Freelance web developer pricing is one of the toughest parts of a freelancer’s job. It’s just so tough to get right!
“He wants an e-commerce app integrating with his storefront that does a half-million in sales per year? Just charge $42,500.”-No one, ever.
In addition, freelance web developer pricing isn’t something you determine once and put on autopilot, tucked away in the fine print of your business plan while the numbers do the heavy lifting. Rather, pricing is one of the things you may find yourself tweaking often – especially as a newbie – trying to dial in that sweet spot.
Some claim it’s all simply a matter of supply and demand.
“Whatever the market will bear is what you’re able to charge.”
The business side of me says, “Yeah, of course.”
But the other side of me says, “Thank you for that mind-blowingly intense insight into web development! I’ll be sure to use it to restructure my pricing schemes on my web services ASAP.” /sarc
Seriously though. We know the basics of economics like supply and demand. Everybody does.
In addition to the reality of things like supply and demand, we’re also faced with numerous pricing influencers. And these pricing influencers cause us to shape our prices in ways that are unique to our specific situations.
Sometimes these factors help us close the deal, sometimes they don’t.
This survival guide focuses on 9 factors that negatively impact your web developer freelance pricing efforts.
For example, are your client numbers low? Are you not getting any clients at all? There’s a good chance it has to do with your pricing factors.
Those factors include:
- Cost of living
- Skill level
- Confidence level (fear of rejection)
- Desire for money
- Previous work’s perceived and actual value
Despite this list, some have the gift of freelance web developer pricing perfection.
They’re great salespeople, they know their products and services inside and out, they’ve got a pulse on the local competition, and they have a workflow that would make Henry Ford envious. They’ve accounted for every relevant price influencer they can think of, and acted accordingly to maximize sales while minimizing costs.
These wunderkinds of self-employment are inspirational, but they’re definitely not the norm.
After all, we’re humans, and as such, we live in a continuous state of change—even if the most exciting thing we do all day is order boneless wings and a 2-liter of orange Fanta from the neighborhood takeout place. Because the things that influence our lives and the lives around us (i.e. potential clients) are always changing – things that are often beyond our control, like the economy – these changes are naturally reflected in the way we do business.
Whether it’s the services we offer, our level of customer support, the way we write contracts, and most importantly in the context of this survival guide, the dollar amount we charge for our services, these things directly influence our business.
The goal of this guide is to help you identify common price influencers that may be negatively impacting your business.
Then, I’ll give you real-world ideas for reducing the negative impact so that eventually those influencers are positively shaping your pricing.
Let’s get to it, starting with reason number one why your freelance web developer pricing isn’t working.
1. Cost of living
This is the thing: There is no way you can live in a place like San Francisco and charge a client $3000 for a website (assuming that site took you a month to plan, build, and deploy). Even if you were pulling in one client like that a month, you couldn’t even afford to pay rent on a basic apartment.
Just to survive in the Bay Area you’d need to find one client a month and charge $7000 or more per site. How many first-time clients of yours are willing to invest that right off the bat? Unless you’ve been in the game for awhile, the answer is probably not very many — if any at all, unfortunately.
But you don’t have to live in San Francisco in order to feel the burn of a high cost of living. Most large cities on the East and West coasts are expensive places to live relative to the rest of America. There are a few workarounds as it relates to your freelance business.
One, you could move to a smaller city or a different region of the country, such as the Midwest or South where the cost of living is significantly lower than the coasts.
Now that you’re a freelancer, you don’t have the geographical restrictions an onsite employee does.
The same idea applies to all cities from Minneapolis to Milan – look at places outside of them. They’re almost always cheaper. However, this is a drastic solution and many times impractical due to family or other obligations.
Two, if you currently have a full-time job, you can save up as much as you can so that you’re able to survive 10-12 months on savings while supplementing that income with freelancing, eventually easing into higher-paying clients. It might take awhile to save up this much.
Three, you can freelance part-time while holding on to your full-time job, stashing away money while slowly but surely building a good reputation and high trust factor as a freelancer—eventually to the point where people will happily pay you multiple thousands for your digital services, and with more frequency.
Four, you can offset your basic living costs by being frugal with your disposable income. That nice vehicle looks nice, but can it get from Point A to Point B more efficiently than a 2005 Toyota Corolla or even public transportation?
