Interview With An Experienced Freelancer
Recently, we sat down with John Muijen, a Web designer who went out on his own 5 years ago, and has been successful ever since. How does he do it? What are his secrets of success? He reveals all…
Firstly, John, can you tell us a bit about yourself? When did you begin freelancing? What made you decide to go out on your own?
A bit about myself: I’m 32 years old, I work and live in Amsterdam, The Netherlands with my girlfriend and daughter (14 months old). I have a background in the music industry and got infected by the Internet virus in early 1995. My first attempt to build a Website was in 1996. Although I don’t have the files anymore, I still remember what it looked like… And trust me, you don’t want to know!
I started building sites for other people in 1999. My first paid job was to build a site for a local menswear shop in Amsterdam. I still maintain that site and now I also host it. At the same time I left the music business and accepted a job as content manager for a start-up company. This company was one of the free ISPs that were really taking of at that time.
To keep things short; I worked for several start-ups after that one. None of them exist today, due to take overs or bankruptcy. You might say I experienced the Internet hype including stock options and other great benefits that were being thrown around at the time.
What kind of freelancing business do you run?
I do not really like the word “freelancing”. In my opinion it has a sort of unprofessional ring to it. Although I’m on my own, I like to present myself as a company and not as a freelancer. I mean, the only difference between a good freelancer and a big company is the number of people.
I try to run a full service Internet business. By that, I mean I can take care of all the aspects involved in getting a Website up and running — from start to finish. I divide the services I deliver into 3 parts:
- Webdesign: concept, design and building Websites.
- Webdevelopment: programming and integration of internet apps like content management systems, mailing lists etc.
- Webservices: domain registration, Web hosting, concept development, content management (maintenance).
What qualifications and skills do you have that help you succeed on a day-to-day basis? And how do you stay on top of all the technical developments and the evolution of the Internet and the industry while single-handedly running your own business?
Of course the creative and technical skills are important, but I find that other skills are even more important in keeping things on track, and attracting new clients.
What’s important, then? Skills like endurance, ambition and flexibility. But also the ability to easily establish new contacts and maintain relationships. A certain degree of assertiveness helps, too.
It’s impossible for one person to stay on top of everything. If a new technology is emerging, I try to see what the impact might be on my day-to-day business. Then, if the new technology really takes off, I scan the market for possible suppliers of that technology, and make notes â€“ I might need their help in the future.
I try to stay on top of the technical development and evolution of the Internet by reading as much as I can and discussing new things will friends and colleagues. For example, I’m subscribed to a bunch of email newsletters. Some of them I read from the beginning to the end, while others I only scan for the headlines. I read articles on several Websites and I buy and read computer-related books a lot.
Clients, Marketing, and More
You have a great client list! Who would you say is your “typical client” at the moment? What kinds of sites have they asked you to develop?
My “typical client” is hard to define. Some clients approach me for a small job of, let’s say, designing only one template, and then return with another bigger assignment, such as designing a complete site.
The sites I’m currently developing are part of the clients’ marketing and communications strategies. This means that the Internet is only a small part of the whole plan, and is seen simply as a tool that can be used to achieve certain goals. I notice that these clients value my opinion and sometimes consider me a “consultant”.
How do you find new clients that are interested in your services? Through recruitment firms? Freelancing sites like eLance? Friends? Cold calling? And does most of it come from completely new clients, or companies you’ve worked for previously?
I find new clients by actively expanding my network, and by word of mouth. I spend a lot of time maintaining my relations with people, and working to expand my network.
Most work comes from companies I’ve worked for previously, or through word of mouth.
I also have a small group of friends and relations who I consider as a group of advisors. I value their opinions in their own individual fields of expertise. I talk to them on a regular basis and they often point me in a direction I haven’t thought of myself. Discussing your work and strategy with other trusted peoplre keeps you sharp, and forces you to think about the directions you follow.
I just don’t believe in sites like eLance. I am very much aware of the fact that there are lots and lots of very talented Web designers available who are willing to work for a fraction of what I charge. I’m taking the risk of sounding arrogant here, but if eLance is the way for you to make money than you will have to seriously think about your business as I don’t think you’re giving yourself the best chance of survival.
Do you freelance internationally at all?
