Scott Riley

Scott talks frankly about starting freelance with no clients, mental health and not being paid on time.  

Tell me a little bit about yourself and what you’re working on right now.

Hi hi hi! I’m stealing Jon Gold’s words and just gonna say I make internet. I’m a generalist, doing most areas of product design and lots of React and full-stack JS work. I’ve had a pretty mixed year project-wise, doing stuff from wireframe prototypes through to full-stack JS builds. Right now I’ve come back from some time off and am just easing back in to things, but the last thing that launched (that I can talk about) was the With Jack quote form and a little hand-rolled CRM to go with it. Working with Ashley Baxter is the best. I’ve also been helping out with a lovely little product called Gilbert, helping freelancers deal with a lot of the admin shit that comes with invoicing/contracting.

What was the defining moment that you decided to go freelance?

I seem to cycle 2 years of freelance and 2 years of full-time work. The times I’ve left full-time to go freelance have usually been down to shift in company culture or process that I felt stopped me doing my best work or fully committing to stuff.

Freelance has always been something that I know I’m able to pull off

That’s not a slight on the places I’ve worked, cause I still love them loads, just that the companies went in one direction while my mind was in a different place. Freelance has always been something that I know I’m able to pull off and I hate job hunting so I just went for it.

Did you transition to freelance or jump right in?

I worked my one-month notice and used that time to get a new site together and tentatively look for work. I took an age doing my site and it launched literally 2 days before my notice was up so while I was mentally prepared for freelancing; I had no clients, invoices or deposits lined up; just a few leads and a Twitter account full of dank memes and swear words.

I was mentally prepared for freelancing; I had no clients, invoices or deposits lined up

You mention having nothing lined up and as we all know sometimes work doesn’t come easily! When it comes to getting work, have you got any advice for people?

Honestly, be nice, humble, do good work, push yourself, and be professional. I believe we still very much work in a reputation-based industry. Oh and that there’s literally no such thing as a meritocracy and there never will be (nor should there be) but that’s a different discussion. It sounds shitty and cliquey but knowing the right people helps. All my work comes from Twitter and people I meet and form a rapport with. I fully acknowledge how privileged and fortunate I am to say that, but I also think it’s pretty cool that you can meet a few people a month and make cool shit with one of them.

We still very much work in a reputation-based industry. All of my work comes from Twitter and people I meet.

Go to conferences and meetups if you can, but not the bigger ones like Web Summit which basically act as a conveyor belt for eyes on someone’s branded moleskins and the business cards of a million of the world’s dullest white dudes selling subscriptions to enterprise software. Scope out affordable conferences with passionate organisers that will actually chat with you on Twitter and know why a Code of Conduct is important. It’s intimidating, but making friends with nice people is lovely and we’re fortunate to be in an industry full of super kind people with good ideas.

Talk about your work – even if you think it’s dumb.

Also, talk about your work – even if you think it’s dumb. If you’re learning something, blog about all the shit you’re learning. The best people to learn from are the people who still remember what it was like to be in your shoes, people a couple of steps ahead of you. So, if you’re just learning JavaScript, start a blog and post the interesting stuff you learn. Before you know it, you’ll be writing super insightful stuff that people really appreciate.

Post the interesting stuff you learn, before you know it, you’ll be writing super insightful stuff that people really appreciate.

If you’re a designer, write about your thought process or things peripheral to your studies. YouTube is criminally overlooked by our industry too, which is ironic considering how much focus we have on visual shit; so start a channel and rant. 

Once you’re past a baseline level of skill and technical ability, your viability to a client is all about the tacit stuff. Good recommendations, a great attitude and a smattering of knowledge-sharing can help massively. If you’re genuine and passionate about making awesome shit, you give yourself a great shot.

If you’re genuine and passionate about making awesome shit, you give yourself a great shot.

Finally, if you’re desperate, use something like Crew to find work. They generally have pretty decent clients willing to pay acceptable rates and, while there’s a bit of bidding-war bullshit going on, it’s a pretty good place to find smaller bits of work to get you through a bad spell.

As a remote worker, you have a lot of freedom, especially in regards to your routine. What’s your typical routine?

My routine was shit for a long, long time. I think there’s a huge difference between being remote at a company and being remote as a freelancer.

There’s a huge difference between being remote at a company and being remote as a freelancer.

I found being in total control of my day usually ended up in too much Playstation, too much late night working, not enough sleep and a shit diet. I made a conscious effort to fix this over the past few months and I’m slowly making tweaks to be more efficient and work smarter.

I’ve found things like waking up late, meditating like a hippy (I get really bad anxiety so this helps on the mornings where I’m filled with dread at the thought of emails/Slack notifications/work in general), taking long breaks and monitoring my productivity have really worked for me.

Working remote can be lonely. Do you make any efforts to be around other people?

I live with my fiancé, who’s gone back to study for a degree, so she’s around for half the week which is really nice. Honestly though, there are days where having no one around is horrible.

There are days where having no one around is horrible.

Slack is great but it just can’t replace the emotional connection you get from face-to-face conversations with people you love and trust. I go to a small powerlifting gym where everyone is super friendly, and I’ve found just going there every other day helps massively. I get all the cognitive boosts from breaking my day up with exercise and actually get to chat with real humans with whom I share a passion.

