New Freelancers, Be in control of your work
What I’ve learned from 2 years of freelancing and thinking
Starting out as a freelance developer is a difficult undertaking. You no longer have a boss, but you don’t have a salary, nor a steady client base— what you earn depends on your effort and the choices you make.
Searching for your first client is the most daunting task. You may look to freelancing sites e.g. Upwork or Fiverr; you may find friends or family that need your services. These first clients may have a not-so-appealing budget, but it’s your first job — how can you deny such a great opportunity?
You accept the job, but things slowly spiral into oblivion — you see you’re in a rabbit hole. Your complex production-worthy application and database is worth more than the $100 they gave you. It’s twelve in the morning, but you just need to finish on time to not disappoint your first client. You’re letting your clients take control of your work.
You need to take control back.
You are running a business
As a freelancer, you are running a business. That means that you are its founder; you are the CEO. The decisions you make will determine its direction.
To let someone else, who does not value the success of your business, take control of it, is a death sentence. How are you going to keep your clients from controlling your business?
G o o d h a b i t s.
A good business needs good habits. Good habits, or guidelines, are a necessity for every business to succeed.
If you don’t brush your teeth, then they’ll rot. If you accept a job that you know is underpaid, then you won’t earn enough to nurture your business. If you work into the middle of the night, then you’ll forego sleep; which research shows leaks into all areas of your life.
Why Good Habits?
Good habits do 2 things:
- Good habits prevent you from working with clients that will take control of your business from you.
- Good habits will ensure that you are paid fairly for meaningful work; they will help you develop a daily routine to balance work and play.
Good habits will save you from working with clients that will take control from you. If you’re unable to work with a client and maintain your good habits, then that is a clear sign you should not work with them. The goal is for you to do work that benefits you (allows you to maintain your good habits and expand your business) and your client (See “The Freelancer Relationship”).
Good habits will prevent you from working with clients that will not pay you fairly. If a client is not willing to pay your rate, they don’t deserve your service. Good habits will also allow you to develop a work routine, which is crucial for any freelancer or worker who wants to do meaningful work. As a freelancer, an independent contractor, you need to maintain a clear distinction between work and play.
The Freelancer Relationship
Freelancing by definition is a reciprocal relationship between you — a freelancer — and your client. You both agree to a mutually beneficial contact in which you provide a service or product to the client — web development, graphic design, miracle worker. In return, they will pay you per the terms of that contract.
Your relationship needs to create value for both you and your client. If your relationship doesn’t create value for your client, then they’ll likely ditch you; they have the right so long as they’ve paid you up to that point.
If your relationship does not create value for you, then you have the right to say no more, and end ties with them. There are two ways that a freelance-client relationship doesn’t create value for you: working for low wages; and working for long hours.
Don’t work for crazy wages just to get a job
Nearly 2 in 3 freelancers who quit corporate jobs say they make more now than they did before (Freelancing in America 2017).
When you become a freelancer, you give yourself an opportunity to make more than you ever did before. If you allow clients to take control, and underpay you, then it will be that much more difficult to achieve a full-time income from freelancing.
There is one reason why clients underpay you: they believe that your work is worth less than it really is. One way this can happen (specific to freelancing) is when you work with a client from a totally different financial market, a totally different geoeconomic zone, where goods are bought and sold for less than in your own country— India or Bangladesh for example.
When you allow yourself to do meaningful work and be underpaid, you are doing yourself a disservice by creating a habit that will be hard to break down the road.
Inhabitants of different geoeconomic zones — places in the world with a distinct financial and labor market — require different amounts of money to meet their basic needs. The United States, Europe, parts of Asia, and Australia largely make up the wealthiest geoeconomic zone. The citizens of these countries get paid the highest salaries or wages, but they require the most amount of money to meet their basic needs. Other countries are parts of vastly diverse geoeconomic zones, most of which buy and sell goods at lower prices. Thus, their inhabitants get paid less in wages.
They say the freelance market is a worldwide market (“You can work with anyone, anywhere you want!”). This is a shortsighted idealistic myth because it doesn’t take this into account: one freelance economy cannot satisfy the needs of people that have to pay 5x more for their basic necessities than the rest of the world. A loaf of bread on average in the United States costs $2.32 USD; the same loaf in India costs $0.39 USD — 83% less (1). People from wealther geoeconomic zones need more money to live.