Life changes like this are difficult and there is almost always an acclimation process. But those hundreds and even thousands of dollars you save per month may be the key to succeeding in freelance web development without needing to uproot from your location of choice.
If you live in the same area as your client, you just opened up a whole new world of business opportunities for yourself.
Physical proximity to your client has monetary value.
For one thing, you’re in the same time zone, a significant benefit. (As a freelancer, any benefit you offer has a real-world cash value). You’re also able to meet in person with the client, another huge benefit. So how does this affect you negatively?
When you’re the one who doesn’t live in the same area.
Consider this scenario: Freelancer Beverly Bottomsbutton lives in Austin, Texas. You live about four hours away. You’re both pursuing the same client, whose business is also in Austin. Everything else between you and your competition is just about the same (services, turnaround time, knowledge of the client’s industry, development process, etc.).
You both quote him $1800 for a feature…But Beverly has promised to meet in person and can also meet on short notice: any time and any place in Austin.
Since you live four hours away, that’s impossible for you—but you do offer a Skype session. What motivation does the potential client have to choose you over Beverly?
When you’re the one who lives outside of town, geographical proximity usually hurts you and leads clients to opt for the in-town solution. The further your distance from the client, the less valuable you are from a proximity standpoint.
Remember too that lots of business owners believe in supporting the local economy and enjoy doing business with people in their own community. Leverage this reality to your advantage!
Try focusing your outreach efforts on clients who work and live in your own town, community, and neighborhood rather than clients who live hours away. They definitely appreciate being close to you.
3. Skill level
The spectrum of skill when it comes to freelance web development ranges from super basic (WordPress point-and-click) to Rock Star Guru Boss Ninja (full- stack, code-in-your-sleep, “Have it done by tomorrow? I can have it done by tonight” types). Most of us fall somewhere between those two extremes, with literally millions – maybe more! – of combinations when it comes to our tech stacks and skill levels.
When you have a skill, it implies you have the ability to complete a task.
However, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can complete the task efficiently. For example, if a freelance web developer has WordPress skills, but it takes a full eight or ten-hour day to wade through WordPress themes to find a few contenders for a client project, that isn’t very efficient work.
On the other hand, possessing an intermediate to advanced skill would imply that same developer could open up the WordPress admin panel, type in a few succinct words to deftly define the look and feel he envisions for a client project, and have five contenders within the hour.
You don’t have to be a speed demon here (in fact, probably don’t – that creates sloppy mistakes in the long run), but your time spent on a task is directly related to your worth as a developer. The more efficiently you can produce, the more clients will seek you out, and the more money you can demand.
Skillset x Efficiency = Higher Income
If you find yourself not getting callbacks from potential clients, consider expanding your offerings or leveling up on your current skill set to reflect the most common needs of your ideal clients.
For example, if you cater to real estate agents in your city – a highly competitive field – intermediate-to-advanced local SEO skills along with digital marketing knowledge is a must.
Pro tip: organizing your thoughts, planning your tasks, and staying focused on those tasks is one of the fastest ways to build skills, whether it involves prototyping a website, debugging a MERN stack app or configuring an Apache config file.
Resist the urge to log on to your Twitter feed as you toggle between browsers. The Internet is a time vampire and will suck hours from your life, squandering untold opportunities and keep you stuck at newbie levels. Use the power of your mind to build your skills, even if it means simply advancing from basic beginner to intermediate beginner.
4. Confidence Levels (Fear of Rejection)
You could be the Wu-Tang Clan of web development, the Picasso of pixels, the Genghis Kahn of GitHub, and the Aristotole of AJAX, but it’s possible that your confidence levels influence your prices in a negative way.
Bypass the theoreticals for a minute. When I first started freelancing, I built a nice-looking site for my business that listed my services and prices.
In the earliest days, I was mostly a graphic designer (pamphlets, social media marketing materials, product labels) along with offering photography and videography services, although I did offer some simple web services.
Each of my services was clearly listed on my website with competitive rates. I was talented, experienced, and produced timely, quality work.
But an odd thing would happen.
