How I Got Started as a Freelancer Web Developer

Last updated on January 1st, 2021

I’ve been freelancing for the past two years, and it’s allowed me to travel in more than 15 countries while working remotely. When I initially left to travel, I was living in New York City. I got the idea to work remotely and travel after I returned from a short trip to Colombia. I wanted to stay longer, but instead, I took a long bus down the north coast of Colombia to catch my flight back home.

My freelance story is relatively straightforward. I want to highlight some key tips that I wish someone told me when I was transitioning into a freelance career.

How I transitioned from a full-time job into owning a small business

After working full-time for a company for almost three years, I was ready to solve new problems and learn something new. Doing the same thing over and over again starts to feel comfortable, and I was prepared to find a new challenge. In my previous role, I would work on the same domain, use the same frameworks and solve the same problems every day. I didn’t have a clear path for my future professional development, and I wanted to grow as an individual.

While I was working full-time, I explored which types of projects there were for me. I struggled to find any short-term work, and found that any significant projects required too much of a time commitment. I always bounced back and forth between going deeper into the front-end stack at my job and learning another skill that I could charge money for outside of my day job.

I found a lot of extra time when I moved to Europe and worked remotely. Because of the time zone difference, my daily standup would start at 4 pm, my time. Now I was in a situation where I was able to wake up, go for a run, meet new people and start to think of other projects that I could work on. I worked on my personal site, I brainstormed a ton of side project ideas and I hit the freelance job board hard. Two months into the search, I came up empty-handed.

I started networking and found a friend traveling who had a marketing agency. We talked, and I decided to help his agency with web development for 5-10 hours per week. This allowed me to start learning how to budget my time, how to make an invoice and how to balance two jobs. This was a crucial step in my transition because a few months later, I received an email out of the blue from another friend who worked for another agency.

This second agency wanted me to work on a big project for a major brand. Sweet! The project sounded simple, and the scope was vague. I thought about how much time it would take me to finish the project, create a proposal and I was off! Big mistake. The project scope blew up and what I thought I could finish in one month took me three. After a lot of hard work, I closed out the first contract and started a new scope of work that was more appropriately matched with how much time I was spending on the project.

Right at the end of the first scope of work, another friend reached out and wanted me to help with a project for a startup. Sweet! The scope was well-defined, I created a proposal, and I was off! After being somewhat burned on how to properly scope a project, I knew the right questions to ask and felt that I was compensated for the correct amount of work. Lesson learned.

Alright, at this point I was working on two large freelance projects on top of my full-time job. This was okay because my daily stand-ups were still at 4 pm. At this point in time, my day looked like this: Wake up, work on client #1, work on client #2, switch gears into full-time work, work straight through dinner, wrap up full-time work, wrap up anything I was behind with on client #1 or #2 and go to sleep thinking about work. I repeated this cycle every day. This wasn’t sustainable for very long after two months of nonstop work. I had to fix that.

I signed two contracts that would compensate me for my same full-time salary for the next six months. This is what I wanted, right? Kind of. I left my full-time job to pursue my freelance business. I was confident in my ability to finish the projects, but what I didn’t realize was that a freelancer has a lot of responsibility. A freelancer is in charge of invoicing, benefits, taxes, business development, project management and so much more. This was all new to me and finding answers took countless hours of research and peer interviews in order to get more information.

Easier said than done, but I found a workflow that allowed me to freelance for some clients and in-house contract for others. I continued this pattern for about a year, and slowly scaled back the work for those clients. Now, those clients no longer exist for me, and for the first time, I’m able to take a step back and evaluate the direction that I want to take with the business. That is fancy terms for “not having any major clients.”

How I found my first freelance client

Networking. Everybody says this, and you’ll find the advice in most articles and books; networking is key. However, no one tells you how to do this. . Networking worked for me and was the only way for how I was able to find “real jobs” as a freelancer. I tried all of the gig sites, like Upwork, Fiverr and more. I applied to so many part-time jobs on LinkedIn and all of the job sites that I could find. I heard nothing except for crickets, in the night, because I was applying for gigs and jobs well into the night.

How can you network? What does that even mean?

