How to become a freelance web developer in the UK – 10 years after insights

I have been freelancing for soon 10 years as a web developer in London, UK. I present myself as a creative web developer and I provide front-end web services. Here is what I can share for someone who wants to start as a new freelancer in the UK (not only developers).

How to become a freelance web developer in the UK

  1. Find the type of projects and clients you want
    • Define your ideal project, what you like to do, what client you want, and what is your long-term goal
    • Find good recruiters
    • Use your own contacts and grow your network
    • Get invited to join YunoJuno
    • Send spontaneous emails
  2. Create your limited company and get a good accountant to help
    • Delegate the boring part to focus on what matters
    • InniAccounts invitation for 10%
  3. Create your own demo lab
    • People hire you because of it
  4. Have a good online presence
    • Polish your LinkedIn profile and portfolio (and any other social media)
  5. Stand for what you are worth
    • Don’t undervalue your work, day rate, or time
  6. Enjoy the business side perks
    • Be tax efficient
    • Expense your travels, phone, internet, lunch, a yearly party, home as office
    • Treat yourself to a business card with benefits
    • Invest through your company
  7. Take breaks
    • Plan your time off and stick to it
    • Invest in your health: mental and physical
  8. Conclusion

1. Find the type of projects and clients you want

Define your ideal project, what you like to do, what client you want, and what is your long-term goal

We are lucky to have a huge panel of possible clients and projects as developers (or digital workers). You need to think about what you wish to do. Don’t be a yes man, don’t take any type of work just because it’s work. Most of the time, people hire you because of past projects you build. You need to take the right type of work to grow with time.

At the time of my first contract, I had two offers from recruiters at the same time. I got the first positive answer, but I really wanted the second contract. I followed my instinct and declined the first contract offer. Luckily, a day later, I had a positive answer for the second contract.
The second offer had more responsibility and was a better start for my freelance CV. I won’t lie, I was stressed about turning down the other offer. But worst-case scenario, I would just hunt for a third contract offer.

It’s important to think about what you like, maybe it will come with time and experiences. I work a lots on fun marketing web pages, games, competitions, and microsites to promote X-Y-Z products. Big brands such as Dove, Magnum, Persil, Lipton, Bacardi, Toblerone, Kaspersky, Slimfast, Russian Vodka, etc. It was fine at the time but it’s not my target anymore.

I want to do projects that bring a bit more value to humans (yes, very idealistic…). That’s why I work with the news industry a lot in the last few years, or some little campaign for good causes. I can’t tell I only work with those types of clients, but at least I know what I am interested in and the profile of agencies and work I prefer.

I also know I don’t really want to work for banking, insurance, and estate companies. They are the ones with the money but I find their work a bit boring as a creative.

Who do you want to work for? Do you want long contracts of a few months or short projects? Where do you want to be in a few years? Is there any industry where you can learn a lot and use it in the future for more personal goals? Do you want small clients that you educate and build close relationships with them? Do you prefer to work with agencies or directly in-house?

Back to my first time experience getting contracts, recruiters can be a bit pushy. If you get a positive answer, they will want you to take the gig, as that’s how they make money. Don’t take a job to please your recruiter. It’s a bit like an estate agent telling you this average flat is the best on the market and you won’t find something better.

Find good recruiters

It’s hard to find good recruiters. They are mostly sharks, but some are decent people! They might waste your time with unrelated offers. Or they would put you forward, but if you don’t get the job, they won’t update you or care any more about you.

However, when you start and don’t have many contacts in the industry, recruiters can be gold. They work with big names and can put you in touch with people you wouldn’t meet through your own network. So you have to play the game for them to share their contacts and get a cut. Always be polite, even if they are sh*t.

After all those years, I have only one recruiter left on my contacts. Some went in-house and others changed of careers. The rest were never great and didn’t make it into my contacts.

I had some curious experiences with recruiters. A recruiter taking over for his colleague going on holiday (that one placed me) asked me if I would be OK to lower my rate once the client already agreed to take me. I answer no. I did my contract as planned, I never know if they wanted to increase their margin or what…

It’s a bit of a game, but you don’t want to be too nice and get screwed. I don’t want to be “nice” with my day rate, I decline work when I don’t feel it a good match for me. It works very well. Say no. Often, agencies try to get me again at a later date with other projects. I think they respect and trust you more if you are not afraid to say no. Also, as a starting point, if you are not OK with what you are getting paid to do a job, you won’t give as much as you would otherwise. So it’s not a great start.

Not only that, but I also had an agency asking me if I would do the first 2 weeks at a lower rate. Likewise, I also said no. They said they will get back to me, and called back saying “all good”. Stand for what you are worth (more on this below).

