A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Your First Web Development Client

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Freelancing is a seductive work option. You get to control your time, your income and your career. You also get to control your skill set. You accept the projects that will help you grow and decline projects that will not. This is one of the reasons that some web developers make it a career goal to eventually freelance.

But just like everything else in life those things that appeal to us always have a cost. As the saying goes, there is no free lunch.

Are you dreaming of cutting loose from the cubicle and joining the freelancer corps? If so, here are some steps you need to follow in order to do it right.

Getting That First Job

Here’s a little groundwork. Before you think about your first job, you need to consider the costs of freelancing. If you are single, the risk is lower, but if you have a family, then you need more time to plan and save.

Shoot to have six months of living expenses and a number of clients and projects under your belt before you quit your job. Here are some tips on doing just that.

Co-Opt Professional Experience

If you are already holding down a job, check with your boss to see if it is okay to use some of the work you’ve created for that company. Never assume that since you worked on it that it is okay to add to your freelance portfolio.

Start with Personal Projects

More than likely you are spending your spare time on a pet project. If not, start one now. A good place to start is with building your own website. That can be the very first site you point to when people ask to see your work. In addition, a pet project is a great time to experiment and build new experiences into your portfolio.

Work for Family and Friends

Unless you have a superb relationship with a relative or friend, I wouldn’t recommend charging for your work. Relationships change when money passes between hands. Instead, use this opportunity to pad your portfolio. You need experience more than you need money if you are just starting out. And make sure you do a darn good job. Don’t slack off because this is a family member or friend. They are the gateway to more work—so give them exceptional treatment.

Approach Membership Organizations

Make a list of all of the organizations you belong to. This could be social groups like the Boy Scouts, sports clubs or even charities. More than likely these organizations will not have any money to give you in exchange for your work. That’s fine. However, make sure there are clear expectations on what is to be done—and make sure you are working with someone who is devoted to the project. There is nothing worse than working on a project without a designated lead. That project will only languish.

Check with Local Organizations

Once you’ve contacted all of the organizations you are involved in, check with other organizations and businesses around your city. Join the Chamber of Commerce, visit your library, ask labor union halls, check in at the community college and talk to the people at city hall. The nice thing about getting work from universities or government institutions is that you’ll also get an authority link to your personal site once the work is done.

Patronize Local Businesses

One thing I like to do is get to know local restaurant business owners by eating regularly at their establishments. They may not have work for me, but they pass my name on to those who do. You can do this for other business where you frequent.
The above list is not exhaustive, but the essence is simply to let everyone know you are available to do work. Talk to neighbors and relatives, friends and strangers—in other words, everyone.

How to Keep the Momentum Going

So, you’ve closed the books on your first project (as I mentioned above this could be your website for your freelance business). You actually have something to point potential clients to.

If this was a job for a client, make sure you ask for a referral. But after that, how else do you find more clients? How do you keep the momentum going?

Be Everywhere—At All Times

There is a certain magic that occurs when potential clients see you online everywhere. I remember the first time I saw Chris Brogan online five years ago—the guy was everywhere. He tweeted constantly, blogged daily, shot videos regularly (shaving his head) and showed up on countless other blogs. No doubt this is one of the single greatest reasons why he is so successful now. The guy looked like an authority. But it took him ten years. Take the time to tweet, blog, comment on other blogs, answer questions on Quora and do guest posts. The connections you make will pay dividends.

Write Like Mad

Competition is fierce in the freelance world and you need to give potential clients a reason to hire you over another web developer. The key is to make yourself look like an authority, and the best way to do this is to publish authoritative content on your site and get published on other sites. You can also try to get a book published. You can publish it yourself as an e-book you give away, or approach a printing house.

Search Job Boards

While social media is great at attracting attention, it won’t solve all of your marketing problems. You still have to roll up your sleeves and search for jobs. But don’t waste your time on bidding sites like Guru or eLance. Instead, search for “web developer job boards.” Be picky.

Send cold emails

Not to just anybody. But to people or organizations you WANT to work with. Your conversion rate won’t be as high as a lead that comes to you, but what I like about this approach is that your passion for the person or business will sell you. People recognize that and will want to work with people who are passionate about what they do.

Meet warm bodies

Freelancers of all stripes tend to avoid human contact, preferring internet communication. But meeting people at events and conferences will up your networking game and lead to some pretty sweet deals. Fortunately most conferences today in the tech field don’t feel like conferences—they are more like three-day happy hours. Mobile + Web Devcon, CodeCamp and Barcamp are notable examples. Commit to attend non-development type of conferences, too. Choose conferences in industries you want to work.

