How to Start a Successful Freelance Business as a Software Developer
Start your freelance business on the right foot by avoiding common mistakes that you will hold you back from victory.
Before we get into things, I just want to say that I’m not interested in writing about “5 quick tips to get freelance clients!” or similar topics you’ll find in hundreds of articles sprawled across the internet.
What I want to talk about today is how to start your freelance adventure off on the right foot and avoid being taken advantage of or get discouraged. You will most definitely learn how to get your first client but if you’re looking for a get rich quick scheme while you work in your underwear, please hit back on your browser.
I promise you, if you take action on what you read in this article you could potentially have your first client tomorrow without spending a penny.
Onwards we go…
So, you’ve recently decided that you want to take a shot at doing freelance or consulting work. That’s great, and in this article I’m going to give you a few tips on how to find your first freelance client but before that, you need to figure out what type of freelance worker you want to be.
What I mean by that is, how much time are you looking to invest into freelancing? Are you looking to do it full time to replace a standard 9-5 job or as a side gig to create some extra income on the side?
There is a very big difference between needing a check to pay rent when freelancing is your only source of income vs hoping to get some extra cash this month to either invest, enjoy life or help you climb out of debt just a little bit faster.
Take some time to figure that out. For me, I use consulting as another revenue stream. As of this article, most of my income comes from a mixture of doing consulting work and selling software developer related courses but it wasn’t always like that.
Before I decided to create courses, it was all about freelancing and consulting for me. I made a lot of mistakes and left a ton of money on the table, so now I’d like to write about how you can avoid those mistakes and start your business off on the right foot.
Forget Business Cards and a Portfolio Site
You might hear a lot of people say, “oh you need a portfolio website and business cards before you can do anything, so step one is to do that!”.
Don’t listen to them, you’re going to waste money and time. This is just a procrastination tactic. It’s busy work that delays you from actually getting clients and making money.
While I do think having a personal brand is important, I don’t think having a portfolio site is all that important. I didn’t even launch my own site until recently and if you look around, you won’t find a portfolio of prior work. At most you’ll find a few testimonials.
That sounds almost impossible right? How could you possibly get clients without having a site, or a strong web presence. Simple, it comes down to how you find your clients.
Trust me, no one is going to Google “find developer freelancer in NY” and then find you. That’s not how it works. You need to reach out to people, and the people you reach out to won’t care about your portfolio.
They care about how much value you add to their life. This could be how you can help them solve a problem, or make them money. They don’t care that 2 years ago you put up a site for Acme Incorporated.
Networking Is the Most Important Thing You Can Do
As a self taught programmer who didn’t goto university, I missed out on a lot of opportunities to network with peers. So my first tip to you is, if you’re at university right now, you should make a very conscious effort to build up a network of friends who have similar goals as you.
You might be thinking “Nick, how is my awkward programming wizard buddy going to help me land a freelance client?”.
You never know what will happen in the future. Maybe you graduate as close friends and 3 months later he calls you because he needs your expertise or is overwhelmed by work. Congrats, you just got a new client.
But it gets much better. Each person you add to your network expands your overall reach exponentially. I’ve had strings of freelance gigs for years that originated from a single connection.
Person A may reach out to you to complete a job, and if you do a good job then person A may refer you to his friend for another job. The next thing you know, you’re doing another job for a friend of a friend, all while the original people in your network continue to provide you opportunities.
This is how real life works, and you often see this happen in other trade skills like plumbing and electricians. I know a few people in this field and they all have a network of friends who fill in skill gaps and cover for each other when they are unable to fulfill work due to time issues or other reasons.
When they run into a job that requires a skill they don’t have, they are not reaching for Google to find someone. They are going straight to their network of friends.
I do the same exact thing too. In case you couldn’t tell by my blog post images (I make / arrange almost all of them myself), I’m not an artist, but when I need “serious business” custom graphics made I reach to my inner circle of friends and associates.
The world outside of my personal network never gets a chance to even see the job opening.
Beware of Freelance Platforms, They Are Evil
Think about it from your POV as someone who works as a freelancer on sites like e-lance or upwork. We just finished talking about networks and how people tend to form circles of trust where they share jobs with each other.
That typically means only the shitty jobs are available outside of these circles, and even worse they are jobs being managed by someone who might be difficult to work with. Not all people who hire freelancers on these sites are bad but in my experience, more often than not they end up being bad clients.
They are the type of clients who will lurch over your shoulder, watching every move you make and ensure they pay the absolute minimum while demanding top tier results.
Hell, even some of these platforms mandate that you keep an app running that randomly takes screenshots of your desktop to make sure you’re working, so that your hourly quotes are “accurate”.
Sorry, that’s not how software development works.
Sure, a mechanic has a book that they can reference to for guaranteed prices. They will guarantee that to get your tires rotated it will cost XYZ amount and take XYZ minutes.
