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Freelancing: A 6-Month Retrospective (mrooney.github.com)
231 points by llambda on July 8, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 119 comments



I've always wanted to turn to freelancing, mostly because my girlfriend has visa issues and it would allow me to go live with her full time and take better care of my family, but my biggest drawback and what stopped me was that I didn't know how to start getting decent projects.

I'm a webdev, I mostly feel confident to start with PHP where I have lots of experience and worked on websites with millions uniques and things like that; and am able to setup/debug most part of the stack, but every single time I find that either I can't find any good opportunities, or people want to see "previous experience" and they don't consider what I did at my jobs as counting because it's not websites I did from top to bottom.

When I ask on various websites, people tell me to compete on the various freelancing sites but it feels like so much bullshit with all those 20$ offers getting the upper hands even if it's obvious it will fail ...

Does anybody on HN have any idea on how I can help myself in that area ? I have absolutely no design skill so I can't just do dummy websites by myself, or they would look terrible.

(for the sake of the question, please just assume I know how to do my job well and my problem is mostly image/marketing myself)


Try to market yourself to design/ad agencies. They always need contractors and have a huge network of clients that need professional work and have the budget for it. I'm currently on salary (working remotely, though), but almost all the work I've ever had came through my connections from a 2 year stint I did at a design firm. If you're in a large city it should be easy to find some industry events to check out (AIGA events are a good place to start). I always had a lot of luck selling my developer skills to designers, and selling my design skills to developers.


I think this is the easiest path OP can take. good advice


I would say get involved in your local community... go to meet-ups, tech talks, Startup Weekends, etc, and become a known entity.

The real benefit to this is you get to meet people who are already established, as usually those are the people who tend to do these things and sometimes they work in teams. I did a pro-bono project with a local known dev, he liked the work and invited me to come along on a long-term paid gig which was sufficient enough for me to quit my day job.


I do this a lot. A couple things I've realized: - Quite a few of the people you meet aren't going to lead to much. A few of them will lead to something but not until further down the road. Basically, not everyone is looking for freelance developers.

- You have to know a bit about sales. If I'm talking to someone non-technical looking for an online store, I'm an expert in e-commerce, but if I was talking to someone in the industry, I'm less likely to throw out the term expert and more likely to try and talk about specifics.

- This is culture dependent but in the States, I've found being too modest is a negative and people seem to interpret it as either disinterest, lack of confidence, or lack of skills.

- I once overheard a discussion that went something like this, "I'm looking for a developer." "If you can get <that person> that would be great." I'm not there yet but I want to be <that person>.


"in the States, I've found being too modest is a negative"

A Uruguayan delegation went to Silicon Valley recently, and one colleague mentioned one takeaway was that most americans are very "aggressive" selling themselves and outspoken, it came out as a bit of bullshitting to him, as we come from a more modest culture.


I think this is a great point. I've seen time and time again the old adage "it's not what you know, it's who you know" ringing true. It took me a long time to stop moaning about it, and start doing something about it instead.


I was coming here to say this; there are meet-ups, business breakfasts (VERY early but very nice to find clients), etc. A friend of mine from an underdeveloped part of the EU thought he could make no money there; he went to a few business breakfasts there after finding out they actually were held there. Few months later he has ONLY work from his region and more than enough to say he cannot take new work till beginning of 2013. It really works...


Wow, how do you find out about these things? I'm in western Europe and have been planning to go freelance but getting started seems pretty intimidating so far.


Where are you from? I probably can find them in your neighborhood.

Edit: check my profile here; you can mail me if you want.


I don't normally post links to my articles, but check these posts out which cover this topic:

1) http://robbieabed.com/how-to-make-money-as-a-new-developer/ (i know you have experience, but understand concept.

2) http://robbieabed.com/thinking-about-quitting-your-job-10-un...

3) http://robbieabed.com/your-professional-network-sucks-and-it...

In Summary. You have the skillset. Build an internal network, and the offers will come. It just takes a long time. Let me know how I can help if you have more questions.


I think you should look at it from the perspective of the client. Clients want to make sure that they can feel secure in your ability to accomplish the task properly, and they want to feel like they will not be ripped off.

As someone who has hired contractors before, I can tell you what makes me feel comfortable. One is to hear specifics about how the contractor has experience with the specific technologies I use. If I am using Python/Django and the contractor mentions experience with that, then I know he or she read my specification and has the particular types of qualification that I need. I also like it when contractors have some open source work they can point to, since that gives me an example of their work and also makes me feel that they are active and interested in their field.

Not everyone on freelancing sites is choosing the cheapest bid. It might be worth it to you to give it a try even if you take a few less than ideal projects to begin with, just to build up a portfolio and a job history.

Also (and I know this view isn't super popular on HN), I like working with a new contractor on a fixed-price payment plan. If they are willing to do that, to me it indicates that they have confidence in their ability to complete the task promptly, and I don't risk that a bad contractor will drag the project out and cost me lots of money. Perhaps that would help you reassure clients that you are capable before they have had the chance to work with you, at least until you have a strong portfolio to demonstrate your skills. Good luck!


Of course fixed bid is fantastic for the client, but it can be a really bad deal for the contractor. I work for a consulting company that does a lot of fixed bid work, and we've been absolutely destroyed by some projects where scope got out of hand. I'm not blaming our clients for this, but I what I'm trying to say is that working on a fixed bid basis has its own set of challenges including things like arguing whether feature X is covered by the original scope or not.


