We’ve been hearing from freelance WordPress developer Bill Erickson. He’s shared how he got started, his freelance best practices and how he handles billing and contracts. Today we’ll finish up our conversation with Bill and hear about giving back and growing your business.
You’ve given back a lot to the WordPress community, including core contributions and plugins. How has that helped your business?
The biggest way I’ve given back is with tutorials and code snippets. A lot of people with WordPress problems will Google how to fix it and find my stuff. Even if they aren’t technical enough to use it, they see my name over and over again, and they realize they should hire me when they’re ready for a developer. That’s helped. Plugins are less effective, they don’t drive traffic and clients, but it’s a value add to clients. When I build functionality for a client, it could be frozen in time or we could release it as a plugin, where it will get better and improve in time as I develop and others contribute. That’s free improvements for the client.
My Display Posts Shortcode plugin, for example. A client did dog food reviews and they wanted to make lists to query different things, such as dog food reviews for dogs with diabetes or gluten free food. I wrote a short code to do it. Then I generalized it and released it. Now it’s been downloaded nearly 80,000 times and included in WordPress.com. It’s been improved by the WordPress code audit team, and I’m still improving it.
All of this, 90 percent of the features, the client didn’t pay for. He paid for 10 percent. Yet he gets the benefit from it, and so does the community in general. If I just leave that functionality in your site and don’t roll out a plugin, it’s frozen. No one maintains it. But if I turn it into a plugin, more people get the benefit and it gets better with age.
Ninety percent of the time I don’t have a plugin to spinout, so it’s not in the initial contract. But when I build it, I ask the client if I can spend extra time and make it a public plugin and we’ll talk about it. It creates more value for everyone in the process.
You’ve talked about keeping your business intentionally small—how do you define success for yourself?
When it comes down to it, businesses usually want to grow. If you’re making x dollars, your goal for next year is x + y. There are a few ways to approach that. One is to grow your team. You only have 40 hours to work, but if you hire another person, you have 80 hours. The problem is you’re increasing your expenses. When growing from one to two people, your expenses go up way more: payroll, HR things, health insurance, taxes, etc.—more business stuff is required. The more employees you have, the lower the marginal cost for that employee, but when you’re small each employee does cost a lot.
There are alternatives. By staying a one-person shop, I’m able to move more quickly with the market. If I hired a bunch of specialized developers, what happens if the market changes? Hiring more people grounds you and makes you less mobile. It increases your monthly cost and you take on projects you otherwise wouldn’t.
I grow my business in other ways, like efficiency. Analytics is helpful here. It tells me these projects I can make more money on, so I push in that direction.
I make more money through added value, by becoming a brand name online—a developer other developers look at, or clients trusting your quality without knowing code means you can charge more. Some clients want a site for $800 and I’m not a good fit. Other clients care about quality and will pay what it costs. They’ll usually research and find me. By building your name and brand you can charge a premium for higher quality.
Another aspect is making the same money in less time. By being more efficient, I can spend less time and make the same salary. Those are a few ways I grow my business.
Another way I haven’t pursued is products. Thomas Griffin is the perfect example of how to do it. I’m not as good of a marketing/sales guy and I hate doing support, but if you can do it, it’s great.
A lot of people don’t actually run the numbers to see if it’s a good business before jumping in. They like the idea of mailbox money—money that comes in with no work—but they don’t see the tradeoffs: three months actually creating the product with no money coming in. They also discount the amount of support required. Do an analysis and see if it’s worth it before you switch to a product.
Do you have any final advice for freelance WordPress developers?
My biggest advice is to seek out other developers and see what worked well for them. Show them what you’re good at. All the developers I know have more work than we can handle, so we all send stuff out. We all have lists of people to refer to and now those lists are booked.
Experienced developers who have built a name are always looking for people who haven’t build a name yet so we can refer to them. I don’t want to hire, I’d rather send work to you so you can create your own business.
Thanks for tuning in to our interview with freelance WordPress developer Bill Erickson. Next time we’ll share some quick highlights from our interview.