The Most Challenging Part of Becoming a Freelance Developer

A few weeks ago a Micropreneur Academy member asked about getting started as a freelance developer since freelance development can be more conducive to getting started as a Micropreneur.

My first reaction is that becoming a freelance developer (or starting your own consulting firm) can also be a lot less conducive to launching a product. Instead of being able to justify a somewhat fixed salaried workday, you find yourself working longer and longer hours as client demands increase. In addition, freelance development requires a lot more mental energy than being a salaried employee. Mental energy that can’t be spent launching your product.

The next step after becoming your own boss is to realize that you only get paid when you work. When you take a week off you get squat. So even if you raise your rate dramatically, you discover that you have to be constantly working, in addition to having no leverage. Bah – that isn’t what you signed up for!

But that’s an aside.

In terms of his question about becoming a freelancer, by far the most challenging part of becoming a freelancer is finding work. To ensure a steady stream of gigs (and income) you can’t just jump in and expect to pull jobs from Elance and Craigslist. Those are low-dollar meat markets and you’ll be lucky to pull in more than minimum wage since you’re competing against people halfway around the world.

A better approach is to focus on your strengths and from there determine the method(s) that will work best to differentiate yourself from every other the freelance developers around the world.

My Experience

Back in 2002/2003 I spent hours writing a sales letter and emailing it to 15 local design firms, offering my services as an outsourced development staff (I coded in PHP, .NET and Java at the time). I combed my local Craigslist daily and responded to posts looking for freelancers, and I kept an updated resume on Craigslist, Monster, Dice, Guru, and Elance.

I spent well over 100 hours over the course of a couple months, and all of this resulted in exactly 1 contract amounting to about $10,000. This was good, but I quickly realized I wasn’t going to make a full-time living (in the U.S.) with that approach.

A friend of mine runs a small consulting firm and he made 1000 or so cold calls last year. That approach may or may not be for you. He keeps his people busy so it obviously works for him, but I don’t have the verbal salesmanship nor the fortitude to make that many phone calls.

Writing and Launching

What finally broke the door open for me was starting this blog. Actually, it wasn’t starting the blog, it was sticking with it for a year. I invested around 500 hours during the first year and absolutely no one was listening.

Then a strange thing happened. Through a series of events – (a) I figured out my market and (b) came out of the Google Sandbox – my traffic and subscriber numbers increased dramatically over the course of a few months and I began receiving requests from people asking if I would do freelance development work for them. I increased by rate nearly 30% in 3 months due to the amount of work coming my way.

Sticking with my blog had completely changed the game for me.

Another thing that brought in a very nice contract was an article I wrote for asp.netPRO. The article took me 10 hours to put together, I got paid $500, and got a $30k contract out of it. Not a bad deal.

I also received several development requests when I launched a Micropreneur venture called FeedShot (which I later sold). FeedShot became popular right out of the gate and I received several requests for freelance work the few weeks after it launched.

Moral: Do Something Publicly

Every public artifact I created (this blog, articles, launching a new site) incrementally increased my credibility, and increased the number of development requests I received. In the end you have to invest time to build your name. In my case, and I’ve heard this is typical, it was years.

But the way I looked at it I was either going to invest 500 hours on my blog, or make 1000 cold calls.

In the end you’ll need to find your gifting and figure out a way you can use it to do something people will notice.

  • If you can write, write articles or blog
  • If you code, become a high profile contributor to open source projects
  • If you enjoy speaking, start speaking at user groups

Anything relevant that you can do in public will increase the chance that someone will come to you looking for development work. And that’s the position you want to be in.

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#1 Robert on 09.29.09 at 10:15 am

Thanks for the encouraging words. It’s nice to see persistence pay off. Keep up the good work.

#2 Mike on 09.29.09 at 10:41 am

I’m not sure I know what you mean by the “Google Sandbox”?

I like that you made sure to indicate that what happened for you worked for you but isn’t necessarily the path that everyone can or should take. Unfortunately not all of us are going to get published. Plus the fact that trade mags are getting less and less relevant (especially in print form).

Thanks for sharing your story!

#3 Rob on 09.29.09 at 11:25 am

@Mike – You can find a definition of the Google Sandbox here:

It’s widely debated in SEO circles whether it actually exists, but I know that Software by Rob started receiving substantially more traffic from Google around the 18 month mark, indicating either a sandbox or an emphasis on the age of my domain.

However these days many (including me) find that brand new sites rank high for search terms very quickly and then disappear from the rankings unless they continue to receive a lot of new links. Someone coined the phrase “Reverse Sandbox” which is a pretty good description of it.

#4 Matt Doar on 09.29.09 at 6:35 pm

Writing a book helped. Having lots of contacts was good. Being a partner of a tool you customize was the best.


– 3 years as a consultant for software tools (JIRA, svn, Conference, wikis, SCons etc)

#5 Balaji_Getfriday on 09.30.09 at 6:05 pm

Wow, I hadn’t thought about it that way before. Good write up, very clearly written. Have you written previously about Google Sandbox? I’d love to read more.

#6 Rob on 09.30.09 at 11:51 pm

@Balaji – I haven’t written about the Google Sandbox before, but there’s a lot of info out there on the subject.

#7 Dave Parillo on 10.06.09 at 1:38 pm

Excellent – a very simple, straightforward explanation of a huge hurdle if you’re thinking of freelancing. Good advice.

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