First year freelancing
I just completed my first year as a Freelance Software Developer.
But, technically, I started this journey way before. In this blog post, I’d like to share with you how I went from full time employee (FTE) for 12 years to self-employed Software Developer.
Be aware, I am here to share my experience NOT to offer advice. There are way more experienced freelancers out there than can help you, and as well, any legal queries should go to professional tax advisors in your country of residence.
My experience goes as follows: I am a European citizen living in Berlin, Germany. In the previous twelve years I worked in four different companies as Software Developer. My tech stack is focused on mobile, mainly Android, but I also do Flutter, iOS, some backend work, etc.
I always worked in small companies, and as part of my job I had to work directly with the CTO, Customer Support, the CEO, Sales, etc. I had to use their language to explain things and coming up with solutions. That forced me to work on my communication skills, which was the best training I did to become a freelancer.
I always wanted to be self-employed. Every time I met one I felt jealous about their freedom and professionalism. It was beginning of 2018 when I started to think seriously about doing this step, and I started to prepare.
I took one year for preparations until I started, and here’s what I did:
The first thing I did was talking with other freelancers. The main question I asked was: “How was your first year?”.
I got many different answers but all valuable. I learned from one to not to overdo it the first year. Another one told me that having all the paperwork ready was key to land a project, as companies don’t want to wait until then.
With the support of my partner, I started doing more research. I bought a couple of second hand books about self-employment in Germany, both in German and very difficult to read for me, but they gave me an idea on the legal details about being freiberufler, selbstständig, Gewerbe, etc. There’s a huge catalog about who can, and who cannot, be a freelancer in Germany.
This guide https://allaboutberlin.com/guides/categories/living-in-berlin/working/freelancing-in-berlin helped me answer most of the questions I had.
Around September 2018 I quit my job, or technically, I announced that I quit. I had a three month notice period, which means that I had to remain working for my employer for three more months until I was officially free.
Having this long notice period was part of my strategy. And around mid October 2018 I finally registered as freelancer. I didn’t do it alone, I spent a couple of sessions with an English-speaking tax advisor who helped me with all the questions I had.
Being registered helped me to get started with expenses. I had to buy a new laptop, get an insurance, etc.
In December 2018 I traveled for almost the whole month on some well deserved vacation. Before the end of the year, and thanks to a friend, I got my first client.
My network has been the best source for gigs
So far this year I have worked on six different projects of different sizes, all from people in my network.
Building a network is not something you can accomplish quickly, it takes years of building trust. Personal friendships are important, but I feel that past coworkers can be very valuable too, and if you had a great time working with them, why not try again?
I reached out to them with a very simple strategy:
- I wrote to people who were working independently in some way or another, like being freelancers or becoming entrepreneurs
- I only wrote to people who I genuinely enjoyed working with
- I was clear about my intentions, that I switched to freelancing and that I was looking for projects, and if possible, to work with them again
There’s a book called Reach Out which inspired me to do this.
And it worked out! I got two projects this way.
Note that I also got many replies telling me that there was nothing for me, and as well, reaching out directly to previous employers was not worth it as my freelancing rates were too high for them.
I need to learn to balance my workload
I am also an author at Pluralsight and I published two courses on Android development this year. Preparing a course is a lot of work, at some point I found myself working during the day for my clients and then recording in the evenings when everyone was sleeping. I attended many conferences and spoke at some of them. Oh, and I also got a puppy this year!
It was overwhelming at times, and that’s why in October 2019 I decided to take a break and not sign any new projects for a while.
How I get organised
I use Bonsai (referral link with a free month) to track my projects: Clients, worked hours, expenses, invoices and so on.
Bonsai also offers templates for contracts which have been useful a couple of times. Always get a contract signed.
Unfortunately Bonsai’s offerings are too focused in the US market, so for example I can’t connect to my German bank account to automatically track expenses.
On the other hand, they have a good database on what other freelancers charge by the hour, which can give you an idea of what to ask for.
I definitely miss more options for non-English speaking countries.
When it comes to charging, I adapt to what my client needs. I have charged per Sprint, per day and per hour. Also, some clients will be OK paying at 15 days, some others prefer 30 days.
I am still getting used to these negotiations and I don’t have a clear favourite way of charging. Everyone has their own opinion on this and does not look like there’s a single way to do it. So… do what works for you.
Will you continue freelancing?
Absolutely. I am happy about this change and currently I have no intentions on going back to full time employment.
The two key points that helped me most where:
- Taking time to prepare: speaking with people, learning everything I could and doing paperwork in advance. All while I was still employed.
- Years of building a professional network through good work and trust.
I love the freedom I have, being able to manage my budgets and my schedule. I understand that this may not be for everyone, but I’m glad I did the jump.