Networking is talking to people and making your skills well-known. Think about standing in front of a room of strangers and saying, “Hey! I’m a web developer and here’s why I’m amazing.” You can work on open-source projects. You can reach out to friends and see if they have any ideas that you can help them with. You can be active on social media and make connections with people in and around your field of interest. You can keep in touch with old coworkers and let them know that you’re available for work. You can host and attend meetups. You can make coffee dates with managers, peers and owners of companies that you admire. Really anything. Be a nice human and get yourself out there!

In a mix of all of the things above, I had two friends reach out to me because they needed help on projects with their current employers. Everyone will have a different experience and will find jobs that fit their personalities. For me, this is how I did it!

How to set expectations with your freelance clients

After you’ve gotten your freelance work all lined up, setting expectations is the most important thing to work on. Proper expectations help protect you and the client from agreeing on a conflicting ideas. You don’t want the client to expect “ABCDEFG,” and you only thought you were building “ABC.” For me, I define my expectations with detailed proposals and functionality documents. Let’s create a client that wants a website made for the local coffee shop.

In my initial project expectations scope, I’ll define that the website will include a functional photo gallery, a contact form that sends an email and a landing page that tells the coffee shop’s story and displays the hours of operation. I’ll identify blockers and milestones. The client must provide all of the site copy for me, in order for me to finish the project on time. If they don’t send the copy before the copy milestone, I let them know at the start of the project that the launch date will be delayed.

There are tons of different examples, and every project is different. It’s important to think about as much of the project timeline as possible. When I didn’t properly scope one of my freelance projects, I ended up doing more work than I was compensated for. The next time I was approached with a vague project, I knew not to move forward until I had the details.

What to do when you have no active freelance work

Instead of thinking about a weekly paycheck, I think about how much money I earn in a year. I enjoy lapses in work because it gives me time to work on personal projects and catch up on business housekeeping. If you are effective in your networking and you do good work, projects will find you.

Another thing that I do in my downtime is work on personal projects. I have a growing library of stock photos that make me money every month. Whenever I get a spare minute, I try to add to that collection. I like to use my extra time to work on projects that provide some passive income value. This, of course, is easy to go overboard with and it’s not hard to spend all of your time making no money. That’s another topic for another day.

Is it worth creating an LLC for yourself?

Having an LLC has allowed me to create a clear separation between my personal assets and my business assets. The most important thing to note is that it protects both of those asset sides. If you were ever in a situation where a client took legal action on you, they would only be able to take as much as the business is worth.

I have a business banking account with my company name. It has a checking account and a credit card. All of my invoices get paid through that bank account, and it’s easy to track how much the business earned and how much I’ve earned outside of the business.

If you’re ready to take this step, research your state of incorporation and talk to an accountant who specializes in small businesses. My approach worked for me, but might not work for you.

Working with time zones when you work remotely

When you work freelance and travel, time zones start to become a new challenge to navigate. Let’s say that I’m traveling in Vietnam and I’m working for a client in Florida. My 7 pm is the client’s 7 am on the same day. Most of the client’s workday takes place while I’m sleeping and vice versa.

When you start a project, be sure to communicate this very early on so that the client knows when the best time to reach you is. Setting up meetings around those times are ideal so that there aren’t too many gaps in when changes or updates get communicated.

You can use tools like World Time Buddy and you can set a secondary timezone in your Google Calendar. Those tools have helped me stay organized, create meetings and have helped me to be mindful of my coworkers and clients’ time.

Do you have to work remotely to be a freelancer?

You don’t have to work remotely to be a freelancer. For my first six months of freelancing, I worked remotely full-time for an employer. I lived in New York City for a full year before leaving to travel again. During that year time, I was in-house contracting for a company. I worked on this contract in addition to more freelance work.

In my opinion, being a successful freelancer means that you’re comfortable accommodating various kinds of work situations and being flexible. Location is one of those accommodating factors that helps provide value to clients.

Is freelancing right for you?

Everything that I’ve written above has helped me become the freelancer that I am today. I can’t say if I’ll be a freelancer forever, but it’s been a way to sustain myself for the past two years. I’ve learned more about business, different technologies, client management, project management and so many other topics.

Without freelancing, I can’t say if I would have accumulated those skills as fast as I did. If all of this sounds good to you, I encourage you to give freelancing a try!

First published on January 28, 2019