Freelancing: Year One

It’s been just over a year since I started working for myself, and during the last 12 months I’ve learnt a lot, both about the work, and myself. Having reached this milestone, time to take stock and review my goals for the year ahead.

In many respects, this post can be seen as a follow up to the one I wrote in October which described the difficulties I was having finding work. Ironically, by the time that post was published (it was written several weeks earlier as a submission to the Pasty Box Project), I’d found a new client, and haven’t stopped working since. Perhaps now, several months on and with a full year behind me, I can provide a more balanced view.

Time well spent

Let’s get the vulgarities out of the way first. Over the year I earned an amount comparable with the salary I received the previous year – not bad considering I was practically unemployed for four months. Income covered outgoings, and with savings to fall back on, money wasn’t something I needed to worry about. Given the situation faced by many others, I recognise that I’m in a very fortunate position – more on that later.

Besides this, a more significant measure of success would be to consider my original reasons for going solo. I hoped that by having greater freedom, I could choose how to spend my time; to spend more of it doing more meaningful things. If I’m honest, ‘meaningful’ was – and still is – something I have trouble defining. Interestingly, the act of writing this post has helped me break this down into a set of questions I should ask myself before taking on new projects. These are:

  • Does an organisation share my values?
  • Will my contribution help them achieve their goals?
  • Can I learn anything during the course of this project?
  • Am I likely to enjoy working on it?

Using these questions as a basis, I can get a sense of how well I did during my first year.

Values

Summarising each of the four main projects I worked on in one sentence, I can say that:

  • I helped an employee-owned retailer think about how they could make their website device agnostic,
  • I developed a front-end UI toolkit that would allow a pharmacy to build an online consultation questionnaire,
  • I designed a tool to help people in the charity sector connect with each other and share ideas,
  • I redesigned a significant marketing page for an English language school.

While none of these initiatives is going to change the world, I didn’t help any organisations sell products that do harm, coerce people into believing things which I myself disagree, or adopt any dark patterns to deceive users. And while none of the projects I worked on will adversely impact peoples lives, they will make a set of tasks – however mundane they may be – a little easier to complete. That said, few of the projects I worked on aligned squarely with my interests (no doubt due to the difficulty I’ve had defining them), so there’s plenty of room for improvement. 6/10

Contribution

Ultimately, it’s this second factor where my impact is likely to be more immediately felt: did my contribution help the organisations I worked with meet their goals? On this count, I think I can say a very clear ‘yes’!

Two projects come to mind in particular. The first involved taking on more of a teaching and enabling role, devising and running workshops to help a group of designers and developers become more comfortable working in the less predictable world of responsive design. This was not something I was accustomed to, but I rose to the challenge – and people noticed. On a more recent project, the appreciation of those I was working with as well as the company founders, was evident. It’s nice to feel valued. 8/10

Learning

Every project provides an opportunity for learning – even if it’s how not to run a business! Yet working alone also highlights the limits of my expertise. On occasion, I found myself knowing that a certain course of action was incorrect, yet unable to suggest alternatives. Having colleagues to take up this slack or be on hand to get a second opinion from, is a major benefit of working in a team. So too is strength in numbers; it’s hard to make the case for something when it’s one versus many.

In terms of more practical lessons, working to a deadline, and without this support network, meant I was forced to investigate new aspects of front-end development more rapidly. The intricacies of internationalisation and flexible box layout was a highlight; scroll-based animation, not so much. 6/10

Enjoyment

Many of the questions I’m asking here are quite selfish and none more so than this last one: did I enjoy myself? On this I find myself split. The immense buzz I got when things were going was undermined by those times I felt more isolated. The projects I enjoyed most were those where I worked as part of a team; working for myself, but not by myself. 7/10

Onwards

Overall, I can close the book on this first year having learnt some valuable lessons and with a firm foundation to build upon. As such, here are the areas which I wish to focus on over the coming year:

Manage my calendar

To divide a year equally between working on my own projects, working with Clearleft, and working with new organisations is a great way to get the best of all worlds. Looking back, that’s exactly how I spent last year, though more by luck than by judgement. I need to be more strategic in deciding which projects to work on, and when. Given that last summer saw a slump in work, I’m going to block out that period this year to concentrate on my own projects – and prepare for my talk at Smashing Conference later in September.

Find new partnerships

That I had the most fun working as part of larger teams, I’ll seek projects that allow me to do this. So far, the only agency I’ve worked with is Clearleft, yet one of the reasons for leaving my permanent role there was to work with other agencies. I’ve already spoken to some potential collaborators, so this goal should be more than achievable.

Seek ideal projects

Over the last month I’ve started to get a better sense of which interests I want to get more involved in. These include:

  • Urban planning, architecture and the built environment, as well as transport (railways!) and other infrastructure projects.
  • Environment and sustainability issues. I’m particularly intrigued by projects that aim to make a big difference by enacting small behavioural changes.
  • History and the humanities, especially those relating to the last 150 years, and cultural events such as the Olympics and other international festivals.

In addition to these topics, I’d relish the chance to work alongside a branding agency. I don’t design many identities myself, but I have a keen interest in this area of design, and many of my design heroes have operated in this space. I also really want to work with an organisation based somewhere in northern Europe, especially on a project that involves spending considerable time on the continent.

Wishful thinking? Maybe, but publicly acknowledging these desires is a good first step on the road to fulfilment, I reckon.

Grow my network

In order to achieve these aims, I’ll need to diversify my network. One of the things I’ve found quite surprising is how closely this maps to people who have passed through Clearleft. That’s no bad thing – many of my interests and values align with theirs. Given my often introverted and reserved nature, I find meeting new people at events quite difficult, but this is something I’ll need to overcome.

Share the proceeds

As I mentioned earlier, I remain in a very fortunate position: I get to do what I enjoy, and I get paid to do it. Now, with a better understanding of my financial situation, I intend to share in the proceeds of this good fortune. Donating a portion of my revenue to charities, I plan to divide this up between a local charity focused on homelessness, and another fighting a global concern, climate change. I hope to write more about this in the coming months.