How to succeed as a freelance developer

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Running a single-person web-development agency is hard, especially in the world of ecommerce, where I work. As a lot of agencies know, there are projects that turn a decent profit and others that seem to drag on into eternity. As a one-man/woman company, it’s even more important to make this process as smooth as possible – both for yourself and your client. It’s vital to keep your eye on profitability when developing ecommerce websites. As the solo developer, it’s all too easy to get sucked into a problem and end up losing out financially.

During my career as a senior web developer, I’ve seen the best and worst of what our industry has to offer. After parting ways with my company and travelling the world for a year, I decided to go it alone upon my return. Here I set out some of the best advice I’ve gleaned from my experiences, my contacts in the industry and the people who inspired me to take the plunge.

01. Get your pricing right

Can a one-man band charge the same as a large agency? Yes and no. Obviously your own overheads should be nowhere near that of an agency and the client will know this. What you want to do is price your projects solely on the quality of your work. If you’re a top-class developer, you might even charge a premium for your services. In many cases, undercutting the market rate by a small margin and delivering high-quality projects will lead to more business for you in the long run.

02. Be prepared

Ecommerce requires multiple elements working together, and information gathering at the start will lead to a smoother and faster process. This is case for a lot of different types of projects. The last thing you want is a website being held up because the client didn’t know they had to sign up for a payment gateway, write a privacy policy and input their product information. A delayed website means a delayed payment and an urgent re-shifting of projects to hit your own monthly targets.

03. Set honest lead times

You want to build a pipeline with honest estimates for starting and completing the project. If you fail because you double-booked yourself, you may just lose out on an entire project, which can be very costly. Always plan two to three months in advance; in my experience a typical WooCommerce or Magento website should take between four and eight weeks to complete. Have the next project lined up and ready to go, or supplement your lack of large projects with smaller items from within your network of contacts.

04. Outsource your hosting

Hosting can be profitable but also time-consuming. If you’re a wizard with servers and don’t mind taking the blame when things go wrong, then you can definitely make money here. However, there are partnerships to be struck in the UK where servers are bought and paid for by your clients and a generous monthly referral fee is given back to you from the web hosting company. This is a stress-free, worry-free income stream that can build up to big numbers over time.

05. Strike up partnerships

I work with over six separate agencies on all manner of projects. Not only does this improve my skill set but it also opens doors. A successful partnership is never a one-way street: although it may start out as a helping hand hiding behind the curtain of another agency, eventually it will lead to bigger and better things. I’ve picked up maintenance contracts, small one-off projects and even full website builds through these channels.

06. Charge for maintenance

Ecommerce is a different challenge compared to your run-of-the-mill 'brochure' websites; it’s not often a client will take their finished online store and disappear without a backward glance. Clients who sell online are always seeking an edge over the competition, which invariably leads to website maintenance, updates and improvements. Build this in at the start of the process and it will lead to an ongoing and mutually beneficial relationship. Non-ecommerce websites will also likely need maintenance so make sure you charge for this too.

07. Charge for training

It is incredible how often this is overlooked. Build in the charge for training your client because I guarantee you that if the client is untrained on the system, you will spend many unpaid hours teaching them when you could be doing what you do best – developing websites!  

This article was originally published in issue 311 of net, the world's leading magazine for web designers and developers. Buy issue 311 or subscribe here.