Freelance Web Development sounds sexy. You set your own hours and rates, can work from anywhere, and get to do a rotating set of interesting projects.
Breaking in as a freelancer is not easy. I was a 14-year old WordPress “developer”, long on time and naivety, and short on everything else. Armed with these skills, I spent my eighth grade summer getting ripped off.
The Backstory: In middle school, I built websites for my nine year-old brother and a twelve year-old rapper (who would go on to great fame), and tried to figure out how phishing sites worked. With that experience, a logo I got for free on Reddit, and a domain name, I started to try win some freelance gigs.
The First Clients: Every day, I would go through the freelance, forhire, and favors subreddits. If the post involved web design or WordPress, I’d reach out. From the reach out, I got two initial gigs. Both did not pay in cash, but I figured the initial testimonials (and other rewards) would be worth it.
I built both websites, confirmed that they met their standards, delivered the code, and then politely asked for that testimonial (and in one case, a retro soccer jersey) that had been promised.
Both of these “clients” couldn’t even bother to write a couple of nice sentences, and went ghost right after I delivered the code.
This experience gave me a healthy dose of cynicism, and looking back on it eight and a half years later, some major takeaways.
#1 – People value you at the cost you impose on them.
Ideally, this would have been solved by charging them for my time. Since that wasn’t really possible, I should have at least ensured that they had spent sufficient time thinking through these projects on their end. These “clients” spent very little of their own time and gave me short broad asks, that clearly had not been planned or thought through. I then spent a bunch of my time taking that, and turning it into a functional website.
At Healthie, one of the best things we did was start charging for the product almost as soon as it launched. In cases where it’s not possible to get paid, whether for your product or your time, ensure the other party is at least investing similar time on their end. For example, if you’re thinking about doing an unpaid internship, make sure you’ll have a mentor at the company who will spend her valuable time with you.
#2 – Be mindful of your leverage.
In both these cases, I sent over all the code and access before I had received my end of the bargain. Once I had sent that, I lost all leverage here. These internet strangers had no reason to fulfill their end. I assume these strangers didn’t have malicious intentions, but life gets busy. Since they had all they needed from me, it wasn’t a priority to compensate me.
I never made this mistake again freelancing. At Healthie, where it’s not just my time, but our team member’s as well, I remain very mindful of our leverage.
#3 – Follow, Follow, Follow Up.
Digging up these old emails, I was amazed that I didn’t follow up more with these “clients”. I sent one softly-worded request, and left it at that. Now that I’m older and wiser, I decided to change that. 8+ years later.