Beginner’s Guide to a Freelance Web Career

Freelancing as a Web Designer or Developer Means Finding Your First Client. No-Duh, Right? It’s Possibly Harder than It Sounds.

If you’ve spent any amount of time online over the last couple years, you’ve probably encountered advertisements or comment spam that read something like this:

Make hundreds of dollars an hour working from home!

Get full-time pay… in your pajamas!

Never answer to an angry boss again!

You’ve probably also noticed a critical voice in your brain (otherwise known as your “scamdar”) encouraging you to stay away from the sites those ads are pushing, and rightly so.

But if you’re studying an in-demand tech skill like UX design or coding — or, for that matter, plain old writing — there’s undoubtedly a legitimate work-from-home gig perfectly suited to your experience and education out there right now. Better yet, cash is only part of what it offers: Relevant work experience and a good reference for future jobs are just two of the extra perks working from home could grant you.

Welcome to the world of freelancing.

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To be clear, going freelance isn’t for everyone. It can be a feast-or-famine field, and you shouldn’t rely on it to pay all your bills, at least not to start. If you keep with it, however, you’ll soon see the clients rolling in — and find yourself in one of the most flexible, easiest-going positions any industry has to offer.

Here are a few tips current and former freelancers shared with Treehouse this week about getting your own freelance service off the ground.

1. Find Your First Client

Jeremy Jantz

Jeremy Jantz

Does the first point sound like a no-brainer? Maybe, but finding that first client will potentially be the biggest challenge of your early freelance career.

Jeremy Jantz echoes that sentiment. He spent three-plus years doing freelance web design and front-end engineering and now works for Treehouse from South Carolina.

“I think it’s always difficult when you’re just starting out because you don’t have any ‘real’ work to show to convince potential clients to hire you for their project,” Jantz, 34, says. “Assignment projects during school are great, but there’s no substitute for solving real problems for real people with real deadlines and an actual budget.”

Talking to local businesses and searching the web for clients can result in nice freelance opportunities, but personal connections could be the most important part of scoring that elusive first gig. Doing work for family, friends, and other people you know helps put that “real” work Jantz talks about into an actual professional portfolio. That, in turn, “makes landing your next project just a little bit easier,” he says.

2. Go Local

Once you’ve completed your first successful gig as a freelancer, you may be tempted to hit the web and search for clients around the country (or even around the world). While this can be an effective strategy to landing future jobs, 26-year-old freelance web developer Gabe Garrett of Long Island, N.Y., says a focus on local clients can be every bit as lucrative — especially if you take time to get your name out in your community.

Gabe Garrett

Gabe Garrett

“You never know who might need your work and where they may look for help,” says Garrett, whose freelance portfolio includes work with StablePal and Cryptedge. His solution involved a lot more than emailing resumes: He went as far as hanging flyers in high-foot-traffic areas to make sure potential local clients could find him when he first started.

Making a name for yourself on a local level, in other words, can be a big boon to your freelance service. Taking Garrett’s flyer idea a step further, you may want to search for sites belonging to local businesses and see what you can do to improve them. Once you’ve located several, send each one a personalized email or letter explaining what you offer and how you can help their visibility or overall web presence.

Make sure to check local classifieds, too, since many small-business owners may not know about online portals dedicated to finding designers, writers, or coders. That last point in particular can definitely help your cause when it comes to finding local work: Typical clients would rather work with a person they’ve met face to face than someone they can only talk to via email or phone.

3. Stay Professional — and Develop Lasting Relationships

One-off gigs are great. Recurring work is even better — and getting it means keeping your existing client base happy. Ozark Christian College grad Matt Spiel, who worked on several large-scale freelance design projects as a student and now also works for Treehouse from Joplin, Mo., said that “the relationships [he] had were what yielded the most work” in his time as a freelancer. That means friends, family, and coworkers, of course. But more than that, every client you serve will likely either need more work done or know someone who does.

Establishing those relationships, then, is one of the smartest things you can do for your freelance service. That means more than doing good work at a fair rate: Timely responses to emails and missed calls are key, as is a pleasant and professional demeanor, even when you’re dealing with demanding or otherwise less-than-pleasant clients.

“You’ll be surprised how often you’ll get an email or call with someone on the other end wanting to hire you for their next project,” Jantz says. “It’ll seem random at first until you find out they heard about you through […] that client you worked for over a year ago.”

Doing good work and keeping a professional demeanor helps ensure your name is the one they mention.

4. Be Your Own Brand

Now more than ever, anyone applying for any position has a so-called “personal brand” to maintain — a voice, visual or written style, and overall body of work that reflects who they are and the kind of projects they’re best suited to complete. Though it might not seem too important in the early going, establishing that brand as quickly as possible can give you an edge when competing with others for jobs.

“Read about what others are doing, share your work, and put yourself out there,” Jantz says. “Attend conferences and meetups to network with others in your same position.”

In many cases, “getting yourself out there” involves keeping a consistent visual identity on the web, even if you don’t work in a visual field: Use the same profile picture everywhere you post online and make sure your service’s website accurately represents your experience and skill level. (Even picking a personal color scheme can also help; this guide at dustin.tv is a great starting point if you’d like to learn about the intricacies of choosing the right tones.)

Much of your personal brand will fall into place as your body of work grows. That said, it’s never too early to keep your overall identity as a freelancer in mind.

Focus on “doing good work and making happy clients,” as Jantz says, but don’t be afraid to market yourself beyond the standard resume-and-cover-letter approach. Potential employers can recognize passion. When you care about what you do, it should show in everything you do, including how you project yourself online.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Go Over Your Head

Matt Spiel

Matt Spiel

Shortly after Spiel graduated, a childhood friend reached out to offer him a freelance position with a large company — one big enough to have its name behind a major college football bowl game.

“It was massive, daunting, way over my head,” Spiel, 29, says, “and the smartest, most fruitful project I could have ever taken on. It single-handedly transformed the trajectory of my career.”

The point?

Challenging yourself as a freelancer is one of the smartest moves you can make, within reason. Problem-solving skills are key to going freelance in any industry. If you’re offered big work, chances are you have the skillset needed to accept a job a little larger than you think you’re capable of doing. Besides the cash and resume fodder — two big perks by their own merit — succeeding at large-scale jobs gives you the confidence needed to take on even bigger gigs in the future.

When Garrett tackled the daunting task of setting up a custom login system for a site he was working on, he dove in and found himself surprised at the result: “In under four hours, the system was successfully set up,” he says, “[when] before I hadn’t had the slightest clue of how to do it.”

There’s a balance to be struck here, of course — if you feel you’re far under-qualified for a position, it’s probably best not to apply to it — but you’ll soon get a feel for when the naysaying voice in your head is correct and when it’s being too critical.

As a freelancer, you’re solely responsible for your own progression, and you never know how good you can truly be until you challenge yourself.

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Comments

3 comments on “Beginner’s Guide to a Freelance Web Career

    • Thank you! I hope you found it useful if you’re considering starting your own freelance business. I certainly enjoy the field!

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