Should I freelance in small-business-web-site-building, or custom-wordpress-hacking?
July 25, 2010 2:16 AM   Subscribe

Should I freelance in small-business-web-site-building, or custom-wordpress-hacking?

Firstly, apologies for the long post.

My day job is writing software for molecular biology research. Recently I've been thinking about doing some freelancing on the side, and I wanted to run a couple of ideas past the hive mind - I know that we have a lot of freelancers here on Mefi. My background is in (chronologically) Perl, PostgreSQL, Java, Groovy, MySQL, HMTL, CSS, Javascript and JQuery.

There are two areas that I'm considering. One is building websites for small businesses - I became interested in that when I set up the website for my partner's dog walking business (which has been a big factor in its success). This is something I think I could do quite easily; I see loads of small business websites that make me think "this is horrible; I wonder how much business they are are losing because of it?". But I've read lots of warnings about the problems with being such a generalist - unrealistic expectations; time spend 'educating' the client, etc. Plus I'm not great at design (but I don't think you need to be in these days of off-the-shelf html templates), and this approach wouldn't really use my programming skills.

The other area I am interested in is custom Wordpress setup, plugin programming, theme customization etc. The huge user community makes me think that there's probably plenty of such work to go around, and I've used and tweaked Wordpress extensively in the past for my own use. I wrote my first plugin last night in a couple of hours, despite never having used php before, and I think I could get up to a high level of ability with it quite quickly. Also, it seems like the people who would be interested in hiring me for custom Wordpress work would be (1) more technically minded, and therefore easier to work with and (2) easier to find, by looking on the various wordpress job forums.

Any advice, thoughts, anecdotes, etc. are welcome.
posted by primer_dimer to Computers & Internet (6 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Go with #2. There is legitimate demand for this, whereas the market for #1 is pretty crowded especially on the "small business" end. #2 also has more potential for sub-contracting.

The one thing I would say is that if you want to serve this market direct to consumers (so to speak), this is one of the few instances where I would really urge you to develop a very discrete list of priced services, or at least a very well-defined entry-level package like:

Package 1 / $200: Install WordPress on your host, setup admin username and password of your choice, install 3rd party theme of your choosing, install this standard range of plugins (akismet, contact form 7, hi-light author comment, subscribe to comments, Twitter plugin, Add-It social bookmarking), setup contact form: $200. Additional customisation and installations $50 per hour.

You can add a whole range of additional services on top of that, including the much-sought-after custom WP plugin development, but trust me when I tell you that the creep from "can you install WordPress for me with this theme?" is enormous for people who do not want to learn to install and activate a simple plug-in. If you want to serve that market, you need to plan for that and have a friendly and clear way to contain it.

Also note that you will become the go-to person for WP issue for all of your clients and you should plan for that as well. Ongoing support will be both a need and an issue. If you can't in good faith deal with that, you may want to reconsider.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:58 AM on July 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Here's what I know (which isn't much).

WordPress is gaining in popularity among my association's members, who are mostly in real estate. Their particular interest is to use their blogging and social media activity to drive traffic to their listings, and then have a system to convert same to leads and sales. There are lots of WordPress developers in the real estate space who have packages to do this.

It seems to me that any sector or profession will have its own set of particular needs, and that the more you can set yourself up as a one-stop-solution "specialist," as opposed to a generalist, the more successful you're likely to be at building your business. So, to extend DarlingBri's suggestion, you might consider offering profession-specific packages. Consumers will prefer a perceived specialist over a generalist any day.

Oh, and among my members, anyhow, most will be in the camp of those who do not want to learn to activate a simple plug-in. They're not lazy, they just don't want to get tied up in things that aren't selling. So you might want to consider offering tiers of ongoing support, too, or at least be able to refer your clients to same.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 3:46 AM on July 25, 2010

I do #1 and I agree with DarlingBri that, so long as WordPress remains a dominant force, you'll be better off doing #2. Webpage designers are a dime a dozen. Programmers, not so much. And as a web designer, you're literally competing with the nephew of the business owner who says he can design their site for free.
posted by crunchland at 5:06 AM on July 25, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your answers. I agree that it seems sensible to position myself so I'm competing with as few people as possible, and that becoming a Wordpress specialist (or even better, a sub-specialist in a particular field) is the way to go. Plus, I have a feeling that I'd enjoy being a good programmer more than being an average designer :-)

DarlingBri, thanks for your very specific comment about packages. I have actually used that approach in the past when doing one-off jobs for people (but geared more toward the small-business-website-from-scratch end of the market, so including picking domain names and choosing themes). Good to know I'm thinking along the right lines.
posted by primer_dimer at 6:33 AM on July 25, 2010

I currently do some one-off projects for lawyers and am starting to see more interest. I mostly do customizations of off-the-shelf Wordpress themes and hand them a site they can manage without any of the tech knowledge.

There are pros and cons of course. Businesses can pay--I made $2500 off a single Wordpress customization.

The downsides though are starting to outweigh the money for me. These are things you REALLY need to consider...

-Clients, particularly the cheaper ones, will be demanding of your time

-Understand there is a fine line between going a little out of scope to satisfy a Client and going way out of scope because they are being demanding. I always make it clear that they get X number of rounds of reviews during the design and the development phase. I then explain to them that they need to consolidate ALL feedback. If you feel something will take a ton of time, refer to your scope of work and explain that this will cost extra. Make sure you have a paragraph in there stating that changes outside of the scope will be given a separate estimate.

-You are your own bill collector

-One problem I'm running into now is that people want my services, but my day job is becoming demanding to the point where I am working nights and weekends (yay advertising!). I don't want to turn down work because that will hurt referrals, but at the same time I am almost at the point of turning down work or pricing it high enough where they won't want my services. Make sure you have the time you need to dedicate to this.

-Be upfront with people that this is a freelance thing and you have a day job and limited availability during your work hours. I usually make up for this by explaining that I am available in the evenings and weekends.

-Beware having multiple clients at once--I haven't had that happen yet but it gets messy fast from what I've heard.

-Invest in some software like Quickbooks if you are serious about this so you can accurately track your business income and expenses. It also makes it easy to generate estimates and invoices.

-Get used to doing tech support and explaining things to computer illiterate folks. These are people who paid you to do this because they don't know enough to do so. Odds are they don't even know how to setup an email client (welcome to my yesterday...) and if you are unable to meet them in person, be prepared for a lot of walking them through things over the phone. I actually found a lifesaver yesterday that was a free screen sharing/control program. Check out YuuGuu. Get them to install that and create an account, then take over and do what you need without wondering if they are giving you all the info you need.
posted by Elminster24 at 9:03 AM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not really sure what you couldn't do both simultaneously.

I mean, you can do some Wordpress hacking and also use Wordpress as a CMS for your small-business websites. (I assume there would be extensive crossover between the two areas anyway).
posted by halfguard at 12:00 PM on July 26, 2010

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