How can I start freelancing in web development?

Making the jump

Becoming a freelance web developer can be very rewarding - being your own boss offers greater flexibility, the potential to work on a diverse range of interesting projects, and of course financial benefits. But taking the leap into the world of freelancing can seem a bit daunting, especially if you're currently in a nice secure job that's paying the bills every month. In this article we'll look at how you can make the transition a bit easier, where to get started, and weight up the pros and cons of freelance web development.

Is freelancing right for me?

Freelancing isn't for everyone, it requires a lot of self-discipline and autonomous working. You'll also find yourself having to take on a lot of additional job roles to cover marketing, financing and project management. Here's some questions you might want to consider or ask yourself if the thought sounds appealing but you're not quite sure if it's for you:

  • Do you enjoy working directly with clients?
  • Do you enjoy working autonomously? Are you focussed and capable of managing your own time?
  • How much do you want to earn from freelancing? How much effort will this require?
  • Are your skills in demand?
  • Is freedom and flexibility more important to you than structure and security?
  • Are you comfortable marketing your own work?

Where do I start if I want to become a freelance web developer?

Do your homework

So before you dive right in, start by doing your homework. What is the current market like? There's no doubt that web development is in big demand at the moment, but you'll find it a lot easier to secure business if you choose a speciality or niche to work in. You might decide to work with a popular new technology like Node.js or you could focus on securing contracts with an established technology like Zend or Symfony. Think about what your speciality will be and how you want to market your skills.

Don't be naive about what you're letting yourself in for - what is your long term salary expectation? Do the maths and work out how much work this is going to involve, what is your work week going to look like to achieve this? Our previous article on how much you should charge to build a web site, may help you to work out the number hours you'd need to work per week to achieve your goal.

Slowly does it...

Moving into freelancing doesn't have to be a sudden dramatic change. If you've already got a job that's providing a secure income, then hold on to it and try out freelancing on the side. You can achieve some of the following suggestions such as getting some experience and building up a portfolio without having to make a complete break with your current lifestyle. Once you've got a feel for what you're doing, then you can take the plunge and go full time.

Get some experience

If you're already working in web development for another company, then despite experience in web development, you may not have many examples of complete projects that you can contribute towards a portfolio. Do whatever's necessary to get some experience under your belt - reduce your rate to get some business or do some sites for family and friends.

Getting some early experience will help:

  • Get a feel for what it's like doing an end-to-end project outside of a team
  • Get material for your portfolio
  • Start opening doors for more work
  • Help you decide if freelancing is right for you

Build up a portfolio

Building up a portfolio site to showcase your work is probably the most important starting point if you're going to take freelancing seriously. No one is going to hire you for big projects without first seeing what you're capable of doing. If you're worried your portfolio is looking a bit thin to start with, that's OK - we've all got to start somewhere - make the best of what you've got and use the tips in the last section to get more experience. The portfolio will grow as you document each new project you work on.

Create a digital footprint

Alarm bells will ring for potential clients if you're a freelance web developer who can't be found anywhere online. Decide on how you want to brand yourself and try and find keywords that will make it easier to find you in search engines. Decide if you want to market yourself as a company or an individual - if you've got big ambitions then remember a company is easier to sell further down the line.

Cover the bases on social media (twitter, facebook, google+) so you're easily found online and consider blogging some content that might be interesting to your potential clients, which you can push out on your social media accounts.

Get organised

Freelancing comes with a lot of additional responsibilities and job roles, but there's plenty of tools out there to help you, here's some good examples:

  • Google tools - google offers a range of useful tools such as google docs and google drive, which are great free resources for a freelancer.
  • Trello - a simple project management tool based on projects, boards, tasks and checklists.
  • Basecamp - another useful tool for managing your projects, great for collaborating with clients.
  • Coveloping - we offer a range of web developer and business tools such as proposal, invoice and quote generators. We have several tools for helping you calculate what to charge and track your time. Find out more about membership.

Finding Work

So you've decided you want to be a freelancer, now where do you get the business from?

