I made $244,000 last year as a freelancer using a platform for finding tech gigs — here's how
- Olivier Boulais is a product designer who finds work on A. Team, a site for independent tech talent.
- He charges up to $140 an hour and works on projects for around 12 months. In 2021, he made $244,000.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Olivier Boulais, a 34-year-old freelance product designer based in Quebec City, Canada, who's a part of A. Team's talent network. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I've always had an entrepreneurial mindset. I started my first business at 14 years old because I loved snowboarding and wanted to create original art for my own board. That passion grew into an international enterprise called Organic Snowboards, and I shipped custom boards across the US, South Korea, and Japan.I sold the company when I was 20 and started doing brand-identity work in 2010 as a freelancer and full-time employee. In 2013, I graduated from the Visual College of Art & Design in Vancouver, British Columbia, with a degree in graphic design and reinvented myself as a UI/UX designer.
From 2013 to 2015, I was the senior graphic designer at long-board manufacturer Landyachtz. I left in 2015 to become a full-time freelancer. After trying out sites like Freelancer.com, where I could only find small gigs that didn't pay well, I put feelers out to my own network and got connected with folks at A.Team, a members-only network of the world's top engineering, product, design, and marketing talent.
I went through a robust application process, technical interviews, and algorithmic evaluation. The vetting process also takes into consideration trusted referrals and successful track records. I joined A.Team's talent network in July 2020. The startup was still in "stealth mode" and hadn't publicly launched — I was one of the first builders they accepted into the network. In 2021, my first full year on A.Team, I earned $244,000.
Once accepted into the A.Team network, you're teamed up with other product builders to tackle complex initiatives, or 'missions'
Companies come to A.Team with an idea for a product they're trying to build, and A.Team helps them assemble the right team for the mission from its talent network of more than 7,000 engineers, product managers, designers, and data scientists. A.Team recommends people for missions based on skill sets, who wants to work on the mission, and also who works well together.
Some projects freelancers on A.Team are building are the future of vaccine manufacturing for Apprentice, the new "TikTok for textbooks" for McGraw Hill, a revolutionary model for brick-and-mortar with Blank Street Coffee, and much more.
On average, an A.Team mission is a 12-month engagement. I usually take on one full-time mission that requires 35 to 40 hours per week and a couple smaller missions that require five to 10 hours per week.
This type of stability is so difficult to find when you're not a full-time, in-house employee. Plus, I find it much more personally fulfilling to do solution-based work rather than simple one-and-done tasks.
One of the biggest missions I've worked on through A.Team was for a client called Love Stories TV. It was a two-year project that involved four developers, one project manager, and three product designers, including me. This type of project simply wouldn't exist for a solo freelancer — the scope was too big for one person or one skill set.
My hourly rate on A.Team ranges from $100 to $140, depending on the mission. I set my rate myself. Before joining A.Team, I was making roughly $100,000 a year freelancing for a mixture of brands, including Lululemon. I more than doubled my income once I started with A.Team.
In normal economic circumstances, I increase my hourly rate by 2% to 3% per year to account for inflation. I'm planning on sticking to 2% to 3% this year, as I'm being mindful of clients' concern around rising costs in an economically uncertain environment. I've heard of friends lowering their hourly rates recently because they're concerned contracts will be harder to win if a recession hits. My best advice is to evaluate whether you have enough savings to weather a hard year before lowering your rate.
In 2021, roughly 90% of my work came from A.Team missions. I still have a few old clients that I didn't find through A.Team, but I only did a few small projects for them last year.
Full-time employment is way too rigid for my personality
I've always felt that way, but I also recognized the merit in gaining project-management experience in a company environment — having that skill set is a must in my line of work. So I took a hybrid approach and freelanced for a few years on top of my full-time job at Landyachtz.
I had a strong vision for where I wanted to take my career, but I didn't feel ready to fully commit to freelancing full-time until I built up my client Rolodex and had at least a year of savings on which to fall back.
Even when I felt ready financially, making the transition still felt like a risk. But you just have to go for it. That's my biggest piece of advice to anyone trying to make their side hustle their full-time job: Create a safety net, then take the leap.
A challenge many freelancers face is not having peers to work with, but joining A.Team solved this pain point for me. I'm still an independent worker with control over my schedule, but on A.Team I get to work with teammates I like who can help me overcome challenges that arise.
You have to build a reputation for yourself because so much of freelance work comes from word-of-mouth. If you're doing great work and people love working with you, clients come back to you. If you're just starting out, sometimes you need to take what work you can get. But as you grow, don't look for one-off gigs. I started finding better opportunities and more consistent contract work by networking at events and attending meetups like Creative Mornings in Vancouver.
Your full-time job is only as stable as the health of the company you work at. By comparison, freelancing empowers you to define what your time and skill set is worth.
Unfortunately, employees are often the first line item cut during market downturns. We saw that come true at the start of the pandemic, and it's happening again as the tech industry braces for a recession. More tech companies are rescinding job offers, freezing hiring and promotions, and announcing layoffs. This is eroding trust employees once had in the full-time work model.
I love being an independent contractor and having an hourly rate because I know I'm still getting paid fairly for my hard work. I've heard so many horror stories from friends about working more than 40 hours per week as a full-time employee and never seeing an extra dime for "working overtime." It's important to ask yourself what the true ROI is from the hours you're putting into a job as a salaried employee.
The cherry on top for me is that freelancing also gives me the liberty to take long stretches of time off. I love to snowboard, so this flexibility allows me to take full advantage of the winter months when I want to be on the mountain instead of behind a desk.
Are you a freelancer who wants to share your story? Email Lauryn Haas at email@example.com.
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