20 Lessons I’ve Learned as a WordPress Freelancer

20 Lessons I’ve Learned as a WordPress Freelancer

Is freelancing all it’s cracked up to be? Sure, it is! But it takes a lot of hard work. And I should know. I started freelancing in 2004 when I was 20 to help pay for college.

My very first paying writing gig was an article for a teen arts magazine about Irish dancing. I’ve gotta say, getting that first paycheck for $50 was exciting. And that article was certainly a mile away from the subject matter of WordPress. So how did I get here and why should you care?

Because the freelancer’s journey is similar across professions, that’s first. But second, if I tell you my story, maybe you can avoid some of my biggest mistakes. So, as you embark on your WordPress freelance journey–whether as a writer like me or a developer, designer, marketer, or something else altogether–know this: many people have walked in your shoes.

Speaking of shoes, maybe it’s time to fasten yours as you walk down memory lane with me and learn tips and tricks from someone who’s been doing this freelancing thing for over a decade.

How I Got Started as a WordPress Freelancer

After the initial rush of landing my first paying assignment as a freelancer wore off, I struggled. In a myriad of ways. I struggled to find jobs (and I struggled to find ones that paid anything near a living wage). I struggled to promote myself and to develop a good reputation. And when I hit the brick wall called depression, I struggled to submit work on time–or at all. So much for being good at this business stuff. My career was dead in the water.

Mental health issues aside, my business floundered because, for a long time, I undervalued myself and my work. I’d lower my rates to bargain basement prices and I’d churn out keyword stuffed content for a stream of clients. I wrote for sites about pregnancy, gambling, and even mesothelioma. I distinctly remember a project having to do with asbestos exposure on naval ships. But I digress.

During an eight-year period or so, I (barely) paid the bills and I was in constant burnout mode. It wasn’t the best time in my life.

Things did change for the better, however. I had my first child in 2012 and I found a new reason to wake up in the morning. I got super motivated and pursued identifying a niche for myself. I initially chose business and after placing a few high-quality guest posts, I wrote for outlets like QuickBooks and The Motley Fool. Then I applied to work as a ghostwriter for another freelance writer who specialized in WordPress. He got me my first byline in the WordPress niche over at ManageWP toward the end of 2013 and the rest is online history.

From there, people started to seek me out for writing work. That had never happened before. But it all started because I decided to:

  1. Pick a niche
  2. Believe in my work
  3.  No longer undervalue my work.

I’ll get into more detail about those three things below. But for now, know this: no matter where you’re currently at in your personal process of building a career, you can make this work for you. I can’t promise my tips will help you achieve that, but it should give you some insight into what can help you carve out a spot for yourself in the WordPress space.

Secrets to Long-Term Success as a WordPress Freelancer

Secret #1. Set Short-Term and Long-Term Goals for Yourself

Your goals can be anything you want but you need to make sure they’re divided into short-term and long-term goals. A short-term goal might be, “Finish site mock-up by Friday,” whereas a long-term goal might be something along the lines of, “Grow profit by 10%.” Whatever your goals may be, you need to stay accountable to them once they’ve been committed to paper.

Consistent evaluation is a must as well. You should check-in with yourself at least monthly to make sure everything you’re doing is accomplishing either a short-term or long-term goal–and preferably those short-terms goals will inch you closer to the long-term milestones.

Secret #2. Pick a Niche

While there are certainly some people doing business online that are jacks of all trades, not everyone can be Amazon. So, in the WordPress arena it’s important you select a niche that can help you differentiate yourself from the sea of people competing with you.

Many developers have done this with success. For instance, Laird Sapir is the owner of Memphis McKay, a boutique design firm that specializes in WordPress sites for authors. You might think that picking a narrow niche could be limiting but it’s actually liberating. It gives you focus. Plus, it makes it easier to systematize business operations when you’re dealing with the same kinds of clients with similar needs on a regular basis.

Secret #3. Embrace Your Strengths

If you recall my attempts at making a plugin from a while ago, expert coder I am not. And yet I’ve managed just fine because I don’t pretend to be one. I know enough to understand what I’m looking at and I’m able to focus on other aspects of WordPress that are of interest to people like design trends, industry developments, and reviews. So, if there’s some element of your WordPress-related business you’re not so great at, don’t sweat it. There are plenty of opportunities to improve your skills or simply focus on an area that suits your strengths.

Secret #4. Not Interested in Developing Sites for Clients? That’s Okay!

People make entire businesses out of writing about WordPress (ahem), designing icons sets and fonts that complement WordPress themes, or developing plugins or themes to sell. There is space for you here, I promise.

Secret #5. Continually Seek Out New Opportunities

Think your plate is full and you can’t possibly take on any more work? That can change tomorrow. I’ve had it happen to me on more than one occasion. To combat the flux of freelancing, you should always set aside time to look for new clients and to invest in your own marketing efforts. Freelancing is unpredictable, so learning how to ride the tide is essential for longevity here.

Secret #6. Work on Your People Skills

As a freelancer, you’ve got no one else to sell your skills or your business but yourself. If you don’t know how to pitch your services or maintain a positive relationship with clients, you’ll struggle. Learn communication and customer service techniques that’ll make it hard for anyone to say no or let you go.

