Freelancing: The Basics of Survival

by Anna Debenham

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.

Maslow’s Hireachy of Needs

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

Get the basics right like a decent Internet connection and a reliable computer

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

Freelancers don’t get sick days, so income protection will help if you have to take time off work

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

Most freelancers don’t have 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.


Start a retirement fund as early as you can

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

Get opinions and advice from other people about your work so you don’t stagnate

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

Taking time out to learn new things will help make you more confident at what you do

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

Income doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference to happiness

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

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