Name: Kim – The Frugal Engineers
Location: Wyoming, USA
Bio: Kim is a freelance engineer specializing in sustainable design and construction. Having worked as a freelancer since 2011, Kim constantly touts the benefits of self-employment to other engineers and working professionals. She created her blog The Frugal Engineers as a resource library for other desk-dwellers looking to clock out early and start living. By carefully managing their finances, Kim and her husband were able to leave the full-time working world in their early 30’s and work on fun projects from home while raising their daughter.
How long have you been doing freelance work?
More than 5 years.
Tell us about your freelance business, in 200 words or less.
I help architects, engineers and contractors document their environmental wins on green building projects. I review energy efficiency calculations, water savings strategies, indoor air quality plans and other green features to make buildings healthier and more efficient.
What do you consider to be your specialty. How does it help you in your business?
I consider myself a specialist since there is an alphabet soup of acronyms behind my name associated with this niche (sustainable building consulting).
What made you become a freelancer?
I wanted to have more control over my schedule, the types of projects I took on, the pay rates and the selection of clients. I also saw a faster path towards financial freedom as a freelancer rather than working for a traditional engineering firm with large overhead costs.
What do you love most about freelance work, and why?
The time freedom and flexibility. My biggest gripe about the traditional engineering workplace is billable hours and the mindset to “make it take an hour” even if you’re a fast worker. I would often get my week’s worth of work done by lunch on Monday, then have to stay at a desk while I wanted to be outside. Now when I get an assignment done early, I get to exercise, take my kid to the water park, or just take a nap!
What do you hate about it?
I miss telling jokes and playing pranks with coworkers. To combat this, I watch old episodes of The Office.
Tell us about your first paid job. How did you land your first client?
I met my first client at a casual networking event at a buildings conference. She was looking for help with some remote work and we had a mutual acquaintance. We discussed my experience and within a month I was up and running with her team. I’ve been working with her for almost ten years now and consider her a good friend!
Do you think aspiring freelancers should take unpaid work to gain experience? Why or why not?
I’ve never had to take unpaid work since my niche is highly technical professional work and the credentials plus references speak for themselves. It is not common in my industry for clients to ask for a free assignment from subcontractors. However, there were opportunities in college to volunteer on building projects to gain the experience required to get the credentials we use, and I know other colleagues who have done the same. In my experience, if a client knows you’re willing to work for free, why would they decide to pay you next time?
Do you feel you’re charging what you’re worth?
Yes, or I would not have left a decent-paying full-time job to pursue this path! I think the fairest way to charge is NOT by the hour, but by the task. As you get more experience and a smoother workflow down, your effective hourly rate will increase because you’re doing the same process repeatedly and it speeds up. I have had to renegotiate contracts when scope started to creep up (i.e. asking for more work in less time for the same pay), which can be an uncomfortable conversation.
Describe your process for finding new clients? Where do you look?
Word of mouth since sustainable buildings is a smaller niche community. I also attend professional conferences every year to keep in touch with clients and meet new folks in the industry. There are only so many firms that hire folks like me, and it’s helpful to know who they are and how to stay in contact.
Have you ever had to ‘fire’ a client? If so, why and how did you do it?
Yes, unfortunately. It was shortly after my kid was born and I was working from home with a baby on my lap. The available hours to work were dependent on her nap schedule, so every waking hour became more valuable. I wound up dropping the client with the lowest effective hourly rate to preserve my sanity.
Name 3 tools (apps, equipment) that you can’t live without. What makes them so great?
My library card, pen & paper (I have notebooks for everything), and Microsoft Excel.
What is your #1 productivity hack?
Waking up 1-2 hours before everyone else in the house. My mind is fresh, I can get my hardest work done first, and it sets the tone for the rest of the day. I don’t do this in the summer when my workload is lighter, but it’s a good habit that I want to keep 9 months out of the year.
Do you outsource tasks? Why or why not? If so, which ones?