Somebody would give me a call and ask about my services. I was very happy to explain what I did in great detail, along with the optional services I could provide. Then it came to the price list.
“So how much does all of this stuff cost?” I’d hear from the other end of the phone. One caller emphasized that he didn’t have much of a budget at the moment.
My mind would instantly turn into a dumpster fire of doubt, going against everything I’d been taught about pricing and negating everything on my website. “Well, I can probably get that done for you for around $200,” knowing the price on my site was double (sometimes triple) that.
I knew I was shooting myself in the foot with these kinds of deals, but I just could not handle the fear of rejection. So much so, that I was willing to put my basic living expenses in jeopardy. Wow!
The truth was, I didn’t have the confidence to stand up to clients, proudly explain my services and how my company could help theirs.
I was more concerned with being a vehicle to deliver the lowest price possible; a transactional middleman. The worst part was, clients couldn’t resist my “fire sale” prices, so I felt a perverse sense of validation when I closed these deals.
People are coming to ME for their digital development needs! I must be on to something, I said to myself. Thus, the cycle continued. People would call or email and I would close deals on projects that could have and should have cost two or three times the amount I was charging.
As I built my people skills, leveled up on my tech stacks, and immersed myself in the business world, I eventually faced my big wakeup call to start charging more.
A big turning point for me was seeing the long-term value I was offering to clients.
Whether it was a promotional video, product label, or landing page, these things were making money for them.
The client not only benefits right away from their new service, but they can potentially use my products for decades. I’m the one facilitating sales over a long time period, up to hundreds and possibly millions of dollars. (In fact, the company I produced product labels for is now doing over a million dollars in sales a year).
Realize and respect the value you create for your clients! You’re not a transactional middleman; you’re a highly-trained specialist who can create long- lasting, sustainable results for people. You make and provide high-quality things and your products and services make people money.
Why would you charge next to nothing for such a valuable collection of that?
- To protect somebody’s feelings?
- To lessen the blow of rejection?
- To resist the commodification of your abilities?
I totally understand if you do do this, because that’s what I did for the first year of my freelance career. But I’m also here to tell you that this isn’t a sustainable solution.
Random but relevant: If a person walked into a Footlocker and offered $40 for a new pair of Jordans, they’d be laughed out of the store.
Again, tally your skills and those skills’ potential financial impacts when it comes to analyzing what benefits you’re offering to your clients. For example, if you’re a Shopify developer, you know that its intuitive interface is going to save clients time and money.
Just like I mentioned in the Proximity section, any benefit you can provide and further articulate to your clients has a real-world cash value.
5. Desire for Money
Reason number five could also be called “Motivation”: How hungry are you for career (and thus financial) success?
I spent so many years of my life feeling timid and sometimes even ashamed that I wanted to make money. It was a weird combination of guilt, insecurity, and egalitarianism. I blame the preservatives in Kid’s Cuisine.
Now, some may argue that you don’t have to be hungry for money in order to feel motivated. That is totally true. However, in the context of business, we are in the business of making money.
Revenue is a cornerstone of any successful freelance operation. I’m not saying it’s mandatory you want to be a millionaire; the amount you want to make is up to you. But remember that we’re not a non- profit agency or working as Jesuit missionaries. We have bills to pay, and we want to be able to live a little.
As businesspeople, we’re in the business of making money, period.
I was always too afraid to admit to myself that I was never cut out for a 9-to-5 job, so I felt so awkward freelancing. Thus I felt awkward asking people for money.
I felt out of place – who was I to charge what the pros do? This started out when I was a teen doing side jobs for very little money, and followed me up to my first “official” year of part-time freelancing in 2016.
Thankfully, as I mentioned in the last section, I eventually reconciled with myself and realized that I’m not an NGO in charge of setting up water wells in the Sahara, or a middle-schooler who shovels sidewalks three times a year for fifteen bucks, but rather a for-profit, results-driven professional operation.
I got motivated as a businessperson: I stopped undercharging and became very selective about whom I work with.
I also reassessed the value of my time. These days, I simply don’t have time for people who aren’t serious about paying me what I charge, because there are people in line who are damn near begging to pay me what I charge.
Unmotivated people don’t make money long-term in this game.
It doesn’t matter what the price is: clients don’t respect that lifestyle, and deadlines are unforgiving little beasts.
