Man attending an online meeting on his laptop

So you want to be a web contractor? (Part 2: Essential purchases)

A few months ago, I posted an article about how to get started as a contractor in the web industry. It proved to be a popular article so I thought that instead of it being a short two-parter, I’d turn it into a series. So here is part 2!

Part 1 was all about getting you started, part 2 is about what sort of things you’ll need to buy to make sure you hit the ground running.

The finer details of what you will need depends on what your role in the Web industry is and as I assume you’ve worked in your role for at least a few years (if not then maybe you’re not quite ready for contracting yet) I will also assume you know what that software is. If not, hit me up in the comments and I’ll try to give you some pointers.

Having said that, there are some common purchases that are universally true for a web contractor.

Total disclosure: As much as I love having people read my posts, I also love having money, so where possible, I’ve used referral links for some of the products and services I recommend, that they have referral links doesn’t influence my decision to recommend them in any way.

You will definitely need the following:

1) A Laptop

A man using a laptop and drinking a coffee

A Laptop is top of the list for any IT contractor

I’ll be honest here, I’ve contracted for years and I’ve probably actually used my own laptop in a role about 40-50% of the time. However my clients are primarily huge organisations and the bigger a company is, the more security conscious they are so and the less likely they are to let you use your own machine.

However many roles (especially when you’re new to contracting) will be in smaller companies or even agencies who have a ‘contractor friendly environment’. This usually means that even if they did want you to use their equipment, they can’t afford to and therefore would expect you as the service provider to come fully armed.

Now let me clear one thing up as it seems to be a bit of a myth in this industry:

You don’t need a Macbook. Mac’s are something of an industry standard but 90% of all software you will need either has Windows/Linux equivalents or can at least export to a program that does.

The one exception to this rule might be if you are a designer, some agencies will want you to make things in Sketch and if you ain’t got a mac, you ain’t getting the job.

I have had Macbook pros for the last 4 years but that was partly because I bought into the ‘Macbooks are sexy’ hype but mainly because 4 years ago, you DID need a mac, these days though nearly all web dev software is platform independent so my next purchase will probably be a sleek little laptop that I can dual-boot windows and a Linux distro on (and if it can run a few decent games as well – then that’s just dandy.)

2: Accounting software

Some coins on a table

You know the old saying: “Take care of the pennies and you’ll still only have pennies as our economy is in the toilet!”

A good piece of accounting software is an essential, as is an accountant (but more on that later) as it does nearly all of your admin work for you. I have a few recommendations but if you want to go hunting for your own software then at least make sure that it can do the following:

  • Invoices
  • Quotes
  • Time tracking/Timesheets (or at least integrates with time tracking software)
  • Expense tracking
  • Salary/Dividend tracking
  • Tax calculation

My personal recommendation has got to be FreeAgent (https://www.freeagent.com/), it is hands-down the best bit of freelancer accounting software I’ve ever used. The reason I qualified that with ‘freelancer’ is because that’s exactly what it was designed for, it’s not something that Microsoft would ever use to do their books but you can be damn sure that a lot of the contractors they hire do.

FreeAgent is literally a one-stop-shop, it has all the features above plus a basic CRM, a basic project management tool, a bill tracker, a bank account tracker and gives you so many graphs and reports that you can never claim to be uninformed on your numbers.

My favourite part is the ‘Monday motivator’ email they send you every Monday morning which tells you how much money you’ve made recently (although it’s less of a motivation when you don’t have a contract and you’ve just paid your corporation tax)

My only real complaint with FreeAgent is that I still find it too ‘accountancy’ there are still a few times that I have clicked on a menu item and literally had no clue what I was looking at – however I suspect most of the complex stuff is for my accountants benefit more than mine anyway.

My other recommendation is Xero (https://www.xero.com), I’ve personally never used it but I know a few contractors who swear by it. When I tested a demo of it, I found the user interface to be a lot less intuitive and very complex, however that is apparently because it made to behave in a similar fashion to the more hardcore accounting software packages like Sage and QuickBooks, so if you are used to them then Xero might be the one for you.

3. LinkedIn Premium

A Gold LinkedIn Logo on a blue background

I must admit, I’m not a member of this any more, I’ve been in the game long enough now that I have to STOP people from calling me to offer me work. However a lot of that is thanks to LinkedIn. The premium offerings give you a long list of benefits but there is only one that I care about: Full Profiles.

As a contractor, I know that the interview is the place where I need to shine and one thing that helps to get you work that’s even more important than your skill set is how well the interviewer likes you.

With LinkedIn premium, you get to look at the entire profile of anyone on LinkedIn, even if you’re not connected with them. There have been multiple occasions where I’m pretty sure I landed a contract because I was able to bond with the interviewer over something I saw on their profiles.

Another good tool is InMail (the ability to directly mail pretty much anyone on LinkedIn) although I must admit, I never got much use from that ability as most of my work comes through recruitment agencies anyway.

