How to set the right rates as a WordPress freelancer
Interview with Andy Adams, Founder of Certainly
Have you just started out as a freelancer? You’ll want to check out our WordPress Marketing podcast episode with freelance expert Andy Adams.
Learn how to maximize your freelance earnings by listening to our podcast.
Andy explains to us:
How to win clients
Andy reveals how he got his first clients and the best way to respond to job postings. He discusses how clients know almost instantly that around 95% of the responses they receive are not even worth considering. He gives tips on the best ways freelancers can be part of the 5% to make them stand out.
How to set the right rates and make sure you’re not missing out on money
One of the first questions a freelancer asks themselves is how much they should charge. Andy tells us how to approach the subject with clients to ensure you know exactly how much they’re willing to pay.
Andy also talks about how to ensure that you’re not missing out on earning more money in the long term by giving his advice on how to review your rates.
The best places to find extra work
When you are starting out it can be difficult for freelancers to know exactly where they can get regular, reliable work. Andy outlines to us the best places he’s discovered in his ten years as a freelancer and how you can find other websites or other areas that can work for you.
The warning signs of a potentially bad customer
In Andy’s ten years as a WordPress freelancer, he’s developed a sixth sense for a project that you should steer clear of. This includes concerns about price, detail of the work itself and ensuring the client trusts you from the start.
How to successfully promote yourself
Andy is not only an experienced freelancer but he is also a successful blogger. Andy offers his tips on how to generate relevant traffic through his blog and how he managed to win clients by writing. He also talks about the best marketing avenues to promote himself which could work for other freelancers.
A Great Work-Life Balance
It's 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning your time as opposed to 5:00 my time here in the evening. So are you a bit of an early riser?
Yeah I try to, when I can, get started as early as possible just to get my routine started in the morning.
What is your routine out of interest?
I don’t go late into the night. I do start early. I have a family and I try to keep a kind of a normal working schedule even though I have the possibility of being flexible with it.
Doesn't get more difficult as you have a family to kind of balance that with your work life?
You know I’ve had a family most of my work life so I’ve kind of always had to have that stability. So you know if you get your priorities straight then you schedule your work around the family. And so that’s how I’ve always done it. And I can I always have my wife to push back on me if I ever start booking, overbooking or things like that. It will never last for more than a couple weeks.
How Andy got into Web development
Could you talk a bit about what your business is and exactly how you started it?
I started my career as a typical web developer working for a few different companies and then I branched out on my own and started a freelancing consulting business that I truthfully didn’t have a lot of clue what I was doing in the beginning. And I let it grow organically. I kind of took whatever project came along until I figured out what exactly was the best thing for me to be focusing on. I do two branches of things.
I do custom WordPress development and maintenance specifically for content marketing teams within tech companies. And then I also do just kind of general web custom software for random businesses that you’ve probably never heard of – things like medical companies, mining companies, little 50 person or so businesses that need custom software built that they can’t buy something off the shelf.
So what made you decide to narrow down to these fields for your business?
If I were honest it was like I had mentioned somewhat organic. I learned a lot about marketing and content marketing just because it was interesting and it applied to some of my earlier jobs when I was working for other companies. So I learned a lot about SEO, writing, inbound marketing. So it was kind of a natural thing for me to apply my development skills to that area. So that’s how I ended up focusing on that.
And then the custom software side was simply born out of my joy working with Ruby on Rails and I guess you could say I use that side of the business to kind of keep myself technically sharp because on the WordPress side of things WordPress is stable and well-known.
Do you remember getting your first customer and how did it come about exactly?
The very first customer that I had was probably like many people. It was an acquaintance friend who ran a software business. He heard that I was considering the option of going independent. I wasn’t thrilled with my job at the time. And he pitched me on expanding his product. He had a product in the Joomla space and he wanted to move it into the WordPress space. So it was kind of like an easy sell you know and it was the first thing that I took to make the leap into being independent.
From that point forward all of my first customers were through applying to jobs that were posted on online job boards. Places like Authentic Jobs where people would post freelance projects. And I found that by focusing on giving a personal response to job postings I was able to land a lot of early clients that then eventually snowballed into some of the projects that I have today.
