5 Steps to Become a Freelance Web Developer

I’ve been a freelance web developer for just over 15 years. I’ve also taught over 11,000 students about freelancing and web development. In this post, I’m going to share with what I’ve learned through all the about becoming a freelance web developer.

Here’s what we’ll be covering:

Let’s jump in:

Step #1: Is freelancing right for you?

Yes. This is a step. Freelancing has become one of “those things” now. Like college and technology, it’s the “it” thing that “everybody should do”. I don’t believe that. For some people, freelancing will be a disaster.

So, take a minute and evaluate this.

You’re not a good fit for freelancing if:

  • You’re highly risk-averse
  • You value job security over freedom
  • You have a hard time with ambiguity
  • You freeze when you get stressed or anxious
  • You have a hard time saying “No” to other people

It’s not a judgment against you. But, this is simply the reality of freelancing. There’s risk, not much job security, a TON of ambiguity and stress and you have to be good at, or at least, be willing to GET good at telling people (paying you money, mind you)… “No”.

So, think about it.

Can you really deal with those things?

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Step #2: Figure out your service offerings.

First, you need to figure out what services you’re going to offer. And, I mean know, very specifically, what you’ll offer. Just saying “I’m a graphic designer” or I’m a “web developer” isn’t enough. We’ll start there, but we need to get much more specific.

The 5 steps to figure out your service offerings are:

  • Your Category
  • The End Result
  • Features
  • Packages
  • Prices

Let’s start with your Category.

This is the one place where it’s all about YOU. Most services at this general of a level are going to have a market, so you don’t need to worry about profitability all that much at this point. Just pick the thing you enjoy doing most. You likely already know what this is.

Graphic design, web development, writing, etc.

This is the general service.

And, frankly, where most people stop. We’ll get much more specific, but start here and ensure it’s something you really do enjoy doing.

Next, is the End Result.

The majority of your clients don’t want a “service”. They don’t want “graphic design”, they want a logo. Or a website mockup. They don’t want a “web developer”, they want a website. Or a mobile app.

Clients think in terms of “end results” or “objects”, not services.

So, your service offerings should reflect that. Fiverr is a great place to figure this out. Forget the pricing and all for a second, Fiverr pushes its service providers to “productize” their services. To transform them from services into products.

So, if you go under “graphic design” on Fiverr, you’ll see things like “logo design”, brochures, posters, CAR WRAPS. They’re all “things”. End results… not services. That’s what you want to do. And, Fiverr is a really good place to figure out what’s SaaPs (Service as a Product) are popular in your category.

Next up is the Features of your service.

Click into just about any gig on Fiverr and you’ll see a section like this:

This list of features tends to be common across all gigs in the same category. These aren’t random. There’s no question in my mind that a lot of research and data went into picking these features, in particular.

So, at a minimum, your service offering should include these things, as well.

If you’ve ever seen a pricing table like this:

That list of “what’s included” is what we’re building here. And, again, Fiverr is a really great place to start finding what those items should be. You can also google your service offering and look at what other freelancers in your market are doing.

Also, try to look for things that others aren’t offering that seem obvious to you.

Or, that you could offer.

This is one way you can set yourself apart.

Now, we need to Package our services.

We’ll go back to this:

But, this time, notice the packages across the top AND how certain features are not included in some of those packages. That’s how you turn your services into product packages. We can, also, go back to this one:

Notice some of the subtle differences in the packages.

This, again, is what you’re after.

So, do the research and figure out what your service packages look like.

Finally, it’s time to Price your services.

I’ll be straight-forward with you, pricing is tricky. The biggest mistake people making is searching for the “right” price. There’s no objective “right” price. Value is subjective. Your services will have different values to different people.

It also depends on exactly what you’re offering.

How good you are.

How much authority you have in your space.

Your pricing strategy (something that is almost never talked about by freelancers).

There’s all sorts of factors that affect price. Heck, even the examples I’ve used here. Prices on Fiverr tend to be lower, because Fiverr spend years touting itself as the place you could “get anything done for just 5 bucks”.

Nothing to do with you.

Or, your service.

Simply, their platform.

In any case, there’s enough there and it’s such a critical piece of this (you can do everything else right, but get this wrong and still get no clients, as a result) that I created an entire course on it. It’s in my Freelancing 101 series and it’s called What Services to Offer.

If you’re interested, you can learn how to get free access to that course here.