Customs and values go beyond simply the economy and income. People from wealthier geoeconomic zones prioritize deep, meaningful work. The culture of poorer zones is that a product simply needs to work; superficial solutions and fixes are “good enough” (There are no reliable statistics to back this up; it is based on my personal experiences). And for both these groups, these values work — for them. The problem arises when people from different zones mix, and with them their values
You cannot, and should not, penetrate across markets (by that I mean work with a client from a vastly different geoeconomic zone) because when these values mix, disagreement will inevitably arise between you and your client. They will often not have a large enough budget that is worth your time. Making the mistake of penetrating markets is very common because sites such as Upwork and Fiverr promote this “global freelancer economy.” It is common on these sites to work with people that need much less than you to survive.
However, there will even be clients from your own geoeconomic zone that simply do not value your work and are not willing to pay you fairly.
Creating a habit of underpaid work
When you accept underpaid work, you are creating two distinct habits:
- You maintain client-specific non-reciprocal relationships in which you do what they say, and they pay you an amount they determined.
- You create a habit in which you accept more underpaid work from more clients.
As customers we do not expect services to change, so when you begin a relationship with a client, they do not expect your rate or the cost of a certain amount of work to change. Even if you feel cheated by what they’re paying you, you can’t change it because you risk the client ending ties with you.
When you accept more underpaid work, and more underpaid work from the same clients, your only serve to further compromise your habits. You cannot tell yourself that working like this is ok, because you will never be able to break from it and become a successful full-time freelancer.
I have frequently have mentioned sites such as Upwork and Fiverr and my distaste for them. These sites have a lowest-bid economy, in which people in first-world countries are massively underpaid (that is, if they aren’t outbid by someone from a poorer geoeconomic zone); this sort of freelancing environment will cause you to develop the habit of accepting underpaid work. In most cases, it is best to avoid them for this, and a variety of other reasons.
The habits you need to create
This is where good habits come in. They will save you from working with clients that will underpay you and cause you to feel that your services really are worth what they pay you.
Your services are a product. A client pays you a set amount of money in exchange for a service and your expertise.
When you walk into a store and buy a high quality product, do you negotiate the price? No.
Does the customer decide the price of the item? No.
The item is worth what it says on the box, and that is what you pay — no exceptions.
When a client comes to you and negotiates a price with you, or tells you what you should be charging, then politely say no, decline their offer, and move on without second thoughts.
A tip to avoid working with people who will underpay you or require more out of you than you bargained for is to be wary of, but not avoid, working with clients from poorer countries than your own. Recognize that they live in a different country, culture, and market. Look critically at where they’re from and decide if working with them is a good idea.
Finally, to those who are involved in a non-reciprocal client-freelancer relationship — a relationship that doesn’t benefit you — get out. You are well within your right to politely communicate that you no longer feel that you should work together, and why. Do not accept any more offers from your client. Do not try to create a new deal. Simply say no and cease communication with him.
Don’t work at crazy hours to get a job
One of the first few clients I worked with was called Chetan (he lived in the Gujarat state of India), with whom I did small chrome extension projects. I found that when I messaged him it was always at least 23:00 or later — long after I should have gone to bed. I did not get adequate sleep because I stayed up to message him, hoping for more jobs. I ended communications with him later on.
As freelancers, many of us do not realize the importance of creating a healthy work routine; we need to have a sharp distinction between work, sleep, and play. Here is why you don’t have one:
You accept jobs you’ve never previously done
You’re a new freelancer; you may have little experience with the field you chose, so you decide to play along with the aphorism: “Fake it ’til you make it”.
This mentality is valuable in the sense that eventually there comes a point in time where you just have to put yourself out there and just do what you want to do, even if you are not the most qualified in your field. But when you accept a job, there has to be some level of experience and knowledge of what you’re going to do and how. First, there is a strong chance that you will accept a job, and you don’t entirely know what that job entails. Figuring things out as you go will cost you exorbitant amounts of time, and you risk not finishing the job on time.