Don’t take cues from lazy people who seem to be pulling in the dough; there’s almost always some under-the-radar money being funneled their way that has little or nothing to do with their business efforts (trust fund; really good connections; a freak accident involving a toilet plunger and an icy sidewalk…the list goes on).
Feeling unmotivated can stifle your experimentation with price points, bring your price research to a grinding halt, and worst of all, totally take you out of the running as a viable freelance web developer:
- Do you feel unmotivated?
- Are you drawn to freelancers who live luxurious lifestyles but somehow always seem to be playing beach blanket bingo instead of doing web development?
Do your mind a favor and study businesspeople who are hard, efficient workers.
Read their books, watch their speeches. They can be developers themselves, or go far beyond the reaches of the freelance web development world.
Some of my go-to people are:
- Zig Ziglar (old-school).
- Chris Do from The Futur (edgy, fresh).
- the guys from Income School (squeaky clean, consistent).
- Seth Godin (funky, timeless).
(Zig & Seth are Amazon affiliate links. I may get a cut if you buy something.)
In addition, consider going to local Meetups and other get-togethers that focus on business. I attend many of them; being around like-minded people who are on fire to succeed is really motivating. The groups can also help keep you accountable when you don’t feel like working or are having a bad month.
I used to do contract work for a gas station. But not just any gas station—this place was the highest-grossing C-store in the Midwest. The main reason for that was because the owner priced his gas at a penny below his competition. That is to say, he was the cheapest gas station in the city.
The station was featured a few times on nightly newscasts, ramping up business even more. People saw the action on TV and would come from one state over to fill up. They wasted more gas and money driving there to “save” twenty-five cents. Figure that one out!
I probably was there a dozen times while fulfilling my contract, and without fail, there would be some sort of ridiculous mini-road-rage incident where people drove on curbs to quickly get to the pump, nearly knocking employees and patrons over, or pull petty behavior while in line to prepay (“I was here first!”), or get passive-aggressive when they had to wait in line for a pump to open up, all but grazing the bumper in front of them.
I’ve never seen anything like it, and honestly it was pretty depressing to see.
These hordes of people were disrupting so many things, all to save literally a few pennies on gasoline.
Even though I lived nearby and had provided them services with my contract work, I made a point not to gas up there. I wouldn’t even stop to go check out their interesting inventory anymore…They had lost a loyal customer due to the change.
Now imagine that gas station is a freelance web developer – your competition. This person has what clients need, and offers the same things you do, all at the same general quality and in the same geographical area. The only thing notably different from the average customer’s standpoint is that she’s the lowest-priced option in town. As a result, swarms of clients are headed her way, blowing up her phone and inbox.
Given this information, how do you adjust your freelance web developer pricing?
Do you drop your pricing, hoping to siphon off some of that traffic towards you? That’s good strategic thinking, but here’s the reality: price-matching (or going even lower) to the lowest possible price to engage your competition is a death trap. You’re going to get calls and emails, and that’s validating—it feels like you’re getting somewhere when strangers call you asking about your web work.
What’s not validating is that people who seek out the lowest possible price in any industry are often “tire kickers” – people who aren’t really interested in closing a deal and tend to waste a lot of time.
There are others who demand excessive extras for free, don’t respect the development process, or think they know your job better than you do.
None of that behavior feels good.
It makes you question why you’re in the business in the first place.
When you go rock bottom with your freelance web developer pricing, you’re no longer a highly- trained and skilled specialist with a valuable process.
Instead, you’re reduced to a transactional middleman – a person whose job is to bring your client the cheapest services possible.
As you can imagine, this doesn’t fare well with your reputation, either. The gas station I worked with was doing a very high volume of transactions, but the employees were burnt out and the profit margins were razor thin. Yes, the company was making money, but at a very high cost.
The online reviews also kept taking a hit because the place went from a nice neighborhood fuel-up spot with good coffee (no, it’s true…I don’t know how, but it was really good) and organic snacks to a petroleum-based zoo in a matter of weeks.
Many locals weren’t impressed (the traffic also clogged up the streets) and lots of people stopped going there are a result. These negative effects can also very easily apply to your business once you “go cheap” – many potential clients don’t want the cheap solution.
