How I made $10,000 in a year by doing freelance work (while attending college and working a full-time job)

Background

It’s four years now since I’ve been working in the online industry as a full-stack web designer. I offer services like design, coding, branding and CMS implementation (WordPress is my go-to CMS!).

In late 2014, I was working at a local marketing firm as a jack-of-all-trades guy (CSS/WordPress coder, banner/print designer, article writer) when I decided I wanted to dive more into the UX/UI segment of the web industry and make some cash on the side.

Unfortunately, my firm wasn’t receiving too many web design quotes. I thought on switching jobs, but, at the time, I also needed to attend college classes for 2 to 6 hours a day, and no other company was hiring part-time for the role I wanted — to make myself clear, I wanted to be able to build a website from the ground up, focusing on design and how it impacts the users.

The local market didn’t appeal to me because Romanian stakeholders care more about the functionality of a web product than the way it looks and feels (I think they’re both equally important).

So my solution was to start freelancing for the foreign market.

Needless to say, I had to face the following challenges:

  • how to convince people I never met to hire me with me having such a small design portfolio
  • how to convince them to pay me before the project starts
  • how to make a living out of it
So, just send me that $2,000 upfront today and I promise I won’t run to Mexico.

This is how I did it:

Setting up shop

I started small. I created a PayPal account, bought a domain and hosting using GoDaddy discount coupons and uploaded on my personal website some screenshots of previous work. I also managed to get my hands on an Dribbble invitation, where I also created a portfolio.

Initial investment: around $15 (what I paid for setting up the website).

Posting on job boards

With my online portfolio set up, I started posting ‘for hire’ messages on reddit’s /r/forhire subreddit. Here, companies ranging from start-ups to big players are looking to hire skilled individuals. They can be contaced via a personal message or they can browse through ‘for hire’ posts of remote workers and contact them. My first post looked like this:

“Good design is good business.” — Thomas J. Watson

Hi,

Your business might be going well, but do you have a website that does its job? I’m sure there are many things that could be improved in your online presence. Give me a shout for free advice. If you like me, then we’ll talk business.

Portfolio: http://mywebsite.com

Have a great day!

I didn’t want my message to sound too generic (that’s why I included the design quote above the actual ad text) and I also wanted to let my potential clients know that they can test me (so I included the free advice thing).

So, did it work?

Yes. My first ‘for hire’ message got me a small project (it was a $200 landing page design) — I finished it in two days, so it was a pretty good deal! I kept posting on reddit and for a while I only got these kind of projects (landing pages, small websites, WordPress theme modifications) — and I was earning around $200-$300 per project.

Meanwhile, I bought a Pro account on Dribbble and I checked the ‘Available For Hire’ option on my profile. In a few months, work inquiries started coming and by the end of 2014 I did two full website designs for a Swedish company — both of them at a higher (almost double) rate than I would charge on reddit.

Starting a project

Whenever I kicked off a project with a new client I’d ensure to lay down the terms before I’d start work. Always. I did that by writing a small PDF contract (I am not ashamed to admit that it was based on this template), where I would explain in detail the tasks that needed to be done and the technologies that had to be used . I would also ask for 30–40% of the total sum be delivered to me via PayPal before I’d begin working.

So, did it work?

When I began freelancing I was worried that no one would trust me and pay me upfront — luckily, all the people I’ve worked with gladly accepted to secure their work by paying me a part of the total sum at the beginning of a project.

Spicing up my portfolio

I quickly figured out that my design portfolio would have a greater impact on potential customers if I wrote some words about what I did, how I did it, the technologies I used, etc. So from there on, I’d treat each portfolio project like a case study: I’d post the client’s initial brief, I’d write a description for each screen (page) I did for a certain website or app and I’d try to explain my design choices as much as possible.

Having more work done helped too — because I had more to show! I quickly went from three portfolio projects (that were initially composed only of screenshots) to having nine case studies (screenshots + description).

So, did it work?

You bet it did. Shortly after improving my portfolio, I landed my first big project: I had to design and develop from scratch a custom WordPress theme for which I got paid $1000. The time frame was only 3 weeks, which was reasonable for this kind of project. I’d lie though if I told you that I delivered on time. Well, I only delayed the project by a week — but I manage not to upset my client. Speaking of which:

Managing my clients

I’d get back to my clients daily or once every 48 hours, depending on the project. Clients love daily updates, so I tried my best to keep them updated with my progress. When they emailed me, I’d wait no more than an hour to reply to them (I carried a smartphone with me so I could email them as fast as possible, even if I wasn’t in front of the computer). This fast turnaround led to a good business relationship with my clients — and I wasn’t surprised when, later on, some of them got back in touch with me for new gigs.

