Working as a freelancer is eventually a dream situation for most people. Usually, you would complete your school activities, go for lectures and studies in IT, and then finally you would end up with a job in a well-known company. Here in Mauritius there are regular IT job fairs where local companies are offering their job listings and trying to get the best talent directly out of the universities. And after having seen a good number of resumes of candidates applying for a job at my company IOS Indian Ocean Software Ltd. there is also a certain pattern visible.
Young graduates starting their own career as freelancers
Quite often, graduates and freshmen would start as a trainee or junior software engineer at one of the big players here on the island, then they might hop the next two to three years to other big players - simply to raise their salary -, and then finally they get more interested in other challenges. Honestly, nothing about bad about this approach except that it doesn't work for small and medium enterprises where an investment into staff is directly hooked up to the productivity and therefore potential earnings.
But there are also other ways, and venturing into your own business is eventually among those options. Even though it is tougher and young start-ups have the high tendency to fail.
Cost of ...
Frankly, working as a freelancer compared to being an employee has some perks and additional liberty but there is (high) price to consider for that extra freedom. First, all your expenses in terms of equipment, training, licenses, rental fees, electricity, taxes, social security and medical insurance are on your account. But that's not all. You also have to take into consideration that even though you might be able to earn more money per month than an employed person that you won't have any paid benefits like local leave or sick leave.
IT equipment, training and software licenses
In order to be able to work in the field of Information Technology (IT) you need to have at least your own computer. Given that you might already bought during your studies, chances are very likely that the machine might be a little bit outdated and needs some replacement. Also, depending on your field of activities you have to purchase additional equipment like smartphone(s), tablet(s) or even multiple computers due to different operating systems. Anyway, this spans further into the situation that your computer is likely to run some kind of software for your business. Let's say as a passionate web developer in ASP.NET you might consider to acquire a license of Visual Studio, in case of PHP development your choice could be a versatile editor like Sublime Text or Jetbrains PhpStorm IDE. Of course, this all depends on your needs and the amount of expenses to cater for will surely vary. But from an ethical point of view, never consider to work with non-genuine, read: pirated, software applications after all - Never! You're going to work in this field and you expect to be paid for your effort and results produced, and so do those software companies, too. If you can't afford a certain software, then either check whether the supplier has special programs and discounted licenses for start-ups, or do some research on alternative, less cost involving applications until you're able to afford the chosen one. Even though there is a vast ocean of online material you might also consider to subscribe to an online training platform like Lynda, Pluralsight, Codecademy, or Microsoft Virtual Academy (MVA) in order to stay at the edge of technology and to keep up with the pace of changes.
Rental fees, electricity and internet connection
Eventually, you might start working from home. It's an easy and low-cost opportunity to start your own business, but there might be some limitations as well. First of all, you wouldn't have potential leads and clients over at your parent's place to discuss business matters, would you? And second, there is an issue in terms of expenses as well. Sure, your parents are covering the cost of electricity and you won't have to pay any rent. Additionally, sharing the internet connection is also very practical. You might use it mainly during the day whereas your family could enjoy some nice entertainment during the evening hours. Still, running your own business simply includes that you have to list your monthly expenses properly. The more adventurous entrepreneurs among us would consider to leave the safety of their parents' place and opt-in for a small office. Renting a place comes with a contract and obligations to pay your rent on a monthly base, meaning that you have to take care that your business actually generates enough income for. You might be able to find a decent location for as low as Rs.10,000 per month but there is surely no limit at the upper range of prices.
Taxes, trading license and accounting
But there is more... Running your own business involves a lot of time visiting authorities in either Port Louis or your local district / municipality. And there are several departments that you'll have to pay a visit. Sometimes, even multiple times until all documents are complete and signed off as requested. Also, you should seriously take into consideration to have a contracted accounting company or accountant which is able and willing to do your paper work. Again remember, any minute that you're not able to charge and bill to your clients is actually a "lost" minute of income. And under those circumstances it is compulsory that you do the calculations: What's less expensive in the long-run? Doing all the paper work with your layman knowledge and eventually risking to have errors or passing certain parts of administrative work to an expert and willingly spend a sum of money to pay for their professional services.
