Do You Need a Plan to Freelance?

Moderated by Raymond Lee, Founder, UXr Guild
This is an abridgment; view the full video presentation here.

What Should You Offer as a Freelance UX Researcher?

To identify what you have to offer, do an inventory of each of your jobs: What industries did you work in? What products and tools did you use? What studies did you conduct and what methods did you employ? Where do you feel your strengths lie as a researcher? And beyond this, what do you feel you have to offer through your talents, abilities, passion, and character? This inventory will constitute your offering in the freelancing plan. You are not just like any other researcher. Once you start to fill in some of these areas, you will see that there are many different kinds of researchers. What do you have to offer? 

The first place to look is at your research experience. What do you have to offer in the following areas:

  • Employers: Which companies have you worked for? Who do you know? 
  • Industries: Which are you familiar with?
  • Products: Websites, apps, Devices, BtoB, BtoC
  • Studies: What types of studies using which methods? What are the most significant studies you’ve conducted? Where does your expertise lie? What are your strengths?
  • Tools: With which tools are you most familiar? 

Beyond the experience or research you have conducted, what are your research strengths and what are you passionate about? You’re creating an exhaustive laundry list of your experience. What are your #1, 2, and 3 specialties? What makes you unique? You won’t present it to your clients this way, but it is good to perform an audit of all your skills. 

What Other Experience Do You Have?

Apart from your experiences what you have to offer is you, yourself. That’s more significant than you may think at first glance and is a big part of what you have to offer. Consider the following questions to explore these areas of your life:

Education: 

  • Where did you attend school?
  • What were your areas of study?
  • Do you have academic research experience?

Other Work

  • Do you have work experience in other areas: Design, marketing, writing, and product management? 
  • Have you done other freelancing or volunteer work?

You

  • What are you passionate about? 
  • What personality or character traits do you have? 
  • What are some of your unique strengths, interests, and talents?

Where Do UXRs Come From?

Most researchers come from some other domain that has not been a path directly into research. Looking at where you might have come from, helps give you a clue of what other skills you have. Design is the most common place to have come from, with marketing close behind. The third most prominent background of researchers is academia, followed by a variety of other areas. Where you have been, and where you are now, is one way to get a clue of what other expertise you can offer a company as a freelance researcher.

To the right client, where you come from, makes a huge difference and can indicate what other skills you have besides research experience. Don’t underestimate your work experience, even if it wasn’t in research. Your background could make you the ideal researcher for a client because of the knowledge and experience you have. 

How Do You Differentiate Yourself as a Freelancer?

When we speak of differentiation, we’re talking about what makes you stand out. What is unique about you and how does that translate into value for your clients? The bar is higher if clients don’t know you. How do you then differentiate yourself?

  • What will make your freelance services stand out? What unique value can you bring to your clients? How can you provide more value than your competitors?
  • What is your specialty?
  • What is your favorite type of work?
  • What additional value do you bring?  

It is also helpful to explore different areas of expertise and consider what unique skills are needed in each and how those would be useful and meaningful to a client. For example, if you have worked in academia, you have done rigorous research which might be exactly what a company is looking for. If your background is in marketing, you have practical experience showing empathy to challenges that people might have. 

Successful freelancing is not just finding clients, but more importantly, getting their attention and then winning them over. Let them see all you have to offer. This just might make the difference.

Should a Freelancer Generalize or Specialize?

Do you get more clients by offering a variety of services or by having a niche? This is highly dependent on your experience and potential clients. As a general rule, it’s best to begin as a generalist. Plan on starting with everything you have to offer. But always be on the lookout for a domain where you’re especially strong because moving into that specialty can be a great strategy as a freelancer.

How do you then get more clients? Typically, you have to broaden your reach to take on more projects and contracts. If you choose to specialize and have a niche, then you’ve just narrowed the world down to the few clients who care about that specific area. So, it is a higher-risk strategy to be a specialist. 

Take a look at a comparison between the two to see which is best for you at this time in your career.

  • Generalists: Offer a variety of services; you have many potential clients but generally  have a weaker pull with each.
  • Specialists: single focus (easier, but repetitive); potential to charge higher rates; fewer possible clients but you will have a stronger appeal for those in the niche. If multiple researchers apply, a specialist (in that area) has the best chance of getting the job.

