Become a Freelance WordPress Developer: How to Make a Career of It

Become a Freelance WordPress developer

This article outlines the key topics I’ve needed clarity on to work as a freelance WordPress developer.

I’ve had many people tell me they want to get started in WordPress development—most commonly on their own as a freelance WordPress developer—but they don’t know how. The more I think about it, the more this makes sense: WordPress development is an enormous subject, and one that reaches far beyond the (also very confusing) WordPress technology itself.

In this article, I list and outline the major topics in WordPress development that I’ve needed to figure out myself to work as a successful freelance WordPress developer. They break down into three categories:

  1. Strategic: What you have to know about the field, and about life itself, to make your work as a freelance WordPress developer a success.
  2. Practical: The nuts-and-bolts in terms of equipment and services you’ll need to actually open up shop.
  3. Technical: The technology topics you have to understand to be able to deliver well for WordPress clients.

Below, I’ve listed out as much as I could to get you started in each category. These are the questions that you really need answers for—or at least to have thought deeply about—for your work as a freelance WordPress developer to be a success.

Serious About Learning WordPress Development?

Get Up and Running Today

Up and Running is our complete “learn WordPress development” course. Now in its updated and expanded Third Edition for 2018, it’s helped hundreds of happy buyers learn WordPress development the fast, smart, and thorough way.

You’ve seen we know what we’re talking about, and can help you learn WordPress development. But, here’s one of our customers – who’s now a full-time WordPress developer – telling you about the course:

I think anyone interested in learning WordPress development NEEDS this course.

Before I purchased Up and Running, I had taught myself some WordPress code, but lacked direction. Watching the course’s videos was like a bunch of lights being turned on.

I went from being vaguely familiar with how themes, functions and WordPress itself worked to mastering these. Everything became much clearer.

I very happily recommend this course to anyone willing to listen.”

– Jason Robie, WordPress developer

Take the next step in your WordPress development journey!

One thing is worth clarifying: the “Strategic” section is written with WordPress freelancers in mind: developers like myself who focus on client work, and who are either self-employed or are part of very small agencies. This is the most numerous category of professional WordPress developers.

There are of course other jobs in WordPress development besides freelancing! You could work for a large agency, you could sell premium plugins, you could work in tech support for a hosting company, and so on. Knowing very little about those jobs, I’d say the “Technical” section of this article will definitely be relevant to you no matter what job in WordPress development you choose, and the “Practical” section will be somewhat relevant, but the “Strategic” section is up in the air.

Becoming A Freelance WordPress Developer: Core Strategic Considerations

Establishing Clear Motivations and Expectations

Your motivations for and expectations about working as a freelance WordPress developer need to be clear and realistic.

Like anything else, working in WordPress has its advantages and disadvantages, ups and downs. Your motivations for and expectations about working as a WordPress developer need to be crystal-clear and realistic. I’ll start by telling you how the job has been for me.

Things I like about doing professional WordPress development:

  • Flexibility. My entire business fits into a backpack, with plenty of room for clothes. Because of this, I was able to follow my now-wife to New Orleans when she wanted to move here, and I’m able to visit my parents in Hawaii for long periods four or five times a year, without putting any sort of dent in my business. And since I’m my own boss, I can take as much vacation and travel time as my own income can tolerate.
  • The feeling of mastery. I’ve been doing WordPress development professionally since 2012, and I now feel very, very good at my job. When people need help with any technical topic touching WordPress, I can usually either do it much faster than they were expecting, or give them outstanding advice for moving forward. That’s very gratifying—especially when you’re rehabilitating a $100K WooCommerce business that an incompetent previous developer totally messed up, or helping massively update and improve the web presence of an organization you really care about. WordPress development is a real trade, and being good at it is a great feeling.
  • It can be fun. Freelance WordPress development is a lot of managing people, a lot of light-to-moderate problem-solving, a lot of Googling, and a lot of getting to use your creativity. Once you’re experienced, the development side of it (as opposed to the client-management side) is quite like spending your day doing Sudokus and building model planes. Not such a bad gig.
  • General usefulness. Almost everybody has, needs, or wants a website for something or other, and most of the time WordPress is the right choice (see below). So your abilities in WordPress development fit in very nicely with any other project you might get involved in.

