Reader question: what to charge as a freelancer?

I got a question last week from a reader named James on how he could start doing freelance web design and development, and how much he should charge. I was pretty brutally honest with him, because I don’t think it’s helpful to sugarcoat things. I’ve posted his question and my answer here, with his URL and last name removed. Hopefully someone else will find it useful.

The Question:

I would like to start freelancing, but I am unsure what my rate should be for the skillset I have to offer. Here is my website: [WEBSITE URL]. What was your rate when you started out?

– James

My Answer:

Hi James,

I think your question about the rate you should charge really depends on a few things, but before we dig into rate, I’d like to make a few comments on your website and how you’re presenting yourself. I’m going to be brutally honest, because no one trying to strike out on their own is well served by false praise.

The Feedback (brutal)

First of all, before we talk about anything else, your domain name is terrible. It sounds like a russian spammer site. Get a new one, preferably a .com and one without dashes. I just checked and [READERSNAME].com seems to be available…are you crazy? Definitely go snag that before someone else does :)

Second, your site design is pretty bad and this matters, because most people who will be hiring you have no idea what good code or bad code looks like, but they know what a good website looks like, and if yours looks bad, they’ll assume you can’t code very well either. Not fair, but that’s how it is.

Here’s the fastest way to fix it: go to http://themeforest.com, find an HTML / CSS or WordPress theme that you like, and reskin your site.

Third, almost all of the examples of your work on your site are terrible. You’ve included some of your class assignments, some pretty crummy photoshop work, etc. The overall effect of looking at your portfolio is that you have no idea what you’re doing.

But don’t despair, because you actually have an impressive list of WordPress sites that you’ve worked on, most of which look pretty good.

Dump everything but those WordPress sites. And since you have like 50 of them, just go through them and pick the ten that represent your best work and which look the strongest visually.

Do not go for quantity over quality. When I’m looking to hire a freelancer, I look at maybe 3 or 4 of their examples, picked randomly. If any of them look bad, I close the tab and keep looking. I want people who care about their work, and who care about what they’re representing to the world.

Fourth, you need to focus on what it is that you want to work on. I would suggest WordPress, as there’s plenty of work in that arena, and that’s where your strongest portfolio stuff is. So dump everything else off your site and just talk about how you’re a WordPress guru. Don’t mention HTML / CSS, Flash, Photoshop, etc.

Finally, rewrite your resume to reflect this new focus. Drop any position that doesn’t have anything to do with web development / IT. Rewrite your skills and experiences to include more about web development / IT. Get rid of that forklift thing.

Rates

Ok, now let’s talk about rate. When I started, I charged $50 / hr. And believe it or not, I probably wasn’t much better than you. But what I had was a few decent examples of my work, and no crummy examples (at least not public ones).

To sum all the points above up, when you’re done, you want something more like this: http://www.jaredatchison.com/

I found that guy via a little Googling for “wordpress developer”. I have no idea what the guy charges, but I would guess somewhere in the $75 – 95 / hr range, and I’m sure he’s probably swamped with clients. The reason he can charge that is partly that he’s more experienced and has better client references / connections. But it’s also because he’s presenting himself a lot better than you are.

Few people go looking for a jack-of-all-trades “webmaster” type. You’ll have a much easier time getting clients and getting high rates by specializing in something. WordPress is a good place to start.

Growing in your career

I don’t know you, but I note that you’re new to this industry and just graduated from school with an associates. And little things like how you’re presenting yourself, your domain, your newness to twitter, etc. tells me that you have a lot to learn. This is a good thing! Everyone was once where you are, and we all managed to get past it. You can too. I would recommend that you start a couple daily habits:

1. Respond to a couple dozen postings on the Craigslist gigs board, FreelanceSwitch.com jobs board, AuthenticJobs.com. You won’t hear back from hardly anyone, but that’s not your fault. This is a numbers game, so start putting in your time.

2. Reading everything you can from these sites:

http://news.ycombinator.com
http://freelanceswitch.com
http://problogger.net
http://copyblogger.com
http://www.smashingmagazine.com/
http://wordpress.alltop.com/
http://freelance.alltop.com/

And as many more as you can.

You’re in for an adventure, but stick with it and you’ll see huge progress in the next couple years. Good luck, and let me know if you have any more questions.

If you enjoyed this post, join the conversation. I’ve been freelancing for awhile and I’d love to answer any questions on that (or anything else) that you might have. I won’t ever disclose your identity without permission. Hit me up!