LearnMoonlighting as a Designer or Developer: Money, Flexibility — and Some Caution

The moon. (Flickr photo by Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel)

Mark Henricks
writes on April 15, 2014

(The moon. Flickr photo by Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel)

When Neil Tortorella started his web design business, he already had a full-time job.

“I was working for a newspaper doing ad stuff for them and freelancing nights and weekends,” says Tortorella, for the last 28 years the owner of Tortorella Design in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. His wife handled sales, and he’d perform the design work at home after hours, literally moonlighting from his day job.

Since then, the author of “Starting Your Career As A Freelance Web Designer” (Allworth Press, 2011) has found moonlighting to be far from unusual in the business. “I think it’s very, very common,” he says. “As a matter of fact, I can’t think of any of my friends who are designers who don’t freelance.”

Either Tortorella’s friends are unusual, or there is something about web design and development that makes it particularly well-suited to moonlighting. That’s because, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than 1 in 20 of American workers have multiple jobs. And only about 1 in 40 have the typical moonlighter arrangement of a second part-time job in addition to regular full-time employment.

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But it may be that web design and development is especially amenable to being done by moonlight. In fact, according to Tortorella, it’s a natural fit. “It’s pretty easy to set up and there’s no inventory,” he says. “You do need a computer and some software. Then you can pick up some quick cash and maybe get out of having ramen noodles for dinner every night.”

It’s Good Money, but That’s Not the Only Benefit

Neil Tortorella

Neil Tortorella

A busy moonlighter can potentially pick up another $20,000 to $30,000 per year in addition to the salary from a regular job, Tortorella estimates. The actual amount will vary by the moonlighter’s skills, dedication and the going rate in the market being served.

And there’s more to it than money. A moonlighter can also boost his or her portfolio by taking on work different from the projects that make up the day job. Learning new skills and making new contacts as an after-hour freelancers can lead to a better job or even a new career, notes Terry Pile, senior consultant with Career Advisors, a Mercer Island, Wash., career consulting company.

Moonlighters also enjoy the flexibility and independence of their sideline gig. “You can make your own hours,” Pile says. “A lot of people like to work at night, and this way you can work to your strengths.”

Some Pitfalls and Warnings to Consider

There is, however, a possible dark side to moonlighting. A moonlighter who freelances is essentially running a business, Tortorella says, and will need some business skills to succeed. These include knowing how to price a bid that will make it competitive without making it a money-loser for the moonlighter. Moonlighters may need negotiate a contract for a project, collect on a past-due bill and, importantly, know when to say no to more work.

One of moonlighting’s largest potential costs is to the moonlighter’s leisure time and relationships. A typical moonlighter spends 10 to 15 hours weekly on the sideline. That, along with the 40 hours devoted to the 9-to-5, doesn’t leave much slack. “You’re going to be working really hard,” Pile says. “If you have a full-time job and a job on the side, you don’t have time for a life.”

While moonlighting can cause some problems with family and friends, it can also generate trouble at the primary place of employment. Tortorella says he has known people who were fired when their employers learned they were moonlighting. “It is definitely a risk,” he says. “And a lot of people find out it’s a risk too late.”

Typically, employers object because the moonlighters, or the clients the moonlighting is being done for, are seen as competitors. But a moonlighter may also run into trouble at a day job if the moonlighting is taking up so much time that regular-job performance suffers, Pile says.

She also warns that diverting employer resources, even reading and sending moonlighting-related emails while on the clock, is a no-no. “I would keep your moonlighting life separate from your job,” Pile says.

Check Your Employer’s Policy, Company Culture First

Despite the drawbacks and risks, the millions of moonlighters active in the workforce, many of them web designers and developers, clearly show that it can be done. Tortorella advises checking an employer’s policy toward moonlighting as a first step before giving it a try. Some employers strictly forbid it, he says, while others encourage it as a way to increase creativity.

Whatever the policy or employment contract says, he recommends taking the temperature of the corporate culture as well. The fact that a practice is barred on paper doesn’t mean it is in practice, he notes.

So should you be open with your employer about what you are doing after hours? Not necessarily, according to Pile, as long as you’re actually doing it after hours and there is no conflict of interest.

“I wouldn’t tell them that. It’s none of their business,” she says.

If an employer does find out about a moonlighter and insists the moonlighting stop, she says, it might be time to look for another job that is more amenable to initiative.

It’s worth noting that moonlighting appears to be falling out of popularity in the general workforce, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures that show a slight but steady decline in the percentage of multiple job-holders in the last decade. Pile says her impression is that today’s up-and-coming generation of workers prefer spending off-hours doing something other than working.

But Tortorella says the tarnishing of moonlighting’s appeal may not apply to web designers and developers. “The career path and the nature of the business makes it a natural for freelancing on the side,” he says.


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5 Responses to “Moonlighting as a Designer or Developer: Money, Flexibility — and Some Caution”

  1. This post just made my day. I was in search for such kind of topic since long; finally my search is over special thanks to you. It provides a useful info for the readers. Great work, Congrats!

  2. wonderful post, very informative. I wonder why the other
    specialists of this sector don’t notice this. You must proceed
    your writing. I’m sure, you’ve a great readers’ base already!

  3. How can you promote work on the side when I just read that at Treehouse you are only working 4 days per week?

  4. SlyThought on April 15, 2014 at 2:00 pm said:

    This is seriously the most rubbish post I’ve read in the longest time. The article arrives at absolutely nothing !

    • 100% in agreement here.

      This post says absolutely nothing about the practice of moonlighting. Why not mention more of the benefits and cons?

      Why shouldn’t I? Who are some well known moonlighters?

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