Things I dislike about doing professional WordPress development:

  • You might not eat. When I get paid at the end of the month, it’s because of work I did for specific peopple during that month—people I converted into clients. If your lead-generation methods dry up, or if you randomly have a bad month, you very well might not make money. You have no job security, in other words, except what you provide yourself.
  • You’re on call. I kind of dislike it when the phone rings or I get an email, honestly, because a lot of the time it’s a client with a scary (or scary-looking) problem that they need me to fix. People are counting on me. There are ways to manage expectations appropriately, but it doesn’t remove the underlying stress of being responsible for helping fix any issues that might arise on dozens of sites. Thank goodness I’m good at my job; from experience, having people counting on you in this manner can be absolutely brutal if you don’t know what you’re doing.
  • It’s hard negotiating budget with clients. Some developers may not have this problem, but my way of doing business is fairly small and informal—very different from a large agency taking on multi-year, $100K+ projects—and tends to attract small business owners, who are the people I like working with anyway. In that context, budgets are limited, and there’s a constant need for transparency. It’s especially draining fixing technical problems for projects that I believe have strategic problems that I’m not able to help the site owners address (they’re usually the source of those problems, obviously), since that can feel like helping people spend money foolishly.
  • The horror. Most clients don’t find me at the beginning of their web journey; they find me in the middle, and they’ve been disappointed by multiple half-competent developers who didn’t know how to communicate. Their sites are shambling hulks of bad technical choices. From what I see, most WordPress sites are a bad experience for their end users—because relatively few WordPress “developers” are actually qualified, and because the worst parts of the WordPress ecosystem are also the best-marketed—and that’s a pretty grim thing to contemplate day-in and day-out, even if you’re part of the solution.

That’s just me. The point is: You should understand what you’re getting into, and why. Talk to other people who do what it is you want to do, and make sure it’s a good fit. In this case, you can find lots of them at your local WordPress meetup, and offer to buy them lunch. Most of them will take you up on it, and some of them may even need the lunch.

I’d also strongly recommend reading this article from Carrie Dils on the perks and un-perks of being a freelance WordPress developer.

WordPress Freelancing Might Not Be for You If…

As a final point on this topic, I would not recommend freelance WordPress development if one or both of the following statements is true:

  • You don’t have strong general technical and problem-solving skills. This would mean that it’s not true that you can generally figure out complex technical topics (like “jailbreak my phone”), without good A-to-Z guidelines, by Googling and tinkering.
  • You’re strongly put off by customer service. This would mean that you don’t want to deal with people, you don’t understand what they want, you hate being harassed by them, you hate explaining things, you get in arguments easily, and so on.

If you’re weak in one of these areas and you have a partner who’s strong, that’s okay too—but if it’s just you trying to build a freelance business on that foundation, it’s going to be trouble.

Your Personal Timeline and Time Commitment

How and where does WordPress development fit into your life situation?

What is your life situation currently—in terms of both free time and your financial picture—and where does becoming a freelance WordPress developer fit into it? Ddo you want to do WordPress development full-time? If so, what’s the timeline for getting there, and how will you support yourself during the transition?

People’s situations are so different that I won’t try to give advice for any one particular case. Rather, here are some pieces of the puzzle you’ll want to consider no matter what your present circumstances:

  • You’re going to have a hard time getting enough billable hours until your methods of finding clients start to get dialed in, and your client pipeline starts to fill up with both cool and hot leads. If you’re going as a freelance WordPress developer full-time, this probably means at least three months of very meager revenue, maybe up to six—and quite likely a full year or more where you’re not confident month-to-month that you’ll be taking home a middle-class salary.
  • A lot of the groundwork you can lay to get clients—go to networking events, get your portfolio site up, leverage your existing network (see below)—doesn’t take 40 hours per week. You end up spending time waiting for a lead to get back to you, for the next weekly networking event, and so on. In other words, it’s hard to make “get clients” a full-time job unless you’re okay with cold-calling, flyering local businesses, and so on.
  • You will be very shaky technically for at least a year. This means regularly confronted with problems you don’t know how to solve. Look at “who’ll bail you out” below for more suggestions about this, but the main one is just to alert you to get ready for an awkward period and some scary moments. I’m not sure if this period is better to confront as a full-time or part-time WordPress developer—it may actually be better full-time, because you have no choice but to get through obstacles as you encounter them—but I mention it here simply because you should budget for a relatively long period of time where you market yourself as doing paid WordPress development, but you feel pretty squishy and uncertain at it.