Good point about the fix contract plan, I hadn't thought about it from a hiring perspective before.

Almost all the jobs I've had so far have been fixed contract first. Once they're confident with my abilities I move to a daily rate. I'm not interested in working on a per project basis forever, it's not good for either party!


> "it feels like so much bullshit with all those 20$ offers getting the upper hands"

You can't just put in a bid that looks the same as theirs except for the dollar amount. You have to differentiate yourself:

- Communicate clearly. Before you've even put in a bid, ask questions and discuss the technical challenges you foresee. Be prompt; respond within hours rather than days. Make it clear that they're getting a whole different level of ability with you than with the bottom of the barrel.

- Be willing to offer a quick turnaround on a sub-project, as a proof of ability. It's a big risk to commit thousands of dollars to you sight-unseen, but if a client can commit $50 to have you fix a smaller problem, this can give them confidence to go with you for the full project.

- learn some rudimentary design (something like http://www.amazon.com/Non-Designers-Design-Book-Robin-Willia... ). "Full stack" isn't full enough; your clients don't want to put together a team, they want to pay their money and get a complete product. Coders who can make an ugly website are all too prevalent; separate yourself from them.

- if you're going through a freelance site that has certification tests or similar, take a day and go through them. It shows you're willing to put in the effort -- or, rather, not having done so shows the opposite.


A very simple formula worked for me: a full LinkedIn profile and a technical blog. I've found that many people land on my LinkedIn profile, then some continue to my website where they can get an idea for my skill level by looking at some blog entries. Also, the clients that come via that channel are usually high quality clients. In general, they are dev shops with too much work to handle in-house, so they're looking for an extra hand. Since they're technical people, their projects are clearly stated and expectations are realistic.


There's really no excuse here for not getting something on-line. Twitter bootstrap, Theme Forest, etc make it easy to create something that looks reasonably good.

Also do you have any projects on github/bitbucket? Have you contributed to any open source projects? These are all things employers look for and set you apart from other developers.

I've found people aren't too interested in my previous job roles, they're more interested in talking to me. Every time I've sat down and talked to a client, not only have they felt confident enough to hire me as a freelancer, I'm almost always asked if I'm looking for full time work.

I don't market myself as a web designer. I'm a web developer, I do programming not design, and I make that clear right from the start. The companies I work for have more than enough people who can do design. They don't have people with the skills and experience I do as a developer.


I've been doing iOS apps for the last year or so and lately I've had a bunch of people approach me for work mainly because they liked the apps I'd published on my own. I think if you want to get started freelancing the best thing to do is build up some kind of online portfolio to show people what you can do.

If you're not a designer yourself maybe you could partner with a designer in a similar position that's interested in collaborating on a few portfolio-building projects?


Thanks, sounds like a reasonable advice! Does portfolio have to be quite large to attract people with application ideas? Is it yours: http://www.plastaq.com ?


Well I'm too new at this to be able to give you a good answer. It probably depends on exactly which programming market you're trying to get into.

And yes, that's my site.


There are also many website design concepts floating around both as simple images or HTML templates. You could use these (with the permission of the author/artist) to sidestep the design section.

For example: http://browse.deviantart.com/designs/web/


Where are you moving to? Because that's where you need to do your networking. And possibly figure out your own work visa issues.

Your main goal doesn't seem to be more time, but a different place and more money. Start by networking with local recruiters to get your foot into that market. They often can get you contracting jobs. Then you can network with locals.

Finally, full stack software is a big job - in fact it's many jobs, and rarely do developers do all of them (and never well). I've been freelancing for almost 4 years, but never completely on my own. I always team with other locals with different skill sets to tackle more complex projects with better rates.


It sounds cliche but network. I don't do anything I'd consider actively networking, but I've had more freelance work than I can do come my way over the last year and I haven't tried to get any of it. (I don't actually like freelancing much, I prefer working on my own products but it pays well so I take some of it)

Anyway, just let people you meet know what you do. I've gotten jobs from friends, my wife's boss, people I've only met in forums online etc. just because I'm the guy they know that does X, in my case mobile apps.


It's worth not being put off by the 20 dollar offers, a lot of people don't take them seriously and only look at the more realistic offers and if they do go for one of the ridiculously low ones, they almost certainly aren't worth working with.

The word of mouth jobs in my experience generally pay better and tend to be more interesting but I've had good experiences with freelancer.co.uk in particular when I've wanted bits and pieces while waiting for bigger pieces to start etc.


Do you have any side projects? Or any project idea which can demonstrate your abilities? If yes, then work on it and share it on HN/Dribble/Github/Forrst.

I got my first freelancing gig via a side project.

Once you get your first client project, all you need to do is to build on top of it.


>> So as an example, a $100K salary, which corresponds to roughly $50 per hour working 40 hours a week, requires a freelancing rate of $56-58/hour to pay for healthcare and time off.

Cringe -- this is bad advice for setting your consulting rate. In the US, the full cost of an $100K employee is not $100K. It's $100K salary + paid vacation time + employment taxes paid by employer + healthcare + office space & pro-rated related expenses (like cleaning of said office space). This metric is called the "fully loaded cost" of an employee and ends up being 1.3x-1.5x of the salary.

