Being a web development or web design contractor can be an appealing career choice for some. You can set your own hours, spend more time at home, and have the freedom to do what you want. Once you start contracting though, the appeal wears off, and the dark side slowly reveals itself. Contracting can be a stressful and painful learning process with profit margins that don’t match the time put in. In fact, most contractors report that they work far more than 40 hours a week.
The bigger snags that contractors seem to encounter are because they, the developer or designer, are trying to fill the shoes of 5 different roles (client communications, billing, project management, design, and development). In most organizations, these teams function independent of each other, and require entirely different skill sets. Trying to fill all of these roles is what will break most contractors.
Decide what you WANT to do, and fill THAT role. For example, when I do my work, I act as the developer, as well as the project manager. I outsource design, and I batch client communication/sales (we’ll touch on this later).
In order to fill your gaps, you need people who are good at the things you aren’t. Lucky for you, there’s other people in the same boat! If you are a developer, find a designer to partner on projects with. Not only does it ease the work that you have to do, but leveraging these partnerships bring in more work. The best partnerships are ones in which you send work their way, and they send work your way in return. Cool, right?
I partner with local San Diego Web Designers (2 in particular) who fulfill my design needs, and in return they send me development work. Additionally, I have 2-3 devs that I “share” work with when I’m overloaded. This keeps my time free and profitable, and also provides me with work when they become overloaded as well.
Email will eat all your time if you let it. As tempting as it is to answer that shit, try to batch your responses to twice daily. This keeps your head clear, and keeps you focused on what actually matters. If your clients have a real emergency, you’ll know.
Now let’s talk documents. If you’re ever creating your own invoices, cold calling, or writing your own contracts, you’re doing it wrong. Seriously. It’s great to give that personal touch, but with the technology and resources that exist right now, it’s a waste of your time. You can still give great customer service without spending an hour writing a proposal.
Contracts can be generated on the fly, billing can be handled through custom billing systems,and sales can be transferred over to a referral program or outsourced. This can be tricky, and it’s up to you to find a method that works for you and your business.
I use WHMCS & Quickbooks to track my time and send invoices. I have a closed referral program where people can earn 20% by making sales on my behalf, and I only answer emails twice daily. This frees up my time to focus on my projects.
We’ve all been there. Somebody comes to you when you could really use a few bucks, and says they have a 500 dollar budget to build “an ecommerce site like apple.com but with a membership area where woodworkers can sell used chairs” (Real request, by the way). Now, you think to yourself, “I’ve got nothing else in the funnel, I could use that money for rent.” and with a little hesitation, you take the contract. Bad idea. 4 weeks and 300 hours later, you realize the client wasn’t worth it.
Many contractors find themselves in this pattern. They take on cheap clients, and more cheap clients follow. The reason for this is simple. You are making a portfolio full of cheap sites, and you are attracting a cheap audience. The hardest thing a contractor can do is learn to say no… but once you learn to say no, and decline shitty contracts when they come your way, you become that much more exclusive. Just be sure to let them down easy.
I never do hourly work, I do retainers, or I do hourly with a minimum workload of 10 hours. I never take contracts with a budget under $1200. This sets a barrier of entry, and a quality bar on my own work. I am upfront about this too.
This can be hard, but it is crucial for your survival. In the 9-5 world, there’s a constant exchange of ideas. New concepts are tossed around on the daily, so you are never stale. As a contractor, it’s just you, yourself, and you. The web industry changes faster than most, and if you are still out there slangin’ wordpress sites and not using a CSS compiler, you’re basically asking for those $500 website deals.
Attend meetups, and join groups of other contractors who develop in coffee shops or “hackerspaces”. It’s a great way to meet other contractors, and it will keep you on the bleeding edge of your industry.
Yup. There you have it — the foundation for a successful contracting career. Never settle. Never assume you can fill all roles. Never fall behind industry trends. Automate. Automate. Automate. Good luck!
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