It’s never been easier to become a freelance web developer. With a nearly limitless pool of people with programming problems, freelance web development can be a very lucrative career field. Not only that, as a freelancer you get to pick your own hours, choose your workspace, and decide who you work with. That freedom is something you just can’t get working a traditional 9-to-5 job.
That said, freelance web development isn’t a walk in the park.
Just because it’s easy to become one doesn’t mean it’s easy to be one. There are a lot of challenges. Whether it’s a problem customer who wants everything for free or a troublesome bug in your code, there’s always something that needs fixing. Problems pile up, and unlike a 9-to-5 you don’t have the luxury of passing big issues off to your manager. You’re the technician, the manager and the owner. Are you up for the challenge? Let’s do this!
Here are the six steps to become a freelance web developer in 2020.
TLDR in table format:
Step 1: Get Educated
It’s easy to perceive successful freelance web developers as always being successful. But get talking to them and you’ll quickly find that they’ve experienced their share of drama, doubts, and realllllly bad days. They had to learn things about freelancing:
What to charge, what to offer.
Where to advertise, when to close a deal.
What to code, when to deploy.
Fortunately, you don’t have to spend years figuring this stuff out on your own. There are tons of resources out there ranging from front-end developer coding tracks to business courses. If you want a protein-packed, potentially life-changing course check out Freelance Newbie.
Freelance Newbie is a Udemy course produced by a working freelancer.
I took all my knowledge and experience I gained from freelance web development and packed it into this course. It’s the highest-quality freelance course you can get for the money. But don’t take my word for it — check out the reviews.
I also wrote a companion book available on Google Play and Amazon. (Note: I’m an affiliate of Amazon. I might get a small cut of the sale if you buy something.) This number-one new release shows you everything you need to know to become a freelance web developer:
- Develop a business plan from the ground up
- Draft proposals and contracts
- Configure your freelance website
- Establish a work environment you enjoy
- Determine an appropriate pricing matrix for your services
- Find “starter” clients that pave the way for positive feedback and high-quality long-term clients
- Determine what services to offer
- Deliver fantastic customer service
- Advertise for free (or very inexpensively)
- Efficiently finish client projects
- And a ton more.
It’s a course that has helped hundreds of people become a freelance web developer. Bonus: If you ever decide that freelancing might not be for you, you can still use the course to land a high-paying job. Vlazlo is making $80k starting salary at his first dev job:
But getting educated shouldn’t happen in a vacuum.
Get to Meetups, other social events, and even online groups (like the RTC Discord) where you can bounce your freelancing ideas off like-minded people.
Step 2: Get Legit
People won’t perceive you as a freelance web developer if you don’t perceive yourself as a freelance web developer. Don’t be shy! Even if you’re still in a non-dev career field, start referring to yourself as a freelancer. Whether at family dinners, Meetups, or chit-chatting with the checkout person at the grocery store, tell people you’re a freelance web developer.
This act of embracing your new title will not only show others you’re a freelancer, but will remind you that you’ve taken on a new role. It can make all the difference when you put on your “freelancing hat” when out and about, especially when it comes to sniffing leads.
You should also start thinking about “getting legit” in the eyes of your government and taxing authorities. (Groan, I know.) Whether that means filing the necessary paperwork for an Employer Identification Number (EIN), estimating taxes due or even finding an accountant to help you, the earlier you get organized the less headaches you’ll have down the road.
You’re going to be busy enough as a freelancer so taking care of the basics early on will benefit you.
Step 3: Set up Your Freelance Website
Clients need to find you. The most effective and efficient way for them to do that is through your freelance website. There are tons of options for your site, and it’s only limited by your imagination. That said, clients want to know very specific things:
- Who you are and where you’re from
- What you do
- How much you charge*
- Your previous work (your capabilities)
- How you can solve their problem
- How they can contact you
*Not all freelance websites show the numbers. But all clients do want to know how much you charge. One good option is to provide ballpark figures (rough estimates), or “starting at” prices.
Research successful freelance web developers in your area and see how they designed their own site. It’s not OK to plagiarize, but it is OK to “steal” good ideas – whether that means a strong narrative or strategically-placed calls to action. Let me introduce you to Chase Ohlson.