Use your own contacts and grow your network

Talk to colleagues and ask if they know anyone who needs your skills a bit before you finish your contract. Add colleagues on LinkedIn. Publish when you are free, and you can see when they share about roles from their company or contacts. People move of workplace very regularly. You might work with a great designer. A few months later, this person moves to a new job and gets you on board from the new company. If people like you and remember you, they will be in touch. Some people are a bit shy to ask, reassure them. Good people know good people.

Just recently, I saw a developer posting a message looking for creative people. He left London and opened his own start-up abroad. He was not looking for immediate work, but to build his freelance network. We work at the same place years and years ago. We had a call to have a chat. I told him, I don’t remember him from the company we both worked at, but it was good to be able to see his update just because we were connected on LinkedIn, and this could bring us a future collaboration.

Don’t overdo it, it’s best to have 100 good contacts on your LinkedIn than 500 bad or very average ones.

Get invited to join YunoJuno

YunoJuno is a platform for freelancers. It’s a member-only job board where companies publish briefs. They can search for freelancers registered and shortlist them. You can see briefs that interest you and apply directly. It acts as a recruiting platform, but you don’t talk with a recruiter. YN manage invoices and contracts in a few clicks. As soon as a brief is gone, you have an email update.

I personally love them because it’s one click to sign a contract, and every invoice will be paid 14 days after it’s submitted. No need to talk to a middle man. No delays in approving timesheets or the client paying YunoJuno late. You won’t need to chase anyone for invoices (I hate doing that). AND they also throw a good freelancer award party in London every year!

I can invite freelancers to the YunoJuno community. Just drop me an email with your name and job title and I can recommend you.

Send spontaneous emails

My little secret when I have a gap in my contract is to go on job boards (for instance if you could job) and look for interesting agencies. They could be recruiting for anything (designer, project manager, etc) but I approach them with a nice email, letting them know where I found them, what I do, and that we could do a collaboration if they have needs.

To be honest, out of 10 emails, I might get one email back. It’s often not at the timing needed, but it is new contacts for the future.

Sometimes months after my email, I got someone replying to me. It happened a couple of weeks ago (July) regarding an email from March. We had a call with the CEO of a small studio based in east London. No immediate work, but let’s see in the future.

Go to talk about topics of interest, they are usually sponsored by companies. Then you can do a little approach directly there or by email the next day thanking them for the talk and sharing your own details. You can find plenty of tech/design events on meetup.com and Eventbrite.com

2. Create your limited company and get a good accountant to help

Delegate the boring part to focus on what matters

You are a creative person, you are not an accountant. Before starting freelancing, I bought a book “accounting for small business”. Well, I did great to pay an accountant. Maybe the book made me understand that accounting is not fun for me, and I don’t want to miss any deadlines or be stressed about numbers. I also want to be organised.

And I love my accountant, why? Because I don’t have to talk to them, they build a product I am still using (a bit like how I like YunoJuno). Less human interaction, no delays, and more efficiency. I know exactly how much money I can take out, what goes to the taxes, etc.

Don’t be stressed out about opening a company, let them do all the work, and just provide some info. Nowadays, you can open a business bank account online with Revolut Business, or Tide, Starling from your home in minutes just with your phone. No need to go to an actual physical bank, print and sign and scan. Yey to technology!

You can find lots of offers online (with different confusing packages) to open a company. It can be a bit overwhelming as you don’t know who to trust. What is the difference in the services you find online? Why some are much more expensive than others, etc. You might want to let your accountant do that for you too.

InniAccounts invitation for 10%

I wrote about InniAccounts in the past. They specialise in accounting for contractors like us. Get 10% off for a full year if you use my InniAccounts referral – Direct link for a Free demo: inni.to/refer/d47j You can access the demo of the software and if you join then we both get a discount.

I did my research to find the best accountant at the time, they set up my limited company without extra cost and helped at the beginning when I had questions. You can call or email them. Last week I needed them to send papers to Rentguard (the referencing company of Openrent to rent a flat) and they were fast in assisting.

3. Create your own demo lab

People hire you because of it

I am not the type of web developer that does tonnes of coding after work. I have a life. This said, I know how big can be the win of having a little demo or developer lab area on my portfolio. When I am jobless with nothing lined up, I publish on LinkedIn to let everyone know that I am looking for work. Usually, I add a link to something funky to tease people’s interest, rather than a classic text message that will be lost in my contacts feed. You could do an image or video. As a web developer, an HTML page works well. No need to spend days on it.

I also have a little note document with tonnes of ideas for small web pages concept. I just lack of time (or motivation when I can go out and travel instead). But a lot of time during interviews, someone will say, “oh I like this on your lab page”. I am 100% sure some people hired me because they saw something cool, and then made me work on something a bit less cool, haha.

