Getting Started with Freelance Web Development
A friend of mine recently let me know his current web development job is ending because the company is shutting down. While he is interviewing at other companies, if at all possible, he’d like to start freelancing, but has no idea where to start.
Since I have a fair amount of experience doing freelance and contract web development over the past 8 years, I thought I’d put together some ideas for the currently non-freelancing, yet marketable-skill possessing web developer. If you don’t yet have technical or design chops, this doesn’t apply to you yet. Go back and get those. If you do have the chops, soldier on.
What do you NEED to get started?
Are you ready? All you need to get started is your first client. That, and a few more obvious things like: technical skills, communication skills, the ability to think of creative solutions, manage your own time, and follow through on commitments in a timely manner. No big deal. You have all of those, right? What you might not have is that first client.
Notice what I didn’t say you needed. The following is a list of nice-to-haves that you can work on later once you’re generating a modest amount of cash flow: a website, business cards, a corporate entity. Your initial focus should be on getting client #1. Sure, you can work on the other business admin things, but they shouldn’t be your first priority.
To get started, you should be spending more than 50% of your time finding that first client.
How do you get your first client?
To get a client, you need some leads. A lead in this case, is a person or company that is interested in getting some work done – which could be a brand new website or application, or additional work on an existing project. Start building a list of leads.
Are you already known to friends and colleagues as a skilled web developer? If so, you may have already been contacted at some point by someone asking for help. If so, congrats, you’ve got a lead! Follow up and engage with this person.
What if no one is currently requesting your services? Then, my friend, you need to get proactive. You need to hustle.
How do you hustle?
Let’s look at some definitions of hustle. “To move or act energetically and rapidly.” “To sell, promote, or publicize aggressively or vigorously”. This is the hustle I’m referring to. “Hustle” also has many other definitions, some with illicit connotations, like to sell drugs or stolen goods, or to swindle and deceive people. Just to be clear, that’s not the kind of hustlin’ we’re talking about. This is all about getting more assertive with communicating, making connections, and asking for business. In other words, anything but wasting time.
If you’ve been comfortably working away in a bubble on whatever you’ve been asked to work on for your previous employer, you might not yet have experience with this world. It’s time to get out of the bubble and start talking to people.
Clarify your offering
You need to let people know what services you’re offering, and spread the word that you’re available for work. Before you start initiating contact with people, you should put together some talking points. Start by putting together a list of the kinds of things you can do. Bear in mind your audience when you build this list. Are you talking to technical people, business people, creative people? Know your audience and tailor the list to them. If you plan on going after multiple kinds of people, build multiple lists.
For the technical list – do you have a LinkedIn profile with a list of technical skills and endorsements? If so, you can start there. Work on any open source projects? That’s even better. Flesh it out, but emphasize the things you’re best at. No one is awesome at everything, so don’t depict yourself as a grab bag of every possible technical skill. Pick the things you’re best at and that you actually like doing, and emphasize those. Balance that with what’s actually in demand. Don’t just stop at the keyword. You should have examples you can talk about. “I do HTML5” is not a good example. “I’ve used HTML5 to build responsive designs that look just as great on PCs as they do on tablets and mobile phones” is better. Having numbers is best. How many people use your open source project? How many more visitors (absolutes and percentages) from mobile devices are you getting on your website now that you’ve implemented that new whiz-bang responsive HTML5 design?
For the business list – think of the past projects you worked on. What did you contribute? Did you improve the project? How did you move the needle for the business? Improve sales or conversions in any way? Do any A/B testing that quantifiably improved something? That kind of stuff is extra-awesome. Start collecting some metrics that you can tout.
For the creative list – what kind of unique, innovative projects have you worked on? How did they do things differently? Any unique ways of navigating the site? New paradigms for conveying information? Simplify something previously complex? Did you work with other creative people and help realize their vision? Have visual examples.
Now that you’ve got a list of services you can offer, who do you offer it to? Where do you find these people? Many places. Web development is in demand. Here’s some ideas:
- Previous Colleagues
These are some of your best initial connections. They already know you and your abilities. Let them know you’re available for work, should they know of any. They might not right now, but next week a new project may appear on their horizon and you might come up as a potential do-er of said project. They’re also good people to ask to write LinkedIn testimonials for you.
- Local Meetup Social Hour
Do you live in a city? Then there are probably some meetups you can and should attend. I live in Portland, Oregon, where there are technical, business, and creative meetups happening on a daily basis. You can find these on sites like meetup.com, and local sites like calagator.org, which is specific to Portland. Not every group is on meetup.com though. There’s probably a website or three with a calendar of professional events happening in your town. Don’t have a local group that discusses technical/business/creative topic X? Start one! I’ve done this three times. It’s great, and gets everyone coming to you.
Many times these group meetings are split into two halves. The speaker presentation(s) for the month, and the social mixer component. If you’re looking for work, the social component is your priority. It might be beforehand or afterwards in the lobby, or it might take place at a bar nearby. Many times this is actually more interesting and fun than the scheduled presentation. What you want to do here is simply walk up to or sit by people you don’t already know, say hello and introduce yourself, and ask what they do. Let them know what you do. If there’s any common interest, or it seems like they might be valuable to know in the future, ask for their contact info, like a twitter handle or an email address. When the conversation wanes, say “it was great to meet you,” move on and repeat!