So, like most things, becoming a freelance WordPress developer often starts slow. I’d recommend having a fair amount of personal savings, or keep at least one foot in your existing commitments, until you’re sure your work in WordPress has enough momentum to sustain you. Of course, I didn’t do that and it turned out okay: the back-to-the-wall, deep-end-of-the-pool approach I took was very helpful, but not very fun.

How to Set Your Rates

Unless you have a strong reason to do otherwise, I’m in favor of hourly rates for WordPress development work. Lots of people don’t like hourly rates—they prefer project rates or value pricing instead—but I personally have found anything other than hourly rates to be too complicated to implement with most freelance clients.

Specifically, project pricing leads to long processes of generating estimates and going back and forth with clients; and value pricing ensnares you too much in the client’s broader business. If you’re really going to be deeply involved for years in steering many aspects of the business’s broader strategy, okay; but if you’re mostly there to offer technical solutions for one element of the business (often true for freelance projects), then it becomes like a plumber being paid in home equity.

General Rate Guidelines

Here are some general guidelines for WordPress development hourly rates, for a US-based freelance WordPress developer.

  • You should never charge less than $50 per hour for your services.
  • $50 or $60 is a suitably humble starting rate; but you should be up to at least $75 within a year, and up to at least $100 within two years.

What really matters is how good you are at the things you get paid hourly to do. I charge either $100 or $125 an hour, and I’m both immensely better and much cheaper than a developer who’s just starting out at $50 an hour. Those developers will quite literally cost you thousands of dollars in bad solutions: they’ll get stuck on something for hours, and then put the wrong solution in place. Around 80% of the freelance projects I work on involve me spending hours undoing the work of previous developers who were incompetent: a rickety and self-incompatible tower of 50 plugins, a horrible technology stack (HostGator/Divi/hundreds of ACF settings/Visual Composer why not), actual site-breaking bugs, SEO nightmares, and so on.

Always Be Raising Your Rates

So as you get further up the ladder of confidence and competence, your rates need to climb accordingly. I can’t give you a specific curve for how and when you change your rates, but I will say: just raise your rates, clients don’t care nearly as much as you think they do and the extra money you make is very real.

Here are some good resources to get you started understanding the financials as a freelance WordPress developer and where to set your own hourly rate:

How You’ll Find Clients

For a freelance WordPress developer, “How do I get clients?” is the question that means you eat or don’t.

For a freelance WordPress developer, “How do I get clients?” is the question that means you eat or don’t.

If this question had an easy answer, you’d know it already. But there are good guidelines to get you started. I can recommend two articles—here and here—as thoughtful takes on the topic.

I can also offer, as headlines, the major rules that I think work when you’re just starting out:

  1. In-person networking events
  2. Use your existing personal network
  3. Specialize (see above) and network on that basis
  4. Look for any referrals you’re able to generate from your first few clients—and even from past jobs, internships, volunteer projects, etc.

Talk, person-to-person, to anyone you can, in or out of your existing network.

To sum up those four elements: talk, person-to-person, to anyone you can, in or out of your existing network. Longer-term strategies, like content marketing and social media marketing, may be great but they’re unlikely to be a source of leads for you in the immediate term.

Who’ll Bail You Out When You Get In Too Deep

My secret weapon in WordPress development has always been David: a consistently stronger developer who’s always been 12 to 24 months ahead of me technically. I’ve handled a lot of the business strategy and client relationships, and to this day I know if I get “in too deep” on a technical topic (complex Git commands is a good recent example), David will be there to bail me out.

For those of you who don’t have a gifted software engineer as a business partner, I’m only now realizing how important it is that you have some way of “swimming” rather than “sinking” when you hit a technical topic you don’t understand on a client project.

