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My First Year as a Freelancer

Two sport tracks

Actually, title should be my first nine months as a freelancer because I started my full time freelancing on August 1st, 2015. I was privileged to talk about my freelancing experiences in WordPress Helsinki Meetup. Thanks for having me, it was great to meet you all and have couple of beers! And I really appreciate all the questions you asked.

If you prefer checking the slides from the talk, you can get them here. Otherwise keep on reading.

I’m a teacher and proud of it

Some of you might already know that I’m a math teacher. It’s the best occupation I could ever have and I like it for a several reasons:

  • Job that has meaning (other than money).
  • Working with young people is inspiring.
  • Group, individual, and social challenges.

I’ve been teaching 15 years, and students were asking me aren’t you tired of teaching the same courses over and over again? Well, yes and no. There is always new students coming and the challenge is always as interesting. Let me also translate the last picture in the comic below.

– Aren’t you tired of playing the same song over and over again?
– You can take a nap while playing!

Wagner playing the same song all over again
Tired of playing the same song all over again?

Why become a freelancer?

I’ve already thought about WordPress freelancing couple of years. So my decision definitely didn’t come out of the blue sky. And I had already build public themes since 2012. I also had some client work while working as a teacher.

I was getting ready mentally and financially.

  • I was ready for it. I had the confidence that I can pull this off.
  • There was money in my company bank account. It meant that I could pay my own salary even if I didn’t get freelance work in first months.
  • I wanted to try something totally different.
  • I wanted to challenge myself (paying my first paycheck felt goooood).
  • I wanted to learn more about WordPress and web.

My starting point about business

Do I really need to say more. I just love Bill Hicks way of doing comedy. Here is another great example about army in the world.

Before you start your freelancing

Like I said before, I had prepared myself several years before I had the courage of trying full time freelancing. Here is a short list what I think you should consider before starting freelancing.

  • You can’t do it on your own, you need help.
  • First, find a good book-keeper. I (and book-keeper) use Netvisor for everything: invoicing, taxes, salary, travelling expenses.
  • You need to have a master plan. What are you actually going to do.
  • Focus on 1-2 areas: design, front-end, back-end, integrations, WordPress services, content writing etc.
  • As a freelancer you can’t start everything from scratch. Learn something really well before you go for it. In my case it’s just good old HTML, CSS, and WordPress theming.
  • Support from your family and friends doesn’t hurt.

How to get freelance jobs?

You need to have connections, connections, and connections. And then you need to have connections.

I got my first freelance job from my brother. They wanted new website, and I was the perfect fit for the job. After the project was done and I had already invoiced, “funny” thing happened. My brother’s boss called him in his office and conversation went like this:

– So, your brother build our new website?
– Yes.
– Hmmmm, site does look nice.
– Thanks.
– But there is this one thing I’d like to discuss.
– Okay, what?
– You are in the board of your brother’s company!
– What, I am?
– Oh yes you are, and that’s not good. I mean it’s not illegal to hire company where you are in the board. But it sure is unethical.
– Yes Sir.

Here are other things how to get freelance jobs in one form or another:

  • Subcontracting for other companies.
  • Help others, contribute to WordPress.
  • Have online portfolio.
  • You own site better not suck.
  • Be active, not aggressive.
  • Get involved in WordPress scene: meetups, WordCamps, speak, teach, write.
  • Sounds lame but be yourself.

Why hire a freelancer?

I asked one of my client (which is the best one I had so far) questions about freelancing. More detailed Show Case post is coming soon. I’m just going to copy paste all his answers, they really resonated in my own thoughts.

1. Why did you decide to hire freelancer but not digital agency?

We had a clearly defined need – we needed somebody who was capable of handling the technical implementation but design,copy etc. came from elsewhere.

It’s also important to keep in mind that many agencies actually house an army of freelancers. Even if you went for a big agency, you might end up working with the same person, only with a bigger price tag.

