Freelance web developer: How to launch and grow your business in 5 steps
So you want to be a freelance web developer? With the gig economy growing rapidly and global events creating uncertainty in traditional full-time employment, more and more developers are opting to launch freelance businesses.
There’s good reason for that—when done well, freelancing can offer uncapped earning potential and total freedom over the work you do, and when and how you do it.
But building a successful business as a freelance web developer involves a lot. You’re not alone if you find yourself unsure of where to start. That’s why we created this extensive guide to launching and growing a freelance business as a web developer.
Below, we explain in detail how to decide if freelance life is right for you, followed by 5 steps you can take to get the ball rolling.
Is freelance life for you?
Before you dive into building a freelance web development business from the ground up, there’s a crucial first step that many people miss: making sure freelancing is the right path for them.
There are a lot of benefits that come with working for yourself and building something from scratch. But there are also trade-offs and challenges that come with freelance life. It’s important to understand those trade-offs and what they mean to you, before you invest time and money into your new career.
Benefits and trade-offs of freelancing
The benefits of becoming a freelance web developer:
- The freedom to design your own schedule and workload
- Ultimate control over the work and projects you do (and don’t do)
- The flexibility to work at home and/or remotely (long after COVID-19 pandemic office closures end)
- The opportunity to work on more varied project for a variety of clients in myriad industries
- More direct control over your earnings—the sky’s the limit
- The chance to step outside traditional office bureaucracy, politics, and rigid paths for advancement.
- The responsibility and challenges of being your own boss—the buck stops with you, always
- Income fluctuations can lead to added stress and, potentially, cash flow issues
- You have to pay self-employment tax on top of your existing income tax
- You won’t get any employer-provided benefits like health insurance, paid time off (PTO), retirement and 401k matching, etc.
- It’s easy to feel isolated when you work remotely and primarily alone
- There’s potential for stagnation in your career and skills (if you aren’t proactive about it) without a clear path for promotions and advancement
If you read through those two lists and thought ‘Bring it on’, you’re in the right place!
How much money can you make as a freelance web developer?
One of the biggest concerns that new and aspiring freelance developers may have centers around income: how much can you expect to earn as a freelance web developer? And how can you expect to grow your income as you gain more experience?
Those are difficult questions to answer simply because there’s such wide variation in earnings for freelance developers. Everything from location to niche to experience can alter expected earnings, sometimes drastically. That said, several companies make a point of gathering data from thousands of freelancers to come up with baseline estimates.
Glassdoor is one such company—according to them, the average freelance web developer pulls in a little over $75k per year (as of March 2021). Here’s what their reported distribution looks like:
That’s a good baseline for planning purposes, but Arc (formerly CodementorX) takes it a step further by taking location, experience, and niche into account to see how each affects the distribution of hourly rates among freelance web developers.
According to their data, the average hourly rate for web developers in North America—across all experience levels—falls between $81 – $100 per hour, with the median slightly lower at $61 – $80 per hour.
There’s no way to know for sure how much you will earn as a freelance web developer, but it’s safe to consider the above estimates as a solid reference point for what you should charge and how much you can expect to bring in.
What it takes to be a successful freelance web developer
On top of concrete factors like your experience level and your niche, the biggest determinant of your earning potential as a freelance web developer is you. Freelancing requires that you play an active role in finding clients, building relationships, and securing well-paying work. In other words, how much money you can make as a freelance web developer largely depends on how well you convert new clients and turn them into longer term projects and referrals.
That requires a certain skill set and level of comfort with marketing and selling yourself. It also takes a commitment to reliably providing top-notch work, on time.
So, in addition to the web development skills you need, building a successful freelance career also requires you to be:
- A self-starter
Plus, you need to cultivate the soft skills to build client relationships for the long term.
If that sounds like you, great! You’re still in the right place.
How do I become a freelance web developer?
If you’re still here, it’s time to get into the good stuff—how can you become a freelance web developer?
