In this article, I would like to share with all readers about my experience so far working as a freelance electronics engineer.
I have only been in this game for around 8 months, still learning a lot, making mistakes and improving.
I have divided this article into different sections of interest that envelope the whole package of what it entails to work as a freelance electronics engineer.
Before getting into the actual content of the article, allow me to give you some background information
After I finished university, back in 2015, my main objective in life was to get hired by a respectable company in the industry of electronics and renewable energies. After having such a great experience while working at Cambridge Audio for my internship, both personal and professional, I wanted to get back into working for a company to develop myself even further and also start to finally make some money of my own (a thousand thanks to my parents whom financed my studies and life so far).
Spain is not the best place to find work in Europe. Back then I was living in the beautiful city of Barcelona. I could have moved back to England or try another northern European country, but I was too fond of the sunshine and the Mediterranean life.
This part of my life wasn’t very easy, I went to around 25 interviews, had 3 jobs and got fired from one. Finally, after 2 months of being unemployed, I landed a stellar job as a Hardware Engineer at Lear Corp, a company in the automotive industry that designs and develops electronics for cars.
During my time working for Lear, I got the opportunity to design and develop with other engineers the Battery Management System of the new Volvo electric cars that are scheduled to be released in 2020. This was an incredible project as I got to improve my knowledge in electronics and work with other talented engineers far more experienced and smarter than myself. Also, I had an over-average salary for Spanish standards 🙂
Everything sounds great right? Well turns out that personally, there was something itching inside me. I realised that freedom was a very important value for me.
After working for nearly 2 years with a fixed schedule from 8 in the morning till 6 in the afternoon Monday to Friday, with the limited number of days off which are conditioned by your manager’s approval (I actually never had a problem with this to be fair), I decided that I wanted a life with more freedom.
It was at this time when Developpa was born and the idea of creating an e-learning platform for electronic product developers and an engineering design and development company started to take shape.
Leveraging the World Economics
Money is an interesting thing. Depending on where you are in the globe, the same piece of paper can give you more or less acquisitive power.
With this idea in mind, and taking into account that you have the freedom to move to a different country (check your passport first!), why not move somewhere where your acquisitive power gets multiplied?
This is what I have done moving from Spain to Thailand but still earning in EUR or USD.
You might not want to move to another location forever, but when starting out it definitely helps to reduce your living expenses and cut costs.
By living in Chiang Mai, Thailand I am able to have a very comfortable lifestyle for under $1000 per month, something that will be very hard in industrialised nations.
Of course there are more variables to balance here apart from money. You could move to some isolated town where the living expenses are near to nothing but then you’ll be bored to death and it will be a pain to buy components, find work, network and progress with your business.
Move to a different location where your spending power gets multiplied but taking into account that social life and access to services for your business is also important.
Managing your own time efficiently and effectively is one of the challenges of working for yourself. In this section, I will share some of the tools and methods I use to keep myself organised.
Long-term and Weekly Goals
It is easier for the humans to have defined goals that can be measured. These goals can be measured over a long term such as 3 months or shorter like a week or a day.
To track my quarterly and weekly goals, I use the productivity system explained by Nat Eliason in his blog article The Goal Setting Template for a High-Output Life.
Using the spreadsheet drafted by Nat, I can set long term goals that I review every 4 weeks and weekly goals that I review every week.
For me, the main objective of filling and tracking this
It is essential to write down a list of things you need to do. This is the classic to-do list.
Even if you have a single project, you will be much more efficient and effective if you have defined clear tasks of what you need to do.
For this job, I like using the Chrome extension of Any.do. It allows you to create different groups of lists and then separeate each task into when it needs to be delivered or done. You can also have sub-tasks to the main tasks.
Another important thing you need to have if you are working as a freelancer and charging by the hour is a time tracking app!
There are tons of these apps available out there so choose whichever you like more. You can install it either in your mobile phone or laptop. I like to have it on the mobile phone because sometimes I need to work on the go from my phone and haven’t got access to my laptop.
The app of your choosing needs to have a way to easily create new time tracking events.
This part is probably not very exciting but you need to get the following aspects in order if you want to become a freelancer.
A little disclaimer here. I am not a tax adviser or expert in regulations regarding self-employment laws. I will share the little I know in the context of my situation but it is up to you to check the laws of your own country or region.
Becoming self-employed or starting a company
Once you start generating an income and you are not employed by anyone, then technically you become self-employed.
Because we are all law abiding citizens we should register as self-employed to the corresponding governmental body and get a tax number.
Even if you hate the government of your country, registering as a legal entity will make you look more serious and professional to potential clients. Especially companies as they obviously do not want to get involved in any illegal work activities.
