The 7 Reasons Why WordPress Developers Are Paid Peanuts
Recently I read some research by WP Engine into the hourly rates charged by WordPress freelancers across the United States. I was struck by how little people seem to be earning. It made me wonder whether WordPress freelancers really are earning too little and if so, why.
In this post, I’ll try and get behind some of these figures and identify what might be the reasons for WordPress freelancers having lower earning expectations than other freelance professionals.
I’ll also look at some more complex underlying trends behind these figures, showing that there’s a wide spread of freelancers with hugely varying skillsets charging very different rates.
Finally, I’ll give some tips on how you can decide how much you need to earn and set a rate to charge clients accordingly.
How much do you charge for projects? What is your hourly rate? Scroll down to see what I charge and share your own rates in the comments below.
How Much Are WordPress Freelancers Really Charging?
It’s actually incredibly hard to get a reliable answer to this question. While the research by WPEngine is useful and analyzes hourly rates in a number of ways, this only covers the US and got all of its data from one jobs listing website.
So it’s clear that there will be plenty of freelancers out there who aren’t getting their work via job listing sites, who aren’t in the US, or who are using different sites to find work.
Many of the big sites advertising freelance opportunities list most of their jobs without rates included, either hourly or per contract. On WPHired, for example, I could only find a small number of jobs which had anything at all relating to rates.
There are very few surveys or pieces of research highlighting what WordPress freelancers are earning, and understandably it’s something people don’t generally feel comfortable with.
However, my experience of talking with WordPress freelancers at WordCamps and other events indicates that pricing levels are generally quite low when compared with other web development specialisms.
But let’s take a look at some of the evidence.
Evidence for WordPress Freelance Rates
According to WP Engine’s research, 60% of WordPress freelance jobs are paying less than $30 per hour. That may sound like a lot of money to anyone who’s on a salary, but once you factor in the hidden costs of working freelance (buying your own equipment, paying for insurance, premises etc., not to mention taxes), it’s not very much.
And the average figure quoted, while varying between states, ranges from $22.24 to $35.47. A rough approximation of the overall average based on this (bearing in mind that this is very dodgy Math!) shows an overall average across the US of just over $29.
In addition to this research, another source of data is other jobs boards. As I’ve already mentioned, many of them don’t quote rates of pay, but those that do include some very low paying jobs, such as one I found on Upwork paying just $100 for someone to design and build an e-commerce site!
There are other jobs listed that are offering a better rate of pay, but generally the hourly rate works out at something like $25 to $40 based on a rough estimate of how long some of the jobs might take.
As well as this, there is some data relating to how much people actually offer WordPress services at. The People Per Hour website lists WordPress developers and quotes their hourly rate.
Based on a quick analysis of the twenty WordPress freelancers listed first on the site, the average hourly rate is approximately $36, with rates ranging from $20 to $60
This is higher than the rates I’ve seen on jobs boards, which indicates freelancers posting their details to sites and inviting clients to come to them might charge more than they could expect to get by answering an advert on a freelance jobs board.
So overall it looks like WordPress freelancers are earning an average of between $25 and $36, with the majority of job postings towards the lower end of that scale.
Of course this doesn’t include the rates charged by those freelancers who get all their work by word of mouth, which you could reasonably expect to be higher.
There are jobs paying higher or lower rates, with a range of approximately $15 to $60 per hour from my research of freelance listing sites. Assuming that a full-time freelancer will work approximately 1500 chargeable hours per year (which is generous – I’ll look at calculating billable hours later in this post), pay 25% of their income in taxes and have costs of approximately $10,000 per year, this equates to an income of between approximately $15,750 and $69,000, with an average of $33,000.
Not much for a skilled profession when you consider the average salary for high school graduates according to the 2005 US census (10 years ago!) was $31,539.
Why Are Rates so Low?
From my own experience as well as talking to other freelancers and researching this issue online, it seems that there are a number of reasons why WordPress freelancers aren’t earning as much as they might be. Some of these relate to habits and practices of the freelancers themselves while others relate to the nature of WordPress and the types of freelancer and client it attracts.
- The fact that WordPress is free.
- The difference between WordPress implementation work and WordPress development work and the skills needed for each.
- The “race to the bottom” for rates driven by some job boards.
- The fact that the value of freelance WordPress skills and the value added to the client is rarely considered when calculating rates.
- Pricing models used by freelancers.
- Underestimating the rates needed to earn a healthy income.
- A lack of transparency with regard to what WordPress freelancers (as well as WordPress and web professionals in general) earn.
Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.
Problem 1: WordPress is Free
WordPress, as we all know, is free and open source. But as anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time working with it will know, this doesn’t mean that is doesn’t have huge value. As the world’s leading CMS and a platform that drives millions of websites earning their owners billions of dollars each year, WordPress itself, and the skills of WordPress professionals, has huge value.
