Freelancer Interview: Sergio Fernandes, software developer

This week’s freelancer interview is with Sergio Fernandes, a Portuguese software and Sharepoint developer I met while working remotely from  Thailand.

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Sergio Fernandes and I am freelancer software developer. Right now I am based in the south of Portugal but last couple of years I was working and traveling to Brazil, Spain, Indonesia and Thailand (where I met Nick).

What led you to start freelancing?

I am freelancing for the last 6 years almost, before that I was working on a corporate job in Lisbon (Portugal capital), but something changed in my life and I start to feel the need to have more time for myself, to have my schedules, to able to be “more free”, so I start to investigate about remote working jobs, freelancing and figured out that in my line of business, the software development area, there are a lot of opportunities, a lot of websites with remote work positions worldwide. It does not matter where you live, you need to have a good internet connection and deliver work on time: that is it!

What three things do you wish you’d known before starting out?

That feeling you have when has been 2 months and you cannot get a new client/project it is hard to deal, still struggling with that sometimes, but it is getting better. Loneliness could be fatal when you only use your home based remote work office, it is very important to work also with other people, to leave the house for a coffee, gym, a beer, whatever (I got a kitten, that is my house project manager so she never let me be on the same place for too long). The last one I wish that I could be a better negotiator when I started freelancing, got a couple of complex works for low money, but it takes time and also it takes experience.

What issues have you had since starting up?

If you do not have a good and solid contract agreement with the client they may not pay you, or take time to pay you, that is very important. Mainly issues that I have, I do not know if I can call it issues, it is the follow up you need to do almost on a daily basis for your clients, new clients, leads, etc., until you have a good and solid client list that can reference to other possible clients and then you turn your clients into your own “sales person”, that is what I am struggling nowadays.

What’s the best thing about freelancing?

Freedom. Mainly that is the thing. You are free to work on your own hours, you are free to work on anywhere you like. You are free to go to the gym or the beach on the middle of the day and came back and work during the night. A lot people work better in the morning, others in the night, so you are free to choose when to work.

How would you like to develop your freelance career in the future?

I have a couple of objectives, to have my own virtual development team and offer better services to local markets (like the one I am living right now) with better prices and the same quality of work. A couple of other things but are still ideas, maybe on a next interview I can “open more the book”!

Anything else you’d like to tell anyone thinking of or currently freelancing?

Hustle hard! It is not easy in beginning, but once you stable all the rules, the clients, a routine, you will start to enjoy and see the beauty of it! Go to co-works, go to meetings, search on websites, add yourself to Facebook and LinkedIn groups. Build a strong CV, prepare yourself for a lot of Skype interviews and… grind! 🙂

How to become a freelancer

It’s a huge step going from working for the man to being in control of your own time and work, so here is some advice on how to become a freelancer.

Start slowly

If you can, become a freelancer while you have at least a part time job. You can take your time, do good work and pick your clients this way instead of taking on every crap project that comes your way for low rates because you’re desperate to pay your rent.

If you’re going to go freelance full time, try and get a few months living expenses in the bank first as a buffer. This will give you some time to get things up and running properly, but you still need to be making enough money to get by quickly if you want this freelance business to be sustainable. Believe me, being critically stressed while trying to be creative is not a good place to be.

Choose your services

It’s tempting to offer everything to everyone at first, but you’re better off focusing on what you’re good at AND what you can make good money doing. If you’re starting off slowly, you can have some confidence in yourself and your abilities and take on great projects that will help you build your freelance career.

This is a business too, so focus on the profitable services and projects to make sure you can keep this going. It’s tempting to just do the fun stuff now you don’t have a boss breathing down your neck. If you want to set aside time to work on fun things or do pro bono work for people that’s fine, but do it in a measured way after you’ve hit your targets to pay your bills and save some money each month.

The Business Model Canvas can help you work out what to offer, who to offer it to and how to reach them.

Build a portfolio

A good way to get your portfolio started is to do a couple of free projects for people you like, who you think will appreciate your work and who will give you a testimonial. Having some projects to show prospective clients makes it so much easier to sell them your time as they can see what you’re capable of.

Charities and other non-profit organisations often appreciate your volunteering your time to do things that could go on your portfolio. Be careful you don’t end up working with highly disorganised people or time vampires on projects that will never see the light of day however.

If you can’t find any people to do work for to build your portfolio, make some things for imaginary companies or brands to demonstrate your skills.

Get organised

Even if you do a few gigs for free, you’ll be taking money from people soon so you may as well set up a business bank account and work out how you’re going to invoice people. I set up a TSB business account in my lunch break from work one day, and as I wasn’t asking for any credit it was easy and painless. It costs me £5 a month after the free startup period. Other banks may offer business banking for free too.

I started off sending invoices made in MS Word, with the filename the client name and invoice number: “0001 – John Smith”. I now use an automated billing system but this lo-fi approach got me up and running.

There are other systems like Harvest, Invoicely etc if you want to go the cloud route from the start. A system that chases overdue invoices automatically will save you a lot of time emailing people.