Partner with an influencer

The key to this strategy is hunting down the key influencer in the market you want to penetrate. Say you want to do work in the micro-brew industry: approach the local brewing pubs and offer an exchange of work. You’ll promote their products if they help promote you. Think of it as a barter system.

Join or Start a LinkedIn Group

One of the most effective uses of LinkedIn that I’ve experienced is through Groups. If you are not familiar with groups, these are nothing more than communities of professionals who share a common interest. People leave comments and ask questions. This keeps the discussion focused and allows you to build a reputation as an authority.

Publish content locally

The beauty of the internet is that you can market your work nationally—even internationally. While this is powerful, indeed, don’t forget about your local market. Try to publish a weekly column in your local newspaper.

Teach a free workshop

Venues like community centers and libraries are always looking for people to offer practical and useful workshops. This is your opportunity to teach a free class on web development, blogging or WordPress.

Run an AdWords Campaign

A good AdWords campaign can drive qualified leads to your website, but this approach is not for the faint of heart. You need good writing skills, a decent understanding of testing procedures and money.

Ask for referrals

Referrals are like gold. They are personal recommendations from people who know you and trust you. Referrals give you immediate credibility with potential clients. This doesn’t mean you can slack off. You still must be on your best behavior—especially if you want more referrals in the future.

Caution: there is a temptation when you are working on a hard project to abandon all efforts to market yourself. Avoid doing that. Spend at least 30% of your time promoting yourself. Never stop marketing when you are busy. You must always keep the pipeline full.

4 Freelancing Precautions—and two Bonus Tips

Okay, now let me shift gears for a moment and offer you some precautionary advice. Most of this advice is of the “Never Do X” variety.

Never Over Commit

The last thing you want to do when starting a freelance business is to fail at your first job, and this usually happens when a web developer doesn’t deliver a good product. The reasons of why this happens are legion, but the point is this: you are in control of delivering a great product, so avoid anything that might hamper you from doing that. Schedule enough time to complete each project so the client is absolutely and one-hundred percent happy. I know it is tempting to take as much work as you can, but don’t do it.

Never Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

The warning above has to do with time constraints. This next warning has everything to do with your skill restraints. These days a web developer can find the resources for any question or challenge he or she might have. However, never accept a job that is several pay grades above you and plan to pick up the skills along the way—UNLESS you communicate this clearly with the client and they understand and agree.

Deliver Majestic Amounts of Customer Service

Here’s my philosophy when it comes to freelancing and getting paid: charge high rates on the premise that you will deliver exceptional service. Like bend-over-backwards type service. If you can’t commit to that, then you probably can’t command high fees. Remember your personal brand includes both customer service and the product. Both should be amazing.

Never Negotiate on Price

Speaking of fees, eventually you’ll have to discuss price with a potential client. While the general rule is to get this out of the way early so you can avoid the tire kicker, I’ve found that building value first makes your fees easier to swallow. If you are too high, then negotiate the scope of the project to fit their budget. And never say, “I’m flexible.” That’s an admission that you don’t value your work.

Gun for the Experience Over the Price

If you are a seasoned web developer, you can ignore this advice. Beginners, pay attention. Now, I realize that above I said “Never negotiate on price.” Well, there are always exceptions to every rule. Here’s one: What you need more than money is attention and experience. Don’t get hung up on price at this point in your career, even if it means lowering price. Get those jobs—not the profits.

Avoid Bidding Sites Like the Plague

I mentioned this above, but it’s worth mentioning again. Even if you are hard up for experience, I’d still stay away from bidding sites like Guru or eLance. You want to work with people who cares about quality work—not the lowest price they can get. You will hate working for someone who does not value what you do.

Never Look Desperate

Two of the strongest negotiating positions you can adopt as a freelancer are an attitude that you don’t care about the outcome of the negotiations and the power to walk away. When you come across like your life depends upon the outcome of a negotiation, then you lose position and you’ll end up accepting any terms thrown at you. This is a good reason why you should have six months living expense socked-away before you quit your day job. This is also a good reason why you shouldn’t have any debt, either. Debt puts pressure on your to take any job to keep your head above the water.

Your Turn

Are you a freelance web developer? Got any advice for web developers who are contemplating launching a freelance career? Got any horror stories you’d like to share? What would you do differently? What other tips have you learned along the way?
Share your thoughts. Brutal and all.

Demian Farnworth

Demian Farnworth is a freelance writer who hustles the finer points of web. Follow him on Twitter or Google+.

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