But even this calculation fails to capture the flexibility advantages that your clients get from hiring short term. It ignores the fact that as a consultant you are hired only when you are needed and are 100% utilized, while a yearly employee may not be fully utilized every day of the year. Essentially, an employer that hires a full time employee agrees to "buy in bulk" and pay for time that may or may not be fully utilized. By necessity this means that your rate should be higher to account for the additional value provided plus provide cushion for those in-between project times when you are looking for work or doing proposals.

Two quick and dirty metrics I have seen for determining rate per hour are 1) yearly salary / 1000 and 2) 2x full time employee hourly rate. Both of these converge on about $100/hr. Un-official data from HN seems to confirm a median freelance rate in that range (about $90/hr): http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3420203


Keep in mind that those guesstimations are for determining the floor rate one would ask for to maintain an expected standard of living, rather than determining the rate one would actually ask for. Your rate should be whatever you can convince people to pay you, and that can be a number well north of $90/hr.

(While I love HNers, one should not rely on HN salary surveys to set one's rates. There are many factors that drag it down: HN has a global audience but you do not have to sell to global consumers of programming talent. HN, in other surveys, frequently skews to young and inexperienced -- you may not be young and inexperienced. Many HNers are unsophisticated about pricing to extract value from mutually beneficial business relationships -- you should not be unsophisticated in this manner. Many HNers occupy positions which are low on the value chain such as undifferentiated "web design" which do not command high hourly rates -- you should upgrade your skillset or marketing such that you can command higher hourly rates. etc, etc)


Note that numbers in HN (and other) salary surveys can be distorted upwards too; people lie and half-lie on salary surveys, usually in the direction of claiming to be doing better than they really are. And while the HN demographic skews young and inexperienced, it also skews bright and energetic. (Which of course you ought to be too if you're considering consulting or freelancing in the first place.)

So: the numbers can be way too high because of lying, way too low because of demographics, on the high side because of demographics, way too low because it reflects people doing too-generic work, poorly chosen because it's from inexperienced or unsophisticated people, etc., etc., etc.

Better than nothing, no doubt. But use with extreme caution.


Where can one find good statistics on this issue?

My consultancy is now starting to take on American clients, and I'm trying to understand what the average market condition is like to know where to start ourselves off.


That strikes me like "Dating advice: Explain to the average woman that accompanying you to the average restaurant followed by an average movie would make for an average evening."


Yes, but to explain why we're worth X% more than the average developer/freelancer, I need to know how much they make in the first place!


I'm pretty sure you don't. In fact, I'd go so far as to say, framing it terms of another developer will hurt you if you are charging more.

If you are delivering $100,000 in business value, and you charge $20,000 for it it is a win for the company. If another developer charges $10,000 for it. Going with them isn't twice the win for the company.

You don't say I'm worth x% more because I work x% faster. You are worth $20,000 (which just so happens to be x% more) because you've done this before, helped other clients realize 5x ROI and you've worked around the nasty #2343 bug in the database that will bite them if they go with someone else.


In my experience this is a bad way to approach things. Far better to frame the conversation in terms of how much value the customer will derive.

My personal example: through a combination of political cleverness and tech-savvy, I saved a company several million dollars. That anchor makes me seem much more valuable than if I start by comparing myself to an average programmer, and describe how my services are better (in fact, my technological skills are substantially WORSE than the average programmer's, which would make it an even harder sell).


I feel like I addressed that pretty clearly, as that number takes into account healthcare and paid vacation and sick time. You do pay a self-employment tax, but I think that's made up for by the numerous deductions including home office that can be made. I work from home so it doesn't cost me any more for office space / cleaning / utilities, in fact, as mentioned, I get to deduct a percentage of all those things! I also no longer commute or have to order / eat lunch out, so that's a significant monthly savings as well.

Also, since my stated goals were to work less and take more vacation, the flexibility advantages you mention for an employer are precisely the flexibility advantages for ME that I was looking for! I love the ability to, every 4-8 weeks when a contract is done, decide how long to take off before the next one if I'd like to, or decide which project to pursue next.

I don't want to be sitting bored in an office getting paid because they bought my time "in bulk", like I've done before. If you find that an enjoyable way to spend your finite amount of time alive, that's honestly great as you'll likely face less obstacles, but it wasn't for me.


Guys, a question about this: reading HN, I have the feeling that in USA freelancers are a pretty common phenomenon in software. Where I work (Netherlands), all freelancers I know are working full-time 2 year projects anyway, not at all getting them the flexibility articles like these refer to. They mostly get paid more than the employees, in exchange for less job security and having to invest in education themselves.

What do US freelancers do? Are these people who make websites for local bakeries? Can you do a 20-hr a week freelance job actually coding something? And how long do employers expect such projects to last? What kind of employers look for freelancers like that?

Any personal anecdotes or whatever will be most appreciated!


I did freelancing (web, then iOS) for 8+ years based in the US, but for companies (large and small) around the world. I rarely worked with companies in my local area. The problem is thinking of the clients as "employers".

If you think of them as just clients and you have a lot of inbound leads (built up by word of mouth over time), then you can choose the projects that interest you.

In my experience, projects ranged from 6 weeks to 6+ months, but I almost always had multiple projects in various stages happening at the same time. There were often a couple other freelancers on the project, coordinated by a project manager. It's useful to work with or through a design agency or "interactive" agency (as they were called 10 years ago). The key is to manage the entire project from start to finish for the client. The worst problem is clients who don't deliver content/approvals/etc, so you need someone focused on bugging them.

