Thanks Amber – I’ve been flailing for focus and your article has helped me prioritize my to-do list.
How to Become a Freelance Web Developer: A Six Month Plan
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
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November 17th, 2009 at 9:54 am
November 17th, 2009 at 10:06 am
Great article! I always searching for this kind of article. Currently i am full time php programmer and planning ahead to go freelance. thanks!
November 17th, 2009 at 11:07 am
Great article. I’m so close to taking the full time plunge :)
November 17th, 2009 at 11:21 am
Thanks guys. A good bit of preparation can go a long way toward your future success as a freelancer. Can’t wait till you join us!
November 17th, 2009 at 11:30 am
Great article that can be tailored and used for any kind of freelancer =D
November 17th, 2009 at 12:04 pm
I havn’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to working as a freelance, so this article will be very useful.
Thanks in advance.
November 17th, 2009 at 12:08 pm
This is just what I need. Great article, Amber. I think having a time line can help to get yourself motivated and on track.
November 17th, 2009 at 1:24 pm
great post! now I just need to know where to get the best paying jobs online!
November 17th, 2009 at 1:57 pm
Nicely done, Amber. Very well thought out and informative. You have given me focus!
November 17th, 2009 at 2:34 pm
@Paul, I left a link in the blog post that lists a bunch of great job boards in the finding work section. Those are probably the best places online to find the highest quality of work without referrals.
@Everyone else Thanks guys!
Nikita MakeyevNovember 17th, 2009 at 2:41 pm
You have some really good info in this post. One thing that really helps me achieve a step by step goal is to write down each step in really big and colorful letters on a piece of paper and hang it up somewhere I can see it every day. Once I’m finished with that step, I go wild and scribble it out. Make sure to leave the scribbled steps up with the rest of them so you can see exactly how far you’ve come and how much you have left to go. It’s a good way to keep yourself motivated when you’re feeling down.
Gregor ColnikNovember 17th, 2009 at 3:08 pm
2 months and counting … :)
November 17th, 2009 at 4:07 pm
Thanks for advices.
November 17th, 2009 at 4:19 pm
Great post! I followed a plan similar to this without even knowing it… it just kind of happened.
November 17th, 2009 at 4:50 pm
I plan to start as full time freelancer and this article is a great starting point to organize my time. Thanks!
November 17th, 2009 at 5:14 pm
Thanks, Amber for an article that is very good. I will post a link to this page on our site and R/T this for others to see.
One comment: I think the marketing aspect needs to start immediately and the niche market focus researched and determined for viability. Contacting various people/companies/associates will provide an idea of whether a plan is doable or not. Better to learn that right away than spend time (and money) figuring it out.
Best to your career and thanks again for your sage words!
November 17th, 2009 at 8:30 pm
Amazing post. Thank you so much!
November 17th, 2009 at 11:48 pm
It is fantastic to go into freelancing fully prepared. I’d add another step that should begin immediately, RESEARCH! While you will experience trial-by-fire once D-Day arrives there is a great deal you can learn and prepare for well in advance if you are following this six month plan. You can have a well established network and even begin scheduling projects so that you hit the ground running. It feels horrible to prepare for six months then find yourself twiddling thumbs for six weeks after D-Day because you didn’t line up your first gig in advance.
@Nikita Makeyev: I LOVE your bright-colored Big Goal wall! I tend to be a haphazard list maker so I have various goals jotted down on notebooks and in my electronic to-do list. Having the visual queue is fantastic but with those methods focus gets split and split and split as new goals are added every day. I love the idea of having a visual queue for one, single, big goal. In a prominent place it is a reminder who what is most important right now. It becomes the one-track destination rather than seeing a scattering of detours.
Organization is one of the best ways to prepare the road for success.
MarcoANovember 18th, 2009 at 3:52 am
For client invoicing and storage I use hostbillapp.com which is great for hosting clients also.
November 18th, 2009 at 5:02 am
Thanks for the article, it definitely makes it very clear and helps to have a good idea of what to do when the time may come to go Freelance.
You mentioned Twitter a few times, and I must admit I haven’t really explored the use of Twitter, but I also don’t understand how to gain followers and to promote yourself through it.
November 18th, 2009 at 3:19 pm
Thanks a lot for this article. I feel inspired prioritize my work. I guess when I need a little more creativity I could drink the Creativity Shot by Elance Energy.
