01 Jul My Top 3 Tips for New Freelancers
There was once a young kid, born in Robbinsdale, Minnesota and raised in a small town called Corcoran, Minnesota 20 minutes west of Minneapolis.
I was a dreamer – we didn’t have a TV til I was 8 or 10 and I remember long summers playing ninja’s on a blanket in our 2 acre yard after watching the movie 3 Ninja’s in the theater, pretending our carpet was lava while my mom vacuumed, and our chores weeding and picking green beans.
Things I share about in this article:
- A pursuit of adventure, creativity and attention Skip to It Daddy-O
- The truth about the kinds of courses you’d want if you wanted to get into WordPress Development Get to It, Sugar
- How I turned into a full-time freelance web designer and WordPress developer Come on and Give It to Me
A pursuit of adventure, creativity and attention
Being the youngest of four brothers left me scrambling for attention behind them as they’d run up to our little forts in the wooded hill beside our house we called ‘the weeds.’ We pretended we were part of wars with fireworks or that we were pioneers or spies. My active imagination translated to my time at home too and I copied my brothers as they painted or made up cartoon characters with drawing.
My mom was a highly sensitive, intuitive woman and was really good at teaching us the general geometry of the human face as we sketched, and my dad provided the more mechanically minded, methodical approach that came off as a bit too stern to a sensitive boy who preferred his mom.
Getting attention for being creative, and the makings of a designer
Both of these things provide the backdrop for both my work ethic and my knack for trying to be wildly creative. I was rewarded with adulation when I brought my mom a finished story involving my cartoon character ‘Bambu’ who was a bumbling idiot who mostly messed things up, probably loosely modeled after Amelia Bedelia, a series of stories about a maid I loved growing up.
My brother John was second in his class and had done extremely well with sports, my brother Dan was a bit more timid but pursued a career as a sound engineer and is now building an 8+ million dollar a year company, and my brother Matt got into skateboarding and punk rock followed by evangelism and social media marketing.
I had no place to ‘fit in’ I felt, starting off.
It was all taken.
So I got into shenanigans, first as a Jackass style attention seeker – then as a burnout partier. All with the backdrop of loosely pursuing music. I’d draw and paint every once in awhile, but I wanted to be a rockstar.
After getting kicked out of the military, and then loosely flopping out of a church program for people trying to find their way in life – I partied again.
Then I hit a bottom. This was a pretty significant story that I won’t get into in further detail, but suffice it to say that it provided the impetus to start something entirely new. I took of the heavy weight of needing to be the center of attention and gave myself permission to really work on my mental health.
Re-entering society – feeling I had something to prove
Now I was trying to find my place in society at 24 – after 6 years pursuing various possibilities including a lot of school and partying I still hadn’t finished a degree and had a lot of credits for various pursuits that didn’t really constitute a solid direction.
I knew I loved visual design and had a penchant for everything visual. So I started in with painting classes – then graphic design – then design + web development.
I took classes for HTML, CSS and then PHP and databases. I zero-ed in on WordPress development. I saw that I could at least roll out themes for people and then modify those themes with my CSS and HTML skills.
The truth about the kinds of courses you’d want if you wanted to get into WordPress Development
- HTML – Simple and a more advanced class
- CSS – Simple and a more advanced class
- PHP and Databases – How they work and basics
- WordPress specific PHP – WordPress has some loops that are more specific to it – start learning about them, but understand to get started you only need to know the basics
- Get started! The best way to understand what you’ll need to know (and not to get trapped in an endless learning but not applying cycle) is to try to make a site ASAP.
For those that learn by doing (like me) I might even suggest starting before you even take courses. The problem with taking 20 courses before you start working on a site (even just an experimental one) can sometimes make people who are more experiential learners that the task might be too big for them or that they need to keep learning forever.
Essentially, I’d err on the side of starting before you feel ready.
A visual designer who knew code was the only way to really make something truly good and functional
In truth, I just wanted to be a visual designer, but I saw that the best finished websites had someone who understood how visuals transferred into code, and could code well at the helm
And so here I was, designing a bit – developing a bit – and looking for work. At first, the only clients I could find had smaller budgets, and so I couldn’t afford to have a coder helping out. I got a couple clients and decided one day when the chef at the restaurant I was working at was swearing at me that I’d had enough.
I walked out of my shitty restaurant job
All of the weight of my finances would rest on what was left of a small student loan and 2 clients whose websites I was finishing up.
Putting the weight on the new pursuit, in my case was probably one of the best things I possibly could have done. I pursued networking, learning, and making these sites as cool and effective as I possibly could to showcase in my portfolio with a new fervor.
It was do or die time.
I still had a year of classes left, but I got an office for the summer and connected with people in any way I could to try to get work. I went to meetups, connecting with as many people as I could on social media, and literally passed out flyers for my web design services – even when I went on a roadtrip to Yellowstone (and got a client!)
I think that my portfolio – however bad it’d seem if I looked at it now – was a huge part of why I was able to get work. I’d direct people to it, and it would give them a few examples of my work and my working philosophy, essentially. Which at the time was ‘show what makes you special online,’ and that’s actually still pretty central to the way I present my unique value proposition today.