I also usually set a per-project price, not hourly. I hated tracking hours and it didn't give me the motivation to get stuff done faster. A fixed price also forces everyone to agree on a detailed spec up front. Add a little padding into your price, so you you can be kind about implementing the inevitable changes.

tldr; Yes, it's totally possible to make a living doing freelance development, all from home (or anywhere you want).


The tough part for me is, how to find leads? I have a lot of contacts from previous jobs but nobody I know who could give me any kind of freelance work. How do you bootstrap this?


I don't know your specialty, but in design or programming, you only really need a good example of your work to get started. Try the monthly freelancer posts on HN. Worst case, here's a list of RSS feeds I used to follow (some can filter by freelance/anywhere): http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2465077


I'm a programmer. Those feeds look useful, thanks! :)


It sounds like you're describing the difference between contracting and freelancing - the former where you work somewhat-like an employee for a fixed amount of time, and the latter where you take on projects for a certain price.

Having done them both, contracting was infinitely more pleasant. When you're freelancing, it's really easy for the "I'm working" and "I'm not working" time to blur, and very easy to lose work/life boundaries. In addition, dealing with non-regular clients can be a royal PITA.


Good point!

But can you do contracting for 20 hours a week?


I suppose it depends on your field. In my highly technical field (thermodynamics) this is what I am doing, in fact more about 3 to 4h a day. This is long term work (100+ days/year) at about $750/day.

This is why I always recommend people to specialize themselves and not to drop out of college. You will have hard time convincing someone that you are 12 times faster/better than a "normal" developer, but if you have only 1000 people in the world able to do the job the company want to be done, you do not need to convince anybody.


At my current client, I did! I went from 5 days to 3 days a week, split pretty much how I wanted. I've since gone back to 5 days, thinking that I might as well earn all I can from the contract before it's up, as I like the work and it's a good rate


Not US but UK here. And yes, in my experience, yes you can do 20 hour weeks from freelance jobs. The people/companies who want you are simply those companies with more work than they can currently handle.

It's not hard to see why, in the UK especially, there's a severe shortage of good developers. I can safely say ( hopefully without coming across as arrogant) that I'm a better developer than any other I've met whilst freelancing thus far. Companies are willing to pay for that knowledge and experience, even if it's on a time limited basis.

It's well understood in programming circles that a good developer can be much more economically viable then several not so good developers working on the same problem. I think Joel Spolsky's sums up this point quite well here http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/HighNotes.html.


I can't agree more about the standard of developers, a host of roles I've interviewed candidates for in my past 2 positions just don't get the same calibre of applicant for a permanent role vs contract.


> there's a severe shortage of good developers Couldn't agree more!


Friends of mine in the Netherlands (i'm Dutch) who freelance are like me; once starting to freelance you rather work MORE than less. Not for the money but for the freedom of being able to take on whatever you like. And then ofcourse you don't like it anymore as you end up doing way to much. Jobs protect you from that (or should).

I don't know how that is in the US and would like to know as well. It's very possible in the Netherlands to do so though; you make enough with limited time, but I just see people start with that intension and then add up more and more , while people with 'jobs' work less and less.


It's the same with Freelancers in Germany (at least the ones I know). I've been working way more hours since I went freelance, however, only a fraction of them paid, since there is a significant overhead to doing freelance work (acquiring jobs, dealing with clients, chasing bills, taxes (those alone are a full-time job in Germany, sigh)). I think I went from about 40h in my full time job to roughly 60h now. That said, I'm happier than ever before with my job. Because it makes a hell of a difference if you spend your time doing what you love instead of wasting away in a corporate office. And you will not even notice how much time you're spending on it. A 20h week though - that only works if you are able to command a very high hourly/daily rate. The segment I work in, unfortunately, does not.


Cool, thanks for the response. What kind of work do you and your friends do? And, now that we're nearby anyway, in which city/area? (I'm in Eindhoven)


Most people I know are in software development in the Noord Holland area. My freelance days where a long time ago after university; I freelanced all over NL in software development, my first gig was in Den Bosch. After that I just started companies and moved things to a bigger scale :) Currently we do projects for Dutch, UK and German companies and that's what I liked most. I never liked freelancing very much really; it's all too chaotic for me (unless you take a 2-year project which is not in my nature).


A lot of the people I work for need someone to be able to make sites and maintain them, but they don't have enough work to justify paying someone fulltime. Most of my employers just come to me when they need work done. Luckily, they always seem to want and need extra customizations on a somewhat consistent basis.


These posts are always both inspiring and wrenching for me. I'm mid-career and come from the mold where getting a good fulltime job out of college is what one does. That's simply the way it was, at least in my circles (college, family, etc), and I never considered working for myself. Fast-forward 15 years. Corporate life has actually been pretty decent to me. I've not been jerked around too much, had some opportunity to travel, and have been compensated reasonably well. My wife and I have had a comfortable life so far.

So, what's the problem? LACK OF TIME OFF. I've been stuck behind antiquated US corp vacation policies for a long time, and having had my vacation "reset" due to a job move is weighing on me a lot. 3 weeks total time off (which includes sick leave). I'm almost 40 and have a young family, and more and more I think the current PTO situation is BS. I actually don't mind working in an office 5 days a week, but I would like some more time out of the office.

