My first 6 months (ish) as a freelance web designer

It’s coming up for Another’s half birthday at the end of this month. I know,right? It’s been a whirlwind and a great one at that. More importantly, I’ve survived. While quitting the day job is a scary prospect for many, myself included, it doesn’t have to be impossible.

So what was I afraid of? If you’re considering going freelance you may be worried about a bunch of unknowns. I know there were a few things that ran through my mind before I took the plunge…

  1. How do I take care of my accounts, taxes and all that jazz?
  2. Where do I find new clients?
  3. Will I go stir crazy working on my own?

There’s an answer to nearly every question you can think of. But here’s a few things I’ve learnt in my first 6 months (ish) of being a freelance web designer.

Accounts, taxes and all that jazz
Seriously, it’s cheesy but ‘tax doesn’t have to be taxing’, and the same can be said for accounts. As a web designer keeping on top of the accounting isn’t as complicated as some professions, there are very few overheads to think about. As long as you’re organised, keep track of all money coming in and going out, get receipts for EVERYTHING, make a note of any work related mileage, and be nice to your clients so they pay you on time it’s nothing to be scared of.

I can tell your next question is “what happens if clients don’t pay?” 
While it does happen, it’s not as common as you might fear. But be smart. Personally I take a deposit before starting any work, with the balance to be paid when a project is complete. I’ve had a couple of clients innocently forget to pay before the due date, they received a gentle reminder email where I explain how important it is for me to be paid on time. In both instances I’ve had a phone call the same day to apologise and they’ve paid immediately.

What about actual tax, self assessment and NI?
Being self employed I have the fun task of filling my self assessment. By keeping on top of my accounts throughout the year – little and often is my preferred method – filling out the SA is a painless process. If you’re in any doubt about expenses you can claim, what NI contributions you need to make and anything else tax related I found the HMRC webinars to be a great resource for information.

Keeping on top of it all
I use accounting software, Freeagent*. It’s a subscription based service but at around £16 a month it saves me a heap of time and everything is in one place. I use it to send my invoices, keep track of overdue invoices and any expenses, as well as time tracking for ongoing projects.

* It’s not a sales pitch but that link right there will get you (and myself as a referrer) 10% off the monthly subscription. They also do a free trial.

Finding work and clients
The scary part of this is it’s month on month. By giving up a salary there is no guarantee I’ll make money every month. I have two words – marketing and networking – in equal and large measures.

The first hurdle was coming up with a brand, while I’m a freelancer I decided to trade under the name Another rather than my own name. My main reason is there are quite a few Gemma Harris’ about – I even went to school with one, they put us in the same class, confusing much. Then the next step was the website, the SEO and the supporting documents. All part of the marketing. I’ve learnt a few tricks over the years as a web designer so it was about putting what I know to good use on my own website.

In my first 6 months (ish) I’ve been very fortunate in that I haven’t needed to spend any hard cash on advertising, unless you count the business cards I got from*. I’ve found self promotion, selling yourself to friends, family, previous employers, colleagues or anybody that will listen goes a long way. And yes, this includes the old man that props up the bar at your local.

To start with, the idea of ‘selling myself’ was something I would grimace at, but then I realised that it essentially involved talking about what I enjoy, web design, describing my processes and my work. If potential clients can see your passion they’ll know you’ll do a good job. It’s not all about directly targeting clients though, some of the best conversations and leads have come from peers.

* Again, it’s not a sales pitch but the quality of moo business cards are pretty great. That link right there will get you 10% off your first order, and I’ll get a little off my next order too.

Which leads nicely on to “will I go stir crazy working on my own?”
All I can say is not yet. And as weird as it sounds I never really feel completely on my own. The web community is vast and very welcoming, they’re a social bunch and in-between client work you’ll find them on twitter, writing articles and sharing their experiences. They’re real people too, you can meet them at networking events and such like.

I go along to Second Wednesdays which is a great local event for web related folk to meet, network and listen to speakers talk about what they know best. It doesn’t hurt that you also get a couple of free drinks to get the conversation going!

So essentially….
While it was a daunting decision and one of the hardest I’ve made it’s probably one of the best. I’ve learnt a lot about running a business, about myself and about the industry I work in. I’m more than happy to share any advice to anyone that’s thinking of becoming a freelance web designer, I’m no oracle, I just know what works for me.

And lastly a big thanks!
To everyone that’s got me through the last 6 (ish) months. Friends, family, clients and peers. Here’s to the next 6 (ish) months!!

3 thoughts on “My first 6 months (ish) as a freelance web designer

  1. Martin

    Really nice article. There is a bit of perhaps a misperception that freelancers are in some way elite, but this article lays bare your reservations and vulnerabilities like the rest of us. Do you think you’ll ever go back to helping to make some other guy rich at an agency?

    All the best for another 6 months and beyond – thanks for sharing that hard-learned wisdom 😉

  2. Roisin

    Hi Gemma, great article. I hope it inspires others to go freelance.
    Like you I have been self-employed (marketing consultant) for six months now. Whilst it seemed like a daunting prospect at first I don’t regret it at all, and am loving being my own boss. Great to hear that you are enjoying it as much as I am!
    Good luck for the coming months and years xxx

  3. Alicia

    Hi Gemma! Congrats! I’m also a freelance web designer. Just found this post through Twitter. Will follow along with your progress — I am fascinated by how each individual conducts business. 🙂


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