November 18th, 2009 at 10:25 pm
Great article and nice to see someone lay down a plan for budding freelancers to follow. There’s loads of ideas on the web but most just say throw loads of mud at the wall and see what sticks. I like this because it is a battle plan. Thanks for the tips.
November 19th, 2009 at 12:09 am
Excellent article, thanks for the guidance!
November 21st, 2009 at 11:23 pm
You can follow lots of Amber’s advice for other kinds of freelance gigs. Just think about how to substitue what you do for the web developer-specific tasks
November 23rd, 2009 at 5:01 pm
Great article, i will start the plan from now… :)
November 25th, 2009 at 12:16 am
DraganNovember 25th, 2009 at 5:26 am
This is great article. But I think these guidelines best fits for freelancers in the USA. I’m from South East Europe(Republic of Macedonia). I can only find freelancer jobs online, PayPal does not support my country, and I still haven’t win any of the projejects I’ve bid on. So please can you set a guidelines for this kind of wanabe freelancers :). What are the recomendations and advise to start working.
November 25th, 2009 at 8:29 am
Thanks for the great article, I just wanted to ask you what about starting on websites like getAfreelancer.com ? what should one do to get started over there ?
November 25th, 2009 at 12:07 pm
@Dragan All of my work is done through the internet. I live out in the country, so I’m not able to work in-house anywhere.
@Sara As I mentioned above, I do not support using bidding sites like getafreelancer.com. In my opinion you waste too much time for too little money. I think your efforts are better marketing your portfolio and getting clients that pay you what you’re worth :)
DraganNovember 25th, 2009 at 2:22 pm
“@Sara As I mentioned above, I do not support using bidding sites like getafreelancer.com. In my opinion you waste too much time for too little money. I think your efforts are better marketing your portfolio and getting clients that pay you what you’re worth :)”
So you say it’s better to make a buzz about us on the net, and let others know that we are able to work an a projects, and not to sell ourselves for a low price on that kind of services. Right?
I like that kind of thinking.
November 30th, 2009 at 12:49 am
Thanks, really you offer a very brief idea to work as a freelance developer.
November 30th, 2009 at 7:31 am
I have always wondered where to get such tips ,thanks for sharing those important points
JulianDecember 1st, 2009 at 12:26 am
Thanks for the Script and Style link! It’ll come in handy when I start offering Ruby on Rails services.
December 15th, 2009 at 1:57 am
Wow great post!
What’s holding me back? Well, I have never officially made a decision to become a freelancer, and don’t really know all the reasons why I would or wouldn’t want to do it. It’s crossed my mind a few times the past few months, though. And according to your 6 month guide here, I am just about at the 2 month mark. I have done everything you said to do before that point over the past 8 months or so, just never finished the last 2 months.
I will say though, I have been recently been getting a lot of requests to design websites, and even in the past week it seemed be way more. Granted, they are all family members and relatives of mine or my girlfriends. I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence that so many people I’m related to all of a sudden want me to design a site for them.
I’d like to think that it isn’t, and instead the beginning of what could possibly become my future as a freelancer. Or something like that. I have read all about how it takes time to build your blog reader base, and blah blah all that stuff. But to me it has seemed to be a long time with not much change, and not much acknoledgement on social media sites, for as long as I’ve been doing it anyways.
I could babble on about this, and stuff. But I have work creating more stuff to contrubute to the world desigm amd development :)
I have already gotten distracted from it long enough with this post :P
I’m definitely bookmarking/sharing this though. Very good read.
December 15th, 2009 at 3:08 pm
Amber, I have a question regarding your tip though:
Do you think it’s still not allowed or ethical to put a work you did, while you were in the company, in your portfolio if:
- You did 100% of the work (but you won’t mention that)
- You will mention the company that you were employed there during time
- The client knows that you did 100% of the work and won’t mind having it in your portfolio
What do you think?
December 15th, 2009 at 3:11 pm
@Marco I never said it was unethical to add previous work you did for an employer. I only said that you shouldn’t, or really can’t, if you have signed a non-compete, which many companies make their employees do.
December 15th, 2009 at 3:16 pm
And I didn’t mean that you said that, Amber :)
Thanks for your opinion! Love your articles :]
April 13th, 2010 at 10:38 pm
HUmnn it was very usefull for me… Now freelancing full time and looking for development work.
May 24th, 2010 at 10:36 am
While reading from top to bottom of article, I really thought you was a guy. But then realized a gorgeous girl named Amber. Wow!