So it's great to read someone achieving that, but I'm also incredibly jealous. Yes I could "just do it", but that would go against very deep and well-set views of how I need to provide for my family. I'm not able to stomach the risk (and unfamiliarity) at this point. I suspect that it will need to get worse (i.e. my job goes to shit), and that will force my hand and it could get much better.


> Yes I could "just do it", but that would go against very deep and well set views of how I need to provide for my family. I'm not able to stomach the risk at this point.

My suggestion: Temporarily cut your family's expenses down to the bone. Food, shelter, telephones, insurance, connectivity, clothing etc.

Save up six months of the pre-cut household burn rate. Put it into another bank account that doesn't have an ATM card. This is your "I have been hit by a car and can't work for an extended period of time" fund.

Save up three months of the post-cut household burn rate. Put that into your normal savings account. This is your "I can't find new freelance projects for a few weeks" fund. If you're financially adventurous (like me), this can be in the form of available balances on credit cards. (I invest the cash in various speculative places, and then have the CCs in the event that I have no work temporarily. That doesn't actually end up happening, though - it's just a feel-good safety blanket.)

Then, do what the article says.

Worst-case, if you find yourself burning through your three-month, you can always pull the rip-cord and go get another wage slave job. At no point do you have less than six months of runway, so you're safe.

PS: Make sure you're always contributing your max $5k/year into your Roth, too. If you're ever really capital-F Fucked you can eat the tax penalties and get to that, too. I think of this as the "lawyer fees to fight the federal indictment" money.


> Make sure you're always contributing your max $5k/year into your Roth, too. If you're ever really capital-F Fucked you can eat the tax penalties and get to that, too.

You can actually pull the money out of your Roth IRA without penalty of any kind, for any reason. The catch is twofold:

1) You can only withdraw the money you used to fund the IRA (not the money you've made inside the IRA). E.g., if you've put in $20k over 4 years and the account value today is $25k, you can take up to $20k penalty-free.

2) You can't replace the money back into the account past the $5k maximum. So if you withdraw $20k and then don't need it after all... too bad, you can still only put back $5k/year.


LVB: you now what I think you should do? If you don't want to leave the corporate world, and your only gripe is the lack of vacation, negotiate. If your boss gives you a raise, ask if you can trade in 2% of salary for another week: taking an 8% raise instead of 10%. If he can't give you a raise at all, ask if you can get an additional week off instead. If you have to, offer to have any time past your 3rd week unpaid.

People tend to think that vacation allotments are set in stone. They're not, and you can definitely negotiate out of a "reset". If you're used to having 4 weeks, it's not unreasonable at all to ask for that in your next job.

It's weird to me that so many people do the customary +5k negotiation before they start a job but they fail to negotiate an additional week of vacation which would, in most cases, make them a lot happier than an extra ~$250 per month (after tax).


PTO was a part of my negotiation when I was looking for a new job, but it didn't work out. The job market was worse then, and I was quite keen to make the move out of my previous location (it was a cross country move) so it wasn't worth not getting the new job.

That said, over the past week I've been drafting a polite but direct letter asking for the extra week. Sure I've already had the job for a couple years and my bargaining position is ostensible worse, but their need for employees is a lot higher and they have repeatedly said how much they like me, I do good work, future roles, etc. I like the idea of making them sweat a bit (there have been a number of recent departures), and maybe it will pay off.


What stops you from just taking a week of unpaid time off?


I would love to have that option. Unfortunately the only unpaid leave that's allowed is FMLA, and even then you must burn up any built up PTO before it transitions to unpaid leave.

The work, environment and people are quite good at the company, but the leave policies are annoyingly stingy.


I agree. Some companies are more flexible than others on this, so the obvious solution is to find a flexible company.

The good news is that one major corp. I know had an unbreakable policy for years (every new employee starts at the same 2 weeks, NO exceptions) broke this when the local market got so tight they had no choice. So job market timing is part of it, too.

I'll also point out that executive compensation is always flexible, and the OP is coming of an age where that might be a valid path.


Earlier this year in the Harvard Business Review, Jody and Matt Miller wrote about a phenomenon that is similar in spirit to that of freelancing hackers, which they dubbed supertemping:

"Supertemps are top managers and professionals—from lawyers to CFOs to consultants—who’ve been trained at top schools and companies and choose to pursue project-based careers independent of any major firm."

It is pretty interesting to see freelancing become a "first-class citizen" in the high-skilled employment world, whereas previously it wasn't widely accepted beyond a few select occupations.

URL: http://hbr.org/2012/05/the-rise-of-the-supertemp/ar/1


A well written introspective piece. I left my job a few months before you did (Aug '11) and have a similar experience.

Here are some of the things that I've learned -

a) Set your working hours. Try to follow them, but not religiously. Having a batch of hours as free time is much better than being occupied throughout the day even for a 4 hour gig.

b) Get a small long term (ongoing) project. Few hours every month. Use the income from this project to pay the bills and perform other chores.

c) Any conversation with a random (or known) person about your profession can turn into a lead. You need to be in sales mode more than before.


Set your working hours. Try to follow them, but not religiously. Having a batch of hours as free time is much better than being occupied throughout the day even for a 4 hour gig.

Yup. Very good lesson to learn. Setting hours for work is much more useful than timing when you work.


