Advice from 2 expert freelance engineers.

We spoke with two experienced freelance engineers - Charlie Davison, a web, front-end and full-stack engineer and Morgan Skinner, a .Net, back-end, server expert - about how they got started and got great advice on how to be a successful freelancer in IT, web design and development.

In this article:

  • Landing your first projects.
  • Landing new customers.
  • The hottest technologies to master.
  • The right kit for the right job.
  • Getting the contract details rights.

Landing your first projects.

Getting started as a freelance expert is probably the biggest hurdle to overcome, and can potentially keep you awake at night. There are many routes to landing the first freelance contract or project. Charlie started through recruiters, “When I started I got set up with a couple of recruiters and landed my first roles through them. I was quite lucky that one of the first few jobs was with a small design agency that I got on really well with. The first project went well followed by a pretty steady stream of new projects so I kept working on and off with them for several years.”

Landing your first gig through your network of partners or previous work contacts can give a good kickstart to your freelance career, as it did for Morgan. “My first contract was with an existing customer whilst I worked at Microsoft, so he knew me and I knew the type of work they were doing. I’d nearly become a contractor 20 odd years ago, but this time it was the right time to go it alone so I made the switch. I’ve loved everything about contracting so far!”

Although one should never put all eggs into one basket, once a key client loves your work, they’re likely to return. Ensuring your first clients are satisfied with your work can contribute to a steady flow of future project assignments. “One of my early projects involved working with a much larger organisation (Virgin Media) and I ended up landing several other contracts directly with that company”, explains Charlie.

Landing new customers.

Most successful freelancers would agree that word-of-mouth is the best way to land new customers. This is especially true the more your service is about consulting and advice (versus project execution). “My customers have continued approaching me mainly through word of mouth – I’ve worked for 3.5 years as a contractor and so far haven’t needed to search through an agency, “ explains Morgan, and continues, “Having been a consultant for nearly 10 years at Microsoft, I have been lucky enough to have a wide range of customers who already knew me.”

While referral from one happy customer to the another is important in growing your client base also the right agencies play a pivotal role in securing new customers. “Before I set up my start-up I was finding work both through recruitment agencies and via word of mouth from friends and companies I'd worked with before”, says Charlie.

The hottest technologies to master.

There is no one single golden egg - so choosing the programming language that best fits your skill set and your customer base is what should drive your choices. Keep an eye on where technology is heading though, so you won’t miss out on opportunities. “A few years ago I made the move from PHP to focusing on Javascript which I've been very happy with. Node in particular has been very useful because you can use it in so many situations and I think it encourages good development practices; particularly compared to the old client-side Javascript and jQuery spaghetti you used to see’', says Charlie and continues about client side technology, ”I've done lots of work with Backbone but these days I'd recommend learning Angular or React.  Of course it's also important to keep up to date with HTML and CSS if you're going to be a client side developer.”

Checking out the views of other fellow engineers can also be helpful, for example a lot of people think that .NET is just for enterprise apps, but according to Morgan they could not be more wrong. “I’m a .NET man through-and-through and I don’t see any let-up in that marketplace, especially with Xamarin. My skills can now be used from a hand-held device up to a massive server and the fact that the programming language and framework is the same all the way through has massive benefits.”

The right kit for the right job.

Skimping on equipment or software isn’t something our two expert engineers do. Without the right kit, freelancers simply can’t make a living so they might as well have the best tools at hand. Morgan gives an example, “ I was asked to do some iOS development last year, so off I went and bought a business edition of Xamarin Studio. It may have been costly initially, but I had to weigh that up against the iOS learning curve, and being able to use all my .NET skills and not have to learn the (some might say quirky!) Objective C language was a major plus. I was up and running in a day and had the demo app out within a week – something I would not have done had I not purchased a Xamarin licence.”

Having the right equipment goes skin deep, it’s not only about great looking hardware. “I love my Macbook Pro, and I'd definitely recommend one of the newer models with an SSD (solid state drive). They're also thin and quite light so you can get stuff done wherever you go”, says Charlie.

 

A couple of other recommendations from the experts is to refresh your laptop or PC at least once a year, as its mandatory to work on kit that runs well. Moreover, a large secondary monitor at home can really help increase your productivity. And - don’t forget to backup your work!!

Getting the contract details right.

 

Scoping out the project, timelines, pricing and payment terms are some of the key things to look out for in contracts. “Honesty is important. No one knows everything, and it’s best to be brutally honest if you’re asked to do something that’s not your bag. Being straight with your customers is going to make them trust you more”, says Morgan.

Being clear about pricing is a must, regardless if you are charging by hour, by day or based on an agreed project rate. “I run my contracts on an hourly rate and provide a complete breakdown to my customers and charge them just for the hours I’ve worked. This works for me as I can get paid for doing something I do late at night, but also works for my customers as they’re not paying for a-warm-body-on-site who is doing nothing”, highlights Morgan.

 

Your business is only successful if you’re getting paid – so make sure you get your invoices done on time! But also look into your customer’s payment terms. Charlie explains this well, “The sooner you can invoice your customer and the shorter the payment terms the better it is for your cashflow. It can be difficult to keep on top of pending invoices. Getting paid through a recruiter can help in being paid on time for your projects”.

 

Make sure your client has all the correct details necessary to pay you, especially in the first month of your contract. Morgan says, “It is useful to get to know who will be settling the invoices and popping over for a chat (or by email), just to ensure that they have the right banking details for you. That way you’re less likely to have to chase someone for late payment.”

 

Finally, being able to track your business online is essential. Morgan records all his client time online, and keeps tabs also on all expenses (including receipt scans). “That lessens the amount of work I have to do at the end of the month to almost nothing”, he says.

 

 

Charlie Davison is a Web Engineer and co-founder of www.stuffgenie.com.

Morgan Skinner is a Principal .NET Engineer at morgan@morganskinner.com.