TL;DR: I started freelancing at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and it went a lot better than I expected. In 2020 I worked for an average of four days per week, while nearly doubling my income. In 2020 I worked for Gracenote Sports, Comfort Studio and Impres, and did some consulting for other companies. So far, I have no regrets on making the transition.
2020, where do I even start? This has been an extraordinary year for everyone due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. For me, it was also the year that I started working as a freelancer. Now that we're approaching the end of 2020, this is my attempt at summarizing my year in a couple of words.
By the end of 2019 I quit my job at Zonneplan to start working as a freelance software engineer. The last couple of years I noticed that several of my former colleagues started freelancing without ever looking back. I never thought this would be something for me because I am not much of a risk-taker, especially with two children.
Freelancing always felt like a huge risk, but I was still curious. By mid-2019 this curiosity got the better of me and I got in touch with people who were already successfully working as freelance software engineers. What I noticed was that this supposed risk was smaller than I thought it would be: there was plenty of work and with average hourly rates ranging between €60 to €100 and up, I would be able to work less hours for the same pay, while also working on a financial buffer for when things would not go so well.
I decided to take the plunge and quit my job at Zonneplan in December 2019, not aware of the worldwide pandemic that was lurking around the corner.
Landing my first freelance gig via a recruiter
I have pretty much considered most recruiters to be a nuisance ever since I started working as a software engineer. Poorly personalized emails, unsolicited phone calls, ridiculous fees and even seeing my own resume being presented to companies without my knowledge led me te believe that recruiters simply cannot be trusted.
I have learned that the truth is a bit more nuanced than that.
Although there are recruiters that fit the above description, there are also still plenty that really take the time to land you that job you are looking for.
When I started off, I did not have any prior experience working on a freelance basis. I also thought that recruiters existed to find permanent roles and did not realize that a lot of recruiters specialize in placing freelance software engineers.
My contact at Morgan Black, Daniël Vos, really took the time to help me transition into freelancing, for which I am really grateful. Working via an agency such as Morgan Black will save you tons of paperwork and can get you introduced at companies you would normally not have access to. (Note: there are several other people who I can recommend, so feel free to contact me if you need tips)
If you are really comfortable starting as a freelancer and doing this yourself, by all means go for it. But for me, it really helped to get things going.
Working from home: creating a “work” space
With the little money that I had when starting off, I decided to invest in a proper desk and desk chair. The money I spent on it felt a bit out-of-place, but to me it felt like spending money on this gave me an obligation to follow through and take this freelancing thing serious.
I don't have any spare rooms in my house. Since I do not have any closet space in my actual bedroom, I have a room that functions as a closet space. Now, it doubles as my home office.
Sure, it does not look anything like the home-office extravaganza that you might see on the internet, but it works for me.
Tip: make sure that you have a separate room or area in your house that you use to get work done. I don't work much from anywhere else, which helps me to switch between "work-mode" and "life-mode". This is especially important when you're in a lockdown and are confined to your home most of the time.
I also silence most of my notifications and try not to read my business email outside of work hours to keep my sanity.
Spending money: office gear and courses
After my second month of working at Gracenote Sports, I had some financial cushion that allowed me to spend some money. I use Bunq for my banking (both business as personal) which makes it easy for me to automatically transfer a fixed "salary" to my personal bank account every month. I used my Zonneplan salary as my benchmark and still transfer that same monthly amount to my personal bank account and try not to buy too many things that I do not need.
These are the things I did buy in 2020.
After my first paid invoice, I bought myself a present: the Sony WH-1000XM3. I never owned an ANC-headset before. Working from home with two little children, this thing has become absolutely essential for staying in the zone at times. Great headphone.
Previously, I had a single WiFi router in my living room. The WiFi signal on the first floor is pretty bad, so I bought a secondary WiFi Access Point. The UniFI AC Pro has good transmission power and I experience almost no bandwidth loss when I am connected to it. The access point also supports mesh networking, advanced access and bandwidth controls and a lot more. Note that you need a Unify Cloud Controller to get the most out of these devices.
A pretty decent monitor if you are looking for something affordable that can power a MacBook over USB-C. I like the fact that it has relatively small bezels and it is small enough to fit on my desk.
I have used Microsoft Ergonomic keyboards for the past few years. The ergonomics of these keyboards are great, but they are not particularly nice to look at. I do not have a lot of space in my home office so wanted something more minimal. The Apple Magic Keyboard takes very little space and feels really solid. I expected to miss the ergonomics of my previous keyboard, but after getting used to it, I'm really happy with this new keyboard.
This mouse is great. It has great battery life, is bigger than an average mouse (which really helps to prevent hand and wrist injuries) and has several configurable buttons. I especially love the MagSpeed scrollwheel that allows you to scroll superfast, as well as the integrated horizontal scrollwheel.
I also invested in several courses and subscriptions this year:
After developing several apps using React Native, we also started using React for our web projects. After starting as a freelancer in 2020 I did very little React work, so Kent C. Dodds' course is an ideal investment to keep my skills up to date. I can really recommend it.
Last Black Friday, I bought a Laracasts lifetime subscription at a reduced rate. Laracasts is constantly updated with fresh content, so this investment seems really worthwhile since I still love to work on Laravel projects.