However, a skilled mechanic will be able to do it in half the time, so he’s rewarded due to being able to rotate more tires per day than an unskilled mechanic. It’s a win / win. The mechanic makes more money per day and you get your car back faster.
This type of cost guarantee proves that the service being done is so well known and discovered that it’s a commodity. It won’t be long until robots can perform those steps exactly, with an efficiency that crushes even the best mechanic.
However, the skilled mechanic won’t be out of a job. He’ll be first in line to buy one of those robots because the “skill factor” is not so much rotating the tires, but figuring out that they need rotating in the first place.
Freelance platforms who spy on you by invading your privacy do nothing but punish you for being skilled.
In what world should you make less money for being an expert at your craft?
I’ll tell you, it’s the world driven by freelance platforms that exploit workers by putting them into some type of passive fear driven mindset. If you really think about it, it’s insane.
Try saying this out loud without shaking your head in disbelief:
“I should spend a large portion of my life to become an expert in my craft, and then I should agree to have my privacy stripped away from me while I race to the bottom and undercut my competition because I will actively place myself into situations where I have the highest competition to ensure I receive the lowest rates. Lastly, I will bust my butt and bend the world to satisfy clients who take advantage of me.”
Sadly when you sign up to these sites, that’s exactly what you’re saying. To add insult to injury, they also take a chunk of your income. If you ask me, they are comparable to Dante’s 9 circles of Hell.
My recommendation is to stay away from these sites at all costs. You’re just going to get jaded early on by crappy clients and think that freelancing is too depressing to get into.
Say ‘Hello World’ in Real Life
Instead of depending on freelance platforms, you should go and explore the world. I know, it’s scary. I’m “introverted” too (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean), but you’re allowed to step outside of your comfort zone, and trust me, the reward is worth it.
Take action and build up your own personal network using any strategy you can think of. It’s ok if you spend all day (or longer) thinking of ways to do this. That sure beats looking at WP themes for 7 hours for your “portfolio site”.
3 Methods to Get Freelance Clients
If you’re at university, try connecting with as many of your fellow students as possible. Don’t be lazy, because you’re in an excellent position right now (you’re making me jealous). There’s a fuster cluck of like-minded individuals who are one “hi” away from joining your networking circle which will lead to freelance gigs and more.
The next best thing is to goto local meetups. If you have none in your area for what you’re interested in, then start one yourself. Sites like meetup.com make it really easy to do this.
Local meetups are awesome. You’ll find people in start-ups looking to hire, other developers looking to build their network and in some cases the venue hosting the event will be recruiting (you can approach them for contract work).
It’s important to understand that your peers at meetups are your allies, not your competition. It’s counter intuitive because by default you might be thinking “how can I find freelance work for development in a room full of developers?”, but that’s not how it works.
First off, not everyone there will be a developer and secondly, you’ll find people with very wide skill sets and agendas. 8 out of 50 people in the room might be there for the sole purpose of finding another developer to work on something with them. You just need to find them.
You might be thinking “what am I supposed to say?”. It doesn’t need to be complicated. For students, try approaching Bob outside of one of your classes and be like “Hey Bob, I’m Nick. We’re in CS101 together. If you don’t mind me asking, what got you interested in computers?”.
At meetups, I usually just open with something that’s relevant to the situation, such as: “Hi, what brings you to a Docker meetup?” and go from there.
Remember, you’re not going to find an answer book for all problems you’ll face in life so you better get used to figuring things out on your own while doing self guided research, especially as a software developer.
Research, test and evaluate the outcome.
By the way, I have no idea if the above university script works. Go test it and let me know in the comments.
The only thing I do know is, as I’ve been leveling up my communication skills, I have found out that people love talking about themselves. You can’t go wrong.
Everyone can start calling local businesses to find freelance work too. You will find plenty of opportunities here. Sure you have to pick up a phone, but if it lands you a $2,000 deal that requires 10-20 hours of work, then why are you upset?
Here’s a story for you. If you’ve been following my blog then you know that I do a lot of walking. Usually I walk 3 miles a day. I find it very relaxing and it helps me think, but it’s also a source of freelance clients.
Yep, as I walk around town, there are vans and other work vehicles that drive by. They have phone numbers and website URLs plastered on their vehicles. You don’t need to have an eidetic memory like Wesley Crusher on the U.S.S Enterprise to capitalize on this.
The next time you see one of these vehicles, jot down, take a picture or make a voice recording memo of their phone number and website address. Bam, you have a new lead to contact and at the same time, you’ve strengthened your leg muscles by walking.
The Yellow Pages is also a near-infinite source of businesses to contact.
I know you might be skeptical, and perhaps you were hoping for an article that told you to do 20 hours of research and busy work before you can get started but the reality of the situation is, as long as you have the technical skills to do the job, you can have your first client tomorrow. Heck, you don’t even need the technical skills, but that’s a story for another day.
Once you get your first client, you’ll want to come up with a plan on how to get paid without getting crushed by fees. Here’s a payment method breakdown.
Let me know how it goes in the comments below, good luck!