No, I’m not active on the international market. In general I think if you deliver high quality work you should be paid accordingly. However, if you decide to work for free or almost for free than it’s your decision. Like I said before I’m pretty sure you won’t survive.
Has it been difficult landing big jobs as a one man shop? Have there been times when you haven’t won a job because the client wanted a bigger company to do the work? How do you reassure your clients that, though you’re not a big corporation, you can still meet their needs better than your competition?
It has been difficult to land big jobs because of the time it takes to get a client in. It is my experience that you need to have a lot of patience. Also, be very careful not to push the client too much. In my opinion, there’s a fine line between being helpful and reminding a client that you’re waiting for their reply, and being pushy. This is where your social skills come in handy.
I have developed a network of professionals in all kinds of disciplines (editors, graphic designers, programmers) ready to complete work for me as required. They all work — and have worked — for big names.
It’s my experience that, besides the fact that I don’t charge as much as the big agencies, my clients appreciate the personal contact and flexibility I can offer.
Have you found that the fluctuations in the Internet industry have impacted on your ability to find work? What’s the most successful marketing technique you’ve used to generate new business?
I think that there’s enough work to be done and enough new clients to win. It’s just not as crazy as it was a few years back when the big agencies were charging ridiculous amounts of money for their work, or telling you to call them back in about 3 months to see if they had the time to build your site. (This actually happened to me in 1999 when I called a big agency to find out if they would design our site..!)
I decided from the outset that, as I don’t expect to hire any employees, and I use a personal approach to acquire new clients, the best thing to do would be to work under my own name. As a result, I am my own brand. The consequence is that networking, going out there, and meeting new people is the most important marketing technique for me.
The Good Old Days
When you started out, were you planning to make freelancing your sole source of income? In what timeframe did you become self-sufficient?
I have been building sites for a couple of years now. I always had the intention of starting my own business one day and making it my sole source of income. I was lucky to win a big name company as my first client, which sort of made the decision for me to start a company. I have been self-sufficient since day one.
How much industry experience did you have before you went out on your own? Did you have a strong folio of work before you started freelancing, or did you have to build it up as you went along?
I had 4 years of industry experience under my belt. And before that, there was another 4 years’ experience in a different industry. I build my folio as I went along.
I must admit that getting a large big name client really helped get things started for me. I noticed that if you have one or two big names on your client list, it opens doors that were locked before.
What were the biggest challenges you faced as a new freelancer? How did you overcome them?
One of the biggest challenges for me is to be patient while waiting for clients to give you a job. The fact that you run a small operation, which makes you pretty flexible, does not necessarily mean that they’re as flexible. Especially in the case of bigger companies, it can take months before you land the job.
This just happens, and there’s not much you can do about it. The only thing you can do is to try and keep yourself top of mind with your client.
How do you manage the business end of things — keep your books, figure out taxes, pay your contractors etc?
It’s very important to keep you books in an orderly fashion: you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding out how your business is doing at any given time.
The most important thing is to make sure your clients pay in time. You have bills to pay as well. I’m very fortunate that my brother works for an accounting firm. He takes care of my tax returns and gives me advice on the financial side of things. I’d recommend that any freelancer get professional help with the financial side of things.
Has freelancing required you to become interested in fileds or disciplines you wouldn’t have cared about, or didn’t have to worry about, before?
There aren’t many things that I don’t enjoy. I can think of more interesting things to do besides legal stuff and putting proposals together, but that, too, is an important part of my business. For me it works best if I reserve a certain amount of time to do these “chores”, close my mail client, shut down instant messenger, switch off my phone, and just get it done.
How much time do you actually spend designing Websites — and how much on the rest of the business and the various roles it requires you to fill?
That’s hard to tell. It depends on the job I’m doing at that moment. Sometimes I don’t design at all for a while, but instead I’ll be in meetings, brainstorm sessions or attending network events.
How much do you rely on the advice of other professionals? When looking for advice do you mainly use the Internet, or do you prefer to pay for professional advice from business advisers, accountants, lawyers etc.?
Of course I use the Internet. I wouldn’t know what to do without Google!
It’s very important to be able to get advice from other professionals. For that purpose, I sort of put together my own team of advisors (that sounds more official than it really is). As I said before, networking is really important here as well.
