How to Transition from Full-time User Researcher to Freelancer
Considering making the leap to freelancing? Use this step-by-step guide to ensure a smoother transition.
I understand the sparkly and shiny nature of freelance entirely. I once made the bold transition from a stable full-time role into its mysterious waters.
It was an exciting but daunting challenge. That’s why I want to talk you through the steps I took and, of course, all the mistakes I made.
Full disclosure: I dabbled in freelancing on the side when I had a full-time job, picking up small projects here and there, whenever I could. But in 2018, I wasn’t super happy with my full-time job and decided to cut my losses to freelance.
Either that or I would open a doggy daycare (but that is another story).
So I quit my job and I started my role as a full-time user research freelancer.
What had I done to prepare? Not nearly enough. What do I wish I had done? Much, much more. I am a weird mix between an impulsive person and an obsessive planner. For this situation, I went the spontaneous route. This experience I had brings me to my first point:
What to consider before going freelance
Before you jump into freelancing, sit down for a few days and consider the questions below.
Pull up a word document or a good ol pen and paper, and write down serious answers to them and any doubts you have.
Take others who rely on you into consideration during this brainstorm too. Although I was a household of one, I was living in New York City and supporting three animals.
The questions are:
- What is the goal you have in becoming a freelancer?
- Why do you want to go into freelance?
- What are you looking for that you are not currently getting?
- Are you senior enough in your role to know what to do with little guidance and mentorship?
- Where do you live? How does that impact your finances? Are there others around you (in your immediate area) doing freelance? Is the market there?
- Who else are you supporting? How does that affect your finances?
- What will the change be like in your income?
- What are the top three day-to-day changes that will happen when you go freelance? (Try to include positive & negative) How will you handle these changes?
- How will you feel being your boss and making your schedule?
- Do you have enough money to support you for 6-12 months if, for some reason, you can’t find work?
The question of money comes up frequently with freelancing. I can’t tell you exactly how much you will make as a freelancer. But I figured this out by:
- Looking at the market in New York City and looking up salaries for freelance projects (I Googled this and went through pages of answers). Glassdoor or LinkedIn salaries may also help.
- Asking people who were freelancers in New York City how much they made and how they charged for projects.
- Googling calculators for freelancers and trying out a few different ones to take an average.
And one other primary consideration: Paperwork. Remember, you have to do all your paperwork, such as taxes and health insurance. If you are creating a company (such as an LLC), this is a lot of paperwork to consider.
Also, taxes can be quite high, and health insurance can be expensive, depending on where you live. Keep these in mind when you think of your finances.
These questions aren’t meant to be a downer. I promise they are incredibly important to ask yourself. I got into some sticky situations (such as barely being able to afford rent) because I didn’t think about my finances thoroughly.
After answering these questions, ask yourself: does it make sense right now?
It might not make sense right now, but that doesn’t mean it never will. You can always work towards freelance and go into it when you are comfortable and stable.
The steps I took (after realizing all the steps I had to take)
Now let’s say you decide it is the right time. Woohoo! You asked yourself all the “whats” and “whys.” Now it was time to face the “how.”
Now it’s time to make a step-by-step plan
Step 1: Make a decision
Albeit I did this before thinking about everything I needed, it is still important to fully commit to this idea.
As I mentioned, I freelanced on the side for years, which is okay. However, if you want to dive into freelance, commit to the decision.
Step 2: Define my brand
I took a full week to define my brand and how I would position myself in the industry. I created a Pinterest Board to collect ideas, inspiration, and articles. I used that as a jumping-off point to start my brainstorm. I had never done this before, so it was nice to have everything in one place.
- Mission. I began by defining my purpose and goal. I wanted to figure out why I was unique. Check out this article to get you started with some questions.
- Aesthetics. It was hard not to jump right into logos, colors, and typography, but I figured knowing my mission would help me define these. Pinterest was a saving grace with this task. I looked at a bunch of different options, picked my favorites, and then put something together. I hired someone on Fiverr to create a logo for me.
- Website hosting. I am a huge fan of Squarespace, so I often recommend them as a website provider. However, there are others, such as Wix, Uxfol.io, and countless more. Just make sure your domain name is easy to spell and can’t be mistaken (another one of my mistakes).
- Look at “competitors.” It was beneficial to look at the websites of others who were doing similar work. Searching through their websites helped me see how I could make myself more unique.
Step 3: Define the work I will do
I can’t stress how important this is. I went through and listed out the different work I was willing to do, like a services list. This work did not include anything in the design sphere and was solely user research work. If you are struggling with your list of services, think about what you love to do and what you are best at.
Step 4: Consider payment options
Do this in the beginning, before getting your first projects! That way, you can respond quickly and confidently to anyone inquiring about your services. T
here are two main options of how to charge: hourly or by the project. Again, this is where freelance calculators can assist. Always keep in mind the extra costs (ex: health insurance) when determining the rate.
- Hourly: You charge an hourly rate for your work. When you receive a project, estimate the number of hours you will be working and give them an estimate of the cost per hour. I made sure it was in my contracts that I would never work more than five hours for free over the allotted time. If I worked over five additional hours, I would charge my hourly fee for any overtime.
- By project: Similarly to the above, you estimate the number of hours and give a sum of the project. I would recommend first trying hourly work because this can be very hard to determine correctly. We often overestimate what we can get done in a given time and, thus, provide a smaller project fee.
Step 5: Learn how to negotiate
I could write an entire article just on this, but, instead, pick up the book “Never Split the Difference” by Chris Voth. When going into freelance, you need to learn how to negotiate through awkward financial or demanding situations.
Step 6: Define boundaries
Although last, it is the most crucial point. Write down your red lines. For instance, I would never do anything design-related, and I would never work for free. If someone hadn’t paid me, I wouldn’t start the work until after they had. I learned this the hard way.
How I found (and bumbled through) my first jobs
I set up my plan and was ready to go. Now I needed to find jobs and get paid. That is the logical next step, of course. Here is how I found my first jobs:
- I was regularly searching through job boards (ex: Glassdoor, LinkedIn, etc.). I learned searching for freelance jobs is similar to full-time, but just with different filters. Use “temporary” or “contract” or “part-time” filters when looking for freelance roles. There are generally less, but that is how I found my first applications
- I networked a lot—all the time. I was always selling myself to others and asking others if they knew of anyone looking for a freelance researcher. I didn’t only go to user research meetups but expanded to others such as product, start-ups, and entrepreneurship.
- I asked friends to recommend me to other friends, or people they knew who were looking for help. Some of my first projects were pretty small (not even enough for a portfolio piece) and similar to those I was doing while working full-time. However, I was working, and that is what mattered.
- I also found some jobs by asking other freelance researchers if they needed help. When I first started, I assisted on a few projects, which helped me see how things work.
When a job finally comes in
I recommend looking up as many templates for what you need when you finally land your first freelance gig. You will need:
- A proposal which includes the work you will do, why you are qualified, and the cost
- An invoice
- A contract between you and the company (remember to include clauses such as not working more than X amount of hours without charging overtime)
- A sheet to track your hours and work you did
All of these vary significantly by field, company, and geographical location. For these, I would recommend speaking with other freelancers to ask if you can see their examples.
Overall, I liked freelancing, but it was hard. I’m sure I will go back to it at some point when I have more years of experience. I am grateful for the adventure and honestly believe you should try it at some point in your career!