My advice to aspiring freelancers
I get a lot of emails from people asking for careers and freelance advice, and I don't always have the time to respond as fully as I'd like, so I decided to write up the advice I've given over the years into a post. This is my advice based on my own experiences, so don't treat it as a canonical reference. It will change over time.
Get a job first
If I could start again, I'd probably work in an agency first for a couple of years before going freelance because it's very stressful learning a new skill on top of learning to run a business and how to work with clients.
When I started out, there was a web company that was quite close to where I lived, so I wrote them a letter asking if it would be ok if I did some work shadowing. They said they didn't have time to give me any training, but they had spare desks and I could work from their offices a couple of days a week. So I did that for a few weeks, made them lots of tea and coffee, and eventually they had some work they needed help with.
It's good to have experience of working in a non-web job. I wrote about first jobs a while back.
Get some business training
When I set up my business, I went to a workshop on "starting your own business" which was being run locally. Not only did I learn a lot, but the workshop was full of people who wanted websites!
Get your first clients
Asking friends and family is probably the most reliable way of getting your first clients. Go to lots of community meet ups if you can, or even start your own. That way people get to know you, you keep up to date with your skills, and they'll start to refer you if they need someone.
Have a buffer first
Always have a buffer. This is a sum of cash kept in a savings account that you don't touch unless it's an emergency. This is basically x months worth of cash that covers your rent and expenses in case you can't get any work. I keep a minimum of 3 months of reserve money so if I don't get paid for 3 months, I'll be ok. I've not needed it, but its real benefit is psychological – so you don't feel desperate and you're able to say "no I don't need to take on this project, I can wait for something better to come along" and it usually does. A buffer is also useful for if your computer explodes and you suddenly need some cash to buy a new machine.
Get an accountant
Keep your finances tidy. Set up a business bank account, use a tool like FreeAgent, and contact a good accountant. A lot of people don't use one but I couldn't be without mine. A good one will save you more money than you pay them, and there will be much less tax form stress you need to deal with.
Ask around to see who other people are using. I found mine after doing a couple of hours searching for local accountants who specialise in new media.
Get business insurance
Again, a lot of people don't do this, but if I didn't I would lose sleep at night. Also, some clients demand a minimum amount of coverage. I have insurance for quite a few things including for my laptop as lot of home contents insurers don't cover business assets, and to help me with legal fees if I get sued, which is very unlikely but again, peace of mind. That's called Professional Indemnity insurance, and that's something a lot of bigger companies require.
Write up a contract
Always use a contract. Again, lots of people don't use one and they complain when something bad happens that a contract could have prevented. I base mine off Andy Clarke's Contract Killer article on 24 ways. Despite what people have you believe, clients like contracts because it reassures them they're working with a professional. My contract also includes a payment schedule that details when payments are due, and I combine this with an estimate and invoice for the deposit.
Maintain some boundaries
I don't reply to work emails or phone calls before 9am or after 5pm (with a little wiggle room depending on the client, especially if they're based overseas). Otherwise it sets a bad precedent. In my first year I had a client ring me at 5am some mornings because that's when she woke up, and I was new to freelancing and thought it would be unprofessional not to answer. Clients have got to understand you have your own life after work. You can make exceptions, but make it very clear that you're going out of your way to do it so it doesn't become the norm.
Don't take on lots of projects at once. I like to have no more than 2 at any one time (for the past couple of years, just the one), and I find it useful to ask clients to book me in for specific days so I don't get a call about one project when I'm working on another.
I've found it easier to charge by days rather than hours, and give estimates in the number of days it would take me rather than a fixed amount. I invoice every week when I can, but I know some people who invoice in advance for the next segment of work so work has been paid for before it starts, which I think makes a lot of sense, but it's not always possible to arrange with some accounting departments.
Take an advance (mine's 25-50% depending on the scale of the project) and state that you won't make a design live/hand over final assets until the final invoice has been paid. Sarah Parmenter wrote a great post about her experience on why taking payment prior to launch is so important. In fact, she writes a lot of great posts about this sort of thing.
Make use of downtime
There will be dry spells when you have no client work. Take the opportunity to either take a break, learn new skills, or work on a side project, talk or article.
I hope you don't feel daunted by this! I just learnt this stuff the hard way and I don't want you to as well. Some months are absolutely manic, others may pass by without any work, which is scary but it happens. Just keep building up that buffer to keep you afloat during a dry spell. You will make mistakes, but everyone does and the important thing is to learn from them.