How I got into freelancing
TL;DR: I jumped into freelancing with blind optimism, almost went broke for it and had just the right amount of luck at just the right time to turn it all around.
Today's blog entry was decided on by Twitter, so for the people who are interested, here's the story of how I got into freelancing from the beginning all the way up to where we are now.
Since there may be a few people reading who are coming here for the first time, I'll give you some basic introduction of who I am, what my experience level is etc. Here goes nothing.
For all intents I have no real educational background. I dropped out of high school in sophomore year (2013) and decided to pick up a vocational training as media designer instead. As part of that I visited vocational school which is four grades consisting of 3x9 and 1x4 weeks of schooling. That's the absolute peak of my education. My highest achievement along traditional academia is a middle school graduation.
No, I'm not kidding. I've never learned about sine and cosine or anything like that. I know that if I enter a sine function in my calculator I get an even wave form. No idea what that's even useful for.
As of writing this post I'm entering my third year of business. Last year I finished with approximately $70,000 in gross revenue. Projections for this year are higher. Now, enough braggy stuff, let's get onto the meat of the story.
Q4 2016: Finishing my vocational training and moving across the country
This is where our story starts. In October 2016 I was about two months from the final exam for my vocational training. By then I had made friends with various colleagues and one in particular. There won't be any names for privacy reasons, but she suggested to team up and try going freelance. She would do the marketing and I would do the coding.
So that's what we did. Around the middle of October we both had an appointment at the Chamber of Commerce and set up
our companies along with a joint company named Marivol. The name was based on
mariposa for butterfly and
At the same time I was about to move cross country from my home in Salzburg to the lovely little province of Burgenland. The combination of this move, my general being fed up with the company I previously worked at and starting a new company led me to one decision
"I will quit my job and go freelance full-time"
In hindsight that was probably not the smartest choice but it is what it is. So for the first two months while I was wrapping up my job situation, my colleague started looking for clients. We put up a website, printed flyers, the whole nine yards.
Q1 2017: Big trouble in little Burgenland
By the time 2017 rolled around we had pulled in a total of four clients. My colleagues idea was to start a bit lower with pricing due to lack of references. That sounded alright and once everything was settled and the dust cleared we had our first revenue.
It came out to approximately $1,500. Yup.
Divide that by two and you'll quickly realize that that's not a lot to live off of. I had savings of course and this was the moment where I was glad I had them. So while my partner continued the search I clenched my teeth and started building.
We finished projects for two of the clients. One client sent us a pre-payment and never replied to a design template we sent them. One client never managed to send us all the necessary data to set up her web shop. We were truly off to a great start. Eventually January became February became March. I turned 20 and had made a total of $400 from freelancing, when a bit of shocking news hit. My colleague couldn't sustain the effort next to her full-time job.
I felt a bit of a bit in my stomach and accepted the fact as it was. The very next day I did the best thing I could think of: Sign up for UpWork and find me some work. So I set up a profile and got to work.
And while it wasn't an overwhelming amount, at least some money started rolling in eventually. By end of March I was up to approximately 400$/month from freelancing with my first repeat customers. It wasn't huge, but at least it slowed the drain on my savings which were growing smaller each month. But the worst was yet to come.
Q2 2017: Living in the Philippines and going broke
Eventually April 2017 rolled around and I went ahead with a plan I'd had for a bit more than a year by then. I was going to visit and live with my girlfriend in the Philippines for three months. This had a few useful benefits:
- Compared to Austria, staying in Manila is quite cheap
- I didn't have to pay household contribution to my parents
- I was with my girlfriend (Duh!)
- Also the food was good. I love isaw to this day.
So on April 15 I flew over and I was supposed to stay until July 15. During that time I kept on searching for scraps and bits on Upwork and all other sites I could find. I posted on Twitter about much of anything I did, simply as a publicity tool. But things didn't exactly get much better. I still hovered around 200-400$ of income per month, which was simply not enough to cover my living costs.
First the evenings out were cut down. Then the weekend trips. Eventually me and my girlfriend shared a single plate of food at a restaurant in her university to make the money last longer. I was still happy being there, but my time was noticeably running out.
And then the big bang happened. Without going into too much detail about everything that transpired, eventually we were asked to stay away from my girlfriend's house for the rest of my trip. This was in the first half of June. And so we did. We hopped on a bus and travelled to some places in Northern Luzon, we stayed at the cheapest hotels possible and spent our evenings eating cheap takeout from 7/11 and watching Gilmore Girls. Two weeks later we returned to Manila when finally the decision was made that perhaps I should rebook my flight and return to home earlier. And so I did.
By this time I had someone reach out to me on Twitter. He asked if I would be willing to help him develop a few things. Apparently he had followed me since way back when I still dabbled in game development and had my old job. We were scheduled to call for a first time soon after I left the country.
So I ended my little flirt with Digital Nomadism and returned to Austria on July 1. All I had to my name was a lead for a freelance job and $100. This was the point at which I decided:
"Either this lead works out and keeps me afloat or I'm stopping this."
