Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Thoughts on being a contractor / freelancer

As those of you who regularly read my blog will know, I lost my job at the end of last year - I got made redundant. It wasn't that much of a shock really - I had seen the redundancies coming a mile off - but it was certainly a bummer that I was one of those chosen to lose my job.

I was mighty sad to leave Shift - it's an awesome company with awesome people who are more like family than colleagues - but there you go. Life goes on. Shift's doing fine now, so it's great that by cutting a few jobs when they needed to (however much that hurt at the time), they've come through the crisis and things are looking up for everyone who still works there.

I've been in the web industry for over 12 years - and for about half that time I've been an employee at various Wellington web design companies - and the rest of the time I've been a contractor. I've worked for a lot of different web design and development companies over the years, and I have a pretty good reputation and a strong network. Wellington's a small place, and the web industry is a pretty small industry - so people know people, and lots of people know me.

So it wasn't too difficult to decide that I'd go back to being a contractor/freelancer - at least for a while. When I'm doing work for a design or development company, that's contracting. When I'm designing and building websites directly for an individual client, that's freelancing. I'm currently doing both.

I rather like being a contractor. It's quite a different discipline from being an employee. Yes, you're using the same skills and expertise to achieve a similar end result (a beautifully-built website), but the process itself differs in a number of important ways.


Firstly you really do have to hit the ground running. You're there as a temporary (highly-skilled) worker, and you don't have time to settle in. The company you're working for doesn't have time to introduce you to everyone or take you through a long-winded explanation of their systems or the way they work - you're there to do a job, and you're expected to pretty much get your head down and get on with it.

I like that. You have to be a self-starter, a self-motivator, a very organised person. You have to know what you're doing technically - and although you have to recognise when you need help and be able to ask for it, you're expected not to require much (if any) hand-holding or direction. It's up to you to figure out what needs doing, and how to do it.

It's interesting going to a new company on a temporary basis. You have to figure out all the logistical stuff pretty much instantly. Where are their offices, how am I going to get there each day, where are the loos, how does the coffee machine work, where am I going to have my lunch, how should I set up my computer so that it can talk to their systems - and within the first couple of hours you need to have all that sussed so that you can get on and do your work.

Putting in the hours

The amount of effort required and the accompanying stress levels are quite a bit higher than they are when you're an employee. For a start you've probably been asked to provide a fixed-price quote for the project you're working on - and you jolly well have to meet the deadline and stay within budget. That's why you're there - you are generally expected to take responsibility for a single project, and there can be no excuses.

If (as sometimes happens) you underestimated how long it's going to take, you're just going to have to suck it up and do the additional work for free in order to get the project finished - and you absolutely MUST hit the delivery deadline. That can mean working long hours, evenings and weekends if necessary, in order to achieve it.

Funnily enough, I really enjoy that discipline. It keeps me on my toes. And you learn for next time, and are (hopefully) able to calculate your fixed-price quote more accurately for the next project.

Self-discipline and perfectionism

The self-discipline required to be a good contractor is pretty high.

I'm a perfectionist, which means that I need every job I do to be the best it can possibly be, and I realised long ago that in order to achieve this I have to accept that I'm probably going to spend longer on a job that some people would. I'm happy with that. I would rather spend my own time bringing a website up to a level of perfection that I'm comfortable with, rather than saving that time and delivering a site that (in my opinion) isn't finished properly. Ugh! I couldn't do that, actually.

Fortunately, my perfectionism also includes a need to deliver on-time - so even though it might have taken me a while longer to get it done to my exacting standards, this doesn't impact on my client - they still get their site on-time and at the original fixed price.

Proving yourself

I think there's also something of a need to "prove yourself" at each new company when you're a contractor.

I get pretty much all my contract work through personal contacts these days, as I find this strategy infinitely more effective than trying to get work via most recruitment agencies.

So you go into a new company knowing maybe one or two people there - but the rest of the employees don't know you from a bar of soap - and you have to prove to them on a daily basis that a) you know what you're doing, b) you don't need much help from them, and c) you're worth the money.

To me, this means working with 150% effort the whole time - and also being infinitely flexible. I'm there make everyone else's job easier, which means when they say "jump", I really do have to ask "how high?"

The client always comes first

Ultimately, whatever work you're doing, and whoever you're doing it for, it's vitally important as a contractor to remember the simple rule: The Client Always Comes First.

