jeff hooton

How to be a Successful Freelance Developer

posted on mar 04, 2020



Freelance software development can be a super rewarding career, or source of side income. There are several steps that you need to take in order to become a freelance developer:

  1. Decide which area you want to work in, whether it is web development, app development, devops, etc
  2. Figure out what market or niche you want to serve
  3. Decide how you can be of service and stand out from your competition
  4. Market and sell your services

These 4 steps make up the building blocks of a successful side business freelancing, or even potentially a career doing so.

How you can start a freelancing development career

Starting out as a freelancer is the hardest part of freelancing. In order to start you need to come up with an answer to a few different questions that will lay the foundation for the future of your career in freelancing.

Figure out which area of dev you would like to do

This question is much easier to answer if you already have a history doing a certain aspect of development. If you have a history of doing full stack web development, there is a good chance that you are going to offer services that relate to full stack web development. The same goes for native app development. If you have experience building Wordpress themes, that is another area of development that you can offer value to others with.

Take an honest look at your skillset and make a choice on the types of services that you would be best in offering to your future clientele.

Figure out what market you want to serve

One of the BEST ways you can create some strong momentum in freelancing is narrowing down the niche that you serve. If you specialize in making eCommerce websites for clothing companies, you will quickly become a subject matter expert and your personal brand recognition has the ability to grow and grow. If you are doing a lot of development making Wordpress themes for local lawyers offices, there is a good chance that you will start receiving a good amount of referrals through projects that you have done already.

This list can go on and on, and a lot of people don't spend the time becoming a subject matter expert in one area at a time, leading to leads and work being few and far-between.

Decide how you can stand out from your competition

There is A LOT of competition when it comes to freelance development. If you are located in the United States, there is a great chance that you cannot compete on price with offshores developers located in areas where the cost of living is much lower than the United States. This is less of an issue if you are receiving most of your leads through referrals, but will still come back to bite you in the ass if you are providing the same level of service as every other developer out there.

After niching down on a market that you would like to serve, figure out what issues they are commonly facing, and find a solution for those issues. If you are offering more than just simple software, but instead offering a solution to a problem that they are facing, there is a good shot that you will get much more work. Most people that are buying software don't necessarily care about the features of the software, or what it is built with, they care about the benefits that they will receive from the software. For example, instead of pitching a Wordpress theme and website to someone, pitch a solution to an issue that you know your potential client is facing. If you can do this and figure out ways to set yourself apart and solve more complex problems for your potential clientele, you will be much better off.

Ways to get freelancing clients

There are a few solid ways to get new freelancing clients. Some of them are more immediate than others, and some are more of a long-game.

Quick ways to get freelancing clients

There are a few ways to get freelancing clients quickly:

  1. Ask around to family and friends, they may be in touch with someone that could benefit from your services
  2. Go to a freelancing specific website like Upwork or Fiverr and start bidding on jobs
  3. Visit a local message board site like Craigslist and see if there are any postings that line up with your skillset and service offerings

These methods are great for finding a quick project/job, but may not be enough to build sustainable leads and work. If you rely on these only, you will have a hard time building a career that pays enough to support your lifestyle.

Longer term ways to get freelance development clients

These methods take more time, but tend to build a more sustainable flow of work, and often higher paying clientele/larger projects.

  1. Create a blog that focuses around the target market that you are looking to serve

If you are regularly creating conetnt that answers questions that your target market is looking to solve, your name will start coming up more and more often when they are looking for solutions to their issues. This is a method that takes a lot of time to build an organic following, but is the number one way that I have found to drive organic leads for your freelancing career.

  1. Start creating contacts inside the target market.

You can start attending conferences around the target market that you are looking to serve. You could also join a community, whether online or in-person, that is based on your target market. The connections that you build through this method has the chance of driving a lot of word-of-mouth leads. The more people the market that you are serving that know about you and what services you offer, the more likely your name is to come up when they are speaking with a colleague who may be facing an issue that you solve.

I STRONGLY suggest starting the longer term, slower method of building clientele and lead-streams as soon as you decide to go down the freelancing path. The earlier that you start building a potential stream of leads for your business, the better off you will be. What is that old saying, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is NOW. It may be a corny saying, but its true, if you start the longer, harder method early on - you will probably reap the benfits of the work that you put in down the road and they will be much more sustainable and healthy than the short term methods.

Can you really make a good living as a freelance developer?

This question is a tough one to answer. It depends on a lot of factors. Whether or not you are going to make enough money to start traveling the globe, working from a laptop with full freedom from having to punch a time clock and sit in an office from 9am-5pm is totally up to you.

  1. Are you good at what you do? Like really, really good..

If you are really good at solving problems for a single market, you are in a good position to have a steady stream of potentially high-paying clientele. Potential client's want their problems solved and if you are good at it, you'll never be out of work.

  1. Are you personable?

If you want to go the route of networking with people in your target market, you better be a people-person. If the idea of going to a conference and introducing yourself to dozens of people makes you shake in your boots, theres a good shot that you aren't extroverted enough to use this as a lead source.

