September 27, 2005

A Beady Eye to the Future

The industry is now being overrun with work. I have received more requests for freelance and contract positions in the last three weeks than I have all year. I asked around to some other friends and the same seems to be the case. I can really only speak for the US on this, and more specifically the northeast coast since I didn’t do a survey or anything. But in the past year things seem to be have turned around a bit. Companies have money again and our industry is experiencing a boon of work and opportunity. Many of the people I know have been leaving their jobs because their freelance work has turned into even more of a job. Good choice. I left my full-time position nearly a year ago… and it was the best decision I’ve made in a long time.

Even as I left, the scariest thing I had to accept was that I was leaving without a safety net. I could have fallen flat on my face and found myself washing dishes in under two months. Luckily, the jobs were there and the market supported a venture like mine. In addition to people leaving their jobs to pursue freelance or self-employment, I know a good number of people pursuing product development and small business start-ups. We are at an interesting state in our industry where a handful of people can create something that captures the imagination of the many… and then sell it to someone big and make a big heap of change. Or continue to maintain it themselves… and make a big heap of change.

Now more than ever, when the work seems regular, is the time to be most aware of your surroundings. There is work now, but there may not be tomorrow. Don’t grow too fast. Don’t go into debt. Focus half your attention on today and half on tomorrow, because these things are cyclical. When the work dries up again, where will you be with all that new equipment you just bought? What about all the people you just hired? I can’t help but agree with Jason Fried; stay small, stay flexible. Just because there is work and money to support yourself now, the bottom will eventually fall out again.

I am a very cautious fellow and I believe it’s ok to turn jobs down. One of the things I have tried to remind myself of over and over again in the last year has been “Do what you love, and love what you do”. It’s not a mantra I can always stick to, but it is something I can strive for. As much as I am cautious, I am also very optimistic. I would tend to turn down a high paying client and risk coming up a little light on my budget to wait, or pursue, a more creatively fruitful job. Sometimes it works out great, sometimes it’s a nail-biter of a month, but in the end, I love what I do.

How’s the work flowin’ by you?

Commentary (51):

1. Jeremy Flint says… sep 27, 2005 | 11:45 am

In my 5 years at my job, I can’t remember us being busier than we are right now.

2. Adam Thody says… sep 27, 2005 | 11:50 am

I’m in the same shoes up here in Toronto. I’ve seen a huge market turnaround in the last 6 months even.

3. David Horn says… sep 27, 2005 | 11:58 am

As a freelancer based in a small geographical market (I work in rural Ireland) I’m relying largely on US / UK contacts for my freelance work. It’s certainly steady and I’m happy with the level, but I need to tap in more to this US boom than I currently am.

Got any tips on taking advantage of the boom?!

4. Aaron Gustafson says… sep 27, 2005 | 12:04 pm

It’s crazy how much the market has picked up, especially for standards stuff. A lot of the jobs I am getting are quick turnaround and decent money too (much better than a long drawn-out project which doesn’t pay as much as it should). At my day job things have picked up as well, so it isn’t just the freelance circuit (though Dice has been brimming with jobs lately).

Another interesting development is all of the web standards powerhouses cropping up: clear:left, blue flavor, etc. I think it makes a lot of sense to consolidate and help each other like that. With well-known individuals involved, you can almost guarantee a steady stream of quality projects.

5. Taylor says… sep 27, 2005 | 12:15 pm

I can verify this, too. I am more of a programmer than a designer (though I will do both if properly persuaded) and I’ve been getting freelance requests (more on the programming side) all over the place. One client that’s been hounding me is an ex full time employer. Apparently they’ve been trying their hardest to find PHP developers, but to no avail… What’s going on here? Where have all the web developers gone?

So, if you live in the northeast, near Boston, and you’re a decent programmer, learn PHP, it could be very lucrative for you…

6. Dave Simon says… sep 27, 2005 | 12:19 pm

I’m just getting started with my little business, been at it since May.

I had a couple of slow months, but right now I’m slammed. Not enough time to sleep, at least this week.

And I’m in a small market too, like David. I’m in Montana, of all places.

7. Ian says… sep 27, 2005 | 12:28 pm


8. jason says… sep 27, 2005 | 12:42 pm

i just relocated from atlanta to utah to pursue a major opp, and have received a dozen requests for work in the past week.. things are busier than i ever remember over here.

9. Geof Harries says… sep 27, 2005 | 1:18 pm

Us advertising agencies are swamped as well. I’m seeing a lot of product applications, service request forms and customer correspodance that used to find a home in print, mail and/or fax being converted to web-only programs that require an admin back-end to manage. It’s a great time to be in the web business (again).


10. Stephen Collins says… sep 27, 2005 | 1:39 pm

As a fellow designer who lives just up the road in Norristown, this makes me put even more thought to quitting and going freelance.

Which seems to be the dream I can’t yet get up the nerve to follow.