2. Pros about hiring a freelancer?

The price & quality are right. These folks are able to offer services at a reasonable price without the administrative overhead etc.

Assuming that you pick the correct person you also get high quality.

3. Cons about hiring a freelancer?

You have to live with the personnel risk. If something happens to your freelancer or they decide to quit the business, you’d better have a backup plan. Then again, with widely used platforms such as WordPress, this is hardly a problem.

If you pick the wrong person, you might end up with a pile of “exotic” code that is hard for anyone else to maintain and you can only hope that it works in the first place.

4. Why did you decide to hire me?

References. You had a decent portfolio + we had a personal recommendation regarding your tech skills. Plus, we liked you as a person. In a team & project such as ours, it’s also important that the chemistry works.

Also, your price was right. It wasn’t absurdly high but not suspiciously low either. Professionals take pride in their work and price themselves accordingly.

5. Any other thoughts about freelancing?

References, a good portfolio and word-of-mouth are very important.

Important for web techies: your a site may be horribly UGLY.

If you include a site in your references, please also include a short description of what you did for the site.

You have to be able to keep up with the pace of technological development. I think this is one of the biggest challenges when flying solo as you basically have to do most of the research in your non-billable spare time.

Do *NOT* become a freelancer unless you’re passionate about what you’re doing. The agencies and monsters like Tieto have jobs for people who “only want a job”.

Marketing

Work on details

My best marketing tool is to put 110% on every project. I have failed to do that several times but that should be your goal. Work on details, communicate and teach clients, be active, and make no compromises.

By the way if you’re reading this, I’m marketing myself at this very moment.

Other than that I really don’t have any marketing plan but I do trust word to mouth marketing. Twitter is my only active social media.

Congrats! You have now won your first project. What next?

Usain Bolt winning

Create contract

The first thing to do is sign a contract. Always sign a contract. It will help you if something bad happens and you don’t get paid. And it’s a good guideline for the project.

I include at least these details in the contract:

  • Prices. Hour rate or fixed price. I do both.
  • 50% before, 50% when your job is done. Don’t wait until the site is opened. It might never be opened!
  • Timetable.
  • What the project includes.
  • Other fees like commercial plugin licenses.
  • Does project includes support for older IE browsers.

I have also tried to sell maintenance contract for 100 euros per month. But none have taken so far! It might be because I’m a freelancer, not a several people company. Anyways, my maintenance contract would include

  • Auto backups using service like VaultPress.
  • Updates (plugins, core, themes) using service like infinitewp.
  • 1 hour work / month.
  • Versioning (Git). Bitbucket have free private repos.
  • Auto deploy using deploybot.
  • I don’t have a good staging site system. (big minus for me).

Communicate and educate

Communication and working with people is pretty much always the hardest part in any job. Your laptop is the easiest colleague. It’s your job to communicate and educate the client so work on those skills as much as you can.

  • Start with live meeting or workshop if possible.
  • Live Skype calls. Or regular phone call is just fine.
  • Tools like Basecamp, Slack, or email can help managing projects. But in some cases there is just too much noise in every channel. At that point it’s time to turn everything off for a while and actually work on a project.
  • No matter what you do, communication is the hardest part.

My developing tools

I’m an old school dude. I can perfectly handle everything using XAMPP, Notepad++ and browser. That way I can have all the control and I really understand what I’m doing. Simplicity keeps me focused.

  • I also use Atom text editor.
  • Grunt or Gulp for automated tasks.
  • SASS from time to time for bigger projects.
  • I use Underscores as a starter theme. Also check out wd_s and air.

Finish the job

Two sport tracks

No matter what happens, finish the job! But things can take time and are hard to estimate.

Let’s talk about the money

I don’t why here in Finland we don’t talk about the money. I’d like to make an exception and lay down all the numbers. I got nothing to hide.

While teaching I used to create sites for 600 euros. Now the same kind of site costs 4000-6000 euros. I didn’t have hourly rate but now it’s always 60 euros. Here are more detailed facts from time period 1.8.2015 – 2.5.2016.