You never want to “turn off” reliable clients with bottom-of-the-barrel freelance web developer pricing inspired by your competition.
Let the other freelancers scape the barrel while you tally up your competitive advantages and attract a higher-quality client base; barrel scraping is a totally different business model than what will sustain you as a capable, high-quality web developer.
To be clear, it’s OK if your first few projects are cheap or even free. You’re still building a portfolio and you’ll need the social proof. I’m talking about long-term dirt-cheap freelance web developer pricing. THAT model is simply not sustainable.
Business owners with physical storefronts have it rough. Every time I walk into a store, whether it’s to grab some groceries or snag some cute earrings, I feel so grateful that my line of work doesn’t require a stationary structure to succeed. Storefronts not only cost money to build and maintain, they also have the extra non-benefits of being vandalized, burglarized, and taxed by every government agency that can get their little paws on it.
Creative agencies are essentially freelance operations at scale – you have an owner who knows the industry (usually) along with a team of people working for him or her. Unless the team is distributed (i.e. 100% remote), the owner most likely has a storefront where clients can pop in, discuss projects, meet the team, and so on.
In this situation, the business owner is responsible for salaries, rent or mortgage, utilities, office supplies and tech tools, insurance, phone bills – the list goes on.
Running a storefront is expensive.
Ever wonder why creative agencies always charge more – sometimes lots more – than freelancers? It’s because the clients need to not only pay for salaries, advertising campaigns and company profits, but also for the collection of modded-out Macbook Pros the graphic design team is rocking along with commercial property insurance and whatever else.
You’ve read three paragraphs of a business model that doesn’t quite apply to you. See you in the next section!
Just kidding. The reason I described the overhead costs of creative agencies (and even some solo freelancers) is so you can use this knowledge to your advantage. In the last section you read about competition and leveraging your competitive advantages against barrel scrapers. Guess what? Low overhead costs are a huge competitive advantage, because you’re able to pass on those savings to your clients.
More to the point:
Even though you don’t have the expenses of a digital agency with storefronts, you do still have overhead costs.
From paper, ink, a printer, promotional materials, specialized software, even extra drinks and snacks to get you through a coding session – these things cost money.
As a freelancer, you have almost no choice but to forward those costs to your clients if you want to pull a profit. Try to be frugal where appropriate to offset your expenses. For example, I recently started brewing my own kombucha (my go-to drink when developing at night) and it saves me anywhere from $4 to $10 a day. Those savings add up at the end of the month, and are one less expense I need to forward to my clients.
8. Previous work’s perceived and actual value
Have you ever been to an art gallery and seen what looked to be vomit on canvas? No doubt, after seeing that $20,000 price tag, you’ve wondered just how mad society has gone. But then you look closer, and see an artist’s signature you recognize. This is the hottest artist in the city right now and collectors have been going crazy over his work for a few years.
All the bloggers, podcasters, coffee shop hipsters, and legacy media outlets simply can’t stop talking about this dude.
The next day, you find out this piece of art sold for its asking price, driving up the value of his other art pieces even more. The insanity and subsequent money-making just doesn’t end.
Value is in the eye of the beholder.
The same principle applies to your work as a freelance web developer. When you start getting positive feedback and people start creating buzz, other peoples’ perception of your value is raised.
Similarly, if you charged rock-bottom prices for your previous work, there may be a perception that your work is less than quality (even if that’s far from the truth).
Your previous projects’ actual values (i.e. what you charged your client) also influence your current freelance web developer pricing scheme. If you’re getting lots of calls and emails from potential clients because they heard through the grapevine that you charge $250 for a website, they’re going to expect that.
Fortunately, freelance web developer pricing is never final.
If you’re trying to change your price due to miscalculations from your previous work, consider doing it incrementally if you’re getting referral calls/emails. For example, if you were charging $300 for a three-page static site, setting that to $1200 is going to be sticker shock for people who heard you charge the cheaper price. Try bumping it up $500, then $700 the next month, then $900, and so on until you reach the asking price you really want.
This also works if you were charging higher prices – cutting your prices by 80% overnight is going to raise suspicion with some people. They may think your quality has gone down, or that it’s some kind of scam or gimmick. And that’s a perception you definitely don’t want!
