In 2012 I was finally able to declare myself a full time freelancer and after three years it’s easy to take for granted how relaxed I am after I was able to find my groove. But rather than talking just about how good freelancing is, travelling the world or having freedom to do whatever you please, I want to give you a real story going from an in-house designer at a large commercial company to a full-time freelancer, spanning 6 months.
The change goes something like this:
- Hated the experience of a 9-5
- Read success stories and freelance advice to get hyped up
- Set my goals and objectives
- Freelanced part time for experience and a cash buffer
- Made the switch
At school, the career advisor wanted to know ‘what I wanted to be’ – I told her, a web designer. I knew that much since I was 15. When college and university came around, I imagined a corporate lifestyle, being the guy turning up to a huge building in a suit, stepping out of a sports car and grabbing a coffee on the way to the office. However when I landed my first job as a designer, nothing lived up to my expectations. Well, technically it did… I had the car, the corporate office and suit, but I failed to foresee the types of people I’d have to work with, the projects I’d have to work on, and watching my freedom I’d had all my life slowly drain away.
Everything school and college had taught me seemed a lie. Why am I caged in this sweaty office working on things way under my capabilities, with people who are all as miserable about it as I was?
At college and university I had loads of free time to go to the pub with my mates, watch TV, and work on cool personal projects. Full time employment took it all away from me and it was like a big punch in the balls. You can find the full story about why I decided to become a freelancer here.
After over a year working in house as a designer, it was do or die. I hated it so much. I believe we are all capable and if you’ve got a good enough reason, you’ll make it happen, no matter how long it takes. We’re all at different stages in both our personal and professional lives and the process varies depending on that, but ultimately there is one common trend, freedom. Whether that’s freedom to stay at home with your family, freedom to work on any project you like, freedom to travel – we have common goals and a common mindset to focus on.
The freelance mindset
Before freelancing, everything was a mush. A universe of ideas, questions and risk. Now can I look back on the situation and think, wow, it was much simpler than I made it out to be.
My single most important piece of advice is to collect your thoughts and focus your mindset on to a single point. Similarly to a magnifying glass, your life is the paper, you are the glass and your business is the beam that’s going to set that shit on fire.
To find that focus, I read a lot of books and daydreamed a lot (see end of post for recommendations). The types of books I was interested in was digital nomad, freelancing type stuff, like The Wealthy Freelancer, The 4 Hour Work Week. I learned a lot about finance, attracting clients, handling the business side of things – it’s all technical information you will need, but you can find heaps of it with a Google Search. What I really discovered is my freelance mindset, and all of a sudden I had my calling. What stood out to me was this:
- What does your average day look like now?
- What does your average dream day look like?
- Compare the differences, how do you change each thing in your day to be the same as your dream day?
The above questions changed my life forever. Below is what what I wrote down three years ago.
My current average day: Commuting back and fourth from a boring office in uncomfortable clothes, dealing with people I couldn’t stand, going no where emotionally or professionally.
My dream day: Waking up in any country I wanted to, opening my laptop to work on projects which benefitted me, knowing the harder I worked, the more money I made. I just wanted to wake up and do whatever I want. It sounds a bit selfish but don’t we have the right to actually do something we enjoy?
The solution: I needed to become a full time, fully independent freelancer who could do Whatever I want, whenever I want. Right now, it’s all about travel, but later in life it could be about spending time at home, having the freedom to watch TV whenever I want – I don’t care what it is, I just want to be in control of my own life.
I created a plan
I had my goal, I needed a plan. I couldn’t just click my fingers and freelance… I had barely any money and no clients. Unfortunately money is what I need to stay alive and it’s clients who had to provide it.
I became obsessed with listening to audio books and reading blogs. I took notes, took photos of pages and day by day not only created the freelance mindset, but I curated a plan.
I needed clients and I needed money. Whilst I was finishing my final year of my degree, my plan looked something like this:
1. Develop saving habits
I needed to save money, I was spending it all on drinking, clothes and rent. I wanted approximately £8000 to start freelancing and travelling at the same time. My calculations showed that I could live on £8000 for 12 months in Thailand or South East Asia. I was confident that 12 months was more than enough time to get things kicked off. Plus I lined up projects before the transition so all I had to do was keep the ball rolling.
- I spent less on material goods
- I sold almost all of my possessions
- I shared a flat with a friend to lower rent cost
- I started a weekly budget for shopping and alcohol
2. Build and market a new portfolio
I took all of my skills and curated a new logo and portfolio for myself. I didn’t have much in the way of client work but I did have a lot of experiments from university including HTML5 Canvas games. Combined with the fact I’d created an interactive avatar (much like now: http://henrybrown.me), and interactive timeline – it excited people to see something different.