Would love to hear the follow up after a couple of years. I did freelancing for six years & the benefits and drawbacks both become a lot more starkly drawn -- & somewhat different -- over time.


What were those starkly drawn benefits and drawbacks you discovered in your six years of freelancing?


It's a big topic. To the author's point, the role of free time changes a bit once you have been able to plan your free time over a period of years rather than months. It takes on a very different rhythm.

Beyond that, probably the biggest single evolution was in my relationship to the work itself. In the early months and years I loved being able to go heads down on a project without ever worrying about the politics of the project or the organization: I was there to get the thing done. However, I am the kind of guy who cares about his work. Eventually I found this same experience to be dissatisfying. I felt that I was abandoning my children into a hostile corporate world with no one to look after them.

Moreover, as a freelancer you have much less influence over the product and the process. You're a hired gun. Sure, you can do a great job and collect a good paycheck, but if you love what you do it can be frustrating to have extremely limited input into decisions outside the scope of your contract.

Back to the author's very excellent point, I also found the management of benefits and finances to go from a source of engagement to just another hassle. When you are setting up your system, it's fun. When you are executing it, and occasionally screwing it up (taxes!), it's just another headache.


> Sure, you can do a great job and collect a good paycheck, but if you love what you do it can be frustrating to have extremely limited input into decisions outside the scope of your contract.

This is a big one. I semi-solved it by becoming a freelance architect/netadmin. Engaging the customer before it's time to write code can help a _lot_. Be full service! (It's also more work = time = money, too. I like money.)


I'm keen to know whether you ever expressed these concerns?

My recent (and limited in comparison to yours) experience is that as a freelancer demanding a certain wage my knowledge and feedback is taken in very high regard and if I feel something needs changing it has been.


Sure, and some jobs I had more influence and others I had less. But at the end of the day, it's not your baby. You don't have to live with consequences, and you don't get to. I eventually went back to a full time day job. Yes, I miss the opportunity to take a month or three off; I will probably bounce back to the freelance life at some point; but right now I have the satisfaction of working really hard as the true owner of a product.

The other path here is starting your own company, owning your own product. But if what you love about the freelance life is bountiful free time, that is not the path for you!


Thanks blu3jack. I'll be honest I'm not sure how I'll handle that when the time comes. I'm hoping that as long as I always leave the job knowing I did the best I could, even if I believe the decision made were the wrong ones, I'll be happy.


I'm also interested in hearing more.


Biggest aspects from my experience:

- Follow your work times rigorously.

- Just because you own your time that doesn't mean you should spend it reading articles all day. (I personally look through HN in 1min, then save my interests into the pocket app and read them at night)

- Communicate with your clients a lot, sometimes all they need is to know how you're doing, they will appreciate it.

- BIG one, learn to automate tasks. If you code, get an application like codebox or something, stop re-coding the same stuff over and over.

- About the money, don't work for free, charge upfront percentage, the separate account thing is a good idea, I do that.

- Be an expert of your area. Basically, 'skills will set you free'


This guy knows what he's talking about.

He omitted the part about not having to put on pants to go to work, though. That's worth $25k/year to me, easy.


I don't get this with developers. Are pants that uncomfortable? That much of a terrible obligation that you'd forego 25k a year?


Specifically, it's more the "working someone else's schedule" than anything. Also, traveling to some other physical location. Commuting is a total drag, and it's nice sometimes in the middle of a project to postpone the shower until _after_ work that day and sit around in your skivvies in Get Shit Done mode until dinnertime.

Surely I can't be the only one who transitions from sleeping to awake with some crazy architectural change or refactoring in their head? I go straight to the keyboard and do it while it's all crystal clear in my mind.

The only time in the last five years I've _ever_ set an alarm clock is when I've had a doctor's appointment before noon.

Home is comfy.


As someone reading this post while working from home on my sunny balcony at 10:30 am and still in PJs, the freedom is worth at least $25k per year.


I could do this, but the majority of the time I choose to work fairly close to regular hours at a coworking office.

So I guess this freedom is worth different amounts to different people.


I'm almost at the end of my second month freelancing (post to come soon) and find this inspiring.

My biggest struggle at the moment is what to aim for, yes working three days a week and getting similar money to what I was earning full time is great. Yet at the same time I'm not sure if this is enough for me personally. In fact when I start talking to my friends in full time jobs I kinda feel guilty!

Maybe I need some more hobbies, but at the moment the draw of earning more money by working harder is far too appealing. It seems I just can't say no to money.


Do it then, and save it so you don't have to work. Part of the glory is being able to decide for yourself.

When I was freelancing, I'd be putting in 50-60 hour weeks most of the time, because I felt like the hustle really paid off, but any time I got burnt out, boom, time off.


Very nice look at making the move. I freelance on the side now, but I might look to do this in a couple of years if things go (or don't go) well with my next move.

Health insurance wise, we're you able to get coverage for yourself, or are you participating in a COBRA plan from your previous employer? To be honest, health insurance is probably the one thing that would keep me employed in regular salaried position. The fear of having a medical emergency and it wiping out my savings is a scary and totally realistic possibility.


There are a couple of options for health insurance. If you have a spouse who has health insurance through their job, you can join their health insurance plan. If you want to go solo, I've had good success with using ehealthinsurance.com.