How to win jobs and stand out from the competition
How did you construct responses to adverts in these boards?
So when you’re replying to a job posting you kind of have to get into the mind of the person who’s posting it and if maybe people have never posted a job before but whether it’s a freelance job or whether it’s a full time job, people will tell you that you get 95 percent garbage responses, basically automated systems bots basically that are sending out resumes. People who are totally not qualified for the job.
So by simply not sending out a generic email, by showing that you’ve read a job post, by understanding the project and linking it to work that you’ve done you’re already in the top 5 percent and you have a great chance of landing the job at that point.
“By simply not sending out a generic email, by showing that you’ve read a job post, by understanding the project and linking it to work that you’ve done you’re already in the top 5 percent and you have a great chance of landing the job at that point.”
And it’s funny because even really knowledgeable, qualified people will still kind of do that. Just, “I’m just going to send my resume and a generic description of my skills and hope that I land jobs.”
And if you just put a little more effort into it and think about it personally, give it some personality you can lend a much higher percentage. I would say at the time right when I started I was getting 50 percent of the jobs that I applied to.
“If you just put a little more effort into it and think about it personally, give it some personality you can lend a much higher percentage. I would say at the time right when I started I was getting 50 percent of the jobs that I applied to.”
Say for example I wanted to get into your field and was to construct a response what would be your key tips for me to take away from that?
First of all read the job posting and understand the business that’s behind it. Do some research on them, make sure that you like them, that you know what their field is and that you can identify what they are going to value.
So you know for example if you have a job posting from an agency who’s looking to outsource some of their work to a freelancer you need to go to that agency’s website, you need to understand the type of work that you’re doing. See if there’s any projects that are related close to something that you’ve done before and then reference those in your email in your application.
And then the other big tip would be if you have some personality don’t be afraid to show it in your responses. A lot of applications to jobs are very generic. They want to just list out skills, crack a joke or make a personal connection. Make it personal so they know that they can make that connection to you like “Oh this is the guy who was funny or who isn’t just a bot replying to me.” So if you do those two things you’re already well ahead of the game in landing a job.
How did you manage to win over the first few clients without anything to show them?
Well so if you truly have a gap in your knowledge then it might be worth spending some time doing a project on your own to fill that knowledge. So I did my own little pet projects before I started pitching it to clients.
But assuming that you have some knowledge but you just don’t have anything really to show about it I think that honesty is the best policy. You can be upfront about that. You can say “Look I’ve never used this particular plugin or I’ve never done this particular type of project. However, I’m really interested in it and here’s why I’ll succeed regardless of me not knowing right off the bat.”
You might not win that project compared to somebody who’s already an expert in that field. But you definitely increase your odds by just being upfront because people can see through B.S. It’s going to come out eventually right.
How to set the best rates and avoid missing out on money
How did you work out the optimum market rate for you to be charging to your clients?
That is a great question and that’s really the biggest challenge that any consultant, any freelancer has because we’re in a weird point in the tech industry where it’s really just a wild west and you could ask one programmer what’s his rate and it’s 15 bucks an hour and you ask another and it’s fifty thousand dollars a week or something like that.
There’s such a huge range and it’s funny the gap in knowledge between the two may not even be that big. So determining the right rate can really make or break your business and the quicker you get to the proper rate the better. But the first thing is you’ve got to become comfortable talking about rates. You’ve got to be willing to talk about budget early on with clients.
“You’ve got to become comfortable talking about rates. You’ve got to be willing to talk about budget early on with clients.”
Some of the worst projects that I’ve had were when I would spend a week going back and forth with the client only to find out that at the end their budget was about 10 percent of what it needed to be. So there’s various ways to talk about it but really in your mind first of all decide that you’re going to talk about money, however uncomfortable it is, as early as possible.
Jason Fried of Basecamp had a technique when he was doing client work where he would ask “Okay so what’s your budget for the project.” And the client might umm and ahh and say oh I don’t know I don’t really have a budget. So he would just come out and say “OK so you don’t have a budget so there’s one hundred thousand dollars work for you.” So just throw out numbers and see what see what reactions are. “Oh no a hundred thousand isn’t.” And then he would say “Oh how about twenty thousand.” And they say “OK well yeah I think we could work in that range.” And that way you get the information. So step one get comfortable with talking about money. Ask frankly because everyone has a budget. If you’re going to have to figure it out eventually.
