Freelance: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Eight months ago I was looking for a new full-time job. I applied for two positions which looked exciting, got rejected, and did what any other reasonable* person would do after two polite rejections and decided to sod it all and go freelance.

* not reasonable

Lots** of people have asked me what the transition's been like, as I've used the phrase "oh, there's no way on earth I'd go freelance, I could never handle it" at least seventy-six times, and as this time of the year is perfect for self-indulgent reflection, I thought I'd share how it's gone down so far.

** five people, tops, of which at least two are close family members and one was definitely just asking to be polite

If I were to distil it into a sentence: the high points are totally fucking glorious, but the low points can be devastating.

I feel more alive. I rarely feel comfortable and settled, which has happened lots during previous full-time jobs. This is both good and bad. Nobody but me has any kind of responsibility for my own well-being. If I end up on a beach in Bahamas watching the millions roll into my bank account by the second, that's on me. If I end up starving in the gutter, that's also on me.

But that's a bit brief. Let's get introspective.

The good

Money-work balance

Before going freelance, I found a couple of kind souls who would talk money with me, and discovered that I could basically double the rates the UK freelance rates calculator gives me. I haven't yet had anyone try to negotiate them, which means that I could probably charge even more.

I did the maths and found out I could make the equivalent of a my previous monthly salary in a bit more than 6 days of work. Had this been closer to 15+ days I'd have seriously reconsidered going freelance, but I feel fairly comfortable knowing that as long as I bring in 4 months' worth of work every year, it would be enough for me to comfortably live on.

I've been billing on a daily basis, instead of on a per-project basis. This works out well for me for two reasons:

  • I tend to sub-contract for agencies and companies, which means I'm often not dealing directly with clients and the people who control the purse strings and sign things off, meaning I can still let that be someone else's job, because other people are better at that.
  • I'm by far not experienced enough in project management to be confident enough to bill on a per-project basis. Having been so well shielded from that side in full-time jobs has been mostly a blessing, but also at times, a curse.

In conclusion, I make more money and work less than I did full-time. This has been healthy.

The freedom and flexibility

In mid-August I took a month off to attend (and spontaneously speak at) my bae HybridConf in Berlin, attend my granddad's wedding in Norway, and visit many wonderful friends and see many beautiful sights in the US and Canada. I also took the majority of December off to visit friends in Berlin, as well as visiting my family & friends and celebrating Christmas in Norway. These have been some of the best moments of my life, but if I still had a full-time job I couldn't have done half of them.****

****or if I had a job with an unlimited vacation policy, I'd have been able to do it, but in exchange, get to feel way more guilty about taking so much vacation and worry that people thought I was abusing it etc etc. Ain't nobody got time for that.

The variety of projects

During longer projects I've always struggled a bit with focusing and keeping the motivation up. Thus far, most of my freelance arrangements have been a couple of weeks (with the exception of my initial 2 month stint) which has suited me very well. There's little to no chance of burnout, if something goes horribly wrong (which it hasn't so far!) engagements have a set end date, and I get to work on more different things and ship more. Way more.

It can last for as long as you want without being tied down to anything

There's a reasonably high chance I'm probably going to leave the UK at some point soon, if Brexit doesn't force me out. I don't feel like I could accept a permanent position at this point, for fear of letting a company invest in me only to leave them shortly thereafter, as well as being branded a 'job hopper' (which is a bit of a daft thing, but it still looks bad to some people to stay at a company for a short time).

At any point between contracts I can shut this whole venture down and leave the country or settle permanently and take up a full-time gig or anything and that's fine. Knowing this is fine is nice. Words mean things. Moving on.

The bad

Having to go out of your way to make things happen

I've always thought people who complain about too many emails were virtue-signalling to show the world how productive they are, but as I'm freelance, I finally understand what the concept of "too many emails" feels like. Negotiating projects, juggling start dates between projects, and actually making Business™ happen means there's Lots Of Communication Going On. This is time I'm spending that I could instead be spending day drinking, playing video games, lifting weights, or, y'know, actually doing work that I like. As a one-man band, it's suboptimal, but unavoidable.

More paperwork

After being handed a very scary-sounding NDA by a very nice person, I decided to set up a limited company to separate Jegtnes the entity that brings the bacon home from Jegtnes, the person who needs a roof above his head if Jegtnes gets sued for some weird incomprehensible reason. This gives me peace of mind, but comes with way more paperwork and way more responsibilities. Fortunately, I hired a good accountant, and she gives me way more peace of mind and saves me way more money than the £80/month I pay her. As a sole trader, I could deal with the paperwork. As a limited company, no way in hell. I would categorically recommend you get an accountant as a limited company, unless you're an accountant yourself, in which case, buddy, no offence, but I think you might be in the wrong place. I'm nowhere near professional enough to give advice to accountants.

The ugly

I haven't written a single high-quality line of code for ages

This is entirely the result of the kind of projects I take on, and this is definitely my fault and my fault alone. So far I've mostly worked on prototypes or projects that are very urgent with super-short deadlines. These are way exciting, but the inherent urgency in these means that I just need to Ship It™ all the time and have little time left for things such as "nice CSS that doesn't mangle the cascade", "writing tests", "not nesting seven anonymous functions inside each other" and "documentation". These things don't matter to stakeholders if the project doesn't get out the door.

I miss writing nice code. My previous job let me write nice code and writing nice code was fun.

Again, I'd like to emphasise that this is entirely due to the projects you take on and not specific to freelance. Many freelancers specialise in Nice Code and go to Established Companies to Teach Them Specialised Skills, but I haven't had many of these engagements yet. This is both because I haven't gone out of my way to get these kinds of engagements, and because I feel I lack seniority to truthfully market myself as an Expert in, well, anything. I probably could, but it's scary. It's definitely something I want to work on in 2017.

Not being a Part Of A Thing

Despite my occasional***** complaints about office environments, . I truly miss the camaraderie, having people to bounce thoughts off, the mid-week "cheeky half", and having somebody to review your work in order actually to grow as a professional. Of course, I get that in stints when I contract in-house, but these things need to be there more permanently to truly have value, and the short-term fix just reminds me of what I can't have. Freelance can be a lonely endeavour, and I'm easily prone to cabin fever between gigs or during remote work.

*****definitely not just occasional, but in fairness, 95% of them could be fixed by adding some fucking walls so you can hear yourself think, if you so desire. What, me, no, I love open-plan offices, thank you for asking. Moooving on.

I still crave security, which I don't have

Despite knowing full well that freelance projects typically want you to start yesterday™, and that I've so far had the good fortune to acquire more than enough work, I start panicking as soon as there's a dry spell of work coming up within the next month. The lack of security really means I spend a lot of time worrying, which I didn't before.

I have ran fictional scenarios through my head a thousand times which start out by me attempting to reassure myself that things will Probably Be Fine™ but my brain is a fascinating beast and more often than not these fictional scenarios end up with me being homeless sleeping in the gutter murmuring incoherently to myself about delayed payments of invoices next to three empty bottles of White Ace.

This hasn't happened yet, and I know full well that I have a safety net of family and friends that just wouldn't let that happen to me, but again, my brain is a fascinating creature beyond reason and logic.

In summary:

fast delivery, exciting product, dodgy seller tho. would buy again and post-rationalise how Incredible The Journey has been. BBBBBBB---------

On a serious note, thank you to my first clients Nationwide Studio, Elixel, Nudge, and cxpartners — I couldn't have done it without you. You're wonderful. Thanks for having trust in me and helping me get started. ❤️