If you don’t have a client base, don’t worry about changing prices incrementally.
Just change it altogether, whether that means an instant 30% or 300% change. The best part about being a total newbie is that you can change things dramatically with very little – if any – cost to your reputation.
To further boost peoples’ perception of your value, make sure that your portfolio site is fast, clean, and easy to navigate. Make sure it’s responsive and that all features are working on all major browsers. Give context to your projects (even if you’re a total newbie and they’re personal projects) by extracting their impact on your clients and explaining it to your readers using the PAR (problem, action, result) method. I discuss portfolio design at length in my top-rated Udemy course Freelance Newbie.
My dad’s a natural salesman. He could sell chocolate-dipped turds to people, then sell even more with a Mondays-only BOGO deal. Seriously, the guy has a gift.
About six years ago he opened his own storefront business, which evolved from an eBay business he started in the ‘90s while working full-time as a Postmaster for the USPS. Sometimes I’d help work the front desk of the store and just watch his interactions with people. The greeting, the rapport-building, the occasional joke, the listening and body language when the customer started talking. The storytelling and personal vignettes that built trust.
How did these components fit together to build a multimillion-dollar one-man business?
I wanted to know, so I observed diligently and took notes, hoping to take even just 10% of what he was doing to apply it to my own future business and freelance web developer pricing.
He rarely gave me direct business advice—didn’t have to. But I remember one time in particular. One time only. He looked away from his 27” monitor in his back office, adjusted his glasses and said to me, “I think they key to sales is, number one, you have to believe in the product.” And then he got right back to scrolling through his emails and typing up invoices.
Whether golf clubs or web development, believing in your products and services goes a long way towards closing the deal and beyond.
Believing in your products and services makes selling them soooo much easier. When you believe in them, you naturally find them interesting to talk about – a vehicle to building rapport and thus earning the trust of your client. Your business motivates you when you believe in it.
Your sense of empathy improves, too. Why does empathy matter in freelance web development?
Because the more you can relate to your clients’ needs and problems, the better you can communicate your solution to them and convince them it’s an ideal fit.
My dad has customers walking out of his store with items they hadn’t even thought about buying 20 minutes earlier. I don’t think he’s gotten a return at his physical location, ever…That’s just how satisfied customers are when they purchase things from him.
Think about how you can integrate this mentality into your business.
For example, if a potential client calls you asking for a quote on a one-hour troubleshooting session, don’t just direct him to your website because that’s where your prices are listed. Tell this guy directly, then explain the features and benefits of your proposed solution, keeping that person’s needs front and center.
The really good salespeople would be able to get that client to upgrade to a two– hour troubleshooting session, and every minute paid for would be worth it for the client. It all starts with believing in the product.
Freelance web developer pricing: Summary
As you read in this guide, freelance web developer pricing isn’t as easy as peeling off numbers from your local creative agency and sticking them on your own website. There are numerous factors in play that influence the way you price. These factors are often the same reasons why your pricing structures aren’t attracting quality customers—and consequently aren’t driving profits.
Whether it’s something mechanical like your cost of living, your overhead, or your proximity to customers; or even something psychological like confidence levels, these influencing factors can seep into your freelance web developer pricing model in various ways. The important thing is to recognize that pricing isn’t as simple as understanding supply and demand – pricing is dynamic, and influenced by many things.
This guide gave you actionable ideas for improving your freelance web developer pricing.
You will notice there aren’t any “hard” prices mentioned in this guide – as I note in Freelance Newbie, I can’t tell you what to price your services at – nobody can. What I can do is give you insights and techniques like I did in this guide to help you make better pricing decisions. And hopefully, you were able to get some ideas you can start implementing in your own freelance business.
Remember, succumbing to a super high cost of living, relying on the negative thoughts in your head, and scraping the bottom of the barrel are not only unsustainable business practices – they’re usually just not worth the trouble.
Take the recommendations listed in this guide and apply them as you see fit in your own business. You’ll almost certainly start attracting better clients while earning a higher income.
Woohoo! You read this whole thing? I’m impressed. 🙂 Happy freelancing, and if you’re still wondering what this web developer freelancing thing is all about: check out my post on how to get started.