Offering Options: Full-time or Part-time Freelancing

Once you have identified your strengths and abilities, including how you can differentiate yourself, and have determined if being a generalist or specialist is best for you, it’s time to take a look at whether you are ready to transition to freelancing full-time or part-time. Each option has its benefits and drawbacks; it all depends on your priorities and comfort level in taking risks.

With part-time freelancing, you keep your job (along with its guaranteed benefits and salary) and freelance on the side (or have time for family or lifestyle). Most clients want FT, so PT is less common.

Plunging into full-time freelancing is a higher risk as you quit your FT job. Take time to prepare for this move by lining up clients before you leave. Leaving on good terms can result in returning to your company as a freelancer. Always remember that your last manager is your best reference.

There are big choices either way. Typically, making a big step to be a full-time researcher is going to be more valuable. This is because when most clients have a project to be done, they want full-time researchers to do it as quickly as possible, dedicating their full talents to it. But part-time freelancing is a viable option, and a great way to start. That, then is part of your choice on your offering – how do you want to do it?

Should You Take On One Client at a Time or Fractional Projects?

Once you have determined whether to do freelancing on a part-time or full-time basis, the next step is to assess how to structure your projects. Typical freelancing involves having one client and staying with that project as long as it takes. However long the project goes you just work for that single client.

But there’s another way to do it which is called fractional projects. For example, you give each client, maybe a fourth of your time, and you’re concurrently running several projects. Now, this is an unusual way and is more complex. The beauty of this is the security that it offers. If you were to lose a contract or one ends, you still have several more. That’s the huge advantage of it. 

In summary, fractional projects work in this way:

  • Book 25% of your time for each project (40 hrs/month). No one client dominates your time. You have other work.
  • Enjoy the variety and security of multiple projects.
  • More complex – you have to be able to move from project to project and excel at multitasking.

By taking on fractional projects, a freelancer may have a full-time job on Mondays and book out Tuesdays through Thursdays for freelance work, leaving Friday as an open day. It sounds ideal and is rarely that simple. You might be able to build that dream schedule, but maybe not right away. Think about what would be an ideal schedule and work towards it. But be flexible, knowing that you might have to readjust what your plan looks like depending on the expectations of clients as well as your own needs. 

How Do I Know How Much to Charge?

Everybody always wonders about how much you should charge as a freelancer. It will require a bit of math, but let’s take a look at how to calculate an hourly rate. Adjust these numbers to fit your current situation. Begin with your current salary. We’ll use an example of $120,000/year or $60/hr (divided by 2,000 hours per year). Next, we’ll add the benefits that you would lose by freelancing full-time.

$18,000 for medical, dental, vision, and life insurance – 15%
$9,600 for four weeks vacation and PTO – 8%
$9,180 self-employment tax (employer portion) –  7.65%
$36,780 total benefits

Adding this to the base annual salary of $120,000 comes to $156,780 or $80/hour (an increase of 33% over the initial $60/hr.)

Are you worth that much? Of course, you are. Charging this increased amount makes sense because you will be responsible for these benefits as a freelancer. In addition, instead of having  your employer provide you with a steady stream of work, as a freelancer, you don’t have that guarantee. You have to find your work and do the work. And you should be compensated for both.

Should Freelancers Charge by the Hour or Fixed-Bid?

In the same way, it is advisable to begin your work as a freelancer as a generalist, most researchers start out charging by the hour because it’s easier and more familiar. But then you’ll want to eventually work your way to an idea of a fixed bid.

Charging by the hour tends to be less effort and lower risk. It’s the most common way to charge for your work and is easier – especially if there is no clear guide as to how many hours a project will take.

A fixed bid is more complex but can ultimately be more profitable. Once you set the cost, you take on a huge responsibility. You need to know what the project will entail. If you don’t know that, go with hourly. If a fixed bid job turns out to be harder than you initially thought, then it’s on you. A fixed bid requires everything to be laid out. If a client can’t do that, then you shouldn’t give a fixed bid, it is better to charge hourly. With fixed bids, there is the potential for “scope creep”. Be sure and have detailed specifications to do any fixed bid. 

