In this interview, Philip talks about how to become a freelance web developer, including the resources and character traits that helped him land his first client.
Can you give us a brief intro? How long have you been doing web development? What is your background and specialty?
My name is Philip Bowles and I first became interested in web development when I was 15 and played around with creating Star Wars fan sites…The web has come a long way since then. I took a different career path than most to get to where I am today. I worked at a grocery store through college and stuck with it upon graduating because I could never decide on a career path for myself. I had always told myself that I didn’t want a computer desk job (even though that was what I was always interested in). After 15 years of working in retail and spending 5 of those years as a store manager of a large natural foods grocery chain, I had decided I had enough and took the plunge.
The last thing I did before quitting my retail job was signed up for the Front End Web Developer Nanodegree at Udacity.com and got that certification. I definitely learned some things through the program, but I wouldn’t say it helped me land any freelancing gigs. I took it mainly to give myself some confidence and affirmation that I knew what I was doing. I had built a website for a local restaurant chain and one for a church in my parent’s home town as well as a number of portfolio projects from the Nanodegree. Getting the nanodegree helped me really to learn what I did and didn’t already know which I felt was really helpful coming from a self-taught background.
After getting my Nanodegree I took the plunge and turned in my notice at the company I had spent just over 10 years at. I didn’t have anything lined up but I had saved up about a year’s pay and was ready to devote myself full time to learning more about web development and finding a job. This was a big decision and not something I took lightly…The original plan was to spend a few months building portfolio projects and really investing all of my time into learning new skills and interview techniques. The idea of freelancing had always intrigued me but I never seriously considered it as a viable option, especially right off the bat….
However, before I started applying to jobs I decided to just test the waters…I stumbled upon Upwork.com (controversial I know, I could write a whole blog post about it, but it’s been an amazing tool for me to get started) and got extremely lucky landing my first client who has provided me with a ton of work since then. Once I got my first client, I was totally hooked and knew there was no turning back. One client lead to another, and another. The work just kept rolling in so I figured I must be doing something right. I never applied to any jobs and invested myself fully in establishing myself as a freelance web developer. I’ve been at it for just about a year now and it’s been quite the journey. There are plenty of things I would do differently if I had the chance, but overall I have been extremely fortunate in my endeavors and feel like I’ve learned enough in the first year to continue to grow my business moving forward.
Do you have any tips on people looking to move into freelancing?
Do you research – Read up on the reddit freelance channel, read blog posts, etc…Whatever you can get your hands on. There are a ton of possible mistakes to be made as a new freelancer. Learn from other people’s mistakes and read! I can’t tell you how many times I feel like I dodged a bullet because I had read about someone else’s horror story.
Save, save, save – Freelancing is scary. Especially when you first start out…The fact that you might not know when and where your next paycheck is coming from can be terrifying, especially when you have people depending on you, car payments, mortgage, etc… Make sure you’ve saved up enough that you can take care of yourself should things not go perfectly starting out. Ideally, you establish yourself by moonlighting first and slowly making the transition to full time freelancer.
Customer service – This is something that I feel gave me a huge advantage over other freelancers/developers. Working in retail for 15 years, I knew the value of great customer service and just how important it is when dealing with people. Every client I’ve had to date has had nothing but amazing things to say about working with me. I also had a few that had horror stories to tell me about their previous developer. It all comes down to communication and just treating people with respect and honesty. Great customer service is hard enough to come by in restaurants and retail these days…I feel like it is not a skill that many developers possess and this can be a huge issue when it comes to freelancing. You might be an amazing developer but if you don’t have the customer service/people skills, then who is going to go out and get your clients and take care of them? Every interaction you have with a potential client or current client is important and can determine whether or not you get further work with them or if they refer you to friends/family.
How do you find most of your clients?
I’ve found most of my clients to date on Upwork. It takes a little extra work to weed through all of the cheap jobs on there, but once you get started and you figure out how things work, there are actually a decent number of solid jobs on the site. I’ve been fortunate enough to obtain a good number of great clients through the site and some have referred me to friends and family. I’ve also landed a few jobs through friends and family. There is something to be said about this and you must be careful. Everyone has their own policy when it comes to working with family…But when you’re first starting out, I feel like you need to take every opportunity you can get. Tell everyone you know that you’re freelancing and what you’re specializing in. You never know when it could lead to another opportunity.
What does your typical work day look like?
This is one I struggle with and still haven’t quite figured out. I work from home and wouldn’t have it any other way. But I’ve struggled to find a routine I’m 100% happy with. I’m an early riser and find that I do some of my best work first thing in the morning. So I wake up at 6am and get started right away while I’m having coffee. Around 9 or 10 I’ll usually take a break and go for a run, shower, then get back to it. I’ll sometimes go out to eat or work from the local Starbucks for awhile but I typically eat lunch at home and enjoy working from my desk in my home office.
Do you have a proper office and how much thought went into setting it up?
Yes, I’ve got a small office in the house which I put quite a bit of thought into.
I invested in a sit/stand desk early on and really enjoy having the flexibility to move around as needed. I try to do most of my work at my desk because I feel much more productive with my 3 monitor setup, especially when developing a new site layout. When I’m on the road or working from somewhere else, I use a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 which I also enjoy and it can handle just about anything I throw at it. I’m still in the process of decorating the office and getting things just how I like them, but from a productivity standpoint I’m all set.
Are there any invaluable skills you believe a person must have to be a freelancer and work remotely?
Determination, discipline, routine, and people skills. You’ve also got to be able to take care of and enjoy all of the aspects of your business, not just the development side. Acquiring clients, onboarding, billing, all of it is on you. You’ve got to be disciplined above all else though because there is no one standing over your shoulder telling you to work harder or what to do and when. It’s all on you.
To you, what is the biggest advantage to being a freelancer? And are there any regular stresses associated with it?
I really enjoy not answering to someone else or doing mindless work just because someone said so. I can work with the clients I want to work with, do it in the comfort of my own home, and have the flexibility to work when I want to. Honestly, I put in more hours a week than I did when I was working retail. The difference is I enjoy what I’m doing now and I know that I’m investing that time in my own business and growing something that really matters to me. I also enjoy being able to (mostly) make my own schedule and take time off when I want to. This means a lot to be able to enjoy holidays with family and friends.