Learning How to Freelance without Clients

For some reason, even though I’ve been in the development world for over ten years, I’d never thought about making my own apps. It seemed to me that web and app development were two completely different things.

That was until I started listening to a bunch of podcasts that mentioned app development and read some books by 37signals. Several months and long nights later, I launched my first web app with Nikita (the wonderful programmer in my life) called CodeSnipp.it.

Freelancing without Clients?

Working on and bootstrapping this app lead us to thinking of how we could make money from it (more on this in a later post). That kind of thinking quickly lead to a new thought–what if we could do this kind of stuff and never have to work for a client ever again?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my clients. But, imagine waking up every morning ready to work on something YOU wanted to work on, something you loved and were passionate about. Isn’t that really everyone’s goal?

More than Just Development

Making money without clients is more than just web apps. No matter what kind of freelancer you are, there’s something you can do to make money without clients. Here are some ideas of these you could make money from full-time:

  • Web apps
  • iPhone/iPad/mobile apps
  • How-to books
  • WordPress/Joomla/Drupal templates
  • Stock graphics

Starting Out

The cool thing about these ideas is that it isn’t terribly hard to get started or to make money from them. I know several freelancers who’ve stopped taking on client work, because they make much more money producing cool stuff that they like and sell to others. So how do you get started?

  • Have an idea–You can’t do anything without having an idea. My main idea was that I wanted to create both web and mobile apps (which meant I had to learn a new language, Objective C). To create apps, I had to have a cool idea for one. My first idea was to create a code snippet sharing site that also allowed people to follow each other and ask questions. Other snippet sites were jumbled, complicated, ugly and missing the social sharing aspect of code. That’s how our web app came into being.
  • Reduce work load–I normally stay insanely busy with client work. In order to have enough time to create and maintain an app, I had to reduce my workload and raise my rates. Taking both of these steps ensured that I had both time and money.
  • Get others excited–Of course, although I stay busy, I’m not rich. There was no way I could afford to do an app (even though we would be doing all the dev work) without the awesome help of clients (yes, clients!) and my community. One of my clients donated a beautiful design and another client donated free hosting. Several people from my Twitter community have donated Twitter graphics, APIs and additional code. This is why building your social media community is so important. We wouldn’t have our app without them!
  • Just get started–The biggest wall that stops almost everyone from doing something is the beginning, so just get started. Get sketching, code or drafting. It doesn’t have to be pretty or perfect, just get started!

The Future

I’m looking forward to the day where I can really have the perfect freelance business of creating something I want every day. Remember, if the idea is something you’ve always wanted, chances are that there are several other people who’d want it too!

Your Thoughts

I’ve shared the process of how I developed an app.

Have you done something similar? What are your thoughts about freelancing without clients?

Leave your answers in the comments.

Image by foxypar4


  1. says

    I’ve often thought about this method of freelancing, and I hope to someday get at least 50% of my income from this type of work. Glad to see someone else is bringing some recognition to it!

  2. says

    It would be very nice, however it reminds of the dot com bust in early 2001. It is my opinion that apps will go the same way as domain names. With client work, at least you have a steady flow of business objectives that need to be met.

  3. says

    I really appreciate this approach. It’s the one I’m working on… Here in Brazil, there are many dev and design studios but a few of them are really interested in this path, so, to me, the best way to go is through this one.

    But, obviously, if any freelance job show up and I realize it’s a good choice, I’ll pick it up!

    Great post! Waiting the next one!

  4. says

    Even for the freelancers who aren’t ready to make the jump away from clients these kinds of things are a great way to supplement your income. There is also an added value on repeat income, service income that rolls in on a weekly/monthly basis will help take the edge off of the freelancer feast/famine stages.

    Another good post Amber

  5. says

    I started on this path about 3 years ago, and it’s actually turned out pretty well for me.

    I think that an easy way to pick an idea, is to find something that you can use yourself, something that you find it valuable, then work on it, and make it available as a product. As long as it adds value to people, you will have no troube generating income from it.

