Being a freelance worker has plenty of perks: flexibility in terms of hours and location, ability to choose your customers and projects, no commute. On the other hand it’s hard work too, as a freelancer you are the developer, project manager, accountant, and marketing department.
As an individual you are unlikely to land the big companies and projects as those will require teams of people and a lot of resources, but for every corporate contract there are many more small businesses out there in need of a website to connect with their customers.
Freelancing for small businesses and individuals can be much more rewarding since you get to work directly with your clients and see the positive impact that your work has on their business. To set up a basic website for a small business you don’t need to know how to program or even how to write HTML code.
Getting a Domain and Hosting:
How does one get started? Well a good first step is to set up your own website and portfolio for your work. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy, even just a home page with some basic information about yourself and a contact page is sufficient, once you have a couple of projects under your belt it’s a good idea to have a ‘Portfolio’ page as well so potential clients can see some examples of your work. You will need to get yourself set up with a domain and website hosting, this website has some top picks for web hosts and domain registrars and has coupon codes so that you can save some money.
A domain is essentially the website name, it’s what you type into the address bar on your web browser to reach a website. For your domain name, you can come up with a name for your company and use that, or just use your own name. Make sure you come up with a few options and variations in case your first choice is already taken. The domain extension doesn’t really matter. ‘.com’s are the most common, but you could use your countries extension or .biz if you prefer.
When selecting your hosting plan there are a few things you should look out for. First of all, I’d strongly recommend that you select hosting on a Linux server as opposed to a Windows one. It’s much easier to run my recommended content management system (which I will get to shortly) on a Linux server. The second thing you need to look for is the ability to host multiple websites on one account. When you are starting out, a plan that will let you host 10 – 25 domains and set up as many databases will work just fine. If you anticipate your client list growing beyond that make sure you are able to easily upgrade to a more comprehensive plan or private server. Speaking of databases, the last thing you need to look for in a web host is the ability to set up MySQL databases.
To recap you need to make sure that your host:
- Has Linux hosting available
- Can host multiple domains on one account
- Has MySQL databases
Once you have your domain and hosting purchased it’s a good idea to set up a folder to host your website in and then point the domain to that. I have a more detailed guide on how to do that coming soon, here is GoDaddy’s knowledgebase article on how to accomplish it on their servers.
If this all seems confusing at first don’t panic, it takes some time to figure out where everything is with your particular host. Google is your best friend! I figure out most things by typing my question directly into the search box. If you are confused or are having trouble, there is a good chance somebody else has had the exact same problem and already figured it out.
Once you have your hosting and domain set up you can set your content management system (CMS), which is the software that runs your website. I strongly recommend that you use WordPress, they have excellent documentation and support, and if your clients would like to be able to update their website on their own after you set it up I find this to be the most user-friendly CMS out there.
Many hosts offer WordPress as a ‘1-click install’ application, check to see if your host is one of them. It will setup all the program files and database for you, super easy!
If not, then step one is to download the latest version of WordPress. You then need to unzip the files and upload them to the folder you set up for your website via FTP. Your host may have a built in file-manager, but the best method is to set yourself up with an FTP account and use a free FTP client such as Filezilla. I will have a more detailed guide on setting up an FTP account and Filezilla soon.
WordPress has an excellent guide on how to install their software, you might find this video helpful as well:
Adding a Theme and Content
Once you have WordPress installed you can start working on the look and feel of your website. WordPress comes with a couple of themes, or you can find one you like on their themes directory. Themes change the design and layout of your website. You can also build a completely custom theme, but that’s a fairly advanced skill and will require knowledge of HTML and PHP. If you have a basic knowledge of HTML and CSS you can take a pre-existing theme and make changes to customize it to your liking. There are lots of excellent guides for basic use of WordPress here.
The most important part of any site is the content, often people find this part the most challenging! As I said above, for a basic portfolio site you will need at least a brief bio of yourself/your company and a contact page. Later on you can add more features and pages to your site but this is good to start. In the beginning when you don’t have a lot of clients use your ‘About’ page as a selling point to potential clients. Why should they hire you? Do you have a special skill or expertise? For example maybe you’ve worked in sales and marketing for many years and have excellent copywriting skills, or maybe you have training in graphic design? I would recommend against offering to work for free or very cheaply even on your first websites, as the client may expect you to always work for free or for a reduced rate. A good selling point for small businesses is that they will be working with you personally, not a faceless work ticket queue at a development house. As a fellow small business owner they will understand the extra care and attention that goes into your work when you are working one on one with your clients. Once you have your bio page set up you can set that as your home page for now.
For a contact page, I recommend setting up a contact form using the Contact Form 7 plugin for WordPress. It’s easy to set up, highly customizable and does a good job of blocking spambots. Putting your email address in text on a website is a good way to start getting a lot of spam emails. Here is a guide on how to install and manage your plugins on WordPress.
Go out there and find some clients!
Now that you have yourself set up, you can start promoting your new business. I have always found word of mouth and personal interaction and meetings to be the best way to get new clients among small business owners. Once you set up a website for a couple of people they will tell other people they will know. Eventually potential clients will start approaching you and you won’t have to do so much promotion. In the beginning be prepared to send a lot of emails. Contact people you know, family, and local business owners whose establishments you frequent, offer to meet with them to discuss how a website could help their business. Find people who have outdated websites and offer to upgrade them. Attend local networking events for small businesses. Check Craigslist in your city to see if anybody is looking to hire a freelance web developer. In the beginning you can’t just set up a website and expect people to come to you, you will need to go to them!
Good luck, and keep an eye out for future articles on how to update your website after you’ve completed a few projects, project management and billing software, how to write project proposals and contracts, and more advanced customization of WordPress.