How to Make More Money as a Freelance Web Developer
by Dana Winslow
Are you thinking about making the jump from being a "traditionally employed" web developer to being a freelance web developer? Are you a freelance web developer looking for ways to boost your income and better leverage your skillset? I've been there and done that on both accounts. In this article, I'm going to share some of the important considerations you need to make when taking the initial leap from employee to freelancer, along with important tips and tools for then making it both work and pay.
How much money can you make as a web developer?
This is a question that I get asked quite often. And why not? It's incredibly unstable out there right now. It can be a comfort knowing that the field you're venturing into holds potential to provide for you. I've approached this field from the freelance angle, but that's not the only approach.
It's important to remember what a freelancer is. Traditionally, a freelancer is an expert in their field. I know, I know... that's not necessarily the case anymore. But 10 or 15 years ago, freelance consultants / developers / contractors / writers / etc. made more money per hour / project than their employed counterparts. Why? Because they were specialized. They got hired to do one job and one job only. They were professional, efficient, and chances were a company could not find better.
Contrary to this, employees were salaried personnel hired to do several tasks - and didn't necessarily have to be an expert at any of them. Back then, you could hire an employee with good graphic design skills, decent or good developer skills and great Internet marketing skills. On the other hand, you would hire a freelancer with outstanding developer skills but that freelancer didn't touch graphic design or Internet marketing.
Because of their expertise and the relatively shorter terms of their contracts, freelancers were paid more. In contrast, because employees were more flexible and could do a good job in several areas, employees received a steady (though smaller) paycheck and sometimes, depending on the company, benefits to help supplement the paycheck.
This isn't entirely true of the workplace today, even though some people still maintain these beliefs. Keeping in mind that today's economy is different, should you make more money as a freelance web developer than an employee? Yes. But will you make more money than an employee? It's possible, but it's going to take work.
There's no exact answer for how much money a freelance web developer can make - there are several factors that will determine a person's salary. According to salary.com, the median salary (for employees) ranges from about $51,000 to about $76,000 USD depending on level of experience. While the average income of freelance developers isn't readily available information, I've seen some people claim that you can earn up to $150,000 USD as a freelance web developer.
This seems a little high for me. I'm sure that there are some people who, while working as a freelance web developer, were able to spike up to this high income... but much more common, in my experience, is an expected yearly income of about $22,000 to $45,000 for new freelancers and $55,000 to $85,000 for well-established freelancers of more than 10 years experience. These figures are based on my patterns of income as well as those of several friends and colleagues who also work as freelance web developers.
Of course, not all compensation comes in the form of cash. Some developers will forego a certain amount of cash in lieu of free advertising, referrals or other services as trade. Others will take a negotiated amount of free items or discounted products from their clients as a supplement to their paid income. Thanks to some clients of mine, I have received over the years a free copy of Adobe CS4, a discounted iMac (to help get me back up and going when my PC broke), an external hard drive, an iPad... and a free lunch.
Of course, a free lunch won't pay my Internet and electricity bills. But hey, that's $20 (plus tip) that I don't have to pay out, right? So it does help.
And, thanks to one client, I even get completely free hosting (on a VPS environment) to house a test server, experiement and play around, or even build demo sites for some clients who want to see an idea in action.
Here in the United States, at least, people expect more bang for their buck. It's rare that individuals or smaller businesses will want to hire a separate web developer, web designer, graphic designer, content writer and etc. just to get a web site built. In fact, most clients don't even realize that building a web site requires so many different skills sets; nor do they understand the differences between these jobs. The fewer people that they have to hire, the better. So you will often see web developers branching out into web design or other aspects of web building.
And, of course, there are other aspects to consider when trying to determine exactly how much money you could make as a web developer. Going back to my original question, are you going to work as an employee for a company, or will you work for yourself as a freelance professional? How much experience and/or professional training have you had? And what about other skills such as communication, availability, and time management can you offer?
All of these factors play a role in determining how much money can be made working as a web developer. My informed estimate is that as a freelance web developer you can earn a minimum of around $32,000 per year before taxes (working full time with very little experience). But there are ways to help you increase this amount.
Warning - Freelance work can be very Unstable
I think I should probably preamble every thing by letting you know that working as a freelancer - whether in web development or any other field - can be very unstable. Hours, income and payment can be erratic and it may take time before you can adjust and stabilize everything. And if you've never worked as a freelancer before, it can definitely take a toll on you emotionally if you aren't prepared for the switch.
Hours and Availability
When I first branched out to freelance, I tried very hard to maintain normal business hours. The problem with this is that a lot of clients do not think of their web site during normal business hours; this is especially true of smaller businesses and personal sites. The clients call and / or email during lunch, after their work is finished, or on the weekends.
