Lessons learned from 7 years freelancing as a WordPress Designer and Developer

Seven years ago, I was stuck in a full-time job. I was overworked, under-appreciated, and I didn’t feel challenged. I was working as a Graphic Designer and wanted to transition to web design, but none of the companies I’ve worked for gave me a chance to grow in this direction. I felt trapped and I didn’t see it go anywhere.

This article is based on a talk I gave at the WordPress Meetup in Sofia on April 19 called “Lessons learned from 7 years of freelancing as a WordPress Designer and Developer” in which I shared my experiences.

Freelancing was on the back of my mind for a while, but I was scared to fail. After working many late nights again at my full-time job, I crossed the line of misery too far to turn back. I quit that same day.

While making this irrational decision, I didn’t even worry about the fact, that  I didn’t really know how to be a freelancer. I’ve never done it before. It was hard to find clients at first. For a long time I didn’t know how much I should charge. Luckily I had some money saved up, but that didn’t last too long. For the first two years I was struggling to pay my rent every month and I worked crazy hours.

Looking back, quitting my job to become a freelancer was a stupid idea! A really stupid idea, but something else was scarier than the uncertainties ahead. It was scarier to be trapped in a job I didn’t like. I was unhappy and it felt like I was wasting my time.

I’m not going to lie, it was hard for a long time. I feel like I’ve made every possible mistakes a freelancer can make. So I’d like to share the three most important lessons I’ve learned being a freelancer with you, so you have a head start. These lessons will also apply to small business owners.

Lesson 1: Improve your skills

If you don’t keep up with technology and trends today, you’ll be out of business tomorrow.

I’m sure you’re hard-working and dedicated. I’m sure you sometimes work late nights and weekends. So have I, especially the first couple of years. There’s no shame in that, sometimes that’s what it takes. You need to finish up a project or you took on too much work. I’m certainly guilty of that.

One of the biggest mistake you can make is to stop learning. Technology and web design trends evolve so fast. You have to stay up to date.

Schedule time to learn new skills

Over the years working on freelance projects, of course, I would pick up new skills. I would often take on challenging projects to learn new things. But learning a new way of doing something or a new programming languages is different, it will set you apart. I didn’t use SASS instead of regular CSS for a long time. Mainly because I didn’t have the time to teach myself. Well, I didn’t take the time to teach myself. Using SASS was such a game changer for me – it now saves me so much time during theme development. I wish I would have taught myself sooner.

So please, block 2 hours every week and dedicate it to learning new things – I call it Skills Dev. I block off every Tuesday from 10am to Noon –for me this time is not negotiable. Make it a regular thing like watching your favorite TV show every week. You take time out of your busy schedule to commit to that.

Remember all those things you’ve been thinking about learning? I’m sure you have a list! Pick one thing from that list right now and commit to start learning it this week.

Resources to learn new skills
If you don’t know where to learn new skills, good sources to get started are: Code Academy (fun, interactive dev courses that are free) and Lynda.com (large library of courses on development, design, and biz dev).

One of my next goals is to get better at JavaScript. You’ve probably heard about the WordPress REST API, hottest topic in the community right now. WordPress will be using more JavaScript on the front-end. Well, I wanna learn more about that. If that’s something you’re interested in too, check out Zac Gordon’s JavaScript for WordPress online course and A Day of REST conference, where you can learn from the experts who built the REST API.

To improve your business and strategy skills I can highly recommend Digital Strategy School, where I learned so many valuable skills that blew my mind and that my clients constantly praise me for!

Contribute to WordPress

Consider to contribute to WordPress, it’s one of the best ways to improve your skills. There are many different ways to contribute back to WordPress, even if you are not a developer. You can help improve the User Experience, translate WordPress, help with support, just to name a few. What ever it is you do with WordPress, design, develop, or blog, you can help improve it and learn a great deal while doing so. So check out the Make.WordPress.org blog and learn about all the ways you can contribute back.

Connect to Community

Local Meetups
Another great way to learn is to connect to the WordPress community. Find a WordPress meetup near you. It’s a perfect way to your local community and learn from one another! You should speak about a new skill you’ve picked up at one of the upcoming meetups. Scary thought?! You should do it! It’s a great opportunity to get exposure as a freelancer and you’re teaching your local community something new.

Attend WordCamps
Did you ever attend a WordCamp? There are 80+ WordCamps around the world per year! I can only recommend it! I personally like to pick events in places I’ve always want to visit, this way I can explore a new city while attending or speaking at a WordCamp.

“Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”
– Bill Nye

To me, community is one of my favorite parts about WordPress! You will always learn new things from amazing people. Check out the schedule of all WordCamps and think about applying to speak! I’ll be speaking at WordCamp Europe in June, which will take place in Vienna this year. If you’re there, say hi!

Lesson 2: Communicate your skills

Imagine a store in your neighborhood. It just opened. Even though there is a name on the front door, the shop windows are empty. You have no idea what type of business it is or what they sell. On your way to work, you sometimes pass the shop owner on the street, but he doesn’t engage in a conversation. Most likely you will never go inside that store to find out more. Two months later the business closes.

The business without a face
The same applies to your freelance business. If a potential client does NOT understand what your skills are. How YOU can help their business, they won’t hire you. They won’t take time out of their busy schedules to find out what you do. You have to make it very easy for them.

Talk about what you do
Do you know what the biggest difference between freelancers in the U.S. and the ones in Europe is? In essence, us Europeans, are humble people! Americans brag about what they do!

It’s not in our nature to brag about how good we are, or even about the latest cool project we just launched. But you need to talk about your skills. You should absolutely showcase your projects. You should write blog posts about how you can help clients. How else are they going to find out?

Update your website
I neglected to update my own website many years. Yes, my old website showcased projects, but I didn’t have an about me or services page. People like to see who they are working with, so put a face to your business.

My old website
My old website

One day a client I’ve worked with for years asked me: “Can you please tell me about all your services so I can take full advantage of it. I feel like I don’t really know what you offer.” He was absolutely right! Potential clients had no idea when they visited my old site. I did get projects request through my old website, but I attracted the wrong type of clients – mostly low budget projects.

Reposition yourself as you grow your skills
Over the years I improved my skills, I now offer much more than just web design. I’m specializing in User Experience and focusing on Content Strategy. Each website I create has a unique design and is built from scratch for that client. However, on my old site, the visitors could only see was the end result, the finished design. Potential clients didn’t understand the process or value I was providing. The value is what is important for clients. This is what sets you apart from others and this is why I was able to raise my fees over the years. The more value you provide, the more your services are worth to clients.

On my new website. It clearly states what I do and why clients should work with me. Since I’ve launched my new website last year, I am receiving a lot less project requests, but potential clients who contact me now are more suitable. Businesses who are looking for custom websites. Clients who understand and are willing to pay for the value I provide.

My new website
My new website

So, be a little bit more like an American freelancer! Update your website this week to tell people how good you are at what you do!

Lesson 3: Choose your clients wisely

Freelance is defined by the projects you decline, MORE than the projects you do!

Especially at the beginning of my freelance career I was desperate to make money. I took on every projects that came my way. Most of them were no fun. Almost all of the projects were low-budget. Some were rush jobs – also no fun. This meant I sacrificed my evenings and weekends to work hard to make a minimum wage.

Why you should vet all new clients
A couple of years ago, I worked on a website for an artist. Her budget was low, but she seemed like she knew what she wanted. I assumed it would be a quick project. Half way through the development phase, she provided “new design ideas” and started to change the design that has already been approved. Since I wanted to make the client happy, I implemented the changes. She continued to tweak the design and the site looked worse and worse.

As a designer, I didn’t feel like this client trusted me. I worked long hours to finish the project for very little pay. And worst of all, I ended up launching yet another project I didn’t want to put on my portfolio.

One of the mistakes in this case was, that I never spoke to her on the phone. All our communication was over email, so I didn’t fully understand what type of client she was and that she wasn’t a good fit.

I want to work with passionate people. Small business owners who trust my expertise and are excited to work with me.

What happens when your messaging is clear

Communicating what I do best and who I want to work with, helped me attract the right clients.

I recently launched a website for a renown WordPress and BuddyPress developer. He was scaling up under a new name and approached me to work on his website. This project was so much fun, because the client communicated clearly what he was looking for and trusted me. I had creative freedom and he gave me great feedback throughout the process. It was a true collaboration. Together we launched a website that I’m proud of and we both enjoyed the journey together.

So please, clearly define what your ideal client is. Make sure they are a good fit for your skill set and your personality. If you have a bad feeling about a client, you are absolutely allowed to turn down a project!

In retrospect

Looking back at how stupid my idea was to suddenly quit my job and become a freelancer 7 years ago, I now know it was the right decision for me. I learned a lot the hard way, but I couldn’t be happier now.

Today, I work and travel the world as a location-independent freelancer. Costa Rica, Australia, and Spain are just three of many beautiful places I’ve worked from in the last year. I connect with local WordPress communities where ever I go and speak at meetups and WordCamps every now and then. But most importantly, I get to work on fun projects with amazing people.

