How To Be a Successful Freelance Programmer & Developer From Day One
Want to make the jump to freelance developing? Read our latest post on all the things you need to know to succeed as a freelance developer.
Companies are increasingly using gamified apps, chatbots, interactive websites, and experimental projects to stay relevant and make a profit.
This rise in tech needs has made both developers and programmers a crucial business asset. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Outlook found the web development field will experience a 13% growth by 2028.
But in the age of costly mis-hires and coding normalization, how can companies, small and big, afford a full-time programming team for every project?
The simple answer is they cannot. But, they may be able to afford a freelance programmer at a few hundreds of dollars an hour.
What Is A Freelance Programmer or Developer?
A freelancer programmer/developer is a software professional who works with different companies on different technical projects independently, as a third-party expert.
Benefits of being a freelance developing vs full-time employee
As a freelancer:
You choose who you work with.
You choose the hourly or project-based rates.
You know the current coding trends and use cases.
You understand how to use the most popular languages and development frameworks.
You decide where, when, and how you work.
You always have multiple sources and marketplaces (like Toptal) to find projects.
You can use software and hardware you’re most comfortable with.
You can pursue other interests or side projects — like building a wellness app.
On the other hand, full-time employees:
Get benefits freelancing developers or programmers don’t have. For example, 401(k), health insurance, company stocks, etc.
Have a reliable source of income
Can stay motivated while working in a collaborative, team environment
Can learn the latest programming trends through their employer’s training sessions, courses, resources
Get more opportunities for structured learning, healthy competition, and mentorship
Both freelancing and full-time jobs have their advantages. In the end, which route you take depends on you and your career goals.
But know this, we're witnessing the transformation of the traditional workforce transitioning to freelancing. In fact, 35% of the US workforce is estimated to be freelancers.
And as companies adopt modern tech, freelance developers and programmers are in high demand but short supply.
So, here's the question: Although freelancing is an easier, lucrative career move, is it right for you?
How Do You Know If Freelancing Is For You?
It’s no secret working as a full-time programmer or developer is hard and stressful.
Besides, once you start freelance developing, you are the business. All the marketing, sales, admin, accounting responsibilities will fall on you.
Not to mention, you may not program anything in the beginning. Instead, you’ll be occupied with finding clients, building your personal brand, honing your business model.
When you do have clients, your pay may be irregular, client and business work may get obscured.
Don't worry, freelancing is still worth it, but you need to be ready.
If you tick two or more things off this checklist, then you have what it takes to become a freelance programmer or developer:
You don’t want a traditional 9-to-5 job
You are passionate about coding
You are easily motivated
You’re looking for a work-life balance
You’re okay being your own boss
You don’t mind networking (or meeting strangers)
You take the initiative to join and engage in communities
You’re emotionally strong
You don’t mind working an odd number of hours
You can praise, hire, or fire yourself
In the end, the decision to freelance comes down to how you want to balance work within your life, which work aspects you value the most, and what type of work you want to do.
How To Become A Freelance Developer Or Programmer
Made it this far? Then congratulations, you’re still considering becoming a freelancer.
Freelancing is not an easy decision, but it doesn’t have to be a bad one either. So, let's look at the different parts that will help you launch a successful freelancing career.
The first part is understanding the different ways you can learn and/or upgrade your programming knowledge and know-how.
You can choose from these three popular options to become a successful freelance programmer:
Coding boot camp
Educating yourself to learn programming languages is a valid and doable option… especially with tons of free and low-cost resources available online.
You can start learning in a few ways. You can sign up for an online course. You can buy a book (or an ebook). You can start a small project. Or, you can go in blind, hack, and experiment.
If you want online courses/resources, you can go to Codecademy, Coursera, Udemy, Freecodecamp, or Khan Academy.
And if you're a just-do-it kinda person, then do a project. You get to understand the use case AND have a portfolio item.
Coding boot camp
Another option is coding boot camps. As the demand for developers and programmers keeps increasing, many people are turning to coding boot camps to either learn or upgrade their programming chops.
Usually, the boot camps range from three weeks to six months. You can easily find them online and sign up.
Since bootcamp durations are short, the curriculum is usually hectic, and you’ll need to keep up without much breathing room.
Tip: Boot camps should be done as a supplement to your primary source of education.
For example, sign up for a boot camp when you want to learn a new language (like Apple’s Swift), or you want to test your programming efficiency.
The last and most traditional option is getting a degree or certification.
Although you can start programming without any formal education, many companies (even in Silicon Valley) tend to hire college graduates.
One reason is their curriculum includes a background you’ll need for programming, including math, computer, and programming theories and concepts. This level of exposure makes you a well-versed generalist.
Which option should you choose then? It depends on you.
What are you trying to learn?
How much money, time, and resource can you spare?
What kind of pay-off are you looking for?
What do you want to work on?
In any case, the rate with which technology, programming, and developer trends are transforming, you have to be a lifelong learner.
Programming Languages Worth Learning
Freelance programming/developing comes with a lot of decisions, deciding your target niche, setting your rates, managing your expenses, and with the booming gig economy, this lifestyle can easily consume your waking hours.
