How to Start Your Own Freelance Business (A Personal Story from Siege Workshop’s Founder)

How to Start Your Own Freelance Business (A Personal Story from Siege Workshop’s Founder)

Have you ever thought about starting your own freelance business, but never knew how? Or do you simply have the “guts” for it, but just don’t have the willpower to start?

Let me tell you my story.

Like many of self-taught developers and designers out there, I started my freelance career by working two regular jobs and working “on the side” atop of that.

Living in the small European country didn’t helped at all with my endeavour – earning money to even buy a respectable computer and professional software was a huge obstacle. So by working those two jobs it took me nearly 9 months just to come up with the money to buy the computer. Purchasing professional software was out of the question, so I had to work with trial editions and switch between Photoshop versions. Then everything else started…

I started with Photoshop because I already had a creative background like drawing, painting, playing music, writing and photography – I simply love to create something new every day. My patience on the other hand, is my biggest flaw. I like to see the results instantly, so things like C++ programming were out.

So I downloaded Photoshop 7 Trial Edition and started designing a website out of stratch. During those times, around 70% of the websites were developed through table-based HTML, and the rest of them were Flash based.

There were only a few Photoshop tutorials on the web, and “PSD2HTML” trend was a long way from starting – you could only find information about it on closed-down or protected forums that were mostly for really experienced developers.

Cue 3 years later, I was 21, had a relatively good experience with Photoshop and a few local clients designing brochures, business cards, and even 2 websites that had horrible code because mostly of them were done through Macromedia’s (now Adobe) Dreamweaver – just as a sidenote, it wasn’t Dreamweaver’s fault that I had horrible coding skills 🙂

The website-creating process was me manually creating tables through Dreamweaver, then cropping out and saving images from Photoshop, and finally importing them into Dreamewaver to create a simple static website. I laugh a lot when I remember what kind of monstrosities I have created back then.

The Freelance Gig

Anyway, back to the main story. I was still working two jobs + freelancing, had really weak social and love life, and virtually no exercise at all. When I think now about that, I probably sacrificed too much “normal” stuff just to get to my goals.

2 more years later, I was 23 and had (finally) a good grasp on how HTML and CSS works and how can I use it with my Photoshop design skills to create a good looking and functional website. Also I heard about something called WordPress but I thought that was something that was aimed mostly at developers and that I didn’t had the brains or the will to learn it.

I freelanced through the popular websites during that time, RentACoder and GetAFreelancer.

So I had several gigs, but the income was really small and even then the market started filling with tons of competition.

Amongst all of that there was something that helped me a lot – my CV of personal works that I have created from my own ideas – websites, business cards and even car branding graphics.

Because I had no clients (except for a few of those from freelancing websites), I got the idea to create a bunch of fake businesses to design a website for them, just so I can fill up my portfolio. Of course, I explained that in my CV and noted it – I like working with clean conscience.

So now there were “companies” like Medical Acme Co., Bob’s Car Repair Company and others for which I can create a website and learn coding as well atop of it. This really helped me with forming an approach on for who am I designing a website for, and which content to add as well (and to design around it).

By doing all of this I became really good with Photoshop and coded a lot cleaner HTML/CSS code every time I started a new fake project.

During that time there was a new crowdsourcing website called 99Designs and this was a new step for my career. Now I could stop creating fake projects and actually create design mockups for real clients!

Few years later, I had big portfolio and a good amount of PHP skills also, because I completed several online courses while working on web design projects as well.

Thanks to my crazy work ethic I landed a great long-time client/company and started working for them full time.

Starting A Business

After few years, I was 26 and started thinking in different directions about my career.

Thanks to my big selfish ego, I had a new idea – why should I chase clients across freelancing sites all the time? Why they don’t COME TO ME? Even better, why don’t I simply sell something on a monthly basis i.e. earn money every month? This way I can stop working two regular jobs and focus on my freelance career completely!

This was a good idea but there were two things holding me back:

1) It was entirely for selfish reasons,
2) I had almost 3 full time jobs with an amount of free time just to eat and sleep, and nothing else.

Now, let’s go through my first point – I like helping people a lot, but personal gain was still on the priority simply because I almost had no life apart from my work. Creating a reccurring montly income would benefit me and would also benefit my customers – I can focus full time just to work with them and provide the best quality products that they can use.

As for the second point – having now 3 fulltime jobs (2 local and 1 online), I needed to come up with the decision and free up my time somehow.

So I bit the bullet. And bit it hard. Do you know how?

First I called up a meeting with my online client and succesfully negotiated a slightly bigger salary – a salary with which I can pay for my rent and basic bills.

Secondly, I quit my two local jobs! You can imagine the look of my employer’s faces when they heard that I’m quitting a stable-income job during this hard ecomony times (and also being in a small European country).

