Synthesis : Scott Becker

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.

Finding people

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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, and local sites like, which is specific to Portland. Not every group is on 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Online Forums

    Google groups is a good one. 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.

  5. Twitter

    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.

  6. Blog

    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:

  1. Attend one meetup per week. Exchange contact info with 3-5 new people.
  2. Write one blog entry, and a few tweets per week. Preferably something meaningful and useful to others.
  3. 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!

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How to learn web development

My friend Kevin wrote a post on advice for new programmers, as it applies to a research/academic environment. It’s good advice, go read it. It got me thinking about how I’ve learned to improve and become a better programmer over the years, and the best things that helped that. For me, I was lucky enough to bootstrap myself into a programming job towards the beginning of college, and ended up learning most of the fundamentals while getting paid to do so on the job. Certainly learning in an academic setting is nice as well, like having the ability to pick a topic and go deep on it without worries of it affecting your paycheck, or necessarily needing to ship a product at the end of your research. But nothing galvanizes the mind like having to complete something in order to get paid! So, one piece of advice to beginners is to try getting a job or internship at a company where you must actually ship a product. It’ll force you to build stuff that works.

Learn your tools. Certainly learning to use tools such as source control, debuggers, and editors makes a huge improvement in workflow.

Read books. There is gold in them. My first web development job was the direct result of picking up a book and teaching myself basic ASP. These days, more and more is on the internet, so you can learn without getting the physical books, so, read PDFs. But actually read them. This is easy and just takes persistence to complete.

Be an apprentice. An even bigger deal early on was working with others who were more experienced than me and picking up how they did things.

Teach. Once you’ve learned how to do something, teach it to the newbies in your company or school. Give talks. A great way to learn something is to explain it to others. It will force you to figure out enough to know what your talking about.

Do a lot of work. Nothing beats experience. Wins, failures, learning what worked and what didn’t, learning how to logically solve problems, how to focus, how to think of the bigger picture.

Communicate. Don’t focus solely on technical skills and neglect personal communication skills. Learn to talk to customers, manage projects, lead meetings, delegate tasks and manage others.

Participate in open source projects, and do something that won’t actually make you money. It might lead to it later on, but in the meantime you’ll become known and get to know others outside your company or school, which is always a good thing.

Socialize. There’s likely at least a handful of monthly groups in your town. Go to them. You will take away new ideas and meet interesting people, who will think of you when their company is looking for more people. Many developers make the mistake of getting comfortable in their cozy job and never going out to events or talking to other developers. That’s fine, but I think it leads to stagnation in skills as well as motivation. Go to a larger conference once in a while. Seeing others at the top of their game in your industry will get you all fired up and want to go kick ass.

Be full stack. Learn all the things! In fact, just enjoy learning. It’s a life long goal. Learn multiple operating systems. Especially Unix – the command line, installing packages, how to set up a server, etc. Learn SQL. Be able to write it by hand, it’s really not that hard. Learn HTML, CSS, and Javascript. Learn Photoshop and Illustrator. Learn multiple programming languages: C, Ruby, JavaScript, Lisp. The more the better. I guarantee the hot language today will be the old boring language in two to five years. But the good thing is, most code sticks around, so demand for the old boring languages never goes away. Or at least diminishes slowly.

Go deep in a few things, go broad on everything else. Over the years I’ve shifted from design to development, so early on I went deep with Photoshop and Illustrator, then later got more heavy into the development side of things, starting with Photoshop, then HTML, ASP, SQL, then moving on from there to a million other things.

So, just do all that, and you’ll be good to go! No problem, right? It’s a life long journey.

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Asset Packager – Rails 3 / Ruby 1.9 Compatible

Hello! Here is a long overdue update to Asset Packager, which now makes the main branch Rails 3 and Ruby 1.9 compatible. Thanks to all those on Github who sent me patches with these fixes.


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All About Sammy

Got another quick presentation for ya. I discovered Sammy yesterday. I gave a quick talk about it today. That’s how easy it is to understand!

Sammy is a tiny, client-side JavaScript framework, created by the obviously brilliant Aaron Quint, built on jQuery, and inspired by the server-side Ruby framework Sinatra. It’s the minimalist’s framework for RIAs. You know, those uber rich internet applications. Single page, no refresh apps. Like Gmail. Except without all those kilobytes you may or may not ever need. Sammy is 7kb, minified. And gzipped? You won’t even know you downloaded it.

Watch the preso for more…

All About Sammy

View more presentations from Scott Becker.

If you want to learn more about Sammy, check out Aaron’s blog post which has a nice introduction and screencast.

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Agile JavaScript Testing

A couple weeks ago, I gave a talk at the Open Source Bridge conference in Portland Oregon on Agile JavaScript Testing.

In this presentation, I first gave an overview of Test Driven Development for those front-end JS developers who might not have heard of it yet (!) and then the difference of TDD vs. Behavior Driven Development.

I then walked through some tools:

In the actual presentation I even did some live coding examples of Blue Ridge and JS Test Driver, and they worked perfectly. Here are the slides from the talk:

Agile JavaScript Testing

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SproutCore Slides

Here are the slides for the presentation I gave the other week at the Portland JavaScript Admirers meeting: SproutCore – A Next Generation JavaScript Framework. It is an overview of some of the key features I think make SproutCore unique and very useful. There was also video recorded which should hopefully appear online soon. I plan to do another SproutCore focused talk with a walkthrough of a full backend-connected application.

SproutCore – A Next Gen JavaScript Framework

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Starting Fresh, Without the Big Rewrite

If you’re working on a project with a couple years of code under it’s belt, you may have moments of desire to completely throw the whole thing out and start anew. But, if you’re working for someone else, you know that your boss or client probably won’t like that. After all, he’s paying you to finish feature A! But, you lament, feature A builds on top of feature B that already exists but is written in a terribly unidiomatic, pre-TDD, pre-REST way, way before you or someone else learned the dark arts of coding mastery. Legacy code, argh!

So what should you do? What are your options? A) Ignore the problem and build the new feature on top of the existing badly written code. Watch things get even worse. B) Try to quickly fix the badly written code in-place so you can get on with it. Trigger cascading test failures, and palm your face. C) Start over and rewrite the entire project, get fired for being 6 months late on your estimate. None of these sound any good!

I think I may have found a solution that works for me, especially with Rails.

Start a fresh Rails project. Boom! It’s fresh and clean. Now you have room to work. The beauty of Rails is how quick it is to get started. Choose the aspect of the project you want to work on. Got some legacy code thats bugging you? TDD/BDD it from scratch, the Right Way. The idiomatic, Rails Way. Once you get it to the point where it’s working correctly and passing all tests, you can merge the new code into the main project, replacing the older, ugly, what-were-they-thinking legacy code that was getting in the way.

Now you can work in a clean environment and just focus on the problem at hand. This allows you to make progress quickly, and get rid of the old crap without having to completely start from scratch.

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AssetPackager update

A long overdue update of AssetPackager is finally here:

Get the latest at

Thanks to the many forkers for ideas and solutions.

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AssetPackager Tracker

Asset Packager now has a tracker where you can submit tickets. You can find it here.

If you have a bug to report, and/or a patch for Asset Packager, this is the place.

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WeoGeo – AWS Startup Challenge Finalist

My company WeoGeo made it to the final round of the Amazon Web Services Startup Challenge. In the top 7 out of around 1000 entrants, not too shabby.

Check out the videos for the finalists, and vote for WeoGeo!

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