One common question people ask me is whether they should go the “freelance” route as opposed to getting a job or starting their own company. If you’re like me, and prefer to learn by reading, then read on. If you prefer to learn through discussion, then here’s a video I recently did on this topic:

Whether you should become a freelancer will depend on your particular situation. With that said, you can make a very comfortable living if you choose to freelance. So, let’s have a discussion about whether you should go the freelance route and, assuming it is for you, how you can make money doing so.

In this article I’m going answer the following questions:

  1. Should become a freelance developer?
  2. How to stand out from other freelancers.
  3. How to sell your services
  4. Where to sell your services

Those who choose to go full speed ahead, and go about it the right way, have a chance to be in a situation which looks like this:

Those who freelance, without trying to take their business to the next level, may wind up being failure. Like thirty percent of small businesses that fail within their first year. (See this article)

I’m assuming you want to be in the seventy percent of people that succeed. Assuming you’re not opposed to prosperity, let’s get to it.

Should you become a freelance developer?

The first question in deciding your career path is to determine whether freelancing is even a good fit for you. That boils down to two questions.

  • Do you have the personality type to freelance?
  • Can you make money doing so?

Let’s look at each of those in turn.

Whether or not you have the personality to be a freelancer depends on whether your have a strong sense of discipline. Do you need structure provided for you?

When you’re working for yourself there is no one to tell you that,

  • you have to be at your desk by a certain time
  • you need to start working on a project on the first of the month to get it done by the end of the month
  • you have to return phone calls to your customers, etc.

This means that you need to be able to force yourself to do these things and to avoid the many distractions which exist in today’s world. This includes the ability to binge watch Star Trek on Netflix (which is the best way to spend one’s time IMHO).

If you have the ability to “self regulate” then you have the personality type to freelance. If you lack this ability then you’re better suited to be working in an environment where your employer provides that structure for you.

If you’re someone who needs structure provided for you then, I can’t stress enough, that it is nothing to worry about. Many people who thrive in a freelance environment wouldn’t do well in a workplace and vice versa. It’s just a matter of personality types.

When answering whether you can make money as a freelancer, the answer is “YES!”. Here’s why. Roughly thirty percent of small U.S. businesses don’t currently have a website (see this article from smallbusiness.com). Other studies have put the number even higher, but to be conservative let’s stick with thirty percent. The country has roughly 24 million small businesses. This means that 7.2 million small businesses (30 percent of 24 million) need web work. If you charge the average company $3,000 for a website then that means there is $21,600,000,000 worth of work to be done (7.2 m x $3,000). Last time I checked that’s a really frickin’ big market. So, yes, you can make money as a freelancer.

How to stand out from other freelance software developers

If you decide to freelance it’s important that you stand out from your competition. Otherwise you might as well have a plaque on your desk which says:

I don’t know about you — but I think being average is no fun. Fortunately, standing out from the crowd is not difficult. This is because most developers fail to truly connect with their customers. If you choose to connect with your customers the right way then you’ll have work lined up for many moons to come.

I strongly believe there’s a disconnect between the development community and businesses who would hire a developer. Do a Google search in your city for local web designers. There is no shortage of people willing to build websites for small businesses. In spite of this labor surplus, roughly thirty percent of small businesses don’t have a website. Whenever you have a surplus of providers, whose services aren’t be utilized, you have a situation where those providers are failing to connect with their customers.

The reason why developers don’t connect with customers is obvious. When you carry out the search I mentioned above, to find developers, you’ll notice a common pattern. Developers fill their websites with techno babble about coding languages, etc.

Here’s a news flash.

If a small business owner doesn’t have a website in 2017 then chances are that they don’t have a clue of what any of that coding jargon means.

Also, if a small business owner is thinking “I need a website to help get more customers”. How would they know whether that technical jargon will actually help them get more customers. In other words, most developers aren’t speaking to the questions which their clients are asking. This is reason for the disconnect between the development community and small businesses.