But clients don’t always see it like this. As far as many of them are concerned, they can get WordPress itself, plus a bunch of great plugins and themes, for free, so why should they pay very much for a freelancer to create a theme or plugin for them or customize one they’ve downloaded for free?
This mindset can result in clients only being prepared to pay very low rates, often for small, bitty projects that don’t foster a high quality ongoing relationship between the client and the freelancer.
I’ve frequently turned down potential clients who believed that they should be able to hire me for free or close to free because I was working with free software.
Problem 2: WordPress Implementation is not the Same as WordPress Development
WordPress freelancers will include a variety of people with a huge range of skills and experience. Some of us are coders while others are designers, content creators or marketing experts. Not everyone will have a skill set that is very much more than that of an enthusiastic amateur.
Anyone can set themselves up as a WordPress freelancer: if you know your way around the WordPress interface and can work with one of the big WordPress theme frameworks to create custom sites, you can offer services to clients, creating sites and labelling yourself as a WordPress developer in the absence of any other suitable job title. Writing for EngageWP, Ren Ventura terms this group “WordPress Implementers.” But this isn’t WordPress development.
A WordPress developer is someone who can create bespoke themes or plugins from scratch, understands enough about the WordPress codebase to write plugins to modify the functionality of a site, and can manage development and hosting setups. Nathan Weller has proposed that some sort of independent validation system could be set up to accredit WordPress developers so that clients know what they’re getting.
This doesn’t detract from the value that implementers can have and the usefulness of their service, but it does enable more advanced developers to differentiate themselves.
There’s a chance that a large proportion of WordPress freelancers fall into the implementer camp: after all, the barriers to entry are low and the potential client base is huge. However, WordPress implementation is something any reasonable web-savvy client could do themselves: if you’re being hired to do this it’s probably because it’s more efficient for them to use your time rather than their own, rather than them hiring specialist skills.
Which is why freelancers offering these services won’t be able to command particularly high rates.
Problem 3: Jobs Boards Push Rates Down
Where rates are listed on jobs boards, they tend to be low. Those boards that offer high quality projects that presumably charge higher rates don’t tend to list rates, but instead open them to negotiation or ask the freelancer what his or her rate is instead.
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This can mean one of two things. Either:
- There are more and more freelance jobs being created and listed with ever decreasing rates of pay, or
- There are actually plenty of well-paying jobs out there, but unless you directly apply for one you won’t know what it pays.
Or maybe both!
Either way, this will affect the data available on freelance rates and influence freelancers’ expectations of what they can get away with charging, which will have a downwards influence on rates of pay.
Problem 4: We (And the Client) Don’t Always Value What We’re Selling
When I started out as a WordPress freelancer, I made the mistake of trying to compete on price.
I worked mainly with micro businesses and assumed that they would have low budgets and not be prepared to pay very much. I also assumed (and still do) that they’d prefer to pay a rate for the job than an hourly rate, as it made it easier for them to anticipate costs.
I, therefore, started by offering a basic business website with some static pages, a blog, and a bespoke design, at £200 (approximately $300). Including meetings with clients, project management, design and custom theme development, each site build took me approximately 15 hours, which meant that I was earning $20 per hour.
Factor in business costs and the fact that I wasn’t yet doing chargeable work for more than about 15 hours a week and this equated to an income of around $7000! Not enough to pay the bills, let alone support a family.
The mistake I made was in not valuing the services I was selling. Instead of selling a solution to clients, I was selling them a product – a website.
For clients, that website should have been fundamental to their business and marketing strategy. It would have helped them attract business, sell products and much more. I wasn’t factoring in the value I was giving those clients’ businesses by letting them use my services.
I’ve since learned from that experience and while I still charge a rate for the job, I almost never take on a new project with a budget of less than $15000 and charge a significantly higher hourly rate.
I’ve learned that to be a successful freelancer you need to get to know your clients’ businesses and sell more than just your code: you’re selling a solution and the benefit of your expertise and experience.
UK-based Keith Devon is an experienced freelancer who has learned the importance of adding value:
“Rates should be a combination of your own lifestyle costs, market rates and value. If market rates are low, and you’re not adding tangible value for your clients, then you’ll find that very difficult. But if you can provide value, you don’t need to worry about market rates as much.”
If WordPress freelancers make the mistake of thinking that because they’re working with a free platform then their work can’t be worth much, then they might fall into this trap too.
It’s all about having confidence in what you’re contributing to a project (as well as the confidence to say no to jobs that pay badly).
Problem 5: Pricing Models Can Confuse
Ask two WordPress freelancers this question and you’ll get two opinions (or maybe more): should you charge by the hour or for the job?
