself, eat something besides ramen noodles. That may have been the most stressful week of that entire semester, but the feeling of having someone seek me out and hire me for a project for the first time was enough to fuel the 20-hour days I put in to make it all work.

The lessons I learned that week are still some of the most important to me, even a year and a half on. After spending the time between then and now working full time as a web-development consultant and maker of thesis skins, with dedicated office space (a sure upgrade from the tiny desk in my dorm!) and two new members on the ThesisReady team, I still keep what I learned then close to my heart. Here are the three most important things I learned about freelancing that week.

1. Not Sleeping Doesn’t Make You Cool

Between preparing for finals that were only a few weeks away, 6 classes, weekly club meetings, and my very first freelance gig, I was on the move every second of that week. Looking back, I think I averaged something like 2 hours of sleep a night. While I’m not a huge sleeper usually, a 66% reduction in sleep is not good for your body. In an effort to feel like superman, I worked long into the night every single night and it wasn’t long before it took a toll on me.

Instead of trying to take on huge work loads head on, it pays to plan.

The first step of any project I take on now is an exact schedule that I dump into my Google Calendar. This serves three benefits. The first – I know how long things will take and can balance more projects since I have easy access to a visual representation of how much I’m trying to do. Secondly, assigning exact limits on time for every element of a project ensures I don’t let tasks that should be minor things eat through my time. A project will fill up as much time as you allow it to, and setting limits right from the start will save you. Third, I know if I’m about to fall behind which leads me to…

2. There’s No Such Thing as Over Communication

Seriously. Seriously, seriously, seriously. Every client wants to feel like they are the center of your universe. Even if you’ve somehow overbooked your schedule to the extreme, taking a few minutes each day to let your client know what’s going on will be the best time you spend. It’s hard to demonstrate how quickly things can go pear-shaped when someone feels like you’re ripping them off.

I was hired on a project to rebuild an existing website not too long after I finished up with the first client. I did a less than stellar job communicating that time around, and I paid for it. It was the first time I had to issue a refund, and it crushed me. I spent the rest of the week miserable, and more than a few times, considered giving up and shutting down my website. Even though the actual website was turning out great, the client wasn’t happy, and it was because I wasn’t spending enough time to make them feel like they were the most important person in the world.

On the other hand, I’ve had projects that absolutely eclipsed the one I lost, and the clients couldn’t wait to hire me for even more work. The difference? Taking time to educate and ease concern.

3. You’re Much More Valuable Than You Think

So, even though I hadn’t become the World’s Most Brilliant Web Developer overnight, my happy clients were telling their friends that I was the person to work with on their new projects. By working hard and taking on projects that I thought were a lot of fun, word of mouth spread like wild-fire, and I suddenly had more projects than I could handle. The problem, h owever, wasn’t that I was working full time, but I still wasn’t making the kind of money I wanted. Granted, only a few months prior, I was literally broke (I recall one point in particular when I opened my wallet and saw only spiderwebs.)

I knew something had to change, and soon. That same day I had that realization, I did what (still to this day) was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I emailed every single one of my clients and let them know that starting the next month, I was doubling my hourly rate. Thinking back, I knew that email would result in one of only two outcomes.

  1. I lose every single one of my clients and get a flood of hate mail for being so greedy, or,
  2. I still lose every single one of my clients, but they are at least sort of polite about it.

Boy, was I wrong.

9 out of 10 clients responded along the lines of “Yeah. You should have always been charging me more. Here’s the next project I want to do.” I did lose a couple of people, but every single one of them made it a point to send out a recommendation email for me.

Wow. All that stressing for nothing, and now I was able to dedicate even more time to my clients and make them even happier. That’s a win win if there ever were such a thing.

So those are my top three freelancing lessons. What do you think? Agree or disagree?

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