Freelance PCB Designers: What You Need to Know to Thrive
If your career as a hardware engineer is getting stagnant, you may be tempted to switch careers or do the unthinkable by turning into a freelancer. After all, the major difference between working full-time and freelancing is not having the 9-to-5 routine and being able to work on projects while sipping a piña colada at the beach. When you’re equipped with the top-notch design skills and knowledge of a hardware designer, what could go wrong?
This is exactly what I thought when quitting my job nearly a decade ago to embark on the glamorous life of freelancing. Nothing prepared me for the rude shock of reality because despite numerous advantages, freelancing is hard work. Here are some tips I’ve learned along the way to help out your decision and transition.
Awesome PCB Design Skills Aren’t Enough to be a Successful Freelancer
When you ditch a comfortable, regularly paying job to be a freelancer, you need more than just technical skills to survive. In the blink of an eye, you are running an independent business and before you can even tackle a project, you need to hunt for work and secure a contract. Getting continuous work can be an uncomfortable process that your previous job as a hardware engineer simply didn’t prepare you for.
There are some skills you can develop to make the transition easier, whether you’re freelancing part-time or full-time. Before starting my own PCB design company, I spent two years as a freelance PCB designer. Based on my experiences, here are some tips to save you from making costly mistakes:
1. Build Sales and Marketing Skills
Most hardware engineers seem to detest the idea of developing sales and marketing skills. They perceive sales and marketing in a negative light, like a slick salesman trying to persuade an innocent old lady to buy some cooking pans. The truth is, real-world marketing is completely different.
When you started applying for jobs after college, you sent hundreds of résumés to various companies. Strictly speaking, you were engaged in marketing. Then, when you went through rigorous interviews to convince potential employers that you’re the best guy or gal for the job, you practiced fundamental sales skills. Sales and marketing are normal parts of anyone’s career.
To be a successful freelancer, you not only need to create great designs but also convince potential clients to hire you. Build a website and design fancy business cards but don’t neglect to create real relationships with people, as personal connections can determine the difference between merely surviving and thriving as a freelancer.
2. Develop Time Management Techniques
Even if you’ve never struggled to meet a deadline, you should still focus on enhancing your time management skills. As a freelancer, you will wear multiple hats to run your mini-business; being able to allocate ample time for various tasks, any of which could take longer than planned, is crucial. Between attending meetings, calling potential clients, invoicing for payments, and networking to build your client portfolio, you may find yourself spending more time running your day-to-day business than working on designs.
To thrive as a freelance PCB designer, you must be able to organize yourself without being overwhelmed. Consider using a productivity app to keep track of all of your to-dos and appointments. Realize that it is impossible to manage all tasks yourself and develop your ability to delegate tasks and leverage resources. When it comes to freelancing, balance is the key to success.
How many clocks can you manage at once?
3. Learn Basic Accounting
When you’re employed, you receive a steady paycheck every month. As a freelancer, you may need to wait a month or two to be paid in full. Based on common sense, make sure you have enough savings to sustain you for at least 6 months until your freelancing career is stable.
Besides that, focus on developing basic accounting skills to track project expenses and earning. As a freelancer, it’s tempting to neglect your accounts and simply work on what you love. However, neglecting your accounts can mean unnecessary cash flow issues down the road. Timely financial management is crucial to sustaining your freelancing career in the long run.
4. Invest in Yourself
As a freelancer, you don’t receive sponsored opportunities to attend training and seminars. Therefore, to continue learning and networking, you need to be proactive and invest both your time and money to attend the right training. As a hardware designer, keeping up with the latest developments in your industry is extremely important.
While staying competitive in terms of technical knowledge, you should also spend time developing business and management skills because that’s what freelancing is all about. Designing a PCB is only a part of the big picture.
5. Use Powerful PCB Design Software
Realistically, starting your career as a freelancer means foregoing many of the luxuries an established company might offer. To save money, you may consider using a free version of PCB designer software. However, selecting PCB design software based on cost alone would be a big mistake.
Ultimately, your success as a freelancer depends on your ability to produce excellent results despite tight deadlines. When you’re juggling multiple projects, you will wish that you had selected more intuitive and powerful PCB design software.
You wouldn’t want to waste time dragging tracks across layers.
Throughout my freelancing career, I relied on Altium products. The combination of interactive routing and auto-routing saved me precious time in my projects and enabled me to expand my freelancing career into a full-blown design company. Chances are, Altium Designer will help you kickstart your freelancing career as well.