Now, should you become self-employed or start a company and make yourself the director of it?
Normally, being self-employed is much more easier than starting a company as there is less paper work and you can claim a lot of your personal expenses as “company” expenses.
As I have heard from other people, it is not worth opening a company unless you are making a profit of more than X amount of money per year (this amount will vary depending on the country).
However, there is a special point we should take into account when considering if becoming self-employed or opening a company.
One key difference between being self-employed or opening a company, is that as a self-employed your personal assets are linked to your company assets. On the other hand, a company makes a distinction between what belongs to you as an individual and company assets.
And why is this important? Because of liability.
Maybe if you are a music teacher and you are self-employed you don’t need to open a company because people will not sue you for giving a bad lesson right? They’ll just stop going.
In engineering, the situation is a bit more complex. We are responsible for the devices we create and liable if they fail and injure people because of a design flaw.
For this reason, if you are working in projects that could potentially harm people if things go wrong, it is better to become a Limited Liability Company.
Tracking your balance
Your company expenses should be well tracked. Both for when you have to declare taxes and for your own reference.
This doesn’t have to be very complex. I got it all down in a single Excel doc:
I even categorised the expenses so I know where most of my money is going to.
Also, it is important to keep the receipts of all the expenses. You might get asked to present them while declaring taxes.
Paying your Taxes
Once a year, you gotta do it! As this is my first year as a registered self-employed, I will have to declare for the first time. Therefore I have no advice or experience to share yet.
I got told I should get an accountant to go through my expenses and certify that everything is correct. This way the chances of avoiding a deeper government inspection will be greatly reduced.
To perform the craft of creating electronic devices, some tools are required to assemble, test and modify circuits.
Trying to fit a whole toolkit of electronic measurement and testing tools in a single suit case with a weight limit of 23Kg + hand luggage is not impossible.
The following is a list of the different tools I use and carry around with me:
- Laptop – Lenovo Ideapad 520 15-IKB with added SSD and extra RAM.
- Wireless mouse and keyboard
- Laptop stand –
Nexstand, using a laptop stand helps me to avoid back and neck pains.
- USB-C Portable Screen – AOC I1659FWUX, because having two screens makes everything easier.
- Multimeter – AstroAI WH5000A, has a great auto ranging and can measure capacitance and temperature.
- Oscilloscope – SainSmart DSO212, portable mini oscilloscope that works well for low-frequency signals (kHz range).
- Soldering kit (Soldering iron, tweezers, solder, solder sucker, cable crimper) – Amazon Soldering Kit, barely does the job but it is better than nothing.
- Mobile phone tripod – I use it to hold the oscilloscope.
I mostly use readily available freeware for my day to day tasks:
- Schematics and PCB Layout Design – Upverter
- Circuit Simulation – LTspice
- General office tasks – Google docs, sheets
- Block Diagrams – Microsoft Visio
- MECH files viewer – Solid Works eDrawings Viewer
- PDF reader – Foxit
- Task tracking (to-do list) – Any.do
Where to Work
Unless you have a very nice table and chair at your home and don’t mind working where you sleep, you’ll probably have to find a place where you can design circuits, code and test PCBs.
Makerspaces are by far the best place you can work from.
You can get access to electronic tools, components and 3D printing. Apart from that, you will share your workspace with other like-minded engineers and makers working on their own cool projects.
This situation allows natural networking for collaboration in projects and what not. Other makers are also able to help you when you are stuck in some lines of code or the circuit you built is not working!
It is almost automatic that when I arrive to a new city where I know I have to do some work, to look for a Makerspace.
It is not something you will find everywhere but so far I have been able to find them in Chiang Mai, Shenzhen, Barcelona, Miami and Aruba!
A Coworking Space is also a nice alternative when you want to get away from the noise and hecticness of a Makerspace.
This is the default place where freelancers in areas such as graphic design, online marketing and web programming work. Networking with these other professionals can also be beneficial for other areas of your business not related to engineering.
Coworking spaces normally have nicer chairs and better refreshment facilities than Makerspaces so they are good for a change for when you need to concentrate and do deep work such as programming, circuit simulation or writing documentation.
Don’t be surprised to be the only HW engineer on the block. I have yet to find another freelance electronics engineer in a coworking space.
Many coworking spaces also offer the possibility of renting your private office. This is a very nice alternative if you have your own equipment and working with a team so you get that “office” sensation.
Universities are a bit of a hit and miss. If they have a course in Electronics Engineering then they will have a lab full of oscilloscopes and bench power supplies. Also, it is nice to network with final year students and check on their projects.
