Questions to Ask Yourself Before Becoming a Freelancer
The web is an ocean of information, advertising and communication that is attracting more and more professionals. The web as an industry is versatile and full of interesting fields that would satisfy people of all professional backgrounds.
There are several reasons why someone would choose the web as their domain of work, including the following:
- The jobs are modern and challenging because the web changes quite rapidly. It’s high-paced, never stale, and always exciting.
- Online work caters to a vast and diverse client base that’s not limited by geographic factors.
- There’s room for everyone to provide something. Some are involved in art and creativity, some in programming and coding, others in management and marketing, and so forth.
- Some people feel they can express their talents better online because the web has become so ingrained in their daily routine.
Combining the web with freelancing is quite an attractive option. Plenty of articles describe the positive and negative sides of freelancing. Two of the most frequently cited advantages are:
- Working from home: which means very low fixed costs, no travel and less stress
- Being your own boss: which means a flexible schedule, good income (depending on your approach) and no workplace politics
Given all this, one could easily get excited about the possibility of a freelancing web career. But in doing their research before getting started, people considering becoming a freelancer often have lingering thoughts about the prospect of working online.
Here are three important questions to ask yourself before venturing into the world of freelancing on the web.
Do I Have What It Takes?
It doesn’t take a lot of research to discover the ton of software and applications that offer almost instant, easy-to-build websites to anyone with a little computer and basic web skills (and by web skills, I mean search, email and web form completion).
Back in the day, we had Geocities; now there are sophisticated solutions like WordPress.
Building a website has become easy. Just browse a few galleries for inspiration, open up an editor, write a bit of this, draw a bit of that, write a few paragraphs, and you’re ready to launch! Or are you?
This convenience is great, but it’s not nearly enough to make someone enough of an expert to get paid well. Being a web worker means being able to use as many of these tools as you need, and combining them with other skills, depending on the job.
For example, you’ll need more than casual Photoshop skills if you want to offer great graphic material (like icons, call-to-action buttons and banners). Setting up a website using a WYSIWYG editor like Dreamweaver without understanding or being able to edit the markup means you’re not quite a professional yet.
Submitting a website to a search engine and applying SEO principles to a web page are two different things. And there’s a certain approach to combining colors to focus the audience’s attention and facilitate reading, which is different than just matching colors because they look good to you.
Many of the critical components that go into building a website are often overlooked by amateurs. Design versus aesthetics, loading time, adaptability to screen sizes, browsers and machines, accessibility, semantic mark-up, presentable content, keywords, comprehensive navigation — all of these are considerations in building even a simple static website. Sounds more complicated than using a simple editing program, doesn’t it?
For every consideration, there’s an amateur approach and a professional one. Some amateurs can achieve very good results, but are unable to respond when problems arise. You need to get past this if you want to be able to respond to your clients’ requests, suggest solutions and be competitive in the industry.
Devote time and effort to developing your skill set. Enroll in web-related classes at a school, or study books and online material on your own. In any case, combine your studies with practical experience by taking on personal projects, volunteering and accepting small easy projects, before moving on to bigger, more demanding projects.
How Will I Learn Everything I Need to Learn?
Once you understand what is required of a web professional and all of the different skills involved in building a website, you might feel a little lost. That’s how I felt when I started reading articles from the web community. Everyone seemed to know and do everything, and there I was, alone, new and bewildered between trades.
The first step is to recognize that you cannot learn it all and that you don’t have to excel at everything.
You will most likely specialize in a couple of areas, while gaining a general understanding (and perhaps an ability to do the simple tasks) of the other components that go into a website, at least enough to be able to collaborate with other specialists.
For example, you might excel in HTML, CSS and wireframing, and be good enough in design to do basic tasks, but you might need the help of a specialist in graphic arts for more intensive jobs. Or you might become a master in PHP and MySQL, but then have to join forces with a capable designer to get the results you expect. Or perhaps you’re great at writing content, but you don’t like dealing with coding or design. The combinations are endless.
The second step is to do some research on as many aspects of the web as possible in order to identify what you would be good at and what you would enjoy doing as a profession. Browse inspirational galleries, read blog posts and participate in the discussion, ask the advice of people in different sectors, read books and articles.
Social networks are also great for daily doses of web-related articles, discussions and portfolios.
