How do you work from home?

It’s great, but..

Fictional representation of my freelancing career

In 2005 I left my last design studio job and went out on my own. I was hugely naïve, being just 25 at the time. It seemed obvious to me that I was already getting paid to do work and that it made no sense at all to have to give up the lion’s share to my employer. The talent was within me, so the real ability to satisfy clients was mine.

It took ten years of many ups and downs for me to find a formula for working for myself that felt right. There were many times where I wanted to give up my freedom and just go get a “real” job because the siren’s call of a steady paycheck seemed so much more sensible than the endless hustle of being a one-man outfit. I’m glad that I stuck with it because with age and wisdom came easier times, larger projects — and the respective larger paychecks that went with them.

For the longest time, the biggest hurdle for me was finding a good day-to-day working rhythm. Sometimes I would work all night and be either unable to work the next day, or so unfocused that I might as well have not worked at all. Sometimes my inner child would take over and I would play hooky at the rock climbing wall, or lay in the sun and read a good book in the park. My days were planned around putting out client fires, worrying about my next project, or trying to get ten things done at the same time. They were all very obvious (in retrospect) signs of a lack of organization and order in my workflow and processes.

You see, I thought that being a freelancer meant having it my way all the time without having to find a way to create order from the chaos that any job inevitably brings to the table. The hard truth of the matter is that the surest way to dig yourself a hole that is damned near impossible to climb out of is to not plan for the future. For many years, I did just that.

And then things started to look a bit bleak

It really came to a head in 2008 or so. I’d managed to sort of wing it for a few years, while picking up a few projects every month or two. Clients were sometimes happy with the work, sometimes not. I was getting enough referrals that I had enough revenue to pay myself a living wage, pay my taxes, and put away a bit for traveling. It was a decent living and I was happy just squeaking by. Then there was a downturn in the economy and all the work dried up. There was months of mad scramble on my end and I made many of the most common mistakes that freelancers tend to make in that situation:

  1. I realized that I didn’t have enough money saved up to skate through the downturn and I took on super low paying work because it was all that I could get.
  2. That low paying work still needed to pay my bills so all of a sudden I was working around the clock to make ends meet. Sometimes I wasn’t even successfully doing that.

If you’ve been doing freelance long enough, you’re fairly likely to hit that wall. It’s kind of a brutal gauntlet that makes or breaks you. That particular period lasted about six months and I remember it as something of an awakening.

After that I started to focus and get my shit together seriously because I simply couldn’t deal with the idea that I would have to go through something like that again. There were many more downturns afterwards, but none so severe.

Important changes which I made in my daily routine

I attribute the stability I’ve enjoyed over the last part of my career to these guidelines:

1. Treat your freelancing like a real job

Set a start time and an end time and stick to it. For me, I get up now around 6:30–7am. We have two small girls so there isn’t much choice in the matter. Before we had the girls, I would usually get up between 7:30 and 8:00. Work starts about an hour later and I push through until the evening. It’s a solid day’s work and having a set block of time allows me to be consistently available to clients while also setting clear guidelines for them when I am available and when I am not. Those boundaries became much more important to me after I became a father because the time I get to spend with my family is extra important to me.

2. Find a way to track your hours and stick to it

For the last four years, I have used Harvest to figure out how long things really take and I use that to make much more accurate assessments of my projects. I like seeing my work in as an analytics breakdown, and my clients like knowing that what I say I can do in ten hours I actually do in ten hours. As an added bonus, it makes billing much simpler as I can simply output my timesheet and attach that to the invoice. It is authentic and honest, and really what’s not to like about that?

3. Take breaks, but don’t mess around

It’s ok to stop and clear your head for half an hour. I find it helps with problem solving, and even more important it helps keep me sane. Afterwards I’m refreshed and ready to roll again.

4. Get a good lawyer to make your contracts and review the ones that your clientele send you

This now seems like such a no-brainer but it took me half my freelance career to wrap my head around how important it is. I lost so much money (and hair) over not being protected properly. There is simply no reason to work without both parties signing on the dotted line.

5. Planning your month in advance is good business

These days I book a month of work at a time, at bare minimum. I’ve experimented a lot with what works for me and what doesn’t. You should, too. Hourly rates, daily rates, bulk hours, and project rates are all legitimate and all can be profitable.

What is important is that you should know what you need to survive and that you have work lined up in advance to cover yourself. If you are scrambling every week or two to find new work, you are doing something wrong and eventually you will either hit a long dry patch or you will exhaust yourself mentally. Neither are worth it.

A solution to this is billing larger chunks of time, like 50 hours at a go. This method allows you some financial security while also ensuring that the clients you work with are interested in steadier, larger jobs which tend to be more lucrative in the long run. It’s fine to charge a bit less (5–8% is ok) if you have some security from the deal.

Another solution is to work with someone who can bring in leads for a cut of the pie. Sales is not for everyone and if you find that you are struggling with that part of the job, then outsource it to someone who is more effective.

Work smarter and success will be easier to attain

It’s easy to look back over the last decade and see the progress I’ve made and think that I’m ok where I am and let that be that. The truth of the matter is that what I’ve actually learned is that I need to be vigilant and smart about how I work. The challenges of being a freelancer revolve greatly around self-motivation, willpower, and actualizing your desires and making them real.

Experiment with what works for you. Take notes, track your progress, and share your ideas with us. We’re all interested in seeing your potential for growth realized.