I always let my clients know what’s going on, whether progress was made or not with their project within a certain time frame.

So, for example, if a client wanted something done by Thursday, and on Thursday I hadn’t yet gotten around to do that task, I’d email/skype/facebook them and let them know:

Hi,

Just wanted to let you know that I didn’t manage to do your task yet, because [insert a damn good reason].

However, I didn’t forget about it and I will help you as soon as possible.

Madalin

Hey Dave, do you remember that crazy party I told you about? Well, I didn’t exactly get home at 10 PM last night…

So, did it work?

Yes. I’m taking pride in the fact that in a year of freelancing I managed not to upset any of my clients by delaying tasks — even if I screwed up once in a while, I did most of the stuff on time. And good.

Selling myself in three paragraphs or less

We all know that working for yourself is feast or famine — one month you can have projects piling up and next month can be a dry spell. I had some short periods of time when I didn’t have something to work on — to fix that, I’d browse through the reddit hiring ads.

I learned what and how to message a prospective client — and how to convince them to work with me (or, at least, contact me back) by writing no more than three short paragraphs. The key was paying attention to what the client wanted. For example, if they wanted a website design (no coding required), I avoided bragging out about my HTML/CSS/JavaScript skills and cut to the point:

Hi,

I can help you with your website design. Check out my portfolio: http://mywebsite.com.

I’d love to hear more about your project.

Madalin

If the client wanted a more complex website — for example, a WordPress theme built from scratch, then I’d write the following message:

Hi there,

I have experience with building WordPress themes. I’m also a designer, so I can help you with everything from design to coding to launching your website. Here’s two projects that I’m proud of: http://project1.com, http://project2.com.

Let’s talk more on Skype,

Madalin

When it was all about a quick gig — like simple and fast CSS bug fixes or WordPress theme changes — I’d write an even shorter message (the early bird catches the worm when it comes to small projects like this):

Hello,

I’m proficient with CSS and WordPress back-end and I can easily help you.

Can you tell me more?

Madalin

So, did it work?

Not all the time, of course. However, contacting people directly brought in more clients instead of me posting ‘for hire’ ads and waiting for people to contact me. When I figured this out, I’d stay all day on reddit hitting the refresh button and trying to be the first to contact a prospective client. With this method, months later, I still have two clients that contract me on a regular basis.

Burnout

After six months of freelancing + job + school I became worn out. The reason: I didn’t keep a balance between work and my personal life. I’d rarely take time off and I even worked on weekends. I began to have frequent headaches, my back was hurting like a motherfucker and, besides that, I wasn’t being that much productive. There were days when I dreaded starting work — as opposed to the days I was enthusiastic to work on something.

Oh, and I didn’t exercise. At all!

Actually, I did a bit of heavy lifting…

So, how did I bounce back?

Well, I just layed low for a while. I’d take on one small or medium-sized project at a time and I’d work on it within a larger time frame than usual. After a while I also quit my day job and I started to only rely on my freelancing income — I didn’t care how low it was, as long as I had more time for myself. I started reading more, going out more and practicing guitar. I needed a break and I got it!

Delegating my work

Taking a well-deserved break resulted in me entering a few months when my inspiration and productivity were at an all-time high! I was so confident in myself than I took more projects than I could take. When they started piling up and, I decided to subcontract other freelancers to help me.

If I had a project that involved design and one that required a theme customization, I’d take the design one and pass on the latter to a freelancer that specialized in WordPress. I treated my collaborators the same way I wanted to be treated — and working with others has proved to not only be a profitable experience, but also one I learned from a lot of things because it allowed me to put myself in the shoes of the client — by being the client.

I’m so glad you’re ok with 50/50 split of the project. Just don’t forget to bill me for those $25, I’m an honest guy!

Closing thoughts

Freelancing was a hell of a ride. In twelve months I reached a steady monthly income (I managed to earn a grand total of $10,000) — and having a flexible work schedule allowed me to finish my engineering studies.

After living the life of working from my dorm room in my underwear (and no, that’s not just a myth) I decided I wanted to go into product design, so I got a full-time job again. I still manage two clients but I only work weekends for them (a grand total of 4–6 hours per weekend).

I believe that having some gigs besides having a 9–5 job sharpens your skills and makes you stay aware and updated with the ever-changing industry that is web design.

Article originally published on my personal blog on September 15, 2015.