2015 Recap: Freelance Web Dev & WordPress

The last time I really sat down and wrote a post reflecting back was in April 2014. I wanted to write a post looking back on 2015 but I will start from where I last left off in 2014 to get caught up.

A Background

  • Circa 2004: For about two years, in my spare time, I designed and built some websites for friends and created a few websites for fun as side projects.
  • New Years eve in 2009 I was laid off from a job of 10 years working in Pre-Press for the local newspaper, the Columbia Daily Tribune.
  • 2010 was all about panic and discovery. I had to take a hard look at what my next move would be. Was I going to try for a career change? So I went back to exploring web design and development then decided to go full time as a freelancer.
  • 2011-Present: In 2011 I started to learn about using WordPress to build websites. I created some custom website designs and did some graphic design work print design and logos. But by 2014 I decided I no longer wanted to work on design and I focused on development instead.

Looking Back At 2015

Overall it was a good year. It was hard and it made me grow up a lot. I got knocked down and felt defeated but as I look back I see how much good came from it.

Identity Crisis

In 2014 I wanted to be a “WordPress Developer”. Today I have more clarity about my path forward to explore what’s known as a front-end web developer. This starts with HTML and CSS but expands to CSS pre-processors, responsive design and media queries, retinal images, JavaScript, jQuery, some SEO in terms of proper markup, and performance/optimization. Non-programming skills come in handy like communication, attention to detail, understanding what the designer is trying to convey, and working on teams with project managers, content writers, and back end developers. Also, with WordPress, it seems like a good idea to at least know some PHP, especially for moving custom site functionality out of the theme and into a custom functionality theme. Then there’s my workflow and development environment. This is important when working with teams especially. You have version control like Git and Github, a text editor or IDE that can integrate with it, a local server like DesktopServer or VVV with Vagrant, and task runners for automation like Gulp or Grunt.

When I decided to be a “WordPress Developer” I really didn’t know what the two words meant together. I was following my intuition but wasn’t confident where I was headed… I just knew I wanted to move towards development and away from design. It was an experimental change of direction and the challenge is and has been, to be honest, very intimidating.

A front end developer can fit into a team where you have a designer working with marketing and content writers. The designer has the vision for the site and passes it on to the front end developer to build it out to a working site. Luckily with WordPress most of the light backend work is built in and with theme frameworks and plugins even a lot of the front end dev work is covered (why reinvent the wheel).

For a while in 2014 I tried finding designers to work with and there was a lot of trial and error. I worked on some projects with a few but overall it wasn’t really a successful endeavor. I learned from it and moved on.
(p.s. if you are a designer I still am interested in teaming up with someone).


Eventually I set my sights on subcontract work for agencies and I landed a gig building out a few sites for an agency in late 2014. I worked on two projects through to the beginning of 2015. It was a temporary gig because during this time they had hired an in house developer.

I was excited to have had that experience and I learned a lot but it was also extremely difficult on many levels. For one, I didn’t really know exactly how I was going to do some of what I agreed to do. I was pretty sure I could handle it but that’s not the same as knowing with fair certainty how you are going to build out a project before you start. So I learned as I went. By the way, I now feel that learning by doing (on a paid project) is exhausting and possibly dishonest. I didn’t charge for my learning time but I did wear myself out by trying to learn so much with the added pressure of making sure I was providing quality. Either way, it wasn’t an ideal situation but the lessons that I learned were valuable. I won’t ever be doing that again though if I can avoid it.

This led to a realization that I needed to learn a lot more before I could compete and be taken seriously as a “developer”. The truth is that I was an “Implementer". It’s not a bad gig and there’s a need for it but it’s also not a very good paying gig in my opinion.

This was basically where I started 2015. Recently I’ve seen more design being done in the browser and design seems to be more standardized lately. Sites look more and more similar to each other. In 2016 I might explore trying to do some more design work on smaller sites.

