I recently quit my day job in order to pursue a career as a freelance Rails developer. I went from having a steady income each month to potentially having no money coming in at all.
This is how I managed to get clients and not die in a ditch during my first few months:
The Big Change
Moving from having a full-time job to a freelancer is hard, but like most difficult tasks, it is ultimately worthwhile.
I decided to take the plunge into freelancing after putting it off for around 12 months - I pretty much committed to it in as short a time period as possible, thereby preempting any possible weaselling out on the part of my reasonable side.
The actual quitting of my job was fairly easy - write a letter, have a meeting then work my month’s notice. Simple.
By far the most troubling part of becoming a freelancer (for me, at least) was not knowing where my customers were going to come from. If I can’t see where my next job is, it obviously makes me nervous - how can I pay the bills and mortgage unless I know I have the money coming in?
This is where things got interesting: I put the call out, and almost immediately got too much work to reasonable book in. My previous employer also immediately booked me for a four week contract that would start the day after I finished my notice.
This may not be representative of your own experience, however, it does go to show that work can pretty much come from anywhere. These are a few places that I’ve been able to get jobs so far:
Having a network of friends in the same field as yourself (in my case web developemnt) gives you a competitive advantage: If you can’t allocate the time for a project, you can pass it to a friend, creating goodwill on the part of the client you’ve passed on and potentially gaining a reciprocal referral.
Having a network of people - with skills that are complementary to your own - will allow you to provide recommendations if it turns out the client needs additional services like graphic design or copywriting.
It is important to not see other freelancers as ‘the enemy’, and instead to actively seek out new contacts in your field.
Once you’ve completed a project for a client, and the job went well, you should occasionally give them a nudge to see if they have anything else they want looking at. Discounts for repeat custom can help grease the wheels, and you may end up taking on a retainer if it turns out they do need regular work.
Word of Mouth
Happy clients will recommend you. It is sometimes worth going slightly above and beyond in order to delight your customers, though how far you take this needs to be balanced.
If you do go above and beyond their expectations, this will probably set their baseline expectations higher for future work. Be aware of this if you later need to quote for work with a tight deadline.
It seems that the first place people check for Freelancers is often Google, and as it happens, Google AdWords makes it really easy to get a campaign set up to start bringing in interested people.
These types of leads greatly vary in quality, from enquiries along the lines of “Build me a Facebook clone for $500” to the more reasonable “I have a spec, can you help me build it?”.
Keep in mind that getting an enquiry from this avenue may need a little more massaging before it becomes a fully booked-in job, and like all enquiries, they are bordering on meaningless until the first invoice is paid and the job has begun.
If you’re near a major city, there should be a fair few events on that you can get to. In Manchester, there is the local Geekup along with the NWRUG and now Freelance North. Such events are great for getting to know fellow freelancers and developers in a more social setting than IRC.
Announcing on Twitter when you go freelance or when you’ve got a bit of slack time coming up is a very good way of making people aware you’re available. Equally, trawling for people looking for freelancers is an excellent way of getting new leads.
When you announce you’re going freelance, try and get other developers (freelance or not) to retweet your announcement. You should notice you get a few new followers - agencies and other freelancers especially.
It’s not hard to find the work once you start making connections - the point is that you need to embrace the social aspect of freelancing to carve out a position. Don’t hang on to work you don’t have time for - give it away and gain karma. Do good work, and don’t forget about your existing contacts.