I outsource tax prep to an accountant (we have a handful of small businesses in our family now) but do my own bookkeeping (again, Excel). I also outsource freelance writing articles for an education project I’m working on, and sometimes I outsource data entry tasks if I’m in a busy season of life.
In your opinion, what is the most important skill required for freelance work, and why?
Self-starting. If you can’t get yourself out of bed without the threat of your manager at the office, you won’t last long on your own. I’ve seen laziness and procrastination ruin would-be entrepreneurs, and a little intention goes a long way.
Do you consider yourself a strong time manager? How do you stay organized?
Yes, it’s my strongest skill. I use Google Calendar for repetitive things (remembering when kid’s activities are or keeping track of work deadlines and meetings). I use a paper day planner for writing things down and crossing them off. I also use a paper wall calendar in the kitchen to coordinate with my husband (particularly travel).
The book “168 Hours” changed my perspective on time management and I’m more efficient now than ever before. Shortly after leaving my day job, my brain was still wired for a 40+ hour work week, and it took a long time to stop filling my plate that much when I only had 10-20 hours available (with a baby). Refining my expectations and learning to say NO took years of adjustment.
Do you also work a 9-5? If so, how do you balance it with your freelance business?
I worked a 9-5 for two years while I was getting my freelance business off the ground. Then my freelance income outpaced my 9-5, so I dropped the 9-5. Honestly it wasn’t that hard for me because I was working nights and weekends and didn’t have overtime available at my day job. I’d get off work, come home and eat dinner with my husband, then log on to my laptop and crank out an assignment while he watched Netflix or hung out with friends.
I used to bring my laptop with me on road trips and work while my husband drove (tethering an internet connection from his cell phone) so I didn’t feel like I was tied to my desk and sacrificing vacations. Now with a kid, there’s no way I could work a 9-5 plus freelancing without hiring out all of our domestic tasks, and even then I don’t think I’d want to try it. That sounds like a nervous breakdown waiting to happen!
Where do you do most of your work?
I do my engineering work in my home office. I’m not one for yoga pants on the couch, I need my brain to be ON. I do my blogging work anywhere I can. I bring my laptop to gymnastics practice (where I’m writing this!), to the Burger King indoor playground, to the gym during childcare hours, in the passenger seat of the car during road trips, and to the couch after hours while watching whatever series my husband is watching (he’s my editor).
Do you use a co-working space? Tell us a bit about it.
No. I’ve looked into it (especially after my husband began also working from home and I needed to focus) but it never made sense with my multi-monitor setup and desire to be able to hop on the computer to work for 15 minutes while my kid’s playing independently. I can get a LOT done in 15 minutes!
Name an entrepreneur/freelancer/influencer who inspires you. What is it about their story/message that resonates?
Laura Vanderkam (the author of 168 Hours). She’s always exploring new ways to be more productive and sharing them with her readers. I’ve followed her journey as a professional mom working from home with kids and read all of her books. Her message about constantly evaluating and improving what we do with our day helps me stay focused.
Basically what we do with our days is what we do with our lives, so get a routine and start putting your dreams on your calendar. Thanks to her influence, I can confidently say that most days I get to do everything I wanted to do and I have a nice blend of work vs. play.
Name 1 thing you would do differently, if you were starting over today?
I would have tried to connect with more entrepreneurs instead of keeping to myself. The community I’ve found through blogging has helped take the place of real-world coworkers and I wish I would have found it sooner.
What is your #1 tip for aspiring freelancers?
Track your habits now using a time log. Know how much sleep you need, when you need/like to eat, what exercise routine you have, and how much time you like to spend relaxing and with family. Then be realistic with how many hours you actually have available in a day to do your work. I thrive with a full plate, but still have to be very selective with a compressed work schedule.
MMM: Kim, thank you for giving us a glimpse into what sounds like a very rewarding freelancing career! I love the advice you gave on on tracking habits, while at the same time being realistic, and maintaining balance, that’s so important!
Tools & Resources
- The Frugal Engineers
- Follow Kim on Facebook
- Like TFE on Twitter
- Check out TFE on Instagram
- 168 Hours – Laura Vanderkam
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