Freelancing: The Basics of Survival

Anna Debenham shares her experiences of freelancing by equating them to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

While I was writing my talk about freelancing for FOWD London 2010, I was surprised to find that almost half of freelancers do not feel secure in their career.[1] I thought for a while about why this is and was reminded of studying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs during my A-Levels.

The hierarchy of needs model is based on the idea that you have to meet all the basic human needs like food, water and shelter before the higher needs can be fulfilled, such as confidence and belonging.

The hierarchy of needs is over 60 years old (that’s older than the Internet!) so I’ve created an updated version for freelance web designers.

Basic Needs

Before you can start work, you’re going to need electricity, wifi, a desk and a computer. For most of us, a stable broadband connection is as basic requirement as gas, or for some, running water.

It sounds really obvious, but it’s so important to get the basics right before you can work effectively. Having a high speed connection and a computer that doesn’t grind to a halt every few seconds isn’t essential, but really helps. If your computer regularly starts slowing up, it’s probably time to get more RAM.

Safety and Security

Creativity is really affected if you’re not in good health with a steady income, regularly getting plenty of sleep and working in a pleasant environment.

Health Insurance/Income Protection

Consider investing in health insurance or income protection, especially if you’re supporting a family. Only 35% of freelancers have a health insurance policy[1] and while we are fortunate enough in the UK to have free healthcare, you’ll need to think about loss of earnings if you have to take time off work.

Business Insurance

Another way to help fill up the ‘safety and security’ tier is to get business insurance. Only 10% of freelancers are covered[1], but it’s so important.

Professional Indemnity Insurance

Imagine if your client asked you to create them a website and you typed the phone number in wrong, or you’re hosting the site and their email goes down. The client could potentially sue for loss of earnings, and if you don’t have Professional Indemnity Insurance (PI), things are going to get messy. Getting PI insurance is not as expensive as you might think, and will help you sleep at night. I was recommended Blyth Valley who are an insurance company in the UK who offer PI and business insurance.


Another type of business insurance if you’re based in the UK is IR35. HMRC may select you to investigate your tax claims. A legal dispute may run into the thousands, so it’s a good idea to get this covered, and it usually costs less than £100 a year, although this is looking less relevant now the new government is looking into scrapping IR35.


56% of freelancers do not have a retirement fund[1]. It might seem like a hassle, but it’s actually very quick and painless to get something set up, and the sooner you start, the easier it is. I created a standing order that takes money out of my personal account and transfers it into my savings account every week, so I feels like any other bill. If you’re not keen on the idea of doing that now, invest in some workshops as the better you are at what you do, the more you can earn.

Love and Belonging

If you work on your own, after a few days it feels really lonely, especially if your office is in the same room you sleep in.

Find other freelancers to work with; they’re great to get feedback from. Go to lots of conferences and meet-ups too to stave off cabin fever and learn off others.

Giving advice in forums also helps you feel more included, and if you’ve got some free time, organise events in your area to familiarise yourself with other geeks in your area. Since freelancers get the majority of their business through word-of-mouth[2], it’s a good way to get more work.

Self Esteem

Every freelancer gets that “am I doing this right?” feeling. You need to feel confident with what you’re doing, so review your process after each project and see if you can improve it. If you have a good process, you don’t feel bogged down by emails every day, you’re winning pitches and have lots of happy clients, then you’re probably doing it right.

Getting praise is another way to boost self esteem. Upload your work to sites like Dribbble to get some (hopefully) positive feedback. It really does make a huge difference when people say nice things about your work.

Self Actualisation

You might think you need to earn a lot of money to be happy, but apparently not. 88% of web designers are happier since they started freelancing[1][2] despite only 13% being content with their income[1].

If making lots of money is your only goal, you probably won’t be a very happy freelancer.

So define what you really want to achieve by freelancing, and find out what steps you need to take to accomplish that goal.

  1. Data from the FreelanceSwitch Freelance Statistics Report 2008, surveying over 3,700 freelancers
  2. Data from the A List Apart Survey 2008

Anna is a front-end developer and the technician of Boagworld, and she blogs at

  • I worked for a small company before going freelance, and although I remember those times fondly, I love working for myself. Thanks to social networks and having a pet, I rarely get lonely, although I do need to force myself outside to meet-ups a bit more often.
    Its seems scary to commit to income insurance and a retirement plan, especially when monthly income never seems 100% stable, but I plan to look into these soon. Thanks for the post, its always nice to hear about people in similar positions.
    PS. Go on then, give me a Dribbble invite. :)

  • an interesting read, only 13% of freelancers are content with their income yet 88% are happier! I can see why, less corporate stress, no commute…

  • I think the biggest thing that scares people away is the thought of having to do all the jobs.. sales.. management.. support.. plus the actual design or dev. Have you found that an issue? having to wear and successfully shuffle multiple hats? or is that something that draws you to it (more control of your own destiny etc).

    • Hi Craig,

      Great comment, and yeah, I have found this a big issue.

      While it can be liberating doing all the different roles like sales, bookkeeping, project management, it can feel very constricting if you feel like you’re doing more of this than actual billable work, or it ekes into your free time.

      You’ve got to feel confident in the roles – I went on a few business link courses and did a Business Studies GCSE to prepare myself before I set up, and these really helped and I reckon have reduced the overall time I spend working all this stuff out for the first time.

      I’d recommend outsourcing where you can (such as accounting) so you can spend more time doing what you enjoy. I really like knowing my accounts inside-out, but at the end of the day, if someone can do it better than me and give me relevant information at the end of it, I’d rather pay them to do it.

      Constantly switching between tasks can be a headache too, so to manage tasks effectively, you can schedule time in your week to be these specific roles. Eg: Friday between 3pm and 5pm is for bookkeeping, Monday mornings are for writing proposals…

      Also, there’s generally more bureaucracy the bigger the clients you work for, so there’s that to take into account if you want to move away from working on smaller projects.

  • Great article, I just started my freelancing business, and found the information quite useful, thanks again:)

  • Evil buck

    I recently started freelancing. I think it’s about having priorities. Like being happier while accepting a smaller paycheck. Or playing multiple roles and making the sales calls so you work on your own time.

  • Excellent post :) I made the break about 3 years ago – having been salaried for many years. It takes time to adjust but the rewards are fantastic (and I don’t mean financial). You regain sanity once you spread your wings a little. Especially if you’ve been endlessly doing the same routine everyday…getting up…going to work…feeling chained to a desk…coming home etc.

    As you adjust more to the lifestyle then other avenues can open up, you have more space to be creative and even quality time to think about how to expand your business or services. So far I’ve earned about the same income as when I was in a company but I have far more flexibility and freedom now which is a big bonus.

  • …also another point to make is that freelance income is more often quite sporadic – probably 50% of my clients pay late so a few weeks can pass and nothing’s going into the bank account. A good fallback I found is short-term or temporary contract work in a company if things are quiet – which also has its advantages as you get to work/socialise again with a variety of people and projects with a guaranteed income at the end of it. Useful if you need extra money to pay for a holiday or even upgrading your equipment.

  • This is a great aticle.

    I recently moved to freelance too and as such my income is lower for the moment. However, I love the fexibility. Sometimes you work more than the typical 9-5, but you have the freedom to move stuff around. It’s also more rewarding. Having a 1 to 1 relationship with clients, seeing how much you helped them and how they love the work you’ve done. It’s a great feeling.