Bidding sites

One option for getting new work is to check out sites like elancer, upwork and rentacoder. It can take a while to build up a credible profile, and these sites are competitive, but it's the quickest way to connect with lots of people looking for people like you.

SEO

Make the most of free advertising by getting yourself ranked well with search engines. Be specific about the keywords you want to be found on, trying to compete with 'web developer' is going to get you nowhere - but remember what we said about finding your niche? Competing for say, 'Zend Developer Bristol' is a lot more achievable.

Networking

Find out about networking opportunities in your area, face to face marketing is a more effective way of drumming up business. You'll find most cities have regular networking events where you can connect with other businesses, you may even find some people who can help you!

What should you charge for a web site?

Web development prices can vary wildly and it can be difficult to know where to position yourself. If you're just starting out and need some experience it's often a good idea to go in a bit cheaper than the competition to get your first few jobs, but after that you want to make sure that you're setting a price that is profitable. Read more on this in our recent article, how much should I charge to build a website.

Coveloping offer some useful tools to help you calculate what you should be charging including an hourly rate calculator that allows you to take into account your lifestyle, overheads and salary expectations.

Freelancing Tips

Here's some tips to consider if you make it into the world of freelancing...

Billing

Request 50% upfront, especially when you're working with smaller clients. This helps to secure a commitment between both parties to see the project through to the end and protects you against making any substantial losses.

Be honest

As a freelancer the delivery of projects is all on you, so it's important to be realistic about your time, availability and skill set for different projects. Make sure you leave contingency time and avoid scope creep - the best way to do this is to do proper requirement gathering and project scoping. Setting unrealistic deadlines and expectations for your client will lead to disappointment. Be honest and transparent with the client and it will lead to better relationships and more work.

It's also important to be honest with yourself about what you want to earn, and the work required. If you have unrealistic expectations about freelancing, like the client you'll find yourself being disappointed.

Be professional

Professionalism is paramount if you want to secure and grow your business opportunities. Here's some quick considerations:

  • Consider what your digital footprint looks like to a prospective client, what will they find if they search for you, would you hire yourself?
  • Document all your projects in your portfolio to showcase your work.
  • Get testimonials to back up your credibility.
  • Consider how your business image comes across - for example sexypants11@hotmail.com is fine as an email address for your mates, but not the image you want to portray to a client. Get a person domain and use this for your email address - if you sign up to Google Business Apps you can still use gmail to manage your account even with a personalised domain.

Finance and business

The barriers to entry for starting out in freelancing are small. For your first few projects you can disclose this as additional income via a self assessment and even have the additional tax come out of your usual PAYE if you're still working for another company. Once things get serious though you should consider setting up a limited company and getting developer insurance to protect yourself against the unexpected and limit your liability - both of these are straight forward and relatively inexpensive. If things really take off, an accountant will save you a lot of time and help you understand the most effective way of managing your finances to minimise tax.

Weighing it up

We've provided you with plenty of pointers throughout this article, let's wrap up with a quick pro and con comparison when considering freelancing:

The Pros

  • Improved work life balance.
  • Flexibility and freedom.
  • Ability to choose your own projects.
  • Work on a more diverse range of projects, with the opportunity to work with new technologies.
  • Potential to make more money.

The Cons

  • Work life balance - wasn't this on the pros? Yes but remember that starting out will often mean a lot more work and when you're working from home it can be harder to separate your home and work life. You'll have to develop a balance over time that suits your lifestyle.
  • Additional work load, roles and responsibilities.
  • Less security - income isn't guarenteed.
  • Less stability - income flucutates.

Making the jump can seem a bit daunting, but hopefully in this article we've pointed out how you can get started without overcommitting at the first stage. In any case - what's the worst scenario? Web developers are in demand, you can always fall back to a full-time role, but the potential rewards are well worth the risk.

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David Bainbridge

Coveloping co-founder and regular contributor to the Coveloping blog. David is a contract web developer based in Bristol, UK also posting code snippets and tutorials on the Code Synthesis blog.

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