How to start a web development business

If you’re a web developer or a coding camp student and you’re thinking about being your own boss, you’re in good company. The number of freelancers in the U.S. hit more than 56 million in 2020, per the Freelancers Union—and the number keeps rising every year as more people pick the flexibility, autonomy and challenge of running their own business. 

That means there are lots of resources to help you add a web development side hustle or make the switch to self-employment—starting with this very post.  

We’re going to cover the basics you need to know, think over and plan for to launch your own web development business so you can add another revenue stream and even go full-time freelance when you’re ready.  

Let’s start with the most important question first.  

Who do you want to build sites for? 

Take as much time as you need to answer this question, because it determines the skills you need to add, the kind of portfolio you create, even the way you’ll market your freelance business.  

In general, it’s best to look for customers who: 

  1. Have the budget to hire you at a professional rate. 
  1. Have ongoing web development needs, so you can earn more money from each customer over the course of your relationship with them. 
  1. Need work that you can highlight in your portfolio to bring in other customers with similar budgets and needs.  

Within those very general parameters, consider the kind of web dev work you like best, and the kinds of projects you’ve already done, and use those as a starting point. So, if your experience is building eCommerce sites, online retailers and those looking to get online could be your first customer personas.  

What if your experience is in an industry that you’re tired of and you’d like to work in another niche? Coding skills are transferrable, so for you the first challenge will be doing some market research on the new industry where you’d like to use you skills, to make sure you can find the kinds of customers who will keep you in business.  

Skills: What do you have and what do you need? 

Once you have an idea of who your ideal customers will be, it’s time to take inventory of your skills. Let’s break this into two stages to keep things from getting overwhelming.  

Stage 1: Assess your development know-how 

Now’s the time to list all your web development knowledge and skills, from HTML and CSS to back-end developer languages like Python and Ruby. Do you have UX or database management experience?  

Once you’ve listed all the development languages, tools and software you know, it’s time to make another list—this time, the skills and know-how that you’ll need to serve the clients you want to do business with.  

Do your lists match? If so, you’re in luck. If there are some new things you’ll need to learn before you can market yourself to your ideal customers, you have plenty of options. Depending on how much time and money you have—and how you learn best—you can pick up new coding skills through: 

  • Free online courses from coding bootcamp providers. Schools like Codeacademy, Flatiron School and freeCodeCamp offer no-cost courses on topics like JavaScript, HMTL, Python and more.  
  • Paid certificate courses. EdX has a portal full of free coding courses from schools including Stanford, Harvard, the University of British Columbia, Dartmouth and others. They also have a collection of paid professional certificate programs on topics like front-end web development, mobile apps and C programming with Linux that can help you pick up specific skills without paying bootcamp or university tuition. 
  • Paid coding bootcamps. Paid camps can require several weeks of intensive work and typically charge several thousand dollars for tuition. If you need to learn a whole new suite of development skills and have the time and budget, this approach may be your best option. Paid camps typically include coaching and career support. However, keep in mind that their career team may be geared toward people looking for full-time employee roles, not freelancers. Ask questions and talk to the career office before you enroll to make sure you’ll get the right support for your goals.  

Pro tip: Veterans and their spouses may be able use G.I. Bill benefits to cover tuition for some software developer training programs. Check out the VA’s VET TEC program and nonprofits like Vets Who Code and Code Platoon.  

A word about WordPress 

While you’re rounding out your coding skills, consider adding WordPress development to your resume, because more than 40% of websites use it, per WordPress.org. 

Developing for WordPress requires PHP and JavaScript in addition to HMTL and CSS, and there are lots of places to pick up WordPress knowledge for free, including the WordPress learning community.  

When you’ve got your coding skills list done, it’s time to focus on the business skills you’ll need.  

Stage 2: Build a business-skills list 

Even the most talented web developer needs some business acumen to make it as a freelancer. That’s because you’ll be wearing all the hats in your company, especially when you’re just starting out.  

Here are the key business skills and resources you’ll need: 

Project management: The productivity tools you’ll actually use are the best ones for your freelance business. Managing meetings, change requests, meetings and invoicing is all on you as a freelancer, so have a system ready to go when you launch. 

Accounting: Track your business expenses and income separately from your personal financials from Day One, in whatever bookkeeping software you prefer. Now’s also a good time to think about how you want clients to pay you: ACH transfers, PayPal, Venmo or something else? 

Marketing: Every new business needs a social media presence but managing posts can be a PITA. Get comfortable with a tool like Buffer or Hootsuite to schedule, automate and analyze your social media marketing. Then you can write your posts in batches every few days and get back to coding.  

Pricing: What should you charge? Set rates you can live with—and live well with. If you’re not sure how to do that, The Freelancer’s Bible by Sara Horowitz includes a detailed breakdown of all the costs and factors to consider as you price your services.  

Negotiating: It’s gonna happen: You’ll get a prospective client who has a great project for you, but they want to haggle over your rate or the delivery timetable or something else. Grab a copy of Never Split the Difference (one of our Web Pro recommended reads) and learn how to negotiate productively. 

Managing customer relationships: Nurturing relationships with your customers and leads can get complicated fast, especially if you start getting a lot of referrals and inbound leads from your social and web marketing. Find a free CRM tool that you can use to keep everyone’s info in order. 

Networking: Stay connected to your peers, because they can help you deal with issues they’ve already seen, put you in touch with new opportunities and keep you sane when work is busy or frustrating. 

Getting mentored: Even if you don’t need a coding mentor, you’ll benefit from having a mentor for your business. SCORE from the federal Small Business Administration can connect you with remote mentors who volunteer to share their expertise for free.  

Now that you’ve identified your ideal customers and niche, and any skills and tools you need, you can make a freelance business plan. This doesn’t have to take very long, and it can help you stay on track in terms of spending, marketing and client relationships. 

Next, you’ll need to do the banking and legal stuff to set up your freelance web development business. It’s getting real! 

Putting the pieces in place: Making your web development business official

There’s a bit of paperwork to sort through next. Where to start? With your business domain name. Why? Because your domain should match your business name, and you’ll need that business name to get permits, tax IDs and a bank account.  

So, brainstorm the best domain name for your freelance business, register it and pick your hosting plan. In fact, you may want two hosting plans: a VPS plan for sandboxing your sites and a reseller plan to host your client’s finished projects and create another revenue stream for your business.  

Next, you’ll need to get a couple of documents. The first is a local business permit, which you’ll get from your city or county tax office for a small fee. You’ll also need an EIN (employer identification number) from the IRS, which you can get online for free in a few clicks.  

Now it’s time to connect with your bank or credit union. Take copies of your business permit and EIN and open your business bank account.  

From now on, use money in that account when you need to buy anything for your business. Deposit all your freelance income into that account, even if you then transfer it to your personal account, to keep your bookkeeping accurate. 

One more thing to do with that new account: Buy a professional liability insurance policy, also known as errors and omissions coverage. This protects you in case a mistake in your work causes problems for your client, and many enterprises and government agencies require that contractors and freelancers have proof of coverage.  

If you’ll be working with sensitive data on behalf of a client, or will connect to a client’s network, you may also want a cyber liability policy.  

Build your portfolio and start marketing 

Now it’s finally time to launch. Get your portfolio site ready, set up your business email address, create your business social media accounts, and start reaching out to prospects to find out what they need and how you can help them get it done.  

Ready to start working on your freelance web dev business? Register your business domain name today.  

Casey is the Senior Director of Marketing for Hosting and has been in the web hosting space for 7 years. He loves the slopes and hanging out with his kids.