I get cognitive boosts from breaking up my day with exercise

I also have a bunch of friends who freelance and feel similarly, so if things get really bad we can just hit each other up on Skype (also if anyone feels the same and thinks that could help them, seriously hit me up because a 15 minute chat to talk through an issue or just have some human interaction can save your day).

Is there any one thing that’s transformed the way you work freelance or remote? Whether it be a software, a tool or a routine. 

Software/process wise, I’m a big Pomodoro fan, and use the Pomodoro Timer Mac app whenever I’m working. Slack is nice and does a passable impression of a ‘virtual office’.

Buying a cheap as fuck whiteboard and planning my week out on it has been super useful; I find Trello is great for splitting things up granularly, but having a shiny white monstrosity on my wall that I can physically write on/tick off tasks is therapeutic.

Buying a cheap whiteboard and planning my week has been super useful

Transcendental meditation is something that is massively helping my anxiety towards work. It’s not something I speak about much publicly but, for at least a few months, I’ve had random bouts of anxiety, resulting in a couple of full-blown breakdowns – getting my head away from the idea that work is more important than my own mental health is important and meditation helps, not to mention the dozens of benefits it can have for creative thinking and mindfulness.

You recently tweeted about an experience with a client not paying. Do you think this is common with freelancers and if so, why?! 

I think it’s symptomatic of our industry and if I had a solid idea of why it happened I’d be trying to fix it! I think a large part of it is down to the widely-accepted payment model being ‘pay deposit -> do work -> make final payment’ – there’s just so much stuff going on between those stages that makes it really easy for a client to find reasons not to pay. I think the fact that an agreed fee is never completely secured (no matter how good your contract is, it doesn’t predict the future) has a lot to do with this. 

It’s really easy for a client to find reasons not to pay

I’ve thought for a while now that escrow accounts could be an interesting potential solution. Essentially an entire project fee is paid into escrow, the freelancer has access to the deposit %, but the client has ‘spent’ all the money. There’s probably an interesting economic/behavioural psychology study in the comparison of how a client responds when the full fee has already left their bank, vs. when they’ve paid a percentage and have ‘promised’ to pay the rest at a later date. This is how things like Crew work and I’d be super interested in a product that provides escrow services for freelancers.

I don’t think we do ourselves any favours in how companies see freelancers. There’s a certain level of professional discipline that you just need to portray. Have insurance, get your contracts checked by a lawyer, always take a deposit. This isn’t just to protect yourself, either, it’s to further the industry.

Have insurance, get your contracts checked by a lawyer, always take a deposit.

We still haven’t got past reactive solutions to this problem. We’re still just focussing more on ‘what to do if a client doesn’t pay’ and less on ‘how to make sure clients actually pay when they‘re contractually obliged to.’ We have lots and lots of clever people in this industry and I’d love us to come together and solve this; lots of people can’t afford to be taken advantage of, and their careers are put in jeopardy all the time by late/non-payments. This was a rant. Sorry. What was the question?

There’s nothing wrong with a rant now and then! People can work remote even in a job, what advice would you give to someone wanting to go remote?

If it’s remote for a company; don’t be scared to ask them to make company-wide changes that help you out. Often the best practices for remote teams work out super well for non-remote companies. I worked as the only remote worker at a company for just over 2 years, making sure meeting notes were taken and shared, having important conversations over Slack, and getting away from the need to all be in the same place can be a big help. If the company is already remote, then try and work in a good deal of flexibility for yourself. People often overlook the fact you can get many more ‘natural breaks’ in a shared office compared to remote work, so just try and make sure you and the company are cool with your days being flexible. Take water/smoke/snack breaks often.

Take the time to get to know the people you work with

A more extreme option is to just have Skype running for a few hours. If your team is small enough then everyone can jump on and chat while they work etc. While this mightn’t work for most people, I found this invaluable when I was in a smaller team.

Finally, take the time to get to know the people you work with; be proactive and arrange quick one-to-one Skype calls with anyone you’ll be working with directly; make it a regular thing if you can.

What’s been your biggest challenge freelancing or working remotely?

Maintaining some degree of reasonable mental health. I’ve had enough work and made enough money that I should have no complaints at all about freelancing, but my mental health has taken a beating since day one and I’ve suffered the effects of how insidious this can be. In an industry that glamorises late night hustle while taking n0 responsibility for glorifying overwork, it’s extremely easy to feel sub-par if you’re just a come-in-do-shit-switch-off kinda person.

It’s extremely easy to feel sub-par if you’re just a come-in-do-shit-switch-off kinda person

I let everything stress me out, I am literally scared of the Slack notification sound, I’ve had 5+ day bouts of being mentally unable to open my laptop – basically, I let the pursuit of ‘freelance success’ get in the way of my mental wellbeing and I’m still recovering from the mess I made.

Having this extremely unhealthy relationship with work meant that I’ve probably lost at least a month of work in the 6 months I’ve been freelancing, so I took time out and dropped everything, now I’m approaching things completely differently and trying to find the right balance between enough work/money and an actual life. It’s a wild ride.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone wanting to go freelance?

Breathe. You got this.

You can follow Scott on Twitter @scott_riley

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