Ok, now that you’ve got your services offerings figured out, it’s time to get clients:

Step #3: 3 Ways to Get Clients.

One nice thing is having your offer clear and based on real-world data like I’ve showed you here… that’s 90% of the battle. You put the right service offerings in front of the right people and they’ll tend to sell themselves.

Still, though, people will need to find them.

So, how do you got about getting clients. There’s several things you can do. I’m going to cover the “Big Three”: Freelance Sites, In-Person and Content.

Let’s start by talking about freelancing sites.

You’ve likely heard of freelancing platforms like Upwork or Freelancer.com. The nice thing about platforms is they do most of the work, for you, of getting clients to their site. So, there’s a lot less “marketing work” that you have to do.

Upwork, for example, has thousands of new jobs posted to its platform every day.

The downside of platforms is they’re ultra-competitive. They have millions of freelancers all fighting for the same projects. And so, it can be hard to stand out and get hired when you’re brand new to these sites.

As for as how to get clients with these platforms… the thing is, they’re all different.

Upwork VS Fiverr VS Toptal, for example, those are all completely different platforms and require completely different approaches. The biggest piece of advice I can give you that will apply to any platform is to take some time and see what the top freelancers on these platforms are doing and model that.

Get a client account if you can.

Or, do some research in Google.

And, look at a bunch of different profiles of the most successful people on a platform. And, I mean look at a LOT of them. Because, as you do, you’ll start to notice trends. Things common to their profiles.

Note those things and be sure to include them in your profile when you create it.

Also, take a look at their job history if you can (Upwork allows this, for example) and trying to get a read on their bidding behavior. What kind of work did they get early on? Did they take lower paying jobs at first, then move up? What kind of jobs do they tend to bid on now?

Things of that nature.

There’s a ton you can learn just by looking at what successful people on the platform do. And, a lot of the information is right there for you to see. Also, if you plan on going on Upwork, you might be interested on my free Upwork tutorial here.

I’ve done all this research for you.

So, it can save you some time.

Next up, is getting clients In-Person.

This is one of the most underrated ways to get clients, but was super effective for me. I joined two local business meetup groups when I lived in Omaha, Nebraska. Each one met once a month and every time I went, I got 2 or 3 leads people looking for a web developer.

And, every one of them came from someone who’d never actually seen any of my work!

I just showed up and they assumed I was good and wanted to hire me. It’s a bit baffling, but it happened consistently for over 2 years until I moved to a small town in the middle of nowhere.

So, if you’re in even a moderately-sized town, there are likely local business meetup groups in your area. Or, if there’s a bigger town nearby, it’s worth traveling a bit. Usually, you can look them up online (Meetup.com is a good place to start) OR ask the businesses you hire.

If you have a local insurance agent, lawyers, realtors, plumbers, electricians… these meetup groups are very common in these industries. Just ask them, “hey are you apart of any business meetup groups?” If so, ask “does your group already have a [whatever you do]”… graphic designer, web developer, etc.

Most local businesspeople are more than happy to talk about it.

And, these groups are usually starving for people that offer digital services.

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Finally, then, is Content.

Content has been my bread and butter. You’re probably here reading this now as a result of some other content I produced. It’s such an effective way to get clients if you focus on the right things.

So, blogging, YouTube videos, podcasts, social media posts, etc.

There’s so many places and ways to get your content out there.

A couple big pieces of advice I’ll give you here.

First, focus on metrics that matter. One mistake a lot of people make is thinking in terms of the content they see from other people who DON’T do what they do. For example, if you’re going to create YouTube videos, you might go and look at popular YouTube creators.

Some of the big ones are PewDiePie, Markiplier, Logan and Jake Paul.

The problem is they don’t DO what you do.

They’re comedians/entertainers… you’re not.

You’re a service provider. They make their money through ad revenue, merch sales and sponsorships. You make it through providing a service. So, the kind of content you need to create to build trust and get people to hire you is NEVER going to get millions of views and make you super popular.

Take me, for example, a coding tutorial is never going to get 100 million views on YouTube.

But, there are music videos and comedy clips, etc… all over the place the regularly reach that mark. Point is… you’re playing a different game. You’d be surprised how well you can do and how much you can make from a couple-hundred well-targeted views on YouTube.

So, focus on metrics that matter.