There's a certain level of comfort associated with having a permanent position at a company. You've already proven your worth - demonstrated by the fact that they wanted you around enough to give you the job in the first place, and over time you've shown them that they made the right decision.

You know the ropes, everyone knows you, you have your comfort zone of your own desk all nicely set up just how you like it - and you know the way things work around here. I do think it's possible (perhaps likely, even) to get a bit complacent if you've been in a job for a while. It's possible (likely, even) that after a while you can slip a little - from 100% effort every day down to maybe 99%, or even (shocking, I know!) down to 98%.

Every once in a while one of your colleagues has a big night out and they don't turn up for work the next day - but they don't get fired for it - and you know that if you decided to have a "mental health day" you would get away with it too.

It's not like that when you're a contractor. Not at all. You have a responsibility to get the job done when you said it would be done, and that's that. No time off if you're sick - you simply can't afford to get sick. If you don't work, you don't get paid, simple as that.

Occasionally you might have to pull an all-nighter in order to get everything done in time - and if that's what it takes, that's what you have to do. You also have to be available at a moment's notice when a client needs something done in a hurry - and the work hours can sometimes be unconventional, to say the least.

Here's a perfect example. It's 4.30pm on a Saturday afternoon, and I just got an email from a client with feedback on some work I did yesterday. I'm going to have to stop blogging for a bit and make the changes they need...


OK, back again...

Because of this constantly having to prove yourself thing, you have to be on your toes, on the ball, giving it everything you're got, all the time. And that means knowing that The Client Always Comes First.

Recently while working on a project I realised that one of the days in my schedule was actually a public holiday. The day came and went, and I worked on the project at home. No time for time off!

I also realised after I had done my timeline and quote that the last two days of the project were the two days of Webstock. Aaargh! I REALLY wanted to go to Webstock - it's the best conference ever! I worked like a crazy person to get everything done in time, so that I would be able to go.

For various reasons that didn't work out, and I had to make the sorrowful decision that I wouldn't be attending this year. The project took precedence, as it always must. And honestly - if I'd gone to Webstock instead of finishing the project properly, I would have been stressed out to the max, and I wouldn't have enjoyed it anyway, so there you are.


It's interesting how many times you're asked to do something completely different from the job you're there to do.

For example, I've just finished a month at DNA building a massive set of templates for a major commercial client's website. Big project, tight timeline, high levels of jQuery required (which I had to figure out as I went along). I loved every minute of it. And a couple of times they needed someone that minute to do updates on another major commercial client's website because it had to go live the next day and the client needed a last-minute bunch of alts doing.

So you get thrown in at the deep end and have to make those alts instantly on this new website you know nothing about. Awesome! That's pretty cool because there's a level of trust implied in that request. Asking me to work on a completely different website than the one I'm building says to me that they trusted me enough by that point to know that I could do it.

Another example. I'm doing ongoing contract work at Optimation, which is a development rather than a design company. I love working there - the people are awesome (and very, very bright!) and the work is interesting. And quite varied. I'm their HTML/CSS expert - everyone else is a .net programmer, and I haven't really got a clue what they do or how they do it. They see CSS as a "dark art", and I see their skills in a pretty similar light. We work well together.

So I go in there one day to do some HTML/CSS stuff on one of the big online apps they're building, and instead I'm asked to spend the day doing a re-skin design of one of their products, so that they can show a potential client just how flexible this product is. Cool!

I'm really enjoying the level of flexibility and sheer range of skills I need to demonstrate as a contractor. Check out this comparison between what I did at my last job, and what I've been doing recently:

As an employee
  • HTML/CSS and jQuery, building approx 25 websites in three years

  • The occasional bit of Information Architecture input if required

  • The occasional bit of design development if required

As a contractor/freelancer
  • Badger Communications: building and adapting a range of Flash advertising banners in a variety of shapes and sizes for a variety of countries and products

  • Bamford: project management, information architecture and site schematics for a new site for one of New Zealand's leading medical supply companies. Also site design, site build (HTML/CSS), creating dynamic functionality via jQuery and facilitating CMS integration for my programming partner, Tom St George

  • DNA: XHTML/CSS and jQuery build for a large commercial client, where the technical requirements were as high as anything I've ever done before

  • DNA: urgent HTML/CSS work (client alts) on a website I knew nothing about in order to get it live ASAP

  • Optimation: HTML/CSS consultant/expert for a coding company that builds online applications in .net

  • Optimation: Re-doing the design of an online app (showing that it could be re-skinned) for use in a pitch to a potential client

  • Origin Design: HTML/CSS build on a couple of CMS-based websites, where the range and number of templates was far smaller than either Tom or I were used to. An interesting exercise in achieving a great deal with a minimal number of templates

  • Round Peg: HTML/CSS build on a highly graphical website designed by an old-school graphic artist who really cares about type line length, letter spacing, and all those beautiful print-based elements that HTML does really badly.

