advice

Twenty Years as a Freelance Web Developer: Wisdom Gained and Lessons Learned

In the summer of 1998, when President Clinton fended off allegations of sexual impropriety and Donald Trump filmed a cameo in a Woody Allen movie, I embarked on my career as a freelance web developer. Twenty years and more than 300 websites later, I’m still at it—always working on my own and always from home. Over that time, I’ve had the pleasure of partnering with many prominent advertising agencies and boutique design firms as well as scores of local businesses and individuals.

Those interested in making the switch to freelancing have often asked me for advice, and I’ve been happy to help with whatever words of wisdom I can provide. This article is a distillation of much of that. And it may prove helpful not only to developers and programmers who wish to freelance, but also designers, project managers, copywriters—anyone who desires to work independently from home in our industry. It’s a career path that I have loved, but it’s not for everyone.

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“Old Guard”

Someone asked Chris Ferdinandi what his biggest challenge is as a web developer:

... the thing I struggle the most with right now is determining when something new is going to change the way our industry works for the better, and when it’s just a fad that will fade away in a year or three.

I try to avoid jumping from fad to fad, but I also don’t want to be that old guy who misses out on something that’s an important leap forward for us.

He goes on explain a situation where, as a young buck developer, he was very progressive and even turned down a job where they weren't hip to responsive design. But now worries that might happen to him:

I’ll never forget that moment, though. Because it was obvious to me that there was an old guard of developers who didn’t get it and couldn’t see the big shift that was coming in our industry.

Now that I’m part of the older guard, and I’ve been doing this a while, I’m always afraid that will happen to me.

I feel that.

I try to lean as new-fancy-progressive as I can to kinda compensate for old-guard-syndrome. I have over a decade of experience building websites professionally, which isn't going to evaporate (although some people feel otherwise). I'm hoping those things balance me out.

What bit of advice would you share with someone new to your field?

The most FA of all the FAQs.

Here's Laura Kalbag:

Find what you love. Don’t worry about needing to learn every language, technique or tool. Start with what interests you, and carve your own niche. And then use your powers for good!

And my own:

Buy a domain name. Figure out how to put an HTML file up there. Isn’t that a powerful feeling? Now you’ve got table stakes. Build something.

Definitely, go read other A Book Apart author answers because they are all great. My other favorite is just three words.

How The Heck Do You Hire a Web Design Agency?

Steven Trwoga wrote to me with a perfectly reasonable question:

I have an idea for a website I would like to have built. I believe it would fall into the category of "large project".

I have spoken with, and been quoted by some web design agencies in the UK. However I am not convinced by what I am being told in terms of what can be built and cost.

I have no experience in web design, but I have spent a lot of time reading to help me grasp what can be done and to get a sense of the scale of the project.

I find it to be a minefield trying to find a web designer (or team) by just using search engines.

What advice could we give Steven?

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