  6. says

    @Jordan I don’t believe so. Even with the dot com bust, websites are still popular. I doubt apps are going anywhere anytime soon since everything is moving to mobile anyways. Also, I think you missed the point of the post. I wasn’t just talking about apps specifically, but anything you can make and sell.

  7. says

    I’ve been steadily selling 3D work on sites like Turbosquid and the3dstudio for more than 5 years; I can’t make a living with the income it brings in, but it’s great for “fun money” each month.

    Cory over at illustrationinfo sells stock images and vectors across a plethora of stock image site like Shutterstock and iStockphoto and he averages around 2,000 each month.

    If you can get your hands in a wide range of each (and your content is good enough), you could definitely make a living without clients.

  8. says

    I think it is always better to offer a product rather than a service. With a service (freelancing in this case) you are limited to the amount of billable hours you can actually bill per month. This is obviously a limiting factor to potential income and growth.

    With a service, your signup potential is virtually limitless. Obviously, it is not that cut and dry, but I think you see what I mean.

  9. says

    That’s a great article and a great idea. I think more freelancers need to be creating and producing for themselves/on their behalf instead of just for clients. I’ve spent the last 9 months working on game when I’m not working on client work — it’s called Sparky the Road Clown and it’s about running over clowns. :) I’m set to launch it on both Facebook and the iPhone over the next few weeks. It’s been a really great experience, and going from “I have an idea” to “I put together a small team, put in a lot of my own hard work and time and in a reasonable amount of time, we shipped a product out the door” is a big deal, and that experience will benefit me immensely, regardless of whether the game sells well or not. (check out my site if you’re interested in the clown game)

    Like Harry said, it’s best to pick something that you want or need — if you feel passionate about it, that passion will carry over to other people who can help you along the way get to where you need to be. The best ideas come from things we personally want, whether it’s a game about running over clowns (well, okay, my 6 year old who doesn’t like clowns is actually the one who wanted it) or some kind of tool or app like the photo processing tools on the iPhone, for example. When you feel strongly about it, you’re much more likely to stick with it through the difficult and frustrating times.

  10. says

    I like to balance both freelance work for clients and personal projects. Personal projects tend to be much more challenging to my skillset and rewarding with that feeling of accomplishment. But most of these projects provide little income. Enough to keep the beer fridge stocked. I imagine that will change in the future, as I am working on a couple projects that my client list will find incredibly useful and profitable.

    That’s not to say client work isn’t rewarding, just not very challenging (at least not very often).

  11. says

    I believe that writing and selling apps, whether you’re doing SaS or straight licensing has some potential to be profitable. There is however greater risk involved.

    When you’re doing client work you often have a set road-map and have generated an income stream while you work through that. Many successful apps need risk capital to get off the ground and can take years to pay back that initial investment, let alone turn a profit.

    You also have to account for a lot of things which you cannot foresee. Imagine if you committed to writing a web app specifically to do something. When you brainstormed the idea it was great. It wasn’t done well elsewhere and had a huge potential for profit but you need a team and some capital to get it going. You secure some venture capital from an interested party and put together a team. Now, we get into the development cycle and a company like 37 Signals drops your product on the net. You suddenly find yourself in a saturated market behind an industry leader.Now what do you do?

  12. says

    Rob: Not much capital is needed these days for many startups. Read about TwitPic’s start-up story. Inspiring. Started as a one-man team. Now hired an additional developer and his parents. Still a very small team, but that site is pulling in major revenue.

    I was creating my own TwitPic at the same time, but lost interest once the challenge was gone. I still have the code-base. But I digress ….

  13. says


    Websites will always be popular and new methods of gaining access to data will always emerge, enter the mobile form factor. My point about applications and the similarity with the dot com bust was the over supply of venture funded ideas, with little to no means of generating real revenue.

    Your point is to sell whatever you can make. My point, is the time it takes to realize any return from your investment, it will be far greater than client work.

    Lets look at two parallel ideas: one, your time spent developing CodeSnipp.it; and two, the same amount of time developing a custom WordPress site.

    Which one will guarantee you money?

  14. says

    Really cool to see your thought process progress as you began traveling this path of building your own apps and how that can enhance your overall work/life experience.