I think you know you’re in the right business if you’re willing to put your time in to creating something for free, just for yourself to improve your skills and ‘make something’. Most of the successful freelancers I know didn’t go in to business for the money.
After I launched my site, I had to put it in front of people. For me, I decided the best plan was this:
- Post business cards through doors in my neighbourhood
- Be active on Twitter
- Use Dribbble to showcase what I’m working on
- Keep my LinkedIn account up to date
- Submit my website to CSS galleries
- Participate on web design forums
I can tell you now that posting business cards through local doors was a waste of time and effort. However the CSS galleries single handedly kickstarted my career after The Best Designs featured my portfolio on their homepage. I went from 2 visits per day, to over 1500 per day. For the first time, I had leads being generated and they were contacting me every single day.
Like a snowball, clients came, my portfolio grew, I could expand my Dribbble page, I received recommendations and small design awards. Most importantly my clients came back for repeat business and/or recommended me to their business partners. I found out that if you do a good job for someone, they’ll be happy to recommend you. Why? Because they’ll be gaining kudos points amongst their piers for being able to recommend a designer / developer / whatever. The market for design and development work is bigger than it seems.
At first, I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what to do. How do I interact with clients professionally? What about agreements? Deposits? Questionnaires? I Googled all that stuff and hustled. Sometimes it went wrong, sometimes it went great.
From that main event, work never dried up. Through Google, Dribbble, CSS galleries and referrals, I realised there is a huge market for practically anyone who takes their craft seriously and produces quality work.
From one extreme to the other. I had more work than I could handle.
3. Freelancing part time
I feel freelancing part time was a necessary step. It minimised risk and allowed me to create money without giving up my other responsibilities. The only downside is it was a lot of hard work. On top of that clients wanted to know why I wasn’t available during the day. I managed that by telling the truth, and sometimes it just wasn’t ideal for them. They wanted someone available all the time. The takeaway point here is the clients who were willing to be flexible were the easiest to work with and respected me as a part time freelancer.
With my newly found success generating leads, I converted a few in to my first well paying customers and continued to freelance part time every single day. It took me 5 months to hit my goal of £8000. I didn’t make enough money to spare 8 grand in 5 months, that was after selling my car, Xbox and all of my other junk.
Saying that I just converted new leads in to clients is easy, but don’t take it that way. I wasn’t totally new to the game. I’d been playing around with web technologies for a few years, I had less responsibilities at university than many and because I had such a shit job, it left me with no doubts over my mindset and focus.
I’d been doing bits and pieces randomly for clients and friends since 2008, but it sucked and I was getting paid £200 for a website which took me two weeks!
“How the hell am I going to make a minimum of £1000 a month? – That’s like, 5 websites per month for minimum wage dude.”
The truth is my skills weren’t quite where they needed to be.
4. Make the jump
By October 2012 I made it to almost £9000 and purchased my flights for Bangkok, Thailand immediately. That was the deal I had made with myself and it’s exactly what I did.
On the 15th October 2012 I flew to Bangkok, I was a full time freelancer. I’d either make it, or I’d run out of money. I had a return flight booked for 7 months later which was my safety net.
Although I titled this section ‘make the jump’, it all went so slowly. The whole thing took months to get my head around.I woke up on my first day in Bangkok and it was truly the most surreal ordeal. Everything about Thailand was crazy, I walked outside on my first morning and it was scorching hot! The landscape was weird, the people were different, ladyboys were approaching me constantly. How I wish I could re-live those unexperienced freelance/travel memories again! I loved it, I was addicted and I never let go of that first love for Thailand, which is why I’m writing this from central Bangkok right now.
I’d never left the comfort of Europe or a package holiday before and now I’d just flown to South East Asia with a new business and no idea what I was doing.
Looking back, it seems easy. When you think about it, there’s only one component – Money. We need money to survive. So how do we obtain that money? Clients. But if it was as simple as that, we may as well work for a corporation somewhere. What we want is enough money to live, from clients that don’t drive us crazy, working on projects that fulfil our creative needs. Putting all of those things together is what became difficult.
In the end, I believe it comes down to knowing what you want to do, where you want to be, becoming good enough at that thing and then putting your services in-front of the right people. Everything else comes with experience.
Some of these overlap each other, but it’s roughly in order of what I can remember enjoying the most. Some are also affiliate links, but you can bet I’ve read them all.