Step two would be to raise your rates really frequently. I would say at least once a year but maybe more like once a quarter. You should always be pushing the upper limits of your rates beyond what you think is reasonable. Because like I mentioned there are programmers out there who are consultants who are charging 50 thousand dollars a week or more. There are agencies who are charging you know several hundred dollars an hour for their programmers’ time and the difference between them and you probably isn’t as big as you think it is.
“Raise your rates really frequently. I would say at least once a year but maybe more like once a quarter. You should always be pushing the upper limits of your rates beyond what you think is reasonable.”
So you really need to try to find the ceiling for your line of work and the way that I recommend doing that is the rate ratchet. If you’re unsure of yourself it’s good to step it up this way. You fill up your schedule at a rate that you’re comfortable with. So let’s say it’s 50 bucks an hour and you get yourself 30 to 40 hours of work consistently at that rate and then ratchet it up significantly. So the next project that comes in, bid it at double or triple what your last rate was and carefully examine the response that you get to that doubling or tripling and what you find is a lot of times people will just say “Oh yeah sure okay.” Then they’ll sign you on and there you go you’ve got your new rate set and sometimes you’ll get people who almost buy but they say “Well we can’t quite do that much.” At least now you have a new signal that “Oh wow I was under charging previously and now I have my new rate going forward.” So if you do those two things, if you talk frankly about money and if you ratchet your rate up when you are fully booked I think you’ll hit your maximum pretty quickly.
Did you have cases where you had to negotiate the fee throughout the bidding process?
There have been but to be honest a shocking number of times when I’ve raised my rates to what I thought were ridiculous numbers there wasn’t even hesitation. So I’d say 80 percent of the time there’s no hesitation 10 percent of the time there’s “No way, I can’t afford that.” And then the other 10 percent of the time there is negotiation. So negotiation is a broad subject too but when it comes to negotiating like projects and rates it’s probably better to not lower your rate but try to reframe projects to fit the budget. So if their budget isn’t quite there you say “OK well maybe can we cut this thing or can we extend this project over a long period of time so maybe you can pay it better or pay it easier.”
“A shocking number of times when I’ve raised my rates to what I thought were ridiculous numbers there wasn’t even hesitation.”
How often you should be reviewing your rates
So do you recommend that people review the rates they set at regular periods?
Yes you know I have not done it with regularity. I wish that I had. My rates have been sort of a step function. A consultant friend of mine called it scheduled crises. So after a vacation. Or maybe every three months he’ll just sit back and question everything that he’s doing and question if he’s charging enough. So I think you should make it. Maybe put it on your calendar every quarter. Review if you’re charging enough and see if you can’t raise your rates by a significant amount. Give it a shot.
“Maybe put it on your calendar every quarter. Review if you’re charging enough and see if you can’t raise your rates by a significant amount.”
Do you ever look at anyone else in your field and try to find out exactly how much they're charging to get a feel of if you are sort of underselling yourself at all?
Oh yes absolutely. In fact one of the greatest investments that I’ve had in my business was simply reading the right people. Reading the right types of consultants because the rates that you’re reading will affect your perception of the market. So if you’re going on Upwork and looking and seeing that there are developers charging twelve bucks an hour you’re going to think that’s like roughly where the market lies.
“One of the greatest investments that I’ve had in my business was simply reading the right people. Reading the right types of consultants because the rates that you’re reading will affect your perception of the market.”
But if you’re reading consultants who are in a position that you want to be in eventually then that can totally change your perspective in that really. If I hadn’t read certain people, there are people maybe you haven’t heard of but Brennan Dunn and Patrick McKenzie and Thomas Pachatic they’ve all gotten to a really good place as consultants.
So if you look at them and say “OK they’re human and they were charging somewhere between 20 and fifty thousand dollars a week for their services” it’s hard to process at first, it seems impossible. But by reading those people it makes it achievable versus comparing yourself to people on crowded marketplaces.
