freelance web development

You Can’t Afford to be Employed by Matthew Cook


I’ve been noticing recently that freelancers around me seem to be disappearing. They’re taking jobs with cool startups, getting on board with agencies, or straight up getting hired by large corporations. Let me say something clearly.

There’s nothing wrong with being employed

…but I think talented people in our industry are selling out. Given the way the web industry and the US economy are right now, I say you can’t afford to be employed.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says growth in jobs for web graphic designers will increase at four times the national average in the coming years. At the same time, the database shows only a 3% unemployment rate for designers nationwide–compared to about 8% of the US population that is either unemployed or recently dropped out of the labor pool due to chronic unemployment. Combine this with the fact that a staggering 29% of broadly termed graphic designers are self employed, and you’ll see what most of us already know, web designers work so, dang, much. They also make over $43,000/year on average, so pay isn’t too terrible.

Another interesting thing I found, taking a full-time position simply because it offers steady income and some immediate safety is counterintuitive. The U.S. workforce is expected to be 40% contractor by 2020 according to a recent article on Quartz (and many other sources). Our workforce is currently at around 30% contractor by most estimations. You can’t think that finding a job or a startup to hook your wagon to will solve your career problems indefinitely. To quote another recent article,

This [shift in perspective] is not just a recession-induced thing… It reflects a long-term change in the economy. Since the 1980s, management’s philosophy has evolved to “look at work as projects.” Instead of keeping workers on staff to perform all tasks needed, they outsource them or hire consultants. 

If our economy is shifting toward contractors and teams of freelancers, why do so many of us insist on taking a job? Knowing that jobs currently exist in great number, shouldn’t we be encouraged to reach higher? If companies are shifting to contract relationships, why not meet them where they’re heading?

Web people, you are valuable and needed

Excellence in our industry is in high demand. As overworked young professionals, the allure of a stable job that offers benefits and the ability to stop working nights at home is powerful. The funny thing is that what we can earn in traditional employment pales in comparison to what we can earn in other forms of organization (intentionally vague here, stick with me). Save specific skill sets like iOS development or web development in securities and commodities contract intermediation (whoa there!), growth in our salaries is startlingly average. Add to that, our quality of life can be much greater outside of employment. Shift gears again for a second.

It’s time to get down to business

All of us need to stop hating on business. Seriously. I work in a coworking space, and most of the time when I talk about the business of what we do my compatriots’ eyes glaze over and they say something like “I’m glad there are people like you” or, “that’s not really my thing”. I understand that sentiment completely. However, I value what you do just as much as I value what I do. I value both of our skillsets because together they can make both you and I happy, successful, fulfilled at work, and loved by our clients. Stop looking down on being a businessman or businesswoman AND a designer, developer, or whatever you are.

Accenture recently did a study on contract workers. They describe the relationships we have with each other as a “supply chain of talent”. The most successful freelancers find out where they fit in a bigger process and take advantage of the value they create in order to pay themselves, do what they love, and/or do things like work at home while the kiddos are growing up. This puts businesses who work with web freelancers in a weird position. The internet is ablaze with articles and opinions about managing people like us and successfully outsourcing deliverables. Businesses have to manage you, usually at distance, and they’re terrible at it. They’re terrible at managing your talent, they’re terrible at approaching you, they’re terrible at on-boarding you, they’re terrible at feedback, and they live in a world of analytics but don’t know how to measure your progress and success.

You must be good at managing yourself and your client

If you’re going to be the one handling solutions to your client’s weaknesses in process and approach, you need their trust. Getting back to the idea of making more money, having a better quality of life, and working with people you want on projects you want; this trust comes in part from how you approach your clients. The efficacy of freelancers compounds when we band together, and so does our ability to command respect, larger projects, and money. There’s a lot of reward in shifting the freelance perception. Clients who trust you give you the ability to do what you do best in the way you need to do it, while charging a fair price. If you put some effort into creating trust, it will pay back in spades. 

There are a lot of ways to earn trust and in turn be awarded awesome projects, but I want to highlight one–I mentioned earlier that web professionals are in high demand. One way to effectively meet that demand and blow away your client’s perceptions is to group together as freelancers. Small communities like CoWork Greenville or companies like SuperFriendly are current illustrations of that power. Not only do we receive the benefit of working around awesome people, but we also have the added credibility of the roles represented around us. Pitching as a crack team of professionals assembled specifically for the needs of a given project is an attractive proposition.

As a freelance project manager I capitalize on this increased trust all the time. Clients tend to see me, if I’m alone, as a gatekeeper to what they want. I’m in the way. Clients also tend to see designers or developers as production skill that should be compensated at an hourly rate. When we’re together, they see a team that is worthy of pitching a full scope with value pricing. By grouping up we show them right out the gate that we will only assemble (and charge them for) relevant skills, that we know the roles we need, and that we believe ourselves capable of managing what we put our names to.  We’re no longer two guys and one gal working for $125 per hour; we’re a team of specialists tackling a website redesign and CMS build at a fixed bid of $__,___.__ for a planned duration; complete with schedules and Gantt charts as needed. We have the power to manage the project in the way that our expertise and experience tells us we should, rather than struggling to conform to a client’s notion of how the second website redesign they’ve ever attempted should proceed. 

I’m not saying you have the opportunity to hose your clients and get filthy rich. What I’m saying is that you will be able to reap the reward of taking more than just an hourly contractor role with your client. Your value increases if you can manage all of the pieces and shoulder the majority of the risk of failure rather than just filling one role. There’s no doubt you can make more money as a team, but there’s more to it. You can decide your schedule, and how much you should be paid to work 60 hours a week for two months (for example). You can decide if you want to travel to the client’s office regularly, and who else you want to work with. You get to set the tone of your relationship with the client as an equal rather than a subordinate. 

Set your sights higher

Why are we happy trying to work for Facebook or a top ad agency instead of meeting the industry where it needs us, educating ourselves, and forging our own way? There are a ton of valid career reasons to get hired or stay hired as opposed to going freelance, and I’m not too blind to admit it. However, that should be an educated choice, not a default.

It’s a great day to go disrupt our industry. Get going, and name your salary while you’re at it.


Special thanks: A lot of my final thoughts for this article were refined at An Event Apart in Seattle. This has been on my mind for a long time, but dunking myself in the talent, personalities, and perspectives at AEA forced a lot of clarity. Kudos to a great conference.