In Closing: A Few Things to Consider

Whether you decide to charge by the hour or go with a fixed bid, here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Don’t make the rate your top consideration. Your top consideration is expanding your client base, getting more experience, and developing your freelance career. 
  • Be flexible; some clients are constrained by their budgets. What do you do if you’re looking for $100/hour and they can only manage $80/hour? If this happens, take an objective look at the opportunity. Do you like the client? Do you have the time? Do you like the project? If you can answer “Yes” to all these questions, then it might be worth it to take the job at a lower rate.
  • Be careful not to get in the mindset that your rate determines your value. You can change your rates, and you should. You should probably start on what you think is the low end of your range and find clients and build your business and then raise your rates as demand increases.
  • Try to get repeat engagements. Give every client your best effort. As they see how valuable your work is to their company, they will be more likely to bring you on for additional work.

Guest Presenter Martha Malloy

During this presentation, we were able to watch three clips from a pre-recorded interview with guest UX researcher Martha Malloy. Martha is a fractional product leader, strategist, and discovery coach with over 15 years of experience in technology and digital marketing spanning diverse industries (automotive, healthcare, education, travel, hospitality, retail, CPG, and financial services). She is a highly respected researcher, with enthusiasm and a commitment to helping companies unlock new growth opportunities using modern product discovery and lean research practices.

 In the first clip, Martha shares some decisions she made as she transitioned to freelancing.

  • Believe you can grow and evolve your entire career. 
  • Prioritize your well-being and mental health.
  • Design a four-day workweek. Martha did the research and made it work. You have the freedom to design your work as a freelancer.  She could not convince an employer to do it – she had to create it herself. On Fridays she focuses on networking and business events; but also has time for personal and family activities.
  • Fractional product management. One day a week, Martha does fractional projects for an employer.

In the second clip, Martha discusses increasing her impact and scaling her rate. Her current goal is to work less – to do meaningful work with people that she enjoys working with because a CPO gets paid more and has more responsibilities than a senior UX researcher. 

  • Working with an embedded team – where she comes in and joins them.
  • Contracting with small startups that can’t afford a full-time UX researcher.
  • Discovering leveling up opportunities such as training a group of people to do sound research work which allows you to charge more.
  • Considering working as a Fractional Chief Officer. Martha came into that role from a design and research background and was able to repackage and reframe herself. 

In the third and final clip, Martha opened the door to discuss what fears people have when it comes to considering freelancing. One participant shared her fear of finding enough clients and having enough income. To this, Martha suggested looking at “the long game,” perhaps a year’s time frame, and considering what is the minimum amount of income you can make in a year and still be okay. That “okay threshold” is going to be very personal. But instead of thinking “I need back-to-back work,” think about how many projects you would need to bring in so much money, and how much you would need to bill to achieve this. It’s very hard to have work that perfectly lines up. This would help alleviate some of the pressure of needing a back-to-back alignment of projects.

Some freelancers might not have consistent business, but when they do have contracts come in, they’re big. This way, they live a lifestyle where they work a fraction of the year on projects and have idle time to do other things.

There are also ways you can earn passive income, like creating a course that people would pay for. Use your time wisely when you’re not being paid by a company to find other ways of making an income. Be creative, adaptable, and flexible. If you want to lower that stress level, I would encourage that sort of creative thinking.


Group Pages

How to Freelance
– Are You Ready to Freelance?
– Do You Need a Freelance Plan?
– How Do You Find Freelance Clients?
– Select and Establish Your Legal Entity
– Manage Your Bidding, Books, and Benefits
How to Start and Manage Your Freelance Business
What is a Freelance UXR/UX Strategist?
Can Your Employer Stop You From Freelancing?

Leveling Up with UX Strategy
Session 1 – What is UX Strategy?
Session 2 – UX Strategy for Researchers
Session 3 – December 8, 2022

Quantitative UX Research Methods
Session 1 – When to Use Which Quantitative Methods
Session 2 – October 13, 2022
Session 3 – November 10, 2022

Transitioning to Freelance UX Research
Session 1 – Transitioning to Freelance