The best places to find freelance development work
Nowadays in your experience what would you recommend as the best places to search for potential work for software consulting?
The rule of thumb is that you want to go places where you know people are willing to spend money right. So you don’t want to go to let’s say very crowded marketplaces with cheap developers like Upward.
So how do you know someone wants to spend money? One clue would be if they had to pay to post their job then they probably are willing to pay to get the project done. So I still recommend premium job boards like Authentic Jobs. Like occasionally there’s jobs on We Work Remotely. There are premium marketplaces like Worksome and Toptal that cater to high end freelancers and projects that have budgets.
Don’t go to low budget marketplaces you’re gonna get caught into a cycle that will eventually lead you to just go back to taking a full time job.
“For someone who’s getting started and doesn’t have a lot of connections that’s where I would start is applying to jobs on places where you know people are spending money to be on those places.”
Oh really what were the issues there?
A lot of people who are looking to hire on those marketplaces are not concerned with the quality of their projects. There are the occasional gems that come through and that want a project well done. But if you’re a consultant looking to build a name for yourself and thinking of the long term, you want projects that you can be proud of. In order to do a good job on a project it has to have enough budget for you to be able to spend some time on it and do it well.
So it’s just the competition created on those makes it so hard to establish yourself as a high quality option. Because the problem is that on a lot of those marketplaces the person posting the job will not exactly know what they want and so they might post a vague description of a project and you might look at it.
I just had this happen recently on a high end platform. This happens from time to time. You look at it and you say “Well that’s a huge project, that could be a six month project.” But the description of the project is so vague that people come in and bid it for a thousand dollars, two thousand dollars because like in some interpretation it might be a really simple project but it really isn’t. So you’re competing with low budget options and you want to be a high budget option. You want to do good work, you want to build a name for yourself. So that’s why I would recommend staying off of those places where they’re competing on price.
What are the warning signs of a bad project
What are what are the warning signs that make you think as you just said “Wait I should definitely stay clear of this one, it’s only going to lead to trouble and nothing else.”
If you do this long enough you’ll develop a sixth sense of projects that are not so good. First of all if a client won’t talk to you about price then they probably don’t have a great budget or more importantly they don’t trust you. You know they think that you’re going to try to extort them. And at that point if you can’t get their trust to get numbers from them then you’re going to have a big problem working with them going forward.
“If a client won’t talk to you about price then they probably don’t have a great budget or more importantly they don’t trust you.”
Other things to worry about are there are a lot of projects where the client will say “I just need a WordPress developer to make this modification to such and such plugin.” They basically describe the work to you and “Here’s what you’re going to do.”
And when the client is talking to you like that they probably think they know a lot more than they actually do. But they also don’t trust that you have the expertise to do it or they’re trying to control costs in some way so they don’t want you to get all like creative and stuff and do things your way. They just want you to sit down and do the work.
Really you can’t build your business on implementing verbatim people’s instructions. You have to establish yourself as an expert. You have to have clients who trust you to do the right thing even if it’s not what they think it is. So if a client’s not listening to your advice because they think that they know better it’s not your specialty then they probably just see you as an implementer. You’re not a partner in their business and they don’t value you. So either you sold yourself short or they’re just the wrong type of client for you.
What to look for in a potentially good project
If we went through a checklist what would you say are the things that need to be ticked that lets you realize that this is a job that is definitely worth applying for and working on?
I had mentioned that there is a reasonable chance that they have a budget. So if you’re looking in the right places you’ll probably find projects with budgets, you can filter out clients who you can look at certain businesses and say they’ll just never have the budget for a project like mine.
I remember one time I had someone contact me. They were trying to start up a dog walking business and they wanted a website. A dog walking startup doesn’t have a huge budget for a site so you have to filter those types of projects out.
So this kind of gets into what type of work you’re looking to do. If you just don’t want to deal with marketing and sales side of things then you can find a lot of work as a consultant doing subcontracting work and so then the parameters for that are a little bit different. You might look for an agency doing interesting work and things like that. But if you want to grow outside of just doing subcontracting if you want to have your own clients you have to find clients who have a pressing need that they’re willing to pay to solve and to trust you as an expert to solve that problem.
