By Miles Burke

Student to Freelancer? Don’t Do It!

By 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!

  • Yes. Agreed. However, I’ve yet to meet someone who turned down viable, full-time employment in order to freelance after graduation. It is miserably wrong of Art and Design departments to churn out students without a basic business education. Freelancing is a backup plan in a tight labor market. Freelancing grads shouldn’t have to learn the nuts and bolts of business by trial and error.

  • Great article! I would agree with this for the most part but it was my experience that when I finally landed a corporate front-end developer gig, I was positioned much better than some of my peers in that the diversity of my freelancing projects exposed me to a great deal more technologies and concepts than they had been due to their more narrow project scopes, especially in leveraging open source tools. Since I had so many clients on so many different platforms, I was able to see nuances and caveats of the various platforms and gained a better understanding of when to use what platform for which projects. And since they were always smaller clients with smaller budgets, it also taught me how to increase ROI by keeping the initial investments as low as possible, something the higher ups LOVE.

    My story is a bit different in that I left college with a Philosophy degree so I pretty much had to freelance to expand my portfolio before anyone would hire me, but if I did have a new media degree of some sort, I may have been able to dive right into a corporate position.

    I do have to admit though, I really miss the 50 foot commute in my pajamas every morning… ;]

  • I smiled from ear to ear reading “the days of table-based layouts and Perl programming!” Great advice here.

  • Freelancing can be great to pad the retirement or savings account, but when you think about the things you’ll have to worry about, starting out with someone else is a good idea.

    I do programming on the side to cover private school costs for the kids. Keeps my skills up and provides for opportunities I don’t have at my job.

    At my job, I can learn skills that help them and get paid. Those skills are then transferable to my freelancing. Best of both worlds.

  • goluhaque

    Well, firstly, I am NOT very experienced, so my comment might come off similar to the same, but continuing, freelancing has been one of the best things I have done in my life. What mattered me more than experience in handling people was the ability to get playgrounds to hone my own skills(I have a 32kBps connection, NO Wi-Fi, and NO hardware).

    The best server-side management I could come up with was editing Apache config files on my localhost. Freelancing provided me with an ability to play around in my own server environment. Well, not really my OWN, but you get the idea.

    • goluhaque

      And that was(and is) much before I get a real job. I am not even out of my HS.

  • Luis Gonzalez

    I don’t think freelancing should be a backup plan. It could be the beginning of a small company. You can be you own boss and grow. But granted, you should get some business experience first.
    My story is pretty much like the author’s. Although I don’t work in anything art or web related (this is just my hobby). I studied international trade and commerce, and I was still a student when I began working as a broker, linking importers and exporters on a commission basis.
    I liked doing it, working alone, with no fixed hours. I was my own boss, but I lacked a lot of knowledge about corporate culture and how things are done within a company.
    I later had two jobs, which I hated will all my heart, but that gave me more knowledge that I could use in my freelance work.
    Sorry for my bad English…

    • Freelancing shouldn’t be a backup plan but it is for many people.

  • Wrong wrong wrong!

    I really respect Miles and have got some great insights from his writing in the past but on this he’s totally wrong! Totally. Everybody screws up when they first start working for themselves. Everybody. Freelancing isn’t for everybody, but if you don’t try you’ll never know. Try. Screwup. Try again differently. Screw up again. Try again and maybe succeed. Just go in with your eyes open – it’s not always easy and you challenge yourself daily. But name something worth having that IS easy…

    • Rule of thumb says if you want to start a successful business you need 2 years of living expenses saved up. Considering that most college grads have no savings and quite a bit of debt, I don’t think the article is so wrong …. but maybe for a different reason than the author stated.

      Just a thought.

  • Agree.

    You can have all the talent in the world, but unless you know how to run a successful business, it can be totally useless.

    Don’t be the farm without some real world experience unless you really know what you’re doing!

  • Agree completely.

    I managed a company for almost 10 years before going freelancing and the hurdles of invoices, legal and what not, I take care of it due to the experience I gathered there.

  • I disagree.

    I’ve been developing websites, web applications, backend/frontend systems for almot 10 years now, I’m only 19. Since I’d been freelancing since 10, at the age of 16 I got a job with only GCSEs at Moneysupermarket.com. I’m not one to brag, but if someone wants to make something of themselves, go out and at least give it a go. I work full-time and freelance in order to try and build up a house portfolio…and so I can retire early. I’d say I went the right way about things, which isn’t everyone’s best option, but why not give it a go, and if it fails, then get a full-time job. Don’t limit your options.

    If you’ve got the drive to freelance, and the skills behind you to support it, then why not give it a shot. Especially with the state of the economy.

  • That makes a lot of sense that anyone, even a great designer, with poor business skills should not jump into freelancing. But consider instead saying “you have to learn business skills to succeed as a freelancer.” It’s more nuanced and leaves design students with a clear-er path.

    Ramit Sethi gives A TON of useful freelance advice that’s perfectly applicably here. Check him out.

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