I was finally free! I had one good stable job, and lots of free time after it. The whole world and its people were waiting JUST FOR ME to throw their cash at my face, right?? Well, wrong. I learned the hard way how it is to fail hard with my first online business.

To explain my big fail a bit better, during these times while I worked for that full-time client online, I almost exclusively worked on WordPress development. Design was something that wasn’t related to the current trends so my WordPress theme design skills were virtually 4 out of 10. And in my free time I needed to actually start developing at least some social life, and to add at least some form of exercise as well.

Yeah, about that exercise… there was a time I was 350lbs (at my 6’6″ frame), but that’s another story 🙂

Anyway, to go back to my big business break – there was a website called Themeforest which I really liked a lot. People could earn money by selling their work online and that was a recurring income model that could work for me as well.

So I came up with a plan to start a WordPress theme developer profile on Themeforest and sell WordPress themes through it.

I became friends with Jaroslav (a great WordPress and PHP developer) and we started creating our first WordPress theme. We made a great theme with custom options panel, spent a lot of time working on the documentation, video tutorials, How-To eBooks, FAQs, Help Desk, and Forums where customers can query as anytime for their theme-related issues.

At the time I think that was one of the mostly well put WordPress themes around there.

But there was one thing that we didn’t put a priority on – design.

Falling Hard

So here were we with a big WordPress theme that was optimized for SEO and speed, with great Theme Options panel, custom post types, custom metaboxes and HUGE documenation. But the design was 1 year old from the current trends “thanks” to me not focusing and not working on it.

So we submitted our theme to Themeforest – and look and behold, we got rejected.

And rejected again.

And again.

After 10 more rejections and lots of frustrations on our side, we figured out that there’s something definitely wrong with our theme.

We did more extensive work on theme’s core files and got it even more optimized.

Applied more patches.

Added new features.

And got rejected again from the Themeforest Review Team.

I got completely frustrated and posted on Themeforest Forums to hear input from other members – and thankfully they were straightforward and to-the-point…

…we learned that our design was outdated, plain and simple.

Just after I heard those news I got more incoming tasks from my regular job, and some work that had to be done during the weekends as well – my free time started reducing drastically.

After 2 more months of now working additional hours for my regular job (and adding frustration trying to up my design skills for the WordPress theme gig), I got the infamous freelancer burnout.

Thanks to that burnout, my social and love life started going down, my work productivity decreased drastically, my fitness level went to zero and the WordPress theme business started failing hard.

However, I wasn’t aware of my burnout – yet. And I didn’t accepted that we failed.

A New Beginning

One year later, I still worked with my regular online client, and didn’t worked on personal projects at all. I guess I subconciously needed to refill my creative batteries to start planning and executing new personal business plans.

So after that year, I contacted some new clients that needed part-time projects done on a daily basis. I talked with my current employer and we agreed that I should stop working with them and take on those part-time projects.

I started working and finally had the free time just for myself and my “new” life.

I upped my exercise level, changed my approach to nutrition, recreated all of my business plans, started working on my design skills again – and got happily married! 🙂

Now being “rebuilt” and completely refreshed I started thinking on my long-lost goals of personal business freedom.

I called Jaroslav and booked up a meeting to talk about a Premium WordPress Theme Shop project – something that I had in my sleeve few years back but hadn’t got the time or the skills to execute it properly.

After several hours of brainstorming we came up with a plan to start our own theme shop with a custom-built WordPress framework on its own, even if lots of folks are probably now thinking that WordPress market is already over-saturated.

We have our own specific approach to building great WordPress themes, so why not put it out in the online world and see if people like it?

And that’s how Siege Workshop was born (branding ideas came from both of us who are crazy about oldschool RPG games).

There was a twist to this new business however – now that I have more free time, I would focus strictly on design, planning and marketing, while Jaroslav can work more on the development of our themes and plugins.

Wrapping It Up

And there you have it, the long story of personal battles with the online job market 🙂

So what you can use from my story?

I would recommend that you always fight for your goals no matter what – and I know that it sounds like a cliché.

Even if you have a regular job, always put your ideas on paper – or Evernote 🙂 – and do extensive market research on your idea. You can even go with Lean Startup approach if you don’t like the standard way of building a business.

Always be aware on how your time is precious – remember, time is money so that’s something that you cannot get back after you’ve spent it, so invest in your time well.

One other thing that I can add for you is to always keep your CV updated and to work on your networking skills as well – join local meetups, talk with your old clients, get yourself known as one of the best in your professional field.

And to wrap it up – never forget where were you when you started and do you want to go back to your old habits.

I hope you liked my first post and I would love to hear what you think and what are you doing with your career, so do comment below and share this post! 🙂

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