Freelancing in WordPress can take many avenues. Some might seem easier than others. Certainly some are more lucrative than others. All of them require customer interaction of some sort. But they’re not all created equal.
I can’t speak for many of the paths people have been able to pave making a living off of WordPress.
But I can tell you that when deciding to freelance or start a business with WordPress web design and development, there are things you should know beforehand. Things people don’t like talking about that often.
However, I think if you’ve decided to go out on your own, away from the pressures of a full time job, you’re probably doing it for a change in lifestyle. Whatever that means to you. No boss to listen to, more time with family and friends (that’s a joke when freelancing in web design by the way), the ‘four-hour work week’ (never take that literally, and do check emails on days other than Mondays), more potential income, or whatever.
You made the decision, it’s probably valid, and I hope you did your research before you decided to get into this. Yes, pick a target market, have a financial plan, strategize your product, blah blah blah blah.
Do all that stuff. I had to.
(I never followed it though. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t a valuable exercise.)
“Joyce, get to your point.”
Ok. I will.
The point is: the lifestyle you’re imagining may not turn out as you think it will. There are lots of unexpected lessons to learn, which can actually turn out for the better. Eventually.
I’m going to write about some of the stuff that might hit you like a deer in the headlights when you get started in WordPress web design as an income-generating, food-on-the-table type of business.
I hope this helps. But be extra warned: most of this has to be learned through the school of hard knocks anyway.
1) Freelancing is not a vacation
My goodness. This is a tough one to come to terms with.
Ok, first of all, yes, you can work from anywhere (sort of), as a freelance web designer.
I think this is the type of subject you bring up with non-freelancers and they go, “oh I’ll bet it’s hard work running your own business.”
But secretly they might be thinking you can do whatever you want, whenever you want, especially by the looks of your Facebook timeline. Not true.
Or their eyes start to glaze and they begin staring at something behind you because they don’t know what you’re talking about when you describe how much work it is to be an entrepreneur.
People who haven’t done freelance or started a business before probably won’t ‘get’ this. As Chris Lema has said, it takes hustle to do this. A lot of it. And though he says you can sleep at night knowing you’ve done a good job after you’ve hustled, I think that’s not the case at the beginning.
At the beginning, your whole life is consumed with your business. It has to be.
You go to bed reading business books. Going out for lunch with friends starts to feel like a waste of billable hours. You think about a project or client while you’re driving or taking a shower, and that’s usually when things finally ‘click’ and light bulbs turn on above your head. You stop caring about what your clothes look like because you consider the ROI of any purchase you make (which is the business mindset creeping into your personal life).
But Chris is right in this sense: You look around at other people with regular day jobs and think, “wow, how do they make time for board games and pot lucks and still sleep well at night knowing how unproductive they’ve been with those hours? I’ve got things to produce right now.”
Ok, maybe it’s just me. But I think the start is like that for a lot of first-time entrepreneurs. It’s a drug. And it’s hard to realize, as a freelancer (especially in web design or any anti-social, computer-staring type of industry), your work life and your personal life are hard to separate.
It is a SKILL to learn how to force yourself to take a break. Your list of things to do will never end. There will always be tasks to get done. Always.
It takes hustle (I’m hijacking that word). But it also takes learning to let go sometimes.
If you are the kind of person that has to force yourself to start thinking about taking weekends off, you might be hustling too much. But if you’re not that kind of person, you might not be hustling enough. I think it takes a certain personality and drive to be an entrepreneur in this industry.
Why this industry especially? Oh the reasons are plenty, but basically it boils down to constant client management. Clients take up a lot of time. That leaves a lot less time for growing your business and scaling your product.
2) Every sale has a different value, even if prices are equal (and you can’t control this)
I’ll admit, I know the feeling of wanting to ignore the forewarnings I’m about to give you. People give all kinds of advice when you start your business. But at the start, you are mostly concerned with making the sale. That’s ok. Sales are your best source of cash flow. Do what you need to do to make sales (without scamming people).
But pretty soon you’ll realize not all sales are equal. That’s part of learning how to be a business owner.
The dollar amounts of one project compared to another might be the same on paper, but the value of those dollars can change.
If you are working too hard for your dollars, they are not worth the ink they’re written with on the cheques you’ll receive (yes some people still use cheques, believe it or not).
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work hard. You can pick how hard you want to work. Some people thrive on work. So I’m not even going to say ‘work smarter’ (though that’s what a lot of business books aim to help you with, genuinely so).
But think of things like:
How many hours did it take you to make the sale?
Account that into your pricing, or learn how to shorten the time it takes. In my experience, the longer I spend on a sale, the less likely I’ll win the contract.