Because of this, I often found myself working at 2 or 3 in the morning and all weekend long. Not exactly the fairy tale I was expecting when I thought of freelance as "setting my own hours". Of course, 7 years later, this is much more under control and now I am finally able to work when I want rather than feeling like someone's extracurricular activity. But it does take time to get there.
And I hate to say it, but if you're a new freelancer, this is just one of those dues that you may have to pay.
It can be very hard to prove yourself as a new freelancer - especially since freelance web development is a global field. If you don't want to be working at 3 in the morning, you certainly don't have to be - but someone, somewhere in the world will be available. And that person can probably do everything you can do for a comparable price.
Of course, there is also a question of payment that comes about when working as a freelancer. How will a company or person pay you? When will you get paid?
First, the when...
You may find that a lot of clients prefer to pay only after they've seen the finished product. Others will pay you some sort of hourly or weekly wage while you work. Some will be willing to pay you a fee up front to retain your services and then pay the rest once you've completed your work.
Because of these differences in payment schedules, you may find yourself making a lot of money one week, and then floating for 3 or 4 weeks before your next payment finally comes through. Budgeting your income as a freelance web designer entails budgeting your time and clients to help ensure that your income remains steady and regular.
As for the how...
You can set and determine your payment method any way you like. You can choose to accept cash, checks, credit cards, PayPal, eGold, even Western Union if that's what you prefer. But, with any payment method, there are fees, varied waiting periods before you can actually spend your money and other aspects to take into consideration.
Trust me, there's little worse than knowing you have an overdue bill to pay and you aren't able to pay it because the check that someone sent you is sitting on hold at the bank for another week.
Stress, Responsibility and Workload
I love working as a freelancer - I think that it's one of the best decisions I ever made in regard to my career. But there are plenty of times, especially near the beginning, when I was pulling out my hair, ready to throw my computer, and dreading the next client conversation.
My first clients rarely (if ever) gave me any direction regarding the vision they held for their web site; one week I would work for 27 hours getting every thing done and the next week they would change their minds and it would take me 45 hours to change every thing around. Dealing with their hosting companies was sometimes a nightmare.
And clients were not the only source of my stress. Family played a big part as well. You see, when people see you as "working from home" they immediately make a connection that you're available because you're home. I can't count how many times I've had to correct someone from promising my services and availability: "You need someone to babysit? Dana will do it - she's home anyway."
Despite having the freedom of working for myself, I was far more stressed out than I had ever been when working for someone else. Working for yourself means setting your own budget and schedule. It also means that when something is broken or lacking, it's up to you to fix it... if a client isn't communicating his or her vision very well, it's up to you to translate.
There's no more incentives to keep you motivated, no more benefits, no more perks and no more bonuses. There's no one to ask for help or guidance regarding ambiguous requests and no one to pick up the slack when a family emergency arises.
Okay... Let's Get on With it!
All Right! That's enough talk about stress, erratic hours and fluctuating pay. So let's get on with it and start talking about how you can maximize your income as a freelance web developer.
It makes sense to start off by talking about some of the income-boosting ideas that you can implement easily by taking inspiration from the time of year.
One way to help increase your income as a freelance web developer is to offer redesign services during the holiday seasons. This can include logo designs to include holiday symbols and/or colors, new backgrounds or fonts to go with holidays, or even an updated landing page. Google's famous Doodles are the best example of this:
While you're updating your clients' sites to include these small touches you can also offer your services in rebranding their advertising and marketing campaigns to coordinate with the season.
If you're on the creative or artsy side, you can also offer to design eCards for your clients. I receive an eCard from so many different stores / subscriptions / sites. Many sites use them to advertise sales and discounts while spreading a little holiday cheer to their customers. Get onboard early enough and you can find a very easy, short-term project that will help your clients and build your reputation (all while granting you a little more coin).
Remember earlier I spoke about how talking to a client's hosting provider was sometimes a nightmare? Well, offering your own hosting services can alleviate that nightmare for both of you.
There are several hosting companies that offer some sort of reselling plans. With these plans, you can choose every thing that you want to offer to your clients: pricing, disk space and bandwidth, MySQL databases, cpanel, email accounts...anything they would normally get by going through any traditional hosting company.
This idea will not only help supplement your income with a nice, regular monthly payment (or yearly or quarterly or however you feel like billing for it) but it will also make things much easier on your clients. And, as I'm sure you already know, if you can make things easier on your clients they will keep coming back to you for just about anything they may need.
Learn When to Say "No"
This may sound a little strange, but learning when to tell a client "no" can be a very important part of determining your income and making sure it stays on the higher end of what you want.