In addition to exposing yourself to these resources, trying dipping your toes to see if you actually enjoy the work. There are beginner and advanced tutorials about pretty much everything online, so put in some time to see what feels right for you. Download a free image editor like GIMP (if you don’t have access to Photoshop) and test your design skill or use your text editor to experiment with and test code. There are several free editors (like VIM, Notepad++ and TextPad) that can help you create web pages, scripts and functions from scratch.
One idea is to start a personal project and see what you enjoyed doing the most during the process and what you felt most efficient at. This could be a personal web page, an online CV or a blog about your experiences and ideas. To target more specific skills, try designing a poster or a website theme. Or, if you feel that you want to be more like a programmer, write a web form with multiple options and fields, and invite a few friends to use it.
In general, choosing a web profession involves three main tasks: reading, asking and trying. Read as much as you can about the possibilities before you, ask experts any questions that weren’t clarified by your research, and put theory into practice by building something for yourself. This process will help you figure out where to channel your efforts, and it’s the first step to identifying what services to offer.
Will I Be Able to Make A Living in My Chosen Profession?
While you may be able to identify your ideal profession, a job you like isn’t always a job that makes ends meet. If you are to succeed in this adventure, you’ll have to be sure that you can obtain and maintain clients and, therefore, income.
Before quitting your current job, step back and consider the demands and features of the market you’d like to target. Do you know the current state of the market? What are the current trends? Is there room for one more professional? If not, can you create a new niche?
You might excel at your new job, but customers may not have the time or ability to recognize your unique skills in a crowded market.
However, you could try standing out by specializing. Specializing helps both you and the industry grow.
There are two ways to go about it: either by developing specialized skills (for example, building e-commerce stores or creating static websites), or by being a Jack of all trades but catering to a market segment (such as small shops, restaurants, a particular age group). Or a combination of both, if the market can sustain it; for example, providing e-commerce solutions to bookstores.
Perform a SWOT Analysis
Check if there are fields for you to specialize in by doing a simplified SWOT analysis.
SWOT stands for:
- Strengths: characteristics that give you an advantage in the market
- Weaknesses: characteristics that can make clients prefer others over you
- Opportunities: external chances that could help you stand out in the market
- Threats: external elements that could cause trouble for your business
By observing the market and doing a quick SWOT analysis, you can accomplish the following:
Identify your current strengths. Specializing at the beginning of your career can be hard, so you might have to rely on offering the usual services to start. Can’t identify a strength? See what competitors offer, and try to find a different approach. If most professionals in your market offer flashy websites, try standing out by offering minimalism and simplicity. If there is a glut of good developers but few good designers, try your hand at design. Do you offer general services but have deep knowledge of a certain type of client? Then specialize your services to their needs.
Combine your strengths with market opportunities to identify fields of specialization. Say that your strengths are HTML, CSS and accessible and adaptable design. In seeing how the web is broadening and how the types of users who access it are increasing, along with the number of devices used to access it, you could try to capitalize on this opportunity by honing your skills in building accessible and responsive websites. By identifying trends, group needs and emerging market segments, you can push your services in new directions and, thus, gain new customers.
Identify your weaknesses and collaborate with other professionals to fill the gaps. As I said earlier, mastering every aspect of the web is no easy feat. Some people have adapted by establishing companies that employ a few specialists to cover most client needs. Turn market challenges into opportunities by finding other freelancers who can complement your services. Both will benefit.
Become prepared for any market changes that could harm your strategy, and have a back-up plan. Say you decide to offer responsive design services, but then there’s a sudden increase in the price of mobile Internet access, and clients become more desktop-focused again. Foreseeing threats can help you adapt your strengths and reduce the risk of losing clients.
Being able to make your living as a freelancing web professional requires hard work, brainstorming and constant learning. It’s not easy, but excelling in your skills, keeping a close eye on the market and presenting your services appropriately will get you several steps closer to success.
So, You Want to Be a Freelance Web Professional
People are so familiar with the web nowadays that creating a job around it might seem easy at first. But delving deeper will show that becoming a freelancer is no stroll in the park.
As with most professions, especially modern and fast-changing ones, you’ll need devotion, research, adaptability, constant practice and good communication skills in order to satisfy clients and achieve your goals. There are many paths to follow, and it’s worth spending time to become well informed and to do some practical work. You’ll be hard to miss if you keep your services updated, adapt to market needs and study the industry regularly. Welcome to the business!
Have you ever wanted to work online? And if you have worked online, what did you expect, and how did it turn out? How would you explain the demands of your profession to someone interested in starting? Did you think about these or other factors before starting yourself?
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About the Author
This was published on May 26, 2011