I got into serverless at Zonneplan while transitioning some of our traditional services into AWS Lambda and later, Laravel Vapor. I do not want to become a person that talks about serverless all the time without understanding the underlying concepts. The Serverless Visually Explained course is written by Matthieu Napoli, the creator of Bref. He does a great job at explaining serverless concepts with the help of interactive widgets. At $99, it is not a huge investment and I can really commend it.
Artificial Intelligence is probably one of the most misused terms in computer technology, but with the rise of machine learning and companies that leverage this technology to do spectacular things, it seems logical to educate myself in this area.
Reaktor, together with the University of Helsinki, have created a series of free online courses with the goal of demystifying AI. I got my first course certificate for the "Introduction to AI" course at the start of 2020 and am planning to take the "Building AI" course soon.
The course contains a lot of interactive visualizations and does a great job at teaching the underlying concepts of technologies that we call "AI".
Work less, earn more
The plan was pretty simple: start freelancing, work less hours, earn a living. That's it.
My main goal was to have more free time, not to earn more, per se.
One thing I noticed is that it's quite easy to be pressured into working more. Most organizations and recruiters default to 40-hour work weeks, but I find that it is usually not a very big problem to work less hours as long as you deliver quality software.
In 2020, I worked 4 days per week - I worked 5 before - while earning almost double my previous income. I even took two weeks of vacation in which I did absolutely nothing computer-related 💪
I started freelancing in February. My work at Gracenote is not reflected on my Github contributions graph. As you can see from the graph, I also don't get a lot of work done during weekends.
The impact of COVID-19 on me personally
Without disclosing too much of my personal life here, I can say that despite everything, COVID-19 did not affect me in a very dramatic way. I got pretty sick in my first couple of weeks of freelancing. That sucked. I am still not sure whether it was COVID-19, but I'm still here. Although some of my friends got sick as well, nobody was affected in a very serious way, which makes me a lucky man.
Unlike I expected, COVID-19 also did not very much affect the start of my freelance career. My contract at Gracenote Sports was cut short; we did a lot of work for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which were cancelled. This led to all non-essential essential contractors to have their contracts cancelled. Although this gave me a bit of a scare, a single post on LinkedIn resulted in dozens of people contacting me about other assignments and I have not had a day without work since.
I love - and prefer - to work remotely, so the sudden adoption of remote-first has been a blessing for me. Of course, I understand that this does not apply to everyone; I am just describing my perspective here.
My 2020 goals and whether I achieved them
2020 was probably the most bizarre year I have experienced so far. COVID-19 also impacted us and our friends and it certainly wasn't the easiest of years. But on the other hand, it feels really good to have finally started freelancing. The fact that it worked out well despite these circumstances gives me the confidence that I am on the right track.
At the start of 2020, I outlined some broad goals:
This one was pretty obvious and worked out pretty well.
✅ Verdict: success.
Do more structured learning (courses, certifications)
In 2020 I invested in several courses and have spent quite some time increasing my knowledge in several areas. I must admit, though, that it is pretty hard to make this a part of my routine, and that I have a pretty long backlog of learning tasks. In 2021, I hope to improve this by reserving time for this and make this part of my routine.
🤷♂️ Verdict: partial success.
Make at least $10 selling something online to someone I don't know
Most developers dream of creating some sort of SaaS-product and I am no different. My primary focus was to create "something" that someone finds worth at least $10. My sole income was from freelancing gigs, so I am not able to tick this one off. This is still an important goal to me, so it will definitely transfer to 2021.
❌ Verdict: failure.
Don't work for more than 32 hours per week
One of the reasons I started freelancing was to have more control over my own time and to allow me to work less. I am really happy to say that this worked out very well. I worked an average of 4 days per week and was able to increase my income while doing it.
✅ Verdict: success.
Visit Thailand with my family
The original plan a year ago was to write this blog post from sunny Thailand. We have friends living there and as a family, we would love to be able to visit them. Freelancing opened up this opportunity financially, but due to the current pandemic, we will have to postpone this goal.
❌ Verdict: failure.
My goals for 2021
As we approach 2021, these are the things I'd love to tick off next year:
Visit Thailand with my family
Obviously, this one is still on the list. There is no saying yet if this will be a possibility with the current pandemic. Although I hope this is not the case, this thing might not be over by the end of next year either. Regardless, there is no telling what 2021 will bring. But I still hope that we get to do this.
Make at least $10 selling a digital product to someone I don't know
I think it would be such a thrill to make something, throw it out into the world and have someone value it so much that they would actually spend money on it. The biggest challenge will probably be to keep things small and actually ship it, even if it feels incomplete.
Although "more" is pretty vague, I would love to make more use of this blog and write more. A big reason to do this is that I am not really comfortable with the process and would love to get better at it. Writing to me currently feels like listening to my own voice, which I reaaalllly do not like. (Apparently, hating the sound of your own voice is a thing)
Do more Next.js related work
I am absolutely in love with Vercel and Next.js, but have not gotten the chance to take on any assignments with it yet. Most of my work so far consists of consulting and Laravel / Node development. I am already really comfortable with the Laravel ecosystem and would like to get the same level of confidence with Next.js.
While 2020 was a pretty rough year for the most of us, I had the luck of starting as a freelancer and seeing things work out pretty well. Without wanting to sound too corny, I hope your 2020 in review has some positive aspects to it as well, even if you might have to search for them.