Stepping into the tech freelancing space can be a daunting experience because there are many tradeoffs to be made and complexities to be considered. It helps to first get some advice from those who’ve done it before, so in our latest Future of Work panel discussion, we posed the question: ‘How can you launch your tech freelancing career?’. Here are the top insights that our panelists, Dries Cronje and Inez Patel, had to say about how they got their foot in the door, what it takes to win as a tech freelancer, and how they adapted to make it work for them.
Meet the panel:
As a freelancer, Inez Patel has worked as a user-experience designer for several local and international companies. Her passion for building supportive and enriching communities drives her to bring ethical, design-thinking methodologies into her work. This is clear in her involvement as a Director of Girls Invent Tomorrow, and Founder of She Can Do, where she aims to upskill and empower women in the South African UX, UI and design industries.
Dries Cronje is a technology entrepreneur and the founder of Deep Learning Café, a company dedicated to building AI systems. He is driven by his goal to use technology in a way that helps solve real-world problems, while staying focused on creating the kind of value that can transcend industries. He is very interested in AI and machine learning, and always works at growing his leadership skills in the hope that he will be able to inspire others to grow and become better software makers.
Deciding to move into freelancing
For people who decide to leave a permanent job to move into freelancing, there are many things to consider.
Some people, like Dries, like to spend a few years preparing to make the move. On a personal note, he quickly realised that he would first have to cut down what he spent on things like his car, credit cards and subscriptions. This would mean that he wouldn’t have a huge expenditure to maintain while freelancing, since it can take a while to build up a stable workflow. “I realised that I didn’t need all of this ‘stuff’… It took me two years to cut down my expenses, but I set a date and decided that I would be ready to quit my full-time job by then.”
For other people, like Inez, it’s really difficult to wait for the pivot once they’ve realised that their permanent position isn’t working for them anymore: “Once I realised why I didn’t want to work permanently anymore, I quit my job, drew as much as I could from my pension fund – though I wouldn’t recommend that – and then took two months to figure out what work I liked doing.”
No matter which of these two approaches you lean more towards, you should know why you want to move out of your permanent role before you make any big decisions.
First figure out the ‘why’
Having a good reason to change your working circumstances is the only thing that will give you the motivation to really make it work when things get difficult: “I work in the way that I want to work now, and I haven’t had a single day where I’ve struggled to get out of bed,” Dries shared. “I actually struggle not to work on the weekends!”
By first identifying the reasons why she didn’t want to take any of the permanent job options that she had available, Inez was able to more easily determine what was most important to her. “This helped me define ‘why’ I wanted to move into freelancing.’
However if you go through the process of figuring out why you want to move into freelancing, once you have your reason, all that’s left to do is decide when and how you want to go about it – piece of cake. ;)
Choosing the right time to move
One of the other big questions any software maker moving into freelancing asks is: ‘When is the best time in my career to move into freelancing?’ Some people believe that it is best to first work in the industry, and then move into freelancing when you have some experience under your belt. In the tech industry, it is assumed that years of experience is a good reflection of the skills that you have. But both of our panelists have experienced instances where individuals with 30 years of experience are out-shone by young people who are just coming out of university or college. Inez also argued that “with freelancing, you progress much faster because you’re forced to learn so many new things when you experience different companies, team dynamics and industries.”
In Dries’ opinion, “you have to know yourself and your reason for moving. If you don’t have the skills for the freelancing work that you want to do, then don’t quit your job! Build up your experience, learn the right skills and then move.”
Equipping yourself with the right skills
While it the technical skills needed for freelancing are usually quite obvious to most people, the skills that prove most useful are often more interpersonal. It is important to know which soft skills to level-up on, since they are often quite different from those needed when working permanently.
According to our panel, and some freelancers in the audience, the most critical soft skills for freelancing are as follows:
You need to be good at communicating with your clients to show them that you’re well suited for the job, but also so that you can understand their needs. Your client will feel more comfortable with you as a professional, and also in the work that you do for them. Good ways to maintain good communication with your clients include:
- Being proactively transparent about the way you work, what you’re doing and your timelines,
- Asking for performance feedback after every job, and
- Constantly building and maintaining good relations in every interaction with the client.
While being able to effectively manage your time is also important in a permanent position, new freelancers often underestimate just how crucial it is. Inez reported that “one wrong move can easily mess up your reputation”, especially when it comes to missing deadlines.
The long-term implications of having a bad reputation as a freelancer will mean that potential future clients might not trust you to deliver and rather choose someone else to work with.
To make sure that you remain diligent, Inez recommends building a routine - just like you would in a permanent position. “Otherwise I have days when I’m feeling lazy, watch Netflix and then it’s 4pm,” Inez joked.
At the same time, it’s also important to find a balance between working enough, and working too much. “It’s so easy to just keep working after 5pm”, said Dries, “This is where I need the discipline to deliberately make sure I stop working and take a break.”
3. Networking and self-promotion
Looking for freelance projects takes a lot of work. You actually have to get out there, meet people in the industry and let them know what you do. “You need to learn to network meaningfully, make a good impression, follow up and actually meet new people,” said Inez.
To find good meetups or networking events in your area, you can check out the OfferZen events page. But if you aren’t sure which ones to attend, look at the toolset that you have (Java, UX etc.) and then look for a meetup that matches.
Once you’re at the event, Dries recommends that you “don’t try to sell yourself, rather make friends and build a genuine connection – just start by getting yourself out there!”
For more tips on how to network effectively, you can check out this TED talk on ‘Networking for people who hate networking’ which was recommended by Naomi from OfferZen’s freelancing team.
Another way of getting the word out about what you do is to write about it. As the author of three OfferZen blog articles, Dries mentioned that the reason he writes blog articles is because he realised that no one had any idea what he does, and he had to find a way to show them that. Since his articles went live, he’s had many people approach him to speak at events - and even to offer him work opportunities. If you’re interested in having a look at Dries’ articles, you can check them out here:
- DIY: Growing Chilli-Plants with an Augmented Reality System
- Quick Guide: Introducing AI to Your Company
- Permanent Vs Freelancing: Making the Tradeoff
Looking for work opportunities
While it’s important to have the right skills for the job, most freelancers struggle to actually find available freelancing jobs. While there are some freelancing sites, like Upwork, Inez mentioned that it can be really difficult “because it is sometimes a mission to get your money out of PayPal”.
Instead of waiting painstakingly for someone else to approach you, there are many great ways to make your own work!
Inez believes she is lucky, because the non-profit communities that she is involved with all know that she does freelancing. This means that she often gets approached for jobs - which really speaks to the value of networking!
Dries believes that LinkedIn is a good tool, but noted that initially he made the mistake of thinking that everyone online would just know what he did and then approach him with work. “But It doesn’t work that way, because you first have to:
- Define what you do,
- Look for the problems that potential clients have, and then
- Match with them and show them how you can solve their problems.”
By doing this, clients can see what value you could add to their lives, and they may be keen to work with you as a result. If you partner with other freelancers or companies who have skills that complement your own skills, this could be an even more effective way of showing potential clients that you can deliver on their needs.
You can check out the podcast and video taken at the event at these links:
Podcast of ‘Future of Work: How to Launch Your Tech Freelancing Career’
Video of ‘Future of Work: How to Launch Your Tech Freelancing Career’