By Makeda Waterman July 4, 2018

How to Be A Successful Freelance Programmer

A career as a freelancer is the reality for 35% of the United States’ workforce. It is designed for people that desire more freedom, or feel working for an employer limits their ability to be creative.

Freelancing is a viable option for programmers interested in earning additional income while employed or starting a full-time business in the future. Both are viable options with a differentiation between active income (working) and passive income (not working to earn income).

This article is a “best practices” guide to turn a programming hobby or passion into a freelance business.

The Benefits of Freelancing

The flexibility of working from a coffee shop or at home is a convenience available to any freelancer, but programmers can find themselves with some unique advantages. I cover specific benefits below for freelance programmers.

Abundance of Work

One perk of being a freelance programmer is the abundance of work in the market. However, there is a shortage of programmers freelancing in the industry. As a result, this opens the door for managing a consistent volume of work.

A few examples of skills a developer needs to succeed include SQL, C#, and JavaScript. Now is a prime time for programmers to get involved in freelancing so they can fulfill the needs of individual clients on a one-time or contract basis.

Continuous Training

Programmers have the freedom to choose certain types of new projects. Therefore, you can also teach yourself necessary skills in app development, JEE, or Python to take on more diverse jobs. As a result, you can increase earning potential by becoming a programmer performing high-quality, in-demand work.

Freelance Programming Part-Time or Full-Time?

Can you be a full-time freelance programmer? Absolutely. Still, be aware that working alone requires self- discipline, effective marketing strategies, excellent customer service, and nurturing existing customers to keep them long-term.

Do you work another job? Don’t be discouraged. It’s common for freelancers to be employed while sustaining their own business. These professionals have families, maintain their households, and manage to grow their businesses with discipline.

I strongly recommend that you ask yourself this question before you decide to leave a full-time job. If successful, your services can be in-demand to the point where turning down clients is the norm as you work a full-time job. In contrast, growing the business can be the solution to career happiness.

Do you have a family? Speak with your spouse and children about the reality of working from home.

Here is a list of items to review before you leap into a full-time freelance business:

  • Set an ideal annual income to take care of personal and business expenses.
  • Avoid setting a timeline, because if the goal is not met, it can lead to disappointment.
  • Calculate the expenses and tax advantages of leasing an office space or working from home.

Whether the motivation is to earn an additional income or create a full-fledged business, you should consider the points above before taking the next step.

Focus on a Niche

In the freelance world, there are generalists and specialists. A generalist programmer typically takes on all programming assignments in a variety of industries. The downside to this is that you may be seen as a freelancer that is new to the subject, which results in a low or beginner rate.

On the contrary, a specialist is a computer programmer that has worked in a specific industry—like real estate—for five or more years, or one who is knowledgeable of a specific skill set or programming language, like PHP.

The advantage of being a specialist is your rates can be set higher because of the value you can offer the client. It is up to you to focus on skills and talents that potential companies desire in a freelance developer and for you to perform at your best. The more you make companies happy, the more likely they will refer you to similar businesses.

To help you take advantage of jobs available in the market, here is a list of common programmer jobs to find on freelance websites:

  • Develop mobile apps.
  • Design Oracle APEX-based application.
  • Code WordPress and PHP.
  • Optimize e-commerce websites.
  • Develop bot for automation.
  • Solve CSS, JS, and MySQL issues.

After you figure out what services to offer, the next step is to thoroughly understand the demographics of your target market. While these jobs could be tackled by either generalists or specialists, it's better to be a specialist.

Know Your Target Audience

The top software programming freelancers know exactly what services their target audience wants. To be a successful freelancer, you’ll need to start with understanding the demographics of your ideal audience, which includes gender, age, job title, location, and industry.

For example, a female freelance programmer inspired by the Women Who Code organization can recruit girls and women into STEM jobs. The target audience could be female, ages 18–32, beginner and novice programmers, located within her city or state, and looking to get into the tech industry. Once this information is confirmed, the products and services you provide can be tailored to what the average consumer wants.

Here is a list of ways this information can help:

  • Developing marketing content that will connect with the audience based on their values.
  • Designing products that will fix a client’s problems.
  • Communicating with your target audience based on the social platforms or methods of communication that they use.

The key idea is to connect your audience with your services with the help of email blasts, e-newsletters, social media, blogging, YouTube, or being a presenter at a local event.

Personalize Your Brand

Successful freelance programmers understand that people do business with entrepreneurs that they admire or like. It means the freelancer sets a standard of customer service with a marketable personality—the interpersonal skills to work successfully with people of all diverse backgrounds.

