Student to Freelancer? Don’t Do It!

Miles Burke

I know. I’m the author of a motivating book on successful freelancing (The Principles of Successful Freelancing, SitePoint), so why would I write a title like that?

The truth is I sucked at being a freelancer the first time. To be honest, I wasn’t much better the second time either. The reason? I didn’t have enough business experience under my belt.

Cast your mind back to the mid-nineties (no, we didn’t wear flares!). I had been working in a totally unrelated industry when I started to design and build websites in my spare time (yes, the days of table-based layouts and Perl programming).

I was great at what I did: I had a design degree, clients loved me, I was a quick learner with HTML and it didn’t take me long to learn how to manage a Linux server with Apache.

Before you knew it, I had enough work on the horizon to ditch my full time employment and start creating websites full time. It was great: flexible hours, interesting projects, working in the comfort of my own home and I felt like I was finally doing what I really loved.

The issue was, I wasn’t doing what I didn’t enjoy. You know: finances, invoicing, contracts, legal and administration. I lasted many months before I admitted to myself that I wasn’t charging enough, I was sending out invoices way too late, and I wasn’t aggressive in chasing them. My cash flow was all over the place, and I had trouble making ends meet.

It was obvious to me that when I started freelancing, I focused on what I was good at, and what I enjoyed doing, to the detriment of my finances and my business.

It didn’t take long for me to start applying for jobs within other companies once I had come to this realization. Sure, I didn’t get to work from home any more, but I was still doing what I enjoyed, and even more importantly, I was learning about everything else while I went, with someone else paying me to do it.

It wasn’t until I had worked in a senior role at a few other companies that I felt confident I had enough skills in enough areas–mostly areas I didn’t know much about the first time–to succeed as a freelancer.

If you are finishing college and thinking of becoming a freelancer full time, my advice is don’t. Sure, take on the occasional weekend project (with your employer’s permission, of course), but land yourself a job that will help you skill up in the areas you aren’t as good at.

Embrace that opportunity and learn everything about as many other roles in your employer’s company as you possibly can. Offer to go on sales calls, help scope new projects, even do the filing between other more exciting tasks.

Before too long, invoicing, sales, chasing debtors and balancing the books won’t be as daunting, and dare I say it, nor as boring as you once thought. Once you have a more rounded skill set, and probably a greater desire than ever to freelance, you can be be confident in stepping out there and doing it.

Best of luck making that well informed leap!