I got by with a little help…

Around the end of 2014 I was actively seeking a support group. I wanted to talk shop with other freelancers about the day-to-day challenges. This landed me an invite to an amazingly support group that changed my life. They really got me through 2015 and I have since learned that there are lots of these groups out there if you look in the right places. Small pockets of like-minded people are helping each other. It is truly amazing and essential to help navigate the craziness of this industry. All of the challenges of this year would have certainly destroyed me if it weren’t for their help.

Ego, uncontrolled ambition, overzealous, unrealistic, hopeless, depressed, anxious, anxiety attacks, therapy…oh my

There were also personal issues to contend with in 2015. I was trying to do too much all at once. My time management was a mess, my sleep was awful, and I didn’t have a clear direction. I was not very self-disciplined and I really didn’t cope well with it all. I took on bigger projects than I should. I over-promised.

The all-encompassing task in front of me involved adjusting my business to increase profit, narrowing my focus to learn how to be a good front end dev working with WordPress and doing at all while also supporting my significant other while she was in college. This meant taking on all of our expenses.

I like a challenge but to be frank, that sucked. Maybe I benefited from that amount of pressure to really pull up my big boy pants and get over the hump. But by the end of the summer I was a mess. I tried so hard to figure it all out and I accomplished a lot but I was completely burned out. I thought I knew things that actually didn’t know and even worse I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Know what I mean?

The ambitious plan of building a business as a freelancer while my significant other was going to college was the hardest thing I’ve dealt with in my 38 years on this planet. It’s deeply personal and I hesitate to talk too much about it. I will say that the end result was that our relationship took a hit. We came out the other side as two independent people who had just faced a lot of challenges and when the dust settled we tried to merge our lives back together. But it was quite the shock and required a sort-of reboot and a lot of reconnecting.

I was having anxiety attacks for weeks at a time. I was seeing a therapist, we were in couples therapy, and I couldn’t focus on work at all. I was completely out of shape too which was hard to deal with since back in 2006 I finally turned my health around and lost 65 lbs getting down to about 140. I was obsessed about being healthy.

That was all out the window… I’d gained it all back and my diet was pretty bad too. I honestly thought my entire life was falling apart.

In September 2015 I just put on the breaks and my monthly income numbers tanked. They remained that way although with a slight upturn in December. Luckily we had enough dual income at that point to offset it some and keep the bills paid. I also had the support of friends, family, therapists, and my business support group to help me keep things together.

For The First Time I Seriously Wanted To Be Employed Again

This led me to seek full time employment. Freelancing was killing me and I wanted a Plan B. But I wasn’t going to take just any old job. There were two companies that stood out. One was 10up, a really awesome WordPress agency. I really didn’t think I had the chops to get that job but I wanted to see what would happen if I applied. I didn’t get an interview but they were very nice and gave me some direction as well as asking me to apply again later in 2016. I might apply to another company or two later in the new year.

Applying for a job, even though I didn’t even get an interview, was enough to really inspire me to up my game. I updated my resume, wrote a short cover letter, and cleaned up my website a bit. I even put up some code on Github (it sucks). It also kicked me in the ass some more in terms of realizing what I need to study and learn to level up. It forced me to mature.

I decided to table the idea of joining the workforce for a later time and instead focus on my freelance brand. I also had a relationship with a new agency client that was beginning to bring more work. By the very end of December it seemed like things were starting to look up again even though my income dropped significantly in the last quarter of the year.

December 2016: The Inaugural WordCamp US

In December I went to Philadelphia to attend WordCamp US. I had never been to the east coast (I’ve grown up in Missouri). It was awesome to be present to see the State of the Word with Matt Mullenweg. I had a beer with the guys behind Beaver Builder. I rubbed elbows with GoDaddy support folks and the founder of Tweaky who I had chatted with over email for several years. The lectures were inspiring and networking was really fun. It was so amazing to meet people in person who I’d known for years but only talked to online.

