How To Become a Freelance Web Developer

I have been hand coding sites since I was in middle school and thought I was going to take over the internet with the newly released HTML3.2 (does that date me?). Since then I have learned several more languages and worked on some really neat projects with some really great people. Needless to say I have done my fair share of freelance work (emphasis on the free) and recently have decided to go that route once more. I wanted to give you a quick rundown of How To Become A Freelance Web Developer because I am asked it often and I thought I would give myself  a refresher course.

Gut Check – 

Why on earth would you want to leave your day job to get abused by diva clients, work for free half the time and never see that precious pillow of yours again?

Because you can be your own boss! Whenever I hear people complaining about how much work it is to be a freelancer (of any variety-design/writing/etc) I ponder at how impossibly short lived their memory must be. Do they not remember what it was like to have to show up somewhere everyday at a time specified by someone else just because some guy named Ford decided the workweek should be scheduled as such? I do, and I don’t miss it.

I don’t want to fool you. Being a freelancer is probably going to be more work than you have ever done in your entire life. Last night I stayed up until 5 am working and had to wake up for an appointment that was at 10, I am exhausted, but I am so happy. I know that everything I am working for goes straight to my bank account.

So why do you want to be a freelancer? You really have to look yourself/spouse/kids in the face and give them a good reason, especially when the projects are far and few between. For your safety and sanity I can give you 3 reasons NOT to become a freelance web developer.

Why You Shouldn’t Become  A Freelance Web Developer – 

1. You are tired of waiting tables – Honestly, there are much easier ways to work for yourself than learning a bunch of computer languages, design programs and conversion optimizing site architecture. If you hate your current job, don’t go freelancing, just get a different job.

2. You, “like computers” – Oh man, I feel so bad for those poor people who think hand coding a 150 page website with ridiculous amounts of Ruby has any resemblance to playing Worlds of Warcraft. What a rude awakening it must be when they sit down for their first 16 hour code binge and realize they aren’t even halfway through the project that is due in 2 days (sometime I will do a  post about time management and not procrastinating, but i will do it later).

3. Someone told you they make good money doing it – Did you have to pay them to say that? That should be your first sign… But really, freelance web developers can make very livable incomes. I know a guy who makes 25k a year working 12 hours a day, but I also know a guy who won’t accept projects less that $10k and works part-time, travels the world when he wants and has an amazing little family. The point is, you can live well doing this, but don’t expect to get rich.

You still think you want to move forward? Good, I like your spirit. Let’s move on to the skills check portion to see if you have what it takes to pull it off.

Skills Check –

Let’s talk basic skills. Do you know what a browser is? Good. Do you know what a server is? Very good. How about the difference between HTML and XHTML? Do you know what CSS is? What is better PHP or SQL? Was that a trick question? Is Ruby on Rails a cheesy video game, or one of the most popular open-source languages used online today? The moral of the story is that you have to know some programming languages to be a developer. I recommend starting at and absorbing everything that you can from there to get a start.

One of my latest forays into self directed learning has been my desire to conquer more of the illustrator driven design behind web pages. Not every developer needs to be a “designer” creating logos, and images and color schemes etc. but I have found that the more I increase those skills the less I have to outsource and the more value I am to a potential client. Learn illustrator, photoshop and the basics principle of design and you will be that much better.

I am often asked how long it takes to learn all this stuff. The answer? Forever and a day, literally. You can blast through an entire HTML how to in an afternoon, but I bet you would never be able to reach the pinnacle of perfection in its application.

How long does it take to learn how to paint a masterpiece? Forever and about two seconds. It took me about 5 seconds to learn how to hold a paintbrush in kindergarten, but I still can’t paint much beyond a water color stick figure with v-shaped birds flying around. Development is the same thing.

If you don’t know what I mean, check out these online magazines and you will begin to get an idea of the possibilities these simple languages contain.

You may want to check this post out if you are feeling a bit more advanced –

Client Check –

Ok, so you have the courage and you have the skills. You should be rolling in the dough by now right? Wrong, your work has just begun. If you aren’t getting paid then it is just a hobby, and if coding 16 hours a day is your hobby than I suggest either getting a dog, or getting a girlfriend (which ever is cheaper because you won’t be able to afford either). The only way to get paid is if people hire you. Sounds simple and basic, but I know a lot of freelancers who forget the PEOPLE part of that little equation and then end up coach surfing for a couple months because they can’t get any clients.

Below Are A Few Strategies You Might Employ In Finding Clients –

1. Business Cards and Networking – I could easily write an entire book about the importance of networking but I wont, because one already exists. It is called “Never Eat Alone” and I recommend it. Changed the way I interact with the business world.

Networking is great, but if they dont remember you, than you wasted your time. Business cards are just little tools to help people remember you. I recommend getting a few from Use your own design and impress some people.

2. Joint Ventures – This is one of my favorite methods, but I really like working with people. Establish a joint venture with someone who has a related business to you. For example, why not team up with one of the thousands of internet marketers, or “social media gurus” and providing a complete package. You build the site, they grow the business. It is a win-win situation for everyone. Be careful not to short yourself in the transactions and try and make sure that you are always adding value to the relationship.

3. Freelance sites – There are so many freelance sites out there I am not even going to try and make a list of them. I will tell you my favorite though – – My experience has been that the projects/clients on this site are of a higher quality and understanding than say Get yourself out there and start bidding.

4. Linkedin/Twitter/Facebook – It goes without saying that if you havn’t tried using social media, you are behind. I enjoy just because everyone is looking to do business of some sort. You can really develop a some good leads by interacting with others.

5. Non-profits – You know who loves a good deal? Non-profits. If you are starting out and trying to break into the field, you are a great deal! Lower your price  and work your tail off to impress and you will have non-profits banging down the door for your services.

Biz Sense Check

Is all your money spent at the end of the month before you even pay rent? Do you currently keep a budget? How much debt do you have? Business can be fun, but it is never a game. If you dont already have good money habits, you better start learning them.

It is also important to remember that business is about people in the end and that the more you build those soft skills the better you will be in the long run.

Here are two tools to help in both of those areas.

Zoho CRM – The best way to get new clients? Ask for them from your current ones. A great way to keep track of your clients, leads, prospective, etc. is to use a CRM system. I recommend Zoho CRM. It is free, easy to use and totally helpful.

Freshbooks – I LOVE THIS SOFTWARE! Another free software package perfect for the self employees. It does it all, invoicing, money management, the whole nine yards. Check it out.


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