When I was laid off from a job a few years ago, I compared the COBRA price to ehealth, and I found COBRA to be priced about 4 times higher than if I chose a similar plan from ehealth. And, with the same brand insurer.


I've been worried about getting labeled with "pre-existing conditions" that won't be covered if I go that route, for things that I'm currently covered for. Can anyone comment on that?


We'll see what the outcome of ObamaCare in regards to pre-existing conditions, but the way things are right now, if you go with an individual insurance(i.e. not part of a larger company's group plan), should you develop a medical condition, you will eventually be priced out of cheaper "risk categories", i.e. your insurance costs will be increasing year after year and you wont be able to change plans into other competitive healthcare plans because they will deny you due to these pre-existing conditions. Many states, including california, provide special plans for those who are denied coverage elsewhere, but they are ridiculously expensive(think over a $1k per month per person). If you have a family and your spouse doesnt have insurance, healthcare could be an expensive gamble...


Does anyone have an idea what kind of programming jobs lend themselves best to part-time work? The author doesn't mention the kinds of projects he works on.

I'm unemployed since last week and I've been trying to find a part-time programming job for more than three months in Geneva, Switzerland. Part-time freelancing sounds great, but I have no idea where to look for clients.


See http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4215576, but just look at what niche skills you have and find markets where those are needed. Generally if they are in demand, putting yourself on LinkedIn / Github with those specialties is all you need, for example http://mrooney.github.com/about.


Without knowing what his income goals are, it's hard to know how well this would work for others. Most people can't easily charge more than $100 per hour for consulting, unless you have niche, in-demand skills, or are notably above-average in skills and you can back that up somehow (like you wrote a major FS/OSS tool that people know about).


Pretty much anyone will have specific experience that they can market themselves for. Just think about what you've done in your past few jobs, and you probably know more than 99% of developers in those specific areas you worked in. If you check out my About page at http://mrooney.github.com/about, you can see I'm not marketing myself just as a general web developer, as you don't stand out that way and can't charge a good rate against all the competition.


You know, you don't have to give up the "safety and security" of a full-time gig to have the freedom and control-your-own-schedule benefits of a freelancer. The "Results-Only Work Environment" (http://www.gorowe.com) is trying to merge the stability and benefits of a full-time job and the flexibility and freedom of freelancing.

If more gigs embraced ROWE, perhaps folks wouldn't have to choose the lesser of two evils.

Not saying that freelancing or consulting is bad, just that I think there's a viable alternative. I don't know what the future looks like, but I certainly hope the "40 hr salary work-week" goes away.


Only thing you're missing out on is the ability to work on and towards your own projects.

Not sure about the average freelancer, but most technical freelancers I know see it as a stepping stone towards getting their own little SaaS or iPhone app business off the ground.

If you're working full-time for a company, IME contracts tend to own all intellectual output at your time there, at home or otherwise. This doesn't matter much if all you do is put out MIT licensed experimental programming language parsers, but I wouldn't put many companies above executing on those terms should a product you build in your off-time achieve success.


That's just a matter of negotiation.

If you are billing significantly above $100 per hour, you are not a commodity technical talent and have leverage in negotiations. Redline the IP clauses you find objectionable, and supply alternate phrasing. Stress that whatever is paid for by the project from inception to delivery remains solidly available to the client. Lots more details for freelancers to work out, but I don't want to hijack this discussion and just wanted to point out you don't have to accept the standard boilerplate if you don't want to.


I think it's possible that you've misunderstood the comment I was replying to. The poster is referring to permanent employees under a ROWE-like system.

As you say, I would have to be in dire financial straits before I accept a freelance contract that even casually mentioned IP outside the scope of a given clients project.


That's insane. I'd never work at a place that required me to signaway my rights. You reap what you sow.


Interesting, I take it this is not the norm in the US (I'm assuming that's where you're located).


I've worked in a half-dozen companies here in the US and never was asked to sign something remotely like that. Obviously there were IP clauses but they were all reasonable. That sucks if it's commonplace in the UK.


Not sure if it's commonplace but I've worked at a comparable number of companies full-time and there's almost always a clause that mentions it. I don't think I've ever been threatened with it being enforced, but it's one of the reasons I went independent.


Personally i didn't like freelancing from home all that much.. i did it for 3 years but overall you feel quite lonely sitting at home most of the day without coworkers to talk to. Work life/private life gets really mixed up and sitting around in your undies until noon wasnt really all that exciting after a while. Be careful to not isolate yourself too much! I love freelancing, but today i share an office with other freelancers and try to separate work/private life more clearly. Made me happier, YMMV


Why is it that I do not see people in India freelancing? I do not know of a single person who freelance in software development and I live in Bangalore, touted as the Silicon Valley of India.

Is it that the developers here are not good enough, or not trustworthy enough. Or is it that they are unwilling to take the plunge into the unknown. I do think there surely is an inertia factor to it. But that's true anywhere else.

Maybe I just haven't looked well enough.


I live in Bangalore. Did 'freelancing' for >10 years. Now doing a spot of product dev (so not doing that anymore). I know many people who do (and drop back into BigCo jobs for a year or two when they want to take it easy for a while). Lots of people freelance in Bangalore. The key is to have some kind of specialized skill (design,analytics, etc) - vs generic web stack (J2EE, RoR etc) skills.