Coming back from WCUS I’d been kicked in the ass and slapped in the face with the realities of what I needed to learn and how I had been avoiding some of that reality… mainly “Learning JavaScript Deeply”. I was forced to humbly admit that I now, more than ever, knew more clearly the things I don’t know and what I need to learn. I was aware of the Dunning–Kruger effect. It’s based on a study that showed that with some there is “a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their own ineptitude and evaluate their own ability accurately”. So they end up suffering from “illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate”.

I wrote this on Facebook right after returning: “How do I get where I want to be? A whole lotta studying and focus. I’ll admit it’s intimidating but learning is fun. After being around several thousand others at WordCamp I also know I’m not alone in my journey. And that is comforting.” I really love that I have found a tribe with the WordPress community. I can’t even express how awesome that is.


I made 17% less in 2015 than 2014. But I also reduced my overall stress and put on the brakes when I knew I needed to. That is worth making less money and I think it will result in a healthy income boost for 2016. I racked up more debt than I am comfortable with and I owe back taxes. In 2016 I will probably take out a loan to cover owed taxes for 2015, continue making monthly payments for the past years that I still owe and attempt to get back on top. It’s not going to easy.

Other Stuff In 2015

  • Started using Sublime Text and mostly retired Notepad++.
  • I also Lowered My Rate with some new clients. I know, right?! Record scratch… All the research I’ve done has always screamed the opposite. But I was trying to level up which meant I was in a new space where I was somewhat of a n00b. My calendar wasn’t packed. I wasn’t turning away work. I was barely getting any good leads or winning proposals. Just like a camp fire that goes out, you have to start with kindling and build it back up. Don’t smother it.
  • I was a guest on four episodes of <a href=”http://www.thewpcrowd.com/people/steve-s">The WP Crowd</a>’s podcast. I plan to do more in 2016.
  • Got an equipment upgrade with a new laptop, desktop, and smart phone.
  • Successfully installed and created a test local Wordpress dev site with <a href=”https://github.com/Varying-Vagrant-Vagrants/VVV">VVV</a>.
  • Identified the new tools that I would learn about in 2016. Some examples… VVV, Gulp/Grunt, SASS/LESS, JavaScript, Flexbox.

Goals For 2016

  • Learning learning learning
  • More practicing instead of learning-by-doing. I’d like to start a side project or find one to contribute to.
  • Write more and possibly start a newsletter
  • Share my work and what I do. I need to figure out how to do that. When working with agencies there’s an agreement that I won’t post the work to my portfolio.
  • Cohesiveness with all of my social media and various online accounts in terms of branding, describing who I am and what I do.
  • Share code on Github
  • Explore why I sometimes hesitate to try new things like creating a side project or learn new things.
  • Contribute back to WordPress.
  • Start a local WordPress meetup and connect more with my hometown. I really don’t do this. Almost all of my business network and clients are out of state.
  • Ramp up my skills so that, if I want to rejoin the workforce as an employee, I will have a better chance. Even if I decide to stay freelance I’ve been freelance for six years and it’s not easy. It’s good to have options.
  • Update my website design.
  • Cut back or quit drinking. It leads to less financial stress, better sleep, better memory, and a whole host of other benefits.
  • Play music again (I used to play guitar in a few bands), record to computer software, learn about electronic music.
  • Reduce my volunteer work load with the festivals that I attend in the summer.
  • Go to the gym more for peaceful alone time and to manage stress. Generally returning to the good health that I maintained prior to diving full steam ahead into business.
  • Prepare for my next big life changing event: Sell my house and move to the west coast with my partner. We have our sights on Portland, Oregon.

Thank You :)

Thank for you reading and feel free to leave a comment and tell about your 2015 or let me know if this post helped you out in any way. Have a happy, healthy, and successful 2016!

This post was originally published at http://stevestruemph.com/2015-recap/