How I Used Writing to Double My Freelancing Rate As a Programmer

Providing Value to Clients with JavaScript & English

When I left my job to become a freelance programmer, I was charging $50/hr in the beginning. I met other freelancers, consultants, and agencies in town, and a few of them charged $150/hr. Even the agency that I had worked at previously billed my time at $120/hr, which means that my level of programming skill was not the deciding factor. If they could charge that much for my services, why couldn’t I? There was a broken record in my head asking me the same question:

“what’s the difference between a $50 freelancer and a $150 freelancer?”

So I decided to start spending time learning about pricing, value, and all that “business stuff” programmers and designers love to avoid.

You Raise Your Rate When You Raise The (Perceived) Value to Your Clients

Maybe you can get away with raising your rates by just changing the rate you quote new clients moving forward. In fact, if you are charging less than $50/hr, just start saying $50/hr. It’s a reasonable rate for any creative field, and there are surely clients that will pay it.

There, this article just made someone thousands of dollars.

Words are valuable and powerful. Writing can be used to provide an immense amount of value. Think about your favorite book, the one that has changed your world view and made your life better than it was before hand. How much are those words worth?

To start charging the premium rates, you have to raise the amount of value you are providing to your clients. I wasn’t going to do that by getting better at JavaScript (besides, how would most clients even know? You don’t get paid extra for having really clean code.) I was going to do it with writing.

Let’s Put Some Concrete Terms on the Abstract Concept of “Value”

Value is hard to define. If you are selling your service to other businesses, then there are three main points that define value:

  • You save your clients time.
  • You make your clients more money.
  • You reduce the risk your client faces.

Anytime you can point this out to clients, especially if you can do it with numbers, I highly encourage that you do so. If Freelancer Greg tells a client “I built a new automated email system”, and Freelancer Jill tells a client “I built a new automated email system, which could increase conversions by 10%, which would increase annual revenue by $60,000", which one do you think the client feels better about giving money to? Which one do you think has an easier time charging more?

It’s About the Journey, not The Deliverable

Value does not just come from the deliverable at the end of a project … value can come from the process of getting there itself. When you get a new client, you are starting a new relationship. There are going to be a lot of emails, phone calls, and meetings between you two, and you have put a lot of trust in one another. That’s where learning to write and learning how to use it becomes immensely valuable. You can whip up a couple PDFs once, use them in every single client engagement, and they can up your annual revenue by quite a bit.

Fix Communication Problems Before They Start With Welcome Packets

It’s hard to be a developer, but it’s also hard to be a client that hires developers. Clients aren’t born knowing how to write a good bug report or how to communicate the fuzzy idea in their head to a feature we can actually implement. Clients may also not understand why you need to get specific information upfront, so that you don’t end up rebuilding the same feature four different times.

In order to cut this off at the pass, I have a welcome packet that I give to all of my clients. It explains, in plain, friendly English, several things about our engagement.

  • What I can do for them, and what I won’t do for them.
  • How I communicate. When I am available, and when I am not.
  • What I expect from them. This way they know that if I send them a request for changes, they can’t wait 3 months to get back to me without penalty.
  • How payment works. Best to clear that up right out of the gate.

By giving this to clients, it clears up a lot of confusion & positions you as a professional, and not just another freelancer.I got this idea from Nick Disabato. He was kind enough to share one of his welcome packets. You can download it here.

Clients LOVE Weekly Progress Reports

If you take anything away from this article, it should be this. Every Friday, take 5 minutes, and write an email that hits on these three points:

  • What you got done this week.
  • What you plan on getting done next week.
  • What, if anything, you need from the client.

Clients absolutely love this email. They love it so much that I bring it up in sales calls and proposals, and it has made the difference in closing a deal.

Freelancers have a reputation for being flakes. By doing this, you are showing the client that you are not one of them. This can be your unique selling proposition that makes you stand above other freelance developers, and hence, be worth more to a client. This going back to the “reducing risk” idea. People are willing to pay more money for people that have a greater chance of succeeding on a project.

Write Meeting Agendas… And Suddenly Meetings Suck 54% Less

There is a big difference between scheduling a meeting a 2:00PM and and scheduling a meeting from 2:00PM — 2:30PM. The second one has a greater chance of actually only taking 30 minutes. If you want to make sure meetings don’t turn into rambling sessions that run so long you have to invent the imaginary “other meeting” you have to run off to, send a meeting agenda 24 hours prior to your meeting.

