Freelancing

My last post here was in August 2011, about how I’m going to be largely unable to commit much time to new freelance projects. Seven months, 23 websites later, and I’ve realized I really hit the mark.

I’ve worked at start-ups, and in a variety of positions as overflow for agencies, but not a full-time position at an agency or large technology company – for good reason. It sucks!

So I was pretty surprised when I found myself accepting an offer to grow/lead a dev team at an agency last year.

Now, in addition to the freelance clients (which I hope to prune), I’ve got a typical 9-5 with a small firm, with an office about 20 minutes away from my home. Of all the places I applied, as well as two kind job offers from colleagues, I picked a small, somewhat under-paying gig.

I did this because it’s a small team. The term “growth potential” is over-used, and employed in several sketchy job postings, but something I do value. Control over projects. Ability to hire my own team as we expand. I could go for a larger agency, but in my capacity as an overflow developer for these places, I’ve learned that blind acceptance of workflows / development styles, without the ability to question anything hurts my creativity, and hurts me spiritually. It too sucks mightily.

That’s not to mention the plethora of project managers, marketing personnel, and graphic designers that in larger agencies are hierarchically superior (arbitrarily, in my opinion) to developers. In a typical work day, you’re beset by this force; you work as it encroaches on every creative and analytical freedom you have, picking them apart one by one, unraveling the braid of motivation and thought for which you were hired, until you emerge a gray Pavlovian husk – providing homogenous, expected solutions in response to an unceasing conveyor belt of barked commands.

It’s thankfully not that. I won’t be paid as much, but I keep many freedoms.

This company, in the few months I’ve been here, is now 100% WordPress-powered for client projects, instead of re-inventing the wheel every time. Practical. Extendable.

Our billing system has a JSON API. Nearly every facet was non-existent when I started – the billing system was entirely offline. We’re getting there. I think.

No no no no no

No. Rami Abraham

The power to say no is important. It’s important when it’s an informed no. A no that’s followed with “…but here’s why I said no, and some alternatives i can suggest instead…”

Typically, a freelancer will say no when the money is too little. That’s it. If I can code it, I’ll do it. My family needs food, and your money will provide that.

I recall a contract gig I was asked to code a couple years ago – it’s the first time I said no to very well-paying clients.

Project manager at big agency: “Here’s the PSD, slice this up and make it a Joomla theme. Need it by 5, Friday. Content starts Monday.”

Me: “If we use WordPress, it’ll go a lot faster, and the client will be happier.”

Project manager: “Are you saying you won’t do the work?”

Me: (deflecting) “Can you tell me why the project requires Joomla?”

Project manager, unsure: “Not really. Their prior site was Joomla, so we decided to stick with something they’re familiar with”

…Ad infinitum. I kept trying amicable ways to illustrate to them the benefits of WordPress – even pointing out that my project fee would be lower. Nothing stuck, though, and they wouldn’t budge.

I was tempted to give in – but then I asked someone else for advice – a fellow musician. He’s considerably more experienced than I with guitar, and regularly performs to paying customers/fans at classical guitar performances.

His response is something I’d like to be immortalized by the Internet, as well as for the benefit of this article:

Me, after explaining the project a bit: It’s not something I enjoy – it’ll be dirty code, hard to update and expand…but they pay well – never any issues or questions. I submit the invoice, 30 days later, bam. Money.

Musician: Let me ask you this, Rami: Why don’t you practice tuba, instead of guitar?

Me: Because I’m good at guitar, and I’ve been playing it since I was a child.

Musician: What if someone told you that tuba players get paid more than guitar players? That you could quit your day job now and play tuba? Would it make a difference?

Me: No. I get your analogy, though. I don’t use Joomla that much, so it’d be a disservice to them to hire me for this project?

