The Friendliest Freelancer #14: Twelve steps from employee to freelancer

How do you get started?

This week, we’ll go through the concrete steps you likely need to take after you decide to try contracting/consulting—this is the initial step-by-step guide I wish I had back when I decided I’d had enough of being an employee.

As always, I wish you a great week! ☕

“OK, I think freelancing software development is right for me. What steps should I take to get there?”

I’ve laid out the most important steps below.

Note that some details may change slightly depending on whether you’re doing online, remote only, or focusing on local, regional, on-site, and hybrid projects.

You don’t have to do these steps in the exact order they are listed here, but the more of them you nail, the easier your life will be.

Step 1: Figure out your value proposition

What skills and services will you primarily sell? What are your unique strengths?

Have your selling points ready before you promote yourself and talk to potential clients.

If you think of yourself as primarily a Java developer, database specialist, or full-stack JavaScript programmer, then yes, lead with that.

But your tech skills are only part of the story. What soft skills and project scenarios do you excel in? Maybe you’re particularly good at dealing with legacy software. Or perhaps you’re excellent at collaborating with designers?

Keep this in mind, though: be open to opportunities outside your core selling points. I initially thought I’d sell myself as a full-stack developer but ended up specializing in Android native development for five years instead! I had a few years of experience in that field, but it wasn’t my most solid skill set when I started contracting.

Step 2: Warm up your network

Be ready for a bunch of coffee and lunches! Get back in touch with old colleagues and contacts. Sync up with them and find out what they’re working on.

Let them know you’re available as an independent contractor soon: “Please let me know if you hear about any opportunities!”

There are many ways to broaden your network further: I’ve written more about networking here.

Step 3: Collect testimonials and references

You need some evidence that you’re able to build software. And no, it does not have to be a portfolio: the simplest way is to collect as many testimonials as possible from past employers, managers, and colleagues.

Stuff like this is gold:

“Jane is a pleasure to work with and very good at her craft!”

“Mark is a solid developer; any company would be lucky to have him on their project!”

Social proof is powerful: showing that you have people willing to vouch for you makes you look like a much safer and more attractive choice.

Use the LinkedIn “Ask for recommendation” feature, or email people directly: ask if they’re willing to give you a testimonial and serve as a reference if a potential client does a background check on you.

A bonus side-effect for me when I did this: positive feedback from people I worked with in the past helped alleviate my impostor syndrome a little!

Step 4: Get a grip on your finances

Set up a realistic budget for your personal life, determine your monthly expenses and minimum income. See if you can find ways to lower your burn rate (at least for a while).

Step 5: Build up your savings

If you don’t already have 3 to 6 months or more of expenses in a savings account, try to find ways to save that up (this is why I mentioned lowering your expenses in the previous step).

The idea here is to give yourself more time and less stress while looking for your first client.

After you start your first contract, you can build up an emergency buffer in your company. But for now, you’ll need liquid personal savings as a safety buffer until you find that first client.

Step 6: Figure out your minimum hourly rate

If you have your budget and expenses figured out, you can determine the minimum rate you need to charge clients.

Knowing your minimum rate lets you filter out prospects and opportunities that would pay too little to be worth it.

Step 7: Update your CV

CVs are not just for employers; clients and contracting brokers often request a resume.

Update and improve your CV, and make it easy to see online and share with clients: there are many services to create and host polished CVs.

Step 8: Set up a web landing page

You’ll want at least some web presence: a domain name and a website that lets you present yourself, your services, and what people say about you (remember step 3 above?). In addition, make it simple to find your CV on your website.

Don’t overthink this initially: a minimalistic WordPress or Squarespace site is enough.

Step 9: Create a portfolio (maybe)

This one’s optional: I know many contractors and consultants who do just fine without an online portfolio page. And many developers work on internal projects, which can be tricky to show to potential clients.

However, if you do have any public projects, take the time to craft a portfolio page on your website where you can show them off.

If you don’t have any public work you can showcase, you could create a few projects—if you have the time and energy. Make sure to scope them way down, though: you want to show off small, finished, polished pieces, not a graveyard of ambitious but unfinished projects.

Step 10: Set up your company

Register your company, create a business bank account, and find a good accountant.

Research your local tax laws and other legal requirements you should know of upfront. A good accountant can help you get up to speed on this.

Step 11: Start doing outreach

Many of us find our work via referrals and word of mouth in our network. However, when you start, you might need more than this, so be ready to hunt for leads.

Talk to contracting brokers and headhunters (some recruiting companies also broker contracting and consulting projects—in return for a cut of your hourly rate).

Contact local contracting/consulting agencies (many of them use subcontractors if they have too much work; they, too, will take a cut out of your hourly rate if you work as a freelancer under their umbrella).

Contact potential clients via LinkedIn, email, or phone. One typical way to find clients who need temporary help is to look for companies with open job ads. Sometimes, they urgently need help in those areas and may consider using contractors while looking for new employees.

Step 12: Resign from your job

Some developers leave their old jobs before finding their first freelance contract, and others after.

In any case, resign your position professionally and respectfully. Don’t burn any bridges. Be open with what you’re doing, and offer transition support to your employer.

You never know: they might want you to stay on as a contractor while they look for a replacement. For many freelancers, their last employer ends up becoming their first client!

So, that’s your pre-flight checklist. Take your time, don’t rush it, and good luck!

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Thomas Kjeldahl Nilsson

Software dev of 20+ years now helping other devs gain autonomy and become calm, independent contractors—new issue every other Sunday

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