What do I recommend? Honestly, there’s nothing solid and well-established right now that is a safety net for a working WordPress freelancer. Here are my three best suggestions you can do today:

  • Get worked into your local WordPress Meetup scene. Meetups are full of developers who’ll be happy to help you learn things you don’t know—or even things you don’t know you don’t know.
  • Join IWP and AWP on Facebook and use them freely.
  • I’d recommend you try to make a relationship with an existing established developer in your area: offer to pay his or her full hourly rate for access to tech troubleshooting as needed.

But my real suggestion is: send us an email letting us know you need a safety net! David and I are both getting increasingly excited about offering some sort of resource along these lines, and if you want to be kept in the loop as we firm up that idea we’re glad to do so. We’re at contact (at) wpshout (dot) com.

How You’ll Specialize

It’s not so easy to be “just a WordPress developer”: that’s pretty narrow. Great, you installed the right plugin, but now it looks super-ugly; can you make it look more sleek and modern and aligned with our brand identity? They tell us we’re supposed to have a blog section, but I have no idea what to write about. I want SEO for my site—can you “get it” for me? Should we have a newsletter? Do we need an Instagram account and what should go on it? When does the site start making sales?

All these questions point to skillsets beyond the core technical toolkit of WordPress development. You will be a much more attractive package in the marketplace if you can be genuinely helpful in multiple areas.

Within the technical confines of WordPress development itself, the best niche I know of is e-commerce—specifically WooCommerce. It really is a world unto itself, and there’s a lot of money to be made there since (wonder of wonders) the clients themselves are making money. My only suggestion is to approach beginning to take on WooCommerce clients with humility: WooCommerce takes a couple hundred hours to understand well because of all the edge cases customers will come at you with, and if you just forge arrogantly ahead you’ll be ruining real businesses, not travel blogs.

Complementary Skills to WordPress Development

The better thing to do, in my opinion, is to develop a skillset outside WordPress development, and sell your services as a package. The major job descriptions other than “WordPress developer” that most clients need include:

  • SEO professional.
  • Web and graphic designer.
  • Digital marketing: social media marketing, content marketing.
  • Copywriter (requires a deep understanding of both SEO and content marketing).

If you’ve got visual flair, being a designer-developer’s amazing. If you’re good at general problem-solving, learning SEO as a profession is probably a fair amount less complicated than learning WordPress development, and it’s an outstanding combination. If you’re outgoing, so many clients have no idea how to market themselves and are in absolutely desperate need of clarity on that front. If you can write, great—but you’re also going to want most of the things I listed above.

Identifying the Intangibles that Set You Apart

What elements of the way you do business make working with you the right choice for your potential clients?

Many people have had a lot of really bad experiences with WordPress developers. How do you set yourself apart with respect to that baseline? Are you especially friendly? Especially responsive? Are you a partner in your clients’ strategy (as opposed to someone who just builds what people say they want)? Do you have especially clear and transparent pricing? Unusually quick and reliable turnarounds? An uncommon ability to stay under-budget?

Ideally all these things are a “yes,” but the point is to spend some time understanding exactly why a client should be happy they hired you, as opposed to hiring someone else at the exact same price for the exact same thing. What are the intangibles about the way you do business as a WordPress freelancer that make working with you the right choice for your potential clients? When you’re clear on these intangibles—and when you back them up with the way you interact on the phone, how your portfolio and testimonials look, and so on—then people really start to pay attention.

Finding Complementary Contractors

The truth is that no one person, or even two people, can provide all the skills that an average client needs to make their project really work out in the marketplace. So whatever skills you don’t have in-house, you will need to find a professional connection for. You’ll refer business to these connections, and what’s great is that they’ll refer you business back!

Just to recap, the roles you’ll need to be able to source include:

  • SEO professional.
  • Web and graphic designer.
  • Digital marketing: social media marketing, content marketing.
  • Copywriter (this person needs a deep understanding of both SEO and content marketing).

If you don’t know where to start finding these people, go to a local Meetup organized around the skill you’re looking for.

Becoming A Freelance WordPress Developer: Core Practical Considerations

This section is the least important of the three: the concrete stuff you do to get set up as an actual freelance WordPress developer business.

In general, the attitude you should take here is speed and simplicity: do the simplest, cheapest thing you can, because this is all overhead relative to you finding the right clients (strategic) and offering them the right value (strategic and technical) to get your work rolling.

Let’s dive in.