For my clients I look for a specific type of company, a company that has a content marketing department. They have a blog. They’re not big enough to have hired someone for that blog to do development on that blog. You have to build this checklist of your ideal customer for yourself and it kind of varies depending on what target market you’re looking at.
Using referrals to get more work
Do you find now that you've become successful do you still need to apply for jobs? Do you have a lot of work coming your way organically?
I have not applied for a job for quite some time and referrals and some inbound clients from my writing have really kept my pipeline full. If you ask any consultant who’s been around for a while they’ll say referrals are really the lifeblood of every business. Not just consulting, any business you’re running is going to gain a lot from getting good referrals at this point in my career.
“If you ask any consultant who’s been around for a while they’ll say referrals are really the lifeblood of every business.”
How did these referral work? Is it simply word of mouth?
It’s mostly word of mouth. It’s also people changing jobs and going to a new company which could also use my services. But there’s a fair bit of nurturing, I guess you could call it, of referrals that I try to do. I don’t want it to sound manipulative or anything like that. Basically it boils down to doing a good job communicating well with your existing clients and being a good person to them, looking out for them which strangely enough many many businesses don’t do those things with existing clients.
I think that if you do a good job actually finish your work and are nice. You are already in the top 50 percent of businesses worldwide because so many people are short sighted and not thinking about the next contractor or the future. So there’s a few things that I do on every project. First of all I factor in whether or not they are likely to be connected, whether they’re likely to give referrals. Sometimes you’ll meet a business and you can tell that they’re just not connected. They’re not gonna be talking to other potential clients and so this will kind of be a dead end for you.
“I think that if you do a good job actually finish your work and are nice. You are already in the top 50 percent of businesses worldwide because so many people are short sighted and not thinking about the next contractor or the future.”
You need to ask them to give referrals at all or does that happen organically as well?
I do ask. Most of the time I don’t need to but I do follow up on a regular basis with old clients just to check in, see how they’re doing, make sure they’re still happy with their work and then really what you want to do I think is just stay in their mind so that if a conversation ever does come of them in another kind of deal remember that you’re still there.
Blogging to promote yourself
As you mentioned Andy you're an avid blogger and I know you've blogged a lot about the life as a freelancer and I actually encourage anyone who's interested to check out your blog - andyadams.org.
Did you start this out with the intention of getting more clients or was this something on the side that was just a passion of yours?
It’s funny because it was totally a passion project. However I’ve ended up getting a handful of my best clients simply by being helpful, by sharing. But I get clients, I’ve gotten clients on the articles that I least expected to generate interest.
Which ones are those? So it just for example does any come to mind?
Sure I remember getting clients when I was discussing WordPress developer rates and why they were kind of depressed. There’s an article I think it’s called The WordPress talent shortage is a pricing problem and discussing that it got a decent amount of interest from the developer community but after that I started getting people just saying “Hey you seem like a helpful person. I have WordPress problems can you help me solve them.”
So there is something to be said about not everything has to be a calculated ask a calculated marketing tactic but if you’re just trying to be helpful it often works out better than you could have ever done calculating it all out.
How did you publicize your blog?
Primarily by being involved in a few WordPress communities, talking to people in the industry and just sheer luck. Sometimes you know ending up on certain aggregators like Hacker News a combination of all that. There’s also been a few times where I’ve reached out to people after I wrote an article because I knew that they were interested in the subject and asked them if they would be willing to share it. Things like that get the word out.
Were there any other marketing avenues that you tried out that worked really well for you as well besides besides the blogging?
I’ve built most of my business on the three things that we’ve talked about to this point, applying to job postings, referrals and inbound marketing so beyond those three no I don’t really have much else.
I’ve done some writing for CSS Tricks which is an industry website newsletter and basically just sharing my expertise based on projects that I’m working on. Business lessons that I’ve learned things like that you know.
For example I’ve gotten some work off of articles I’ve written about WordPress performance and just a how to article on “How to speed up your website” that generates interest from people who are having performance problems. Again it’s really boiled down to being helpful and not trying too hard. Not being too salesy but just giving people what they need in the moment.