But the most defining decision is to know which programming languages you need to learn.
In the beginning, it's easy to undersell or overpromise, work on a wrong project, or do research (on your dime) to upgrade your working knowledge.
This brings us to the languages to learn if you want to be a successful freelance developer.
What makes this language versatile is you can utilize it for both server-side codes and client-side scripts. This duality allows freelancers to work as front-end or back-end developers.
Python: The fastest-growing programming language, Python plays a critical role in big data, which every company is trying to leverage to outgrow and satisfy consumer needs.
This means they need a tool to organize, process, visualize, and interpret data. Python’s statistical and numerical packages (including MySQL and NumPy) give it an edge over others in data science-related projects.
It's also ranked as the most wanted language for two consecutive years.
Swift: Apple’s replacement for Objective-C, known as Swift, is the new programming language that’s transforming iOS app development.
In addition to Apple making Swift open-source, this language makes it easy for developers to monitor changes in their codes without compiling and executing the code first.
As we move toward smartphone-driven consumerism, app development is here to stay. Just look at the number of app development gigs open on Upwork.
Java: Speaking of apps, we can’t forget about Android. Java ecosystem is the preferred choice for creating Android apps. Plus, the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) enables interoperability across a wide range of machines.
Java has also maintained a numero uno position on the Tiobe Index, which ranks popular programming languages.
Of course, there are other languages like PHP, Ruby on Rails, C++ that you can consider to learn.
One good way to know which languages you should prioritize is to search online marketplaces and job boards. The higher the number of gigs and budgets, the bigger the demand.
But there's a caveat.
How should you handle freelance competition?
Reconsider what’s your business goal as a freelance developer or programmer.
If you want to have more options and don’t mind endless prospecting (initially), go for popular programming languages. Or you can go in the opposite direction instead.
Basically, popular programming languages attract freelancers from every spectrum. This creates a supply shortage for projects involving less popular languages like C++.
You can use this shortage to your advantage and become a C++ expert. Then, you can differentiate yourself and charge higher rates without much friction.
Which brings us to the next part.
Do Freelance Developers & Programmers Need A Portfolio?
Yes, they do.
And this is true for every freelancer, irrespective of their services or background.
Portfolios are absolutely crucial to show your prospects why they should work with you instead of thousands of others (who charge less or have more experience).
Think about it. A prospect doesn’t know you or what you’re capable of. They need to see proof that you can be an investment (not an expense), either in the form of past projects, clients, testimonials, contributions. Anyone can make a claim, but without any data to back it up, no one will buy the story.
Whether you’re a recent graduate, a full-time employee, or a stay-at-home parent, you can start building your portfolio in a few ways:
Do a programming project:
Build an app
Build a website for a non-profit in your city
Revamp a website for free
Help other freelance developers with their projects
Contribute to open-source projects on GitHub
If you're full-time developer thinking of going solo, you can even:
Pick and highlight projects you worked on or led
Speak at events, give interviews on podcasts, write guest posts
Although you may not get paid for some of these options, you will instead get experience and a few recommendations, testimonials, or clients in return.
The most effective way to promote a portfolio is by creating a website (more on this later).
How To Get Clients As A Freelance Developer or Programmer
A crucial part of succeeding as a freelancer, clients can give you recurring revenue and motivation to keep working on your business.
When you start out, you can either choose to get customers on your own or visit exclusive tech marketplaces like CodeMentorX, Toptal, X-Team, etc.
Again, it comes down to your ambition and goals.
The former option takes longer and requires a higher level of indifference. Let’s say, you send a cold email to an ideal customer. They respond, and you start talking about building a custom CRM platform for them.
Fast forward, you haven't heard back from the prospect since you sent the proposal a month back. In the end, you spent months engaging with a prospect who didn’t become a client.
While this scenario is common and can frustrate even experienced freelancers, not all interactions play out like this.
It’s a good idea to pursue both options in the beginning to find your footing. This way, you can experiment with your services, pricing, messaging, and approach and optimize your business model early on.
For example, if you land a programming gig on Toptal, you can use a part of the earned money to get an email software or hire a part-time virtual assistant to handle your cold email outreach.
The point is, don’t dismiss both options before trying them.
Here are a few ways you can land quality clients:
Regularly visit specialized online marketplaces
Sign up to social channels your prospects and competitors use
Keep an up-to-date online presence and actively engage with programming/development communities
Share your portfolio on social channels and among your personal/professional networks
Post interesting updates on the projects you’re working on
Start building a personal brand
You can also check out clients or testimonials on your competitors' websites (or profiles), and email them asking if they're looking for help in other projects.
Saksham Kumar, a freelance designer and developer stays "active in various Facebook groups, online forums, Slack communities," interacts with other members, and shares his knowledge to get clients.
There’s one more powerful way to land clients: Referrals, with almost 84% of B2B decision-makers using them to start the buying process.
Start by asking your personal and professional network if they or someone they know needs freelance developing. Ask your social followers. Or reach out to local communities. See which method yields better results and go from there.