Social security, liability, fire & burglar insurance and medical insurance
And last but not least, you should also consider to take responsibility for your own safety and the proper modus operandi for your company. Actually, this part is also quite important towards the bank in case that you would like to opt-in for some financial safety. Surely, it's always good to run your business on a smooth cash-flow but don't be surprised when one or two clients actually decide that they don't "fancy" to pay in time, or in full amount or whatever excuses they might come up in order to avoid or at least delay payments.
How to get projects?
Now that we spoke a bit about annual and monthly expenses to take into account, let's see about the opportunities to earn money. Usually a start-up is founded based on either a good idea with a little of funding - most probably baked by your personal savings account -, or there is first client that desperately needs to have a solution for their daily operations. Don't be fooled, but simply having a single project to start with is not enough to run a young company. It is the continuous flow of incoming money that separates the successful from the failing businesses. Also, as a young, inexperienced freshman you shouldn't start a business on your own. At least there should be two persons, maybe even three buddies - but again don't get mixed up between friendship and business activities. Money is eventually ruining both... And having a look into the early days of quite a number of very successful companies nowadays you might discover that there had been "the two guys in the garage" that developed something cool which then grew into something enormous and is part of our daily lives.
Freelancers prefer a stylish, fresh and clean work environment
But coming back to the question about how to get projects. Well, as described a start-up is commonly based on the needs and demands of a single client. Next, it is important that you start to look for new leads as early as possible and way ahead of the completion of the project with your initial customer. For this type of customer acquisition you'll have to reserve some time from your productive time. You're starting to invest into your company. So, either you might be able to already spread the word about your business activities in your vicinity or you'll be able to get some attention by running some marketing and advertising campaigns for your services. In both cases, you will have to put some funds aside in order to proceed. It's a good chance to keep the ball rolling literally.
Apart from direct contact with either people in your local surrounding or in your professional network on LinkedIn you might consider to sign up for at least or two online freelancing platforms, like UpWork, Freelancer.com, Fiverr, etc. Those sites not only give you access to a huge number of potential projects but provide vital information regarding the creation of a professional profile and portfolio online. And actually, those tips are available for free.
Working with local or international clients
This could easily be a question as well. And honestly it completely depends on your character and ability to get in touch with people. Your style of communication plays a huge role in the way of how to attract and handle leads and later on your clients. Taking my own background, I have to admit that I absolutely prefer to work with international clients. Actually for several reasons but this might not apply to your circumstances, your services, and your ideas. In Mauritius I would assume that the majority of start-ups in IT might be initiated based on the requirements of a local client, and then with some more courage, engagement and luck you might enlarge your customer base into the international market. Although Mauritius is advertised to have a decent strategical position between Africa and Asia. But frankly, I would like to emphasise that the real value of the task force here on the island is because it is closer to Europe in terms of time zone offset compared to India or to the Philippines. But again that's just my personal point of view and I'd be glad to initiate a discussion about those aspects with you in the comment section of this article.
Another advantage while working with international clients is the negotiation of your hourly or daily rates. While you are providing services here on the island people might be accustomed to certain rates and the proper evaluation of your knowledge and skills might not be honoured according to your expectations. But don't take it for granted that a client abroad might pay you automatically more... It is up to your skills in getting the contract and winning the confidence and trust of the client into your work. As long as there is a mutual understanding that a work relationship is going to provide a win-win-situation for both parties, the cost of labour is usually not the critical part of the business.
During a couple of our monthly MSCC meetups I actually addressed the following question to a couple of young fellows:
"What's your hourly rate you're going to charge your client?"
