Tips on becoming a successful freelancer/consultant

Hello all! I am wondering if you guys have advice for an aspiring freelancer/consultant.

I recently took the plunge and enrolled in a web dev bootcamp, which has been great and I have learned a ton. I am getting ready to finish up my 3 month program and would love to get started as a freelancer/consultant. I have the option to go back to my previous employer and work full time as a web developer (getting paid well), but I would rather work as a freelancer/consultant for 2 reasons:

  1. I like the idea of being self-employed
  2. It seems like a natural transition to becoming a bootstrapped entrepreneur. As I grow any side projects into actual sources of income, I could reduce the time I spend on freelancing/consulting. Something that I could not do while working full time at my previous employer.

From my observations, it seems like most freelancers/consultants are able to charge a livable wage by working for previous clients, or by getting word of mouth clients. This obviuosly makes sense, because those previous clients trust you to do good work. I, however, do not have a list of clients that “trust” me yet.

So my main question is, do you have any advice on how to get started in the freelancing world without devaluing your services? I would really like to avoid having a lowest bid competition on oDesk and eLance, since I honestly feel I am a capable developer.

@Shpigford gave some good job boards in this post:

Are those the best places to get started? Or are their other tips you guys can think of?

I’m a software consultant myself and here’s some opinions (take it with a pinch of salt):

  • To be a consultant, I personally think you have to have a lot of experience because you’re going to arrive in shitty situation, without any context and you’ll have to get your hands dirty and make your client happy otherwise it’s 0$ for you.
  • I’d go work in a few corporate environments first, to get experience, get better with communications and team work. Make sure to move around a few positions, frontend developer, backend developer, web design, database/sql developer, windows-based solutions, linux-based solutions, etc that’s the only way of acquiring real rich experience to be able to respond to your jobs in a timely fashion and in return get more bucks for your time.

This might not be what you’d like to read, but I’ve been there and done that and I also had a very rough time with no income whatsoever, did a tons of shitty contracts, and then decided to become a serious developer and got to work in the industry. I’ve been pretty much all of what I said in my point ^^. I’ve been a windows fanboy, a mac fanboy, a linux fanboy, I loved them all, I used them all and that’s how I mastered my art. Now I can jump on any projects, software, mobile, web, game development, etc and tackle them with ease because of the various work experiences I have.

But you know, it all depends on who you are, your background and your level of dedication. I started to learn code when it was impossible to look up for documentation online, those were horrible times. Now you can even subscribe to Stanford University classes for iOS development for free, so it’s a lot easier to gather information and data to get yourself started.

Now if you want to get freelancing, I’d say oDesk is the best /quick/ way to go for me. Whenever I’m out of job/contracts I check my oDesk and I always have a dozen notifications for job offers (just find a few jobs, apply to them and once your profile will have good grades (do tests) and good recommendations you’ll get tons of job offers) Also never hesitate to high up your fees, fuck those 0.10cents workers they’re all clueless people that call themselves EXPERTS, and nobody hires them most of the time.

No matter what you chose, I wish you good luck. Work hard but not /too/ much, don’t ever give up and always try to learn new techniques, languages, etc and you’ll do more than fine.

Hope this helps!


Word of mouth is always easier said than done when you don’t have much of a portfolio built up, but working off referrals is more likely to be successful than a random job board connection.

Tell your family and friends what you’re trying to do and see if anything comes up. If you ask someone what they do for a living, they’ll likely reciprocate. It’s amazing how many people know someone that needs a website or even software. Just watch out for the “I have a million dollar idea” guy!

I also wanted to address the second point in your post:

It seems like a natural transition to becoming a bootstrapped entrepreneur. As I grow any side projects into actual sources of income, I could reduce the time I spend on freelancing/consulting. Something that I could not do while working full time at my previous employer.

I left a full time dev job to focus on and grow my “side projects”, but I ended up neglecting them for 2 years because I picked up too much client work. If you have ideas that you think can make money, my advice would be to give them a shot now, while picking up smaller freelance projects to pay the bills if you have to.


I absolutely agree with @tbergeron.

Something that the vast majority of new freelancers don’t understand (something which it took me many years to learn) is that a freelancer is only part developer (or whatever field they’re in.) A freelancer is inherently also part project manager, part business developer, part accountant, part salesperson, and on and on.

Jumping straight into a new career and into freelancing for the first time is a lot to take on. You’re right that it’s a great way to transition slowly to being an independent business owner/entrepreneur… but it’s also a lot to learn, and can take you years to really master.

In terms of freelancers getting work for previous clients or word of mouth: The freelancers you’ve seen can do that because they’ve been building their networks, developing their portfolios, and developing trust over many years. Again, it’s not like you have to toil in obscurity for decades before you can be a successful developer, but this is a career that takes time and learning, and just getting started in it will often leave you making a lot less than you expected as you try to establish yourself. Combine learning how to be a good developer with learning how to be a small business owner at the same time and it can get overwhelming.

My advice is: Take away some of the work from yourself. You’re putting a lot on your shoulders right now. I would suggest doing things now that are going to allow you to focus on your growth in one thing at a time. Take a job as a developer at an existing company so you can focus just on your development ability (or your entrepreneurial savvy, in part-time side projects) and not have to stress about finding new work. Or take contracts with oDesk and job boards that are maybe less exciting or less high-paying so you can get work experience, relationships, and a portfolio under your belt.

