We’re living in the gig economy. With every day that passes, more and more of us come to the realization that we don’t need the traditional nine-to-five office job to fulfill our needs. Being a freelance web developer today doesn’t elicit the same side-eyed skepticism that it used to in years past. We’re no longer limited (motivationally or financially) to sitting at a desk and trading hours for dollars. I’m living proof of this — my last nine-to-five job title was “creative strategist,” which roughly translated to “complete many tasks, adequately.”
Freelancers can now pursue the projects they want to work on, not those they’re forced to endure. Instead of completing many tasks adequately, they can complete fewer tasks exceptionally — and that is the recipe for an extremely rewarding and fulfilling career.
This was my thought process when I first started contemplating leaving my cushy agency job back in August 2015. I wanted to build something that was all me — my network, my skills, my successes. It’s been roughly 10 months since I embarked on my journey to become a full-time freelance WordPress developer. Making the transition from full-time employee to full-time freelance web developer was hands-down the best decision I’ve ever made for my career, improving my quality of life and yes, even giving me financial security.
Here are eight lessons I’ve encountered on my path to full-time freedom. I hope they help you as you make the transition yourself.
Get your finances in order
As a financially responsible adult, you’ve probably budgeted your entire life around your salary.
If you’re currently peering over the edge of the proverbial cliff and considering making the switch to full-time freelancing, I’d encourage you to ask yourself a few financial questions first, like:
- Can you pay next month’s rent?
- How about the next six months’ rent?
- Will the lights stay on?
- Will you make your car payment on time?
My point here is that you must account for doomsday — no incoming work. This is a lesson you absolutely do not want to learn the hard way.
Make sure you have a rock-solid financial game plan in case you-know-what hits the fan.
To set myself up for success, I worked two full-time jobs as I transitioned. The first was my standard nine-to-five at the agency. The other, my five-to-nine (and then some) at home, finding my first freelance clients and supplementing my income. After six-months I’d managed to save enough money to keep all my bills paid for a full year, even if I didn’t earn another cent.
Financial freedom, even in a limited sense, is comforting when you first start off as a freelance web developer.
Specialize in something
Do you think neurosurgeons feel less capable at their job because they can’t perform an open heart surgery? Hell no! Own what you’re great at and don’t get stressed when you can’t do it all. Be honest with your clients, but more importantly, be honest with yourself.
I’m a certified expert WordPress developer, but that doesn’t mean I’ll work on every single WordPress project that comes my way. I’ve curated a small list of tasks that are directly aligned with my specific skill set; those I know I can complete with extreme efficiency.
If you stretch yourself too thin (likely by offering too many services) you’ll end up getting hired for more tasks while getting paid less. Conversely, as an expert, you’ll command much higher premiums while cornering just a segment of the market. At the end of the day the difference between and expert and a novice is this — experts work smarter, not harder.
Join freelancing websites
Once you’ve identified your specialization, find a network that promotes your skills and gets you in front of potential clients. There are a ton of great networks out there, so depending on your industry and your skills, some will inevitably be more appropriate for you than others.
The fact that there are already people on these networks looking for qualified talent saves you the annoying and often frustrating hassles of chasing down new clients on your own. The most common exchange for the unlimited supply of awesome inbound leads is that a small portion of your total earned income will be retained by the network (likely in the neighborhood of 10 percent).
Premium freelancing networks like Codeable understand that experts like you provide the most value to your clients when you’re focused on your work, so they’ll also take care of billing. The best networks have systems built-in which enable you to focus the maximum amount of your time and energy doing what you do best and not dealing with those accounts receivable nightmares.
Build your street cred
The harsh reality of getting started as a freelancer is that no one knows who you are or why they should trust you. When you first join a freelancing network you might only convert five or 10 percent of the people you engage with into paying customers. This is perfectly normal so don’t get discouraged!
The first few months of freelancing are about embracing the grind. Just because the last 10 people turned you down shouldn’t affect how vigorously you approach your eleventh prospect.
Here’s how I scored my first few projects:
Create a portfolio website, and give it some personality. It’s far more important to communicate why someone should work with you rather than listing what your skills and qualifications are. I highly recommend you watch Simon Sinek’s TED Talk about this concept for a greater understanding of the WHY.
Engage with as many clients as possible. Accept every project that you know you can complete and deliver quality work. It might take you longer than others to meet the minimum ratings/reviews threshold to tip the scales in your favor and get a majority of the clients to take you seriously, but it’s well worth it when you do.
Freelancing is a marathon, not a sprint. As a freelancer you’re more-than-likely going to be working alone, which means you’re in charge of quality control. As Henry Ford said, “quality means doing it right when no one is looking.”
Put in the work
As a freelancer, your schedule will be undeniably awesome. You’ll wake up when you want to. You’ll go grocery shopping when there’s no one else in the store. It’s a life you can get used to easily.
But remember, no one is forcing you to work.
Personally, I’m still putting in at least 40 hours a week to consistently hit my numbers. Now, I do get to choose which 40 hours these are, but I don’t forget there’s a reason this is called full-time freelancing.
Another prerequisite in becoming a successful freelancer is self-discipline. It’s absolutely imperative that you have the mental capacity to keep yourself on task, because let’s face it, there won’t be anyone else making sure you do.
Build your network
Here’s an obvious one — your network will be composed of the clients you work for and the other qualified professionals you meet. It’s best to cast a wide net in order to meet new associates and make connections with people of various backgrounds.
Referrals are the backbone of the freelance world, and I have absolutely no problem pointing someone in the direction of another qualified professional whom I trust because I know it’ll come back around my way when the time is right.
For me, the leads passed back and forth within my network convert into paying customers much faster than other projects.
As you continue to grow your network you’ll start seeing more and more of these private leads coming in. This allows you to slowly reduce the amount of time you spend trolling for new projects in a public forum. Another perk of preferred leads is drastically reduced competition — these projects are typically only shared with one or two highly qualified professionals, instead of potentially a hundred or more.
Stay in direct touch
This is a big one, and I can’t stress it enough. Repeat business is your best friend.
Personally, I’ve set up a system where my clients can click one link to quickly share their next project with me. Then, after a quick chat, they can hire me directly to complete the task. Creating a direct line of communication for your clients ultimately saves them time and allows them to bypass the public forum altogether. Once you’ve demonstrated the value you add, you’ll very likely earn direct bookings for all their future projects, too.
Join affiliate programs
If you find clients consistently asking for your advice on the vendors you use throughout the development or design process, consider joining affiliate programs to earn money for your referrals.
If you get involved with a program such as GoDaddy’s Affiliate Program, it’s important to do so because you genuinely love the service, not because you think it’ll be a quick passive buck.
These are professional opportunities, so don’t be a spammer and offer unsolicited advice to clients with the sole interest of padding your bank account — clients can sniff this nonsense out from a mile away. I’ve found that the best products or service endorsements that you can provide your clients are for those that you actually use yourself, and that you can share success stories about firsthand.
Faith + calculation = freelance web developer
When I made the transition to full-time freelance, I was able to lean on those who came before me to understand the right and wrong ways of going about it. I’ve discovered a system that works for me, and my success over the past 10 months is proof positive of that. For anyone thinking about making the move from full-time employment to full-time freelance web developer, I hope the lessons I’ve learned will inspired you take a calculated leap of faith.
Also published on Medium.