The short answer is that there’s no cut-and-dry path to go from newbie to wildly successful freelance developer. With that said, there are some clear steps you can take to get your new freelance career off the ground and prepare your business for success.
Below, we’ll walk you through the 5 steps you can take to launch and grow your new business.
- Cultivate the right skills and knowledge
- Get your business set up
- Set (and raise) your freelance rates
- Secure your first projects and clients
- Build for the long term
Step 1: Cultivate the right skills and knowledge
If you’ve been a web developer for some time, you can probably skip straight to Step 2.
But if you’re new to web development or just a little rusty, cultivating the skills and knowledge that clients are looking for today is a vital first step.
On top of the characteristics and skills required to be a successful freelancer, there are some additional skills web developers, in particular, need to possess. Those include:
- Creative problem-solving skills
- A detail-oriented vision
- Code testing, debugging, and iteration skills
- A curious outlook and general love of learning to help you keep up with an industry that constantly changes
- The most obvious: a deep knowledge of the programming languages that apply to your niche (i.e. front end, back end, full stack, software, mobile app, etc.)
- A working knowledge of additional programming languages is also beneficial
Speaking of programming languages, there are a ton of them, and more developing and gaining popularity with each passing year. It’s nearly impossible to keep pace with every programming language—you’re better off focusing on the most popular ones, along with the frameworks that apply most to your niche as a developer. Those are the languages clients are looking for.
Here are the most in-demand programming languages as of 2021.
Python is also an incredibly popular and versatile language. It contains a number of libraries that enable developers to use Python code for tons of different builds, from web development and software applications to emerging technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).
An acronym for “structured query language,” SQL is built for managing, querying, and analyzing data. The huge growth of data warehouses and business intelligence (BI) tools over the last decade has turned SQL into a very in-demand programming language. Where data warehouses and BI tools aggregate mountains of data, developers are able to organize, analyze, and make sense of all that information via SQL queries.
As data grows in importance and accessibility, the demand for SQL programmers will likely continue to grow in the coming years.
On the more niche side of things, Swift is the go-to programming language for developing macOS and iOS applications. It was developed by Apple specifically for use in their operating systems, which explains its popularity in the space.
The majority of apps available on the App Store today are built with Swift code, largely because it was built with that purpose in mind. Swift code is uniquely equipped for the realities and needs of iOS and macOS development, meaning it’s often the easiest and best-suited choice for developers in that niche.
Another emerging language developed by a tech industry heavyweight, Go (also called Golang) was developed by Google. The idea was to create a programming language that combined all the functionality and quick run-time of the more complex C and C++ languages, without the complexity.
As a result, Go code is much simpler and easier for developers to learn, making it a popular choice among newer web developers. It’s also ranked among the most profitable languages for freelance developers, so it’s a good skill to add to your toolkit.
Unlike many of the popular programming languages above, Java has been around for a long time. Regardless of new languages and frameworks that emerge, Java has maintained popularity and sustained demand for years—it’s far and away one of the longest tenured on popularity lists like Stack Overflow’s.
Part of that comes down to the code’s central motto: “write once; run anywhere.” The resulting stability and ubiquity of the framework allow it to easily run across both mobile and web platforms. It’s a popular choice for developers building server-side applications, Android applications, and web development.
Web developer skills and knowledge required by niche
- For back-end developers → Python, Java, SQL, NoSQL, and Git, along with knowledge of accessibility and security compliance, some knowledge of front end languages, and database skills.
- For full-stack developers → All of the above
How to build up your skills
If you’re not familiar with the programming languages and other skills listed above, don’t fret. You can always build up your knowledge and web development skills. There are a few ways to approach that:
- Secure a traditional college degree in a field like computer science or IT
- Enroll in ad hoc online courses or programs to fill gaps in your expertise
- Work on personal and passion projects to boost your familiarity and experience
You can also opt for any combination of those options.
In our experience, online courses are one of the most popular and most effective ways to build up your skills as a developer—and they can be something you lean on for the rest of your career to stay current and grow your skill set.