Maybe Registering Your Business

I’d put this off until you’re serious, but once there’s real money coming in being incorporated has both tax and liability advantages. We registered ourselves as an S Corp through Rocket Lawyer (LegalZoom is a similar service) and it was relatively cheap, less than $500. In general, the less attention you’re able to pay to corporate structure, the better in our experience.

Getting Your Portfolio Site Built

As a freelance WordPress developer who’s just starting out, you’ll want your portfolio site to meet three criteria:

  • It looks professional.
  • It positions you as you want to be positioned.
  • It’s cheap and quick to build.

You should not tunnel in on your portfolio site as an extremely important piece of your business. Make it your goal to get something professional-looking that represents your brand properly—not something wildly original, completely built from scratch (to prove you can do it, perhaps?), and so on. If you don’t know where to start, I’d recommend one of the theme shops listed below.

It wouldn’t be crazy to pay a good designer a few hundred dollars for a logo and design advice if you’re not strong in that area. But this whole project, overall, should be cheap and simple. It should also be focused on content: how are you positioning yourself? Are visitors to your site being persuasively delivered the unique argument for why they should choose you?

As the social-proof element of this content, your site will need a portfolio section. If you’re brand-new to development, this is where you get creative: did you volunteer at your local library and make some improvements to its website? Put it on your portfolio. Even two or three portfolio items are enough to start out as a WordPress freelancer with some ability to point to prior experience in interacting with clients.

Gear

The most important thing I can tell you here is that gear doesn’t matter.

By “gear,” I mean the equipment and hardware you need for your business. The most important thing I can tell you here is that gear doesn’t matter.

Here’s a full list of the equipment I use to run my WordPress freelancing business:

Laptop

Almost any laptop made in the past 10 years will suffice. I use a Windows machine. If you’re flexible, Mac is better: technical people hate Windows, and so they write tutorials assuming you’re on a Mac. Command-line stuff is particularly bad on Windows. But most of this will only become a real issue well into your career, when you’re spending real time on the command line, and even then it’s not that bad.

Phone

I just lost my old phone, so I’ve got a $30 Walmart replacement. But you need a phone.

Headphones

Really good ones, Bose noise-cancelling. Cheap earbuds are fine if you’re on a budget.

A Microphone

A Blue Yeti. I use it maybe twice a month, to record videos or if my sound is bad on a Zoom or Skype call. Definitely an expense you can postpone.

Practical Software Needs

These software tools don’t help you do WordPress development directly, but they’re important for your business.

Time Tracking

You need to know how you’re spending your time, both to maximize your billable time and to know how much to bill your clients. Toggl is fine for this.

Bookkeeping and Payroll

QuickBooks Online is good software for bookkeeping and invoicing. You can also use it for payroll if you want. We use a local CPA firm, which is really helpful because they do all our withholdings and taxes and we know it’s being done right. Our costs are $60 a month for payroll, and around $700 yearly for taxes.

Video Calls

Zoom is outstanding. You should have Skype too but it’s getting worse and worse since Microsoft bought it.

File Storage

I love both Dropbox and Google Drive. Dropbox Premium is worth paying for if you’re not completely cash-strapped.

Project Management

Trello is great. Good for you alone, for projects within your team, and also for client projects.

Chat

If you’ve got a business partner, you’ll want a free Slack account to collaborate.

Image Editing

Basic image manipulation really does turn out to be important—at least a few times a week in my case. GIMP is a very good free Photoshop knockoff that I’d recommend you get and learn at a basic level.

Becoming A Freelance WordPress Developer: Core Technical Considerations

This is the section you probably thought the whole article would be about: the part where you learn what coding skills you’ll need to have to start marketing yourself as a WordPress freelancer. And this section is extremely important, for sure—otherwise there’s no meat in your freelancer sandwich.

Right off the bat, I’m going to make a cheerful plug: buy Up and Running. It’s our absolute best work in terms of presenting the technical backbone of WordPress development as a coherent and easy-to-learn package. If you’re serious about learning WordPress deeply enough to launch a career as a freelance WordPress developer, you will be 100% grateful that you made the purchase.

Get Access to Up and Running

 

With that encouragement offered, here’s a high-level overview of the core technical elements of WordPress you need to understand as a freelance WordPress developer.

