It's been two months now since I announced I would start freelancing full-time, and hardly anything has gone the way I expected. Here's a little list of some of the things I've learnt or found surprising:
Originally, when trying to figure out how many hours I'd be working per day, I just figured I'd do the same I did at my day job: 8 hours, from 9 to 5.
The first time I tried to work that long, I realised it just wasn't going to happen. I discovered that it takes me about an hour of checking email, reading news, etc. to wake up enough to start working. Then, I can only work about 2 hours straight before my mind turns mushy and I have to take a break.
I quickly realised that my prime working length was around 5 hours in a day, spread out over a period of 7 or 8 hours. But when you're billing by the hour, you really should only charge for the time worked, not the time eating lunch or surfing the web. This is a major difference between freelancing and a regular job.
Scheduling is a juggling act based on a few difficult tasks: estimating how long it takes to do something, and figuring out when you'll have time to do that work. Multiply these simple looking problems by the fact that you'll occasionally be stuck waiting for something from clients. This can create these weird bubbles in time where you have nothing to do, but know that a few days from now you'll have way too many things to do.
With web development, the size of projects can vary from an hour or less to over 400 hours of work. It's especially hard to deal with very large projects. You can say it'll take 100 hours, and that it'll take a month to work those hours. What do you do while you wait for the client to get back to you - tell everyone else who asks for work that you're all booked up? Then what happens if the project never happens? You get screwed!
I'm starting to figure out I have to just explain my situation to my clients, tell them I don't know exactly when I'll have time, but that I should be able to finish within the next month or two. I'm also being careful not to commit more than maybe a third of my time to any one project, because anything can happen. The more flexibility I can work in, the better.
Probably the best part of freelancing is the freedom to work when and whereever you want. While this is true in theory, when you schedule work for yourself, you have to make the commitment to actually work those hours. If you don't, well, you'll either have to work extra hours later or else deliver things late. These are the only stresses that really force you to work, but I'm glad that they're there, or else I would probably be taking off way too many days.
Freedom also gives you the opportunity to find your own rhythm. I'm starting to think that I may work better in the evenings, though my girlfriend isn't so excited about that idea. It's actually not so easy to figure these things out, something you don't have to think about when you're told exactly which hours you have to work at.
When I had a day job, and I wanted to take a little break, I just loaded up Bloglines and tried to catch up on the 200 or so feeds I subscribe to. Now, I can say I haven't read any of them since I went completely full-time. You may also have noticed that I've hardly blogged at all during this time, either.
The reason is, now that the computer at home is where I work, when I take breaks or stop working, I want to get as far away from the computer as possible. It's like blogging and even reading blogs is a part of work that I need to schedule in or make time for, except it seems like the least important thing I have to do, so I never end up with time for it.
I once told a guy who worked at a web development company that I was about to start freelancing. He said, "That won't work. When will you have time to find clients?" I haven't had that problem at all.
Okay, I do have the advantage of having this blog. Nearly all of my clients come from my Hire Me page. But I'm not scared that this will stop. I know that I can easily find more work through sites like Rent A Coder or Guru, even if it pays a bit less than I prefer. I could also step up my marketing efforts at any time (which means doing any, since right now I'm doing practically none).
Okay, it's true, I don't have a lot of time to go find clients. But if I ever ran out of work, I'd certainly have the time to find new clients. It should balance itself out quite well.
So there's some of the things I've learned. Do any other freelancers out there have anything to add to this list?