Nearly every day somebody asks me about how I got started as a freelance developer. Many people recognize that they would like to branch off into freelancing, but most don’t know where to begin. It’s this fear and uncertainty that keeps them from taking the plunge.
Challenges like how to find clients, what to do about money, and how to set up your own site can be overwhelming at first — but the end result of having a successful freelance business is easily worthwhile. In order to help make your life easier, I’ve set up a simple month-by-month plan that you can follow to eventually achieve your dream of becoming a freelance developer.
This calendar starts six months ahead of time, but you can modify it however you need to fit your situation. Your first step towards freelancing is to choose the specific date you’ll start freelancing.
6+ Months to D-Day
With freelancing, there’s always the possibility you could go a month or two before you start making money. You should start saving as much money as possible now. Aim towards having three to six months worth of expenses in savings (or, at the minimum, one to two months worth). If you’re lax on your personal budget, now would be a great time to implement the popular envelope system. (I use Snowmint’s Budget program).
Why does the envelope system work? It works because you don’t have to stress as much about money in the beginning and can focus on your business and gaining clients. Also, it gives you time to figure out if freelancing really is right for you.
5 Months and Counting
Your portfolio site is going to be the most important asset to your business. Design, have designed, or buy a nicely designed portfolio. As a developer, you should spend some time adding awesome functionality and making sure your site has the cleanest code possible. Clients aren’t just going to look at your portfolio pieces, they’re also going to look at the quality of your own site, so spend some time making it right. Choose a design that’s both professional and personable.
Recent design trends in portfolios are:
- Dark colors with bold, bright graphics
- Bold graphical backgrounds
- A large jQuery slideshow or featured section on the homepage
- Larger portfolio pieces
Tip: Clients tell me that they love the fact that I include code snippets on my portfolio. Since we don’t design, snippets give the client a better view of the work we actually do. I also include a small snapshot of the actual site so they can see the finished product, as well as a link to the real website so they can test the functionality out.
Make sure you also install Google Analytics, or some other type of tracking software, so you can figure out how many people visit your site and where they’re coming from.
4 Months to Go
Now that your website is up and running, it’s time to set up your social media profiles, particularly Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Make sure you link to your new portfolio on all your profiles. Social media sites help to get your name out into the world before you start freelancing, which will help you to avoid the “Who are you?” mentality from potential clients.
Start twittering about relevant things to development such as:
- Interesting articles, links and blog posts about web development. You should also comment on the blog articles you tweet about and leave behind your web address. You’ll get a good amount of traffic this way.
- News dealing with anything web related
- Your opinions on current web events
- Projects you’re currently working on (keep these to one a day to avoid spam status)
3 Months Left
Begin a blog. Blog about interesting things in web development, helpful habits and tips, new technologies, and tutorials or special ways you code. Readership will be very slow at first, but if you keep writing and adding relevant content, word of mouth will slowly, but surely, spread. Set a goal to write a certain number of articles a week and stick to it.
Promote your blog by:
- Tweeting about your new post
- Updating your Facebook and LinkedIn statuses with your new post
- Having retweet and social bookmarking buttons so readers can easily share with their followers
- Submitting your articles to places like digg, Stumbleupon and other blogs, like Script and Style, that offer community links
Why blog? Blogging and social media help establish you as both a professional and an expert. When people see you on Twitter, and in a ongoing comment discussion on a popular blog, and they see you have your own blog — it keeps your name on their minds. It also shows that you really do know what you’re talking about, which helps you get hired. Blogging on your portfolio site also ups the relevant content and keywords and increases your search engine optimization.
2 Months…Almost There!
Shop for health insurance now because it normally takes them two months to start. I heard ehealthinsurance.com is great for finding deals.
Start quietly looking around job boards to get a feel for the types of clients asking for work and the rates they’re willing to pay. If you know some freelancers personally, you can also ask them what they charge. I wouldn’t ask strangers this question as some people like to keep their rates secret, but you could always try tweeting the question and seeing how many people answer.
It’s also important to consider your target market. Are you targeting other agencies or lawyers and doctors? You also need to decide if you want to charge hourly or by the project and figure out how you’re going to invoice and do your contracts. (Check out AIGA’s site for a sample contract.)
Tip: I personally use Paypal for invoicing. It’s quick, easy and free — plus 99% of my clients prefer to pay by Paypal anyway. If you want to get fancy you can create your own templates using a word processor, or you can use a paid service like Freshbooks.
1 Month…Home Stretch!
Go ahead and give your employer a full month’s notice. This will make them more apt to send you some work in the future as well as give you a good referral. Explain to your boss that you enjoyed the company and are thankful for the opportunity they gave you to work there, but that you’re ready to branch out on your own and become a freelancer. Many fellow freelancers I know had their old company as their first client!
Tip: Be careful when leaving, most places have a non-compete clause in place. Make sure you’re not looking to take their clients or use the work you did for the company in your portfolio.
Congrats, you’re now officially a freelancer! On your first day, there are several heavy marketing tasks you should do:
- Email all your friends, relatives. Send LinkedIn connections and Facebook friends a short email explaining that you’re now a full time freelance developer. Ask that if anyone needs a developer, to please keep you in mind. Do this only once or you’ll be labeled as a spammer.
- Send out a tweet saying you’re freelancing full time and looking for development work
- Look through freelance job boards and start applying for development jobs. Check out Dustin Brewer’s 8 Job Boards for Freelancer’s list for ideas of where to start.
- Use search terms on Twitter to look for people who need a developer. You can save this search as an RSS feed to stay updated. Try looking OR need OR want OR hire developer OR CSS for a front-end developer.
- Update your blog frequently to continue bringing in new traffic. Submit your tutorials to Nettuts and Script & Style. The goal is to continue bringing in traffic and building a name for yourself.
Clients appreciate both the speed and accuracy of a great freelance coder. Strive to get your projects finished ahead of time and always have a smile when talking to them on the phone — customer service is just as, if not more, important than the actual coding itself. Clients are more apt to forgive a coding mistake, but never a bad attitude.
Finding Extra Work
Here are some ideas to find extra work in the beginning:
- Contact local and national web agencies to offer your services by email. Keep it short and sweet. Describe who you are and what you do.
- Team up with a designer to sell WordPress templates on sites like Themeforest, or create your own template selling site.
- Write for other web development blogs. Many, like Nettuts, pay up to $150 for detailed tutorial articles and will happily give you a link to your portfolio as well. These blogs often have well over 10,000 readers, so it’s well worth the time!
- Ask your new happy clients for referrals and a testimonial
- Do some charity/pro bono work to help out the community, gain some nice portfolio work and some great exposure.
Being a freelancer isn’t without it’s quirks, but it’s a very rewarding and enjoyable experience. A little preparation and planning can go a long way to a successful business. What are some of the ways you prepared to become a freelancer? What’s holding you back?
Top photo by stuartpilbrow, modified by FreelanceFolder