13 things I’ve learned during my first year as a freelance consultant

My first year as a freelance consultant has almost passed. I survived, and I’m pleased with my decision to become part of the gig economy, but I also realise how lucky I’ve been to survive in my first year without any real disruptions. I will remember 2018 as a year when I had a lot of fun – and learned a lot.

Here are some of my key takeaways from my first year as a freelance consultant:

  1. Schedule time when you won’t work, or you’ll work all the time
    Any chance I get, I go swimming during the day when the pool is empty or take a jog when the sun is out. I often end up working at night anyway.
  2. Make sure to define each project in writing before you start
    It’s so much easier to do straight out misconceptions before you’ve delivered a project. If everyone is on the same page, it won’t be a weird thing; if you’re not, you’ll find out early and can correct it.
  3. Never underestimate the difference of a good project manager
    If you’re choosing between two different projects, or between people to work towards, always prioritise the one with project management skills. It will make your life so much easier.
  4. Focus on solving your clients’ real problems (even if they ask you to deliver a short-term solution)
    Sometimes you’ll get asked to address a small isolated issue. Always make sure to understand how that issue fits into a whole and suggest a solution that benefits the client in the long run
  5. If you can communicate: communicate
    No client will ever complain about you updating them too often – as long as you don’t ask for anything from them in return. Make sure to give a quick update by email at least weekly, and preferably as soon as you have new information of relevance.
  6. If you reply to questions quickly, most problems won’t become an issue
    Things move fast in many organisations, especially when your clients are hunting for answers. Misunderstandings create a lot of stress, and if you catch a misconception before it takes off, you’re often able to put the fire out before it spreads. This risk is why I try to communicate with my clients over Slack.
  7. It’s tough to plan a workload on beforehand, deal with it
    Even if I always try to get a steady workload, it’s hard to control. Sometimes you wish you had more to do, at other times you’re beating yourself up asking for that.
  8. Most clients will approach you with smaller concerns, and if you deliver a good job they’ll disclose their real problems
    You never get drafted for the big gig at first. Any experienced client will give you a smaller project to test you – never turn down an initial suggestion from a client who could have other things down their sleeve.
  9. You never know how long time it will take to get a project in place
    Sometimes you get a phone call, and they want you to start tomorrow. Other times, they need a couple of months to get everything in order. Sometimes clients ghost you completely, and then they might turn up again after parental leave.
  10. Few projects finish on time
    They don’t. Not even if they have hard deadlines, like an election.
  11. The day you stop learning new things, you’ll become irrelevant as a consultant
    Most of the time you’re doing work you’ve been doing many times before. But you get those gigs because you know the new stuff, so you need to keep learning the new stuff.
  12. Make sure to have stretch goals
    You’ll never know what’s a realistic sales goal. I’m often settling for much less than I could, and I always need to push myself to find even more exciting projects. Now I’ll go into a year with three budget levels I’ll try to reach: 1. what I need to put food on the table and pay rent, 2. what I would make if I were employed, 3. a big “hell yeah” stretch goal
  13. Trust the freelance god
    You will be extremely worried about the future at times. No sane person takes a steady inflow of clients for granted. Being an independent consultant is hard work. But while you work your ass off, you should also trust the freelance god.