Did you find that when people get in touch they make specific references to articles from CSS Tricks for example?
Oh absolutely. And I always make a point to ask where people found me from. And yes it’s often from an individual article.
Marketing strategies which did not work out
Did you have any sorts of methods or did you try anything out to promote yourself which did not work?
Yes I did a fair bit of cold calling actually for a business idea that I had. It was tangentially related to my consulting but cold calling and cold emailing didn’t work well for me. I know that there are a lot of people it does work well for but I think you have to kind of acknowledge where you are as a business. So it’s just me here. I don’t have a team so I have to do the work and do the sales work and I didn’t have the time to invest in the amount the volume of cold contacting that I think you need to do to be successful.
I had to come to terms with the fact that I’m just kind of a timid person. I don’t like contacting people out of the blue. And so it was really emotionally draining for me and I just I gave it up after I felt like it was a good try but just couldn’t maintain it.
So if anyone starting out I think what would you say the best way to promote yourself? Is it blogging?
I think that that’s something you should spend a little bit of time on in the beginning but you should really be going directly after the potential jobs that you want to have. So whether that be on job boards like we’ve been discussing, people posting stuff that you can apply to or if it be finding really specific customers and talking to them, contacting them directly to see if they have projects for you.
You need to basically validate whether or not your idea about your business and what kind of projects you’re working on is going to work long term. So the quickest way to do that is go directly after them. Writing will help you longer term but it’s very spotty thing. It will happen once in a while. It’s not a good way to build your business upfront.
Andy’s best investment in his business
Was there one particular investment you made to build your business that that you're really proud of?
Yes I think learning how to write well and communicate well was the most valuable skill I could have learned. Because when you start out, especially developers, but anyone with a hard technical skill they want to think that your ability to program or your ability to be a good ad words manager or whatever it is. You want to think that that’s going to convince your clients but that’s not what matters ninety five percent of the time.
“How to write and communicate well was the most valuable skill I could have learned.”
Your ability to communicate your soft skills, your ability to sell is going to dictate the success of your business. And I spent a lot of time reading consultants that I enjoyed, reading advertisements that I thought were done well, reading websites and learning how to communicate clearly. Really taking the time to think about how what I was writing that paid dividends. More than any other factor in growing my business is learning the soft skills, learning how to communicate well – especially in written form.
And is that something that people value when you're making your pitch is that ability to come across as, well I guess, as a human?
Oh absolutely. I mean they don’t realize what’s going on. They just know that this email stood out from all the rest of them. They know that this guy understands my problem because he’s speaking to me directly and he may actually read my job post. Those types of things make or break a sales pitch. So absolutely yes it makes a big difference to the people who you’re talking to that you care about them, that you are taking the time to write a personal message. Absolutely.
Major mistakes Andy learned from in his business
Were there any major mistakes you made through the journey of growing a business that you wish you could go back and take?
Yes there are so many but the one that I really felt could have been explained to me better was there is a big topic of niches. You want to be a specialist nowadays, you don’t want to be a generalist especially in consulting and that’s absolutely true.
But just because you’ve found somebody specific doesn’t mean that that niche is going to work as a business. As an example, at one point I specialized in doing WordPress performance work for e-commerce sites and it turns out that that’s actually a pretty hard niche to serve. It’s very specific but it turned out that I couldn’t identify my customers.
So I knew an e-commerce site when I saw one but I didn’t know if they were having performance problems. So the first step in identifying a niche is making sure that you actually know who your customers are like that you can go out and find them by name. If you don’t know who they are then you’re just hoping. You’re going to have to hope that they somehow find you organically.
Another thing that I didn’t realize about niches is that you can have a really specific group of people but if they don’t have a common pain point at the top of their mind that they’re willing to pay to fix then they aren’t going to be a good business either. So as an example there I started a little software business that I was targeting at agencies who are maintaining WordPress sites and I thought that they had this particular problem and I had them really narrow down and I knew who they were.
But when I went and took the problem to them they didn’t really care and they weren’t willing to pay to fix it. So I guess the overarching lesson that I learned was that while specialization is great you need to really give some thought to whether the niche that you’re focusing on actually has the ability to grow a business. Because not all of them do.