Rock climbing in while I spent a month in L.A.
Rock climbing while spending a month in L.A. last year

“Happiness is the highest level of success!”

Make a list of all your projects. Sort them by how good you feel about them. And commit yourself to drop the last three of the list. You deserve to be happy. Only if you are truly happy, you can be successful!

WordCamp Switzerland 2015

I always enjoy meeting new people and catching up with good friends in the European WordPress community. This past weekend I went to WordCamp Switzerland, a very well-organized, fun WordCamp.

The single-track lineup, a mix of full sessions and lightning talks, was excellent, for one because the selection of topics was diverse and more so because all speakers shared their personal experiences on the topic they spoke about. The event venue was setup perfectly to connect with many of the 200 attendees in between sessions and during breaks.

WordCamp Switzerland 2015 – Q&A with WordPress Experts Pascal Birchler and Konstantin Obenland
WordCamp Switzerland 2015 – Q&A with WordPress Experts
Pascal Birchler and Konstantin Obenland

I had the pleasure to speak at the event and share my experiences working remotely as a WordPress freelancer. I shared reasons why I love working remotely and the challenges it come with. How I stay motivated and find community. You can find my slides on Speaker Deck.

WordCamp Switzerland 2015 – Petya Raykovska
WordCamp Switzerland 2015 – Petya Raykovska

The Contributor Day Sunday drew quite a lot of experienced and first-time contributors. It’s always great to see more people getting involved and giving back. Petya gave a great intro and her enthusiastic nature draws you right in! I decided to join the Polyglots team this time and really enjoyed translating 400 strings of the iThemes Security plugin into German. If you speak multiple languages and you’d like to contribute to the Polyglots team as well, you can find more information at: https://translate.wordpress.org

A huge thank you to all the organizers (Karin, Silvan, Noel, Andrew, Pascal, and the rest of the amazing team), the volunteers and sponsors for putting together such an amazing event and fun after-party!!

See you again next year!

WordCamp NYC 2014

WordCamp New York City is only a few weeks away and we’re busy with the final organizing stages of the event. We were very excited to announce an amazing line up of speakers and Saturday’s and Sunday’s schedule.

We are also planning a Contributor Day Friday! Make sure to sign up and join us in making WordPress even more awesome!

If you don’t have a ticket yet, make sure to get your ticket soon! We’re selling out fast!

I’m Attending WordCamp NYC – August 2-3, 2014


Image credits: New York City Skyline by Wikimedia Commons

UX – A Checklist for Real Websites – Presentation at WordCamp Seattle 2014

I attended WordCamp Seattle for the first time this year and the local community is thriving! I met many talented new people and a lot of friends. I had a great time speaking about User Experience best practices in front of such a great audience! Thanks everyone again for attending and asking many questions!

My session was titled “UX – A Checklist for Real Websites

Description: Boost the User Experience of your website with these easy-to-follow, real-world examples and best practices! Don’t abandon the project after launch – analyze and iterate to improve the UI and usability of any website.

I’m volunteering and speaking at WordCamp Seattle 2014


I’m excited to volunteer and speak at WordCamp Seattle for the first time this year! The event takes place on June 28th filled with great sessions and a Contributor Day on Sunday. I like Seattle a lot – to me it is such a relaxing place, so I can’t wait to visit again.

My session is called “UX – A Checklist for Real Websites“, please stop by if you’re attending the event.
There will be a live stream of the event, so if you can’t be there, feel free to tune in!

Hope to see you in Seattle, make sure to say hi!

UX in the Real World – Presentation at WordCamp Philly 2014

It was a pleasure and honor to speak at WordCamp Philly this year! Attending and speaking at WordCamp’s is always a great opportunity to meet the local community and share ideas with other WordPress Designers and Developers.

It was my first time at WordCamp Philly and Brad, Liam, Doug, April and the rest of the organizers and volunteers did an amazing job! The sessions were well curated and the hallway-track was a great opportunity to make new friends.

This year I spoke about User Experience and WordPress. Everybody is always talking about User Experience, but what is it and how can you improve the usability and user experience of your website today? I shared practical, real-world examples and tips to boost your WordPress design skills. The premise is, to not just build pretty websites, but to make smart design decisions and add UX best practices to your workflow. Asking questions like: Do I really need a large slider on my homepage? Are there clear nav menus and Calls-to-Action to guide my visitors? How does my site displays on other devices? A good UX job continues after launch using Google Analytics and other tools to analyze and iterate.

Here are my slides from the presentation:
Don’t Just Build Pretty Websites — UX in the Real World



5 Key UX questions to ask before (and while) designing any website

ux-questionsDesigning a website is more than just creating a pretty UI design! It starts way before drawing the first line, with understanding your client’s needs, the purpose and goal of the website and the target audience(s).