4. Have a good online presence

Polish your LinkedIn profile and portfolio (and any other social media)

If we type your name in Google, people need to find you. I want Denis Bouquet to be only my results, ideally (so selfish I know haha). And everything visible and searchable needs to be “good” content.

If you have a social media account, make sure nothing can look bad. Obvious to say, but no party photos online (hide everything from your Facebook, for instance).

It works both ways. When someone contacts me in a professional context, I copy-paste their name in Google, click LinkedIn, etc. just to know who I am talking with.

LinkedIn is widely used in the UK. In my opinion, it’s important to have a good introduction there. You can also do an account on creativepool.com.

Your portfolio is also very important, I don’t think you can have just a holding page. I haven’t updated mine in a long time (failing on doing what I preach). However, I add blog content regularly. I use Twitter only for sharing professional web stuff (with some period more or less active) and I update LinkedIn at the minimum. Plus, I check it and give a like here and there…

5. Stand for what you are worth

Don’t undervalue your work, day rate, or time

Don’t sell yourself cheap. Do your best and get what you deserve. The day rate or hourly rate can double or triple. It’s a like clothing brands, you can buy an item for cheap or very expensive. What justify the cost is the service and quality. Or the marketing about how you sell it/yourself.

Some clients will have more budget than others. Back to the type of projects you want to do and people you want to work for, if you only care about money, go for banks, investment companies, crypto, etc.

I prefer a creative niche. Also, I am happy to work only for a few days without the security of a long contract to get a good project in. Those are all decision you have to make. But never undervalue your work or time. A day rate means a price for a day, if you do days of 10 hours this is not OK. You need your free time to rest your brain and have a good work-life balance.

6. Enjoy the business side perks

Be tax efficient

I am pro limited company way of doing things rather than a sole trader. (And umbrella companies take too much of the income you make). This article tells you all about the type of business structure. You can make your own choice about this by doing your research, but you will get more money and security if you run your own limited company. Also, as the company money is separated from your own, if the company goes bankrupt you won’t lose your home and personal assets. That’s very extreme, obviously, but it’s good for peace of mind.

Low salary + dividend, that’s what a good accountant would recommend to you. So you would pay yourself a small salary in order to pay for some National insurance and complete by taking dividends from your company every month. Maximise your money and leave some in the company as a safety net in case you are out of work or some invoices are slow to be paid. This way, you secure yourself a safety net to avoid worrying if you are low on work. Take all you can before to be a high taxpayer every year. Ask your accountant (or use the one I recommend haha, they have a Personal tax planner tool to play with all company incomes + other incomes, etc.)

Register to VAT. When you work with companies, they will all be VAT registered so you have nothing to lose by registering yourself (they pay your 20% VAT extra and claim it back on their own company VAT). Moreover, it’s mandatory after a certain turnover. However, for small independent clients, this is increasing your invoice for them.

By the way, when you give your day rate or price to someone or write in an email, ALWAYS say xxx+VAT

Expense your travels, phone, internet, lunch, a yearly party, home as office

As a freelancer, you are allowed to claim expenses on business expenses. I won’t explain everything, but in a nutshell you can expense any assets, a part of your rent if you work from home, a yearly party for up to £150 per employee’s head (and if you are the only director and employee you can do £300 for you and your partner as long as it’s £150 max per person), subsistence = lunch, courses and training, eye test if you work on a laptop (I should do that soon), postage, insurance, travel, etc.
Read more at https://www.inniaccounts.co.uk/knowledge-hub/article/typical-business-expenses/

Every insurance you need for the company is also a business expense. You need to cover yourself with a Public liability insurance and Professional indemnity insurance. Some company might ask you to have an IR35 insurance.

Bear in mind it’s always a bit blurry in the law, it’s not because you are using some of those at your advantage that you are breaking the law. You just need to be at the limit of reasonable.

I went to an interesting talk by an accountant once, he was saying if you go from London to Edinburgh but you then buy some stamps for the company in Edinburgh, then your trip become a trip for the business, so you can claim it a business trip. This is very borderline but the truth is as long as you don’t claim thousands if one day you have an inspection and the cost seems reasonable, you won’t be in trouble. Imagine, you go to Spain, but you will do some work from Spain. We can say your trip is a business trip (you are the business owner and your work get the money after all), so pay for your flight tickets with the company card.

Treat yourself to a business card with benefits

It’s easier for me to spend the company’s money than my own money.

I have a business card (Amex platinum) that has a yearly cost of £595 (think of it as a business expense as it is!). It gives me lots of perks for the business and also as an individual. It’s a credit card so it delays your payment as any good card.

Furthermore, it doesn’t really have a limit so you will want your business to be running for a bit before to apply. It includes yearly travel insurance (it can also cover your family), allow me airport lounge access for my travels (with a +1, that’s nice for friends), £150 dell credits per year, some discount on retailers (my Dropbox pro at 40% discount per year for instance). I cumulate points on every use of the card and thanks to that in 2023, I will travel in business class to Peru from London after cumulating points for many years. I am very excited about it as it will be my first time in business class.

