Tips for Tech Pros Looking to Turn Freelance

Small Business
You can trust that we maintain strict editorial integrity in our writing and assessments; however, we receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners and get approved. Here's how we make money.
Tips for Tech Pros Looking to Turn Freelance

You’ve got a secure, high-paying job at a fast-growing tech company, but maybe you’re tired of working for a corporation, of the commute, the office politics, foosball Fridays.

You just want control over your tech career. Time to consider going freelance. Whether you’re a developer, a Web designer or an IT analyst/consultant, you’ll definitely have choices.

One is through a company called Upwork that offers a way to find a steady stream of projects through its freelance talent marketplace.

The Mountain View, California-based company has roughly 10 million registered freelancers who collectively earn more than $1 billion annually, the company says.

Half of the work they do is in IT, says Mateo Bueno, Upwork’s category director of Web, mobile and software development. To join the platform, you create a profile on the site and “you immediately begin seeing jobs that are being posted,” Bueno tells NerdWallet.

The fees depend on the type of project. A freelancer keeps 90% of the payment. Upwork gets 10%.

Tips for Tech Pros Looking to Turn Freelance

Upwork offers a way to find a steady stream of projects through its freelance talent marketplace.

Freelancing can be a lucrative gig for an IT professional, to be sure. But Bueno says there are different ways to stand out in a crowded field. He offers two important pieces of advice:

Highlight a specialized skill

There are plenty of IT freelancing jobs available, but to get the best  projects, you need to have and be able to tout specialized skills and qualifications, Bueno says.

For example, there’s strong demand for developers who specialize in the technology of a fairly new company called Optimizely, whose platform is used to test websites and apps. “We have an increasing demand for Javascript developers who know Optimizely,” Bueno says. “It’s easier to pitch those skills and not have to compete with the masses.”

Consider creating your own virtual company

Although many IT professionals do freelance work based on individual projects, others become more of an impresario. That is, they work as project managers, organizing and coordinating with a network of freelancers to take on a job.

“It’s either you want to be an individual contributor or you want to be a business owner and project manager with several individual contributors that you manage,” Bueno says.

If joining a platform like Upwork or being part of a virtual team is not your thing, you can, of course, follow a truly independent course.

That’s what Roger Kay did a decade ago.

Tips for Tech Pros Looking to Turn Freelance

Roger Kay of Endpoint Technologies Associates.

He runs a one-man company called Endpoint Technologies Associates, which offers technology analysis and consulting services. He started the company with an initial investment of $25,000 after working for years for companies such as Motorola and the technology research giant IDC.

It wasn’t easy. But Endpoint, which is based in the Boston area, has survived, counting big and small tech companies, such as Qualcomm Inc. and Dell Inc., as its clients and being regularly mentioned in major news publications such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Kay offers three tips to other IT pros thinking of quitting their jobs to start their own freelance IT consulting and analysis business:

Make sure to check with your lawyer

If you’re thinking of quitting a job to go freelance, you should check with a lawyer, he says. This is particularly important if your business plan could pit you against your soon-to-be former employer and could lead you to violate a “noncompete” provision in your work contract. “Make sure your attorney knows what’s going on and is ready to tell you what to do,” Kay says.

Make sure you have clients willing to follow your lead

This tip is related to the last one, and, in some ways, is even more important than checking out the legal issues related to your leaving a company. Before launching a freelance gig as a tech analyst or consultant, make sure you’ll have enough clients to start that business in the first place, Kay says. “If you’re going to try to take your clients with you, you need to have an information meeting in a restaurant or a bar,” Kay says. “You have to look them in the eye and say, ‘I’m going out on my own. Will you come with me?’ That is what you call market research.”

Watch your overhead

Ten years after starting Endpoint, Kay’s small business is still, well, small. It’s still a one-person firm, with a company site that has only two pages. Kay says he’s pretty much “running the company out of my back pocket.”

“I have no staff,” he says. “I have a sales guy, an accountant and a lawyer. I’ve had admin help from time to time.”

He bills clients based on an annual retainer, “although I do sometimes take on specific projects,” he says. He set up his company as an S corporation, so he pays taxes on the money he makes, which is recorded as personal income.

He said he’d considered selling the company someday, but that may not work out since, he says, “It’s just me.”

But an advisor had told him, “You don’t have to sell it. You can just be like a country doctor. You can put away money while you’re working.” Which is what he’s been doing, he says: “Instead of pouring capital into the company, I take the capital and put it in retirement funds.”

And when he’s ready to retire, Kay says, he’ll simply “turn the sign around and say, ‘Gone fishing.’ ”

Benjamin Pimentel is a staff writer covering small business for NerdWallet. Follow him on Twitter @benpimentel, on Google+ and on LinkedIn.

For more information about how to start and run a business, visit NerdWallet’s Small Business Guide. For free, personalized answers to questions about starting and financing your business, visit the Small Business section of NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor page.


Photos of Mateo Bueno, top, and Upwork, middle, courtesy of Upwork. Photo of Roger Kay courtesy of Endpoint Technologies Associates.