We put together a more extensive list of specific online courses and programs for beginner web developers that you can reference. For our purposes here, we’ll give you the gist of that resource.
A myriad of developer-specific courses and programs are available through Khan Academy, Codecademy, Launch School, Techdegree, and web.dev (Google’s resource for web developers), among others. These can help with everything from learning a particular new programming language to more practical guidance on building a career as a web developer.
Beyond educational resources designed for the web dev community, there are also tons of courses available on more subject-agnostic online course websites, including Udemy, Coursera, and LinkedIn Learning, among others.
Step 2: Get your business set up
Now that you’re prepared to bring a ton of value to clients with your skills and expertise, it’s time to shift gears into more logistical planning for your new business. Before you start working with clients, there are a handful of things you need to do.
- Register your business
- Set up bank accounts for your business
- Outline your services
- Get your business tools in order
- Build your portfolio
Register your business
Registering your business with the proper governmental authorities ensures your business is recognized as just that—a business—for tax and other legal purposes.
To start, you’ll need to decide how to structure your business. For most freelancers, that’s sole proprietorship. That means the business is, according to Investopedia, “an unincorporated business that has just one owner who pays personal income tax on profits earned from the business.”
Registration requirements for sole proprietors are limited. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) offers great resources on state and local registration requirements.
Some freelancers opt to form a limited liability company (LLC), which offers business owners the flexibility and tax benefits of being a sole proprietor with additional liability protection. A lot goes into deciding on your business’ legal structure, so we recommend referencing our comprehensive guide on how to register your small business for more details.
Set up separate business bank accounts
One of the most important parts of operating a successful freelance business is to keep your business finances separate from your personal ones. That makes it easier to stay organized for tax season, track and forecast your freelance income, manage business expenses, and more.
It doesn’t have to be complicated—simply open up new accounts that are strictly for business finances and keep them that way. We recommend opening both a checking and savings account for your business.
Get your business tools in order
Beyond a bank account and a tax ID, your freelance business will also require a number of other tools and software to manage and streamline various aspects of the business. Those may include, among other things:
- Hardware, like a computer and the rest of your home office setup
- Project management software
- Proposal software
- A business email address
- Cloud storage
- Accounting and bookkeeping software
- Invoicing software
- A contract
Getting your stack in place before you move on to finding your first clients means you’ll be able to hit the ground running when your first projects start coming in.
Most of those tools are pretty straightforward, but as for contracts, it’s often worth the one-time investment to have a lawyer draw one up for you. If that feels out of reach, there are also templates available online (some free, some for a small fee) that you can customize to your business. Either way, be sure it includes:
- Responsibilities and deliverables you’re responsible for as the freelancer
- A clause stating you’re an independent contractor, not an employee
- Agreed upon rates and payment terms
- Provisions for terminating the contract
- A clause on copyright and ownership
Arc offers a more in-depth guide on contracts for freelance web developers, including templates and services you can use to create your own.
Build your portfolio
Onto more exciting aspects of preparing your freelance web development business—in this case, building your portfolio.
This process is largely personal. You can build a full custom website from scratch or add work samples to a portfolio platform. Whichever option you choose, every top-notch web developer portfolio should include a handful of elements:
- A simple, concise explanation of what you do
- Samples of your past work
- Social proof and results you’ve produced for clients
- A clear and quick option for contacting you
- Clean, professional design
- Quick load time
Beyond that, your portfolio can be anything you want it to be. Just remember to keep your clients, and the image you’re projecting, in mind.
For example, choose the work you include on your portfolio strategically, highlighting the clients and projects you want to work with most. And remember, as a freelance web developer, your portfolio itself is a sample of your work—so add some personality and treat your portfolio with the same professionalism and creativity you bring to client projects.