The problem with universities is that most of the time they only offer their facilities to enrolled students and if you want to use their equipment you probably will have some professor watching over your shoulders, which is all understandable at the end of the day.
I haven’t yet worked in a single university so I do not know how well this workspace could be.
Anywhere you can find electricity and internet connection!
I like to know where I am working in advanced. It takes mental energy from me in the morning to decide where I have to work and how to get there. Normally, I have already decided the day before if I will go to the Makerspace or coworking space.
However, life is not always the same, and this is part of what it is fun about being a freelancer. Sometimes you will have to work in the airport, on a ferry or a coffee shop on the beach. Your choice!
A lot the time all you need is your laptop, power and internet connection.
How to find work
As you can imagine, it is paramount for a freelancer or independent contractor to be able to find clients, either steadily or get a single client that can keep sending you more work.
There are actually many ways to find a prospective client. I think the hardest part is not to find a prospective client but a good/serious client that is responsible and wants to form a long-term relationship.
A good place to start looking is where people know you already. If you have previously worked for an engineering company and you have prove them that you can deliver the work, a natural thing to do is just ask them if there are any jobs or small projects that you can help them with.
Depending on the size of the company, their culture, size of the prospective project and industry, you have more or less chances to get work from your previous employer.
Normally, if it’s a big corporation with established ways of doing things, big complex projects and in an industry with a lot of competition and intellectual property, it will be harder to get a job as they are not very comfortable with people working outside the office using an “insecure” internet connection (even though this might not be true).
However, if your previous employer was a startup that it is mostly interested in results rather than process, you have a good chance to get them to hire you as an independent contractor.
Even if you don’t have many chances of getting work from your previous employer, you lose nothing by just asking.
Approach small companies
Small startups that are interested in results and to cut costs (hiring a freelancer for a particular job is cheaper than having an employee most of the times) are more likely to collaborate with external contractors rather than big corporations.
I spent the month of December 2018 visiting my family in Aruba for the Christmas holidays.
Aruba is a small island with not much industry in the area of electronics. Most engineering is leaned towards tourism infrastructure such as hotels.
As I was going to stay a month in the island, I thought, why not look for jobs over here to see what I can find? After asking around and searching in Google, I found a couple of small companies that were based in Aruba.
As this is a very small island, most of this companies were all based at the main town. One day I just walked in into the office of each company and ask the secretary to speak with the “boss” as I wanted to offer them my engineering services.
The response was quite good and I had around 4 different meetings with business owners were I proposed collaborations and offered my design and development services.
Initially, I was planning to stay in Aruba for 3 months, but plans changed and no job ever materialised, but for the looks of it, if I had stay longer I could have probably found work.
Approach small companies in your local area and offer them your engineering services. Do some research about what they do first and try to offer solutions for their business.
I keep getting weekly offers from traditional recruiters via LinkedIn and email.
Some recruiters are looking for short term contractors, the problem is that they want someone to work on-site.
So far I haven’t got any job from traditional recruiters as they are not looking for remote workers.
Still, it is good to reply to these offers and let them be aware of your situation. Hopefully in the future, when a job that can be performed remotely pops in, they will have you in mind.
Upwork is a great platform for both people looking to hire talent and freelancers all together.
Tons of engineering jobs get posted daily that vary from helping some kid in the US to finish his/her homework or full development of a product.
The problem with Upwork is that it is saturated with low budget project and proposals. What companies offer to freelancers is quite low, and on top of that you have to give 20% of your payment to Upwork.
There is a surplus of engineers that are happy to work for $10-$20/h and some of them are quite good at what they do.
When applying for a job in Upwork, you will probably have to spend quite some time writing a quality application to stand out from the crowd. The you have to bid for cheap, and if you have no reviews or have completed any jobs before, the chances of getting noticed have already dropped.
What this means, is that for clients hiring, they can get good quality engineers for cheap but for freelancers, they have to offer good value but not charge much for it.
This high quality/low budget equation does not work very well for me as a freelancer, so I mostly use Upwork to hire people rather than to find job.
Unless you are happy with charging $10-$20/h then losing 20% of that and spending time writing quality applications, then Upwork might not be worth the effort.
Get your ass off the chair and start networking! This is by far the best way to find clients.
Networking doesn’t mean only to go to events where people that are looking for similar things meet. It means just talking to people and ask about their projects and see if you can help them.
I met my main client at the Makerspace from a casual conversation. He mentioned “I need someone to do a little modification to a circuit I have” and from there, he’s become my main source of work!