Keep it up! It is very useful.
Thanks for the post.
Is not taking risks necessary included in the post?
August 6th, 2010 at 4:10 am
6 months is too long. if you have the skill, you should give it a maximum of two months before quitting your day job.. and you should take notice that finding a job wont be that easy nomatter how much preparation uv made, u need to have at least 10 friends in this indusry who are willing to give u a small client or two so u can build your name. and how can u build ur own website/portfolio if you dont even have clients yet? (im just pointing some things out, i really appreciate this blog! so dont think im being nasty)
personally, im still in my day job, freelancing in the evenings, and somehow finding a way to sleep 4 hours a day!
September 14th, 2010 at 10:27 am
great article! will take this into great consideration!
December 17th, 2010 at 10:03 am
Great article, always make sure that your contract with your employer allows you to do some freelancing on the side as long as it doesn’t mess with your main work. Then you can build a solid portfolio. We have contractors that didn’t do this and ended up loosing their jobs and one was taken to court (not a very nice employer).
Haunted GhostMarch 15th, 2011 at 4:12 am
Very encouraging article! Thanks for this..You have boosted me to move forward with my decision of becoming a freelancer. Thanks :)
August 29th, 2011 at 2:22 pm
Excellent article… Becoming a freelance is never easy and this article makes it easier. ;-)
October 2nd, 2011 at 5:38 am
I really like this article. Your methodical approach has a LOT going for it. I know of a couple of freelancers who really struggled for a while, because they hadn’t understood the need to think about the BUSINESS — not just their passion for design.
Using PayPal for invoicing is a great idea. I hadn’t thought (Doh!) of that, and in hindsight, have spent way too long fluffing around with paperwork etc.
Thanks for that. Great article.
March 18th, 2012 at 4:32 am
Amber thanks man,I’m a South African by the way and wow u just got me inspired to practically startup my own biz,but I have a question for u,I don’t have any idea where to begin learning this trade so can u help me out with a step by step tutorial?
May 10th, 2012 at 8:25 am
I really enjoy being a freelance programmer. I do all my work over the internet. I use websites like http://www.crowdcircus.com/ They have a great escrow payment system and bidding system that is relaible and safe. I must admit, when I first started,it was a little tough, but with sheer determination im now an independent programmer and web designer.
May 24th, 2012 at 11:15 am
Hi to all,
We are launching a new portal site, it’s a marketplace for people who works in Information and Telecommunication Technology, you can see it at http://www.devstaff.biz , it’s completelly free and registrations are open now!
We start to fill profiles right now and we will distribute to our customers. It will be reserved only to consultants and companies who works in ICT.
We prefer only specialized profiles and we don’t send money only presenting people one to another, for this reason registration and use of our portal will be completelly free.
The portal site is “skill focused” and it will give to users many tools to complete their daily activities; there are videoconference tools (for meetings and interviews), project management tool and much more… These tools are completelly free!!
Please, say to every people that you know, just remember DevStaff portal is reserved to consultants and companies who works in ICT.
Send us any kind of suggestion or troubleshoot (also language mistakes), you should see in portal site using link positioned in bottom part of every portal page.
June 4th, 2012 at 3:55 pm
I believe having a blog or a website to portray the thoughts and ideas is a great thought, and some marketing to that website or blog can get the developer a long way in this competitive world.
sushantJuly 14th, 2012 at 1:36 pm
@amber i got your points and
thanks for such great points should be kept in mind
and i just want to ask what a proper portfolio portals shud mainly focus on.??
October 6th, 2012 at 11:46 pm
Great timeline. For me, it took a person looking at me and saying “you really should go into this as a business.”
December 9th, 2012 at 8:54 pm
What would you say would be the top freelance ‘portals’? Places where good quality freelancers are available… and where good freelancers should post their services? thanks Andy :-)
December 30th, 2012 at 3:04 am
As I was reading this entire article, which I rarely do, I thought to myself, “yeah, I keep ending up at that amberweinber.com via Google lately. That was a great freelance/tutorial website.” …. Behold! She is also the author of this very article!
Thanks again for the great tips and writing style. You are one of the very few that I don’t just skim through :)
Now I just need to get myself to that level! ;)
April 18th, 2013 at 7:15 pm
Many thanks for such a helpful article on entering the world of freelancing! Much obliged.
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