Key things you should know about being a freelancer

Hi, my name is Ivan Ursul and I am a freelance engineer since 2015. It’s been a while since I started my career as an independent freelancer. I started it as an engineer in Upwork, in one of their teams, where I was involved first in reporting backend service, then in the time-tracker pipeline, which is served as a backend for Upwork Tracker Application(UTA) client.

Today I continue my work with Upwork, but I am also actively working with other customers, who are very different. I’ve successfully completed 22 projects since the very beginning.

That’s why I decided to write an article about different aspects of everyday life of a freelance engineer. You may agree or disagree, anyway, I encourage you to leave your thoughts under this article.

This article will be grounded on Upwork platform, I haven’t used other platforms, but I am quite sure the approach is the same.

Learn your customer

You will have to find out the common things about your clients. Are all of them technical? Do you prefer to work with non-technical people? What is your industry domain? These are the questions you should have answers to.

After you realize what combines your customers together, you will easily detect potential customers later.

What matters most - don’t waste your time on inadequate customers. I mean, don’t accept jobs, where customer ask you to create an Uber like application for 250$. You will not finish it and most probably you will receive a negative feedback, because you will be the side who violated the agreement.

If you decide to do a free of charge or almost free of charge jobs - apply for a specific jobs with 1-2 days of duration. You won’t lose much, but it will be enough to get a good feedback and start applying for similar jobs with higher budget.

Give yourself a chance to become a customer

Try to become a customer. Post a job on Upwork. If you are a software engineer, you can order some design. It doesn’t matter what you will order. What matters is that you will get a chance to see another side.

I wanted to enhance one of my websites, but I couldn’t understand what I was missing there. So I posted a job. Upwork suggested to create a set of questions, I chose a default one - a cover letter. I also added a custom question - to send past works of an engineer. After one hour I received a around 20 bids from different freelancers from all around the world. None of them seemed like they were suitable candidates, as all of them wrote with template bids. So, I changed my job post, removed cover letter and added a lot of custom questions. The next day, I received 3 bids and one of them was the candidate that I have chosen.

Your rates will differ on a different projects

Sometimes you might decide to work on lower rates. There may be different reasons, starting with a willingness to add it to your portfolio and ending with a simple curiosity. Not everything in this life can be measured with money, customers know that and quite often use it to acquire talented freelancers.

The very same thing happened to me when I was working on the the Chicken egg counter on a Raspberry PI. It was a fixed price job and the budget was not that big. Anyway, it was an interesting experience, I managed to finish the project in time, with a good feedback from the customer. The company itself specializes in the Internet of Things field, but has a poor experience in image recognition field.

Being a freelancer doesn’t mean you will act as a classical freelancer

The thing is that there are different freelancers. Because I work on Upwork, I know a lot of guys from all around the world. My team members live in Ukraine, Belarus, Hungary, Moldova, Israel, and the USA.

Someone is working as a freelancer because he doesn’t like bureaucracy in outsourcing companies, somebody likes the flexible schedule and enjoys working from different places, somebody has many children and needs to have a flexible schedule. For example, Stas, an engineer from Moldova, who also works at Upwork, has 5 children and doesn’t understand how to manage all his family schedules when working in office company.

Personally, I like the idea that nobody is trying to take control of you. The current time management that I am using is to work 40 hours/week, quite often I take different projects where I learn new stuff. Besides work, I have ivanursul.com blog where I post different things.

Freelancer is a mix of engineer, salesman and accountant

My personal opinion is that a freelancer should be like a craftsman: he has to know where to get customers, how to work with them and how to work independently. Right, he should be an independent unit, being able to negotiate with the client, make an estimation, design architecture, write code and deliver it in time.

Sometimes, a freelancer needs to know how to handle unexpected situations, for instance, when a client decides that you also need to write UI part for this project.

When you work for a company, you are often supplied with a project, your taxes are paid by the company and you are a member of a team of engineers. Some of them can often pick your tasks and do them instead of you. When you work alone, without a company, you don’t have all these things and you need to provide them for yourself: the project should be found somewhere, taxes should be paid and finally, when you don’t work - nobody will work instead of you.

That’s sad but true, this is the reason why lazy people decide not to work on a freelance basis - because it’s difficult. They might think working in a company will ensure their stability. I used to work in a company, where one day it’s main customer decided to end his cooperation. It was a small company with one big customer, so one day all of it’s employees started to search for a new job.

Being a freelancer means being a company with one employee - if you do everything right, you won’t be shocked when losing clients, moving to another country or stopping for some period.

Usually it’s hard to work 8 hours

When you work on an hourly basis, it’s usually hard to work 8 hours. At the beginning, I felt very exhausted because of this. I decided to work 40 hours per week, so my goal was to work 8 hours 5 days per week.

When you work in a company, you can arrive in an actual office, go with your coworkers for a cup of coffee, browse your Facebook, watch some youtube videos and start your work. It can take up to 2 hours for you to just do nothing. Sometimes, it can even take the entire working day.

In a freelance, you can’t-sit around and do nothing, it can be revealed very easily and you can lose your job.

There’s also another way. You can find a company, which wants to hire someone from the network to work under their name. In this case, you are not a freelancer, but rather an employee, who works from home.

Learn how to calculate

When I started to work on Upwork, I didn’t know all of this. Now, I am happy to share these things, so anyone who reads this article won’t shoot themselves in a foot.

Another important thing - the science of calculating your rate is that you need to calculate how much you would like to earn. Then, you need to take into account, that you need a vacation. Freelance vacations are not funded by customers.

We have 12 months in a year, and approximately, you will have 1 month of vacation, which means you will work 91% of the time in a year.

Additionally, you might probably need sick leaves or days, when you won’t be available. Let’s say, it’s 14 days, which is ~4% of your total time in a year.

To sum everything up, you will work 87% of total time in a year. When deciding how much you should take per hour, remember this number.

Working from home is not for every freelancer

The last thing I’d like to say is that working from home is not for everyone. Personally, I managed to work from home for 2 months and then I decided to find some office. Hopefully, I met my groupmates from the university, since then, we are sharing an office. It’s a great place in the downtown with a good parking zone.

I don’t understand people, who say that working from home is a pleasure and is a great convenience. Unless you don’t have a separate room for work, I don’t see how to work from home.


This was my short story about what I did for past 2 years. Because it’s a big journey, it’s a great experience so you may find a mutually exclusive parts.

This article was published on Upwork blog, you can read it here