Step 3: Set your freelance rates
Now that your business is set up for success from a logistics perspective, it’s time to think about the financial side of things. While the prospect of making money is usually more fun than registering your business with the IRS, setting freelance rates can often be an overwhelming and fraught process. Particularly as a beginner, it can be really hard to get a sense of where to start and what kind of rates are even reasonable for you to charge.
So in short, there’s no straight answer we can provide as to what your rates should be—but! Understanding the elements you need to factor into your rates and looking at benchmarks for what other freelance web developers charge, can make the process a whole lot easier.
Let’s start with the factors you need to take into consideration when setting freelance rates:
- Your experience level as a web developer
- How you’ll price—hourly, per project, or something else
- The value projects offer to clients
- Your expenses and overhead
- Related: your location
- Industry and niche benchmarks
We’ll get into benchmarks and hourly versus project pricing in a minute. First, let’s talk about understanding the value clients get from your work—because that value underpins everything as a freelancer.
If you’ve been an in-house web developer, you may already have a sense of the value of certain development projects. If not, you can get a lot of this information from your first few clients.
For your first several projects (at least!), ask clients to share key results with you. For example, if your first project is to rebuild an ecommerce store’s website, ask them to let you in on how the new website impacted sales. Not every client will be willing to share those numbers, but the ones who do make it much easier to conceptualize the value of your work.
Freelance web development rates and benchmarks
Rates for working with a freelance web developer can vary a lot. All of the factors we mentioned above can alter what freelance developers charge—sometimes drastically. That makes it hard to come up with concrete rate benchmarks that transcend the industry. But it’s not impossible.
Arc (formerly CodementorX) does a great job of compiling tons of data into useful benchmarks for the hourly rates freelance web developers charge. Using their Freelance Developer Rate Explorer, you can view the distribution of rates for individual web dev niches like full stack, iOS, Python, web, and more. You can also filter the data to see how region and experience level affect those benchmarks.
For our purposes here, let’s look at the median hourly rates for different experience levels across North America:
- Junior developer: $41 – $60 per hour
- Mid-level developer: $61 – $80 per hour
- Senior developer: $101 – $120 per hour
And let’s look at average rates across a handful of common developer categories:
- Full stack developer: $81 – $100 per hour
- Front end developer: $61 – $80 per hour
- Back end developer: $61 – $80 per hour
- Mobile developer: $61 – $80 per hour
- Software developer: $81 – $100 per hour
Benchmarks for project-based freelance rates are a bit harder to come by, given they’re often quoted based on the specifics of each individual project. That said, Thumbtack took a stab at benchmarking the cost of a basic website build. According to their data, a project like that could fall around $6,760.
Hourly vs. project pricing
You may have noticed above that how you’ll price—whether hourly or by project—was one of the key factors you need to consider when setting your freelance rates. And you might be wondering by now, ‘Should I charge hourly or project-based rates?’
Both are common, reasonable options in the web dev industry, but they each come with their own pros and cons. Let’s take a look at those:
- PRO: Hourly rates are more comparable across the industry, making it easier to use benchmarks to find a rate that makes sense for your experience level, location, and niche.
- PRO: Hourly rates ensure you get paid for the time you spend on a project—all the time. That’s particularly beneficial in the case of scope creep.
- CON: Hourly rates often don’t correlate directly with the value of the end project, meaning you may earn notably less than the value your client’s enjoy from the project.
- CON: Charging hourly limits your potential income—because you can only work so many hours in a given week.
- CON: As you get faster and more efficient at your job, per hour rates actually penalize that. It doesn’t make sense for you to earn less for the same project if it takes you 30 hours instead of 50.
- CON: When you charge hourly rates, you need to track all the time you spend working on different projects meticulously.
- PRO: Project-based rates ensure your business gets more profitable as you gain more experience and learn to work more quickly and efficiently.
- PRO: Charging by project enables you to easily create rate tiers for different types of work. You can charge a higher rate for projects you have expert-level experience with, regardless of the amount of time you spend on them.