What WordPress is Good For, and Why and When to Use It

What makes WordPress useful? Why is it better than Joomla! and Drupal? Why should I use it for my site? My boss said it’s insecure, is that true? GoDaddy has its own page builder, why not use that? Isn’t Wix a lot cheaper once you factor in hosting and stuff?

You need smart answers to these questions, not only for your clients but to understand what you yourself are offering in the marketplace. Knowing what software to use is a technical question: understanding clearly what the software does, what it doesn’t do, and how it stacks up to other solutions.

The following articles are a good introductory guide to why and when to use WordPress. The first is a flowchart that gives a simple and helpful outline of the kinds of projects for which WordPress is the right or wrong solution:

When to Use WordPress: The Flowchart

The next is a good high-level article from David that starts to answer the question, “Why WordPress?”

Why Every Web Professional Should Learn WordPress Development

And this introduction to Squarespace (the best among the “hosted builders,” Wix and Weebly being two other big ones) describes the circumstances in which Squarespace is a better choice than WordPress and vice versa:

I Built a Site with Squarespace, and I Liked It

Developer-Focused Software

The software you use to interact technically with WordPress should be very simple.

This is an extension of “gear doesn’t matter,” above: the software you use to interact technically with WordPress should be very simple.

Pippin Williamson once told me that he simplifies what’s on his laptop to the extent that he can throw it in a lake and be up and running on a new one 30 minutes later. Coming from the lead of a multi-million-dollar WordPress plugin company, that really means something—a WordPress freelancer can certainly follow suit.

For a typical client project, I need:

  • Sublime Text for text editing
  • FileZilla for FTP
  • Maybe WAMP for local development (MAMP for Macs)
  • A browser, I like Chrome and the Chrome developer tools

For most clients, that’s honestly it. It’s all free and none of it should take more than an hour to learn at a basic level.

Background in Technical Languages

To some extent, you may be able to learn PHP “by osmosis” as you learn WordPress’s core systems.

The four major languages of WordPress are, in order of importance, PHP, HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Hopefully you have some experience with the first three coming in—but even if you have no PHP experience, you can, to some extent, learn PHP “by osmosis” as you learn WordPress’s core systems.

So if you don’t know PHP, my recommendation would be to learn PHP as you learn to code in WordPress, not separately: WordPress only uses a small subset of PHP, and what it does use is heavily and uniquely flavored. In other words, you’re better off just learning to build swimming pools than you are getting your architecture degree so you can come in and build swimming pools (if that makes sense).

If you try to pick up WordPress development tutorials and you do find yourself absolutely lost, you may want to get remedially up-to-speed on whichever language is tripping you up. Other developers will kill me for this, but I do like W3Schools’s introductions to each language. If you have any sort of technical background, I’d say a week of solid learning of PHP, HTML, and CSS should be more than enough to get you into the meat of the topic, which is learning WordPress development itself.

WordPress Development Fundamentals

This is the actual substance of a WordPress developer’s skills: the technical backbone that we mean when we say “WordPress development.”

We’ve already identified what these fundamentals are: anything we view as fundamental is in Up and Running, and anything that isn’t isn’t. Tab down to “What Will I Learn” on the Up and Running sales page and you’ll see what that includes.

A Quick Familiarity Test

For an informal test of your own level of progress in WordPress development, here’s a stream-of-consciousness cloud of WordPress terms. Everything in this cloud should instantly light up an experienced WordPress developer’s brain with lots of associations, experiences, memories, and ideas.

add_action, add_filter, functions.php, stylesheet, customizer, wp_enqueue_script, wp_enqueue_style, the Loop, get_template_part, add_image_size, get_post_meta, get_the_content, get_the_ID, the_title, new WP_Query, template hierarchy, $args, foreach, is_singular, get_header, get_footer, Plugin Name: , Template: , while, wp_reset_postdata, update_option, get_option, add_shortcode, do_shortcode, get_the_terms

If everything in that list feels like an old friend, you’re definitely a WordPress developer of some sort. The more items from that list are mysteries to you, the more it indicates you’ll need further study and experience on your way to being a fully-powered WordPress developer.

