What's life like as a full-time freelance programmer?

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Tommy Hodgins's photo

My time as a freelancer has been marked with a few very different chapters.

It's been the most amazing journey, but it hasn't been easy either. Before I was freelance I was working in a small-town web design company building WordPress (and Joomla) websites for small businesses. There was a lot of work to be done, pay was $5/hour less than promised it would be when I was hired, and the future of that company looked pretty bleak at the time.

I was in a situation where I was spending more money to pay rent and show up at my job than I was making, so over time I was slowly going bankrupt working 40 hours a week :/ When I made the jump to freelance it was at a time when I felt I had nothing to lose, but needed a way to make money.

One thing that always bothered me about working in a company is that your success is limited. You can be insanely successful, and you might get a bonus, or a small raise, but the bulk of the value you bring in goes to the company or to be redistributed amongst team members. If you fail, you can still fail 100% (be fired, lose your job). So that seemed like it didn't offer me the flexibility I needed to earn money.

By contrast, when you are freelance, you set your own rate - which means you set your own raises. The other thing I like is that, while you can still fail 100% like before and end up with no employment and no money - there's no upper limit to the amount of success you can have! As a freelancer you're free! Free to fail, free to succeed, free to pivot into a different skill set at a moment's notice. It feels in a lot of ways like it's just me in a spotlight at a talent show, displaying whatever skills I have for a paying audience.

Having said all of that good stuff, I will warn that freelance is not easy. In fact, some of the greatest pain I've gone through has been during my freelance journey. One mistake I made that I would strongly encourage nobody else to repeat: I didn't have an insurance fund of money sitting aside for a bad day. Another thing that happened was in my first 2 years starting out (a time when I was trying to work myself back up from having very little money) I had 3 clients stiff me (not pay) for their invoice after the work had been completed.

How could not one, not two, but three business people rip me off in such a short timeframe? I learned some sad truths about life: there are some businesses that operate never ever intending to pay for any services they hire. If you get a client like that you can do the work or not do the work, but no money will ever come from them.

How do you protect yourself against a never-paying client? One way might have been to have a reference from another freelancer who is not currently still working with that client to see if they are a safe client or not. I didn't ask anybody, and perhaps that might have helped me screen my clients better.

Another thing I didn't have when I was first starting out was a good solid contract. This is very important even though it seems like busywork. A contract between freelancer and client should help communicate exactly what you will and won't be doing for the client, and a good contract is two-directional, you offer labour within certain terms and usually also transfer a license or even ownership of that work over to the client so they are able to use it. A good contract is one where both freelancer and client sit down and say: "Wow, that's great!"

Now I'm still not sure a contract will stop a never-paying client from never-paying, but if you have a signed contract you have a tool that you can use when trying to sort out any legal action against them.

As for an insurance fund, I'm not talking about any kind of insurance company, just the idea of having enough money saved that if you needed to go 2-3 or more months without any income you would have a way to pay rent, to buy groceries, to keep the lights and internet on, etc.

For the first ~3 years of being freelance (especially after being ripped off) I didn't have enough money to set aside and save, but when I finally was able to save up enough that I could pay rent two times, it was like a huge burden lifted off my shoulders. I had peace of mind for the first time in years. I can't stress enough how important it is that you have enough money saved up that you can go put your hand on any time you have questions like: "How am I going to pay rent?" or "What if my computer breaks today?" or "If I lost my work right now, how would I survive until I found more work?"

Without an 'insurance fund' I felt like evenings and weekends didn't exist! There wasn't a time when I could relax, or let the worries of work go so I could get some rest. With that 'insurance fund' now I can rest and relax, and it doesn't feel like it's work time 100% of the time.

Is there anything good about freelance? Of course! Through this story with no money, bad clients, and no insurance fund I've also had some of the best experiences of my life as well.

I've been able to do good work, with good people, for good money.

I've been able to massively grow my skill set, which in turn lets me expand to bring in entirely new kinds of work

I've been able to raise my rate to 3x what I started out with (and I'm not done raising it yet!)

I'm also free to make my own decisions, which has led me to an area of research I wouldn't have the freedom or time to explore if I wasn't freelance, and that research is leading to the discovery of a lot of new techniques which give me a competitive advantage over the market as well.

The way I look at it, if you offered me a job - I almost couldn't afford to take it, simply because of the freedom, flexibility, and opportunity I'd be giving up by leaving freelancing.

If you are thinking about making a jump to freelance I do encourage it if you're hungry to grow and have an entrepreneurial spirit. I would strongly caution anybody attempting to make a jump to freelance - prepare just two things before you make the jump:

  • build up an 'insurance' fund of savings, whatever amount gives you the peace of mind you need to keep a cool head

  • get a nice, clear contract that will help protect you and all your freelance clients from any misunderstandings

With an insurance fund and a client contract ready to go, I wish anybody considering a move to freelance all the best of luck, and I'm slightly jealous of the journey you're about to take. It's fun! :D