Advice for Getting Started as a Freelance Web Developer

A while back, a friend from college got in touch with me. He knew I had been an independent web worker for years and wanted any advice I had for getting started. About 10 years before then, as I prepared to move to Seattle and start my own business, another fellow alumnus gave me a whole bunch of useful advice. Ever since, I’ve always tried to generously pass on the lessons I’ve learned from my own experiences.

I’ve taken the advice I first sent, added a few more tips, and organized them all below. I hope they are helpful!

When reading this list, keep in mind that I focused on developing a public-facing business that serves many clients. (I often describe my business as a one-person web agency.) Other web developers mostly work as subcontractors, taking on one single full-time contract at a time with larger companies. My experiences will be most useful to people trying to “build a business” rather than seeking one-at-a-time contracts, but that difference is a spectrum and most of these tips apply to anyone.

Building a Business

  • Join the Freelancer’s Union (it’s free!) and read their articles about running your own business. There’s a lot of good, really easy-to-digest info.
  • If you can, find a group of fellow business owners who are all getting started. Meet up, talk about work and problems, and support each other. I’ve been in a couple groups like this and they were invaluable for years.

Finding Clients

  • Figure out your ideal client and project/engagement and let people know about it. Even people who want to send you referrals might not think to do it without a friendly nudge or occasional reminder. Someone is way more likely to send you work when they can feel confident that it’s a “perfect fit.” For me, I tell people “I make WordPress websites for nonprofits,” and that starts their minds racing of people they know who I could help.
  • Network as much as you can. You want to meet a lot of people, but beyond that, you want to become a familiar face in communities of folks who might either hire you or send work your way. I focused on WordPress meetups and nonprofit technology trainings. When in doubt, go to one group 10 times rather than 10 groups one time.
  • More on the previous point: Don’t assume that everyone who does what you do is “the competition”. If you have a specific type of project and client you work with (see the first point), then many people with a different specialty or too much work are happy to refer you projects. My networking includes freelancers who do the same technical work I do, other nonprofit consultants who work in parallel fields to me like fundraising and communications, and local nonprofits themselves.
  • Trust your gut when it comes to client and project red flags. The most common ones for me are poor communication, unreasonable expectations, and a trail of failed projects or engagements. It’s one thing if you’re desperate for the money, but learning to say no and turning down the wrong projects is both really difficult and really important. You have the time for the awesome projects when you say no to the bad ones. You’ll also just be a lot happier.

Successful Projects

  • If there’s no project manager on the project, then assume you’re the project manager until you learn otherwise. Communicate clearly, set deadlines, proactively check on progress, etc.
  • Document decisions or at least make sure to communicate them in writing. This way you have records of past discussions and decisions should competing memories arise later.
  • Expectation setting is probably the most important part of a project’s success and also where things can really go wrong. Communicate a lot up front and make sure you and your client feel comfortable before you move on. It’s easy to get excited and dive straight into design comps or code, but then you get hit by surprises, hidden complexity, and mismatched assumptions down the road. You know what they say about “assume”…
  • Speaking of communication, good communication (including expectation setting, project updates, asking good questions, providing good training and client educations, etc.) will set you apart from most people who do what you do. Respond to emails within a day or two at most, even if you only respond to ask for more time.
  • Make sure you set reasonable deadlines, and then meet them. Immediately communicate when you know you’ll miss deadline (ideally before the deadline itself) and why.

Compensation

  • You probably need to raise your rate already. Just a guess, but most people start too low. You should almost be uncomfortable with your rate when you say it out loud for the a while.
  • If you consistently have work and it’s been a while since you raised your rates, it’s probably time to raise your rates. Every year you get more experienced and efficient while the cost of living increases. That means your real rate is constantly decreasing, so you have to increase it on occasion. And don’t freak out about this. Most client’s who love working with you will understand. Most won’t even say anything at all.
  • If a project comes along that’s going to take a lot of time but teach a lot of new skills, taking it on at either a low rate or eating some hours is the alternative to paying for education. Higher rates are always better, but an exciting and/or skill-building project offers you more value than just the money it pays. All that said, I don’t mean to imply you shouldn’t be fairly compensated. You should. Your time and skills are valuable.

And last but not least: If you use WordPress, always capitalize “WordPress” correctly. It shows attention to detail.

If you’re a freelancer, share your own experiences and tips in the comments!

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