Disclaimer on this exercise: these are some informally chosen key terms that any WordPress developer should know—not all, or even most, key concepts in WordPress development. Also, a developer needs to know how any given development concept fits into WordPress’s overall technical system to be able to use it properly. The exercise is just an informal test of familiarity with some of the most common patterns in WordPress development.

Key Third-Party Technical Tools

These are the pieces of external WordPress technology—themes, plugins, hosting, and so on—that directly affect your ability to offer value to clients. You should have a go-to solution for each one.

Hosting Company

You should always know what host to recommend your clients. For almost any client you’ll be getting as a WordPress freelancer, you should default to SiteGround (or to WP Engine if the client needs or requests managed hosting). We spell out our rationale for that recommendation in a lot of detail here:

SiteGround Review: Why SiteGround Should Be Your First Choice for Shared Hosting in 2018

You should also know when a hosting move is and isn’t worth it. In general, a hosting transfer becomes more attractive if:

  • There’s only one site on the hosting account.
  • The site is early in its lifecycle—so you won’t be migrating dozens of emails, for example.
  • The issues with the current host are actually holding the site back from succeeding, not just annoyances.

The third bullet point is important: painfully slow hosting, SSL mixups, bad or unaccountable tech support, and so on are all major annoyances, but it’s only sometimes the case that these issues represent strategic impediments for the site. If bad hosting is impeding strategy, go ahead and transfer—if it’s just an annoyance, live with it. Knowing the difference is a judgment call that you’ll get familiar with over time.

Form Builder

Forms are probably the most common method of user interaction on a WordPress site. Contact forms are an obvious example, but forms can handle everything from event registrations to complex user interactions like volunteering to adopt a pet.

My go-to is Gravity Forms. There’s stuff it doesn’t do, but it’s a strong first choice for almost any form need until the project convinces me otherwise. Ninja Forms and Caldera Forms are good too. Contact Form 7 is great (and free) for contact forms. I would be very suspicious about relying on any form plugin not on this list: as unfair as that is to those projects and their developers, these are the widely recognized good choices, and it’s fairly unlikely that choosing something else is going to magically solve a problem that these ones won’t.

Page Builder

There is now one very, very good WordPress page builder plugin, and it has revolutionized the way I work in WordPress. That page builder is Beaver Builder. In my opinion, every WordPress freelancer should get it now, learn how to use it, and make it the go-to solution any time a client has a page that needs a custom layout.

If you want to know why I prefer Beaver Builder to other major page builders, I’ve written a very detailed comparison of four major builders:

WordPress Page Builders, Reviewed: Beaver Builder, Divi Builder, WPBakery Page Builder, Elementor

What about Gutenberg? What about hosted builder solutions like Squarespace? I’ve always been passionate about the authoring and editing experience in WordPress, and so I’ve written a lot over the past couple of years on the topic—especially on the complex interactions between specific technologies like Squarespace, Beaver Builder, and Gutenberg. Here are key points:

  • Gutenberg will not be killing WordPress form plugins like Beaver Builder anytime soon, no matter when WordPress 5.0 actually arrives.
  • Since its 2.0 version, Beaver Builder is even better than it was the last time I reviewed it (it also came top of my full review of all WordPress page builders).
  • Squarespace is still a slightly more elegant authoring experience than Beaver Builder (and is a much simpler technology than WordPress overall, factoring in hosting and so on), and is a good choice for very simple sites. Beaver Builder is an increasingly comparable authoring experience for projects that do need WordPress.
  • You should still stay far away from most other WordPress page builder plugins. It’s extremely difficult to build a good page builder in WordPress, and most projects started from the wrong approach entirely (especially basing layout elements on shortcodes). Visual Composer and Divi Builder are the two biggest and remain among the worst. Elementor is good, although I personally prefer Beaver Builder. Again, I’ve written a very detailed WordPress page builder comparison if you want to know details.

Go-To Theme or Theme Shop

Good themes are tricky to find: the theme marketplace is horribly bloated and distorted by market forces that prioritize empty display over substance and craftsmanship. Starting your site on a bad theme is also one of the easiest ways to make the project go horribly.

