There are many resources on how to prepare for and land your first job as a Web Developer. But when it comes to starting a freelance career in the field, it's harder to find reliable information. For that matter, it's difficult to understand what people mean by "freelance" when it comes to the world of work.
The reality is there are many ways to work, and freelancing is just one of them. If you've heard the term tossed around and wondered what it means, or if you're even cut out for the freelance Web Developer path, then this article will help to clear things up. We'll explain what freelance work is, how it's different from a traditional job, some factors you might want to consider before you jump in with both feet, and how you can get started as a freelance Web Developer.
If you're looking for a particular topic, use the table of contents below to jump to a specific section.
- What is freelance work?
- What's the difference between freelance and full-time work?
- What skills are required to become a freelance Web Developer?
- How to get started as a freelance Web Developer
What is freelance work?
When someone says they're a freelance Web Developer, what they mean is that they can work for more than one company at a time. They aren't bound by the normal employment contract with all the usual clauses about working exclusively for one company.
Freelance also means that the professional is self-employed and working on their own schedule, which usually deviates from the typical 9 to 5 workweek. Terms that freelancers use also include entrepreneur, contractor, and independent consultant.
The beauty of freelance work is that the professional can choose which projects to bid for and which projects or clients they'd rather avoid. Because freelancers are their own bosses, they can also set their own hours, rates, and work location.
Many people choose freelance web development as their next career because it's flexible and offers many opportunities. As long as there's access to the internet, most Web Developers can create and maintain web pages from anywhere.
Other Web Developers prefer the freelance lifestyle because it allows them to work on many different projects at once. They can work for companies or other entrepreneurs in various industries, which can be wonderful if they thrive on learning new things and finding creative solutions to various problems. On the other hand, they can turn down work that doesn't excite them or line up with their skills. That's one major difference between freelance workers and someone with a boss who dictates projects and responsibilities.
What's the difference between freelance and full-time work?
One of the best ways to get a feel for what it would be like as a freelance Web Developer is to compare it with a traditional job working exclusively for one employer. As Pablo C., a member of our community, explains, working for yourself is quite different from working as part of a team:
"If you're going to be a freelancer, most likely you're going to be working by yourself, so you need to learn how to do everything required to successfully complete and maintain a project (you don't want your customer to go away when you're done)." — Pablo C., Software Engineering Manager
Aside from the lack of teammates to rely on, there are several other distinctions between freelance and traditional work, such as work schedules, location, and success metrics. Let's take a closer look at some of these differences.
The 9 to 5 vs. anytime
In a typical job, you'll have a set work schedule, where you'll need to be available either online or in the office for a specified period. Traditionally, this has been 9AM to 5PM in an office setting so that teams could collaborate in person and in real-time. More companies are working remotely now than ever before, so while the location constraint might have been lifted, the work hours remain rigid.
Freelancers, on the other hand, can work whenever they like (with some exceptions). Provided the client's project is delivered to them on time, it doesn't matter whether a freelance Web Developer works 8 hours a day for 5 days a week or 4 hours a day for 7 days a week — no one is holding them to set work hours. They do, however, likely need to be online for client meetings during the typical workday (if their attendance is required).
As a Web Developer, you might actually need the time flexibility. Perhaps you work better at night, or you have young children who require your full attention during the day. There are many reasons to choose to work on your own schedule but keep in mind that you'll likely be working more hours as a freelancer because of all the additional tasks you need to do, as Pablo mentioned.
Office-bound employee vs. digital nomad
Many Web Developers love their field because it allows them to work anywhere in the world, provided they have a laptop and a good internet connection. Freelancing means you don't need to show up at an office. Instead, you can work from your patio, dining room table, or even on a beach somewhere.
Most jobs will require that employees show up in person to an office. As we mentioned above, that's starting to change, but even if you don't show up physically, you're expected to show up online on a set schedule. Some companies require employees to be in the country they're located within, even while working remotely.