Personal branding consists of sharing some of your life on social media such as Instagram, posting photos of you working on projects or sharing the highlights of a business trip. It can include starting a YouTube channel of best practices on how to effectively debug or write programs or other software.

It is an opportunity to show customers, potential clients, and followers a day-in-the-life of a freelance programmer. It will increase people’s confidence in reaching out to you for a paid project, while also making you more relatable to your target market as you create a rapport with them.

An example of a successful programmer is Saron Yitbare, the founder of CodeNewbie. On social media, she shares moments of writing blog posts, video footage of her public speaking, and Tweets of her audience’s feedback.

Build New Clientele

As a programmer attempting to freelance for the first time, you may be wondering where to get your initial business. How do you start building a portfolio to attract more desirable clients? You can certainly pull from friends or contacts in the industry, but you’ll want to guarantee your job, and that’s where freelance websites come in.

The benefit of using freelance websites is the site acts as a mediator between you and the client concerning disputes, payment, and scope of work. If you work alone without a mediator site, it opens the door for not being paid for work and other common issues. Here are a few ways to find clients conveniently:

  • Freelance websites: Freelancemyway, Freelancer, and Hubstaff.
  • Professional website: Your personal website equipped with keywords (SEO) so people in your area can find you.

It is essential to balance your relationship with potential clients. Remember to be transparent by stating your schedule to set the expectation of the number of assignments you can realistically complete.

Set Your Own Standards

When first starting out, it can be enticing to accept any job that arrives in your inbox. It can include a company that cannot provide a scope of work, a client who shows a lack of respect, or a proposal written unprofessionally. I recommend setting standards by growing a portfolio.

Here is a list of ways to start setting standards for a freelance business:

  • Set an hourly or per-project rate by setting a pay range to earn what you deserve. (The next section will go into more detail.)
  • Select a niche to gain a reputation for a specific skill set.
  • Avoid working on projects you are unfamiliar with to prevent unsatisfactory work. (If you don’t know Python, don’t accept a job requiring you to fix a Python coding error or make the mistake of thinking you can learn as you go.)

Once a standard of excellence is set, you will have the advantage to pick and choose assignments. A good way to find out the standard rate for a professional in your area is to contact several freelance programmers for a range of rates.

Set Your Rates and Stick to Them

A new freelance developer can feel obligated to accept all customers by lowering his hourly or per-project rate for assignments. I strongly recommend finding out the standard rate for programmers in your geographic location to avoid underselling your skills.

A freelance programmer earns between $28–$200 per hour. It is a good idea to add a second skill set to increase your income. Here are a few factors that influence setting rates:

  • Experience and portfolio: Let’s face it: Clients typically pay based on a freelancer’s years of experience, quality of their portfolio, and their connections to reputable brands.
  • In-demand services: If you can position yourself as an in-demand programmer, it increases a company’s desire to pay higher rates.
  • Negotiation skills: A new freelancer with confidence in negotiation can earn a higher rate if the arrangement creates a win-win situation.

Programmers can further improve their demand and skill sets by putting time and effort into self-educating, attending a post-secondary institution, or registering for an online course program.

Take It Offline

Social media, a professional website, and online marketing are essential. However, it is the offline experiences that help a business to expand. Offline activities that can help expand your freelance software programmer business include:

  • Hosting business meetups to connect with entrepreneurs that may need your services.
  • Attending computer programmer seminars to network with other programmers.
  • Leasing a studio space or co-work space to meet potential employees (i.e., writers or photographers) to expand your business.

Take your business offline to grow the business via word of mouth in the community. In the meantime, stay active on LinkedIn, attend networking functions, or advertise your business online to ensure your content and business remain current as you reach more potential customers in your area.

Taking the Leap Into Freelancing

A freelance business requires work that includes a daily schedule of marketing, social media management, administrative tasks, invoicing, meeting clients in person, and delivering high-quality work. Most freelance programmers can set their own hours, pick or choose clients, work directly with executives, and build a connection with other programmers in the comfort of their own homes.

As a freelancer myself, I recommend you pursue this opportunity if your passion for the work is at a high level. Why is this important? If passion does not exist, rejection or other challenges can deter a person from continuing to seek freelance opportunities.

It's not the easiest path, but for programmers who want to pursue more creative projects and be their own boss, it may be the only path—one that is beyond rewarding to those who are dedicated enough to put in the effort.

About the author

    Makeda Waterman

    Makeda Waterman is an online media journalist with a passion for helping people succeed in life. Outside of writing for The Huffington Post, she is a writing contributor for Glassdoor.com with clips on CNBC Make It, Yahoo Finance News, and Fastcompany.com