This brings up a similar story. I accepted a job in which I was to build a “Twitter Follower Manager”. The idea was that through the Twitter API you could do certain functions very quickly, e.g. unfollow people who don’t follow you back, and follow back your followers. The problem was while I had worked with APIs before, I had never worked with the Twitter API.
I realized the consequence of my mistake of accepting the job when I spent over 5 hours sitting in a rabbit hole trying to figure out why I couldn’t connect to the Twitter API; that would have never happened if I had been comfortable with the API beforehand. I was unable to finish the project in time (I also had the genius idea of accepting the job when I had no power or water), and I did not get any money for my time. This happened because I had no idea what the project entailed before I started.
To be successful as a freelancer, if you are doing a paid task, you should have already done the same task, or at least practiced the same underlying principle, before so you are confidant that you can do it again. Many of us overestimate our ability to complete a project when we do not know what it entails. We also underestimate the complexity of a project at first glance. To prepare for doing paid work, complete, or familiarize yourself with, the key components of the job, in the context and nature in which you’ll use them. It will be simple when you do it for a client.
You’re in different timezones
The freelance economy tells you that it is ok to work with any client in any part of the world, but this concept completely disregards the great difference in time that separates a client in the United States, and a freelancer in India, for example.
I communicated with Chetan most nights (including weekends) at 22:00–00:00 for varying amounts of time. For Chetan, it was likely 8:00–9:00 in the morning; there is a 10-hour timezone difference between the US and western India. There was no way for me to adjust my schedule to accommodate for this time difference, my own responsibilities outside of my job, and my sleep.
When there is a great timezone difference between you and your client, then one of you is going to start communicating with the other at unhealthy hours — usually late into the night. It will become a habit.
Do not work with clients that eat breakfast when you’re eating dinner. It creates obvious time conflicts, and at least one of you will have to work very early in the morning or very late at night to get hold of the other.
You don’t work with intention
Every day you need to deliberately set aside a block to work on your freelance work. Working without a boss over your shoulder may lead you to believe that work can get done throughout the day whenever(“I can work in my bed if I want”). This approach doesn’t work. As a freelancer you need a clear distinction between work, sleep, and play. Your business needs to have set business hours.
When you work, you need to be 100% on, or 100% off. When you work less than 100%, you are unproductive and your work drags on much longer than it needs to. When you work, you need to be 100% on— at your desk; no distractions.
When you set business or working hours, you always know everyday how long you have to work. Your business hours need to be long enough that you can complete all your work in order to earn a sufficient income; they need to be short enough so you are not overworked.
You work smarter when you know where the finish line is.
End toxic relationships
If a client offers you work, ask yourself if it meets your guidelines, and allows you to maintain your habits. If not, then decline their offer. If you are currently working with someone who doesn’t meet these guidelines, then terminate your contract or agreement, and cease work with them.
If you are offered a job to write a program that requires the drag and drop API, but you have never experimented with the drag and drop API, then decline the offer.
If you live in the United States and your client lives in Singapore, and you find yourself up at 23:00 to talk to them, end your contract.
The possible money you can make is not worth the stress and other effects of lack of sleep and a lack of routine.
You are the founder and CEO of a business. Your clients do not care whether or not it succeeds or fails, so don’t let them take control. It is your choices and your habits that determine its success.
Set a price you will charge clients for a set amount of work. It doesn’t matter if it’s an hourly rate, or a fixed price for a certain type of project.
Set the days of the week and hours of the day that you‘ll work. During these times, you need to be 100% working; during times of relaxation, you need to be 100% relaxing and away from work.
Don’t take on work if you don’t know what it entails. Learning time is for learning; work time is for work.
Go get a pad of paper and write down the habits you want to develop:
Does it make sense to charge clients per-project, or by the hour?
What is going to be my hourly rate?
What will a ballpark price and time be for ___ sort of project?
What days of the week will I work?
What time will I begin working, and what time will I finish?
Thank you for reading! I am currently available for hire as landing page designer & developer. My portfolio page is currently under construction, but you can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or see my case study on Medium for my last project.
If this helped you a short clap couldn’t hurt…