  • I have invoiced 40 720,44 €.
  • For 24% tax rate it means 32 839,06€ for my company.
  • Expenses 4 400,83€. (mostly book-keeping and insurances)
  • Project prices between 500 – 7000 €.
  • Most common price about 2500 – 4000 €.
  • I pay for myself 3000€ / month, 2200€ after taxes.
  • As a comparison my teacher (includes summer school, vice principal and all) salary was 5000€, 3100€ after taxes.
  • To sum it up: 32 839,06 – 4 400,83 – 9*3000 € = 1 438,23 €. I call that success!

In this site I have earned 4 553,82€. In WordPress.com I have earned about 3000€. I have also paid some designs and invoices via Paypal, so I don’t really know the end result. Paypal drives my book-keeper crazy!

Pros and Cons about freelancing

My client already had good points about freelancing, and here are my own thoughts.

Pros:

  • In most projects you can work where ever and when ever you want.
  • You are your own master.
  • You get to meet different kind of people.
  • It’s challenging in a good way.
  • It’s kind of risky and stressful.

Cons:

  • You can’t be sick.
  • Finding good projects and clients.
  • 90% of my time it’s just laptop and me.
  • It’s kind of risky and stressful.

How to keep up?

Keep on learning new stuff. Basically that’s your job. I started to learn WordPress in Themehybrid.com. I can highly recommend it to everybody.

Some learn by reading. In that case I suggest that you follow all (or some) Make WordPress blogs. For WordPress news join Post Status and read WP Tavern. I personally try to read something new in every morning.

Others learn by doing. Go ahead and build cool stuff and remember to share what you have learnt.

My future plans

I will go back to school. But only for a half year and I don’t have that much courses. It means that I try doing two jobs for half year, and then switch back full time freelancing. I have no idea how it will work but that’s another story to tell!

At this point I want to thank anyone who have helped me during my freelancer journey. I do salute you!

6 comments My First Year as a Freelancer

  1. Hey Sami, thanks for writing your experience. I am sure it will help aspiring freelancers. I know it would’ve been useful to me years ago.

    Which do you prefer, freelancing and working closely with a few clients or selling themes and supporting a broader base of customers?

    1. Thanks Steven for your kind words.

      Which do you prefer, freelancing and working closely with a few clients or selling themes and supporting a broader base of customers?

      As you can see my focus have been more on client work which happened naturally. When I got more clients, I had less time to build public themes.

      But I prefer do both. Professionally they both support perfectly each other. Public themes are lot harder to build (and sell) but they give me freedom to try everything I want.

      In client work you get to meet people and be more social. And sometimes have unexpected challenges where you need to learn new things.

  2. wow. thanks for sharing Sami.
    that’s impressive 🙂

    I’ve seen wp devs come and go.
    galin (alienwp), tung do (devpress), seamlessthemes…

    it’s certainly not an easy niche.
    there’s time when I struggle and think I should go to different route and get other work (not as wp dev)
    but, I enjoy this work.

    congrats for the achievement !

    1. Thanks David!

      It’s certainly isn’t easy. But at the moment here in Finland there is good situation what comes to WordPress and web. More and more people want to use open source platforms.

      And lot’s of great companies are hiring new WordPress devs. Surprisingly there aren’t that many good devs available.

  3. Really nice article, thank you for sharing your experience and tips!

    I myself just started working as a freelancer this summer (earlier in my career I would always search for a more traditional employment contract) and so far I really see a lot of pros in being a freelancer, mostly if such aspects as flexibility and self-organization are personally important.

    One of the most confusing topics for the beginner, in my opinion, is making a contract. I found this article very useful:
    https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2013/04/legal-guide-contract-samples-for-designers/

    There also was a nice and inspiring talk on freelancing topic aimed at beginners:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXUOCNYRIuQ

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