Much like the progress report, this meeting agenda does not have to be long, and it does not have to be complicated. All it needs to have is a bullet list of points you want to discuss in the meeting, a start and end time, and the goal of the meeting (all meetings should ever have a defined goal or not exist).

By doing this, you have given a structure that you and the client can both follow. (and bonus points, you sent a meeting reminder, so they are more likely to remember and show up). This means that the client is much more inclined to stay on task, and if the conversations starts to stray you can point at the agenda and say “let’s get back on task”.

Most clients hate meetings too, and they will appreciate that you value their time and are focused on getting results, instead of piddling around while your hourly rate meter is ticking. It also positions you as a professional, and not just another freelancer. (noticing the pattern here?)

Write Technical, and Not-So-Technical Documentation

When I worked at a management position at an agency, I was the champion of documentation. I knew how annoying it was when my work flow would be interrupted because there was a question about a module I wrote 9 months ago, or when I had to make some additions to David’s module from a year ago, and I feel bad about interrupting David’s workflow. 15 minutes of writing can save dozens of developer hours.

Writing technical documentation is a huge value add, and it does not have to take up a whole lot of your time. It’s also helpful if you are working on a long term project, because code written more than four months ago might as well be written by a complete stranger. In additions, your clients feel more secure if they plan on handing over your work to an in-house development team. You will save the client and his team dozens of training hours, and “saving time” is one of the primary ways we can provide value to a client.

You can also write documentation that is for the client and their employees. I started doing this after creating WordPress sites for clients, and then when I launch their site and wish them luck, they stare at me blankly and wonder “How do I WordPress?”.

To combat this, I wrote a simple, “Basics of WordPress” guide. For bonus points, I’ll take the manual and add a couple notes that are specific to the theme & plugins I used (and this can be recycled from previous manuals). A new site built on WordPress is one thing, but a WordPress site plus guidance on how to use it to grow your business is something else entirely. Things like that are the moon stone that lets freelance Pokemon evolve into consultants.

Fake it ‘Til You Make It

Earlier I mentioned that it was about perceived value to clients, and positioning yourself as a professional. This may start causing your ‘scumbag’ alarms to go off in your head. It sounds like I am telling you to pretend to be a more professional consultant when you are just a puny freelancer, but that isn’t the case. These actions define you as a professional. By doing these things, you are going to do your job better, and have happier clients. When you start acting like a professional, you become one. So, go buy yourself a power tie.

In addition to making clients happier with writing, and making yourself more valuable, writing can help you get more clients as well, because …

You Can Also Use Writing To Grow Your Business

You may have guessed that by taking the time to craft an article on Medium instead of doing billable work, there must also be value in using content that you publish. Well, you guessed right. Writing can be a powerful sales tool.

You Can Build Value and Authority By Teaching

The more a client believes that you can provide value, then the more likely they are to pay you to provide value for them. One of the ways to do that is by teaching people. By teaching people, you are providing value to them for free, which builds up trust and demonstrates that you have expertise and authority on a subject.

A few months back, I wrote an article called “AngularJS: An Overview” people liked it, and it got quite a bit of traffic. I also had an offer for a 3 month AngularJS contract job the very next day.

It’s counter intuitive, but by giving away the value you provide for free, people are more likely to pay you for it. Nathan Barry has a really good write-up on this, I’d suggest checking it out if you need further convincing. (How teaching and Storytelling Can Build a Profitable Business)

Content Marketing Isn’t Just For Startups

Building a newsletter is a viable marketing technique for freelancers and consultants, as well as startups and product companies. If you are charging a higher rate, it’s not uncommon to charge more than 5 figures for a project. You have to walk the client from the path them just finding out about you or meeting you, to giving you $10,000 and trusting you with business critical responsibility.

Now, you have to do more than write tutorials on your blog. People will not go from “This guy wrote a helpful article” to “I want to give him lots of money” (The AngularJS client from earlier still required a couple meetings before sealing the deal)

You may be used to building trust and making the sale by meeting with clients in person or over the phone… but what if you could automate that process? Instead of going straight from site visitor to client, you can set up a funnel to continue building trust and value with this client.

