What is Larry Thinking? #74 => Freelancing, Part 1

September 22, 2014
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About This Newsletter

Hello, hello! So…this newsletter is about two months late in coming (or so), but that’s (sadly) still a better pace than I had been on over the past year. In any case, it’s here now!

In this newsletter and the next two (it’s a three-part series), I’ll discuss the business of freelancing: what it means to be a freelance worker, important things to keep in mind, and how to survive. I freelanced for 14 years before stopping last year when I joined Stripe. I worked on great projects, I worked on duds; some paid well, some clients stiffed me; some I’m still proud of today, and others never made it online. But I learned a lot, and know that it is possible to make a career as a freelancer. Some of you already are freelancing, while others aspire towards that end. No matter your situation, I hope this newsletter provides ideas that are helpful to you in that pursuit.

As always, questions, comments, and all feedback are much appreciated. If you have any specific thoughts, resources, or stories about freelancing, please let me know so I can include them in Parts 2 and 3 (in October and November).

And thanks for your interest in what I have to say and do!

On the Web => Faster Web Development with Yii Framework 2

This isn’t related to freelancing (unless you’re doing Yii web development!) but I wanted to announce that on October 23, I’ll be doing an online presentation titled “Faster Web Development with Yii Framework 2”. In this presentation, I’ll be introducing the Yii framework in general, and version 2 in particular.

It is a paid event, put on by NomadPHP, but the cost is only $15, for live attendance or a video afterwards.

On the Web => How to decide when to work for free

On August 17, 2013, at the Northeast PHP conference in Boston, I gave a presentation titled “How To Get There”. This was a motivational-like presentation, which was virgin territory for me, but I think it turned out well. In the talk, I recommend 21 behaviors and attitudes one should have in order to succeed, in order to achieve one’s goals. The tl;dr version comes down to this:

Be honest. Work hard. Never stop learning.

This is common sense, yes, but often it’s the things that should go without saying that most need to be said.

One of the specific recommendations I have in the talk (one of my 21 points of light) is: Give It Away. This is actually one of my recommendations for making money. Yes, ironically, one way of making money, one way of getting a great job, is to give your time or work away for free. This is absolutely, 100% valid, and I could relay dozens of stories about myself and others where giving it away has had remarkable financial rewards. (I’ll return to this idea shortly.)

Coincidentally, I later came across a blog post by Penelope Trunk titled “How to decide when to work for free”. In the article, Ms. Trunk wonderfully illuminates the benefits of working for free, of giving it away. Moreover, the article provides recommendations for how one makes the decisions as to when you should work for free and when you shouldn’t. If you’re looking to get a job, or just to build your resume, the article is well worth reading.

On the Web => Success at Sales

I am not a salesperson. I don’t like people trying to talk me into buying or doing something, and I don’t like trying to do that to others. So, along with my disinterest and discomfort with marketing, I know I’m missing some key skills that freelancers need. (Fortunately, it turns out that publishing was an amazing marketing tool, but it’s not the most efficient one!)

Relative to the sales aspect of freelancing, an article that may be of use to you is “3 Powerful Skills You Must Have to Succeed in Sales”. Also, I’ve not read it yet, but this book is on my wish list: “The Greatest Salesman in the World” by Og Mandino.

Again, this is not my area of expertise, but I think the most important thing to remember is that you’re not selling anything; you’re helping people solve a problem, address a need. If you come to clients with that perspective, and with lots of empathy, you’ll do right by them, and be successful (assuming you follow through, of course!).

Q&A => When do you decide to freelance?

Thomas had sent me an email about freelancing, specifically asking:

What, when and how did you decide to go freelance? Did you jump into full-time or build it up between full-time/part-time work?

I have a very long-winded and backwards story as to how I became a freelancer. It’s not a good story for email, but if you ever meet me in person, feel free to ask me about it. Regardless, the unusual nature of my story makes it inapplicable for others. I did jump into it full-time, but that was only due to unusual circumstances, using my own specific justifications.

The prudent approach is to build up a business while continuing your existing job. This, of course, means you’re doing two jobs, which can be exhausting, and it might result in taking much longer to build up your own freelancing career. On the other hand, if you go full-time immediately, you obviously have more time to work on projects, develop skills, and run the business. But can you go about a full year without any significant income?

