The Freedom of Freelancing According to Margaret Phillips

Margaret’s “Office”

Another one of my favorite people in the oDesk community forums is Margaret Phillips. She may come off as snarky and unsympathetic, but in truth – like many veteran freelancers – she just doesn’t believe in sugar-coating. Her seemingly pedantic nature may also be the effect of having been a software developer for 30 years(!) at University and Federal Government jobs, until she finally decided it was time to go into business for herself.
A native of Carmel, Indiana (USA), she’s the true-blue “loud and proud” freelancer: “I had done the 9 to 5 commute to work for far too long and now my commute consists of a walk to the kitchen for a cup of tea and then up the stairs into my office.” Yes, Margaret, we know exactly what you mean!

Tell us what your typical day is like. What’s it like to be you?
I get up when I want; pretty much a different time everyday. No two days are ever the same, which is really very nice. I usually decide the night before whose projects I need to work on for the next day but there is sometimes that panic ‘help me now’ email that rearranges my day for me.

How long have you been a freelancer?
4 years, 2 of them full time (or my idea of full time anyway).

What was your first impression of freelancing? What were your thoughts later on once you discovered what it was truly all about?
I took 2 years while working full time to get my feet wet and decide if I could really build up a big enough clientele to support myself, so I feel I went into this with eyes wide open. I really wanted no surprises. I am not a big fan of surprises.

Is there a particular reason you tried freelancing? How and when did you start, and what was your first assignment like?
Yes, I decided I had been getting up early and driving off to work long enough. I was tired of sitting in a cubicle in a hermetically sealed building working under fluorescent lights. I wanted to work wherever I felt like it, when I felt like it and hopefully in some fresh air.

I started part time in 2007 and can’t remember my first assignment. I am sure it was a small coding job.

What has it been like since then? Do you regret the “path” you’ve taken?
Never, I love the freedom.

Did you always want to be a freelancer? Why or why not?
Always?? I think when I started college in the last century only very few people were freelancers, I am not sure I had even heard that word. I did the usual thing most people did back in the day, went to college, got a degree, found a job, hated it, got a different degree, loved that job and just kept doing it.

Are you a full-time freelancer? How else do you earn?
I am as full time as I ever want to be.

Tell us about a positive experience you had as a freelancer.
This past Christmas one of my clients sent me a big box of steaks. That was very unexpected. I have a lot of nice clients (I let the ‘not nice’ ones go) so just interacting with all these very pleasant folks makes my work a dream. It is quite nice to be able to pick and chose who you work with.

Tell us about a negative experience. How did you deal with it?
I was doing database work for a client and he kept going into the database I was working on and changing tables and fields. And then he kept yelling at me about my having to constantly redo things that he was changing. I told him to find someone else as politely as I could.  I am sure you can imagine what I really wanted to say. If a client appears to be even a little bit loony I end the job ASAP. I left all that behind me in my pre-freelancing days.

Generally speaking, how would you characterize your working relationship with your clients?
They are all very good or they do not exist at all. I am honest, give them my best work for their money and let them know when I mistake is mine, and then I fix it free of charge, as any ethical person should do.

We’ve all had our share of “growing pains” when we first started out. Have you ever committed a freelancing faux pas? What was it?
I don’t think I have. I worked part time for 2 years as a freelancer while I was working full time in an office job. I learned slowly what would work best before I set off on my own.

What do you think should be a freelancer’s best virtue?
I think honesty and good communication are the best virtues a freelancer can have. You are generally not working in your client’s office so you must keep them informed about what you are doing at all times, and they have to know they can trust you. You are both running a business and both want to succeed.

What do you think could possibly be a client’s worst trait?
A client who is somewhat insane is a pretty bad trait. I have experienced this (see above).

For you, what is the best thing about freelancing? The worst thing?
Best thing about freelancing is the freedom to pick the jobs you want to do. If someone comes to me with a job that sounds horrible I can tell them  that I am not comfortable with it and sometimes I help them find someone else to do it.

The worst thing is trying to schedule your time when all of your clients have emergencies at once, or when nobody has work. It is not easy to find the right number of client so that you have just the right amount of steady work.

I like to think that “For every level of success, there is an equal level of stress behind it.” Do you practice any particular technique for fighting burnout? What do you like to do in your spare time?
I play Plants vs Zombies when I am stumped and trying to figure out how to approach a problem. It usually works. To get totally away from work, I like to travel, even if it is just short trip.

In your trade, what is the biggest issue and what can you say about it?
In software development the hardest thing is finding the time to keep up with new trends, learning new software.

Let’s speculate about the future. How do you envision the freelancing profession 10 years from now?
I expect it will grow. It has pros and cons from both sides but the employer does not have to maintain a big office, or pay payroll taxes or benefits and they can pick from workers anywhere, not just their local community. On the other hand managing remote workers is a pain.

For the contractor you have access to more jobs all over the world, you do not have to commute (YEAH!!) but you have to maintain your own equipment and your own benefits.

Hopefully, you can still recall how it was like to be the “new guy”. Have you any advice for would-be freelancers?
I have a ton of advice but I doubt anyone would listen. Do not be desperate, do not let clients take advantage of you and do not depend on freelancing as your sole income until you are many years into it. Also have 2 of everything. When one computer goes down you must have another, when your Internet is out you must have a backup source. That is the only way to run a business and remember you are running a business.

For those of us who are already into freelancing, what words of wisdom and tips for survival can you give?
Well, you probably already know all the pitfalls. If you want to be in this for the long term, then you need to build business relationships, plain and simple.

How about a short message for clients/buyers out there?
Be careful when hiring just any old body; make sure they are the ones doing the work. I have run into a fair amount of freelancers passing their work onto others and it irritates me to no end. Buyers beware.

Finally, just for fun: have you a favorite quote/video/cartoon pertaining to freelancers and freelancing?
Not really, I like Dilbert as a reaffirmation of where I do not want to work anymore.

Want to know more about MARGARET PHILLIPS?
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