Feast or famine

They say that contract work is always "feast or famine" - that there's either not enough work, or too much - and I've certainly found that to be the case.

Over the past three months I've sometimes worked two jobs at the same time - spending the day working for one client and the evenings and weekends working for another. It's not that hard to do - when you don't have any other responsibilities, that is - but I wouldn't want to do it for extended periods of time. Even I - who love my job to bits and wouldn't give it up even if I won Lotto - need some time-out sometimes.

When there's "feast", you have to accept as much work as you can handle, and then lock the door on the rest of your life and just do it. You'll notice I haven't blogged very much at all over the past couple of months, and that's why. I've been in feast mode. I figure there will certainly be periods of famine in the future - and so I have to take on as much work as possible when it's available, to tide me over during the times when there's no work.

At the same time, you have to know when to say "no". It's very important to know your limitations and stick to them - otherwise you're going to end up doing a half-assed job for all your clients and that's Not Good. For example, when I was working on the DNA project I accepted no other work at all, because the amount of effort and stress levels were high enough anyway - and I needed to concentrate my whole being on getting that job done on-time, and to as high a standard as possible.

Right now (as you will have figured out from the fact that I'm blogging again) I have some work on - but not enough to keep me occupied 24/7. I'm going to need to get out there and start hustling again.

Ask The Universe - and put in the hard yards

I'm a great believer that The Universe Will Provide - but I do accept that this belief comes with some provisos. At the moment I'm doing quite a lot of Asking - and more often than not The Universe comes through for me - but it wouldn't work if I just sat on my ass and hoped something good will happen.

That's where hustling comes in.

My first priority when I'm not working full-time is to keep my online portfolio website up-to-date. That way, if a potential job does come through unexpectedly, I can send people over to my website, confident that all my work is being displayed, and there are no dead or "since-been-redeveloped" links showing. With 130+ case-studies on my site, it's important to keep up with that.

I try to keep my ear to the ground at all times, looking for the next work opportunity - but I have to say that recently most of my work has come in unexpectedly (thanks, Universe!), through friends and contacts in the industry. I guess that's a pretty strong indication that I've been around a while...

However, when the serendipitous call doesn't come through, you have to get out there and make it happen.

Next week, in between bits of work, I plan to get my CV out there to a bunch of web design companies I haven't contacted yet. I have friends who already work at some of them, which will be handy for getting inside info on whom I should speak to - and where I don't already have a contact, this is the time to call up and make one. It's not one of my favourite pastimes - I don't think anyone really likes cold-calling very much - but it has to be done. The Universe can't Provide in places where no-one knows your name.

Absolute freedom - and no freedom at all

You might think that life as a contractor would be fab, in that you have absolute freedom to do what you want, when you want. In some ways I suppose that's true - in theory you could say yes or no to any project that comes along - and in theory you could also probably set your own timelines and work hours.


That presupposes that you're always in a full-on feast environment - which is generally not the case. In order to be able to call the shots to that extent, you'd have to be in a feast where you had so much extra potential work that you could pick and choose - and in my experience that happens only rarely. I should probably be a programmer or something - then maybe that would happen on a regular basis :)

It also presupposes that clients are going to be cool with you setting your own timelines and messing them around if you feel like it. And in my experience that's not the case at all. If you deliver a great product on-budget when you said you would, if you make yourself available whenever they need you (as much as you can, anyway), if you work hard for them and always do your best - they might just ask you back again. If you don't - well, they might just call someone else next time.

I guess it's true that you could decide in advance to have 6 weeks (or 6 months) off to go overseas or have a nice long break or whatever. You wouldn't have to ask anyone's permission like you would if you were an employee - you'd just tell all your clients that you won't be available for that period of time. Easy.

The downside of course is that, as I mentioned earlier, if you don't work, you don't get paid. So any calculation of your holiday expenses has to include the amount of $$ you would have earned if you'd been working. Ouch!