- PRO: Without project pricing, you’re locked into the cycle of selling your time. Instead, you should be selling your expertise, your skill, and the final product you create—a more profitable strategy for you and a better correlation to the value you create for clients.
- CON: Though both pricing strategies are common in the industry, charging per hour is slightly more popular. That can make it a harder sell to get clients to agree on project-based rates.
- CON: Project rates are harder to set—because of all the factors they take into account, they can vary widely and be a little ambiguous. If you’re new to freelancing, that can make landing on the right project rate more difficult than setting an hourly rate.
We recommend project-based pricing
Given the benefits and limitations of each, we recommend project-based pricing a vast majority of the time. In our view, the typical freelance web developer should opt for that route.
If you’re already charging hourly, or setting a project-based rate feels out of reach right now, that’s okay. Even if you’re charging per hour now or you decide to start with hourly pricing, you can always shift to project rates down the line. Doing so will make it easier to grow your income and ensure you’re earning more as your experience and skill level grow.
How and when to raise your rates
If you’re thinking, “I just set my rates and launched my business. Why are you talking about raising them?” we hear you.
However, your ability to grow as a freelance web developer depends on knowing when and how to raise your rates—and putting a strategy in place to ensure it actually happens. At a certain point you can’t (or don’t want to) work more hours than you are. When that happens, raising your rates is the only way to continue growing your business. And no one is going to go to bat for your value and income if you don’t.
In our experience working with freelancers, the how and the when are the biggest challenges for raising rates. As for the when, here are some subtle (and not-so-subtle) clues for when your rates are ready to rise:
It’s a new year. Regardless of anything else going on in your freelance business, you should increase your rates at least once every year. January is as good a time as any to implement rate changes.
You’re drowning in requests for work. It’s simple supply and demand—when your availability is scarce, that’s a really good sign that your work is more valuable than the rate you’re charging for it.
You’ve built stellar results for your clients. We talked about asking clients about results before, and that practice will continue to benefit your business and your pricing strategy. Did your website design increase a client’s conversion rate by 10 percent? Raise your rates. Did the ebook you designed bring in 300 new leads? Raise your rates. Great results are a clear sign that you’re creating value for clients, and your rates should reflect that.
You’ve added a new skill. Whenever you take a new course, master another design software, or add a new programming language to your repertoire, it’s time to bump up your rates.
You’re an expert in your niche. One of the biggest things clients pay for is your expertise. Whether you’ve gained general web dev experience or established yourself as an expert in your niche, that adds to the value you bring to every project.
You’ve made working with you even easier for clients. The experience of working with you is as much a part of the value you offer clients as your creative work. Your professionalism and the tools and processes you put in place add to the value clients pay for. So when you invest in making that process better for clients, your rates need to reflect that.
Knowing it’s time to raise your rates and actually implementing a rate increase are two very different things. Money conversations can be fraught and uncomfortable, especially when you’re telling clients they need to pay you more. You might worry about losing current clients or second-guess whether your work is actually worth the increased rate.
We’re here to tell you: it is.
Here are a few tips to help make conversations around raising your rates a little easier and less scary.
- Be proactive and over-communicate about rate changes with clients. That first invoice with your new rate should never surprise clients.
- Draw a connection between the increased rate and the added value you create for clients.
- If you want, you can allow repeat clients to stay at the old, legacy rate—while you increase rates for new clients.
- Make sure clients know your rate increases aren’t willy-nilly. Assure them you won’t be raising your rate after every project. You can also offer clients a guarantee that the new rate is locked in for a set period of time (say, 6 months) to help put them at ease.
- Be willing to be flexible. If a new rate is outside your client’s budget, plain and simple (but you don’t want to walk away) you can always offer to meet them in the middle.
- BUT you should also be ready to walk away from clients once you’ve outgrown them. As you gain experience and skill, not everyone will be able to afford your work—and that’s okay.
Step 4: Secure your first freelance projects and clients
Phew—now that you’ve done (nearly) all the prep work to start your business, it’s time to—well—start! In other words, let’s get down to landing your first project and client as a freelance web developer.
