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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
“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!
I’ve presented on this topic in Sofia at the local meetup and at WordCamp Bilbao. Slides can be found on my SpeakerDeck.