Some people get really funny when you talk about portfolio’s:
“You know, we’re just so busy working on real client work to update our stuff.”
Well that’s all well and good when your portfolio is at least decent, but if you’re plugging away at less than ideal clients and neglecting entirely the vehicle that’s going to win you ideal clients, I’d say it’d be worth it to make time.
Don’t take industry standards, or old catchphrases for granted – some of these are just bad habits, and marketing agencies and individuals have a lot of them.
How I got my first job working at an agency
Like I said, I’d been going to meetups and meeting as many people in the industry as possible – and I had also taken a paid internship one of my teachers at community college has suggested but few had pursued.
A connection I had made going to meetups and then freelancing with, suggested talking to a smaller agency just outside the city called ‘Snap Agency,’ and I noted that. When the time came around to promote our portfolio show, I took one of the positions responsible for PR and used a guerilla marketing tactic of bringing muffins to a bunch of agencies in town. I had also been taking ‘informational interviews’ with as many people who would have me as possible.
When I met up with Snap I brought muffins and talked about my connection with the friend / freelance acquaintance I had made at a meetup.
As you can see – it was a lot of different factors that led to the connection finally being made.
How I turned into a full-time freelance web designer and WordPress developer
I did a year and a half as a student / web designer and WordPress Developer, and then a 2 years and 8 months as a web designer and WordPress Developer / Marketing director at an agency – freelancing on the side.
After 4 years and 2 months of overlapping in these ways, I took the leap into full-time freelance. The trick was that I had been freelancing on the side for the 2 years and 8 months working at the agency with my boss’s permission. It’s smart to let your employee’s do this as long as they’re not competing with you on possible projects, as it sharpens their skills and enlarges their perspective.
By the time it felt appropriate to make the switch I had 4 side clients and had been studying the art of sales – but the biggest asset I can think of that enabled this all was doing search engine optimization on my own site. I had been writing deep guides in areas related to design and digital marketing and blogging regularly, as well as building links on other high authority websites to my personal portfolio timbdesign.com.
This discipline increased the authority of my website in Google’s algorithm and people were coming to my site to learn about web design and other topics – but best of all when they were looking for ‘Minneapolis web design’ which has been huge for my business.
The basics of search engine optimization that made going full-time freelance possible, with 3 leads a week on average
- I created high-value, deep content guides that brought people to my site for terms related to design and development and kept them reading – driving up the ‘dwell time’ on my site, and helped send signals to Google that my website has very valuable content.
- I blogged around once a week to start, and then moved to blogging at least once per day this past year – every time I wrote a blog on my website, it essentially sends a signal to Google that my site is putting out fresh and relevant content to people looking for ‘web design’ related topics. Every time I do an article on other people’s websites I help increase my website’s authority with a link back and provide more brand awareness, so people know about me and learn about my services.
- I did outreach to other websites and asked them if I could post on their site. I shared with them articles I had written before and promised to provide value to their audience. A good way to go about this is to first ask if they would like to see some possible titles for your post, and then review their blog and come up with a uniquely valuable article topic that fits in well with their existing content. Works like a charm.
- I’d link back to my website in my bio or elsewhere in the article, and then also finding other ways to get links around the internet from high ‘domain authority’ websites. You can use a tool called ‘Mozbar’ to help you see what the domain authority for different websites you’re on, and figure out which ones will be highly worth it to try to pitch a guest article to.
- I’ve continued to tweak my meta-titles and descriptions with a WordPress plugin called Yoast to better suit the kinds of keywords I’ve started to get traffic for, submitted my sitemap to Google through their tool called ‘Search Console’ and monitored my top keywords with a paid tool called ‘Ahrefs,’ and made changes based on movements I see.
If all of this sounds a little exhausting, it sometimes is.
But the crucial piece is that even though it takes a lot of energy, I really deeply enjoy it. I love checking my keywords now, just like I love creating a fresh design and making it easy to use.
I like writing blog articles, just like I like coming up with unique article titles and writing deep guides for the audience to my web design blog.
You didn’t always enjoy fresh spinach or other vegetables, remember? Sometimes you teach yourself to enjoy the things you know are good for your health – why not the health of your career, and the health of your business?
That’s what I’ve strived to do, and I can say it’s very worth it.
Last thoughts on getting started
If I had three next steps for someone that really wanted to get into WordPress development but didn’t know how, these would be my five (pulled from the different categories of things I’ve discussed above).
- Either enroll in some kind of class for HTML. Ideally a community college for a coding class like HTML, or start by taking one course on Lynda.com for HTML – or CodeAcademy.
- Take a challenge to code at least one website this month – no matter how basic. Only by learning and wanting to do something specific will you figure out the best thing to learn next.
- Go to a WordPress meetup in your nearby city and get connected. If there’s not a WordPress meetup nearby, go to a coding our UX meetup, or if there’s none of these find someone near you that does these sorts of things and plan an intentional hangout to talk about this stuff.
It doesn’t take 5,000 hours to get started – though it may take that much time to feel proficient, and another 5,000 to be closer to being an expert… but getting started today or taking the next step is the most important part of those 5,000 hours. I wish you the best of luck on your journey.