The freelance lifestyle is an attractive one. But with all of the flexibility comes the reality that work might not always be as regular as we
Mitch Boyer and Vincent Alfieri both attended Flatiron School, a coding bootcamp with courses in New York City and online, to learn web development. However, while most of our graduates go on to be developers at companies ranging from budding startups to huge enterprise businesses, Mitch and Vincent decided to take a different path. They both struck out on their own, taking on the gig economy as freelancers—though their businesses and offerings are quite different.
Vincent, working under the name VSA Productions, is a freelance full stack web developer, building web applications and websites for clients. His current project? Creating an online platform for a decades-old insurance business. While the business formerly revolved around phone and email interactions, Vincent’s work will allow employees and clients to communicate seamlessly over the platform he’s building.
Meanwhile, after finishing our program, Mitch decided to pivot to other passions—illustration, photography, and directing. Mitch works with clients like New York Public Radio, Saturday Night Live, and Lady Gaga. He has also had a viral moment online for pictures he put out of his pet dachshund, Vivian—at the enormous size she imagines herself. He’s currently writing a children’s book, Vivian the Dog Moves To Brooklyn, based on those photos. While these pursuits aren’t exactly web development, Mitch credits learning how to code with teaching him valuable skills for his freelancing work.
We spoke to Mitch and Vincent to get their tips on building your freelancing business—and how learning to code can help, whether or not you’re a web developer.
Communicate—Get on the Same Page as the Client
Your clients know their business and they likely know what they want from you as a freelancer—but chances are they don’t know the technical terminology to communicate their ideas to you. It’s important to spend the time to learn a client’s business and how they work so you can get on the same page. Vincent stresses that you need to “know the underlying business you’re trying to serve. This not only allows you to communicate better; you’ll also bring more value when building a product than you would if you were winging it. Don’t spend hours and hours on something only to find out later the client doesn’t like it because it doesn’t relate to their business.”
Mitch seconds the notion that when you’re on the same page as the client, everything is much easier. One way to ensure this? “Put out distinctive work,” Mitch recommends. “The more you your work is, the better clients you’ll attract.” In Mitch’s case, Radiolab and New York Public Radio hired him based on a personal project he had done. “We were on the same page right away. Things went smoothly.” Upfront communication can also let you know when there might not be a good fit with a client—and when it may be the right time to turn down a job. “When people say ‘I like what you do, but I want to change X, Y, Z,’ it’s more difficult,” Mitch says. “If we can’t get on the same page, I’ll often say I don’t think I’m a good fit and recommend a friend for the job.” You can be sure your clients are vetting you; don’t be afraid to vet them.
Leverage Your Community
For Mitch, a huge benefit of attending a coding bootcamp was the access he gained to a passionate, creative community. Noting that the vast majority of his cohort have kept in touch since finishing the program, Mitch says that “anytime anyone is looking for a job, they’re able to ask the community. I’ve found jobs through that network. People from my class have hired me for artwork and photoshoots or have referred me to their companies.” Mitch credits his initial success as a freelancer to leveraging these personal connections. “I was intimidated when I first went freelance,” he says. “I tried to reach out to companies I didn’t know. But I’ve found the most success when I use my existing network to find clients.”
Vincent points out that impressing just one client in your network can snowball into more opportunities. “My client is doing a side-startup and he plans to bring me in to help,” he says. “Pick your battles. Rather than going after a huge number of clients, I chose to pour all my time and energy into this one project—but if I nail it, it’ll lead to more opportunities.”
When Mitch first decided to go freelance, he was in talks with a company for a large illustration job. “It was big enough to cover my costs for three months, which was huge,” he says. Unfortunately, Mitch pulled the trigger and left his previous full-time job before locking down the contract for the gig. “I wasn’t patient enough to cross my T’s and dot my I’s. Luckily, I had already started the hustle, but those first few months were stressful because I wasn’t patient.” He regrets not taking more time to build up his networking before jumping in, however…
When You Don’t Have Work, Hire Yourself as a Client
At the same time, because Mitch wasn’t working on that huge lost job, he had lots of free time. “That’s when I started developing the Vivian The Dog book,” Mitch says. “With my free time, I started working on that project, and ironically that project is something that could potentially become full-time for me.” So when you don’t have work, hire yourself as a client and build your side projects. “It’s done so much for me,” Mitch says. “Now I get contacted by fans of the Vivian photos for similar work. It’s opened up doors I never even knew existed.”
<style=”text-align: left;”>Commit to Lifelong Learning.
You can’t be afraid to learn new things. Vincent is currently learning other coding languages like CSS in order to build more attractive websites for his clients. He notes, “You can build an amazing app, but if it looks like crap, no one will use it.” He’s also open with his client that he’s continuing to learn—and the client appreciates it. “He knows I might have moments of hitting my head against the wall trying to figure out something new, but he sees I’m committed to getting it. He understands that this process is going to help me make the product better.”
Mitch completely agrees. And that’s one reason he decided to stop pursuing programming. He notes that his web developer roommates are constantly learning. “They seem to always be at conferences for programming. They come home from work and they keep programming at home!” Mitch didn’t feel that level of passion for programming, but he did have that it in other areas: storytelling, filmmaking, photography. “That’s why I shifted to where I am now. If you want to be the best at what you do, you have to commit to a life of learning. It’s just what you have to do, whether you’re a programmer, a photographer, or a beet farmer. If you can’t commit, you can’t compete.”
Learn to Code!
Vincent has seen firsthand that there are so many old businesses that aren’t leveraging tech—having a tech background that allows you to offer additional services is invaluable. As Vinny says, “Companies are using archaic technology. Simple things blow their mind. When you talk to someone who’s been doing something the same way for 30 or 40 years and tell them you can do it ten times faster and show them the value you can provide… they think you’re a wizard.”
Mitch is an interesting case. “I don’t program very often,” he says. “But it’s nice to know how to setup my domain name server; it’s nice to know I can go in and edit the code of my website if I need to.” But the biggest advantage of learning to code for Mitch was gaining confidence to pursue new things. “Before programming, I didn’t think I was good at math; I didn’t think I was good at logical thinking. When you learn how to program, you discipline your mind. I became a much more analytical thinker going to Flatiron School.”
So what can other freelance artists who don’t want to be developers gain from a programming education? “You learn how to look at a problem from a few different angles, take it apart, and work your way through it—you’re kind of debugging it,” Mitch says. “I almost have my own kind of test driven development for everything I do now. Whether I’m working on a new film script or planning a tough design, I’m testing my solutions along the way.”
Whether you want to start a career as a web developer or you’re just hoping to skill up to better serve your clients, programming abilities can be vital. Curious if it’s the right move for you? You can start learning how to code for free with Flatiron School right here.