Being a Freelancer in a Bankrupt Country

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This post was inspired by an excellent post of mr. Moraitakis, written almost a year ago, on how to do business in a bankrupt country.

I started writing it in past November, but for some reason it just got pushed down my writing list and never got published. Time to change that. Nothing in Greece changed for the better, after all.

My personal experience

I started freelancing right when the recession started to really show its fangs in Greece, back in March 2010. Everyone thought I was a fool back then – leaving a nice job in one of the best IT companies in Greece to become a hired gun? Why would anyone do that?

I won’t go into reasoning, I’ll just say I wanted it very, very much. So I left my job in December 2009 and started looking for clients.

Yes, I didn’t have any projects in the pipeline when I started. No, you should never do that.

Right now, my greek to overseas clients ratio is 50/50. I spent the past two years designing tiny school websites and huge news portals. Here’s what I found:

Fear the Greeks bearing gifts

Dealing with greek clients can get tough, be it companies or individuals. I’ve had both bad and excellent experiences. From a freelancer’s perspective, it’s always very interesting to see how small- to medium-sized companies pay in a more timely way and with less fuss than big companies.

You’ve got a business now, albeit personal – learn about the benefits. See if there’s any way to incorporate your pricey purchases in your business, so you can offset your VAT. Search for state funding programs and see if you can apply, but don’t invest your business future in them. People keep asking me, “why didn’t you ask for state funding?” like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Well for me, it isn’t – first you create value, then you get funded. That’s the way I see things.

Press and nudge to get paid. E-mail (or telephone if you’re daring, I’m not), and then e-mail again. There’s a status quo of slugginess during the payment phase in Greece – combat it by setting set dates for each project milestone. Don’t expect that your client is losing sleep over not paying you – he’s not. If there is a pending payment and you notice this kind of slugginess, politely remind him that you must get paid. Now.

Don’t get too focused in Greece. Keep your greek contacts close but always be on the lookout for overseas clients. You’ll notice quite a big difference in business attitude – I often joke about how my international projects are the most fun I’ve ever had while freelancing.

Nevertheless, if you find a greek client that pays you on time and with minimum fuss, by all means, stick with him.

Learn from my mistakes

In retrospect, I’ve found that it’s better to get busy with 2 or 3 small scale projects at the same time than with one huge project. Since there’s not much cash in the market, don’t expect to get the big budgets you’ve thought you would – that is rare.

Don’t give 100% of your time to one client – that applies to freelancing in every country, but more so in Greece. I’ve made that mistake in the past and I was left hanging for 2 to 3 months till I got finally paid. Not fun.

Cash flow is everything. Don’t agree to work without an advance deposit, you can’t afford it. If you bill hourly, don’t forget to bill for Skype calls too – it’s amazing how verbose people get when they talk for free.

Passive income is your friend. If you think you’ve got a way to make a steady sum of money each month, chase it. A steady sum means that you get to pay your bills. Paying your bills means less stress.

Bureaucracy won’t kill you, but it won’t make your job easier either. Even if you struggle, pay your VAT and insurance costs first of all – they’re going to be the most significant cost of your freelancing. Find a good accountant and ask him about doing job with overseas clients. Don’t make my mistake – pay your VAT taxes yourself, don’t trust anyone: my previous accountant failed to pay my VAT reports, so I had to hunt him down and get involved in a generally unpleasant process I’d gladly skip.

If you’re like me, you take your business too personally. There has been a moment when I burst into tears after a particularly vicious e-mail in 6pm. I don’t take work that gives me grief anymore, even if I find myself short on money.

Can you do it?

It’s tough, but it’s doable. I always like to say that if I could do it, everyone can.

Keep cranking up high quality work, be positive and promote yourself without making a huge fuss out of it.

You’re not alone, there are dozens like you. Contact your peers, ask for advice and feedback, talk about clients and bureaucracy and money and life. Meet for a beer, let some steam off. You need this.

Even if you eventually find out you can’t do it, don’t despair. Quitting freelancing should not be considered a failure – this way of life is not for everyone. Noone’s gonna judge you (to be frank, noone’s going to bother enough to notice). If you find it all too stressful, by all means, search for a nice job elsewhere. Going freelancer is not permanent – it’s volatile, as volatile as our industry is.

Forget the Porsche

I’m leaving you with this: if you think you can make tons of money from freelancing in two months, you’re mistaken. If you’re in for the money, well, I hate to disappoint you, but you have to struggle for every penny that you get. That’s what freelancing is, in a nutshell – it’s terrifying and awesome and awful at the same time. More so in a country as deeply in trouble as is Greece right now.

But then you wake up in the morning and you drag yourself to your desk with your Care Bears pj’s still on and you find an exciting project lead waiting for you in your inbox and then you realise: that’s what I want to do right now.

So long, Uncle Steve
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