Bridging the “developer disconnect” isn’t hard. You just need to speak to what your potential clients are looking for and discuss how you are going to solve their problems. First, your own website should explain how you help businesses solve the problems they are facing. Do not use your first impression (your website) to talk about things which people don’t understand and don’t care about. You have to present yourself as a problem solver and tell potential clients how you are going to solve their problems. You will then be able to bridge the disconnect between developers and small businesses. That, in turn, will make your freelance gig grow by leaps and bounds. Let’s have a discussion on how to sell your services so you can see methods for presenting yourself as a problem solver.

How to sell your services as a freelance developer

Selling is something that a lot of people aren’t comfortable with. But, one of the biggest parts of being successful is being willing to learn about and do things which make you uncomfortable. I’m sure you were nervous about learning how to code, and now you’re doing it through freeCodeCamp. You can learn how to sell your services also. Don’t worry that it makes you uncomfortable. Just remember that one’s comfort zone is where their dreams go to die. I know this is easy for me to say, since selling comes naturally to me, but you can learn to do this and after a while it will seem as easy as pushing a button.

Selling your services can be broken down into three parts

  • your initial contact with a potential client
  • putting together a proposal
  • closing the deal

Let’s look at each of these.

The initial meeting (usually over the phone) is the most important contact you’ll have with a potential customer. This is your first impression. Most developers swing and miss by using this meeting to talk about their skills, coding, etc.

As I just ranted about in the discussion above, it’s a mistake to take such an approach. You should use this meeting to ask questions about your potential client’s business and to determine the problems that they want to solve.

If you’re speaking to a pizza shop owner, who needs a website, then you need to be asking questions about his business. For example,

  • Is it take out only or do they have a dining room?
  • Do they have a bar?
  • How many locations do they have?
  • What are the demographics of their customers?

There are plenty of questions to ask on top of these. Once you have an understanding of the business then you can identify their problems.

Once you’ve identified your client’s problems then you can tell him how you can fix them. This is the proposal stage. Sticking to the same example , if the pizza shop has a dining room, you can propose including plenty of photos which show how much fun it can be to dine there. If they have a bar then that’s something the website should feature as well. Are they near a college? If so, then there should be a section featuring “college specials” and they may also want a mobile app so that students can order online. These are just a few examples of proposing solutions to potential problems.

When you try to close the sale, it’s important that you explain how your proposed solutions will meet the need of the client. While having this discussion, it’s important to speak from the perspective of a “problem solver” and not from that of a “developer.” The more you speak the language of your client then the more likely they are to hire you.

Most developers try to “sell” but tout their technical expertise and talk about software. If you want to sell yourself effectively then you need to think about solving the problems of your customers instead.

Where freelance developers can sell their services

Freelancers can be just as frustrated over figuring out where to sell their services, as they can be about the topic of how to sell. Let’s look at three places where you can start getting some clients.

A good way to connect with potential customers is through networking events. One of the biggest mistakes I see developers making, is that they go to networking events where most of the attendees are other developers. Don’t do this. Instead, you want to go to events with lots of small business owners and where you are the only developer. A great way to do this is to join BNI. This is a group where you’ll meet many different types of small business owners and you’ll all open your address books up to each other. For example, if an auto mechanic in the group comes across someone who needs a developer then you will get the referral. You, in turn, will refer people other members of the BNI chapter. You’ll find this far more effective than talking to other developers.

Another way to get business is to sell your services through third-party services such as Fiverr or Thumbtack.

The upside of using these services is that they have a lot of people looking for the same services you are willing to provide.

The two downsides are that,

  1. You have to pay a fee for each client you get through these services and
  2. You’ll tend to do work for customers at a rate much lower than what you would normally charge. That website you would normally build for $3,000 may only go for $1,200 on one of these services. These types of platforms can get you a good number of clients but you’ll be working with really small profit margins.

A third option for getting business is to do so through your own website. The upside here is that you’ll be charging customers your full rate. The one thing to think about is paying for the promotion of your site. The easiest way to promote your web presence, in a manner which will actually bring you business, is to use Google’s Adwords platform. These are the ads which you see on top of search results. Paying for the ads can be expensive but you should certainly see a return on investment.

This discussion was a quick overview of “basics” for starting a freelance business. Do these things and you’ll get ahead of your competition. Are you currently freelancing? What has your experience been so far? Let me know in the comments.

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