Becoming a freelance web developer is actually pretty simple. And, in this article, I aim to show you just how simple it is in a 5 step process. Now, wait!
Before you start composing an angry email to tell me you disagree OR checkout altogether, hear me out.
I didn’t say it was easy. I just said it was simple. But, that’s how most things go right?
When you strip away all the guru talk about “the 10 secrets” to learn something or starting something new (“and number 5 will blow your mind!!!”) you start to realize that the road to most accomplishments aren’t complex.
The same is true when you’re learning how to become a freelance web developer.
Why A Lot of People Fail As Freelance Web Developers
The reason a lot of people fail at becoming successful freelance web developers is because they haven’t adopted the right mindset to make it through the tough parts.
It’s a lot like doing a remodel on your home.
I’ve had the unfortunate pleasure to do quite a few home renovations. I’ve torn out carpet and reinstalled hardwood flooring. I’ve replaced lineolium for tile. I’ve updated bathrooms and scrapped off popcorn ceilings.
And, every project is about the same.
You start off thinking it’ll be easy. Sure, maybe it’ll get a little tough, BUT that pain will pail in comparison to how much you’ll love the outcome.
Then there’s this moment that comes about 1/3rd of the way into it. You begin to realize this is going to cost you WAY more than you thought and take 3 times as long to finish as you anticipated.
It’s there that you start asking yourself questions like, “Is this worth it? Should I just hire someone to do this for me? Because, after all, I actually have no clue about what I’m doing!”
Learning how to become a freelance web developer is a lot like that.
It’s exciting at first. You’ve got momentum. You’ll do whatever it takes!
Then reality sets in. Clients are difficult. Finding work can be stressful. And, try as hard as you can, you just can’t figure out how to get something to work that should be easy!
What You Need to Be a Successful Freelance Web Developer
If you want to be really successful as a web developer you need 3 things that have nothing to do with web development skills or client acquisition processes.
Those three things are:
Eeach of those character traits are INSTRUMENTAL to you actually making it.
You need patience because things will never grow as quickly as you’d like them too. Our world is OBSSESSED with fast growth.
But, can I challenge you a bit?
The slower you grow the better it is for you AND your success as a freelance web developer. The tortoise and the hare fable is more than just a children’s story.
Which only proves the point more! Be prepared to put your head down and do good work for years before you start seeing real progress.
You need grit because things are going to get tough. You will likely want to quit.
You’ll have clients that are unreasonable. You’ll underbid projects. You’ll git frustrated. You’ll sign up for something that’s bigger than you thought it was and soon realize you don’t know what you’re doing and should have turned the job down.
How do you overcome those challenges? You keep going.
One of my favorite books is by Angela Duckworth. Guess what it’s called….Grit.
She found that there was one common trait in people who were super successful: their ability to keep going no matter how hard things got. In other words, they had grit.
You’ll need it too.
Finally, you’ll need humility because you’re going to be wrong a lot. And, you won’t make it far if you’re not okay with that.
You’ll need to reach out for others for help or advice. You’ll have to turn to people who have been at it for less time than you have been BUT are doing much better than you are.
You might even need to ask for insight from someone much younger than you.
But, if you let your pride get the best of you then you likely won’t be willing to humble yourself to do those things. As a result, you won’t make it far.
At best, you’ll make WAY more mistakes than you would if you would have just asked for help.
Listen, you have permission to suck. You have permission to not know what you don’t know.
BUT, you don’t have permission to let your fear of looking stupid keep you from being willing to seeking out advice or mentors.
To be honest, I struggle with this the most. I’d much rather people think I’ve got it all figured out.
But, I can’t ignore the fact that there are people who have had 10 times the success I’ve had in half the time it took me.
I quickly realized that if I’m going to have humble myself and be willing to learn if I’m going to get past certain hurdles.
How to Become a Freelance Web Developer in 5 Simple Steps
Alright, so we laid the ground work. Now, let’s talk about the practical steps you can take on how to become a freelance web developer.
1. Learn the Skills
No amount of marketing or clever branding will help you if you just plain and simple don’t know what you’re doing.
