Yesterday I wrote about the so called “best practices” of the web design industry. Today we’ll take a look at freelancing and starting your own studio—do we have best practices for this as well?
Of course we have. People invent and promote best practices for everything and starting your own web design business, or beginning a freelancing career, is no exception. So I did some research again and following are some of the best practices and general recommendations I found.
Take a salary
Chris Yeh has published an article on the subject over at SitePoint, which covers ten different best practices for freelancers. The first one he mentions is that you should pay yourself a salary.
Keep track of your earnings and give yourself a real “salary” every month. You will have more control over your personal and business finances, and you’ll probably feel a lot better knowing you have some cash in your pocket.
Hopefully you will still have profit left after taking your monthly salary so that you can invest back in your business.
Another thing Chris mentions is that you should consider the time it takes you to actually win work, not just the time it takes you to finish it. Doing so, you’ll see what your real hourly fee end up at.
There are different opinion regarding whether or not business plans are needed. 37signals advocate simplicity and simply doing what you do best, saying that a business plan shouldn’t be necessary for a small startup.
I’d say it’s individual and that in most cases, a business plan is a great roadmap that will guide you as your freelance career or business grows. It’s never a bad idea to document your goals and visions, and make them measurable so that you can determine your success later on.
It doesn’t have to be a long document but you should really get your thoughts about your business documented on paper or into Google Docs for fine-tuning and future reference. A business plan will help clarify your mission and give you focus.
Another best practice on Chris’s list is to conduct performance reviews. You’re using your business plan and other means of defining your goals, so it makes sense to review them later on to see if they were actually achieved.
And if they were not achieved you should ask yourself why not. Find out what you can improve and what lessons you have learned that you should remember. Chris recommends doing this for just a while every three months as a way to improve your business.
Even though it’s boring and you can easily forget to do it, it’s always good to track your time. This will show you a detailed overview of how you spend your time and when a project goes over the estimated amount of time. Then it’s time to start wondering what is going wrong.
Tracking the time spent on client work is most important, especially if you bill hourly, but it’s also good to track other activities. You’ll be able to see how much time you spend blogging or reading for example, which can give insight into the efficiency of your business.
RescueTime is a neat way of actually automatically tracking what you spend your time on when you’re sitting at your computer, and it will even alert you if you spend more than a specified amount of “unproductive” time per day.
Aside from RescueTime, I personally use FreshBooks for fully recording my activities—especially the client work. It’s an excellent web application and it has a convenient Mac OS dashboard widget for easy input.
Besides reviewing your measurable goals, you should also regularly reflect over other aspects of your business. Chris calls this holding “staff meetings” with himself, but I would call it reflecting.
Take some time to go over your business plan and see if it’s still up-to-date, how your workflow works, acquisition of new work, if communication is going well, or anything else that may enter your mind. If you don’t yet have employees, think about what you would discuss if you did.
It’s considered best practice by almost everyone to separate work from personal life and I agree whole-heartedly. You don’t want to feel like you’re working when you are at home with your girlfriend, but if you actually work from home this can sometimes be difficult.
Get yourself a separate working environment where you can go when it’s time to work. The best is to have either your own “off-site” office or a separate room in your house or apartment.
I personally go with a separate room and I really feel like this is my workplace and my living-room is not. As I walk out of this room in the evenings, I leave my workplace and think of other things.
Number two on Chris’s list is to keep your workspace clean and professional. I’ve found that this really improves my productivity and I know that most people agree. If you’re anything like me, you’ll definitely feel more motivated to work if your desk is uncluttered, clean and organized.
It’s just a matter of having the discipline to regularly clean up your office space and trying not to mess it up too much. If you managed to start your own business, you’ll manage to keep your office clean as well.
It’s essential to use some of your profits to build up a financial buffer in case you get some unexpected expenses. What if your computer breaks down right now; do you have the money to buy a new Mac tomorrow? Most people don’t.
