I’ve actively been thinking about working freelance full-time, whether immediately after graduation or following a few years in the corporate world. Not knowing the decision I’ll make seven months from now, I felt it good to document some thoughts prior to taking the plunge in either direction.

Backtracking to earlier this summer, I had the fortunate opportunity of interning for Michael Yacavone of XeniumGroup. The work level was advanced and built off the assumption that my two previous internships and innumerable Googling nights had taught me something. Over the course of three months, I learned from a business perspective the pros and cons of being self-employed. I worked mainly from my dorm room on campus with minimal commute to Mike’s office in Hanover, NH. With a XeniumGroup-loaned MacBook, recently updated Windows machine, and fast internet, it was pretty cool to wake up and have all my resources in the same room.

By the end of (an always-too-short) summer, I had led the completion of 6+ websites, including research, design, and implementation of: information architecture, XHTML/CSS, accessibility, usability, search engine optimization. Each site was tested on over 54 browser/platform configurations and hand-coded with clean, W3C compliant markup. The grand hurrah to my internship was a trip to Rails Conf 2006 in Chicago, IL, all expenses paid. Thereafter, I practiced and played on small RoR applications.

The power of “No.”

To mollify the bills an unpaid internship can’t satisfy, I continued freelance work after hours and rarely declined project offers (1st mistake!). Work melded day into night and slowly invaded weekends until it wasn’t uncommon to be on the computer for weeks at a time (2nd mistake!). Approaching 350+ internship hours on top of managing my own clients, burnout abruptly set in.

Project management is essential, as is balancing work with life. It seems like a no-brainer, but the pure beauty of a well organized schedule is not apparent until you have more work than could possibly get done. Equally crucial is a thorough evaluation of each project opportunity rather than blindly accepting every work offer.

Advice for the upcoming student

Back at college, the school required all students who completed summer internships to present a summary of their work and what they had learned. Between preparing my PowerPoint and talking to some Graphic Design friends, I’ve assembled some tips (in no particular order):

Competition: Never think your work is good enough, no matter how talented you are. A good goal is to always try and have the “best” project in the class. This might sound cocky, but as long as you’re not rubbing it anyone’s face, it’s a helpful source of motivation. I grew tired of seeing mediocre students get praise so it made me work even harder to be recognized. Also, remember that even if you climb to the top of your class, there are students studying in schools across the globe. Never be satisfied; there’s always room for improvement.

Ask Questions: Surround yourself with intelligent individuals and share knowledge. Never be afraid to ask questions. Take advantage of speaking with professors and students since, after all, you’re paying to be at school. Make the most of your time. The people you know and positive connections you make in your school years will be invaluable when entering the job market.

Don’t follow the crowd: Grades are number one, but don’t forget to investigate subjects of interest outside of class as well. Your classmates are all learning the same exact material as you, so break away from the herd and discover your own talents. I can’t stress how beneficial this is. Not only will you be enhanced with new learning, but self-teaching is an important skill to have. The number one problem college grads and interns have is keeping busy. When they’ve finished one project, they are unsure of what to do next and sit idle. Employers and supervisors don’t want to baby-sit so learning to be self-sufficient is vital and surprisingly hard for a lot of people. Probably because they’re used to having assignments handed to them rather than analyzing what needs to be done.

I earned my Hatchling internship partly because I had some 3-D renders on my portfolio site that I did with Cinema 4D, a program I was playing with for the sheer fun of it. When you discover your own areas of interest, two things will happen: one, you’ll learn a lot about the subject because it is one you enjoy, otherwise you wouldn’t have picked it, and two, chances are it’ll be something you’re already good at. Most people like doing the things that come natural to them, not what is difficult. Identify both your strong and weak points, improve the areas you struggle in, and use your natural talent as a springboard.

When I came to school freshman year, I looked at college like a job. Have fun, date, do whatever, but don’t forget that what you come out with after four (or more) years is what you’ll be offering your first employer. Today is all about specializing and having brains over brawn. The more you teach yourself, the more you cram in your head, the closer you’ll get to a $100k job instead of $30k. Life isn’t all about money, but unfortunately, it’s a major factor in how well we live. Family is everything for me and the ultimate achievement, in my view, will be one day having my own (touching, I know). But the truth is, my wife and kids aren’t going to live in a cardboard box, so money does play an important role.

Online portfolio: Your own little corner on the web, a place you can direct potential employers to look over work examples, resume, or other significant information. Without online presence, your work appears less credible, as if to say, “My portfolio wasn’t good enough to have its own website.” For those short on time (and/or patience) for web design, I would highly recommend taking a look at Carbonmade.

Back to my opening query, is it better to dive into creating your own business, or join the corporate scene and then branch off? If you’re in the same predicament, Andy Budd, Jonathon Snook, and Cameron Moll have some insightful reads. How this last year at school unfolds will most likely be the deciding factor for me.