Quickie Case Study: Chase Ohlson
The above page is a screenshot from Chase Ohlson’s freelance website. It was one of the top results when I searched “freelance web developer los angeles.” Chase didn’t land on the first page of Google by accident! Take note of the various components on this single page:
- Bold coloring: red was a brave choice and it pops
- His name is the largest typographical element
- Nice photo to associate the name & services (shows potential clients he’s a real dude)
- Minimal but clean with an immediate call to action: GET IN TOUCH
- Blog section: must-have if you want to rank with SEO
- Clean header with links to all the important stuff: about, experience, work (i.e. portfolio), clients, testimonials, and contact page
Chase has managed to keep his landing page super-simple but also lethally effective. You don’t have to use lots of red or be named Chase to create a killer freelance website. But you do need to give potential clients what they’re looking for while adding components that make you stand out from the crowd like Chase has.
You’ll also want an easy-to-remember domain that can quickly be shared verbally.
Don’t make people think! As far as hosting goes, shared hosting will work fine for now since you won’t have a lot of traffic. But be ready to upgrade to VPS or even the cloud once you see an uptick in numbers.
If you need hosting, see the bottom of this post for a special discount I have with one of my sponsors (up to 90% off regular prices).
Remember, even though a globe full of clients are potentially available to you, local clients are also a big demographic. Try and pick up some local SEO techniques. A blog section is perfect for a lot of this because it gives you an unparalleled opportunity to rank for keywords.
Step 4: Start Building Your Freelance Web Developer Portfolio
This step is not a one-time deal. As a web developer you’ll be creating lots of projects. You might not have mind-blowing projects at the moment, but that’s OK. Seriously! I know so many people who say “I haven’t made a portfolio yet. I don’t have anything great to show,” or something sadly similar.
Without a portfolio, you’re not going to land the contract, period. Clients want to see what you’re capable of, and even if it means simple apps and sites for right now — that’s OK. Start small and upgrade your portfolio as you improve your work. Some clients just need something simple anyway, and omitting a portfolio will make you lose the sale virtually 100% of the time.
Amber Weinberg is a freelancer from Nashville, TN. In her portfolio she displays her work in desktop, tablet, and mobile modes:
This quickly shows her potential clients that she’s capable of working in today’s modern web environment where mobile responsiveness is a must.
Remember “show and tell” from grade school? Your portfolio should have four to six projects that do exactly that. You want to both show potential clients what you build, and tell them what you did. Otherwise they’re just looking at pretty pictures. Be sure to always include the tell portion.
If you need further guidance on how to build your freelance web developer portfolio, check out Freelance Newbie.
Step 5: People Know You Exist, Right?
Remember in Step 2 how we talked about “getting legit?” Step 5 is a continuation of that, but the businesspeople simply refer to this as advertising.
That’s right, you’re going to let people know you exist, this time in an even bigger way. Whether that means offering Aunt Lucinda a free website or helping a local non-profit with some web work, it’s time to get aggressive. You don’t have to spend any money on advertising (in fact, traditional online advertising like Pay-Per-Click campaigns are often a kiss of death for freelance newbies), but you do need to be persistent.
Print up some business cards. Hand them out to everyone you meet. I’m a foodie and so naturally have an interest in restaurants and cuisine. Guess what I do when I tell the manager or owner how great their restaurant is? I let them know I’m a web developer, hand them a business card and if I really like them? I’ll give them some swag (hello Darth Vader USB stick) with my info on it. It’s a great technique because it builds rapport quickly and gets your name into the brain of an important person.
Word of mouth travels very quickly and is a not-so-secret weapon for freelance web developers.
Step 6: Produce Version 2.0 of Everything You Just Did
Just like with coding, the first time we do something it’s rarely the optimal solution. Once you start building, networking, and closing deals, you should review your actions and note what you can do better.
I take a journal almost everywhere (no, seriously. Like everywhere everywhere) and take note of actions, thoughts, feelings, implications, and results. This lets me read over my life and reflect on it. That way I can pinpoint areas of improvement rather than guess what I could be doing better. It doesn’t help that I have the memory of a broken toaster!
But whether that means investing in business tools or finding a business-minded mentor, producing Version 2.0 of your business is a critical step if you want to become a sustainable freelance web developer in 2020. You’re here for the long run, right?
Always take a moment to reflect on how you can upgrade an area of your freelance operation. Even marginal improvements can mean the difference between failure and success.
Become a Freelance Web Developer: Summary
Education is the first step to become a freelance web developer. After that, it comes down to building your empire while getting your name out there. Always try to be improving, as even the smallest changes can mean big differences.
Freelance web development is awesome. I love being my own boss and I enjoy helping people solve their problems. That said, not every day is amazing. In fact I wrote about some of my not-so-happy experiences in Freelance Newbie. Still, I’m lucky to be a freelancer. Not only do I choose my working environment, but I ultimately decide my own fate. Although it’s a huge responsibility, the rewards are great. Happy freelancing!
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