Your Most Important Skill as a Freelance Software Developer
Sales is the most important skill you can have as a freelance software developer. If you can’t land the jobs, you can’t pay your rent, eat, or get rich.
Who am I kidding!? You’re not going to get rich as a freelance dev. But that’s a topic for another time.
Learn sales, and you’ll find yourself getting work.
It doesn’t matter how good you are at writing software and creating magical web experiences using the latest technologies. If you can’t communicate that to a potential client, you’re going to go broke real fast.
The thing you’ve got to remember is that as a freelance anything, you are running a business. Businesses need sales to survive and getting web development jobs are your sales.
Exploring the Race to the Bottom
Back when eLance was the biggest freelance site out there, I was working full time as a freelance web developer. I built websites mostly with Drupal, but sometimes WordPress or even a custom CMS I designed before I figured out configuring a custom WordPress template was way easier.
I had a long-term contract with a local advertising shop, but it wasn’t enough money to pay the bills. I had to go out and get my own work and ended up working 12–16 hour days for a long while.
As I was shopping around posted jobs, I noticed a trend. The lowest bidder often got the job. It wasn’t just the person with the best portfolio and most complex, thought-out bid and project plan. It was the person from India, or Pakistan, or China, or the Republic of the Philippines. They came in with lower bids and could do the work to the client’s specifications.
Developers in other countries (I’m currently sitting in the USA) were often able to do the same work for less money, so I kept having to push my bids lower and lower just to compete.
Some of the jobs I won were bid so low, I probably would have made more money working the same amount of hours for minimum wage. That was discouraging.
Ultimately, cruising these job boards and placing well-constructed bids became a waste of my time. It was all just a race to the bottom, and I think I hit it.
What you Should do Instead
You need to be going after work with big price tags because the race to the bidding war bottom ends…at the bottom. Since doing work for free doesn’t pay the bills, set your sights higher.
Go for the big projects. The ones with hefty price tags that require a lot of work.
I suggest setting a minimum price tag for your work with new clients. Existing clients can get one-off little jobs because you already have a relationship with them and they can pay your rate.
And I’m talking about a real rate that communicates you’re a real development business. Sure, any Joe or Jane can work for $15 per hour designing or developing websites, but that sure as shit is way below the market rate for that sort of work.
Having such a low hourly rate communicates that you’re not a business. It says that you’re just some kid doing side work to make a little extra cash. It says you don’t value the work you do, and you might not be very good at it.
Occasionally you’ll have to do a small job for a new client to get your foot in the door. Maybe they’re testing the waters to see if they want to work with you, or maybe they’re still in the early phases of a project plan and need to get rolling. You can do this small project, but do so at a real hourly rate, and have a sales plan for closing a bigger deal with them.
You have to Sell Yourself
Selling your skills and services is the single most important skill you can develop as a freelancer or fledgling business owner.
I say fledgling business owner because as soon as you’re past that stage, you’ll want to hire someone to hunt down new business for you. But until that happens…
You have to sell yourself. Hunting down new business is hard. Serving existing clients is easier, but once the big projects are done they won’t have much more work for you. Maybe you’ll get a maintenance contract or some minor improvements to an existing project, but that might not pay the bills.
New clients will do that for you.
Buy books, watch YouTube videos, hire an instructor, go to a weekend sales crash course…anything to get those skills improved enough so that you can both do spontaneous sales pitches in person and bring in new business every single month.
Software development skills don’t sell themselves. You’re going to have to sell them.
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