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How I Earned My First $10,000 as a Freelance Web Designer

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It took me a full four years to earn my first $10,000 of freelance income. Working 15 hours per week for most of each year, that works out to about $1.95 an hour.

That’s not good even for a college student, but that’s where my story began. Those were the same four years I spent earning my degree in digital design.

I started freelancing less than a month into my college career.

We All Start Somewhere

My first projects were sloppy.​ I barely knew how to design or code websites let alone speak to clients or charge them appropriately. No one told me people were willing to pay inexperienced individuals instead of established agencies.

I had no idea what I was doing, but I had completely fallen in love with designing and coding websites.

Early on, I adopted a “fake it until you make it” policy. I said “yes” to projects I had no idea how to handle hoping that I could learn along the way and the client would never know the difference.

Note: Lying to your clients is NOT recommended. Always do your best to set clear expectations and have honest conversations.

But that fabricated confidence was how I overcame all the uncertainty, inexperience, and insufficiency to get my first freelance clients.

My First Clients

My first freelance clients were all within my immediate network. I did no marketing. I didn’t even have my own website. My first paychecks came from word-of-mouth referrals and conversations I had face-to-face with people I was related to or knew from school.

My first freelance project was a website for a non-profit that gave me a $2,500 scholarship. They heard about my major so they knew I was learning how to make websites. Their organization didn’t have a website so they offered me the job to gain experience.

Don’t quit your job until you’ve built up clients, skills, and experience on the side. Work extra hours on nights/weekends. You’ll eliminate the risk of failure and put yourself in a position of power (not desperation and weakness) during the sales process.

Back in 2008, websites were built from scratch in the absence of Wix, Squarespace, and WordPress. Immediately, I realized I was in over my head. I needed help from classmates and even leveraged office hours with my web professor to get the job done. I did whatever it took to deliver what I committed to.

It took about 2 months and I didn’t get paid a dime, but that was the first project in my portfolio ever and I learned a ton!

My First *Paying* Clients​

My first paid project (as far as I can remember) was a $250 portfolio website for a classmate. Then I got paid $500 to help my friend build one of his client websites. This was my first experience as a subcontractor.

Then one day my parents referred me to our family attorney. I got paid $1,500 to design and code a website for his law firm. This was a special benchmark because it was my first time getting paid over $1,000. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Later that year, another classmate needed a website for her glass-blowing business. This was about a $3,000 job split between myself and a friend, so I got around $1,500. Again, I was in over my head, but I found a way to make it work.

This went on for nearly 4 more years. $500 here, $1,000 there, $250 for this and that. I did work for anyone who would write me a check.

By the time I graduated, I had about 20 (mostly) happy clients, a big portfolio of work, and had made over $10,000 on nights and weekends doing freelance work.​​

Experience is the Best Experience

To this day I’ve only taken one web development course and a handful of UI design courses. Nearly everything I learned about web design and coding, I learned from Google, my freelance projects, or someone more experienced than me.

I did my first client project while I was learning how to design and code in the classroom. I never had a job on campus. These freelance projects were how I made ends meet.

I worked incredibly hard and soaked up every ounce of information I could find. Sometimes I slept in the computer lab. Sometimes I didn’t sleep at all.

I minimized my social activity. Juggling 50+ credits each year, freelance work, family, and friends wasn’t easy, but I didn’t care because I was having fun and making money doing what I loved.

I was completely naive when it came to the business of freelancing, but I loved everything about it. I loved the idea that I could make money by designing websites for people in my spare time.

That’s a big reason why I’m successful today. I didn’t let the experience of others intimidate me in the early days. I didn’t compare myself to anyone else or let myself wonder why someone would bother hiring me.

10 Steps for Beginners

Step 1: Start freelancing as early as you can (even high school or college). Just start. Don’t let inexperience hold you back.

Step 2: Focus on something you might enjoy and can work hard to become good at (you’ll start to love it even more).

Step 3: If you haven’t already, don’t quit your job. Work extra hours on nights and weekends. You’ll eliminate your risk of failure and that puts you in a position of power, not desperation and weakness.

Step 4: Leverage your immediate network. Practice talking to people face to face. It’s extremely effective and you’ll be surprised at how many people are a potential client or know a potential client.

Step 5: Tell people what you do. Make this a part of your natural introduction when meeting new people. Don’t be shy about your skills or what you’re learning on the side.

Step 6: Do work for free. Work for less than you think you’re worth. Do whatever it takes to get started. This is acceptable when you have minimal experience, skills, and reputation.

Step 7: Don’t compare yourself with the consultants making $150/hr or $5,000 per week. You’re not there yet. Baby steps.

Step 8: Get help from a friend if you need it. Watch YouTube videos. Buy books. Take an online course. Put in the time and effort. It can take years. There is no overnight success.

Step 9: Be confident, even if you’re a little scared on the inside. Practice overcoming your own objections.

Step 10: Work hard and be intentional with your effort. Act like every opportunity matters (because it does).

This is your foundation. You can fine-tune later, but you have to start somewhere.

Go for it!

Last updated on March 3rd, 2023

About Matt Olpinski
I've been freelancing since 2009 and have worked with over 100+ clients including some of the biggest brands in the world. I later started my own company Matthew’s Design Co. and now teaches 50,000+ freelancers each year how to succeed through his personal blog, newsletter, and community for freelancers.