Hello, my name’s Anna and I’m a freelance front end developer. Let me just give you a bit of background about myself.
I started doing web design when I was 14, studied Graphic Design, IT and Media, and set up as a freelancer last year as soon as I’d finished my A-Levels. I then did two courses with the Open University, and worked for a few clients and agencies before...
doing a 4-month internship at Clearleft at the beginning of this year. I helped work on the HTML and CSS for websites including the Mozilla addons site and the WWF site, and now I’m back doing freelancing.
Today I’m going to squeeze in as much information I can in 20 to 25 minutes about how to become a good freelancer, and I’m going to go through some of the mistakes I made and what you can do to avoid them. I’ll be taking questions at the end if there’s time. Can I get a show of hands - how many of you are freelancers? Cool, and how many are thinking of becoming freelancers?
Before I start, I’m running a small competition. I have one Little Snapper and one Perch lisence to give away. Basically, I’ve hidden 5 song titles in the slides, and if you’re the first or the second person to email me a list of all the artist names that go with the songs, you’ll get one of these lisenses free. Let’s do a practice one, and you can shout this one out.
So who’s the artist for this song?
Great, so if you want to win one of these prizes, don’t forget to write the rest of these down and email them to me. Here goes.
I had a lot of trouble writing this talk. Part of me really enjoys being a freelancer, but another part thinks I would have been better off if I’d gone to university, or if I’d got a full time job with an agency. I’m going to be brutally honest with you. Freelancing is hard. It’s really, really hard. And it’s even harder if you’re a teenager. I was tempted to just scrap this whole talk and replace it with a slide that said...
But that decision is entirely up to you.
The thing that excites me about this conference is that young people are getting together and trying to improve the industry we work in. What we are seeing here is spectacular, but young people do have a very poor representation in this industry. We are stereotyped as arrogant and cocky, churning out bad code and designs for quick cash. I’m grateful to Rob and Grant for holding this conference because it will help show that young people care about improving industry and the quality of work we produce. But we still have a long way to go.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, being young in this industry will open a lot of doors for you, but it will also be a barrier when you’re trying to win jobs because people still perceive us in this way. But if you just try and be the best that you can be at what you do, it shouldn’t be a problem.
Ok, let’s go through the good things that come with being a freelancer
One of the great things about being a freelancer is that you are in charge of your own time, there’s noone to tell you what to do, and if you fancy a day off, you don’t have to write a fake sick note.
Every day is different, and every project is different. One day you could be designing a website, the next you could be writing a CMS. You’re as flexible as your skills.
If you’re not a morning person, you can start work in the afternoon. You can also fit it around other things, and if you want to take some time off to go out with your friends, you can reschedule when you work.
It’s a challenge. You’re constantly learning new skills, and you can adjust your work to stretch you more depending on the projects you choose to work on.
You have to potential to earn a lot of money, which can’t be a bad thing.
So this all sounds great, but what are the downsides to working for yourself?
Being your own boss may be a really exciting proposition, but working for yourself is not easy. If things go wrong, it’s your fault. You’re in charge of everything, your finances, all the boring admin stuff, and it can also be incredibly lonely.
You don’t get to do what you love doing all day. Your typical day will consist of meeting with clients, doing your finances and taxes, writing proposals, and then doing whatever it is you actually work as. You have to be good at all these things, and not all of them are very interesting.
This brings me to mistake number one. You don’t want to try and offer lots of services, because you’ll end up being mediocre at everything. I see a lot of young freelancers offering print design alongside web design, SEO and backend development. These are all completely different things, and to be really good at any of them, you need years of experience in that field. So stick to offering one service.
One month you could have lots of projects on and be up late every evening trying to meet the deadlines, and the next month you could be twiddling your thumbs with no work lined up. Freelancers typically have to work longer and more irregular hours than people employed by someone else.
Never take on more work than you think you can handle. While I was studying, I took on a fair bit of freelance work, and ended up burning the candle at both ends. It affected the quality of my schoolwork, freelance work and my personal life (which I didn’t end up having a lot of that year!)
Freelancing is hard enough for an adult with industry experience, but you’re going to be learning on the job, whilst learning how to work for yourself. And if you’re freelancing whilst studying, it’s even harder.
Finally, you have to think about money. If you’re employed by someone, you get holiday pay, there’s someone else to worry about your taxes, and you’ve got some protection if you suddenly find yourself out of work. With freelancing, you’re pretty much on your own. One important thing to bear in mind, and something that I’ve been struggling with, is finding somewhere to live. If you want to rent a house, or get a loan, credit card, mortgage, you’re more of a risk so prepare to be initially turned down for these things. Especially if you can’t prove your income.