If you’re doing complicated stuff, a project management system can help. You can probably handle things by email to start with though.

Have at least a simple contract and terms in place when you take on a project and take some money up front to weed out the time wasters. The freelancer subs on Reddit are full of people moaning about being ripped off because they didn’t do this. Do this.

Getting freelance clients

This can be the trickiest part of how to become a freelancer. You first need to find people who need what you can offer, and then you need to sell yourself to them.

Finding clients can tie in to what services you decide to offer. I went for web design as it’s a huge market and people often need upgrades etc over time. Pretty much everyone with a small business is a potential client for me.

If you’re still working a day job and freelancing on the side, when people ask you what you do, try telling them your freelance job first. Many jobs come via word of mouth referrals and this can be a good way of kickstarting things.

Networking can be a good way to meet potential new clients, as well as asking your contacts if they know anyone who needs your services they could introduce you to. Offering referral fees has consistently brought me enough work that I haven’t ever paid to advertise anywhere.

Often overlooked is contacting people you want to work with directly or via your network. Being able to work with businesses or people you have chosen is powerful as you may find your motivation and enjoyment levels higher than working with randoms.

There are paid advertising methods like Facebook ads and Google Adwords but I found they brought low quality enquiries that rarely turned into profitable projects.

Agencies can be a good way of building freelance skills and contacts. You will be working for bosses again, but day rates can be attractive and meeting people in your industry can be very useful.

At the bottom of the pile are freelance marketplaces like freelancer.co.uk, upwork etc. If you’re freelancing in a developed country, you’ll be up against other freelancers in India, the Phillipines etc who can massively undercut you. There are good projects on these sites but the time investment might not be worth it.

Selling yourself might seem a foreign concept if you’ve been working a day job. If you are good at what you do and clear about what you can offer, with a portfolio of similar work, your services should sell themselves.

Stating your prices can be hard at first, but stick with it and don’t negotiate against yourself by offering discounts. I strongly believe that doing that and being unclear about your offering is what hampers many freelancers. Act confidently (even if you don’t feel it) and don’t be afraid to walk away from a bad deal or if you get a weird feeling about a client.

Deliver the work

To be successful, you need to finish the projects you take on and deliver what’s been agreed. This is very important to build your reputation. If you flake out and deliver late or not at all, that person is very unlikely to recommend you. Be reliable.

Summary

In this articles on how to become a freelancer, we’ve covered starting off slowly while working a day job, choosing your services, building a portfolio, getting organised, finding clients and delivering the work. Hopefully by following this guide you can start off your freelance career with as little stress as possible!

Develop your freelance strategy with the Business Model Canvas

I recently went on a course run by The Big House in Nottingham called the Startup Success Series. They used a tool called the Business Model Canvas to help us freelancers and businesses work out and refine our strategy.

What is the Business Model Canvas?

In simple terms, the Business Model Canvas is a structure to work out what you offer, who to offer it to, how to offer it to them and the supporting infrastructure (resources, money etc).

It’s a free download from Strategyzer.com  and can all fit on one large poster to go on your office wall to keep you focused. We used a huge version with post it notes stuck all over to get our thoughts in order.

Customer Segments

This could be “mass market” or a “niche market”. Rather than trying to offer products or services to everyone, freelancers might focus on one type of customer, maybe “young mums” or “non-profit organisations”.

Value Propositions

These are your actual products or services that solve problems or meet the needs of your Customer Segment. This is absolutely vital, because if you don’t offer what your customers need and want your business cannot succeed. Closing this gap can involve market research and taking feedback into account to change your offering.

Customer Relationships

How do your customers expect to deal with you? Will it be via a call centre, support ticket only or personal service?

Channels

These are the ways you will reach your target customers. Website, social media, distributors, word of mouth and trade shows are all channels.

Revenue Streams

How will you make money from your customer segment? Selling them products, services or subscriptions are all potential revenue streams and can be combined. If you offer design, you might also offer print services or websites.

Key Partners

Who will be essential to your business? Manufacturers, investors, technical platforms and experts could all be key partners.

Key Activities

These are the things that you’ll spend the most time doing. In the case of a designer this might be working on client projects, and doing your own marketing.

Key Resources

If you’re a freelancer or small business, these resources could be human, financial, physical and intellectual.

Cost Structure

This covers the major expenses for your freelance business. This could be advertising spend, referral fees or software costs.

Why use the Business Model Canvas?

For your business

In my own experience as a freelancer, I started off offering a wider range of products and services. This has been refined over time to focus on the more profitable and enjoyable elements of what I can provide. This has made me happier and increased profit. By using a model such as the Business Model Canvas earlier in my freelance career I could have got here quicker!

It’s easy to offer too many things to too many people, diluting your effectiveness and reducing quality of your products and services. By focusing on a clear customer segment and value proposition you can be a more successful freelancer or small business.

For The businesses of your clients

If you’re a freelance designer, web designer or work with small businesses to promote what they do, the Business Model Canvas can be a good way of refining their offering and marketing message. Many small businesses aren’t 100% clear about what they do or who their customers are so this is a quick way of working that out.