Second, lead with value. I know this is such a cliche term, at this point, but it’s still very true. Don’t just blast out links to your services. Create content that educates, entertains and inspires people… in particular, people who would be highly interested in your services.

THEN, include a link in your content somewhere to your services.

I call it the 99/1 principle.

99% content and value, 1% selling.

You can look at just about any piece of content I’ve ever created on any platform and get an example of it.

The third thing is to focus on problems. When you’re trying to figure out what content to create, don’t think in terms of the shiny utopian world you can create for you client. Think in terms of the dirty, ugly dystopia they might be currently experiencing.

The analogy I like to use is… imagine you have a thorn stuck in your side.

And, the pain is excruciating. Every time you move it wiggles deeper into your skin and the pain gets sharper and more intense until you almost can’t bear it.

Then, two people come along.

One says, “hey, looks like you’re feeling bad. Well, I’ve got just the thing for you. It’s my new proprietary wellness system that helps you to feel great.” And, they drone on for an hour about how great their wellness system is.

And, all you can think about is the pain in your side.

Then other person says simply, “I can show you how to get that thorn out.”

Which are you going to immediately leap to? Which is the easier “sale”? So, if you focus on figuring out and then creating content around the ACTUAL problems your potential clients are having… you always be on the right track.

So, that’s a lot on that, but if you want to dive into using content to get clients, take a look at my Turn Into Clients course here on Skillshare. It goes into a lot more detail about exactly what to do.

Step # 4: Deliver your services like a pro.

Now, you’ve got your offer, you’re getting clients… it’s time for you to deliver AND, most importantly, deliver in a way that makes clients want to hire you again and give you referrals.

If you don’t know this, yet… repeat clients and referrals are the key to a freelance business.

It’s very difficult to stay afloat and make the income you want to make if you’re not getting these two things. And, it comes down to how you deliver. The experience you give clients as you work on their project.

Lesson 7 of my Beginner’s Guide to Freelance course is dedicated to this topic and all the little things you can do to wow your clients. but let me give you two big ones.

These two “X-factors” I’ll give you here that are more important than people tend to realize… and will make your clients say “wow”, come back to you for work again and again and talk about you to everyone they know.

The first one is Speeeeeed.

Yes, you have to do things “right”. You have to deliver a good end result. I take that as an assumption you already know. But, how fast you do it is one of those things that can blow clients away.

With most freelancers, time is always a problem from the client’s perspective.

Things never move as fast as the client wants them to.

So, if you can reverse that and get things done FASTER than they expect, it will boggle their mind. And, they’ll talk about it to everyone they know. Now, how do you actually DO it?

Two things.

First, is to set expectations. I always told my clients a project would take longer than I thought it would. For a membership site, I’d tell them a month…

  • Because I knew that’s what most of my competitors would tell them
  • Because I knew I could actually do it in about a week.

So, I’d tell them a month. Build it in a week. Tell them about it after two weeks. And, blow their mind. So, I was moving slow for me, but FAST from the client’s perspective. I did this for years and years and years.

And, every time, clients would remark and how fast I was.

And, it was simply a matter of setting expectations.

If I’d told them a week and delivered in two, they’d have been annoyed. Both scenarios, I delivered in the same amount of time — two weeks — but HOW I set expectations made all the difference.

Second thing is to have a delivery plan. Don’t just wing it. Write down the macro steps involved with delivering on a client project. Estimate how long you think each step will take. Mark out key decisions the client has to make along the way and build a roadmap for how the project is going to go.

The first time you do it, it won’t be perfect.

But, learn from each client experience, update the roadmap and eventually, you’ll be cranking out projects using this guide with zero doubt in your mind how and when it’ll be done. And, as a result, you’ll deliver incredibly fast.

So, that’s speed.

The other “X-factor” is communication. Freelancers are notorious for communicating poorly and clients having to drag updates out of them. Which, again, is an opportunity for you. Communicate well and you can immediately set yourself apart.

As far as how to do that, think of ways you can communicate proactively.

Write them down and insert them into your delivery plan. Make communication as fundamental a part of your delivery as changing the color on a logo or writing your HTML code. It’s that important and will pay dividends if you do.

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Step #5: Scale your freelance business.

At this point, you’re getting clients, you’re delivering, clients are loving what you’re doing… it’s time to grow this thing. The thing to remember is there are only two ways for you to make more from your freelance services:

  • Charge more.
  • Take on more work.