I don’t participate in Requests For Proposals (RFPs). Did that once, never doing it again. What a stupid idea in the business world, designed to get you to work for free for someone who should do their own research instead of making you do it for them, so they can steal your ideas and award their money to someone else they wanted to work with from the start anyway (like their unqualified chum).
If you are spending a lot of time doing research for a client before they pay you for a project, don’t. Just don’t. If they want to find out if a special plugin or weird, little-known system can integrate with the website they might buy from you, let them figure it out, or charge them for your research consulting time.
Of the projects you’ve done to date, how much of that time was spent communicating with your client, versus actually doing the work?
You have to account for that time. Time is your only currency.
Every client will take up a different amount of time. Humans are all different, and clients are going to be different too. You are entering the people business.
Now are you starting to see how some projects can take longer than others? That affects the value of the project to you. It’s not just a price point you need to be concerned about.
Keep reading; there’s more.
How will this project help you get more projects?
Aaaah. Bet you never thought of THAT. The work you do now is going to go in your portfolio. Do you know what your portfolio does? It demonstrates what you can do for new clients.
If you have a difficult client, one that is making bad design requests, or asking for the impossible, then this is not going to value you as much as the work where you get to strut your stuff.
Also, your credit! This is essential. Your link in the footer, a testimonial, the acknowledgement of your work on a team (if you worked under an agency brand), your right to use your work in design contests and portfolios; all of that is important.
If a client doesn’t want to give you any leeway in those areas, remember you can take the job for the one-time paycheck, but this project won’t be as valuable to you as the ones that can multiply your work sources later. You need to think of your future.
How can this project help you raise your prices later?
Yes, projects can multiply your value.
If the demand for your services go up, due to your sparkly portfolio, you can start charging more, and rightfully so.
One of the best pieces of advice I have gotten when starting my business was from a successful web designer. She said it in passing at a networking party. I asked her the secret to her success. You know what she said?
“Do good work.”
That left a huge impression on me. If I can’t do a good job on a project, I won’t take it. Money and sales are ok to go for in the beginning, but after you’ve got your financial footing, put less emphasis on making the sale, and more emphasis on spending what it takes to make your end product better.
THEN, when you are not only awesome, but can prove it, you can raise your prices.
Why? Your demand will go up.
Don’t raise your prices for no good reason, like many people tell you to (or because you have a nice office). Customers aren’t idiots. If you are doing lazy work, it will begin to show that you are not worth your price. Do you know how many sales leads I get coming to me because someone else did a bad job? Yes, even ‘big name’ agencies can disappoint their customers, who see through the mirage eventually.
Don’t get lazy. Don’t aim to be ‘big’ just for the money and think you can keep doing things the way you have been for the last 10 years.
Show you are valuable.
3) You don’t actually get to do the work you wanted to do
You need help, and the first step is admitting that, as always.
If you think you are going into web design because you love designing websites, think again. That’s not what you’ll be doing. Unless you want to give up sleeping, eating and showering.
When you decide to go out on your own, you have to realize that you will have two options: you can work in your business or work on your business. I didn’t come up with that up on my own. Type it into Google and you’ll get plenty of awesome articles about it, like this one.
“The technical work of a business and a business that does that technical work are two totally different things!”
So what does that mean? It means if you chose to work in your business – as in, actually doing all the web design yourself, you’ll become ‘enslaved,’ as one columnist put it.
How do you get out of this rut? You can do what Tim Ferris said in that book you love, The 4-Hour Workweek, and start outsourcing. If you want to get into the nitty gritty of how to hire remotely, check out Shane Pearlman’s stuff, he talks about this. It’s not an easy thing to figure out (I’ve learned the hard way).
In short, you need to start learning how to hire people to not only do what you are not good at, but even the things you are good at. You won’t be able to scale without applying this lesson. If everything depends on you, your income potential will be capped – and that’s one of the main reasons you decided to escape your day job in the first place, right?
Word of the wise though, before you start hiring, listen to what David Heinemeier of 37 Signals said in the bestselling business book, Rework:
“You should never hire anyone for something you haven’t first struggled to do on your own.”
Why? Here is more on that. You basically need to understand the job you’re hiring for so you can manage it later.
It’s hard to decide to hire out at first because you might think you’ll make less if you do that. That’s true, you’ll make less per hour, per client. But if you play your cards right, you’ll be able to increase the volume of clients you serve per hour, which means you can make more while working less, eventually.
So why freelance in web design at all?
Oh there are many rewards to being a freelancer, especially in the exciting, ever-evolving world of WordPress and web design. You thought right when you thought about changing your lifestyle – you were on to something.
One of my business advisors described it like this to me: when you are an entrepreneur, you have ‘levers.’ The first lever is time. The second is money. The third is control.
You might not get all three in equal parts – but the beauty is that you can apply your own levers. You can balance out what you want most out of your career.
And that’s why we do this crazy thing called freelancing.
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