The reason was actually not because I wanted to know the precise figure or in some cases the range of rates depending on the type of labour. But simply to see and understand whether a young craftsmen has a good understanding of her own worth on the market. Not surprisingly, a very common answer was "I don't know how much I should charge." - which to my opinion is an absolute no-go for a start-up, at least when you're providing services based on hours of effort. Eventually, you might have a look at the annual salary survey among freelancer which has been conducted recently by Payoneer. Just to give an idea about the range of rate you should take into consideration while working with international clients - or local ones. ;-)
Available bandwidth and latency
As we already had brief look at various aspects of expenses, let's not forget about the obligatory internet connection. Here in Mauritius you don't really have a choice between Internet Service Providers (ISPs). There is either my.T - aka Mauritius Telecom - or Emtel to go forward with. Both have their interesting and challenging packages for internet access. Whether it is fixed-line, fibre or via mobile network - well, the choice is up to you and your wallet. I won't make any preferences in this article but would like to remind you to read the different offers correctly, especially the fine print and the asterisked foot notes. Just to avoid any kind of unforeseen surprises based on a misinformed decision.
Bandwidth on international connection could be of concern for freelancers in Mauritius
Mauritius is a tiny island on the edge of the Indian Ocean and for obvious reasons there aren't many sea cables connected to the island for international bandwidth and routing of packages. Right now, there are two connections - SAFE and LION - which are connected to other international carriers and share bandwidth with other countries of the African mainland. Also, routing is commonly done through internet exchange points in Europe(!) which then might result into high latency towards other international destinations like North America, South-east Asia and Australia. So, in case that you might rely on time-critical operations you might have to take this into consideration, too. Based on my experience over the last couple of years I can at least assure that communication over Skype, VoIP and other IP-based communication channels works smoothly. Sporadically there might be a slight delay in the conversation but this also depends on the destination of your peer.
Dealing with time zones
Working as an employee is pretty simple. You set your alarm at a certain time in the morning, you get ready, you commute to your office and back on a daily base, and you do your work during the usual office hours. Eventually, you might be working with one of the more international oriented IT companies, then you might already confronted with the taste of time zones... Your regular working hours are shifted for some hours compared to the rest of the office jobs here on the island. Well, working as a freelancer gives you a huge amount of liberty and flexibility in general but this also implies that there might be, let's say funny, situations when you have several project assignments at the same time. Once I was in the weird situation that I had to do some work for three clients over two, three weeks - from Australia, from Europe and from the west coast of the United States...
Also, having clients abroad means that you need to pay attention while setting up a meeting on Skype or on the phone. Which time zone are you taking as reference? Personally, I adapted and I'll try to keep as simple as possible for my clients, meaning I'm always referring to my customer's local time when fixing a conference call.
It is worth it? What's your experience?
Looking back at my own career I have to admit that starting my first business was quite a roller-coaster! And it didn't last long... until I seized activities and went into the safety of employment. During those years as an employee I was able to learn a lot from my colleagues and my boss(es). But compared to the majority of Mauritian IT people I stayed for almost ten years in the same company. Learning the robes of the business, growing in terms of personal experience, and climbing up the ladder of responsibility. Starting as an inexperienced junior developer in the development of client/server architectures I not only managed to grow on the job but was also given the opportunity to initiate a complete new company for my employer here in Mauritius.
Clearly those years as an employee and the constant growth in my personal career brought me lots of experience, helped me to build up a certain reputation within the developer community back in Germany and gave me a better understanding of the dynamics of dealing with clients, taking care of cash-flow and working with others on a team.
But all this doesn't keep you away from making mistakes... it just strengthens your skills to deal with them in a better way.
Personally, I enjoy working as a small business owner and providing our services to clients world-wide. So far, it had been a great experience with lots of sunshine but also some rainy days, and right now it would be tough for me to go back into employment.
As for you, my dear reader... Well, it's up to your character and personal attitude towards freelancing. There's only one advice I'd like to give you: Get in touch with other IT people here in Mauritius and online communities world-wide, and exchange with others and learn from their vast range of experience.