What I Learned After Taking the Leap into Self-Employment

After only working full time in my career, I entered the unknown world of consulting and learned quite a few lessons.


Karina Chow

2 years ago | 6 min read

After working full-time as a software engineer for 8 years and burning the hell out, I entered the mysterious world of freelancing and consulting in search for a more restorative and balanced lifestyle.

I’ve learned a lot in my 10 months of being self-employed. This isn’t an article to convince you to quit your job right now to become self-employed (maybe I’ll write that later!) but rather a few lessons learned that I’d like to reflect on:

1. The 40 hour work week isn’t actually 40 hours worth of work

The first lesson I learned is that I spent my time differently than I thought I did. Because full-time employees are salaried, they usually aren’t nickel-and-diming their time. I definitely didn’t ever truly do the math as to how much I was paid per hour, nor did I do the math as to the exact number of hours I worked. I used to declare that I worked 60 hours a week; it was almost a badge of honor I wore that proved what a hard worker I was. Though it’s objectively true that I would get to work at 8:00am and not leave until 11:00pm for many months in my career, the actual hour count I thought I was working wasn’t quite accurate.

My original goal in consulting was to only work 20 hours a week. After all, the last thing I wanted to do was to add more stress to my burnout. It turns out, that even with 20 hours a week, I’d find myself “working” from 8:00am to 4:00pm Mondays through Fridays. How could that be?

When I started consulting, I decided to charge hourly because I didn’t know how to price my services and wanted data on how long projects took me. When charging hourly, I use this app called Harvest to log my hours and create invoices. My workflow was simple: every time I start working, I start the timer, every time I stop working, I stop the timer.

An example from Harvest for how many hours a project took and how much was paid per project.
An example from Harvest for how many hours a project took and how much was paid per project.

After my first few weeks of consulting, I realized how much time I spent on things that aren’t exactly “working”. I get up to go to the bathroom. Stop the timer. I fill the water boiler and make myself a cup of tea. Stop the timer. I go to make myself lunch, and then eat the lunch. Stop the timer. I get up to do a few stretches. Stop the timer.

I found that in an 8:00am to 3:00pm work day, I’d only really work 3–4 dedicated hours. Working those hours every work day looks like a 30 hour work week to a full time person, but in reality it’s only 15–20 hours as an hourly worker.

Of course, you can charge in many more ways than hourly. In fact now, months later, I have a few clients on monthly retainers. However, no matter how you charge, knowing the hour count is important to know to correctly manage your time, especially as a self-employed person.

2. Salaries and hourly rates aren’t always representative of value brought to the table

As a full-time employee, you have a sense as to what your market rate is…or at least, what the general salary bands for your job title are. Because salaries aren’t necessarily tied to precise project, that market rate is representation of how much you — as a human resource— are worth.

So, you might use Glassdoor to check out your title’s salary ranges, or even ask your colleagues how much they make as a base line of comparison. When interviewing, you have a good sense as to “an X should make this much, and I am an X”. If they don’t offer you that expected salary, you might negotiate.

Seems simple enough, but often times it isn’t. I’ve seen people with the same job title and level at the same company have a $40k disparity in compensation, often times because someone negotiated more than another or because management was desperate for a new hire but didn’t give a raise to their existing staff. Is such a person truly $40k more valuable? If you’re hiring fresh, how do you know that what they can deliver is worth that extra $40k?

While a full-time employee, I interpreted salary bands as a monetary value for my personality and skillsets. That seemed sufficient at the time. However, after leaving my full-time job, I realized I had a huge gap in pricing knowledge. Clients would ask me how much I think it would take to make a marketing website or to build a product prototype, and I realized I didn’t know how much my output costs. I only knew how much I cost.

After nearly a year of working hourly at different rates, I had collected reasonable empirical data on pricing ranges for a multitude of different projects. At first, I would provide estimates of how long I think it would take, then multiply that out by an hourly rate I set for myself.

However, I realized in some cases, the work that I was doing was more valuable than just a flat hourly rate. The work I was doing was helping clients raise funding or even helping them make a profit. I started seeing my work as not just a fixed-price transaction but instead I started attaching a price based on how much I thought it was worth to the client I was working for. One hour of my time, having seen or solved a problem a thousand times before, is worth more than just that hour if it would have taken the client, or even a more junior person, five hours.

The way I interpret the values of myself and my skillset is completely different now than it was as a full-time employee. It’s no longer a flat salary band or a fixed hourly rate, but rather more fluid depending on the client and circumstances.

3. When only representing yourself, you open yourself up for more interesting opportunities

Now that I’m self-employed, I get many interesting opportunities from people that are interested in me and my thoughts rather than my pedigree. I’ve gotten invited to:

  • Speak at a couple universities about different types of tech careers
  • Speak at Meetups and small conferences about content I’ve written about
  • Host a couple of fireside chats because of my bubbly personality
  • Write articles for a couple of different startup blogs
  • Publish my articles with a variety of publications

You might say “Karina, you could have done all these things while working full-time”, and you’d be right. I did sometimes.

However, when working full-time for a company, people would often reach out to me offering me opportunities based on where I worked. “We’re interested in the passion economy and we noticed you work for Patreon; could you perhaps speak about this at our Meetup?” “I’m looking to create a health tech startup, could you perhaps talk to me about how Honor does things?” That’s fine, but if you’re not in the exec team, those asks can become nerve-wracking opportunities for misrepresentation of the company you work for.

I shied away from writing articles because I wasn’t sure if my opinions were aligned with my company’s. Even if I wrote an article, I felt more obligated to write in specificities about how my current company approached it than I did to write in generalities, and there would be limitations as to which publications it could go in. I shied away from speaking opportunities because I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to speak publicly about what I was working on. If I could, there would always be an expectation to throw my company logo and branding on the presentation and mention that we’re hiring at the end.

There were plenty of opportunities offered to me, but I didn’t take many of them out of a fear of misrepresenting my company and out of a feeling of being hampered in my own creativity.

The opportunities that you run into as a consultant are different than the ones you find as a full-time person. Personally, I enjoy the self-employed ones better because I like promoting myself rather than my company.

For right now, I’ve enjoyed being self-employed. I spent too much of the last few years trying to appease others and trying to be a good corporate citizen.

I’m happy to choose my own hours, choose my own value, and take my own opportunities without much worry. Doing my taxes and managing my time may be more difficult than it was before, but it’s worth it for right now. I’m excited to spend more time in this realm and see what the next few things I learn are!


Created by

Karina Chow

Screw the rules, I have green hair. Self-employed technologist with a decade long career in frontend engineering, graphic and brand design, and user experience research. Enjoys the intersection between the arts, psychology, and technology.







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