Saturday May 18, 2024

Freelance Web Development - Don't quit your day job

Author: Wayne Eggert
Date: 09/07/06

Freelance sounds very tempting.. no boss breathing down your neck, you can wear your pajamas to work, plenty of freelance websites and part-time work available through websites like,, and I'm going to take a wild guess and say if you're working for a small or medium-sized web development company, you've probably thought "Why am I only getting paid $15-20/hr when my company is charging $80-100/hr for a project." Well, you might not say that if you were a regular HTML monkey and all you did was code HTML while your colleagues programmed full-blown database driven web applications.. but lets just assume for the moment that you are more than a monkey -- you're a guru. Heck, you might even know some Unix *gasp*.

Take This Job And Shove It
..err, on second thought.. can I have my job?
Don't quit your day job yet.. that is of course, unless the company you're working for is *way* behind on payroll and you're going into debt (as was the case with yours truly).. then by all means QUIT NOW! Otherwise, check your company's policies on freelancing to make sure you're not going to get into any legal trouble with pursuing other forms of income while you're working at your current job. Remember that non-compete you signed way back when you naively figured all web hosting companies had 5-year non-compete agreements? Yep, it's back to bite you in the ass.

Lets say you don't have a non-compete.. or you spoke with your boss about doing some freelance work and he/she gave you the OK. The freelancing opportunities online seem pretty tempting -- and you have more experience than many of the knuckle-heads in your profession.. so why not quit immediately and get started raking in the dough? It's simple.. there are 3,435,983 other people just like you doing exactly the same thing and most of them are willing to work for far less than you can imagine. Okay so I made that number up, it's probably much higher.

So I Shouldn't Freelance
I didn't say that. By all means pursue other forms of income, but just realize it will take time, effort and a bit of luck to make freelance your full-time job. It might never happen, it's all in the cards you're dealt.. how you play the game, and how lucky you are in making good contacts.

Finding Freelance
Whatever freelance site you use, you're probably going to be bidding on freelance projects. You could of course find freelance work in forums or job posting sites, but it's much easier to use a site that was designed for freelance postings where you can monitor a category or easily search new postings without having to waste a ton of time searching through expired freelance requests. I should also mention that you're going to want to use a site with Escrow and other forms of buyer/seller protection -- it will be costly at first, but you can at least be reasonably certain that the time you're putting into a project will be payed out to you once the project is completed.

Lets take as an example, which I have used successfully in the past for finding freelance work. allows a "Seller" to post a project (freelance work request) and the "Bidder" (programmer) to place a bid on that project. It's like an eBay auction, only you're bidding on how much you think it would take to complete their project by the deadline. Once a Seller has accepted a bid, the money is put into Escrow and sits there until the Bidder has completed the work on the project. After successful completion of the project, the money is transferred out of Escrow and payed to the Bidder. It works very well -- the only catch is there are usually fees involved with using a freelance service.

Starting Out: Taking A Dive
You're going to take a dive when you're first starting out.. this is especially the case if you don't have an extensive portfolio or prior freelance reputation anywhere. So you're going to bid for a project, and most likely not get the first one you bid on, or the second, or the third. Someone somewhere has to take a chance on you, and it usually means you have to bid an obscenely low amount on a mundane task or be lucky enough to find someone willing to give you a shot. In my case, I was paid roughly $20 to spend 3 hours gathering quality links from a search engine on a specific topic. After RentACoder took their fees, I wasn't even making minimum wage. Be prepared for this.. but try not to stay down with the bottom feeders of data entry too long or you'll have people wondering why you've only worked on $5-10 data entry projects if you know how to program an e-commerce site from scratch.

Making The Right Connections
Network, Network, Network! It's going to be tough proving to people that you can do half of the things you tell them you can. Give them a resume if they ask, show them some samples of your work if you have a portfolio.. make them feel comfortable that you will be completing their project on-time come hell or high water, even if you know in the long run you're still going to lose some money on the 5 or 10 projects you do. It's important to build your feedback on at least one freelance site so you have an online reputation for use on other sites. And remember, if you do a good job -- you could have a customer who is interested in working directly with you and won't have to waste the time/money it takes to bid on and land a project.

Your Friends Overseas
One of the more frustrating parts of using the freelance sites will be your competition. It's not uncommon to see bidders from developing countries bidding $50 on a fully customized MySpace clone or something of that nature. I'm not talking about a customization of a script.. rather, a website built from scratch. You'll bid $200 for a project that you're lucky if you'll make $15/hr.. and someone else will bid $75 or lower. You have much more competition than you will realize -- but there are usually a few people who have had bad experiences with accepting these lower bids & want to hire someone they can communicate effectively with. Point is, you aren't out of luck if you submit 10-20 bids and they go to another coder. When bidding, just explain what your qualifications are, restate what they want you to do on the project and you should stand a pretty good chance of standing out from many of the canned responses that someone overseas would give.

IRS Blues
Another thing to take into consideration is the IRS will want some of your hard-earned money as well. Figure roughly 25-30% just to be on the safe side. Keep records of what you're paid and definitely keep this in the back of your mind as you continue doing freelance. You don't want to be caught with your pants down at the end of the year, having to owe hundreds to the IRS that you could have set aside as you were working.

Site Recommendations
My current recommendation for getting started in freelance online is Their site is fairly easy to navigate and search for new projects.. and while i think the interface could use an overhaul it works pretty well. The site can be slow at times, but you tend to find more lower-end projects that a beginning freelancer stands a chance of winning. You'll need to build up your ratings quick to stand a chance at making it worthwhile though.

I don't recommend -- I purchased an account with them and barely used it. They offer subscription plans, but lock you into bidding only on the project category you signed up for. If you want to bid on projects in other categories, you have to purchase a subscription for the additional categories. Additionally, the projects there tend to be higher-end and if you don't have a reputation elsewhere it's going to be tough actually landing a project or seeing any immediate income.

In Conclusion
If you're thinking of freelancing, don't quit your job just yet. With some time and effort, it can be worthwhile.. but it will likely be a rough start until you build your reputation. Remember.. network, network, network! There is some stiff competition out there and you're going to have to distinguish yourself from everyone else who is looking for work just like you. Have a portfolio ready, try to sell yourself some if given the chance to comment during a bid, and be prepared to take a few dives on projects initially. At least if it doesn't work out, you still have your 9-to-5.

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Site Recommendations
Posted 06/26/07 3:01PM by Jill
There are better ways to build a sustainable freelance business than bidding for projects and competing with overseas talent.

Check out

I have been working as a freelance software consultant for more than twenty years and find most of my clients are local (even if we never meet) and they want to work with someone who is local. They also want to work with someone they can easily contact whenever they have a problem or need advice.

It can be tough to get your freelance business started and I recommend having a 6-month runway, but there are definite advantages to being the boss.