Steady paycheck vs. variable income
With a full-time job, you collect a regular paycheck. You know exactly what you'll be making, and you rely on your employer to make a living. For some developers, the security of steady pay makes traditional employment the better option.
Others are better suited to dealing with the ups and downs of a freelance Web Developer's income. For example, you might have a busy month where you're working on three different websites, and you can bill, for example, $2,000 for each. You've got enough money for expenses and savings this month, but then next month, you have a slower workload with only one small ongoing maintenance project for which you can bill $500. To be a freelance Web Developer, you'll need to be excellent at managing cash flow and have the mental toughness to make it through those lighter months.
Working as a team vs. a team of one
In a full-time job, most people will have teammates to lean on and learn from. If you're someone who loves to collaborate on your website designs, a team setting may be right for you. You can walk over to a colleague, bounce ideas off them, and ask for help. In general, the conversation and camaraderie of working with a team is definitely a plus when working for a company.
As a freelance Web Developer, you're on your own for the most part. You may find more collaborative clients, but most of your work will be largely independent. Even on larger projects where you'll go through code reviews or client review meetings, you're the one on the hook for the deliverable. It can be intimidating at first, but freelancing could be the ticket if you work best by yourself.
Assigned work vs. choosing your own projects
When you have a boss, they decide what work you need to complete. It doesn't matter if the website you're developing excites you — completing the work assigned is all part of the job.
Freelance Web Developers, on the other hand, get to choose which projects they take on. If they don't have a great experience with a particular client, they can move on and find a new one. There's much more freedom in freelance work to find projects and companies that are interesting, challenging, or fun to work with.
Company code best practices vs. choosing your own
Working within a company means adopting its coding standards and styles. You'll need to become familiar with how they expect code to be written, how code reviews are performed, and how to maintain documentation. You'll also need to use the programming languages they specify and work within the systems and workflows they've established.
As a freelance Web Developer, you have the power to choose the right programming tools and formats for the job. Some clients will dictate the programming language or website host, but many will allow the freelancer to determine the best solution. There's also more freedom in setting up your own best practices in how you write code.
Someone else's goals vs. defining your own success
Being employed means being evaluated based on a company or manager's metrics of success. Some employee performance reviews will be based on the number of programs you successfully created or the lines of code you wrote. Others will be based on reducing errors in a codebase or training new team members. As an employee, you don't decide how you succeed or qualify for a bonus or promotion.
Freelance Web Developers get to choose what success means to them. It could be simply working from home and choosing the clients who make work enjoyable. It could be completing three websites each quarter. It might be a personal income goal or learning a new website platform. It's your business, so you can decide when and how you succeed, which is quite powerful.
What skills are required to become a freelance Web Developer?
Like any Web Developer, you'll need all the technical skills required to build websites. The specific programming languages, libraries, and frameworks you'll use will depend on your specialization, but more on that later.
Web Developers need to be creative problem-solvers as well. They must consider end-users, design elements, accessibility, and client needs. Web Developers also need to stay on top of updates to programming languages and libraries, emerging website platforms, and new requirements for capturing data.
But when it comes to freelance Web Developers, they need to add an entire suite of skills, similar to what Pablo described for us above. Because freelance Web Developers don't have a company behind them, they'll need to develop the following skills or hire a professional who specializes in:
- Basic bookkeeping and invoicing
- Proposal writing
- Sales calls and meetings with prospective clients
- Writing professional emails/reports for clients
- Project planning
- Project estimating and budgeting
- Managing cash flow (both for business expenses and personal expenses)
The list goes on, but the last point deserves further discussion. Choosing the freelance Web Developer route means being comfortable with the income peaks and valleys. Some years will be more challenging than others. Freelancers must have an iron stomach when anticipating and adjusting their spending when business is slow. They're creative people, both in terms of the work they do for clients and in terms of how they support themselves.
Marketing is also a non-trivial aspect of becoming a freelance Web Developer. They need to constantly look for the next client or contract to keep their pipeline of work full and their income flowing. For some freelance Web Developers, this happens naturally by word of mouth — but for many others, it means creating content for social media, paying for ads, and scouring freelance job postings.