During the course of the project, new questions may arise or old assumptions might prove to be wrong, and you might need to alter your course. This is all part of the exciting design process and makes for a fun journey you’re walking together with your client!

To not lose focus and to make it easier to design a great product, I always keep these questions in mind and ask them at the beginning or during a project:

1. What is the user goal of the website?

Probably one of the most important questions of all. One some clients, at first, have trouble verbalizing in detail, but it’s a great exercise to answer this question. The user goal might change over the course of a project as we define the other questions below, but we always need to come back to it and make sure that all design decisions align with it to not lose track of the goal and purpose of the website. What is the focus of the website? What kind of business is it promoting? Make sure these things are well communicated to the user upon first visit.

2. What is the business goal / purpose of the website?

Of course also very important, but often very different from the user goal. Make sure to understand the expectations your client has for the project. How he/she measures success. Try to put tools in place to measure success, such as Google Analytics to capture user data and behavior.

3. Who is the target audience?

With the above two questions you already have your first two user groups: the users and the client. Though both are equally important and the client pays your bills, only the users who visit and interact with your website make it a success, so focus on a user centric design! What different user groups and audiences does the website speak to? If it is an existing website use Google Analytics or other tools to learn more about your existing users. If it is a new project, make assumptions about your target audience(s) by asking the client, doing competitors analysis, and industry research.

4. Will this feature / element improve the overall User Experience?

With all the hard work we put into each project, we want to make sure we are always improving the User Experience with every decision we make. Sometimes we are tempted to add the latest bells and whistles to a new project without any need for it. I strive for my client’s websites to be a success, therefore I need to make sure to align my design decisions with the goals and expectations of the project.

5. Are my assumptions right?

After launch we should not rest! Now is the time to review our assumptions, get user feedback, and to iterate! A website is a living breathing thing that should not be launched and sit there stale for years – these times are over. An iterative process can help shape the success of a website and is also great for SEO!

Each project will have more than just 5 questions, but I start with these. But answering these questions and collaborating early will lead to a better User Experience for the user and a more successful product.

I’m speaking at WordCamp Philly about User Experience and WordPress

I’m super excited to be speaking again after quite a while and I’ll be kicking it off at WordCamp Philly Saturday morning. I’ll be speaking about User Experience Design and WordPress, best practices and why you shouldn’t just build a pretty website!

If you don’t have a ticket yet, make sure to get one, they go fast: http://2014.philly.wordcamp.org/register/

Hope to see you there!


I’m Speaking at WordCamp NYC 2012!

I’m excited that WordCamp is returning to New York next month! I will be speaking about Responsive Design with WordPress. The session is called “WordPress Responsive Design Bootcamp” and is scheduled for Saturday, June 9th at 11:30am. After a brief intro about what Responsive Design is, I will dive right in and make a standard WordPress Theme responsive.

For those of you that are interested in attending WordCamp NYC it will be held on June 9th and 10th at Baruch College. You can expect 2 full days of WordPress goodness with over 60 sessions, lots of Geekery and you can meet many WordPress rockstars in person.

To buy tickets and find out more go to WordCamp NYC at http://2012.nyc.wordcamp.org/ or follow them on Twitter at WordCampNYC – hashtag #wcnyc.

I hope to see you all there! Make sure to say hi.

WordCampNYC – June 9-10-1

Image credits: New York City Skyline by Wikimedia Commons

My Responsive Design Presentation at NY WordPress Meetup

I had the pleasure to present about Responsive Design in front of a fantastic audience at the New York WordPress Meetup. We explored the techniques and principles of Responsive Design together, including the Flexible Grid, Fluid Images and Media Queries showing examples of how these principles can be used to create a user-friendly experience across all devices and screen-sizes.

I shared this event with Jack Reichert who spoke about the pros and cons of Responsive Design and Progressive Enhancement vs. Graceful Degradation.

This video covers:

Responsive Design
What is it and why the future of the web is Responsive.

Understanding the Elements of Responsive Design
How Flexible Grid and Fluid Images will rule you world.

The Power of CSS3 Media Queries
Using Media Queries with common Resolution Breakpoints in mind.

The Pros and cons of Responsive Design
What people are saying about Responsive Design. Is it right for you?

Progressive Enhancement vs Graceful Degradation
The essence of Adaptive Design: If you want to use the cool stuff, build it up right so you don’t shoot yourself in the foot.

Implementing Adaptive Theme Design
Concrete steps you can take to make your theme Adaptive.

Additional links:
My Presentation
Tools & Resources for Responsive Design