Each has its benefits:
- Charging by the hour gives you more security as if the project takes longer than anticipated, you won’t lose out.
- Charging for the job gives your client more clarity as they know exactly what they’ll be paying.
I prefer to charge for the job (and I’m not alone), but I do this based on a thorough analysis of a project brief and the time involved, a multiplication of my expected hourly rate by that time, and the addition of a contingency. You can only do this if you make sure you know exactly what you’re taking on at the beginning of each project, and make this crystal clear with your client.
Charging by the hour works well for many freelancers, and is the most common model for freelancers doing contract work for agencies. It may not work so well for you if you’re a very fast worker, which is why when I’ve employed freelancers myself I’ve paid an hourly rate that varies according to an individual’s skills and efficiency.
The main pitfall of charging for the job results from underestimating the time involved. It’s human nature to think we can get things done quicker than we actually can, and if you aren’t 100% familiar with your own working style and pace, then accepting jobs that don’t pay hourly can result in the hourly rate being pushed down.
Problem 6: Freelancers Underestimate What they Need to Earn
When you make the transition from salaried work to freelancing, it’s tempting to think that your hourly rate shouldn’t need to change too much: after all, if you’re working the same hours then you need to earn the same, right?
Wrong. Freelancers never spend 100% of their time on billable work and need to factor in costs, taxes and time off for holiday or sickness. Costs can include insurance, equipment and the day to day costs of running a business, and the amount of time off that you need will include time for conferences (including WordCamps!) and training: things that you were paid to do when you were in employment.
I’m not going to give you a detailed formula here for working out what you need to charge, but you should start with the salary you need to earn per year, deduct realistic expenses and taxes from that, divide it by the number of chargeable hours you can expect to do (not the number you’d like to do), and get your hourly rate from that.
It’s safe to assume you’ll have one day a week which is non-chargeable: many freelancers, myself included, set one day aside for admin work and self-development. There a few online tools you can use to calculate your best hourly rate: try yourrate for a very simple calculator or beewits for a more detailed tool.
My Hourly Rate
Personally, I work reduced hours around the demands of a young family, so I need to charge a much higher hourly rate than I earned when I was in employment.
My hourly rate isn’t always the same (as I charge per job and will charge accordingly for more highly skilled work) but varies between $75 and $125 per hour.
Given that I work only 20 chargeable hours each week and take the whole of August off for school holidays, this doesn’t add up to as much as it sounds, but is what I need to make a decent living.
Problem 7: Lack of Transparency and Sharing What You Earn
Seeing my own hourly rate in black and white in the previous paragraph gave me quite an uncomfortable feeling, and it’s not something most freelancers are prepared to share in such a public way.
But one of the reasons why rates for WordPress work tend to be low is because of a lack of transparency: we simply don’t know what our colleagues (or competitors) charge.
This is particularly the case when it comes to understanding what’s earned by experienced, in demand freelancers who get their work via word of mouth. It’s safe to assume these people (I count myself among them) earn more than the average rate, but given that all of the available hard data is from jobs boards aimed at the lower end of the spectrum, then that will give a skewed impression of what WordPress freelancers can actually expect to be paid.
I’m not saying that you can earn rates of $100 per hour when you’re starting out (I’ve been running my agency for over five years, writing about WordPress for as long as that and have written four WordPress books, so that influences what I can charge). But knowing that there are people out there who are making a very comfortable living from WordPress might give freelancers more confidence when it comes to negotiating rates with clients or refusing work that’s very low paid.
If new freelancers are only aware of the jobs that are paying $10 to $20 per hour, then that is what they’ll aim for, and they won’t attempt to charge more.
As you develop your skills, expertise and experience with WordPress your hourly rate should increase year on year, and you should ultimately be aiming to earn many times more per hour after a few years than you do when starting out.
It’s not easy to work out exactly how much WordPress freelancers are earning across specialisms, varying levels of experience, and different locations.
However, the data that is available suggests that hourly rates are low, and mean that a WordPress freelancer can expect to earn less than the average high school graduate. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to take on the risk of working freelance if I knew I couldn’t earn more than that!
There are freelancers out there being paid higher rates, but the data is harder to find as those jobs tend not to be advertised on the jobs boards, or if they are, rates aren’t shown.
Only you can work out how much you can command for your skills as a WordPress freelancer: this will vary according to where you live, your skills and experience, and your personal circumstances.
But if you take the time to work out the realistic rate you need to charge and give yourself permission to only take on work that charges at least that rate, then you won’t be earning less than your skills are worth.
How much do you charge for projects? What is your hourly rate? Scroll down to see what I charge and share your own rates in the comments below.