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Advice on Freelance Web Development

Part 1: Tips and Tricks from Professional Freelancers

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Web development is an exciting field to be in. One of the best parts about it is that it can be done out of your home and on a varied schedule, but how do you get started? I've interviewed five freelance Web developers to find out how they got started how they run their businesses.

The Cast

Suzanne Chaney of Designs 2000
Joyce Dowling of Dowling Web Design
Thomas Dronet of Cajun Cam
Michael Gordan of Armadillo Web
Joyce Wolpin of K.B. Wolpin & Associates

How to Get Started

How do you get started in the field? The most common way is by creating a site or sites for yourself, volunteering to make sites for others, and then eventually finding someone who will pay you to make their site. "I attended a workshop and then volunteered to make my department Web site," Joyce W. recounts, and Suzanne started personal and then "was approached by someone to do a site for them. I was thrilled!"

Never think that because you're not getting paid the job is not worthwhile. Thomas sometimes volunteers his services and is "willing to give my clients more than their money's worth". It's important to earn money eventually, but especially when you're starting out, volunteering Web development gets your name out there.

The Technology

It doesn't take a lot of cutting edge high tech equipment to do Web development. Most of the developers don't have a high speed line, but it would be nice ("No - darn it!" Joyce D. said when asked). It also doesn't take a computer science degree, although Michael minored in it. Finally, you don't have to know everything about something that a client wants (CGI, databases, etc.). "I subcontract when I need Perl for CGI," says Joyce W. and Joyce D. has "two resident geeks" to help her with the technical parts.

The Business

Choosing your niche is vital, as Thomas says. So, the first thing you should decide is what types of sites you will focus on. Joyce W. does "no personal pages" while Joyce D. prefers "local clients so there's a neighborly touch." Some people focus on non-profit groups, while others target small and large businesses, it's your preference, but you should decide so you don't waste your energy on a site that you might not do as well with.

Once you've decided on your market, you need to decide how and how much to charge. The most common way to charge is by the project.

You need to find something that sets your business apart. Why should someone choose you to design their pages rather than another developer? Michael says, "a successful business must be customer oriented and prepared to bend over backward to meet the customer's needs and requirements." While Suzanne focuses on ingenuity, because she feels "sites need to have a unique feel to them in order to stand out."

Promoting yourself is important to get more business. Every developer stated that word of mouth is one of the best promotion methods. Make sure that your friends know you are doing this, that you are available and happy to work for them. Put your business information in your email signature, make sure your Web site indicates that you do Web development, and keep volunteering if you haven't found enough work yet.

Remember

It's not always easy to be a freelancer. You'll have to deal with people who ignore your copyrights, and once you've finally found what you think is a paying client, you'll meet people who "don't think it's worth their time to pay you." (Suzanne) Web development can be very technical, and when you're running your own business, you often have to do it all yourself, and often all alone. When you work from home, you'll have to deal with distractions like "my kids grabbing my arm all the time." (Thomas) Getting your site and your clients' sites promoted in search engines is very difficult, and doing the job can be extremely time consuming.

But it's worthwhile

Most freelance Web developers work out of a home office. They set their own schedules ("[I can] get my teeth cleaned or sleep in if I'm not feeling well" Suzanne "I love being here when my sons come home." Thomas). Web developers are creative and get to combine technical accomplishments with marketing and design. I'm sure that most Web developers wouldn't change their job, once they've found the right mix that suits them.

If you are interested in meeting these developers online, let me know, and I'll see if I can set up a time when we can chat with them. Many of them are sometimes on the HTML Forum, and Michael, at least, is very active there. The following pages are a short description of their work and how they got started doing Web development, as well as advice for those getting started.

Suzanne Chaney, Joyce Dowling, Thomas Dronet, Michael Gordan, and Joyce Wolpin

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