Simply put, I think it all comes down to money and, secondarily, benefits. Unless you already have clients and projects lined up, it will take you months to start earning a regular income when you start freelancing. The more experience, clients, projects, and marketing you do before you freelance full-time, the easier and faster it will go.

Secondarily, I think you need to identify how you’ll have benefits. This may be more of an issue in the United States than elsewhere. But in the US, where there is no universal coverage, health insurance is expensive and not great to buy for an individual. But you can’t not have it, even if you’re still in your 20’s and therefore immortal.

But it’s not just health insurance, as a freelancer, you’ll have no:

  • Company putting money away for your retirement (thereby delaying when you can retire)
  • Paid sick days, vacations, or holidays
  • Meals, travel, or other expenses covered
  • Hardware and software paid for

(On the bright side, freelancing in programming and development has a pretty low cost of entry, so your out-of-pocket startup costs won’t be high.)

No matter what your situation is, if you’re thinking about freelancing full-time, you have to accept that the only money you can count on is the money you currently have. Whatever projections for income you imagine, no matter how soundly derived, are just projections. So ask yourself: how long can I (and my family, if applicable) live on the money I have right now?

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that you can’t make money freelancing, and there are secondary benefits to doing so. But it order to do it right, you’ll need to be financially prepared. The absolute worst thing to do would be to quit a job, blow all of your savings trying to freelance for only 3 or 6 months, and then have to go find another conventional job, without ever being able to dedicate the time required to really see if freelancing could work for you.

What is Larry Thinking? => Money

As I was writing and rereading this newsletter (and the next two), I realized a theme emerged: I may have a jaded sense of money when it comes to freelancing. This, of course, is just my perspective on freelancing; your results my vary. But I should probably explain where I’m coming from on this front.

There are lots of pros and cons to freelancing, which I’ll expand upon in the third newsletter in this series. But for almost all of us, we work because we need money. Many people would continue working if they didn’t need the money, but not necessarily the same kind of work. But regardless of who you are, you can’t afford to keep freelancing if you don’t make enough money doing it.

Now, money is a funny thing, and different people have different attitudes on it, including those like me that we’re raised not to talk about money! But the thing about money, especially when you’re thinking about freelancing, is that there are two factors: how much you make and how much you spend. The latter is much, much easier to control than the former, and that’s something to keep in mind when you’re considering jumping into freelancing.

I started freelancing the same year my wife went back to school to get a graduate degree (we didn’t have kids at the time). This meant that we gave up two full incomes at the same time. We were able to make it work in part because we had saved up some money, but mostly because we controlled our expenses. I just checked my tax returns, and in my first full year of freelancing (2000), we made a combined $13,000 (US). That’s all the income we had, for two adults in their 20’s, for an entire year. But we made it work. And because we were able to live on that small amount, I was able to dedicate the time required to build up my business.

(As an aside, I know it’s gauche to talk specific numbers, but I wanted to clearly illustrate my point. And while some of you may be in countries where $13,000 USD is a good sum of money, in the US, it’s well below the poverty level.)

I mention all this for two reasons. First, if your primary goal in freelancing is making (a lot of) money, you’re probably going to be disappointed. Honestly, even with my success as a writer, I never made that much money as a freelancer, and that was with no benefits. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve made a fine living, but the good fortune I had as a writer and freelancer still didn’t match up with what can be earned working a conventional IT job, even in a middle-tier role.

Second, if you’re going to freelance full-time, you’ll need to find a way to live on the money you have, and live on less money in general. Businesses take time to build up. You should plan on having little money for a year, not that much money the second year, some money the third, and so on.

In return for making less money than you otherwise might, you get Freedom. If you can live with having less money, that’s a pretty great deal.

Larry Ullman’s Book News => “The Yii Book” et al.

Kind of quiet on the “Larry Ullman’s Book News” front. The highlight is that at the end of July I pushed version 0.9 of “The Yii Book”. The book is now 21 chapters long and almost 600 pages in length! I’m pretty close to finishing Chapter 24, “Shipping Your Project”. This leaves just the two example chapters. I should have the entire book completed relatively quickly, and then I’ll start the update for Yii 2.

Needless to say, I really look forward to having this project wrapped (specifically the first complete edition).

All of my other (active) books are reasonably up-to-date:

There are currently no new editions planned for these titles, although I imagine I’ll have that conversation with the publisher in 2015. (This still means the earliest any book would be updated would be a year from now.)