So playing the points game can be worth it! I wrote a full article about it before with my own Amex referral asking if the Amex Platinum is worth the price for freelancers sharing a bigger bonus when you join.

Invest through your company

Once you have been working for a while as a freelancer, there is a chance you are doing OK and you have funds in your company business account. Don’t let your money sit doing anything. Be smart and make it work so you get more doing nothing. I recommend short terms things, over the years I used Kuflink, Fundingcircle and Shawbrook Business Saving Account.

You can also take a director loan up to 10k. Be careful to understand how it works as you have to repay the loan on the business before a specific date, otherwise, it will become a taxable benefit (read about it in this article).

7. Take breaks

Plan your time off and stick to it

This is extremely important and it is much more difficult than it sounds. With the life of freelancing, you stay connected, and anyone can reach out to ask you for something at any time. If you work remotely, it becomes even harder to disconnect and fully relax. You check your emails too often and put the job opportunity dates before your own holiday, pushing back the time off you deserve and need.

I spoke to so many people about this. Asking when is your next holiday, and they just take contracts back to back without breaks. Those people usually think they will take time off when forced to, or between contracts if there is a gap. The reality is, if you are off work without something lined up, you won’t really relax. I also take contracts back to back, but I plan my holidays in advance and wherever I work, I will impose this time off on my client/employer.

In September, I will go to Spain but I don’t know yet where I will work. I will be flexible, meaning I will enjoy myself but also be open to part-time remote work. If I want time off at 100% I never take too many days in a row. But that’s me, as I do short contracts. If you take 3 months contracts, then you can easily squeeze 2 full weeks in between doing nothing but enjoying yourself and you should. Working as a freelance is meant to give you better time management, not put you in a spiral of work until you burn out.

And there is something psychologically hard to think you are missing out on a day rate. But what is the point of spending your full life earning money? I love this I saw on the web:

“My friend told me: life is short you can’t live again, just buy what you want, travel the place where recommended by lonely planet and have fun while you were young. Try your best to take more experience in your life no matter how many money it will costs. There is always have possibility to earn money, so don’t be afraid spend your savings.”

If you are a freelancer and take less time off than someone in a permanent position, you are doing it wrong. Every year I go for 2 months to a sunny country while it’s grey and cold in Europe. I usually work a bit, but I am ready and happy to take the time to discover the world, meet people, and get my energy back at 100%. Then, when I am back in London and I am fully refreshed and eager to build projects, etc.

Lastly, don’t say yes to too much work at the same time. You could do a day job and a night job. Work for the UK during the day and for the US until midnight. Don’t do that. Every time I took an extra gig I ended up having no life for a bit and it was not worth it.

Invest in your health: mental and physical

If you are unhealthy, you won’t be able to work properly. Take good care of your sleep to have an efficient brain. Avoid doing long days because you are slow. You will be so much more efficient doing a short effective day, than long days without rest. The more tired you are, the more time you will need to do your work. Be reasonable and don’t reply to people emailing you after “working hours” until the next day (otherwise you just encourage them to continue). I always say “we are not doctors, no one will die because of our work”.

I saw a great documentary (in French sorry) named “The chair that kills”. It’s about how we are sedentary. A generation of people sitting all day and how our body is not meant to stay static for long hours. Go for walk, stretch, do sport, and move every hour at least for 1 minute.

I love ClassPass [free ClassPass credits] and the ex PayAsUGym now named Hussle [£10 off discount] for the flexibility of going to any gym or gym class in London (and other UK cities). It’s perfect when you want to try new things or if you change office location regularly.

8. Conclusion

Being a freelancer can bring you lots of joy to have more personal free time, descent earning and more satisfaction in your career, choosing your projects, avoiding agency politics, being recognized as a skilled professional by your peers in the industry, and making a good reputation for yourself. You will also learn so much faster than staying in one company for years. It’s a scary step to start but you will feel happy and proud, and worst-case scenario if it’s not for you, just go back to a permanent job. Don’t miss out on life opportunities, haha.

Those are the big lines. We could go more in-depth. We can schedule a coaching session from my buymeacoffee page if you are interested in a chat.

More question? Leave a comment.

For a while, I thought about doing a podcast to help new freelancers because I love to share insights and stories. To be honest, I would hate to listen to my voice recorded (most people do). A casual chat would be more natural. I even created an ugly blog named Call Denis where I would help new freelancers. It never really got far, also new freelancers don’t have money to spend… but I like this mentoring aspect, helping others. So I hope this long article can be useful to someone.

Happy freelance days,

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