Your next step is to begin looking into where and how you’ll find clients.
Define your niche
We recommend starting this process by defining your niche as a freelance web developer. What do you do? Who do you do it for? Laying this out from the beginning makes it easier to narrow down where you’ll look for clients and the kind of project you’ll take on.
Make note of the answers to these questions, among others you may think of:
- Do you work with a specific programming language or framework?
- Do you build a specific type of project? For example, iOS mobile apps or data pipelines?
- Do you work for brands in a particular industry? Ecommerce, for example, or gaming?
- Are there projects you definitely don’t do?
Leverage your own network first
Once you know who you work for and what you do, the best place to start finding clients is within your own existing network. Whether you’ve worked in web dev for a while or you’re brand new to the industry, you probably have a broader professional network than you may think.
When you work within your existing network to find your first freelance development projects, you start with a foot in the door already. That means you’re spending time talking to potential clients that are more likely to close, instead of selling yourself to total strangers. Whether you have a previous relationship with someone looking for a freelance web developer or you get a referral, working within your network makes it easier to land jobs.
And this process doesn’t have to look like insurance sales. Let your colleagues, friends, and family know that you’re launching a freelance web development business. Tell them you’re actively looking for freelance projects, and you’d love any referrals they can offer. It’s as simple (and non-spammy) as that. Don’t forget to make sure you include a link to your portfolio as well as information for how interested parties can contact you.
Note: Your network isn’t just valuable at the outset of your business. As you grow as a freelancer, your network will grow, too—and it can be an even more useful channel for securing referrals and new freelance jobs.
Find where your clients look for web developers
After you’ve looked to your existing network, it’s time to find out where else your ideal clients are, and—more importantly—where they go to look for freelance web developers. That’s a long list, with clients listing freelance jobs and searching for web developers in a number of different places. Some of the best options for finding clients include:
- Job boards and marketplaces (those specific to freelancers or web development and more general sites)
- Web developer forums and communities
- Industry events (both IRL and online)
Let’s take a look at each of those places and find out which ones might wield your first freelance job.
Freelance and web development job boards and matching services
If you’re like many new freelancers, job boards and marketplaces may have been your first thought for finding freelance projects. There’s a good reason for that—many job boards offer a centralized place where you can find a lot of people hiring for web development jobs all in one location.
Job boards also offer one of the simplest ways to narrow down your search, offering filtering options like the job type, front end vs. back end vs. full stack, programming language or framework, rates, and more. Plus, you can often share your contact information and get alerts about new jobs that match your searches.
Some options for freelance web developers include:
Freelance web developer forums and communities
There’s a whole bunch of communities, forums, and social media groups dedicated to web developers online. From GitHub to Women Who Code, there’s something for just about every freelance web developer working in any and every niche—from front end development and UI design to full stack.
Online forums and communities offer all the same relationship- and authority-building opportunities of broader social networks like Twitter and LinkedIn, but their focus on the web dev industry makes them particularly useful for finding freelance work.
Not to mention, many developer forums have their own dedicated job boards right on the site.
If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few forums and communities to check out:
You can also find tons of great contacts and potential clients by frequenting web development conversations and groups on the bigger social networks and forums—specifically Twitter, LinkedIn, and Reddit.
There’s no shortage of programming and web dev events happening in a normal year, from large conferences and summits to smaller scale happy hours, code events, and more. Attending these events—and even speaking at them—is a great way to get your name out in the industry and build up your personal brand in your particular niche.
Plus, when you attend industry events, you can squeeze a ton of networking into a relatively small block of time.
Many events, like happy hours, are even designed specifically for networking. Plus, most conferences and larger-scale events schedule time and even mini-events to help attendees network and find jobs, too.
There are hundreds of events happening across the globe each year, so we won’t bother listing them here. A good resource for keeping track of them all is the dev.events list, which lists events by date, categorizes them by niche, and allows you to filter by region.