As a freelancer, you will find yourself making all sorts of promises - from deadlines to designs and beyond. And, of course, the more often you are able to live up to (or even exceed) these promises, the better for your reputation and, subsequently, the better for your income.
It's so very tempting to promise your clients the world - I know this. Part of the temptation is the fear that if you tell a client you can't deliver the world then they will find someone else who can. It's a very real fear and that is certainly one potential outcome from having to limit your promises. But the worst consequences come from telling a client "yes" when you know that you won't be able to deliver.
If you can't make a deadline, if you don't know how to integrate third party ideas (ie., Salesforce or Net Suite), or if you can't keep up with your current projects then tell the client "no." They will respect you for being honest and not wasting their time while you try to research how to do whatever it is that they've asked. And, of course, if you are able to research and learn a new skill set in the meantime, then that's all the better because now you will be able to offer that service to another client (or possibly even to the same client if she hasn't found another resource just yet).
Being a freelancer means building and earning trust with your clients. For a client to earn your trust is easy - all they have to do is pay the bill and bam... trust earned. You, on the other hand, have a much harder task in front of you if you want to earn a client's trust - and part of that job is to know your limits and only make promises within those limits.
Sell your Services and Intellectual Property to Other Developers
Here in the United States, this is a big risk. But rather than delve into all the ways that healthy competition can be turned into a rather unhealthy rivalry, let's instead talk about how this can really help boost your income and reputation.
First, has this ever happened to you?
- You spend hours, maybe even a couple of days, developing a new layout for a web site as described by your client. It looks awesome and you're completely stoked. The look is nice and crisp, navigation is clear, coding is clean and every thing that makes a good web site is in this new layout. You present this new layout to your client and as you beam with pride your client decides he no longer wants anything you've added. Perhaps they want the menus in a different place, or they want something that looks a little more like "Web Site X" or maybe they've even decided to scratch the entire project all together and go a whole different route. What do you do then?
Certainly this design is not something that should be wasted. You could hold onto it until another client comes along looking for something similar, or you can sell it.
There are all sorts of sites and companies looking for new web templates, layouts, graphic designs, scripts, and even tutorials. Why should your hard work remain unappreciated? Submit this new layout to any one (or several) of these companies. Some of these companies will pay you a flat fee for your submission while others will pay you a royalty fee any time another customer purchases the layout from them. And all of these sites offer proper crediting to you as the developer / author of this masterpiece.
This won't make you rich - not by a long shot. Some of the payments can be rather measely. But it can be a great way to create a steady income stream that will supplement your freelance income.
If you don't think that hunting down and submitting your work to some company's resource portal is for you, then as an alternative you can also post this great new layout on your own web site and offer to sell it, or even give it away. Giving away freebies is a tremendous way to help drive traffic to your own site. And depending on the number and quality of the work you're offering you'll find that you can make money off of providing freebies in several ways:
- Offering to customize your freebie products for a fee (also covered a little later in this article)
- Offering premium content for a fee and / or a paid membership to your site
- Offering other services (such as set up or installation) for a fee
In addition, it can lead to more work for you, should you choose to include your contact information with the files that will be included in your giveaway. Which brings me to my next point...
Offer Customization Services
So, who purchases templates and layouts from an online source? Well, in truth nearly everyone does or has. But more often than not, it's one of a few people:
- A new developer who has some of the more basic skills but is still developing some of the more advanced skills in web development
- A client hoping to do as much of his or her web site as possible for himself/herself
- Anyone (developer or client) of any experience level who is facing a deadline or is in a hurry to get something completed.
Whatever the reason that they bought your template, there is a strong chance that they will be looking to customize it in some way to fit their exact needs - and that's where you might come in. If you've chosen to include your contact information (a web site address, an email address or, if you really want to make things easy, a Skype address) then they will likely contact you first in regard to these needs. After all, you designed the template and know it inside and out; if anyone should be able to customize it quickly and do a great job, it should be you.
Of course, not every one who visits your site and downloads this new layout will contact you about customizing it or installing it as their new WordPress theme; but some likely will.
And, once again, you may end up leading a nice, short-term project right to your doorstep with very little extra effort. In addition to this, you may find yourself opening doors to more sources of income such as:
Teaching Your Skills to Other Developers
I'm sure you've seen those sites all around the Internet... they're everywhere:
- CSS Tutorials
- Photoshop Tutorials
- Illustrator / Dreamweaver Tutorials
- Just-about-any Adobe Product Tutorials
- HTML / PHP Language Tutorials
- Drupal Tutorials
- WordPress Tutorials
- Just-about-any CMS Tutorials
- Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Social Media Tutorials
You name it - if it can be used to build, develop, sell or advertise a web site, there are at least 1,001 tutorials on how to do, improve, survive, and implement it. So why not contribute?
