Many web developers dream of being their own boss—and why not? As a freelancer, you have the freedom to select the types of clients and projects you want to work on, set your own hours, and even enlist the help of other developers and designers by starting your own web development firm.
But there are a few things you should know before you decide to go the freelancer route.
For instance, while there is plenty of work to go around (the global market for website builders is projected to reach $2.7 billion by 2026), there are over 127,000 professionals fighting for the attention of clients in the U.S. alone. That can potentially create a race to the bottom when it comes to fees, with developers progressively lowering their bids in order to match an aggressive market. If you want to avoid your services being viewed as a commodity, you might want to establish yourself as a true expert and/or focus on an in-demand specialty.
With that in mind, here are the keys to setting yourself apart and turning your passion for web development and self-employment into a successful business.
Get Some Experience Under Your Belt
Although it’s possible to go straight into freelancing, spending a year or two in a high-octane creative environment like a web development agency or studio greatly increases your chances of success.
It really depends on how you want to position yourself, noted Brad Hussey, designer and marketing consultant and founder of Freelancing Freedom. For instance, if you want to subcontract or work on a temporary basis with existing web development teams, you don’t necessarily need full-time experience as a freelance web developer.
On the other hand, if you want to position yourself as an independent expert or start your own firm, you’ll need to identify a niche and figure out how to market yourself and price your services, among other things.
Freelancing is a business. Unless you cut your teeth in a staff web development role, you may not have enough context to make the right business decisions, noted Tim Noetzel, freelancer and founder of Freelance GPS.
For example, if you start out in an agency, you’ll get the opportunity to work with different clients and experience the entire project lifecycle while you save up some money, assess your risk tolerance, and plan your exit strategy. Along the way, you may discover that web design or project management isn’t your strength. It's best to learn these things sooner rather than later.
Analyze and Define Your Target Market
Speaking of business decisions, your ability to build a base of customers who understand, need and value your services will ultimately determine how successful your foray into freelancing will be.
But if you prefer to work on larger projects with clients who are easy to sell to, stay within the scope of work and value your services, your best bet is to specialize in a particular industry such as law, healthcare, financial services, retail, or higher education. You can also focus on skills specialization; for instance, marketing yourself as an expert in the trickier aspects of front- or back-end development.
For instance, Noetzel specializes in conversion rate optimization and user retention because those align with clients’ revenue objectives. He also prefers to work with startups because they are tech-first companies and tend to make decisions quickly.
The truth is that specializing in building dynamic web applications using WordPress with React isn’t a differentiator. Specializing in helping clients solve their most burning business issues is the key to gaining an advantage over competitors and avoiding the commodity trap, Noetzel says.
Once you have a clear idea of your ideal client, don’t be afraid to make some noise. Connect with them through referrals, job boards, content marketing, contributing to open-source projects and building a strong online presence via your website, blog, portfolio and GitHub accounts.
Finally, develop a pricing plan that charges a premium for your services without scaring customers away. You’ll also need to craft policies for handling onboarding, changes in the scope of work, and so on. You don’t want to learn these things the hard way.
Master Premium Skills
While proficiency with base-level technical skills is a must for any freelance web developer, Hussey says that becoming familiar with no-code design tools and platforms can increase your efficiency and position you for future success, especially if you want to launch your own firm. Specifically, he recommends learning Editor X and Wix.
What’s another differentiator? Soft skills. In fact, he says that freelancers who have excellent communication skills and empathy tend to get way more work.
Freelancers are required to do more than write code; they need to gather requirements, write proposals, send updates, negotiate rates, sell their ideas, and, in some cases, hire and manage people.
When you consider that freelancers can spend up to 50 percent of their day marketing and communicating, it’s easy to see why investing in soft skills training can greatly pay off long-term in the form of increased productivity, client retention and conversion, referrals and more.
Don’t Be an Island
Surrounding yourself with successful pros is another key to making an effective transition.
Connecting with a group of peers, experts and trainers can help you see what success looks like and may yield collaborators, client referrals, overflow work and access to free tools. Tapping into the success of others over coffee can lift the fog and be empowering. You may discover that there’s enough room at the table for another great freelance web developer.