5 Things I've Learned Working Freelance


Although I’ve been designing and developing websites since 1996, I’ve only been freelancing for the past two years. I thought most of the learning curve was going to be about taxes and time management, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Most of what I’ve learned is actually about my own professional strengths and limitations, in ways that didn’t become apparent until I struck out on my own.

Here are five things I’ve learned that I wish I’d know then:

1. Work Good Projects with Good People

This took me a long time to figure out, and along the way I seriously cocked this one up a few times. The biggest mistake I’ve made is working with people I really, really like on projects I liked a whole lot less. These projects tend to be the very last ones finished, and the people who really, really liked me to start out with probably like me considerably less at the end.

Lesson: Love both the people and the project.

2. Agencies Suck

The money is often tempting, but these projects almost always go to shit. The agency sits between you and the client, and any client large enough to employ a PR or advertising agency is probably less of a client and more of a committee anyway.  Not a single agency project from the past two years appears in my portfolio. And not a single one ever will, because I am never taking another agency job ever again.

Lesson: Do not return agency phone calls.

3. Clingy Clients Cost Money

This one was hard to learn, because I get a lot of calls from people who are being screwed over, have serious site problems, or are completely clueless. And I really, truly want to help these people but I have learned to be a little more streetwise about why they are facing the problems they are facing. There are clients out there who will very sweetly suck all your time, energy and patience and while they may be nice people, they are not good clients.

Lesson: You can’t help everyone.

4. I’m Not an Ass (Wo)man

Probably the most important thing I’ve learned in the last two years is that back end design is not a good long-term project for me. I have always previously done this work leading teams, and now I know why. I can certainly look at your back end, spot the problems, and help you reorganise it to be much better, but if I have to design and code every screen, I’m going to die of boredom and you are going to die waiting.

Lesson: Learn your professional limitations.

5. You Can’t Work All the Time

I’ve tried. My jaunt to Florence in December was my first vacation since my honeymoon five years ago. But I’m 37, and it’s become obvious I cannot maintain the same pace I could at 27. I have been seriously ill three times in the last two years, which is something of a record even for me, and I’m pretty sure it’s my body’s retribution for relentless 18-hour days. Scheduling time away from work is very hard, but it also recharges my creativity and focus.

Lesson: If you don’t make time for down time, you’re going down anyway.