Being organised

I mentioned being organised right at the beginning of this piece, and in some ways it's one of the most important aspects of being a contractor. If you're not organised, important stuff is going to fall through the cracks and get lost.

The first thing I keep with me at all times is my diary. I'd be seriously lost without it. Whenever I do any contract or freelance work I record a very detailed timesheet in my diary, and I provide a copy of it whenever I submit an invoice.

Most people don't actually ask for this, but I figure it's a useful additional service I can provide. Clients use timesheets to help them cost similar jobs in the future, and I think it also provides an extra layer of trust within the client/contractor relationship. When I'm asking for a wodge of $$ for a job I've just done, I think it's reassuring for the client to be able to see exactly what I did, and how long it took.

If I've over-quoted for a job and it takes less time than I thought it would, I only ever charge for the actual amount of time I spent, so again it's important to show that to the client in the form of a timesheet and reconfigured invoice. Clients like it when you come in under budget!

It's also an extremely valuable resource for me when I'm costing new work. When I work to a fixed-price quote and it takes longer than I quoted, I don't charge any extra for that extra work (assuming that the client didn't make changes halfway through) - so it's important that I continually improve my accuracy in this area.

My diary's also very useful when it comes to invoicing, because I can go through page by page to ensure that I've charged all my clients for all my work. When you're working for a number of different clients on a number of different jobs it's easy to forget to invoice someone, and that would never do!

In addition to my diary, I have a set of monthly calendars, drawn out on large pieces of art paper. This is my forward-planning device. I have a pile of squares of blank paper, each of which fits neatly over one day on the calendar. When I've got work coming up I blu-tak a square on top of the appropriate date, and write the client's name on it. Using blu-tak means that when the client changes their mind and the dates shift (as they often do), I can simply move the paper square to the new date.

Once a day's work is done I refer to my diary and calculate the number of hours and the amount earned. I pencil this in on the calendar itself. At the end of each week I tot up the total amount earned for that week, and at the end of every month I do the same.

I have a target in mind for each week and each month, which at the end of the year will provide me with the same amount I was earning as an employee, taking into account the fact that you get no sick pay and no holiday pay as a contractor. I'm hoping I'll achieve it. We shall see.

In conclusion - do I like being a contractor and freelancer?

Hell yes!

Of course there are many things about being a permanent employee that I miss. I miss my desk. I miss my friends at work. I miss being a permanent part of a team. I miss the comfort that comes from knowing what you're going to be doing tomorrow, and from knowing that you'll be able to pay the mortgage this month.

But ultimately I think it was really good for me to be forcibly ejected from my comfort zone. I had become a little too settled, a bit too set in my ways and somewhat unadventurous.

Being out again in the cold harsh world of contracting is a GREAT discipline for me. I always did love doing the best job I can possibly do, and that's virtually mandatory when you're a contractor. I love learning new things. I love revisiting old skills that have gone a bit rusty and polishing them up again. I love the variety that comes with doing contract work, and the question in my mind of "Shall I go for this contract? Do I think I could stretch my abilities in order to do it?"

It's very interesting working for a variety of masters. Unlike the single permanent employer, each of my contract clients sees me in a different way, depending on what their needs are. I do different work for all of them, and so, unlike in a permanent position, I'm unlikely to be pigeonholed into doing the same thing all the time.

I have an interesting life. I don't have kids, so I have the freedom to focus a lot more of my energies on the work I do. We all need meaning and purpose in our lives, and for me a lot of that comes through my work. Being a contractor intensifies that purpose in some ways. You have to focus on earning enough to survive, and with that comes working as hard as you can, and producing the best product possible all the time so that clients will ask you back.

I don't particularly like change, and I don't go out of my way to make it happen, but when it's thrust upon me I can rise to the challenge and do well. It's important for me to remember that when I'm happily stuck in my comfort zone.

You never really know what's going to happen in the future. Nothing is permanent, not even a permanent job - and in these tough economic times that's going to be the case for more and more people. It's good to know that losing your job isn't the end of the world - it's simply the start of a new one.


I would be lying if I said that I didn't write this knowing that it might be read by a potential new client. That would be silly. So if you are looking for a contractor, or you're looking for a small company to design and build you a new website, and you like what you've read, please get in touch.

You can find all my contact details (together with a detailed summary of my past 12 years in the web industry) on my portfolio website. Thanks for reading!

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