5 years on ... Lessons learnt from my time in the freelance UX trenches
Five years ago this month I quit the comfort of my full time job and went freelance. I often get asked about how to go about becoming freelance so I thought I’d mark this anniversary by listing a few things I’ve learn’t upon the way (in no particular order): 1. If you’re going to go freelance do it properly
When I left my full time job I spent the first 6 months not really sure whether I wanted to go perm or go freelance. The result was a bit of a mess of me half applying for jobs and half committing to the freelance life. In hindsight I should have focused more on the freelance thing and set myself a deadline where I could reassess my career.
Remember you’ll also need a few months money to live on while you wait for your first invoices to be paid. I had some inheritance so I gave myself 3 months to make a go of it. My plan was that If after the first two months It all went horribly wrong I’d still have a month to find a permanent job. I still have that money in the bank.
2. Find a mentor
I’m lucky that I know a lot of freelancers. When I first started out I found it really useful to meet up with them from time to time and pick their brains about freelance life and what I should be doing. Its worth getting to know some freelancers (doesn’t matter what line of work they are in) just to sense check your decisions and sound them out for advice.
3. Get a website
I’ve had a crappy website for years. This year I spent a bit of downtime at the beginning of the year updating it to something only slightly less embarrassing. The result of which is that whereas before I didn’t get very many work enquires from it I now get 1 a day on average. Wish I’d done it years ago. I bought a Wordpress theme and hacked it about to meet my needs but you are probably much better at coding than me. Have a look at other freelancers websites for inspiration.
4. Get a (meaningful) portfolio
There have been plenty of people blog recently about the value of UX portfolios but I can talk from experience of having been on both sides of the hiring table that it is worth spending time on one. Just remember that nobody is interested in a list of projects with shiny screengrabs and Photoshop mockups. What hiring people want to read is a story about the projects you worked on starting with the objectives, what you did on the project and the outcomes. (I’ve got a longer blog post drafted on this which I’ll save for another time)
5. Use LinkedIn
I have a love hate relationship with LinkedIn but the fact is that I get a lot of work out of it so spend the time honing your profile. Think of the kind of skills people will be looking for an get those key words in your profile. Also keep the copy tight and to the point and use bullets to highlight key skills.
6. Network Network Network
Get along to as many networking events as you can. The UX (and web industry generally) is a friendly space to be in so get to know people as you can. I quite often pass work onto people I know if I can’t take it on and the reverse has happened to me as well. It also doesn’t hurt to do a few talks and get a bit of a name for yourself if you can.
7. DON’T PANIC
Some months are lean some months you’ve got work coming out of your ears. You can’t predict how much work you have so don’t bother trying. The only things I noticed is that from mid December to mid January things are quiet and also things quiet down a bit in August. Also remember that you are not a machine and take time off. Work will always be there when you get back.
8. No job is ever guaranteed
I’ve learn’t this the hard way but it doesn’t matter how many contracts you’ve signed no work is guaranteed so be prepared. I’ve had projects stop a couple of days before they were meant to begin and half way through (nothing to do with me!). Unfortunately it comes with the territory so make sure you’ve always got a couple of months money in the bank just in case it happens to you.
9. Keep track of your finances
Its much easier to sort out invoicing, expenses and tax as you go along rather than leave it to the last minute. I try and keep a 1-2 of hours a week to one side just to keep up to date on admin. There are lots of finance packages out there but I recommend Freeagent (heres a referral code if you fancy giving it a try for a 10% discount - 33n0dtl2). I know some people use spreadsheets but for the money its worth having something like Freeagent to streamline the process and leave you a bit more time for the more important things in life.
10. Set your rates
Don’t ever try and be the cheapest. Sell yourself on producing quality work and set your rates accordingly. I have a sliding scale of rates depending on who the client is, what the job is, where its based and how long its for. Having said that I tend not to worry about money too much. I do this job because I genuinely love it and would rather do an interesting project than work on something well paid. If your main motivation for becoming freelance is earning loads then there is plenty of well paid work in the finance and gambling areas.
11. Get your game face on
You’ll be expected to hit the ground running when you start a new project and the people in your team will be looking to you for the answers. I rarely get to work with other UX people (when I do its a treat) so nobody will be there to cover your back. If you are serious about becoming freelance make sure you know your trade inside and out. There will be lots of occasions where you will need to learn as you go along but when you do this make sure you’re not making too much of a leap into the unknown as it will come back to bite you.
12. Dont be the Flash guy
Remember Flash? Don’t be that person who still only does that one thing. Try and keep ahead of the game and keep your skills sharp by reading blogs, following the right people on Twitter and going along to talks and conferences.
13. Document and record everything
I generate a lot of paperwork and sketches. I try and keep a record of everything I do for my portfolio and to evidence my work in case anyone ever asks why certain decisions have been made. I don’t keep hard copies but I photograph everything and file it away. You never know when it will be useful.
14. Find your preferred way of working
Theres no right way of working or type of project, its whatever suits you. Some UX freelancers prefer to work on retainers or will only work from home. I prefer working on bigger projects full time and generally work onsite. Its just whatever works for you.
So there you go, a few things I’ve learnt along the way. I hope if you are planning on making the switch you found this useful. At the moment there is still plenty of work to go around (especially for experienced people or those with specialisms) but the market is becoming a little crowded as more people make the switch. Fortunately as the industry becomes more established so does the quantity of work available so its still a viable option.
There are probably lots of things I’ve forgotten so feel free to ask and buy me a beer sometime and I’ll tell you all the sordid secrets!