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A programmer’s pocket guide to freelancing

Brian Reindel wrote up this nice piece about freelancing. It's is a nice write-up about some common pitfalls including finances, contracts and self-marketing, and full of good advice. This article is a conglomeration of the lessons he learned, and if embraced, they can help you to become a more accomplished freelancer. Whether you are a full-time freelancer or full-timer freelancing, the following pocket guide will improve your chances of success and open the door to new opportunities.

"A programmer’s pocket guide to freelancing"

Preparing a budget
The first step in freelancing is to prepare a budget. Even if you are not freelancing full-time, this is an indicator of what your time will be worth - not just to your clients, but to you. Managing a budget will help you to set profitability goals and inspire you to make more money, as well as negotiate projects that foster career growth. You should include the following in your budget:
  • The cost associated with incorporating or acquiring a business license.
  • The cost of your computer, peripherals and necessary software, and a breakdown of usage for business purposes.
  • Web site hosting costs for your business Web site.
  • Phone costs associated with managing a typical client.
  • The cost of your Internet connection, and a breakdown of usage for business purposes.
  • The cost of books, manuals or courses related to programming or managing your freelance business.
  • Additional travel expenditures related to doing business, such as airfare, gas, mileage and hotel accommodations.
  • The cost of professional tax preparation.
Determining your billing rate
After preparing a budget you will be equipped to determine your billing rate. Your billing rate is never written in stone. For the first few projects it will be an indicator of your willingness to complete a project. If on average you find that the amount of time you spend with a client is not worth the financial gain, then you will need to raise your rates, or stop freelancing. Market conditions are only a small indicator for how you set your billing rate. If you can sell what you know as insider experience, an above average billing rate will be easier for a client to swallow.

Incorporating

Regardless of your current employment status, doing business as a corporation informs others that you are making an attempt at common sense professionalism. Incorporation is also crucial if you will be subcontracting, as well as for tax purposes. Some states also provide additional legal protections for incorporated businesses. If you have a local chamber of commerce, then they can usually offer some guidance and answer any questions about incorporating where you live.

Knowing your client and their market

Who will be your client and what is their market sector? Infiltrating a familiar market can be an important and intentional decision. It allows a freelancer to claim that they better understand the needs of clients because they have extensive experience and interest in a particular field. Beware of this approach though - if you want to step out of those boundaries, then you should have a good case for applying what you did yesterday to what you can do tomorrow. You will also need to decide if you will run your business in-house or if you will work on location. You can easily siphon out potential projects by this single requirement.

Finding reliable designers

Remember, you are a programmer. I am still surprised to this day how many programmers attempt to design information architectures and creative comps. Again I say, you are a programmer. You will need to find a few reliable designers who have real-world experience and extensive portfolios. For those clients looking for a single source solution, this helps you to become a better prospect. A client relationship can also go sour quick if they are unhappy with your peripheral talents, regardless of your coding skills.

Marketing your services professionally

Apparently you forgot already that you are a programmer, because the Web site you designed for your corporation screams “nerd in a basement”. The first step in marketing your services professionally is to advertise them with class, and that involves having your site designed by a designer. Remember those reliable designers you found for subcontracting? Well, this is the perfect opportunity to find out how well they work under pressure. Have two iterations of your home page designed under deadline, and then solicit feedback from other unbiased third-party designers that you know.

Selling what you know

Now that you have a Web presence established, sell what you know best. That advice seems trivial, but while pitching new business you may be tempted to over deliver. Especially as a contractor, you will be expected to hit the ground running, and unnecessary ramp-up time can sully your reputation quick. Be honest with potential clients, and if you have to discuss a shortcoming, reveal it in conjunction with an eagerness to learn. You will know instantly whether or not the prospect is still interested. Initially when advertising your services, eliminate anything that is not hands-on knowledge or certificate earned. A jack-of-all-trades smells of desperation and mediocrity.

Gathering references
References are a must if you have a limited portfolio. This should be from not-for-profits you have engaged in the past in order to gain experience, university professors, or from co-workers you trust. You will need more than an e-mail address, so be prepared to give a phone number for those whom you have first asked permission. You have not the faintest what a previous client really thinks until you ask them to be a reference, so be sure to get permission. If you have no references, then the best suggestion is to start out by contacting not-for-profits in the hopes of undertaking a few small projects pro bono. References will soon follow.
Writing up a contract

It does not matter the client or the verbal arrangements made between two parties � you must get it in writing. Your contract should include an hourly rate or fixed bid, a payment plan, a project deadline or a timeline, and a specific set of deliverables. The more detailed the contract, the less room there will be for errors in interpretation. You need a signed and dated copy from the primary party involved, which is usually an account representative.

Never freelancing at your full-time job
Set expectations for acceptable contact hours with freelance clients. These hours should in no way be the hours that you work full-time (if you do). Even responding to e-mails sets false expectations. Before you begin a new project you need to inquire if a client is willing to make arrangements for after hours communication.

Being prepared to subcontract
Even the most efficient freelancers promise more than what they are capable of delivering. You should have a pool of subcontractors available for these occasions. Depending on the state or country you live in, you may also have a legal obligation to divulge to the client that you are using subcontractors. If there is a remote possibility this could happen, make it known immediately that you will manage all aspects of their workload, as well as take responsibility for the final deliverables. This is typically enough to set a client at ease, but they may ask for the details in writing as a portion of the contract.

Fishing for referrals

After finishing a project, always ask for referrals. Even if none are provided, you are setting expectations by placing your name in the talent pool. If the relationship is amicable, calling once each quarter or every three to six months in order to inquire about future projects is an acceptable practice. Do not send e-mails if you do decide to contact a previous client. Instead, call them on the phone. It demonstrates initiative.

Having a professional prepare your taxes

Unless your additional income from freelancing is below the cost of having taxes prepared, and you have no write offs, then I strongly suggest having a professional manage your finances. Especially if you are freelancing full-time, this will allow you to focus on collecting payments and managing day-to-day activities. In preparing a budget for the next year, an organized outlook at previous expenditures, billing rates and payments received will be crucial. At the onset of the new business year it can also be helpful to seek out additional tax advice and tips from a CPA.

Fine tuning your budget

Never stop fine tuning your budget! At the end of the year, reevaluate your success or failure and use your budget to minimize costly mistakes and pinpoint areas in need of improvement.

Article source: blog reindel.com

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