Everyone has heard the incredible freelancing success stories: you can earn more, choose your own working hours, opt to sit by the pool or work from your sofa in your PJs, pick your own clients and be your own boss – and all that by simply setting up as a freelance programmer. So, surely it’s a no-brainer!

As simple as it sounds, most freelance programmers discover early in their career that the climb to the top is littered with the broken dreams of fallen comrades.  If you are going to make it as a successful freelancer, forget these 6 clichés:

# 1. “Freelancing is going to make me rich”

Sure, some freelance programmers are being paid £1,300 per day, but these are the superstars of the coding world, the Cristiano Ronaldos of programming.  The reality for many freelancing developers in this highly competitive field is that there will always be someone happy to charge less than you. A quick glance at the competition on some of the big freelance jobagencies reveals a plethora of equally qualified developers with as good a command of English, living in parts of the world where earnings go way further than yours.

# 2. “Still, money is not everything, is it?  There is the freedom of being your own boss”

Ah yes, that glorious feeling of independence: no-one can tell you what to do and when to do it.  Well, no-one except your clients of course.
If you have 10 clients, you have 10 bosses.
The reality is that every client wants exclusive call on your expertise and if they are small businesses or single projects, they are probably working long hours themselves and will call you when they have the time.  That will be the evenings then.  And the weekends.  Bank holidays?  Oh yes, almost certainly.

# 3. “I’ve already got SO many business contacts”

Reality check: competition is fierce so you are going to need every contact you ever made and so many more.  Networking is essential in this business.  As Susan Harkins said:

“I’m only a fickle client or two away from foraging for meals in the Red River Gorge or wearing a cardboard sign that reads “Will program for food.”

Building a stable client base is certainly the way forward but it won’t happen overnight.  You have an amazing website but how do you make yourself stand out from the competition?  Ultimately you are selling YOU, so marketing yourself by creating a stellar site as a portfolio is an obvious first step, usually followed by taking on small, unprofitable projects and even working for free.  Make no mistake; hustling for clients is going to be an ongoing part of your business.

# 4. “I can choose when and where to work”

So, you have left the grey cubicle behind you and the dream of working from the poolside or the sofa is almost a reality.  But wait – what about the hours spent dealing with the emails and fielding the phone calls?  There is still the admin to do and until you have the funds to hire an assistant, no prizes for guessing that it is going to be down to you. Richard Branson put it well when he said:

“As a successful business matures and expands, bureaucracy usually starts to take hold … At this stage, an entrepreneur faces the challenge of how to effectively manage this new structure – a transition that has been the undoing of many enterprises.”

And how are your accounting skills?  A business course would be useful.  Meetings with clients (remember the networking) are a must, but where?  Probably not beside you on the sofa.  Now you have to consider travel time, or perhaps renting office space if your home is unsuitable for those important business meetings.


# 5 “All my clients know they get a bespoke solution using cutting edge technology.”

Really? At a party recently one optimistic contractor was overheard telling a number of diverse entrepreneurs that he had “the ideal solution for your business.”  He had invested a monstrous amount of time and effort in designing his system but his credibility ran out before the canapes.  Retaining your mastery of the latest technology requires constant investment in order to remain competitive in a business where nothing stays current for long and every client expects a solution tailored to their needs.

Now it is your responsibility to find the time and meet the costs of maintaining your reputation as the go-to person for that amazing site or app or digital solution. And the next one. And the one after … well, you get where this is going. Confronted by these demands it soon becomes obvious that freelancing is not scalable – there is only one of you, and you can only stretch yourself so far.

# 6 “I Can’t Wait to Get Away From the Water Cooler and the Office Politics!”

Mmm, now we are back to the whole sofa and pyjamas scenario.  Freelancing will certainly suit you if working in isolation is not a problem but, as recent studies have shown, most of us will miss the office banter, the support of the team and, perhaps more importantly in the programming world, talking over problems and the latest technical solutions over coffee.

As Rick Hurst, a sometime freelancer who has bounced back and forth between employment and self-employment and who sums up beautifully the bleaker side of gigging writes, after a few years of freelancing:

“ … one of my clients offered me a permanent job which came along with a regular pay cheque, paid holiday and other benefits, and as I had been enjoying working in a team, with talented people on interesting projects, I accepted.”

No prizes for guessing that his enthusiasm for the permanent job lasted less than a year.

Nothing stays the same for long in the world of technology.  Freelancing may always be the only option for some developers but now there are other factors to consider.  On one side, organisations need to mitigate risk by controlling the management of employees; on the other, great developers will always want to submerse themselves in the latest technology with the possibility of creating code on an infinitely wide range of projects.

These are exciting times for us.  As insiders we can see that the challenge of reconciling these seemingly conflicting demands is having a powerful impact on the whole industry.  We know that change can be a vehicle for advancement and out of this apparent dissonance has come a third way that we think is going to revolutionise how we all work in the industry.