How pitch your freelance development services to potential clients
No matter where you find potential clients—be it from your own network or a total stranger at a web dev conference—you need to know how to sell yourself and your services. Even the warmest leads and referrals will expect you to be able to defend your skills, your rates, and why you’re the best person for the job.
There are a few likely scenarios when you’ll find yourself having to pitch your services:
- In response to freelance job listings on job boards
- In response to social media or community requests for pitches
- Cold pitches
Pitching is a more uncomfortable process for some of us than others, but it’s a necessity for freelancers to be able to sell themselves. And the good news is it doesn’t have to feel weird or spammy or braggy. In fact, the best freelance pitches are straightforward, concise, and offer genuine value to the recipient—they aren’t about you.
Pitching best practices
Your pitch will vary widely depending on the context, whether it’s cold or warm, and the details of the project. That said, there are a few guidelines every pitch should follow. For one, keep things short and simple—especially if you’re contacting someone cold. If you’re responding to a job listing you’ve seen, be sure to tailor your pitch to the details of the listing, and avoid sending anything that reads as a formulaic template.
Make your pitches human. They shouldn’t sound like a sanitized template, devoid of personality and humor. Be yourself, and recognize that a human will be reading the pitch on the other end.
One of the biggest mistakes freelancers make when pitching is to talk about themselves, and only themselves. It’s counterintuitive, but your pitch isn’t about you—it’s about the person you’re sending it to. Your pitch should reflect that. In a paragraph or two, weave together a narrative that focuses on the challenge(s) facing the company, how you can solve that challenge, and, crucially, how solving that challenge will affect the person you’re pitching.
Lastly, remember to always give the recipient a next step—a way to contact you, for example, or a link to your portfolio where they can view samples of your work.
3 steps to an effective pitch
- Do your research: Identify companies that can truly benefit from some web development help. Look into specific details around how you’d approach working with them and what you might do for the company. Then, identify the right person to contact. LinkedIn is a useful tool for finding people with a particular role or title in the company.
- Craft and send your pitch: Using the best practices above, write up your pitch. If you want, you can templatize the pitch afterward, but we recommend writing the first pitch with one recipient in mind. This makes it easier to write in a personal, human way.
- Follow up: Always follow up on pitches that haven’t gotten a response. It can feel like you’re annoying the recipient, but it’s also really easy for your pitch to get buried in someone’s inbox. Following up once or twice after your initial message helps ensure that isn’t the case.
Step 5: Build a long term, sustainable business
Now that you have your first project (or a few) under your belt, it’s time to work toward building a sustainable, growing business. A lot goes into building and growing a freelance business, but creating value for your clients underpins everything else you do. If you regularly do work that creates value for clients, and you make it easy to work with you, you’re well on your way to becoming a successful freelance web developer.
In other words, do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it, with a good attitude. That’s the tweet.
Turn first projects into long term business
As a freelance web developer, you’re never done prospecting and bringing in new business—it’s a constant process. However, there are several ways you can turn that process into something that gets a little less manual as you go. By building strategically, you can give your business the momentum it needs to continue growing organically.
Asking for referrals
As a freelance web developer, you’re never done prospecting and bringing in new business—it’s a constant process. Referrals from past and current clients are a huge part of that for a vast majority of successful freelancers. When clients routinely refer other companies to you, your business benefits from a steady stream of warm leads.
- Potential clients and leads trust referrals from colleagues, friends, and family
- When cultivated right, referred leads are pre-qualified
- Referred leads are easier to close, accelerating client acquisition
Here’s how to ask for referrals from clients you’ve worked with:
Step 0, before you make the ask, is to ensure you’re doing your part. Delight your clients first—be professional and reliable, create great work for them, and focus on building long-term relationships.