I have someone I discuss business matters with, I direct legal questions to a lawyer I know, and I mentioned I speak to my brother for financial matters. Then, there’s a graphic designer whose opinion I really value. He doesn’t know much about Web design specifically, but that’s very refreshing. I keep in touch with these contacts by phone, mail or icq, and I meet all of them in real life on a regular basis.
You use other freelancers to provide skills that you don’t possess. What skills do you outsource to these specialists? And how do you find good contractors that you trust?
I outsource all Flash work. Next to that, I outsource jobs involving programming in languages I don’t use myself (asp and java, for instance). I find good contractors through my network. If I don’t know anyone personally, then I ask around and talk to people my contacts recommend.
How do you manage the relationship between yourself, the client, and your contractors? Does the client ever meet the contractors, or are you the middle-man, relaying information between the two sides?
I’d like to control stuff myself, so I act as a project manager.
For some simple Flash animations there’s no need to introduce the Flash specialist to the client — a good creative briefing is enough. For programming jobs, there’s often a need for direct contact. I make sure I’m there at every meeting, and that I’m cc’d on all communications about the job.
Ultimately, as the person who owns the client relationship, the work of your contractors reflects on you. How do you manage that? For instance, has a contractor ever let you down on a timeline or presented a poor quality product? If so, what did you do to rectify the situation?
Fortunately that has never happened to me. I always ask if the contractor has time for the job, and make sure they can deliver before the deadline.
What advice can you give about working with other freelancers? What’s the secret to success?
I don’t know if there’s a secret to success. There are a few important factors, though:
- Make sure that you know the work of the other freelancer, and that they have the same (high) quality standard as you.
- Make sure it’s a pleasure to work with the other person.
- Make sure that you can trust him or her. Through reference checking, for example.
- If you have a job to outsource, why not give it to someone from whom you can expect a job in return sometime in the future?
Life as a Freelancer
Are you happy that you decided to work for yourself instead of finding another job or changing careers? Is there more or less stress?
I’m very happy with my decision. I don’t know if there’s more or less stress. Maybe there’s another kind of stress, since I’m now responsible for everything. On the other hand, if things go well, the reward is so much bigger than what I’d see as an employee.
How do you manage the pressure of meeting all your deadlines and, at the same time, worrying about the business that might not be coming in?
Even if you are under pressure of tight deadlines, you need to keep thinking of your acquisition strategy. I like to visualise this in 5 phases:
- There are potential new clients you have to contact (keep a list).
- There are proposals (more than one) sent out to (potential) clients that need a follow up.
- There are deals about to be signed.
- There are jobs that you are currently working on.
- There are jobs that are about to be finished.
As long as there’s something going on in each phase, you’re ok. If not, you know exactly what you have to do.
Do you have a social life? How do you go about managing the demands of life, work and play?
I usually work 4 out of 5 business days so that I can spend every Tuesday with my daughter. I sometimes do bits and pieces at night and during weekends, but I don’t see that as a burden. Financial stuff and following up on emails can be easily done at night, as can reading tutorials and Web design-related books.
I normally spend weekends with my family and friends.
I don’t feel that I have to “manage the demands” of life, work and play. It comes pretty naturally, as long as I have some ‘me time’ in which I can study jazz guitar, play in a band, and browse Ebay for vintage Ibanez guitars.
What’s the best thing about running your own freelancing business? And what’s the worst?
Fun is the best thing about running your own business. What could be more fun than doing what you like to do and getting paid for it?
I can imagine that not getting any work for a long period of time is pretty stressful. Fortunately, I haven’t experienced that as yet.
What advice would you give to someone who was thinking about going out on their own and being a freelance designer for a living?
Take enough time to prepare for the actual start of your freelancing career. I once attended a sales training where the trainer said that a good preparation is 90% of the success.
Write a business plan. Even if you don’t need it to convince banks or investors to give you a loan, it really forces you to think about all aspects of your business. When it comes to the financial part, be realistic about predicted earnings, margins and profit.
Also, talk to others who took the step. They don’t have to be in the same line of business — you can learn from every entrepreneur!
SitePoint thanks John for taking part in the interview. We wish him all the best for the future! Visit John at http://www.muijen.nl.