If you’re making the switch from a full-time job to freelance developer, it can mark an exciting new chapter in your career. So much demand across industries! Freedom to set your own hours! No bosses micromanaging you! The world is your oyster!
It’s true: One of the best things about freelancing is the flexibility and autonomy you get from being your own boss, explains Nicole Young, a freelance Full-Stack Engineer who hosts a YouTube channel about breaking into the tech industry as a woman of color. “You have complete control over the types of clients and projects you take and the time you put into it,” Nicole explains. “It’s very flexible and can work for anyone who has other things going on — which we all do.”
Of course, along with all of that excitement comes new challenges. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all that you don’t yet know — but don’t worry, you’ve got this. To help you focus your efforts, here are five things every developer should know before going freelance.
What’s your end goal?
Ultimately, it’s a good idea to have a goal in mind that will keep you on track.
The first answer that comes to mind is probably money, but try to think bigger. For example, freelancing helped Nicole transition from marketing into tech.
“I wanted to get as much experience as I could, as quickly as I could, [and] make sure I was getting real-world experience that better reflected what I’d be doing as I got into the field,” she says.
Of course, that’s not to say income shouldn’t play a role. (Freelancing helped Nicole stay afloat after quitting her job during the pandemic.) But even with your monetary goals, it helps to be specific.
Are you looking to pad your pockets with a little extra cash or hoping to make this your primary source of income? Will you be happy completing one-off projects here and there, or do you want to work on retainer for longer-term clients?
Identifying your goals will help you figure out what kind of jobs to look for and what to prioritize in negotiations, and it’ll also keep you focused and motivated when challenges arise.
What’s your niche?
Establishing your niche and figuring out what you can bring to the table will help you thrive as a freelancer, Nicole says.
But what is a niche exactly, and how do you find one?
People typically think of a specific platform (like WordPress) or language (like PHP) when trying to find their niche, but Nicole recommends taking it a step further and focusing on a specific industry.
For example, after working with several fashion and beauty brands, Nicole found her niche in e-commerce, helping small businesses and entrepreneurs build and establish their brands.
Do you see yourself helping startups get off the ground, or are you more drawn to the stability and consistency found in larger enterprises? Are there any specific industries you’d like to work in? If so, which ones are most in need of your current skills?
Speaking of your skills, you’ll also want to pinpoint your specific strengths. What can you do better than anyone else? There are a lot of freelancers out there — Zippia reports over 118,000 freelance Software Developers in the U.S. alone.
Utilizing your strengths from other fields is a great way to stand out from the competition. Nicole often incorporates her marketing expertise when she’s working with clients, assisting with branding, social media assets, and email marketing campaigns in addition to the engineering work. “People need more than just a good website,” she says. “They need consistent branding across all the digital places where their brand exists, and I wanted to alleviate as much of that burden as I could.”
How will you handle contracts?
As a freelancer, having contracts for the projects that you take on is key to managing expectations and protecting yourself. The last thing you want is to deal with a client that keeps moving the goalposts or refuses to pay you for your work. The first detail to figure out is: Do you want to get paid per project or for your time? There are lots of differing opinions here, so it’s a matter of figuring out what suits you and your working style best.
Once you have an interested potential client, you’ll likely spend your initial conversations figuring out your scope of work. Don’t rush this! Nicole has dealt with something freelancers call “service creep” (or “scope creep”), which happens when clients gradually tack on more and more work that goes beyond the originally agreed-upon project.
It’s an awkward situation: You don’t want to do twice the amount of work for the same amount of pay, but you also don’t want to risk damaging your relationship with a client (or your reputation). Getting a contract in writing (you can find templates with a quick Google search) that outlines the scope of work, your rate, and when and how you expect to receive payment prevents these uncomfortable situations. It’s even a good idea to include communication norms in the contract — things like how many meetings a week you’ll attend and how long you’ll take to return emails.
If you can afford it, it’s also a good idea to work with an attorney to draft an initial contract template specific to you and the types of services you generally provide. Then you can use that template as a starting point every time you start a new project. (To that point, if you’re ever discussing going into a longer-term retainer, it’s not a bad idea to get an attorney to review the contract, if that’s within your means.)
Having good communication skills will also help you manage client expectations: “A lot of people don’t understand what goes into the things you’re creating,” Nicole says. “They just see the results at the end, so they don’t understand that, for example, adding an integration onto their websites might take a lot more time and effort — and money.”
What will you do to market yourself?
If you’re serious about freelancing, you’ll need to market yourself. How do you plan on finding your clients? Before you create accounts on freelancing platforms like Upwork and Fiverr, Nicole recommends starting with your own personal network.
For example, spread the word that you’re freelancing when you’re socializing with colleagues or other folks in your industry, she suggests. You could even post a quick update to LinkedIn telling your network that you’re officially taking on freelance clients. “A lot of my first clients were gained primarily through word of mouth,” she says.
Or, you can share what you’re learning or projects that you’ve tackled on your social media platforms. Making videos on YouTube about her work is how Nicole built a personal brand — and a dedicated following of thousands of subscribers.
“Even if you’re just beginning, you likely have more knowledge and experience in code and design development than the average person, so that makes you an expert in your own right,” Nicole says. “And sharing whatever bits of value that you have is really helpful in building your credibility and expertise in that area.”
If this type of self-promotion feels insincere, consider sharing funny, insightful, or educational videos on platforms you already use, like Instagram or TikTok. Write a LinkedIn post outlining how you solved a particularly difficult problem. Or participate in online communities like the Codecademy Forums and Stack Overflow, answering questions, reviewing code, and helping other developers fine-tune their own projects. Who knows? Soon clients could be reaching out to you.
How can you maintain work-life balance?
Along with the freedom and flexibility that comes with freelancing, there’s also a ton of responsibility. Finding clients, building a brand, executing contracts, and completing assignments requires a lot of time and energy, and it’s easy to burn yourself out.
It’s important to make time for yourself and find activities that will help you feel renewed and refreshed.
For Nicole, having a set sleep schedule and morning routine ensures that she’s well-rested and ready to work, while also bolstering her physical, emotional, and spiritual health. For you, that could mean spending 20 minutes listening to a daily news podcast while drinking your coffee, going for a run or doing yoga before starting your day, or even wearing specific “work clothes” for when you’re working versus lounging. Similarly, try sticking to a set work schedule. It’s easy to always be on when you’re freelancing, but you don’t want to overwork yourself.
“I also like to journal,” Nicole says. “Just keeping a journal on Notion is really helpful when you need to clear your mind. I also use tools like ClickUp to organize all of my different projects and my schedule, which helps keep me on track.”
Lastly, she also relies on the concept of deep work, based on this book by Cal Newport. “Deep work is great,” Nicole says. “Taking time to pull away from distractions and really focus helps me get so much more done than when I have split screens and Netflix running in the background.”
How To Get Started As A Freelance Developer
Of course, before you launch your career as a freelance developer, you’ll need to build the right skills. That means learning how to code with the languages and frameworks you’ll use on the job.
- Front-End Engineer career path
- Back-End Engineer career path
- Full-Stack Engineer career path
- Data Scientist career path
- Data Analyst career path