Programmer Friday: How to work for yourself


I have been working as an independent consultant for a few years now.

Sometimes I talk to others who are considering going the same route. I now have a more or less standard list of advice that I send to them. I’m turning it into this blog post, so I can simply point here next time.

On working as an independent consultant or contractor

1. Is it risky? If you have an in-demand skillset like software development, the risk is low in the current market. The worst case scenario is that you go back to a regular job when your liquidity runs out. Don’t burn any bridges with your previous employer!

2. The jump is less scary and risky if you have at least a few months of expenses in the bank. Save up a buffer before you jump ship. Having good liquidity also helps when you talk to potential customers: you will be more relaxed if you can afford to walk away.

3. Related to the point above, keep in mind that it will take time before you get cash in. It takes time not just to find your first assignment, but once that contract starts, it may take up to 30 days before you can send your first invoice. And then perhaps another month or more before that invoice is actually paid.

4. Get accounting and your corporation set up and figured out early. There are companies that do both straight up accounting as well as company setup and financial advice. You can save a little bit of money by doing everything yourself. However, if you’re already dealing with other stresses, maybe don’t prematurely optimize expenses in accounting. Focus on your own craft and business instead.

Norway specific: which company type should you pick? ENK (“Enkeltmannsforetak”) or AS (“Aksjeselskap”)? Go for ENK if you will keep working in a salaried job with a bit of freelancing on the side. Otherwise, always pick AS. Most people end up with AS in the end. Just go with the grain on this one.

5. Prepare your own contract before a client hires you. Your contract should clearly state the terms you work under: what services you are delivering, how available you are while doing so, how and what you charge, what happens if payment is late, how quickly each side can end the contract, and so on. Have everything formalized up front so you don’t end up with disputes later.

Norway specific: SSA-B bistandsavtalen is a good contract template to start with.

6. Warm up your network before you jump. Reconnect with old colleagues and contacts in your industry. Let people know that you will become available.

Norway specific: if you are an independent software developer, get in touch with BrainBase. BrainBase is nice network of independent tech professionals, which makes it easier for clients and consultants to find each other.

7. If you like podcasts, sift through the archives at The Freelancers Show. There’s lots of useful advice there on everything from economics to marketing to client relations.

8. Read “Get Clients Now” to get many ideas for generating leads. You can’t just sit around and hope a client falls into your lap — you have to create opportunities yourself.

9. Get comfortable with selling. Once you have a prospective client, you will need to close your first contract. The best book I’ve ever found about selling is called The Secret of Selling Anything. It reads especially well for introverts (like me). Sales is not rocket science, it’s learnable for anyone. And yes: you do need to think of yourself as a salesperson now.

10. When you start working with a client, keep a few things in mind:

  • How should you communicate and behave? Well, consider what you would like from a tradesperson you hire yourself — like a plumber, an electrician or a carpenter. What would make you feel safe and satisified as a customer? Just behave like that!
  • Be honest and quick to point out any problems that come up.
  • Offer monthly chats with your closest contact at the client. Give direct feedback, and ask if there’s anything they want you to do differently. Adjust accordingly.

11. Save for a rainy day. Live below your means. You may be well compensated while you have a full time contract, but your business must be able to endure extended downtime as well (for example: economic downturn, family crisis or major health issues). Prepare for this up front.

Good luck!