I see a lot of freelancers default to #2. But, I recommend you actually start with #1. If you’re getting enough clients and you’re feeling that strain of wanting to make more, but you’re worried about being able to handle more clients…

That’s the tell-tale sign that you need to raise your rates.

I recommend you do it WITH your current clients, but I can understand if you don’t want to.

That can be a difficult conversation.

At a minimum, start charging any NEW clients a higher rate. Then, if you can and want to, replace existing clients with these new clients. That may seem harsh, but you’re going to have to make some tough decisions if you want to scale your business.

I always give my existing clients the option:

“Hey, I’m raising my rates to X/hour. I can understand if you have some heartburn about that, but I have X new clients wanting to hire me at that rate, so I’d be foolish not to take it. Let me know if you’d like to continue working with me at the higher rate or not.”

When I did this, I lost some clients at each new level I raised my prices to.

But, it was about 50/50… which was much better than I’d imagined in my head.

And, even the ones who decided to leave, they weren’t mad.

They understood… they just couldn’t afford it.

So, there was never any drama about it. At least, for me.

As for taking on more work, you’ll reach a point where YOU can’t take on anymore work. And so, you’ll have to consider if you want to hire employees or not. That’s a big decision. And, I think it comes down to who you are and what you want out of your business.

I, for example, worked in management for about 10 years and hated it.

So, when my business got to that level, I was like “oh hell no”. And so, I just stayed there and I was fine with it. That said, there’s two things I recommend you start doing NOW to prepare for that moment.

The first is simply thinking about it from time to time.

It’s a BIG decision and not one you want to make without a lot of thought.

It’s easy to think, “Man, I’m just trying to get my first job right now. I’ll worry about that later.” But, I’m telling you… it will come up on you quick and can leave you flat-footed. Not every day, but from time to time, think about it.

The second thing is document, document, document. All the little processes and routines and things you learn along the way, write them down. Develop SOPs (standard operating procedures).

So, if you do decide to hire someone, you can hand them a document that shows them exactly how you want things done. It’s a huge weight off your shoulders AND it gives them a clear path to deliver in the way you want it done.

And, it’s 1000 times easier to do it now as YOU are learning…

Then to try and come back later and write it all down.

Whew! Okay, that’s lot. But, hopefully, that gives you some clarity around how to get started and grow your freelance business. Let’s do a quick recap:

  • First, decide if freelancing is even right for you
  • Productize your services and create packages to sell to clients
  • Join a freelancing platform like Upwork or Freelancer.com
  • Find and join any local meetup groups in your area
  • Start creating content to attract clients and sell them your services
  • Create a delivery plan for your services
  • Embed key communication points in your delivery plan
  • Document what you do into processes in case you want to hire employees
  • And grind, grind, grind.

Now, the ball is in YOUR court.

What’d I miss? What questions or fears do you still have? Let me know how I can help you in your freelance career. Just drop a comment in the comments section below and I’ll be updating this post regularly to answer them.

Do you want more freelance clients?

I’ll show you what I learned over the last 15 years to grind out (from absolute scratch) a backlog of new clients wanting to hire you. Who your best client prospect are, what services you should be offering them, where to find them and more. Just enter your email address in the box below and let’s get started:

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John Morris

JOHN MORRIS

I’m a 15-year veteran of freelance web development. I’ve worked with bestselling authors and average Joe’s next door. These days, I focus on helping other freelancers build their freelance business and their lifestyles.

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Lewis Howes

John is amazing at building membership sites. He converted one of my sites over from it’s existing (hardly working) platform over to the clean and simple to use WishList membership platform. I highly recommend using John and WishList for any of your membership site needs.

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John is a fantastic and patient tutor, who is not just able to share knowledge and communicate it very effectively – but able to support one in applying it. However, I believe that John has a very rare ability to go further than just imparting knowledge and showing one how to apply it. He is able to innately provoke one’s curiosity when explaining and demonstrating concepts, to the extent that one can explore and unravel their own learning journey. Thanks very much John!

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On the Freelancing on Upwork course: “This is by far the best course i have watched on Skillshare!! Thank you so much.”

Bob Patterson

Not only is John a very talented programmer and developer, he is also an excellent communicator. He has a talent for taking complex subjects and communicating them in terms that anyone can understand. This is a rare combination. This ability has enabled me to take my skills and knowledge to the next level. Thank you John for for all that you do.

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