That’s a lot of depressing stuff, but don’t let that get you down. I just wanted to make the point that you really do have to think pretty hard about whether freelancing is right for you. So now I’m going to show you what you need to do if you decide you do want to become a freelancer.
Now, this is your first dilemma. You have the option of setting up as a company, or a sole trader. A limited company means you trade under a name rather than as an individual, and a sole trader is basically another word for freelancer. Which one you become is something you’re going to need to work out for yourself because it depends a lot on the type of work you do, but here’s why I decided to become a sole trader. As a sole trader you don’t have to pay corporation tax so there’s also less paperwork. There’s less risk if it all goes wrong, it makes a lot of sense when you don’t have employees, and keeping accounts is a lot easier and generally cheaper. You can always make the transition from sole trader to limited company later.
This brings me on to mistake number 3 which annoys me quite a lot. If you have a professional website for your work and it’s just you, do not refer to yourself as “we”. People don’t care if it’s just you, what they care about is the quality of your work. And if they find out it is just a one-man band, and you’ve been giving them the impression it’s more than that, they’ll think you’re being dishonest.
As a freelancer you’re going to have to be lots of different people at once, doing all the roles that an agency would hire people to do. You may not be good or confident at all the roles, so it’s a good idea to learn the basics of all of them.
This is Pinky the cat. Pinky is your creative alter ego. Pinky likes designing things, deciding where things should go on a screen and what colour things should be.
Aral Balkan is a back-end developer who tweeted this a few days ago. He makes the point that it’s important for developers to know a bit about design so that they have a broader skillset and aren’t stuck doing the same thing over and over again.
And the same goes if you’re a designer, you have to learn how code works so that you understand your work better, and client projects may demand it.
This is Mwai the cat. You can probably see there’s a theme here... Mwai is a developer and likes to get stuck into code. He works with Pinky to build really cool websites and applications.
And this is Basho the cat. Basho makes sure his accounts and books are in order so he doesn’t get any nasty surprises from the taxman. Don’t worry, I’ll talk you through how to get started all this in a bit.
To be a good freelancer, you also have to be a good businessperson. Poekie’s role involves talking to clients, managing projects to make sure they don’t go over time and budget, and dealing with all the legal aspects of freelancing. The next one’s a good’un...
Goblin is demonstrating the marketeer hat. He is in charge of winning clients. Anyway, enough of this nonsense.
Now I’m going to run through some of the business aspects of freelancing.
If you don’t have one already, make yourself a personal site. Keep a blog, upload your CV, and use it as a sandbox to experiment with. Don’t forget to keep your portfolio up to date with all the work you’re doing.
Awesome tip number 1 is to keep some business cards handy at all times. You never know when you’re going to need them.
The Internet is a powerful thing. Don’t badmouth clients on twitter. They may be watching you, and prospective clients may be as well. Be kind to the hand that feeds you.
Not having a contract when I started was probably the biggest mistake that I made. Because of your age and lack of experience, people will try to take advantage of you. If you don’t write a contract, clients can run away without paying, and there’s not much you can do about it. They can then take the work that they haven’t paid for, and sell it to others and make money off it. Not only does a contract protect you, it makes you look more professional.
Stay safe, always use protection.
Writing a contract may seem really scary, but it’s probably a lot more simple than you think. I’ll talk you through some of the things you should mention in it.
You need to make it clear exactly what you are providing to the client. I’ve had clients assuming I can get them to the top of Google, even though this is something I would never even try and give the impression that I could do.
What are the deadlines and what happens if you or the client runs over the deadline?
Who owns the work after you’ve handed it over? Is the client allowed to sell any code or designs that you produce?
Are you allowed to talk to other people or twitter about the work you’re doing with the client? Are you allowed to add a link to the bottom of their website to your site and put it in your portfolio?
What will you do if the client finds an error after you’ve signed off? In my contract I’ve given the client 14 days to flag up errors. After that, I charge at my normal rate.
It’s normal to state in your payment terms that you should be paid within 30 days of sending the invoice. Having decent cashflow when you’re a freelancer is vital to survival, and late paying clients are a big problem. It’s a good idea to state in your contract that you will charge interest on any money not recieved after 30 days of invoicing, just to cover your back.
If you host the client’s website, and their site or email goes down, that’s their business and their income that is affected. It’s important to mention in your contract that you shouldn’t be liable for any errors. If some aspect of the client’s site doesn’t work, they may sue for damages. You are not immune to being sued just because you are young. Consider getting liability insurance.
Now for the juicy stuff.
You’ll want to set up a separate business bank account to make it easier to do your taxes. Each bank offers a different deal for setting up a business account - a lot of people like Abbey because it gives you free business banking for life. I like Natwest because they’re closest to where I live, and I’ve heard lots of people say good things about First Direct who are a purely online bank which offers 24 hour phone support. Which is good if you’re nocturnal.