NOW, that does not mean you need a degree. Nor do I think it’s a good idea to sign up for endless amounts of tutorials before you feel like you have the right to call yourself a web developer.
In fact, I like to encourage people to start backwards.
What do I mean by that?
Start with a project you want to do and learn as you go. You have real context that will make what you’re learning stick if you learn with a project in mind.
I’ve followed along with so many tutorials and finished only to realize I actually didn’t learn anything. BUT, when I work on a real-world project I can’t help but learn.
Does that mean you don’t do any type of tutorial based learning? Of course not. You need a framework to just get started.
BUT, when you are taking tutorials with an ultimate project in mind you store things differently in your memory. Certain things stand out more while you’re learning.
There are plenty of good places to learn web development. But, all of your learning will quickly vanish if you don’t try to contextualize into an actual project.
What Should You Learn?
If you want to build websites for clients then you’ll need to have a certain degree of acumen in design and a healthy dose of HTML and CSS knowledge. You’ll also likely need to know how to navigate through a popular CMS (content management system) like WordPress, SquareSpace or my favorite, Showit.
If you like the background stuff then you’ll need to learn something like Python.
Great news is that there are tons of fun things to learn in web development. BUT, you won’t know for sure what fits you best until you try something out!
2. Get Clients
Another key factor in learning how to become a freelance web developer is getting clients. That’s the “freelance” part of the “freelance web developer.”
This is where a lot of folks struggle. People tend to cringe at the idea of having to sell themselves to someone else.
I get that. BUT, there’s a way to find clients that isn’t annoying to the people you’re talking to and doesn’t make you feel like you’ve sold your soul.
First of all, you’ve got to start with people that you know personally.
Donald Miller from Storybrand. Says when you’re building your first bouquet it’s important to start with the flowers closest to you.
In other words, don’t reach out to Disney and see if they have a project for you right out of the gate. Ask friends, family members or neighbors if they might need help with a web development.
People only hire freelancers that they think are trustworthy. AND, how do you know if a freelancer is trustworthy?
You know from the testimonies of other clients OR from their past work.
BUT, you’ve got to find other reasons for a potential client to trust you if you don’t have any past work or client testimonies.
So, find someone that trusts you because they know you personally.
That’s exactly what I did when I first got started. I let everyone know I was starting to build websites. Word got around and people started asking me to help them.
Did I know what I was doing? Absolutely not. BUT, my friends and family KNEW that I would work hard until I gave them what they needed because they knew ME.
Branching Out From People You Know
After you’ve gotten your first few clients from friends and family it’s time to branch out. AND, there’s quite a few options to do that.
I personally went the route of Upwork. And, despite a lot of people saying not so nice things about freelancer marketplaces like Upwokr, I was able to consistently get great, high-paying projects from Upwork.
It takes some time to get yourself established BUT you will most definitely get there if you stick with it.
Another route is to build your network. You do that by getting out there and meeting as many people as you can.
Thankfully, there’s a lot of opportunities to do that. There are networking events or places like meetup.
A lot of folks will tell you it’s important to niche down to a specific type of client. So, don’t just say you’re a web developer who does everything. Be a web developer that helps out local dentists or something like that.
That way it’s much easier to know where those people are hanging out so you can go to events that they’ll be at.
One way or the other, you’ll likely have to push past your comfort zone and put yourself out there.
2. Do Good Work
You can’t just be good at finding clients. You also have to do good work for your clients.
You won’t last long as a freelance web developer if you don’t do a good job at making your clients happy. Word gets around, and you’ll have a hard time finding new work if people find out you do a bad job most of the time.
Does that mean you have to let clients walk all over you? Absolutely not. But, believe it or not, most people are easier to please than you’d think.
In fact, there are few things you can do that will make you stand out from 90% of your competition.
The first thing you’ve got to be good at is returning emails and phone calls. Like I said, NOT super challenging, BUT you’d be surprised how many freelance web developers downright don’t return emails to clients.
It’s so common a lot of people hate working with freelance web developers because for that very reason.