Q3-Q4 2017: The Pursuit Of Happiness
I arrived back at home pretty much hopeless and desperate. I took about a week off to replenish some energy and gather some confidence and the I went straight back to work. It turned out to be my last week-long vacation for approximately 1.5 years.
And I had a call. And this call went well. It went very well. So I started helping the person who had contacted me with developing a shop. I helped with developing a fishing trip portal.
On the side I was doing some work for previous customers. By the end of July 2017 I had somehow managed to scrape together an income of approximately $1,500. It wasn't a luxurious living, but for the first time in almost a year I had a living.
I paid back my parents for the leeway they gave me and pursued the lead further. It managed to come out to somewhere around $1,000 to $1,250 per month for this one lead, plus some extra money from other leads. I worked quite a lot during that time and developed a pattern of work schedule.
I'd get up around 8am and would work until 1pm for my big lead. I would then take off some time in the afternoon until maybe 4-5pm and enjoy the sun outside, try and get some of that Vitamin D. I would then return to scheduled calls and keep on coding until 12am or maybe 1am for other projects. It sounds crazy in hindsight, but damn, that was a happy time for me. It felt like I finally had achieved something.
And I don't know why, but once I had that first income rolling, other leads started popping up. A former classmate of mine worked at a local radio station allowing anyone to broadcast their own program. They wanted to relaunch their site from Typo3 to Wordpress and needed some 800 sites of content migrated. So I took the job. It took me two months next to my other jobs, but I had tried to high-ball my hourly rate at that point (which was maybe $45/h).
I got almost $5,000 for this project
This was huge to me! Somebody was actually willing to pay me proper money for my time. All said and done, after various deductions I ended my 2017 just barely below the line at which I have to start paying income tax. For reference, that is about $12,500 in Austria.
Q1-Q2 2018: Continued leads and increased income
So 2018 rolled around. I joined a group I have grown to love and cherish: wip.chat - The group inspired me and motivated me to do my all each and every day.
By this time thankfully there was just enough word of mouth to keep me going. I worked with my main leads from July 2017 and the local radio station along with some small-time maintenance tasks. All said and done it came out to some $2,000 to $2,500 per month. I was able to save again. I got to lease myself a new car.
At this point my old colleague from early 2017 also reached out. She had by now switched to working for the parent company for a few well-known brands and was doing digital marketing. Knowing that I was still around and programming she also generated a few leads for me that kept contributing to this roll I was own. I developed a little digital marketing asset platform for them.
In the spring my girlfriend came by to visit me in Austria for three months. And we had a good time this time around. There was no worry of being kicked out of anyone's house or my revenue stream suddenly draining to zero. Life was good. Also, I got engaged! So that was fun!
And then May 2018 rolled around. A recruiter contacted me on LinkedIn (I know, but hear me out). I responded politely and said that I would be happy to take on some freelance opportunities even for a longer period of time. Apparently they had had some trouble finding people to recruit since it was all very short-term.
I ended up driving to Graz and having an interview with the recruiter. I named him my hourly rate that was a good step above what I charged before (~$70) and he named me the amount of hours that would be approximately required of me each month. I agreed and drove home to do some maths. So I punched some numbers into the calculator and had a bit of jaw-dropping moment. All the thoughts in my head were:
"Wait a sec, they're not going to pay me $10,000 per month, right? I'm 21. That's ridiculous."
And then I was invited to an interview with that company. And they liked what I had to offer. And they hired me for a contract between June 2018 and December 2018. Yes. They paid me $10,000 a month.
Q3-Q4 2018: Holy shit, what is happening
So I started working at said company for payment integrations and I integrated into their team. I was spending approximately 30h/week in their office and then spent another 10-20h/week doing small maintenance tasks where required. Having a big name in my portfolio I upped my hourly rate a bit. I added the company to my LinkedIn profile.
The next 6 months passed rather quietly. I drove out to Graz to work and drove back home again. My office times being approximately 8.30am - 3pm followed by some commuting and some work in the evening. My average income varied between $12,000 and $14,000 each month (although those are gross revenue numbers). I just packed everything into a savings account and decided to live off of $1,500 per month at most.
And each month the money would arrive. And each month I was still shocked. So eventually November came around and the end of my contract drew near. I had a discussion with my superior at the company and after everything was said and done they offered to extend my contract for another 8 months, with more hours.
During this time I really didn't have much time nor energy for any side projects, but I did finally take a week of vacation in November. My first in a year and a half. And in December we signed the contract.
Q1 2019 and beyond
And now, now we're here. My contract runs until August 2019 and I have a month of leave in May due to my getting married and moving my fiancée to Austria. My pay is still on a slight upward trajectory and I do not know where it will go next.
All I know is that right now I have leads approaching me from every side and that I don't really have the time and will to take them on. Starting with the new year I also found some more energy to invest in my side projects. In the first 9 days I've already started this blog, How Much Does This Meeting Cost? and a little nginx wrapper called jinx.
Things are good right now. Things have been good for a long while now. And I stand by one single statement: Throughout most of this journey I had little to no clue as to what I was doing. I lucked out. I really, really had an absurd amount of luck when I needed it the most. And sometimes, a little luck goes a long way.