Becoming a Freelance Programmer (Part 2)

Turning yourself into a freelancer is easy – you probably want a Ltd. company (see Part 1) and you need to know what you are offering, where you are offering it (probably local places that you can travel to) and who you are offering it to.

Articles: Introduction, Successful Freelancing, Talking to People, Making a Sales Call, Books and Resources.

Becoming a successful freelance programmer is harder – you need a constant supply of interesting work which pays well. You also want clients who will recommend you to others as this simplifies the job of finding new work.

You need interesting work else you will get bored. You need well-paying work as you have to cover yourself for holidays, sickness, down-time when you search for new work, accountancy fees and tax.

A simple rule of thumb is that you’ll pay 1/3 of your overall salary to income tax, corporation tax and National Insurance.

Finding new Work

You’ll spend a lot of time finding new work. Sometimes you can start straight away, sometimes you have to arrange a start date up to a month in advance. You don’t want to be free-wheeling without work so you’re probably going to be working for 1 client and searching for new work at the same time.

Searching for new work normally means sending emails, knocking on nearby doors (ideally in places like an Innovation Centre with lots of close and related companies) and talking to friends in the industry.

Remember – if you run out of work then you have to work hard, without getting paid, to find new work. This is an easy way to run out of your savings and get in a panic.

This is not nice, it will happen to you, you will work darn hard at solving the problem and you’ll get out of the mess and learn from it (I did, several times). Try to avoid it though, it really saps your energy and makes life crappy for a while.

Being a good freelancer

I’m going to assume that you’re an honest and reliable person. Your friends can recommend you in a heart-beat, you can honestly say what you are good (and bad) at and you can advise a potential client if you can help them or not.

Be honest and helpful, always recommend other people who might be useful. Help the potential client to understand what needs solving (often they need an outsider to help clarify things), offer to do some free work with them for an hour or two to help get to the root of any problems. Give them confidence that they can trust you to solve their problem.

Don’t be an idiot, never avoid communication, make everything clear (including costs and hours that you’ll work) and clarify what needs delivering and required timescales in writing (e.g. an email or printed document). Life is easier if both parties agree on what need’s doing, why it needs doing and how long it should take and cost.

Showing up

Woody Allen (probably) said “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”. It surprises me how many people avoid contacting a possible client due to their own fears – they literally talk themselves out of a possible contract.

Remember that if you have skills and you potential client might need those skills, they need to get those skills from somewhere! Don’t ignore that client, instead go talk to them. Analyse their problem, you can always advise them that the problem is outside of your skill set (bonus points if you can point them at a more skilled associate).

I’ve found a lot of consulting work comes because I:

  1. Talk to someone briefly about what they’re doing
  2. Talk some more, helping them understand the problems they’ve expressed and if/how you could help
  3. Offer to solve their problem

Lesson – talk to many people frequently, ask them what problems they have, try to help solve the problems. If you know people you can recommend then spread the love and help your associates – what goes around does tend to come around in your favour.

Here’s another article on successful consulting.


  • Alex
    Why do companies shy away from sole traders? Are there any other advantages to being an Ltd.? (e.g. tax savings).
  • Hi Alex. I'm not sure that a company would shy away from a Sole Trader for straight-forward consultancy work but, for larger organisations (e.g. banks) a Ltd. Company is The Done Thing. I was told I needed one and I had £8,000 waiting on the back of a short contract (and a £7k immediate debt) so I wasn't quibbling! There are two main advantages... 1) If the Ltd. company is sued for damages (e.g. bad coding which results in lost earnings) then you could lose your company but not your house. If you are a sole trader then you are personally liable so everything, including your house, is at risk. I haven't seen this to be a problem for any of my work, most smaller companies couldn't afford to sue so wouldn't even think about it. This might be an issue if you work with larger companies frequently (e.g. banks/corporates). 2) Inside a Ltd. company you can put expenses against profits so you earn a small tax advantage. For a 1-man company it isn't huge but it seems to be beneficial compared with being a Sole Trader. There is also a perception that if you have a Ltd. company then you are 'more serious' than a Sole Trader - Sole Traders are (in my mind) associated with part-time workers, market-stall holders and the like. This bias isn't necessarily rational but it seems to exist for many people. Ian.
  • Grand, 6 votes for this on DZone: Thanks 'gst'. Also 13 points on Reddit: Thanks John :-)