Hey! Great to know that I was wrong! Do you know a lot of people doing it/did it, or are you an exception? And who were you clients, i.e, were your clients Indian companies or are people in the US, UK etc ready to invest in freelancers in India.

And did it pay well enough for other people to consider it?


I've worked for both Indian and US 'companies' (quotes because some were research labs etc).My 'clients' were people who came looking for me because they know someone who recommended me. I never did any marketing and have no skills therin, and probably would botch it if I tried.

I am not an exception.I know tonnes of people who do 'freelancing', though most of them end up starting small companies to take care of taxes etc. (they do much better marketing than I do) and work on a time and materials (x $/hour) basis (I don't). They work for companies in the US/Europe. With rare exceptions, it doesn't make economic sense to work for Indian companies, though it depends on the value you can add. Pays much better than the BigCo salaries (I know people making more than 100k US $).

The hard thing is establishing a reputation for competence, since with so many body shopping companies (Infosys, TCS etc) hiring (literally) battalions of borderline incompetents, "Indian developer" has come to be synonymous with "incompetent fraud" in many people's minds in the west (can't blame them, really), especially in the outsourced context. Standing out in this sea of ultra cheap incompetence takes a lot of work. The ability to communicate well (both oral and written) in English is critical.

All that said, here is some free advice. If you don't have any specialized skills, are not prepared to work really really hard (much harder than in your usual Indian Bigco), don't (personally) know any potential clients, don't jump into freelancing. It is not easy.

By the time I was ready to quit the 9 to 5 BigCompany grind, I had many offers to freelance. I just got lucky and I am really the wrong person to give advice on how to freelance in India.

And that is all I have to say. Cheers.


If anyone is looking to freelance in Australia (specially Melbourne) then please reach out to me at sam@dragonflylist.com - specially if you're a front-end developer or mobile developer.

We don't take a percentage of your earnings (we charge a subscription to the agencies instead) and we have WAY too many requests for positions for us to fill at the moment.


How does freelancing relate to consulting?


Same thing, slightly different connotations.

Consulting implies a more advisory role while freelancing implies you are working on something.

Another similar term is contracting. The implication of contracting is that you only work on one project at a time. Often enough at the company's office as well. Contracting is more like a temporary work situation.

'Creative' industries like web design and development have a tendency to use freelancing. While consulting or contracting would almost always be used when developing a java program for a bank.


Indeed, I used the term freelancing as in my mind it is the parent term of both contracting and consulting. I think "6 months of working for myself" or "6 months of self-employment" would also be equivalent.


Are there any freelance jobs which aren't web-related?

I am a software engineer specializing in robotics systems, and I find it really hard to find contract work that doesn't involve Javascript/PHP/etc, let alone one that involves engineering systems.


There are definitely freelance jobs that don't involve the web - I know folks who have them, doing e.g. optics design - but they're rarer, just because the potential customer base is so much smaller. And obviously in robotics systems it will be harder to telecommute.

The usual advice is to specialize in something that's specific but in demand. For example, you could get really good at setting up a particularly common type of robotics system, or setting up systems for a particular type of problem. Perhaps try approaching the sales folks for a robot company and seeing if their customers are often looking for experienced freelancers: If so, would they be willing to recommend you? (Of course, if the robotics company has its own consulting division you might not have much luck with this plan…)


What specifically is he using for a healthcare plan?


Health insurance costs vary dramatically. My wife and I have bought our own insurance in CO, CA, and OR. We usually pay around $150-250 / month (for us both, not each) for a decent plan with a deductible of $2k-5k. I always use esurance.com.

That said, he's in the worst insurance market in the US: NYC. To get the equivalent of the $168 / month plan we have now, esurance was at least $800-1200. Sickening. Best bet I found is Freelancers Union. Health insurance is horribly broken in NYC.


I'm also a consultant, and use Kaiser in California. I'm paying about $160 a month for full coverage. Although my plan does have a $2000 deductible, preventive care is free, so other than my premiums I haven't had to cough up anything yet.


What about prescription drug coverage? What are your copays for non-generic vs. generic?


That I can't answer, as I haven't needed to get a prescription for anything in awhile.


Check out www.ehealthinsurance.com. It's legit and many health insurance company websites use their platform to return quotes.

Be careful if you have certain prescription needs and check with each company if they cover what you need; the list changes company to company.


I got a lot of questions about this so I added a paragraph which hopefully helps to address it:

"Healthcare is a big and challenging topic, so if you find this to a problematic point for you, there’s a whole chapter devoted to it in the all-around very thorough book Working for Yourself. The short version is that if you can get on your spouse’s plan, that’s a great option, and COBRA can also be used if affordable, and can be turned into a personal plan after 18 months. I decided to go with an individual plan, looking extensively at both freelancersunion.org and ehealthinsurance.com before choosing a plan from the latter."


Where do you find work? Is I just word of mouth?


I tried to address this in http://mrooney.github.com/blog/2012/07/01/freelancing-a-6-mo..., but let me know you find it lacking!


No. I have the same question.


Are there some online sites to get a freelance job?


What are the best sources to get freelance jobs?


I've found it's networking, all the way. A lot of random work will come from the ether once you've done good work for a few clients, and then they recommend you to their contacts.

I quit my full-time a couple months ago and it's how I've gotten all my work.


I'm currently trying to get into the freelancing gaming. This article and the comments here have been very helpful! Thanks everyone. :)




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