What is Larry Thinking? #75 => Freelancing, Part 2

January 19, 2015

In this edition…

About This Newsletter

Why…hello there! And Happy New Year! Did you ever have that feeling that nothing ever gets done ever? Certainly nothing on time…yeesh! In theory I had this newsletter ready to go out back in October or November, except for the part where I actually finish it and send it out. Sigh… But, here it is nonetheless!

This is the second of a three-part series on freelancing. In the first, I wrote about getting started freelancing. In this one, I’m focusing on working with clients. In the third, I look at the actual day-to-day of freelancing.

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 Part 3.

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

What Were You Thinking? => Freelancing, Part 1

Dave replied to my previous newsletter (thanks, Dave!), sharing his own experience as a freelance photographer. Some highlights I’ve pulled out of his thoughtful email:

  • Freelancing is a tough road for most.
  • Dave learned that being your own boss may feel good, but doesn’t always pump up the bank account.
  • Freelancing is a whole lot easier if you have a partner with a steady income and benefits.
  • Start saving for retirement as early as you can, even if it’s not much money. “That’s the one thing a lot of us who were our own bosses just didn’t feel we could do, but it was probably the most important thing to do.”

I heartedly agree with the last one, for everyone, not just freelancers!

On the Web => Project Billing

As a freelancer, you’ll need to think long and hard about how you’ll do billing. In my experience, most clients prefer per project billing, because they worry about it costing more than they expected. You might think you prefer hourly billing, because you’ll be guaranteed to be paid sufficiently.

Honestly, when I first started, I preferred hourly billing, too. Partly, because it allows you to be lazy. I don’t mean you can waste the client’s time, but you don’t have to put in the energy required to properly estimate how long a project will cost, which is what you’d need to do for per project billing. And, you don’t have to worry about being wrong on your estimate: too high, which may mean you don’t get the job, or too low, and you just hurt yourself.

But a professional knows how long a project will take and get bid on it accordingly. You do this by gaining experience, tracking how longs projects take, and becoming as efficient as you can. By doing those things you can provide bids, not hourly rates, which will make you more appealing to more clients. (Although you’ll write a change policy into the contract that allows for extra billing for alterations unreasonably beyond the project’s contracted scope.)

Then, should a client want to pay you hourly, or should that be more appropriate to the job itself (e.g., an advisory role, where you’re not doing the bulk of the work yourself), you can always bill them hourly for that.

Otherwise, the best reason to have an hourly rate is to weed out clients that can’t afford you. Seriously. My last hourly rate was $150/hour (US). This was both ridiculous (does anyone really need to charge that much for anything?) and below many market standards. But by making that rate known, I wasted no time investigating projects and clients that would always be too small/cheap for me. Well, less time anyway. A published, high hourly rate is the equivalent of a “serious projects only” sign.

That being said, when you’re first starting, you’ll want all the possible clients and projects you can get!

For more on the various ways of billing, and the pros and cons of each approach, check out “The Definitive Guide To Project Billing”.

On the Blog => Putting Your Current Clients First (Duh)

Just over a year ago, I wrote a blog post titled “Putting Your Current Clients First (Duh)”. When it comes to running a business, a lot of the discussion and effort goes towards getting new clients. Getting new clients is important, of course, especially when you’re just getting started, but I believe that many business and people don’t focus enough on the clients they already have. As happy as you are when you get a new project and client, how long is it before your eyes start to wander to that next possible job? This is natural, and certainly I’ve been guilty of it myself. But I would argue that you should put at least as much thought and effort into treating your current clients right as you put into getting new clients. In this blog post, I examine the why’s and how’s of putting your current clients first.

Q&A => How do you get clients?

Ethan asked me

Can you discuss in your next newsletter about freelancing how one would go about getting clients?

This, of course, is the million dollar question. When I first started freelancing, there were plenty of sites online where you could find work, places like Guru.com, elance, etc. I’m not sure if these still exist or which ones people are actively using today. You can also get clients from referrals from friends and relatives.

However, I think the important thing is to distinguish between how you get good clients and jobs vs how you get any client or job. If you are just starting off, and don’t have an existing client base or portfolio, I’m an ardent believer in doing away with the mentality that you should expect to be paid X for a job that’s worth X. This is just the way the world works, and is true across a range of professions. An apprentice at a job makes a fraction of what the skilled craftsman does; amateur athletes make nothing whereas professionals make millions.

When you’re just starting off, for some time, you’re effectively doing an internship. You are no one, and the quality of the projects you get to work on, and the amount you’ll get paid, will reflect that. This may sound overly harsh, but I really, truly believe that adopting this attitude will great improve your chances of freelance success in the long run. I believe this for two reasons.

First, you’re not going to get paid what you deserve at first. Period. If you take a job that I would do for, say, $5,000 (US), unless you’ve been a developer for years, with a vast portfolio and many clients, no one is going to pay you full price, even if they are willing to hire you at all.

Second, it’s infinitely easier to convince someone to pay you under market value, or nothing at all, than it is to convince them to pay you market value.

