Now I mostly work for a recruiting agency. They get a cut from what I make (quite a huge cut actually), but they in return make sure that they have work for me.
I am still figuring things out. What I most struggle with is finding a good work-life balance. I work way much than I did before.
Before starting to freelance you should make sure that you have enough money to survive ~3 month without any gigs. It will also take a while until your first gigs are paid. Something to keep in mind.
Being on Linkedin is absolutely essential imo, if you don’t have a network already. I just use the site to answer to recruiter-messages, that’s it.
There's a lot of react contracts on LinkedIn which you usually find through recruiters that take around 25%, they pay well but the work isn't as interesting or engaging to me (usually big corporations in generic markets).
The best work for sure is through referrals. My first gig was through an old boss, and I'm starting to learn that letting your friends and old coworkers know you're looking for work in the near future is often better than taking something more 'secure'. Clients often want someone immediately and aren't willing to wait two or three weeks while you finish up a previous project, especially if the project is more attractive (and the competition is higher).
Would you mind describing your path from deciding to freelance and where you are you now? You mention networking and unpaid/low paid gigs. I assume that you found projects in your near network, these projects were lower risk / with trusted connections, then you eventually built a portfolio and got the mechanics of freelancing down. Then made a connection with the agency and have continued your success inertia.
Congrats by the way!
My path to freelancing went something like this:
I used to have some small gigs on the site while being employed—projects which were not interesting for the company I worked at the time anyway. This way, before I actually quit, I already was able to write invoices and did not have to figure this out as well (but it is not that hard).
My first project was a web-experience for a venue which was paid okay, but resulted in a lot of back-and-forth with the client. I am still working for that client every now and then. I was applying to a job-offer of a small agency on a job-board looking for a freelancer for that project. I spent a lot of hours initially to go through all available freelance jobs on that (German) platform, made a selection what I would be able to do and wrote some messages. I don’t know any more how many messages I wrote, but it were less than five until I got a gig.
The second project was a big Vue.js one for an agency, which is still ongoing part-time. I got this gig via a freelance consultancy. Everything is quite personal. No corporate. Remote work okay.
At first I spent a few weeks working from their office, then enough trust was built for remote work. I now track my time and write an invoice each month.
Being billed by the hour gives me some peace of mind to not make wrong estimations. It is still hard for me to realistically guess how much feature xyz or a whole web applications will be. I guess that comes with time and involves to look at projects in retrospect more.
Since starting to freelance I noticed a few changes:
I say “no” more often. I had to say no to a few projects in between. Mostly interesting, badly paid short term projects. If I did not have to care about money I would have loved to work on these, but right now I prefer “stable”, well-paid projects. This is also because I come from a creative background, where projects are often interesting, but chaotic. Finding the balance between interesting and stable is not easy and everybody has to decide on their own what is important to them. Working on better paid (maybe less creative / interesting) gigs gives me more time to work on my own projects (in theory, if I would reject more client-work).
It is very important to spend enough time writing proposals. It happened a few times already that the client and I had different views on the final outcome of a project. If you took your time to put everything in writing in the proposal, it will be much easier, because there is no ground (or very little) for ambiguity. At first I just wrote something like “Design and build website”. Now it will be much more detailed. I will write how many pages the website has, if there is animation, if xyz is involved or not and so on.
My productivity in general increased. When being employed you usually know that e.g. at 5 PM you can go home and do whatever you want. If you don’t feel like working between 3–5 you have to look busy or just do some work somehow. When you are freelancing you can listen more to your body and decide on your own when working is okay. If I notice that I am not productive I will most likely stop working and continue at a later point. This way I get more done in an hour of freelance work than an hour of work in my old job, which gives me a better overall feeling.
One last thing about the biggest down-side from my perspective: work-life balance.
You have to decide for yourself when it is enough. For me it is not easy to tell myself: “You worked enough today, now you should do something fun”. There is always more to do. Also if you get more done today, less work will be there tomorrow. Right? Nope.
I personally need to find rules to restrict myself regarding working hours. Having some (personal) rules might make things easier.