  1. Are you a decent SEO and don't mind writing often?

In order to build content that people will find organically you better know, at a very minimum, the basics of SEO in order to get your content found organically by the people that you are trying to reach. It takes a lot of hours writing about at topic in order to push out enough content to bring a stream of organic traffic to your website. If you don't know much about SEO, you should probably get around to learning it immediately.

If you don't enjoy writing, or would find it hard to put out a 1500-2000 word piece of informative, readable content once or twice a week, it will most likely take you a bit longer to build a stream of organic traffic.

  1. Is there anything you can create to build a ton of buzz around your 'brand'?

Creating something cool and unique is something that can be a surefire way of building brand recognition. This is probably the least reliable way of getting traffic and creating something that goes viral is extremely difficult. If you figure out how to do it reliably, please let me know.

If you have answered these questions and feel confident in your ability to have enough work to support yourself, or at least create a side-stream of income, you're ready to get to sourcing clients and work. Best of luck to you!

The pros of freelancing

There are countless pros to freelancing. You probably see it all the time in a culture where you can see what anyone is doing at any time through Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The number one pro, in my book, is not having to rely on cashing a paycheck from a regular job. The freedom from needing to be employed is huge.

If you are self-employed you get to set your own hours and if you're lucky enough you'll get to pick which projects that you want to work on. Getting to the point where you get to pick and choose what you want to work on is a long and tough road, but the benefits of getting there are pretty obvious. If you get to continually work on projects that interest and excite you, you're going to have a much smoother time and probably be much less prone to reaching burnout.

Setting your own price is another huge benefit of having a successful freelancing career. Instead of getting told what you are going to get paid, or maybe getting the opportunity to negotiate your salary by 2-3%, you get to set what you want to charge clients for the services you provide. If you want to set your rates at $150-200 per hour, that is totally your prerogative. If you only want to work on projects that are going to pay $20,000 or more, go for it!

The benefits of freelancing are numerous, but they are going to take a lot of work to achieve.

The cons of freelancing

That leads us to the cons of freelancing. To be brutally honest, freelancing is damn hard. There are so many aspects to running a succesful solo freelancing career that not many people are cut out for it. You may be able to squeek by making 50% of what you would cashing a paycheck from a traditional career job, but there is not a huge chance of reaching the point where you get to jet-set and travel the world, set your own prices, have a steady stream of clients to the point of getting to pick and choose what you want to work on.

Some of the main cons that I've found after a few years of freelancing are this:

  1. Getting clients is hard

You're going to have a tough time building a steady stream of clients to the point where you can charge premium prices and choose which projects that you want to take.

  1. Managing clients that you do have is REALLY hard

I can't tell you how many times in the past that I've messed up and ended up in a situation where I didn't set expectations correctly or build out a thorough enough statement of work and was screwed. There are countless projects that by the end, I probably was only making $5-10 per hour for the work that I was doing. The good news is that once you run into this situation once or twice, you're going to figure out what blind spots you had going into the project to prevent them from ever happening again. There is nothing worse than grinding away knowing you could be making more money working the Taco Bell drive-through window.

  1. Taxes and accounting both suck

If you're this far into this article, you love software development and want to make a career out of writing code. Well I've got some bad news for you, its not always just writing code. Besides all of the marketing and sales that you're going to have to do, you're going to have to manage your own invoices, accounting and taxes. Make sure that you've got a company set up and are taking accurate recordings of all the business you're doing or Uncle Sam is going to come knocking, and NOBODY wants that.

  1. Sometimes you aren't going to have clients

Sometimes you aren't going to have a project to work on. If you aren't great with money, you could be put in a situation where you have absolutely nothing coming in, and nothing on the horizon. This situation is awful to be in for a variety of reasons. I've been there and I am willing to bet that anybody who has ever done freelancing full time has been in that situation.

  1. The beginning is going to be rough

The beginning of your freelancing career is going to be rough. There is a ton to learn, and you're going to make mistakes. You're going to have a project that goes WAY over scope, and there's not going to be anyhting you can do about it. There are going to be periods of time where you need to go back to the quick-term client methods and charge pennies on the dollar for your work just to get some income rolling in.

These reasons are why I ended up moving away from freelancing as a whole probably a year ago. I just don't have it in me to manage everything that come with freelancing, and am happy to just collect my salary and live in comfort doing something that I enjoy doing, just without the freedom that comes along with freelancing.

If you think you have what it takes to build a successful career with freelancing alone, all power to you. I wish you the best of luck; there is a good chance that you're going to need it. But if you build a solid foundation, have the skills that it takes to manage everything across the board(in addition to development), and have just a bit of luck and hustle you can make it work.

I would suggest that every developer with a little bit of hustle in them give it a shot at one point or another, my time freelancing taught me more about everything than any job ever has.

If you have experience freelancing and want to drop me a note, shoot me a DM or mention on Twitter.

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