Many of these same sites will pay you to write a tutorial about something that you are knowledgeable on. Whether it be how to create a great layout for a particular genre of site, how to implement a needed function, basic tutorials on CSS tips and tricks, or more advanced articles, writing and posting tutorials in this way can help build a steady stream of income as well as build your name and reputation. You may even find yourself with opportunities to sell files related to the tutorials you post, sell customizing services to these tutorials, or create a stream of referrals for future projects.
Use a Freelance Service
There are dozens of sites online that can help you search for and find new clients. Some of the more popular ones include:
The list just goes on and on. These sites are designed to work as a portal between clients and freelance contractors of various fields to meet, work, track time, send invoices and handle payments. Each one has different rules, payment methods, and fee structures. Some charge the client fees while others charge the contractor fees.
Whichever resource you choose, these services can help you jump-start your freelance career by giving you a more centralized area to search for projects. They also provide an area to display your work portfolios, résumés and other credentials that will help clients to make their decision about whether or not to hire you.
Get Creative When Looking for Clients
Besides signing up for a freelancing site like Elance or oDesk, how else are you going to find your clients? Hopefully, you're not answering with, "I'm going to build a web site and let them find me," because - guess what - they probably won't. At least, not for quite a while.
So, you need to find other ways of getting in front of clients. Whether you develop a direct mail campaign, print and distribute business cards, make direct calls, run telemarketing campaigns, or distribute coupons - whatever ideas you come up with to get your name out there, the more creative methods tend to be the most memorable.
Local business chapters and networking groups can be a good way to build a network, get referrals to potential clients, and sometimes even find clients directly. Consider joining a marketing group to help get fresh perspectives and ideas for out-of-the-box methods for promoting your services to others.
And remember, whenever you start a new campaign to find clients, there will be an influx of work, calls, and projects. Prepare yourself for an increased number of calls and emails, make sure you can handle a larger volume of contact with poise and professionalism.
Sharpen up Your Skills
Let's be honest, when you first start out in freelancing, you're going to have more spare time than you know what to do with. For many budding freelancers, clients and projects will be far and few between and, quite likely, very short-term. This will leave you with a lot of spare time.
At first, this is going to seem great - especially if you've spent the past however many years working long hours for someone else. Finally, you'll have time to do all those things that you haven't been able to do. But after a while, if you're anything like me, you'll want to dive back into developing.
What if something new is being developed out there and I miss it because I'm too busy playing Guitar Hero?
During all this free time between switching to a freelance career and building a list a of clientele, stay on top of everything and continue sharpening your skills. One great way to do this would be to find an open-source project that you like, learn as much as you can, then try to give back to the community. If it's something you're highly familiar with, consider contributing by participating in the development of the project. If you're not quite ready to contribute to the WordPress core, help out in the support area. There are dozens of such projects, so you can choose mammoths like Drupal or Wordpress, or become an expert with one of the up-and-coming ones like MODx or Umbraco. And, of course, new softwares and systems are being developed all the time.
Create a Network
At some point in time, you will have more work than you can handle. But telling a client "no" can be very hard to do. If you have a network of other freelance developers or have friends who also work in web development whom you trust, it can make it much easier to make that referral. Some of the most successful freelancers have formed a small alliance with others so that they can answer each other's questions, refer clients to each other or even help each other with certain projects or skill development.
Working with other freelancers in this way can also help alleviate the various stresses and problems that can arise from working alone at home day after day. Socializing can also provide a much-needed break - even if just for a few minutes - during those times that the projects are flowing in faster than you can sort and filter through them.
And, of course, working with an alliance of freelancers can also prove very helpful when dealing with hard-to-handle clients. They can bring you a different perspective, advise on how to communicate with a client who doesn't seem to understand what you're saying, or just give you an outlet when you need to vent about a client who keeps asking you what an edit button does.
In this article I've outlined a number of methods for leveraging your skills to the maximum, allowing you to earn more and lead a self-directed lifestyle. Working as a freelance web developer can be very fulfilling. It can be your chance to start making money for yourself rather than making money for some boss who's standing over your head. Finally, you'll be able to work in an environment where you can determine your worth, your prices and salary, and your hours.
But it can also be very hard. Work and income can be very sporadic. The stress can become frequent and sharp and all the headaches that you'll be leaving behind at that old office will be replaced with new ones. Using these tips will help increase your income in various ways, from creating a steady stream of supplemental income to attracting and retaining new and repeat clients.
Above all else, remember that working as a freelance developer will not be the walk-in-the-park-piece-of-cake career choice that so many people seem to believe it is. But it can be very fun and very rewarding. As with anything else, you'll get out of this career choice exactly what you put into it.