I have also met many prospective clients and collaborators
Word of mouth
Starting from close friends and family, just tell everyone what you do! But please don’t be out of context.
One day a friend of a friend might need someone to develop a little circuit and as this is quite specific, they will have you in mind.
Develop your own product!
You don’t necessarily have to perform work for other people to make money. There is a riskier path but with much more higher returns.
Before making a big batch of units, make sure you have done thorough market research and got feedback from users to improve your prototype.
How to setup up freelancer fees
Giving monetary value to your time and work is not an exact science, however, there are a few parameters we can consider that can guide you to choose an adequate fee both for you and potential client.
Your intrinsic value
Here is what I think are the most important variables at the time of deciding how much your time is worth.
Type of client
Is your client an NGO, a startup, a giant corporate or a dude with a big idea but limited funds?
Analysing the spending power and cash flow your potential client has, will help you to determine if you should aim to your lower or higher end of your fees’ spectrum.
Is your client a multinational corporate with thousands of employees? don’t be shy and ask for more. Chances are that even your high fee will be less than what cost them to hire an employee.
Is your client a startup? Try to find out if its bootstrapped or backed by many investors. If they are backed by investors and they are just starting they would probably have some cash ready to kick start the project which is a good excuse to push your fee a little higher.
Is your client an NGO or individual? These are the two types that you are less likely to charge a higher rate.
Sometimes for these types of projects, it is not all about the money. Maybe the NGO project aims to give a better quality of life to people in need and that could make it on its own a good project to spend time and effort at.
The country where the client is based
One thing you have to make sure is that your fee will be lesser than someone of equal experience at your client’s local area. Otherwise, what’s the point of hiring you?
Depending on the country, you can find charts and information about how much an engineer charges according to their experience level.
According to careerexplorer.com, the average salary of a US Electrical Engineer is about $76K/year. Let’s say that adding taxes, social, security, etc then the company spends about $100K/year to hire that person which is about $8300 per month.
You can argue to the client that you can provide the same value as a full time employee and only charge $4000/month.
However, if the potential client is hiring exclusively in platforms such as Upwork, then it is a different game as the market place is the whole world and it will be harder to compete with low-wage/high-skilled engineers.
Project type and Industry
This point is related to the first “type of client” point.
Generally speaking, if the project’s industry is automotive, defence, aerospace, banking or medical (not a startup) then these industries move a massive amount of money around.
The lowest paid industry type for electronics is probably consumer electronics as it possess the less liability and complexity.
How to bill your client
After you have a rough idea of how much you are worth, you need to decide in what format you wish to charge your client. Here are the ones I have currently used with my clients:
By the hour
This is the standard billing method for freelancers. In my opinion, I find it good for one-off, short time tasks and projects. For longer and more complex projects it becomes harder to manage and quite abstract.
The client will not be very happy with a 150 hours bill.
Billing by the project is easier to manage as the client knows exactly how much he needs to spend and you as a freelancer how much you will earn.
To set up a project fee, apart from the points mentioned above, you must do research to determine how much effort and time you will need to put into the project. You want to avoid charging a lower price and then realising that the project is complicated and will take you much more time than you initially expected.
Make sure you setup some clear milestones so the project payment is divided into nice chunks and clarify until what point your project contract will run.
I normally setup a clear final milestone which involves a working prototype according to the initial requirements. Any work after that will be billed hourly.
There are some projects that have great potential but are not that well funded. If you smell one of these projects you can negotiate an agreement with the client where you do the development for free and then earn a commission per unit sold.
Obviously, this type of arrangement is very risky for the freelancer as most startups do not succeed. However, if you are lucky and the product sells well, you could possibly make good money out of this venture!
This billing method is the closest to being an employee.
You lose the advantages such as company insurance, Christmas dinners and work security (or maybe not this one), but you enjoy the advantages of being a freelancer: no commute to the office at 7am, no company’s silly rules and personal freedom.
This contract entails a guaranteed number of hours per month that will be dedicated exclusively to fulfil the client’s needs.
This arrangement will normally take place with a client that you do recurrent work and its projects could be at stake if you decide to stop working for them. Therefore with this type of contract, they can book some of your time per month.
Becoming a freelance electronics engineer is not that hard after all.
If you have savings and can hold at least 6 months without an income then you should be able to make it through the dry initial part when you still have no clients.
At the end of the day, becoming a freelancer is a lifestyle decision. What’s more important to you, job security and a predictable life or freedom with risk?
In this article, I have shared my experience so far and proved that electronic engineers can indeed work remotely in the modern world given the right project and industry.
I hope to inspire many people that wonder if they can pursue a different lifestyle outside of the office by making electronics.