I can recommend the following boutique theme shops, and you should definitely find your own—staying, in general, off ThemeForest in the process:

With page builders getting so much better, you may want to opt largely away from commercial themes altogether. I like Understrap as an all-purpose starter theme, and Storefront as a WooCommerce starter theme. But be warned: Understrap is very “developer-y” (it has like 8,000 files as dependencies and is all hooked into task runners, dependency managers, compiled Sass stylesheets, and so on), and Storefront is extremely (to me, maddeningly) hook-based.

It’ll also be good to learn tools for evaluating a theme before purchase:

Choosing a Well-Built WordPress Theme: A Step-By-Step Guide

You should also know to stay away from two kinds of themes: the thousands of monstrous “everything themes” from ThemeForest; and (sorry guys) any theme from Elegant Themes, including and especially Divi.

Backup and Migration Solution

I’m not personally as diligent about manual backups as I “should” be, especially because SiteGround has always managed to save my bacon with its own backups on the rare occasions I really have messed something up. (WP Engine‘s outstanding automatic backup system is worth mentioning as a major rationale for their services.) But backups are important, and BackupBuddy is a good default choice.

For a backup and migration solution that I absolutely love, check out All-in-One WP Migration. I can vouch for the “migration” half of it, which has been an absolutely incredible timesaver. And since it’s taking full snapshots of your site it’s a complete backup solution just about by definition.

And That’s How to Get Started as a Freelance WordPress Developer

Don’t be overwhelmed: you’ll pick up a lot of these things over time rather than needing to have absolutely everything planned out in advance.

That’s a lot, right? Don’t get overwhelmed: you’ll pick up a lot of these things over time rather than needing to have absolutely everything planned out in advance. So this article is a bit like a guide to “living a happy life in America”: there’s a ton to think about, but not all at once and not necessarily before-the-fact.

What I do hope is that this article shows you the way forward to becoming a freelance WordPress developer, and also alerts you to any blind spots you might have. Many of the things on this list are topics I ignored until I had no choice but to deal with them, and my own path as a WordPress freelancer has been slower and bumpier as a result.

And again, one more cheerful and sincere plug: If you want to start a career as a freelance WordPress developer, you should buy our “learn WordPress development” guide, Up and Running. You will be very happy you did, because it makes WordPress make sense.

Anything I missed about how to get started as a freelance WordPress developer? Let me know in the comments below!


11 Responses

Comments

  • Eleanor Anderson says:

    Very nice article. 5hank you

  • Erin Smith says:

    Such a great article! It gave me a lot to think about and even more impetus to buy Up and Running. I noticed you don’t mention any of the themes like Genesis. What are your thoughts on those?

  • This is one GREAT article. I myself am a long-term developer, but never worked with WordPress. Only in the last few months have I began to understand just how big entire WordPress eco system really is.

    One question: you suggest to “stay off ThemeForest”. Any particular reason why?

  • James Rose says:

    Epic article Fred! Thanks so much for the shout out to my Content Snare post 🙂

  • RC says:

    Hi. Good article. However, what do you think of the emergence of Wix and Squarespace. Do you think this will cut into the business for WP developers?

  • Thanks for the post – good headphones in an office would be ear buds, otherwise you cannot hear your line manager.

    I would also add to the skillset – go out to events and network, and follow up on linkedin – this is the best way to build up a network of clients and peers in your local area.

  • Santanu says:

    Freelance theme development is already an awesome way to make money for WordPress developers. And op top of that with the help of many premium theme bundles and framework this work has become even more easier. Many thanks for this share.

  • Amazing article Fred ! I being a developer myself, never knew WordPress has so much to it.

    Thanks for covering different facets of being a freelance WordPress developer and talking about things which normally very few talks about like do’s and donts for WordPress developer and how should be looking at getting good client pipeline and adjusting their hourly work rates .. etc. Great work

  • Hey, a very good post!

    Being a freelance WordPress developer I can say you have listed everything perfectly, its going to be very valuable to new starters.

  • Gavin says:

    I LOVED this! Thanks so much for such an awesome and detailed post. Being a dev full-time, I thought skilling up in WordPress development could be a great “after 5” and weekend activity that could turn into a full-time gig. This gave me quite an insight on how to prepare for all the other things around the project. Thanks x1000!

  • I loved this article. Very informative and I never knew WordPress has so much to it.
    Thanks

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *