The world of freelance web development is rife with stories of people who make hundreds of thousands of euros a year while working half-days from the comfort of their sofas.
The reality of this industry is, predictably, a little more sobering.
While freelance web development can certainly be a gold mine for those who know how to approach it properly, it’s also a fairly nebulous world, in which it is only too easy to get lost.
If you are considering a career as a freelancer, one question in particular may seem pressing – where does a freelancer actually go to find work?
That is a question we can answer – but not without a preamble.
This is the preamble. No, you’re not allowed to skip it
The world of freelance web development is one in which it is generally harder to find work than in that of salaried jobs. This is particularly true for devs who are just getting started. There is no such thing as a “Junior Freelancer”, nor will you have anyone to onboard you and show you the ropes.
This means that before going freelance, you should take a long hard look at yourself and answer this question: Am I really ready for this type of work? If you’re fresh out of a university course or a coding bootcamp (or even still a student), if your portfolio has a grand total of one-and-a-half-projects, and/or if you have no savings to hedge against hard times, well – perhaps you are not ready, and you should consider other avenues.
This is not meant to discourage you. It just means you need to build the foundations first. Find an entry-level job as a Junior Web Developer at a company of your liking, big or small, and work for them even just one year. Build your portfolio in the meantime. By the time you’re done, you’ll be in a much better position to go solo.
(You may think that, as a beginner, you could always find projects and build experience by offering to work for free. Pro-tip: don’t do that. Don’t even consider that. Especially not for friends and family. Make this your 11th commandment if you have to: you must never, ever work for a client for free.)
All right – where are the jobs?
Contrary to what the reams of articles being put out there by ChatGPT may be telling the world, specialised online job platforms are not where the freelance game is at. They may be useful for breaking into the industry (more on this later), but most successful freelancers use them rather little, and sometimes not at all.
Instead, it is more helpful to say that freelancers find work by gaining prominence in what we may term as their subnetwork. A subnetwork may be described as as a smaller, more specialised corner of any given professional network. It can be circumscribed in terms of skills and specialisations (say, building secure online transaction systems on PHP code), or more organically, by some common theme or thread (the subnetwork of people involved in building websites for restaurants, and maybe even more specifically Asian restaurants).
Subnetworks are small, and people within them talk. Thus, freelancers find jobs by getting jobs – their best asset is word of mouth referrals (I mean ‘word of mouth’ in the broadest possible sense, of course, so inclusive of online communication). The more they establish themselves as THE person to go to for a job in their particular subnetwork, the more job offers will come to them, instead of them having to offer themselves to clients.
The highest paid freelancers are typically those that regularly get sought out by medium-to-big companies looking for a specialist to work on a large-scale, long-term project. These contracts should be your ultimate objective as a freelancer – they offer all the safety and security of stable employment, but pay much, much more.
Becoming the Sub-Royals
A subnetwork is not like a club that requires membership. It is something decentralised and distributed, which is why learning to navigate it takes time and experience. Some online platforms facilitate community building, which make them excellent sites for subnetworking – think Twitter, Discord, Slack and (obviously) LinkedIn.
Thus, freelancers will often have an important presence on one or more of these platforms. This is what is sometimes referred to as “building a personal brand”, and it’s helped enormously by savvy content creation – on-topic posts on LinkedIn, blogs on Medium, videos on YouTube, which are then reposted on the freelancer’s profile until everyone in their subnetwork recognises them. In-person events, conferences, fairs, and trade shows – particularly if attended as a speaker – reinforce this process even further.
Knowing colleagues and other professionals through all of this networking is something that in turn attracts further work. If a freelance Digital Project Designer you know and worked with is offered a project that also requires a Web Developer, they are more likely to turn to you again.
Breaking in is the hardest bit
As you may have guessed by now, work in the field of freelance Web Development is something that snowballs: the more you have, the more you’ll get. So, since everybody has to start somewhere, how do you start having? Or, to phrase the same problem differently, how do you actually break into the subnetwork?
There are two things you will need for this. The first is a specialism of your own. Starting out as a freelancer with only a generalist’s bag of skills is the wrong approach, as well as a thankless task. You’ll find yourself sitting at the bottom of the slush pile for every job application, competing with hundreds of people who have your same exact skills.
Instead, get good at one or two things – but get really good. The second thing you need is a reasonably rich, curated portfolio. This should very much reflect your specialism, so put your skills to use.
Bear in mind that a single specialism won’t be enough in the long run – you’ll need to expand your skills eventually, and look outside your stack. But that’s not Step One, it’s Step Five or Six.
Once you have a specialism and a portfolio, you can turn to the online job platforms we mentioned earlier. The most famous are probably Upwork, Fiverr, and Freelancer, but there are more, like People Per Hour, Toptal and Guru, as well as more selective ones like Flexiple, if you can break into their premium ranks.
When getting started, don’t go after the easiest jobs – those always gets snatched up by the veterans of the platform, those who already have dozens of 5 Star reviews. Instead, look for jobs that relate to your specialism, and don’t be afraid to price yourself higher than you think you should – at least 50% higher, maybe more. You probably don’t know your own value, and it will help separate clients willing to pay for quality from those just looking to exploit the noobie.
Make sure you do a stellar job especially with those first few clients. And then keep the ball rolling, and keep up all the usual things that every developer should (open source projects, GitHub, Stack Overflow, blogging, staying updated on the latest technology trends).
In due time, people will start knowing, remembering, and recognising your name. And then there’s nothing left but to congratulate you: you made it into the subnetwork. It’s time to thrive.
Enjoyed this article? Check out our blog on How to kill it in your first year as a Web Developer for an even more extensive list of tips!