Musician: Well, I’m sure you’d figure it out. I have no idea what the hell a Joomla is or a WordPress is, but they can’t be that different. (I hope I made an angry, incredulous nerd face here, but I don’t recall)

Me: But…

Musician: More importantly, it’s a disservice to YOU. What will you learn? Anything? Are you going hungry or something? Are you in serious debt and need the money that badly? You’ve gotta learn to value not only your professional time, but the spiritual impact that time will have on you.

Me: Good point.

That sort of did it for me. I slowly stopped all freelancing that was not either PHP, Javascript, HTML, or CSS related. (Yes, usually all of the above – but I’l still take a static html gig here and there.)

Although I’m not stopping entirely with freelancing, there are many things I miss about the freelance life already. When I started this article 30 minutes ago or so, I was going to write a sort of kitchy, nostalgic freelance memoir, paying tribute to seven years of fantastic swells and contractions. Days going to bed hungry, months-long periods of 100-hour work weeks.

There was rarely a grey area for the first few years.

So, you’re likely one of two people if you’re reading this post; 1: Someone that’s researching semantic / personality information about me for whatever reason (cool), or 2: You’re a freelancer that stumbled here from a search engine (also cool).

My advice to you

What do you say to the freelance web developer that’s fresh out of school? I’m not talking about trust fund folks – I mean people that are going to work for everything. No start-up money. Holding down a day job that’s rarely to do with web design or development.

So let’s trace back to the prior sentence for a moment. Why would someone knowingly choose a day job that’s not related to coding? Burn-out. Think you’re going to want to write code all night after sitting in a cubicle as a junior developer, being handed crap like:

“Here, .splice all these vars into these 3,000 arrays. Due at 3pm.”

You will not. I assure you. You will be drained. After a while, you won’t want to look at a computer when you get home. But if you try something else – something unrelated – it’ll help. Something easy, that’s always available. Flexible hours if possible. Food service, perhaps. Just enough to pay the bills, and you don’t get fired for calling out or switching shifts.

One day, if you keep coding, you’ll get a lot of clients. You’ll get maintenance contracts.

For the trust-fund kids, the only advice I can offer is this: If you really love what you do, are passionate about design or development, and really want to grow, instead of just making money churning out lightly customized templates, then stop taking those pretend ‘loans’ from your parents. Slum it for a few years. It’s unbelievable how motivating an empty stomach can be. This will grow your business acumen, after a time.

The freelancer that has both the passion and the practical need to perform are the ones that grow, and the ones that get clients. They’re the ones that work the hardest. The ones that keep going because they know they’re good at it.

Do Not Quit Your Job.

But what’s the bigger picture here? Say, twenty years from now? You can only grow financially as a freelancer if you charge more and more every successive year. This only works if clients are willing to pay way more to hire you than anyone else. And why would they do that? It took me nearly five years before I no longer had to solicit or network to get a steady stream of clients – I was lucky to have very verbal, very appreciative clients. Eventually, I developed a reputation for being personable, having a deep attention to detail, and severe transparency in billing clients.

What happens when that slows down? It will happen. No matter how many strings of $10,000 websites you build, you’ll eventually get to a point where you cannot accept new projects. Unless you have clients that are willing to wait months before you begin their project (my personal record is a 4-month waiting list – that was a rare year) you’ve reached the natural stalemate of your freelance career.

Don’t worry – this is good. It has to happen. You now have three options:

1. Charge so much that one website is several months (or more) of operating, living, and saving expenses. Friendly tip: Don’t do this.

2. Outsource to other freelancers, which puts you at risk of delivering a sub-par product, and having to manage / proof their tasks.

3. Found your own design/development agency, hire employees, etc. I was against this for many reasons, for a very long time.

4. Obtain employment from an established agency and minimize / discontinue freelance services, or migrate the clients to your new day job.

All of these points have pros and cons, but remember: the only way a freelance career can continue is if you’re content with hitting this financial ceiling. This brings me to my original point: ceilings. I’m just really glad we invented them, because without them it’d make multi-story buildings a very awkward experience.

Author: Rami

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