If this sounds like an entire second job on top of web development, it is. Freelance web development can be extremely lucrative and flexible, but it's also a tremendous amount of work and a lot of pressure for one set of shoulders. The bottom line is that each person needs to know themselves to determine if the switch to freelance work is the right move.
How to get started as a freelance Web Developer
Getting your freelance business off the ground is a much different task than learning new skills and applying for a traditional job. Both require the ability to develop a website, but in very different ways. As a freelance Web Developer, you'll need to spend time setting up systems and processes yourself rather than using ones that a business has already established.
Develop your programming skills
If you're new to web development, you'll need to get familiar with its required tools. You don't need a degree or years of experience. With the wealth of online programming courses available, you can learn all the skills you'll need at your own pace. Anton, another member of our community, explains that clients are usually more interested in what you can do than what school you attended:
"It can take a while to build up a head of steam as a freelancer, but it's entirely possible, and your clients won't care if you have a degree, just that you solve their problem. Build up a little history and some demand, and you're in control of your rates, after that you're in control of what kind of people and organizations you'd like to work with." — Anton, IT Professional
The programming languages you'll need to learn to become a freelance Web Developer will depend on the specific role you choose to pursue. Generally, there are three types of Web Developers: Front-End Developers, Back-End Developers, and Full-Stack Developers.
Back-End Developers are the counterparts of Front-End Developers, using tools like SQL and Node.js to build the invisible systems and processes that keep web applications running. Take your first steps into back-end development with the following courses:
Commonly referred to as programming jacks-of-all-trades, Full-Stack Developers can perform both front-end and back-end development. Just as importantly, they also understand how front-end and back-end components interact with each other. In short, a Full-Stack Developer can use a mix of any of the tools listed above to create an entire application from the ground up.
Start marketing yourself to find your first client
Next, you'll need to think about all the additional skills you'll need to run your own business. At the very least, you'll need your own website to promote yourself, and you'll need to find your very first client. For new freelance Web Developers, that's their first question: How and where do you find clients? There are many different places you can start:
- Create a profile on freelance websites, such as Freelancer.com and Upwork.com.
- Search job boards (like LinkedIn and Indeed) for "freelance Web Developer."
- Join professional networking groups for freelance Web Developers.
- Be active in online programming communities where you'll get to know other freelance Web Developers who might have overflow work or referrals for you.
- Search for remote jobs or contractor roles where you work as part of a larger team.
There are many ways to find your first client, and it's even easier when you're in the company of other freelancers.
Set up business systems and documents
Freelancers need a way to bill for their services quickly and accurately. There's no right way to do this, just what works best for the budget and person. But at the very least, you'll need an invoice template in Word or Google Docs to use, along with a way to accept payment. You could use a PayPal account, Venmo, wire transfers, or e-transfers into your bank account.
You'll also need a way to keep track of everything, from hours to project data to client conversations. It all sounds simple, but it can take up a lot of your time if you don't have organized systems ready.
Analyze your data to make improvements
Recording every part of your workflow will help you improve and become more efficient. For example, you can look at how long it takes you to create a certain type of webpage and provide a more accurate quote for your services going forward. After you've written one proposal, you can just tweak it for the next.
Build a portfolio
As we said earlier, freelance Web Developers need to know how to market themselves, and building a portfolio is one of the best ways to do so. The right portfolio will help you illustrate both your technical skills with all the tools in your tech stack and your familiarity with the development process.
If you need help building a portfolio, check out our Career Paths. Each Path will teach you the skills you'll need to launch your career in your preferred role and show you how to use them to create Portfolio Projects that'll impress future clients. Use any of the links below to get started:
Lastly, don't forget to keep track of what type of web development makes you happy — and makes you money, too. Some people call this finding your niche. Others call it working in the flow or finding your ideal clients.
The most important thing is to notice what you enjoy and what you do well. That's the intersection where you want to spend more of your time. As you get busier, you can work on more of what you love and increase your rates to match the demand for your expertise.