Secret #7. Outsource What You Can

While you should always continue to do work yourself, it’s important to recognize when you need help and that doing everything yourself can actually inhibit growth. Things to consider outsourcing include accounting, task management, and social media. If your business gets so large you can’t handle your client load yourself, bring on another freelancer so you can work together on projects. Your clients should always know this situation upfront, however.

Secret #8. Understand the Feast and Famine Cycle

Have a nest egg put aside so that those droughts don’t require you to turn your attention elsewhere (like stressing about incoming revenue or out finding a new job). This can be really hard and it’s something I continue to struggle with. Rent ain’t cheap in So Cal, let me tell you. The good news is once you get used to setting aside a bit of extra money (aside from the percentage for quarterly tax payments), you’ll have a decent nest egg before you know it.

Secret #9. Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket

For some reason, egg metaphors are abundant in this article. Nevertheless, another secret I’ve learned over the years is that you need to have a diverse client list.

I mean, you are a freelancer, after all. You probably decided to go into this so you wouldn’t have to report to one boss or client anyway. As tempting as it is to hunker down with one or two regular clients, you must diversify. Doing so will mean that the loss of one client won’t take down your business.

Secret #10. Learn About the “Seasons” of Your Work

When is the busiest time of year for you? When are the slow periods? This is something you’ll have to figure out over the course of a year or two. Once you’ve tracked your personal workflow pattern, however, you can better prepare yourself for each work season. That way, you’re maximizing output and working on other projects or self-promotional efforts to fill the gaps when work is slow.

Secret #11. Pay Attention to Time

Your time is valuable anyway, but as a freelancer, it’s everything. With that in mind, it’s absolutely critical you stay on task, keep within preset budgets, and never let your time be taken from you. Using a time tracker can come in handy so you see exactly how long a project takes you (so you can ensure you’re billing the correct amount) and to prevent potential “time hog” clients from taking advantage.

Secret #12. Don’t Deny Yourself Breaks

While you do need to push through sometimes—at least until you can hire someone—don’t ignore the signs of burnout. It can be just as detrimental to your business as losing clients. So, take regular breaks throughout the day. Work out. Go for a walk. Getting outside is especially important when you’re cooped up behind the computer all day. And be sure to schedule a vacation here and there, too.

Secret #13. Keep Yourself Educated

WordPress is always releasing new core updates. Web design trends change. Changes to your target industry can also affect the work you do. The more you can stay on top of your area of specialty and learn new ways to do it better, the greater likelihood you’ll stay in business for the long term.

Secret #14. Make a Name for Yourself Within the WordPress Community

We’re a tight-knit bunch and we all know each other (or at least recognize each other’s names). You don’t need to be your competition’s best friend, but you should pay attention to their work, follow them, and support them. We’re all in this together, to quote a certain Canadian TV show that aired on PBS in the U.S. in the 90s.

Secret #15. Stay Active Online

People trust companies (and freelancers) who can demonstrate that they practice what they preach. So, have a good, WordPress-based website. Stay active on social media. And use best practices in both of these areas. If anything, it’ll help you to bring in more business.

Secret #16. Break Away From the Freelancing Job Sites

While these are a good place to start if you don’t have any other source to draw clients from, they’re not going to get you anywhere in the long run. Those jobs tend not to pay that much, there usually aren’t a lot of ongoing work opportunities there, and those platforms often claim a fee. They can get you in that burnout cycle I mentioned at start of this post as well. That’s definitely bad for growth. Once you establish yourself and have a decent portfolio, try to find and manage clients on your own, sans intermediary. And don’t be afraid to try some more unusual ways to land gigs, too.

Secret #17. Don’t Be Afraid to Set Boundaries With Your Clients

Time hogs, difficult clients, and ones who always pay late (or not at all) aren’t worth your time. That’s when you’re first starting out and when you’ve been at this for years. You need to work with people who respect the work you do and the value you provide. To do anything less is to walk down the road of self-sabotage.

Secret #18. Review Your Pricing and Services Annually

Are you losing money anywhere? Is there a certain offering you have that’s particularly profitable? Just like with any other company, take time to review what works and what doesn’t and do some tweaking to the areas that could use an overhaul.

Secret #19. Always Convey Confidence

If I’ve learned anything in my 13 years as a freelance writer (and 4 years in WordPress) is that even when you’re feeling unsure of yourself, you must convey confidence. You have to at least look like you believe in yourself. If you don’t at least appear confident, no one will want to use your services. There’s a time and a place for being self-effacing, but promoting your work isn’t it. That doesn’t mean you have to be cocky, but you shouldn’t undercut yourself either.

If you believe in your work, other people won’t be able to help it but to believe in your work and your worth, too.

Secret #20. Charge What You’re Worth

This ties directly into the idea of conveying confidence but it deserves its own spot on the list. If you charge bottom-tier prices for everything like I did when first starting out, you’ll get stuck in a cycle of chasing after scraps. Then, you’ll be so busy doing all of that work for so little money, that you won’t have the time or energy to set your sights higher. Don’t get stuck in that rut. Charge what you’re worth, straight out of the gate. Your bank account (and sanity) will thank you.

Wrapping Up

Well, there you have it. I hope these secrets help you launch or further propel your freelance WordPress career to greater heights. And remember: success doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and commitment. But with some effort and the right mindset, there’s no reason you can’t make a name for yourself in this WordPress biz, too.

Brenda Barron
Over to you: What’s your most prized tip or secret for success as a WordPress freelancer?