Now, right now, you might be thinking, “That’s easy! I got this.”
But, here’s what happens. You start getting busy and stuff starts falling off the plate. One of the first thing to go is being responsive with emails.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started an email with, “So sorry it took me so long to get back to you.”
So, you have to have some type of game plan to keep it from happening, BECAUSE you will naturally start taking longer and longer to get back to people.
So what’s a freelancer to do?
ANSWER: create systems.
Freelance Web Developer Systems
Systems and processes are the one thing that separate the serious freelancers from folks that won’t make it for very long.
My favorite book on this topic is called “The E-Myth Revisited” by Michael E Gerber.
In it, Michael outlines the stages of a business owner. They go from technician to manager to entrepreneur.
We all start out as technicians. Many of us realize we’re good at what we do and we could be making more if we went out on our own.
Why work for someone else for $30/hour when you could be making $50/hour? Right?
So, we go out on our own. But, eventually, you come to the place where you realize there’s more to do than one person can manage. So, you hire some people.
Now, you graduate from the person that does all the work to the person that oversees the people that do all the work.
BUT, if you really want to get to the next level you’ve got to be able to get out of the day-to-day grind and oversee big picture stuff like strategy and direction.
In order to do that YOU HAVE TO HAVE systems that you can pass along that are clearly outlined and easy to follow.
This is true in every phase of your career as a freelancer EVEN IF you have no plans of hiring someone to help you.
Your processes and systems will be the thing that keeps you doing a good job for clients over and over again. Without them doing good work is just an accident, a fluke!
At the very least, creating systems will keep you from overworking yourself and make your productivity super-efficient.
4. Get Referrals
Once you’ve found clients and done good work NOW it’s time to focus on getting referrals.
The good news is that if you’ve done a good job up until this point you won’t have to work too hard to get them. Referrals are a natural part of doing good work for past clients.
BUT, that’s also why it’s incredibly important to treat every single project like it’s the most important project in the world.
You have to always bring your best no matter how much you’re getting paid.
But, you also have to be really intentional about getting referrals. In other words, don’t just hope that people will refer you to their friends or colleagues. Ask for it!
This is especially important in those early days.
If you do good work most clients will WANT to let other people know about you. I don’t know about you BUT I love it when “I’ve got a guy.” (or girl)
You know what I mean right?
Friend: we need work done on our car
Me: I’ve got a guy
Friend: We need to redo our kitchen
Me: I’ve got a guy
I love it when I can say that! And, other people do too.
But, here’s the thing. A lot of people have good intentions about referring you to friends or colleagues BUT life gets busy. People forget.
And, guaranteed, you are not the number 1 priority on someone’s todo list.
So, you’ve got to keep yourself at top of mind for past clients. How do you do that?
You check in with them.
Send them thank you letters or birthday cards. Heck, even an email that says, “How’s things going with your (whatever you worked on)?” can go a long way!
But, don’t finish a project and then drop your client like a bad habit. Stay in touch and in general care more about the relationship than the money.
When you do that you will have people referring you right and left without even thinking about it.
Finally, when it’s all said and done, if you really want to know how to become a freelance web developer, you take those first 4 steps and you repeat them over and over again.
AND, try to get just a little bit better at it every time you do. I guarantee you that you won’t be good at it at first.
That’s okay. It’s expected even. BUT, you’ll be able to look back 5 years from now and see HUGE PROGRESS if you keep improving just by 1 or 2 percent every time you do it.
You don’t have to be good at everything all at once. Actually, that’s a recipe for burning out or quitting.
So, take it step by step and project by project every single time, and eventually, you will have learned how to become a freelance web developer that other people look up to.
How to Become a Freelance Web Developer: The Truth
The truth is you’re going to have bumps in the road. It’s going to get difficult.
But, if you stick with it you will end up creating a business that you love and really serves other people.
And, the best news, learning how to become a freelance web developer is not nearly as complicated as most people make it out to be.
All you have to do is learn the skills you need, find clients, do good work, get referrals and then repeat that process.
I love what Mike Janda says, “Other people who are way less talented than you have figured it out. You can too.”