If you do go into freelancing, the best practical advice I can offer you is: Open a business bank account, hire an account to do your taxes, and use software (I use Harvest, but whatever) to track your time and manage your invoices and estimates. They’re expenses that might seem overwhelming up front, but it makes living as a freelancer so much more sustainable in the long term.

I wish you the best! Please let us know what you end up doing, and I really hope you find the combination that’s perfect for you and your goals!

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Get some experience first then go freelance/consultant.

I think you’ll run into all sorts of scenarios where you are inexperienced and not know the best way to deal with the situation. You’ll do the “wrong thing” and it could hurt your reputation.

How do you deal with a naggy QA person who always recommends features rather than produces bug reports? Can you navigate some piece of shit home brew ORM without pissing off the existing developers? Do you know the pro’s and con’s of different gems/nuget packages/npm thingers and can navigate the most popular ones with ease?

The programming world is smaller than you think. If you only know one language, smaller still. Just be careful.

Hi @thomas07vt,

I agree with everything posted here thus far. Here are three resources that will help.

First, Matt Gemmell published a fantastic post on Consulting.

Second, when I left my former career these books gave me a head start on consulting.

  1. Book Yourself Solid
  2. Business Model You

Also, Brennen Dunn’s blog/podcast is a good getting started resource.

And last, but not least, is it possible that you can take on your previous employer as your first client? I know several designers and devs who have done this as a way to get themselves started with a solid client that pays well out of the gate. Just ask if you can work part time and invoice them via the LLC your about to establish :slight_smile:

Since this is my first post apparently I can only have two links but I trust you’re search-fu is strong.

Thanks for all the great responses everyone. I definitely need to think on some of the points brought up. I actually look forward to the part freelancer, part business owner aspect that @mattstauffer mentioned. That will be a valuable skill to have as a bootstrapper :).

My main fear is that I will get a full time dev job at a big company, be a cog in a large gear, and never “find the time” to take the plunge into self employment. Time will tell I guess.

Again, thanks for all the advice!

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Is it? I’m not sure I agree. As a freelancer, you mostly sell your time, and when you’re on vacation or asleep, you’re not making any money. With even a part-time product, the first time you wake up and realize you made money… that’s a great feeling, and something quite different from selling your time.

I’d consider working for a company in order to learn and meet people, and work on a side project in your spare time. See this book if you haven’t already:

Yep, I completely agree, @davidw.

My point was more that being an established freelancer is a great way to transition slowly to product/etc., but being a new freelancer isn’t. I’m completely on the same page that the best first step is to work for an existing company.

First, good idea to stay away from places where you are bidding on projects like oDesk/eLance.

Work on building a network and contacts where you can market yourself and your skills. For me that meant sticking it out in a full time career for a number of years while doing some freelancing on the side. The benefits were numerous:

  • learning from other experienced people across a variety of functions (dev, design, testing, managrment, account relations, sales) that you will need as a freelancer
  • built a network of people who knew what I was capable of
  • was able to see other people handle difficult situations first hand and learn from them

Realize it’s not about what you know it’s about how fast you can learn something new. Technology changes so fast don’t pigeon hole yourself into a specific technology, learn to be a rapid learner.

Focus on customer/client satisfaction and the rest will generally take care of itself. Anyone can learn how to code ‘x’. Not everyone can provide outstanding service and make clients happy they went with you versus the other guy. A happy client means repeat business and referrals, worth their weight in gold.

I spent about 5 years in marketing, another 5 in development and then jumped out on my own to freelance. I didn’t plan it that way but it worked out extremely well looking back. After nearly 8 years of freelancing I’m starting to get into products and SAAS, where it’s not just my billable hours that earn money. In hindsight I wish I had considered this path a little earlier but I also now feel pretty good in having a solid set of business and development skills to leverage. It sounds like you are already planning ahead which is a good thing, that will give you something to aim at.

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I second Book Yourself Solid. I also read Get Clients Now! by CJ Hayden and thought it was even better than BYS.

This might be a good opportunity to apply Jeff Bezos’ Regret Minimization Framework. Imagine yourself at age 80, looking back at your life, and imagine at this juncture what you’re regret most and least. I don’t know about you, but for me I’d regret “succeeding” at a job a lot more than “failing” at freelancing - especially since freelancing failure is temporary and job “success” is effectively permanent.

Also, what’s the worst that could happen?

Might want to check this out:

The upside is that you’ll have a LOT more freedom to work on your product business. I’m freelance and I’ve made way the fuck more progress on my product business than when I had a job.

I say just do it.

I’ve started freelancing a bit recently (after years of doing the bootstrapped product thing) and what has worked for me was going to conferences (especially non-tech conferences), meeting people in person, and keeping in touch with the people I clicked with. My first few clients have been folks I met a few years ago, and so far it’s going very well. Finding clients that you resonate with seems to be crucial.

I had a profile on oDesk for a while and mostly found it a waste of time. The enquiries I got were either priced too low or verged on being spammy/scammy.

Thanks to @rfctr, his previous forum post gave me the nudge I needed towards adding freelancing back into my mix again, and it’s been worth it.