  1. A Potential client finds a piece of content that you published somewhere.
  2. A Potential client sees a link to get on your mailing list. Even better, they see an offer that gives them some incentive (a book, a report, a video, etc.) when they sign up.
  3. When they sign up, they get a few more emails, all of which are salesy and aren’t newsletters, but even more valuable content. How neat!
  4. After a few of these emails, there is an invitation to chat with you if you would like more personalized, hands on help similar to what you have been providing via email.
  5. The client accepts, and now you get to have a sales call with a client that already has a relationship with you, even though you haven’t done anything yet.

That’s how your writing can start bringing new leads right to your doorstep.

There is No Such Thing as “A Writer”

Despite spending a lot of time writing, I really don’t like the term “writer”. To me, the term either implies hipsters that are sitting in a coffee shop, working on their novel that will never see the light of day. The other image of a writer is one like Hemingway, a depressed genius who knows some form of alchemy that turns wine and a typewriter into distilled genius.

The problem with this is that both of these are things you don’t want to be. More importantly, it makes being a writer sounds like something you are, when in fact it is something you do.

You are already a writer. You write emails. You write proposals. You may write blog articles or documentation or comments on Reddit or Tweets. We are all writers. There is no excuse for being a bad one. Writing doesn’t have to be hard, and you don’t have to be creative. In fact, you can get your clients to do most of the heavy lifting for you.

Writing is Actually Easy

The best way to communicate to your potential clients is to talk exactly like they do. If you want to increase conversions in your sales meetings, you should do this from now on:

  • Make a note every time you say something in a sales call that gets a positive response, every time you get a happy email from a client, and every time you get a testimonial.
  • Start using those phrases in your calls, your email, and your writing.

For example, one time I was on a sales call, and mentioned my weekly progress reports, and the client said:

“I really like that. That way I can always have finger on the pulse of my project.”

Later that week, I had a sales call with another potential client. Guess what I said?

“I send you a progress report each week that includes what got done and what will get done the next week. That way, you always have your finger on the pulse of your project.

That’ll wind up in the copy on my site at some point, I’m sure. Writing is really easy when you let your customers do it for you.

Beyond that, writing is simple. Use smaller words and use fewer of them. You don’t have to write a college thesis style, because 99% of people don’t want to read something of that length or complexity.

If you did not do well in English class, don’t worry. This is the internet, not college, and if you did not learn proper style, don’t be concerned because you don’t need it (you have noticed a more liberal use of parenthesis … and ellipses. Also, I don’t think a teacher ever told you about using bullet points, or when to make things bold or italic).

I would recommend picking up a copy of The Elements of Style and flipping through it from time to time. Brevity, clarity, and elegance are eternal, and the guidelines for writing with them haven’t changed much.

Apply This Knowledge Now

The only way to hone your writing is to write. A whole lot. Which means less time reading articles on the internet and more time practicing. So, now that I have taken up 8 minutes of your day, here are some exercises to get you started.

  • Go write one article. It doesn’t have to be long, 400 words is fine. You don’t even need a blog, You can always post on a site like Medium.
  • Go write your client welcome packet. Full disclosure, I took this idea from Nick Disabato. He was nice enough to publish one of his as an example, you can check it out here.
  • See if there are any pages that could use updating on your site. If not, think of some new ones you could add. Do your clients share a similar problem? Write about how you solve it. Do they have similar questions? Write a page that answers that.
  • Review client testimonials and emails. Start turning those lines into copy.
  • Install a journaling app, and start the habit of daily journaling. I prefer DayOne for mac & iGadgets.

Recommended Reading

I know Medium does this with their articles, but I wanted to provide links to a few books that I found helpful.

  • If you want to read more of my thoughts on pricing your services, I have a short, free book available called The Freelance Pricing Handbook. This may or may not be an incentive to build a mailing list that I talked about earlier, but as I said, if you found this article valuable, it’s a source to get even more value like that.
  • For a lot more information on value and pricing, I strongly recommend Double your Freelancing Rate by Brennan Dunn.
  • Go grab a copy of The Elements of Style. It’s cheap, and it’s a great resource.
  • If you want to learn more about copy in particular (which is helpful both to write your own sales pages, and its a value add for the services you deliver to clients) Check out any or all of the Copy Hackers books. They are ones that taught me that writing is like the Incredibles, and that when all of us are writers… then no one is. If you don’t want to invest that much time and money, then just check out this article: 101 CopyWriting Do’s and Don’ts.