So you're thinking about becoming a freelance web developer. Maybe you're tired of the same old job every day, and want more variety in your work. Maybe you're looking for a better work-life balance, or want to be your own boss. Or maybe a traditional full-time position doesn't fit with your lifestyle, but you'd still like to build a portfolio, expand your skills, and get paid to do it. Self-employment is looking like a good option, but you're not sure where to start.
I found myself in your position not long ago, and have since started freelancing as a part-time gig to pay the bills while my startup is still in its infancy. I'm still learning the ins, outs, ups, and downs of the freelance world, but I've been lucky enough to have picked up a lot of great tips along the way—and am here to share them with you (and keep your stumbling to a minimum as you navigate this new realm).
Before you start delving into the multitudes of advice columns on how to build a business and make money as a freelance web developer, you need to decide if it's the right path for you.
I chose to freelance because I had full-time responsibilities already, having founded my website, WorthWild.com, but I wanted to keep developing my skills while making money on the side. Freelancing gives me the freedom to keep honing my craft while I work on my passion project. Plus, I've found it's incredibly rewarding to lend my skills to others who are building new products or features and need a skilled hand.
Additionally, freelancing is great because:
Right now, there is a high demand for web developers throughout the world, and a short supply of qualified candidates. This means there are lots of gigs to be had, and you have a little wiggle room in terms of which ones you shoot for.
It's never mundane, unless you want it to be. Once you get going, you'll get a constant flow of new projects to work on. You'll often have more than one project going at once, and you'll never be stuck in a rut. You'll also meet lots of interesting clients, some with crazy ideas, and some with more humdrum or practical tasks. The projects you can choose from are as diverse as people in the world. As you build your portfolio, you can decide exactly what kinds of projects you want to specialize in and focus on what interests you most.
You're your own boss. Ultimately, you choose which clients you'll take, what hours you'll work, and how much you'll get paid. Note each can have limiting factors: For instance, the hours you work may affect which clients you can work with, but ultimately, you get to choose.
You choose how much you work and how much you play. When you run a home-based freelancing business, if you want to take some time off for your family, as long as you don't have a client waiting on a project, you don't need to ask permission. Take a vacation, or take a long weekend. As long as you can pay the bills, you're free as a bird.
You have freedom in where you work. This can vary from project to project, but in general, if you have a phone, WiFi, and a laptop, you're free to go anywhere to get your work done. That means you can work from home, on the road, in a coffee shop, or in a shared work space. You get to pick where you're most comfortable and productive.
Before becoming a freelancer, be aware of potential pitfalls:
Working in a traditional full-time web development role at an established company can give you the opportunity for structured learning, plus everyday exposure to mentors, experts, and best practices you likely won't get as a freelancer (at least not without making the effort to track them down). Even if you ultimately want to end up in a freelance position, it's worth considering developing your skills in a more traditional setting before leaping into the unknown. You'll be more marketable if you've built a decent portfolio and have some experience working in web development before you start freelancing. You'll also have a higher skill level and quality of work to share with your clients.
Freelancing can be extremely stressful, especially when you first start out. Clients can be unreliable, jobs fall through, payments don't come as quickly as you'd like them to. In the beginning, especially while you’re building your portfolio and finding clients, you probably won't have a steady flow of cash coming in. Your day to day may be very emotionally taxing.
You may end up working odd hours in order to make yourself available for your client's schedules. Flexible hours are a luxury for well-established freelancers. When you first start out, you may work weekends and nights instead of 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. like you planned. If that's when your clients are working, that's when you'll be working. Once you have an established client base and a quality referral network, you can be pickier, but certainly at first, you'll be taking what you can get.
You won't get vacation or sick days, employer-covered health insurance, or 401k matching.
Just like any other job, there are a varying benefits and drawbacks to freelance work. If you can handle uncertainty and pressure, self-employment may be a good choice for your career. If you're looking for mentorship or training, and aren't prepared to pull out all the stops to make it happen on your own, you'll probably be happier working with a team at an established company. What matters most in your decision is what parts of your work (or the work you want) you value most. Think about how you want your work to fit into your life, and go from there.
Cori Snedecor is a graduate of Launch Academy.