Next, follow up whenever you complete a project and ask for feedback from your clients. Ask them how you did and whether there’s anything else you can do to make working with you even better. Here’s a sample note to get you inspired:
When clients respond with positive feedback, thank them and ask for a referral. Your ask can be as simple as something like this:
The other side of asking for referrals is making sure it’s super easy for clients to refer work—good work—to you. In clear terms, let clients know what kind of clients and projects you’re looking for. Make sure they know where to send those referrals—to your email, for example, or your website or portfolio.
Note: When clients do offer a referral, make sure to thank them. You can even offer a small gift as an additional thank you and incentive to send more referrals your way. A charitable gift card is a nice touch, for example, or even some swag for your business, if you have it.
As powerful as referrals are, they tend to work on a small scale—one client might send a few others your way. To extend the reach of your happy clients, collect testimonials from them, too. Research shows that most people trust reviews and testimonials just as much as referrals from trusted friends and family. So collecting testimonials from your clients enables their goodwill to reach beyond their own network.
You can ask clients to write a testimonial for your services using the same basic format as above. Once you have glowing testimonials in hand, use them everywhere:
- Your portfolio and/or website
- In your proposals
- On your LinkedIn profile
- Other social media
Building your portfolio strategically
Now, we already talked about building your portfolio. But as your business grows and matures, your portfolio should evolve, too. By taking a strategic approach, you can turn your portfolio into an even more valuable asset as you go.
As you build up work experience and completed projects, you can display prominent client logos on your website. If there are big name players in your niche, having their logo on your website can lend a ton of credibility to your work. Given the value of working with clients like that, you can work strategically to secure them as a client. This is one situation where it sometimes makes sense to offer a lower rate—because you’re getting more than monetary value out of working with them.
Another huge authority-builder for your portfolio is cold, hard numbers. We talked before about asking clients to share the results your work produces. With their permission, you can add those results to your portfolio website. By showcasing concrete results on your portfolio (and elsewhere), you offer potential new clients a window into the kind of results your work can produce for them.
Lastly, be sure to think strategically about the kind of work you highlight on your website. Far from a repository for every project you’ve ever worked on, the work samples you provide should emulate the types of projects, and the types of clients, you want to work with in the future.
Building community as a freelancer
Lastly, it’s important to prioritize building a community with other freelancers. That can feel counterintuitive—other developers are your competition, aren’t they? But it’s vital for long-term freelance success.
- Fellow freelancers can be just as great a source of referrals as your clients
- Freelance peers can serve as someone to bounce ideas off of or provide guidance
- They may subcontract work out to you and you can subcontract work out to them when the time comes
- Cultivating a community of other freelance developers can help mitigate feelings of isolation that sometimes come with freelance life
There’s no extensive how-to for this one. Stay active in freelance developer communities online, be friendly, and always be willing to help fellow freelancers out.
Streamline your freelance business
Once your freelance business is cranking, it’s important to optimize and streamline your operations to be as efficient as possible. Doing so frees you up to do more of the work you love to do… which is also the work you actually get paid for.
Put a client onboarding process in place
Bringing new clients up to speed on your processes and getting the information you need from them can be time-consuming. Develop a system for this process as early in the life of your business as possible.
- Define the information you need from clients in order to get started on a new project
- Create a document that explains your process and policies, including rates, payment terms, accepted payment methods, timelines, and more
- Create email templates to streamline things down the line
Outsource non-core tasks
As your business grows, you might find yourself in a familiar situation: you go from having more time than money, to having more money than time. When that happens, it’s time to start paying for more time—by outsourcing non-core tasks. Doing so allows you to spend less time on activities that don’t generate revenue for your business, and more time on those that do.
Work to identify what those tasks are for your business and then outsource them to someone else. Administrative tasks like answering emails and following up on invoices, for example, are common tasks that can easily be outsourced to a virtual assistant (VA).
There’s a reason the gig economy is growing so rapidly, especially in the web dev world: Freelancing offers the promise of ultimate independence, freedom, and a great income. It takes commitment to build a successful business as a freelance web developer, but with the step-by-step guidance above, you’re ready to take the leap.