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Starting as freelancer

By André Jaenisch on 08.01.2023. About 7 minutes reading time. This text is estimated to be fairly difficult to understand.

This is the week when I became a freelancer. I’m super excited!

I received messages from friends that asked me how I did that. They have
thought a similar career move but feel overwhelmed by all the things that one
should keep track of to get it right.

So in this blog post I will focus on the industry I’m working in:
Web Development. Your mileage may vary in other fields (I will mention it on
those occurences where I am aware of). I don’t claim to have an exhaustive list
of steps. In fact, I’m quite sure I missed something. When in doubt, turn to
some consulting.

With that out of the way, here we go!

Prerequisites

The very first thing you should consider is this:

Is freelancing for me?

That question revolves around a bunch of smaller ones:

  • Do I want to build a product or offer a service?
  • Is there a market for my product or service?
  • Am I willing to handle the paperwork? At least intially?
  • Do I have enough savings to bootstrap a company?
  • How do I get started? Where can I find my first contracts?

Let’s take a look at them:

Do I want to build a product or offer a service?

I am going the service route here. I feel like a product would require higher
investments, because I likely need more infrastructure and equipment.
Working as a web developer is something I have experience in. I did so as
employee for a decade now after all. I can get started with a laptop and an
Internet connection basically.

But there’s a catch: I can’t work from home. You see, Germany has regulation
about which buildings can be used for what. It turns out that I live in a
house that is meant for living (d’oh). Asking my landlord revealed that I am
not expected to welcome customers here and can not put a shield on the entry
to declare my business here. Therefore I have to rent some office space.
That’s actually quite expensive (more about that in a minute) but doable.

Next to offering web development I have experience in areas that other
developers don’t. Therefore I am offering consultancy as well.

Is there a market for my product or service?

Well, I still receive offers for job position, so yeah. Web development is in
demand. A product would require a little more lead time, because there is an
exploration phase where you try to identify a problem and attempt to pitch
possible solutions to it (Lean Product philosophy). I have some ideas of
products but I don’t want to follow them just yet.

When you are in doubt, ask for consulting in this area. There’s even the option
to receive some money from the state if you ask for it. Conditions attached.
(You have to search for someone willing to offer given time constraints put on
you by the state and to a certain budget they allow you. Has to be completed
before you found your company).

Am I willing to handle the paperwork?

Well, this is the area where I had some doubts. You see, you have to keep
invoices (and likely communication) for ten years. Thar requires some leel of
self-organisation and discipline. There is the option to offload certain tasks
to other people (e.g. tax declarations, marketing etc) but they charge you for
it. If you don’t have the money, you’ll have to deal with it on your own.
Good news is that there are plenty of books and online articles that explain
what to consider. Keep an eye on the dates, though.

Especially invoices should be get right if you want to keep the money.

Do I have enough savings to bootstrap a company?

To answer this question let’s look at what you need to pay:

  • Office space (this will likely be the highest cost center)
  • Business account at your bank (has monthly and annually fees in my case)
  • E-Mail and web space (quite cheap these days)
  • Registration fees (unlocking other opportunities)
  • Communication bills (phone, Internet etc)
  • Insurances (you are exempted from certain insurance obligations in Germany
    but it might make sense to voluntarily pay for them. Think legal fees or
    health insurances).

I hope I covered everything here. Keep in mind that there’s some time window
(months to years) for insurances.

Where can I find my first contracts?

Ideally you would already have some before you even start!
If not, there are platforms you can create a profile on and expose yourself to.
If you plan ahead, word-of-mouth marketing (i.e. telling your friends and
family about your plan) is the cheapest and most reliable way of landing a
contract. Once you have a customer, ask for a testimonial or reference latter
at the end. This will create social proof when put on your website that eases
the contracting for future customers.

Where do I stand now?

I have some fees to pay but wait for certain devices that allow me to do
online banking. Meanwhile I have an office space which I can enter next week,
an e-mail address and a business account. My savings will keep me afloat for
a few weeks which should suffice because I am already in conversations with
customers. I will do some more marketing (accounts are already created) once
I can focus on it. That is, school holidays will end this week and I have some
quiet time here. I keep a list of open tasks so that I don’t forget anything.

What do I do?

I founded a company as one-man business („Einzelunternehmen”). My industry will
be web devlopment and consulting as mentioned before. Specifically I am
offering to work in Frontend unless you are looking for Node.js or Python. In
those cases I can do Backend as well. I will definitively contribute in these
languages in Open Source. Speaking of Open Source, I’m an enthusiast, so you
will hear from me in this regard when working together.

Since I am valuing high quality I feel like legacy projects would be a better
fit than greenfields projects. So something that already has proven to solve a
problem and fit a market and now need to mature. Or something that already
matured but got so convoluted that nobody dares to touch it. Because I trade
quality for speed. I want to build something that lasts. Therefore I will
refactor code and ask a lot of question to dig into your domain.

There are industries I don’t work in. Namely banking and insurance. But also
defence. Expect an instant decline if you approach me with it.

In that regard I’ve got opinions on frameworks and the Cloud. You can
ask me about them.

What do I need?

Customers :) At least for the first half. I am expecting to be admitted to a
grant that will pay half a year of income. Be aware of so called
false self-employment. That is, make sure to have a variety of customers to
avoid trouble with the state.

I have a pile of books here that I want to read (and talk about, stay tuned).
But attending conferences turn out to be expensive. I’m in conversations with
a few organisers but might also focus more on local meetups for now.

All in all I’m optimistic that this can work out. I had enough relationship
building in the past decade that I have a network that I can leverage and
earned a reputation with those folks I have worked with. Now I can reap the
fruits of my work.

Books that have proven helpful are Successful Freelancing For Web Designers
and [Starthilfe für Freiberufler][starŧ].

I’m aware that I will have a wonky standing in the beginning until I have a
reputation in the market that I can leverage another strategy that is
reflecting me as a person. Unfortunate, but that’s the downside of
starting a business in just two months.

If you are interested in working with me, drop me a line. I’m looking
forward to hear from you!

Where to go from here?

I already have some chances that might turn into projects but I also will up
my game regarding marketing in the coming weeks to fill my pipeline. Given that
I apply for grants I prefer contracts for about three months at the moment.

For the time being you can also contact me with part-time contracts.
That will allow me to have a safe baseline while you get access to focused
consulting by me as a free bonus.

I am well-prepared for remote work. If you require me to be on-site then you
should have an office in the city of Stuttgart or reduce the number of times
I shall enter an office to increase the likelihood to safe a contract. I am
still very keen on wearing a mask. COVID-19 isn’t over. Instead we have it
permanently by now.