You’re going to need a bit of money in the bank when you first start up to pay for set-up costs. This may include things like a computer, software, mobile phone, stationary, business cards and hosting.
I recommend you get a laptop instead of a desktop. They’re a bit more expensive, but you can take them to client meetings, do work on the train, and if there’s a sudden powercut, you don’t lose half an hour of work.
Which brings me onto another point. Make sure you backup all your work. An external drive is a good idea, but it’s no good if it’s in the same place as your computer. You should keep them separate in case they are stolen or your house blows up.
I use dropbox which saves my files to the Internet every time I make a change. It’s free up to 2GB, and also lets you share files between other users. Much better than emailing big files to clients.
To save a bit of money, get Skype, which lets you make phonecalls over the Internet. I didn’t want to give my mobile number out to clients because they will call very early in the morning sometimes, so I got a Skype number. This is just like a normal landline number, but it calls your Skype account and clients can leave answerphone messages.
Now you’re going to need to work out how much you should charge. In my experience, the majority of young freelancers charge far too little. Not only is this bad for you, but it is bad for this industry. It gives a misrepresentation of the value of our services.
As the saying goes; time is money. If you value your time, charge more for it. The less you charge for your time, the less you appear to value it, and the less people will take your opinion seriously.
Don’t be afraid to ask for money up-front. It’s ok to ask for up to a 50% deposit before you start on the project. This means if the client cancels the project halfway through, you’re not out of pocket.
A good way to find out exactly how much you need to charge to break even, here’s a nifty little formula. Ok, it’s actually a bit of a big formula. But I’ll try and break it down a bit more.
We’re going to use some made up numbers here to make it easier to work out. So let’s pretend our total business expenses are £10,000
Our personal expenses are also £10,000 - so that’s things like rent, food, socialising, and perhaps paying for a holiday.
Now we need to work out how many days you’re going to work. This is after things like holidays and weekends. Let’s say that comes out as 200 days.
Now let’s say you’re going to be at work 8 hours a day.
and of those 8 hours, 80% of your time will be spent on projects that you can actually bill clients for. This doesn’t include time to work on personal projects, checking facebook and doing admin stuff, so realistically this percentage is likely to be a lot lower.
Now let’s aim to put £11,000 into a savings account every year, to save up for that mansion in Florida.
This works the hourly rate out at £25 per hour, and a break even rate at £16.50. Based on the calculations, this is the bare minimum of what you have to make to stay in profit.
The rate calculator I used can be found on freelance switch .com/rates - it’s really good and I recommend you give it a go.
You need to keep track of all the money coming in and all the money going out. This is so that you can work out how much tax you need to pay. Keep all your receipts and invoices.
I’m really sorry, but I can’t talk about freelancing without talking about taxes. I know too many teenage freelancers who are not trading legitimately, and it can lead to a lot of problems further down the line.
You cannot call yourself a company until you are registered with companies house. You cannot call yourself a freelancer or a sole trader until you register as self employed. If you make money and do not register with the Inland Revenue within 3 months, you are trading illegally.
I’m going to very quickly cover what National Insurance and Tax Returns are, but I thought I’d mention what VAT is since I know some of you in the room are lucky enough to be making a lot of money. You only need to pay VAT if you’re earning £68,000 a year or more, although you can pay it voluntarily. This may sound like a dumb idea, but some people think you look more professional if you’re registered for VAT.
National insurance is something that your employer sorts out if you are employed by someone else. If you’re a freelancer, you have to do it yourself. You have to pay £2.40 a week for national insurance, and this covers things like your pension. This rate stays the same regardless of how much you earn.
A tax return is different. You pay this every year, and it’s based on a percentage of what you earn.
This is the tax return form. It’s really long and horrible and gives me nightmares. I’ll be filling out my first one this year, and I’m dreading it. However, help is at hand.
I use an online app called Freeagent. I upload my bank statements, and it works out how much tax I need to pay. It also creates invoices that I can send to my clients, and it has a big online community where I can ask questions.
It’s still pretty daunting though, which is why it’s a good idea to prepare yourself for it.
The first thing you should do if you’re thinking about setting up is to call the business link. Just phone up and say “hi, I’d like to be a freelancer” or “I’d like to run my own company”.
They’ll then send you a business pack, and you can go on free courses that will help you set up. The free courses are also perfect networking opportunities, because you’ll be in a room with people who are all setting up their own business, and will most likely be needing your services. You can also get grants and vouchers and free pens, so give them a call and see what they can offer you.
So that’s about all I can fit in on the subject in the time I have. Does anyone have any questions?