This may all sound extreme, but I truly believe it’s the way to go. In fact, I could relay dozens of stories where giving away work for free turned into good, paying work. Some examples…

  • When I first started out, I bid on a JavaScript job at one of those online sites. It was, of course, an underpaid, undervalued project. But I needed work, experience, clients, and a portfolio, so I did the project–created the JavaScript–and included that in my bid for the work. This is JavaScript, so anyone could have then stolen it. But I got the job, because nothing demonstrates better that you can do a job than actually doing the job. I took a risk on that, and didn’t make much money, but I had that client for 12 years! (I stopped having clients last year when I joined Stripe.)
  • Someone I met at last year’s Northeast PHP in Boston did a CMS web project for a local newspaper for free, and then got hired as their webmaster.
  • Oodles of people that work on open source projects get good, paying projects when companies want to use that open source project and need an expert.
  • At least two people I work with on Support at Stripe got hired after spending some time helping out others for free in the Stripe chatrooms.

So, to get clients (when you’re just starting up), I recommend:

  • You put yourself out there, make yourself visible in as many ways as possible.
  • Work for much less money than you’d prefer (or do some types of work for free).
  • Do each job really, really well.

I mention this last idea, which should go without thinking, because each client is more than just a client, as I’m about to explain.

What is Larry Thinking? => Rethinking How You Think About Clients

One thing I truly believe you need to do in order to freelance successfully is rethink how you think about clients. Many people equate clients with money. A new client means new money. More clients mean more money. This is a myopic perspective, as there’s much more value to a client than just the money they’ll pay you for the job. If you change how you view clients, you’ll be more successful and less frustrated in the long run.

Before getting into what clients represent beyond money, I’ll acknowledge that, yes, a client should mean more money. Let’s not deny that. And that is a good thing. But particularly early on, a client won’t mean much money. And some clients, particularly ones that are underpaying you (ironically), won’t pay, or won’t pay in full. It happens; it happened to me (two clients, probably to a total of $3500). No contract, no matter how good, can prevent this from happening. And, if it does happen to you, it just sucks. No other way of looking at that side of things. But if you only focus on the money, you’re missing out on what you did get…

First, a client means you’ll gain experience. Especially when you’re just starting out, this is invaluable. The only way to learn and improve is to gain experience, and there are limits as to how much experience you can gain from coming up with your own ideas. Certainly that doesn’t teach how to interact with clients!

Second, a client means you’ll build a portfolio. Again, if you’re just starting out, a portfolio is immensely important, and a portfolio of your own ideas is of trivial worth, whereas a portfolio of live, complete projects for clients is fantastic.

Third, a client is a marketing tool. A client you did well by, that is. If you do a project well, on time and to the client’s satisfaction, that client will inevitably tell other people about you, getting you more clients. Not only are these clients marketing tools for you, but they’re marketing that you do no extra work performing, or spend no extra money on. This means that, in truth, the amount you get paid on a job isn’t just the figure for that job, but also the other jobs that come in through referrals.

Fourth, and finally, a client is a potential future client. Again, if you do well by them. Especially when it comes to web sites, rare is the client that only has a single site or a single idea. Even if they have just one site, they’ll need additional functionality, or a complete overhaul, in years to come. If you do your job right, you’ll get that additional work with very little extra effort on your part. I started freelancing in 1999. Two clients that I started working with in 2000–2001 were still clients of mine when I stopped freelancing last year. For one client, I worked on three separate projects; for the other client, I probably worked on maybe 6, and he referred me to 2–3 others.

As you can see, your relationship with a client goes far beyond doing this project for this amount of money. If the job goes poorly, at the very least you’re gaining experience. But if the job goes well, you’ve gained experience, added to your portfolio, earned a new recommendation, and have possible future projects in store. Money is great–and certainly helps to pay the bills–but there’s so much more that each and every client and job offers you. If you remember that, and always do right by your clients, you’ll be less frustrated with the annoyances (e.g., not being paid well) and much more successful building up your business in the long run.

Larry Ullman’s Book News => “The Yii Book” version 1 Complete!

I am very pleased, and elated, and relieved (mostly relieved) to say that the first edition (i.e., for Yii 1) of “The Yii Book” is finally, finally, finally! done. I posted it just before the end of the year. I’m going to skip the obligatory–and deserved–“OMG I’m sorry it took so long” and get onto the “What’s next?”.

First, this edition of the book, for version 1 of the Yii framework, is now officially in maintenance mode. I’ll only do another release in the 1.x series to fix errors. And I’ll probably be hesitant to do that.
There are a number of little things that I have to do with the book, such as tinker with the formatting, add additional content or explanation in certain areas, and so forth. Things that I didn’t like and want to change, or that you didn’t like and want me to change. All of those are being added to the second edition’s TODO list. (I actually have a running TODO list for it.)

Second, I’m going to start working on the second edition of the book, for Yii 2, soon. I’m not going to make any promises or predictions as to how long that will take; I’m no good at that. It is a priority, I’ll do it as quickly as I can, and that’s all I’ll commit to.
But I will say that revisions are far, far, far less work than the first edition, so there’s no way it’ll take 2 years. I’d like to think it’ll take less than 6 months, but I said I wasn’t going to make a prediction.
As promised, all updates on “The Yii Book”, including the second edition for Yii 2, will be free to anyone that has purchased an edition until December 31, 2016. That will cover the Yii 2 edition, changes and error fixes on that edition, and any bonus content I ever decide to create. I’m not promising that I will create bonus content, but if I do, it’ll be free to existing customers.

Third, in terms of the general plan, I don’t know whether I’m going to release the second edition all at once or in pieces. If I do it in pieces, at most it’ll be the four parts. I’ll probably see how long it takes me to do the first part and then make a decision.