Take my advice and save up in case something like this happens. I’ve experienced this when I upgraded my hosting account to an expensive plan and got an unexpected yearly invoice a few months early. Sometimes expenses creep up on you, so watch out and be prepared.
In this article by Kristie Tamsevicius, she explains the importance of time management when running a business—it’s vital to your success. You don’t just have to track it, you also have to manage it efficiently. Tracking your time just provides a way of measuring how well you manage your time.
Keeping a schedule is one of the points she mentions. If you’re using a Mac, I suggest you start using iCal since it’s a very nice piece of software. Furthermore, I also recommend that you get started using a GTD system.
While it’s not for everyone, many people (like myself) enjoy it and find that it increases their productivity a lot. Wikipedia has a long article explaining GTD but if you really want to get into it, I suggest you read the book by David Allen.
Another very important aspect of time management that Kristie mentions is to learn how to say no. To be able to prioritize your tasks and meet deadlines, you sometimes need to say no to ridiculous demands.
Perhaps most importantly, better time management will prevent the stress which can easily pop up for a freelancer or business owner.
This is related to time management but deserves its own heading. Kristie explains the importance of having systems for certain tasks. Following this link you can find examples of 50 systems that can be implemented.
Having a system for how you do something will increase your efficiency. Decide how you bill your clients, how you provide a quotation or estimation, what applications you use for certain activities, how your project workflow looks and so on.
I’m not saying you should turn yourself into an assembly line worker with a fixed way of doing everything—just saying you can optimize your business by tweaking the way you do things.
While I personally may not be the greatest example of a developer with a solid portfolio, we all know you should have one. Pick out some examples of your best work and put it on your website so that potential clients can check it out and see how extremely skilled you are.
If you feel that you don’t have the time or the design experience to create your own portfolio from scratch, there are websites out there you can use to make a pretty decent one.
I’d say you should have at least four or five projects in your portfolio—I personally have three or four proper ones so I need to add more. I’ve taken a different route though and created kind of case studies of my projects to make them more interesting.
I’m planning to also add testimonials from happy clients since that will surely affect potential clients. Your website is a big point of sales where you should promote and sell yourself and your services so make sure you have one and try to at least make it look like you know what you’re doing.
One more thing I can think of that pops up in many freelancing and startup articles is promotion. Believe it or not, it’s generally recommended to talk to a lot of people. See if your friends know someone that needs web work, if your clients know someone, if there’s more work you can do for existing clients and so on.
Many (I don’t want to say “most” until I have statistics) designers and developers these days have blogs and it’s becoming a more and more important means of promoting your expertise while also contributing to your fellows.
Then of course we have Twitter—we all use Twitter, right? I just noticed this new service today called Endor.se where you can use Twitter to recommend people for certain things. Reminds me of LinkedIn which is another professional networking site you can use for recommendations.
Specify the scope of your project before you start working on it, and be very detailed when doing so. Make sure you get all requirements and timelines on paper so that both you and the client knows what to expect and when to expect it.
This way you prevent so called “scope creep” where you start adding things to you project which are outside the scope, and can lead to differing expectations, unnecessary disputes and projects spiraling out of control.
Have a solid contract with your terms and conditions, intellectual property rights and so on. Make sure you will get paid for the hours you work even if the client for some reason decides to cancel the project half-way through.
There’s so much it’s practically impossible to list everything in a single post. In fact, all of these headings could be made into their own blog posts since there’s so much to say about each of them.
Pricing your work right is something that is discussed and written about a lot, and here’s a few articles on the subject:How To Set a Price???????Freelance PricingPricing Web WorkPricing Your Work Based on Value
If you want to learn more about freelancing or starting your own business, I suggest you take a look at the other posts and articles on the sites I’ve linked to in this one. These sites are great resources which I can really recommend. Of course, you can also ask me or any other business owner.
Today I received the supposedly very good SitePoint book The Principles of Successful Freelancing so hopefully I’ll soon learn a lot more about this!