    I am a parter in a small design company and we were just talking about how we would love to hook up with a like minded developer to speed in the exact direction you are talking about. Developing our own apps.


  15. says

    Definitely something that has crossed my mind and the minds of most all designers/developers I know. The idea of running a site and just making loads of money from it is insanely attractive. Look at how many people took advantage of the Myspace boom between 2003 and 2009 and made free profile sites that, from traffic alone, got them thousands of dollars a month? One teenage girl here in Michigan became a millionaire from her Myspace resource site.

  16. says

    These are my thoughts exactly. However, I haven’t been able to find helpers with my ideas. No designers or programmers, so it’s been an extremely slow process because I am doing everything myself. That’s not to say that I haven’t had fun learning everything that I needed in order to make my application work, but there have been those times that you’ve mentioned that where really rough, and I would have much rather passed it off to another developer or just left the app alone.

    Passion pushed me through though, and I am launching http://www.studybuddie.com on july first. :) *shameless plug*

    You know what I found helped a lot? Following another developer as they went through the process of creating their application, and following their lead.

    I watched your tweets come in from “I have an idea!” and “I just bought the domain!” to “Should I put up the beta account sign up page?” to “launch is here!” and it really showed me how to execute the process on my own application. So that was greatly inspirational and helpful.


  17. says

    Agreed Amber. This kind of stuff is what I’ve heard referred to as “residual income” – income that is created that doesn’t have a direct tie to hours.

    That’s the important thing: to truly scale as a freelancer, you’ve got to decouple hours and money. Without doing so, you’re automatically limited: you can charge more, but only until the market won’t bear it. With residual income sources, you’re able to grow your top line without needing to inject more time (and, if possible, reduce total hours spent).

    Great stuff!

  18. says

    Interesting article Amber!

    Personally, I’m thinking of creating an e-book for Philippine freelancers, especially when they’re working for foreign clients. Hopefully this plan will push through and I can earn enough from the sales, if it does sell of course. :)

    Aside from this, one of the ways a writer can earn without looking for clients is writing for sites like Helium. I’ve written a couple of articles on Helium and so far I’ve earned some money from them without realizing it.

  19. says

    Hi Amber,
    I’m interested in the idea. Actually I’m still looking for more interesting (yet needed) application. And I have request an invitation to codesnipp.it. I will take a look at the app and maybe post some code snippets.

  20. says

    Just when I was thinking of how to make passive income that I encountered this blog. Thanks for sharing these ideas as I am looking for them. I think, even when a freelancer has too many projects to be even bothered with – he or she must still strive to make a name on the world wide web and achieve financial freedom. Right now, my articles are earning me a small passive income that can take care of my coffee addiction, still, I’m planning to get published as a novelist in the future and earn from all those royalty.

  21. Niubi says

    Yes, a passive income is everyone’s ultimate end goal! That’s why sites like DubLi are so attractive. Sure, you have to put in the work at first as you indicate, but once you’ve got that ball rolling, it’s going downhill and the accumulation is insane. Being a writer, I can only hope that I write the next great novel….

  22. says

    So what is the best language to write desktop or iPhone apps in?
    As a web designer all my coding is achieved with PHP, Javascript etc.

  23. says

    Hi, Amber,

    I read your comments about your App and know what, I don’t know what the HECK a snippet of code is! An app to share snippets of code is something that is just not in my world at the moment. But I admire your enterprise. Anyway I have just done a kind of app myself. It lets people make free (free, free, free) online business cards which they can post as email sigs. It’s at eBusinessCard.net, and I just hired a developer to do a Facebook app on the same idea. Tell your readers to go to eBusinessCard.net and make their free business cards, with or without their photos! These virtual business cards really personalize your email to your clients big time. Thanks!!

  24. says

    Please let me know if you’re looking for a writer for your blog. You have some really good articles and I think I would be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d love to write some content for your blog in exchange for a link back to mine. Please shoot me an e-mail if interested. Thanks!

  25. says

    You’re so awesome! I do not suppose I’ve read a single thing like this before. So great to discover another person with genuine thoughts on this topic. Really.. thanks for starting this up. This web site is something that is required on the internet, someone with some originality!


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