I’ve been around for a bit in this crazy world of the internet and I’ve learned a few things with time. Naturally, I’m no expert on everything, but I’ve found that working as a contract web developer has its ups and downs. I thought that I would share a few of these so that others could commiserate, or learn about potential pitfalls before they happen. Why only seven? Well, that’s all I could think of at the moment. Maybe I’ll expand on this in the future, but for right now, here you go:
1. Always have a contract.
This may seem elementary or a real pain to deal with, but I’ve found that if you have a solid outline of the work at hand whether it’s a $500 job or a $5,000 job, you’re going to be a lot happier in the end. Every client I’ve worked with where there has been a relatively explicit contract has been a good experience. Every client where I’ve gone without has been a nightmare. Even if it’s just bullet points on one sheet of paper, have each of you sign off on it.
2. Avoid restaurant websites.
When you’re out looking for work, you don’t really want to turn anything down and if you’re like me, living in a metropolitan city, you’ll see a new eating place open up or realize that one of your favorites doesn’t have a site. You think, “Ah, I should pursue this.” Ah, but you shouldn’t. While it’s always a good business practice to drop a card to test the waters, I’ve found that restaurant owners in general are clueless when it comes to the web. They tend to not want to pay anything (despite the fact they’ll ironically spend a fortune on print ads) and then they want everything. Trying to pin them down on a design is like pulling teeth, even if they have a heavily designed space and you try to copy that. If they really come to you for their site and have a solid idea (write a contract) and be very cautious. But, if they require the least bit of chasing, don’t bother because most of the time, this is one-off work that will not provide any steady form of income.
3. Avoid jobs under $200 (scale for locale).
For those who, like me, survived the dot-com crash, this may seem like an arrogant attitude. But, every site that I’ve worked on in this range, whether it be a favor or just to try and help out a group with little money has been a disaster. Think of this this way: $200 buys you about 4-6 hours of development time (in San Francisco anyways) and if someone doesn’t want to pay anything close to a partial going rate, then they most likely don’t understand the work involved, yet don’t realize that they can’t do it themselves. You’re much better off doing a job for free so that you can cut your ties to it if it gets out of hand. While generating some bad karma in the process, at least you’re not liable for anything.
4. Watch out for “designers”.
These types are in the print world as well and are nothing new. For those who don’t know of these, what I am talking about are the people who really think they can design and will want to basically control the mouse through you. These might work out all right if you can swallow your pride and just let them do whatever they want to do no matter how ugly or unusable the end result. I am getting better with this type, but it’s a hard thing to do and it really just makes the work feel meaningless. This group are also another good reason to obey rule #1 because they will often have you go through 20 mockups and still be unhappy.
5. Don’t maintain sites that require DreamWeaver access.
Hey, I love DreamWeaver. I use it daily, but I hand code everything and make it as lean and compact as possible. DreamWeaver has this top heavy habit of creating a new definition for every freaking bit on the page when some things can easily be condensed for clarity and speed. These types of jobs are also tricky because the reason that people want the DreamWeaver access in the first place is so that they can muck with things, which inevitably means that something is going to get broken and you’ll have to wade through .denseBlue1, .denseBlue1a, .denseBlue2, and .denseBlue to figure out which damned class is creating some table that has it’s display set to inline and is looking like hell.
6. Count your friends and family carefully.
I always try to help the people I know and love. Some of them, I will do anything for. In the past, I’ve always tried to be there until one day I realized that I was only working on pet projects for other people and not my own pet projects. No matter how silly they may be, I love my pet projects and it wasn’t until I went on vacation for month and wasn’t able to work on others’ sites that I realized how much time they were taking up. Naturally, keep working on others’ sites that you care about, just make sure to budget your time.
7. Find some way to holiday.
It’s so easy to let the web life take over your life. Some new site or new feature is coming out all the time and you want to be on top of it. It also seems that if you leave for a little bit, you’re going to lose clients and the momentum you’ve built for the work you do. Naturally, all of these things can happen, but if you don’t get away from it once in awhile, you’ll burn out and go insane. I recommend anywhere from two weeks to however much off each year to go hike in Banff or float in a sailboat on the Adriatic. Your body and soul will thank you for it.