Becoming a freelance web developer

Working for someone else isn’t for everyone. Despite the fact that it’s your hard work that is filling the pockets of another person, the web allows you to work from anywhere in the world where you can get a decent internet connection, work the hours you want instead of the traditional nine to five, and be proud to say your your own boss.

It sounds like a dream, images of being sat on some far away beach with a Pina Colada in one hand and the mouse in the other is often what draws people into the dream of working self employed, and whilst this is possible, there are a few skills you need to make sure you have before jumping in head first and giving up the security of that regular nine till five job.

What skills do I need to be come a freelance web developer?

The first and most obvious is the ability to create websites or whatever it is you intend to sell. Not just the design end, and not just the back end, you will need to be able to do them all if you have any chance of surviving and making this a long term possibility. You won’t be able to just get on the phone or have a word with the senior developer about anything you may be having difficulty with, you will have your knowledge and Google to assist you, nothing more. Unless your confident in your abilities, you may well struggle to make working freelance pay as you could find yourself spending half your day trying to find a bug in your code, and until you have, you cannot move on. If this happens three or four times in a week, then that’s a couple of days gone and there will be little progress, meaning you earn less and your client may not be impressed with the amount of work you can produce on a daily basis.

The second skill required is the ability to be a salesman and close those deals. You might already be a fantastic designer and developer, you could create highly polished and slick code, but unless you can sell it to a potential client than it’s off little use as no one is going to choose you. You will quickly find that there is a huge variety of potential clients out there, some are highly technical but need people like yourself as they just don’t have the time to write all the code themselves, whereas others may be extremely naive about what goes into a project, and say they want this, and they want that with no real understanding of how it is made, or the amount of work required to create their vision. Often I have had clients who after I have created them the website they wanted, suddenly decide they want to be able to add content themselves “Just so I can put up some bits and bobs about what I’m doing” they say. Sounds simple to most clients, almost trivial, but they fail to realize what started out as a nice and simple static website which would of required zero maintenance now all of sudden now needs a database being developed and all the scripts to properly enter and extract that data from the database, and don’t even get me started on the sanitizing and filtering it will require because you can be sure that they’ll start trying to insert characters which should never appear in a database, five hundred word articles into that 255 character VARCHAR or something else, and it’s you they’ll be moaning at when it doesn’t work as they expected. “It was simple” they say, “It’s only a few words”.

This bring me onto a very important point, commonly termed requirements creep. It is absolutely vital to sit down and formalize what the customer’s website/project will do and what it won’t. These should be written out in a clear and concise document and be approved by both you and the client/shareholder’s. It is all too easy like I mentioned for the client to see something they like out on the web and just quickly mention they would like that too, failing to realize that’s another three days work, at which point you may have to throw away work you have already produced and start again.

Financial and accounting

Whether you plan to work as a self employed sole trader, or start your own web development company, each jurisdiction has it’s own laws and rules about the accounts you must keep in order to satisfy the tax man. Your going to have to keep records, often many years from now on what you have been paid, what you have spend money on, and any assets you or your company holds.

Advertising

With no clients, you make no money, so getting prospective customers is of paramount importance. You may live in the East, so wages paid on freelance sites such as oDesk and Fiverr may pay you enough to provide the lifestyle it is you seek, but if you live in the West, than having to compete with people who are just as skilled as you, but are able to work for a lot less than you can survive on can make things unworkable and disheartening. This is where advertising comes into play and finding the clients who are willing to pay a fair rate for your country/economy.

It is a great idea to contact local businesses and groups directly and offer your web development services to them. Many are willing to pay the extra to have someone who is accessible to them locally and able to converse in the same language as well. I have found lot’s of clients in the past by cold calling in person to local shops and saying that I work just down the road and was wondering if they would be interested in a new website for their store. They are not aware that they could head to oDesk and simply employ someone for $5 per hour half way across the world, so grab any opportunities like these with both hands, because if they are happy with your work then it is you they will come to next time, and also you to whom they will recommend to friends, colleagues and family alike. Be the “go to” guy and you’ll have a customer for life.