You don’t want to be wasting time, so don’t just find the person you already know and hang out with them the entire time. Split up and meet new people. And since you spent the time to come here, set a quantifiable goal, such as exchanging contact info with at least five people. If you’re new to doing this, you can start slow and build up to it, but it’s hustle time. Get out there and chat it up. Remember there’s no pressure here. You’re not out to find that one person who’s going to lead to some work, you’re just practicing meeting people, and building your network. Have nice casual conversations and move on. Then follow up with them later with a short email, or an @ reply on Twitter. Get used to doing it regularly so it becomes automatic, and no big deal.
- Local Meetup Presentations
This is a step up from social hour. Do you have some topic you can talk about for 5-15 minutes that would be interesting to the members of some group? It’s a great way to make yourself the central topic of conversation, and get people coming to you afterwards to ask follow up questions. You can also post your slides online, and the video if one was recorded. (Hint: use screencast software to record one yourself.) Posting presentation decks and videos online gets you a lot of mileage over time, and it makes you look like an expert on that topic.
- Online Forums
Google groups is a good one. Meetup.com also. Again I recommend starting local. Find where local people are having discussions online and hang out there. It’s easier to start an initial business relationship if you have the ability to meet up face to face, at least once or twice to get started. So find groups related to what you do, preferably local to your area. Technical groups frequently have job postings from companies or individuals looking for skilled people. Each of these is a lead. If they match up with what you’re offering, email them.
You should have a twitter account where people can find you. Something short that you can tell people while talking, and write on a name tag. You should post there regularly, about what your working on. You can also share links you find interesting. You should follow interesting people and engage with them as well – replying and retweeting. BUT remember, you need to primarily be working. Don’t let Twitter take over your mind. There are some good strategies for this. You can get a BufferApp account and queue it up with tweets to go out at measured, regular time intervals. Timebox 15 minutes a day or so to review what others have said, and retweet interesting things. But limit your time here. You need to be producing, not consuming.
It would be good to get one of these if you don’t yet have one. As a technical person, you might view this as a technical project that you need to build from scratch in the new cool language and framework du jour. Nope. Don’t do that! You’re a business person now, who makes smart decisions about the value of their time. Unless you’re in the business of building a better blog engine, or someone is paying you to do it (and even then), working on building a blog engine when you need to get client work is like not working at all.
Just get a standard WordPress blog started. They’ve already solved the blog problem, and there’s a huge thriving ecosystem behind it. So many useful plugins and themes, and constant security updates. Host it somewhere you don’t even have to think about the hosting. I use Dreamhost. They keep it updated with the latest version automatically. Timebox this. It should take you two hours max to get setup and online. You can tweak it later.
I also recommend getting your own domain, vs being on the domain of the latest hosted blog platform out there. You’re building your own brand and creating your own content now, not bolstering someone else’s.
Once it’s setup, link it to your Twitter profile, LinkedIn, etc. Then set a goal to post about one interesting, useful thing a week to start. Make a content plan: a list of potential blog post ideas, and start outlining them. Set aside an hour or two per week to bang it out. Get a friend or two to review it and use the feedback to make adjustments before you show it to the entire world. Schedule the post to go live in the morning of the next day. Schedule a tweet to go out at the same time. When you feel you’ve really knocked a post out of the park, submit it to forums like Hacker News and Reddit, or others more specific to what you’re talking about. Start building an audience.
Have some savings
When you’re first getting started, you won’t have any momentum yet. You need to spend some time getting the ball rolling, and learning how to make things work. There might not be any immediate action, aka money coming in. It’s ideal to have some money saved before you take the plunge into freelance. Like three to six months worth, because it takes time to get started and build momentum. If you don’t have any savings, stay gainfully employed and start doing this on the side so you don’t go broke. Understandably, you might not always have a choice, if for example, your current company is going under. In that case, use your best judgement to decide if now is the right time to go freelance. You want to be thinking rationally, not in a panic about paying the bills.
Get a peer group
If you’re used to being around co-workers and heading out on your own, it can get lonely. You’ll still need a group to talk shop with. Find some people that are doing the same thing. Being around other motivated, successful people in pursuit of similar goals goes a long way towards helping you succeed. If everyone in your current professional peer group is employed by a company, they’re good connections for work, but not necessarily going to be the best motivators. Keep them, but also find some other people who are already freelancing, and go to lunch or out for drinks. Find or start a mastermind group.
All of the things I’ve listed here are things to do regularly and repeatedly. Your overall goal here is to boost your professional profile and visibility.
A single burst of energy is not going to fill your inbox with potential clients. Instead, pick a few simple things to do on a regular basis, and keep it up.
Make a list for yourself, and set daily and weekly reminders so you don’t forget. Make the list short and simple to start. Like two or three key things to do regularly. Here’s an example list you can use:
- Attend one meetup per week. Exchange contact info with 3-5 new people.
- Write one blog entry, and a few tweets per week. Preferably something meaningful and useful to others.
- Make personal contact with one to three people per week. Meet someone for lunch, send them an email, reply to them on Twitter, etc.
Don’t give up
Starting freelancing is like starting any other new job. The first six months are a time of intense learning. There’s a lot to learn. It takes time and patience. It doesn’t happen over night. The secret is to just keep at it. Take one day at a time and set short achievable milestones for yourself. There are ton of other topics that can be covered about freelancing, such as pricing and creating proposals. But that comes later. Before you can focus on those things, you have to focus on finding the people who need work done. Network and meet people. Business requires two parties. You are one. Find the other. Have fun!