Ben Gilman

Why freelance in your spare time?

As a web designer and developer I’m privileged to have a skillset and profession that is valuable and saleable to both full-time employers and clients. Like many other designers I take on some freelance jobs in my spare time from my main job. I’ve been working that way for nearly six years. Before that I took freelance design jobs alongside my university studies, and before that alongside school!

Just recently I’ve been giving some thought to the reasons for working this way. Not everyone has a career that can easily be carried on outside as a freelance sideline - some workplaces will forbid it even if you could - but if you take them seriously you can soon turn a hobby (i.e. photography, craft etc.) into work. Whether you’re selling your main work skills on a freelance basis or pursuing a hobby as a job the reasons are likely the same.

Breaking down the reasons

“I enjoy it!”

— [CC] Photo from taniwha

Simple right? Particularly if it was a hobby to start with, the plain enjoyment of doing the work can be reason enough. In the early part of your freelance career this will be a factor but beware: once a hobby or leisure activity becomes the dreaded ‘W’ your attitude to it can change rapidly.

To be honest, even after six years of it I still enjoy my freelance work - I wouldn’t do it otherwise! If you can hold onto this then chances are you’ve found your career for life. Onwards.

“I could do with the money”

— [CC] Photo from hippie

It makes the world go around apparently so I’d best tackle it early doors. If you’re not one of Messrs Jobs, Gates or Abramovich you could probably do with a bit more cash. Using your skills to help clients to good effect in a few spare hours is a good honest way to make a few extra pounds and comes without the complications of large-scale bank fraud or counterfeiting.

For me this is definitely one of my reasons - primarily I enjoy the challenge of my work, to be financially recompensed to find smart solutions to interesting problems is a great bonus. Having said that, where money is concerned it’s sometimes hard to balance the value in pounds/dollars and the value of that time used differently. How much is an hour of leisure time with your family or significant other worth to you? Less than an hour you can invoice for?

“I’m building my portfolio”

— [CC] Photo from cless

When we’ve recruited for designers at my work the first thing we ask for is a link to a portfolio. We’ve interviewed many a designer who has worked hard in a team environment on a large collaborative website project - in this case it can be difficult for them to communicate to the interviewer where their skills were involved. A bit of freelance design on the side is a good way to stuff your portfolio with design work that is exclusively your own and it gives you lots to talk about the next time you’re that side of the interview table.

As I’m currently perfectly happy in my full-time job (hi boss!) I’m not needing to build my portfolio but that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to see it extended with a new site once in a while.

“I like working with different look and feels / brands”

— [CC] Photo from mmmonica

Over the course of my freelance design career I’ve worked for, amongst others, a health charity, a rally driver, a chef, a photographer and an artist. Each of these clients wanted and required a different visual approach. For any designer it’s a healthy workout for the creative brain to apply your skills to the differing look and feel requirements of various clients. This is particularly true where your main job may be limited to the brand requirements of one company.

The value of variety extends to other jobs too - developing skills outside of the ones most regularly tested by your day job is the way to becoming a more rounded person allowing you to replace ‘cinema’ and ‘socialising’ in the ‘other interests’ section of your CV.

“I’m keeping up with newer/other technologies/techniques”

— [CC] Photo from balakov

My full-time work is constantly iterating the functionality and design of a large website built on .net 3.0. When I build a website for a client I’ll build it in PHP5 and MySQL along with packages such as Wordpress and Drupal. Lost yet? The terms don’t really matter - what’s important is that familiarity with two very different environments is helpful and valuable for your future career! When new techniques arrive it’s good to have a variety of projects to try things out on.

“I’m aiming to do [x] and [y] by [year]”

— [CC] Photo from kaptainkobold

Numerous blog posts and books I’ve read recently (hello Five Simple Steps) have emphasised the need to kick off any part-time work career with an attainable target in mind.

It could be you’re cutting your teeth on freelance projects so you can break into doing your hobby full-time, maybe you’re building your skillset to earn a promotion or maybe you’re building your client base to set out on your own one day soon. Most of those writers will agree that the situation is only sustainable for a limited time (from six months to two years!) so you may as well be honest with yourself on this one!

This pursuit of “[x] in time for [y]” is more or less where I came in - I’ve never been particularly clear on my long-term aim and I’ve done nearly six years. Having that clear aim in mind can help you make decisions on which clients to proceed with and which ones to pass up. It can also help you decide whether to continue taking on freelance work at all.

So why do I do it?

For me, the crucial part of my freelance work is the enjoyment I get from the challenge of designing for different clients - this is what drives me to continue. My ambition to improve my skills in my chosen field means I’ll invariably choose the projects that grab my attention as an opportunity to hone skills I don’t use so extensively in my main work. With the world economy the way it is, the chance to earn a small crust doing that is a positive factor


So how about you? What benefits can you see to working this way? What’s your long-term aim? Why do you / don’t you freelance on the side? Would you if you could?

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