A word of warning, premium can be quite pricey and I believe that they have recently changed their subscription prices (I’m guessing not for the better) so don’t subscribe until you have to and even then, go for the free trial first. Keep an eye on how much you’re using it and what benefits it’s giving you and then drop it when you don’t need it anymore.

4. A solid contracting bag

A dog in a carry bag

You will need a bag in which you can fit all the essentials

Whilst you’re not exactly a road warrior, your days of having a permanent desk are pretty much over and done with, get used to carrying a ton of stuff with you wherever you go.

On a daily basis, depending on the contract I’m in I could be carrying all the following:

All of that stuff can get heavy, so you need a bag that will a) fit all of that in b) not cause a scene on the tube and c) will distribute the weight well so it’s comfortable.

Now, I’m not gonna lie, I’ve not found one that fits the bill yet, I’ve had a few over the shoulder bags, my favourite being a Roncato Harvard Briefcase which I found in a TXMaxx in Ealing for £45, a multitude of backpacks (currently a pretty cool military style rucksack which is super-comfy, holds literally everything I need with room for more and despite how heavy it is, sits on my back as if it were as light as a feather. Unfortunately the bloody thing is massive and can be a bit annoying on the train, I’ve since removed pretty much all the removable pouches from it and although there is still loads of room, it’s just another backpack now).

My absolute all-time favourite bag was the Wenger Granada Trolly bag, I used this all the time when I was living in Leeds but working in Southampton and it was fantastic. However now I work in London and live only 30 mins away on the train in Kent, it seems like overkill and again a bag that bulky is a bit of a pain on a crowded train. However if you’re the sort who doesn’t care if you are annoying people then I’d say go for that one!

5. An accountant

A small boy playing accountant

Finding an accountant with experience is vital.

Ok so you can’t actually buy an accountant (that’s illegal these days) but you can hire the services of one.

Quite a lot of people feel that they don’t need the services of an accountant and there is some truth in that, you don’t NEED an accountant but you also didn’t need that sausage and bacon sandwich you had for breakfast but I bet you don’t regret buying that (much).

A good accountant will know how to use your accounting software (in fact many of them will recommend FreeAgent or Xero, I know of a few of my contractor friends who tell me that the software is included as part of their accountants services!) but more so than that, a good accountant will allow you to largely forget about the business side of your business, whilst they probably won’t raise invoices and log your expenses for you (although some might!) they will sort out your payroll each month, they will do the majority of the work in calculating your taxes and they will also make sure you are not paying a penny more in taxes than you are due.

If you get a good accountant, you will find that you probably end up saving more money in taxes each year than it actually cost to hire them!

I’ve only ever used one accountant throughout my whole business and that is Accountancy Extra in Halifax. I can’t tell you which accountant to go with as that’s a decision that has to consider a number of factors but to help with your decision, here is how I chose mine:

Price

When you first start out in business, price is always going to be a factor but don’t cheap out, I know accountants that cost less than £50 a month and even a few that cost more than £300 a month, however from my own experience and from what I’ve heard from fellow contractors, the magic price point seems to be between around £75-180 a month.

Location

How important this is will vary from person-to-person, when I first started contracting, my accountant was invaluable, he offered me a ton of free business advice, he helped me set my limited company up, he registered me for VAT and helped me to take my first baby-steps as a new company. Back then, phone and email just didn’t cut it, I needed to sit down and have a proper meeting with him on multiple occasions.

Fast forward to 4 years later though and I barely speak to him, I still occasionally need his advice but he knows my business now and his accountancy firm is essentially a semi-silent back-office team, efficiently and quickly working away at my financial admin. He’s available on the phone and replies to my emails so face to face meetings don’t really matter anymore.

Value added services

Value added can be a bit of a dirty word sometimes as it effectively means ‘free work’ but again, a good accountant will have had a few other clients and has probably been in business for years, if you find one that is approachable enough then you may find that you have a great business adviser on hand to help you get set up.

Personality

Again, this varies from person to person, when I first met my accountant, I got along with him really well and his friendliness and easygoingness (is that a word?) really put me at ease and was something I found to be invaluable.

Referrals

I actually found my accountant through a friend who has used him for years. Referrals are a great way to find services such as this as trust is always vitally important where money is involved. If you trust the person giving you the referral then you can probably trust who they are referring you to.

Word of warning though, I knew a guy who I trusted implicitly and was an utterly lovely man, however he was terrible at recommendations, literally everything he ever recommended to me turned out to be garbage so trust is only part of the equation, make sure that person has good sense and taste first too!

As I mentioned at the start, this is only part 2 of a series about getting started and getting ahead as a contractor, keep an eye out for the next part where I will cover a few insider tips on how to get the most out of contracting life.

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Alex Ward
Freelance UI Developer at
Freelance User Interface Developer, Aspiring novelist and ill-informed political writer from Sevenoaks, UK.

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