Bonus tip: If you want to be a freelance web developer, you can search platforms like Shopify, Squarespace, Wix for a client base. They already have millions of paying customers who always need help with their websites.
Benefits Of Using A Freelance Marketplace
These days, you can find freelance job boards and marketplaces for most of the niches, including programming and development.
Still, are they worth your time?
According to the Intuit 2020 report, 80% of big corporations are thinking of using more freelancers in the future, and 20% of Fortune 500 companies are already using Upwork.
Plus, almost 73% of freelancers use some type of online job marketplaces to find clients.
What are the benefits of using these platforms?
Immediate access to a large pool of high-quality companies
Vetted and screened network of talent
No payment, contract, and paperwork hassles
A certain level of protection for client-freelancer issues or disputes
Start and end projects easily
Identify which programming/development projects are trending
Popular freelance marketplaces
Toptal: The platform is home to a high-quality freelancer network. Its developer vertical is well-known for only allowing the best talent to become a part of its community, with just 3% of applicants passing the technical tests and vetting process.
Stack Overflow: This active community is a valuable resource for developers and programmers (of all levels) looking for answers to their coding questions. With 50 million visitors every month, its job board is perfect to find better developers and clients.
Hired: Hired's custom matching software helps companies find software engineers and web developers faster. Its search algorithms can also help brands eliminate gender and racial identifiers in their hiring process.
Building A Successful Freelance Business
1. Have the right mindset
The first step is to be in the right mindset, which is, you're a business.
Then, you stop focusing on the wrong things like working for a client (instead of working with them), doubting your rates, etc.
You approach every interaction and decision from a business perspective. This reflects in your work quality, client relations, and pricing too.
2. You’re responsible for everything
The second step is to know you’re going to be a salesman, marketer, legal counsel, admin, the CEO, and more. Of course, taking on all the roles can be terrifying. On the contrary, you become aware and manage your day-to-day with purpose.
3. Register your business create a website
The third step is to create a website and register your business. On the website, you can highlight programming background, resume, skills, projects, past/current clients, testimonials, other achievements/media coverage, client onboarding process, rates, contact form.
Both the website and registration lend authority to your business and help you write off business expenses or tax deductions. They also make it easier to hire people later on.
What are the other things you should focus on before promoting your business?
Deciding your rates
Deciding what to charge is difficult. You have to set a price on your work AND identify how you're going to charge the payment too.
In the beginning, most freelancers undercharge for their services. Thinking it'll get them projects and clients easily.
Unfortunately, undercharging is dangerous. You can wind up doing more work (even the one you didn’t sing up for) for less pay and gradually attract businesses that don't want a partnership.
To avoid making the obvious mistake, here are four pricing models:
Hourly refers to charging by the hour for the work done
Project-based pricing considers the entire scope of the project and charges accordingly.
Value-based pricing is a model wherein freelancers charge by the perceived value a finished product or project has for a client.
Milestone-based pricing is when freelancers bill the client once a certain task is completed over a set timeframe.
If you're unsure about what to charge, start by speaking with other freelancers, researching online, or asking your ideal customers what they pay for programming projects.
Kumar says, "I usually charge by the project, so I set the rate according to how complex a project is and how much time will it take to complete it.”
Identifying and leveraging your value
As a programmer or developer, it’s your job to fix problems and find solutions.
But as a freelancer, it's your job to look at the big picture. If you focus on only the technical details, you will produce average results, not quality work.
So, how can you determine what the big picture is?
First, understand what your image is. How do you wish your clients to would see you? What do you want to be known for?
Do you want to be the freelancer who completes milestones or submits work that leverages the client’s business strategy?
Let’s say, you want to freelance as a web developer. Instead of just creating websites per the client brief, you can learn the basics of search and content SEO and customize your project accordingly.
Or you want to work as a front-end developer. Then, learning about user experience and performance will enable you to build a platform for the optimized user journey.
You can even hire a few writers and offer a package to your clients, saving them time and effort.
Kumar offers a free audit report if his prospects are interested.
When you start adding ‘value’, you become a partner of your client.
Setting up accounting
It’s important to remember — from day one — that you’re managing a business. This means you will need to create proposals, contracts, invoices, and accounting reports regularly.
It sounds like a lot. But, there are solutions. If you're finding clients on your own, use as-a-service platforms to automate most of your business-related responsibilities. Tools like QuickBooks, FreshBooks, Wave, Zoho Invoice allow you to monitor your receipts, invoice and tax payments, etc. in a single dashboard.
And if you've landed a project via an online marketplace, all the accounting and invoicing will be taken care of for you.
Conclusion: Earn More In Less Time As A Freelancer
Remember, your goal as a freelance developer or programmer is to earn more in less time. Use this goal as your north star to drive your business growth.
Do not let the inconsistency, intensity (or the lack thereof), hard work put you off. When you finally pay your bills and still lead a good lifestyle on your freelancing income, the satisfaction and thrill won’t compare to anything else.
Freelance developing is here to stay.
So, be flexible, learn the (right) programming languages, and niche down.