Even though my wife is practically begging me to quit sometimes.

11. Oliver Taylor says… sep 27, 2005 | 1:51 pm

I don’t work in design of any kind, in fact I work in the film business. I think it’s safe to say that this year has been marked change in direction for the volume of work. For the past few years at this time it was dead but this year there seems to be a pronounced upward turn.

12. Mike says… sep 27, 2005 | 1:53 pm

Damn, you’re totally right man. We’ve been getting inundated as of late and I was wondering what caused it. Now I know, it’s cause you keep turning down our clients cause you’re too busy, then they head to us! Damnit!

13. steve says… sep 27, 2005 | 1:58 pm

I hate all of you that have left your jobs and found eternal bliss and success in freelance / small business ventures. Jerks.

(But really I’m sick with jealousy)

14. Kim Siever says… sep 27, 2005 | 2:30 pm

Wish I could chime in and say I agree with everyone, but when it comes to side jobs, I am at the slowest point of my web design career ever. The last job I did was updating a single page for fifty dollars. And that’s all I’ve done on the side for the entire year.

15. B. Adam says… sep 27, 2005 | 2:31 pm

Ooh, I think you hit it on the head here, Jason. This is an especially timely post for me personally b/c my first “for pay” (with an always free baseline account, of course) web application is launching next week and I’m turning in my two weeks notice for the dayjob later this afternoon …

Go Internets, go! ;)

16. wayne says… sep 27, 2005 | 2:34 pm

i don’t suppose there’s been a boom in the market for english ph.d.s…? no? i didn’t think so. *goes back to stupid office work*

17. Jason Santa Maria says… sep 27, 2005 | 2:38 pm

Mike: nah, I don’t get that many offers. Although, I have had to turn down nearly all work coming my way outside of Happy Cog and Pixelworthy lately. I am getting tired of having to send the same email about me be overwhelmed with work and a wedding.

steve: don’t be so sure, it’s most certainly not all good times. It’s really rough going out on your own. Your heart and mind really have to be in it or you will be miserable.

wayne: I will try and find a way to fit your english ph. d. into an upcoming project :D

18. Justin Ko says… sep 27, 2005 | 2:53 pm

Good for you Jason! Just in time for those wedding bills huh?…

19. Nathan Smith says… sep 27, 2005 | 3:51 pm

It’s the same for me. I got a request awhile ago to design 80 blog templates, a project I had to turn down because it was simply too large to take on at the time. But yeah, in general freelance / contracting has been much busier than before.

20. Thanos says… sep 27, 2005 | 4:38 pm

In EU countries, economy is still stagnant. Most companies are still cutting off expenses and jobs. Let’s hope things will turn around soon.

21. Mike Moscow says… sep 27, 2005 | 8:53 pm

Super busy in Miami.

22. Ross says… sep 27, 2005 | 10:16 pm

I’ve been on my own for about 15 months - one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. And I’ve been very blessed to be busy since that time. It is a big change to go it on your own though. A lot more hardwork, but a lot more rewarding too - and a lot more freedom!

23. Steve Ganz says… sep 28, 2005 | 12:46 am

Busy, busy, busy. Up and down the Left Coast.

24. Chris Mewhort says… sep 28, 2005 | 5:20 am

Hey guys, I have to agree with Thanos. I’m finding it hard to find work. I had the initial rush of work when I first started, but after that slowed down — I found ith ard to pick-up work. Now I’m in for re-branding, a logo, new bus cards — new bus plan and going to try to do it all over again when it’s up and running (Nov 1? CSS Reboot?).

<sarcasm>I feel for you guys having such a hard time turning down so much work</sarcasm> I’m having a hard time _picking up_ work ;)!

Cheers to all.

25. Bernhard Benke says… sep 28, 2005 | 5:44 am

I’m with Thanos. Boring days here in the EU, boring days in Austria. No significant jobs since June. On the other side I have got plenty of time for the university.

<shameless>Somebody hire me!</shameless> That art history paper I’m working on is bringing me down.

26. Ray says… sep 28, 2005 | 7:39 am


I don’t work in the design or development field. I build/freelance for pleasure… acquaintances, associates and friends with the occasional referral thrown in. I am however self employed (17 years) in an unrelated industry. Some of the biggest pit falls and challenges I’ve ever been faced with as an entrepreneur were in the good times. It seems like when the money rolls in the brain rolls out. Hard lessons learned over years of experience have saved me from myself and a 9-5. My business has grown and I now have six associates working with me. I now fully understand the age old saying (in small business circles anyway)… “the hardest thing for a manager to do is motivate a salesman after s/he’s had a good week”. All six of my staff earns exceptional incomes. Only two of them are mortgage free. They’ve been with me for ten + years… the other four average three years between them ; )

Congratulations on figuring out one of the biggest pit falls faced by young/new entrepreneurs.

27. Joshua says… sep 28, 2005 | 9:38 am

Not employed within the magical world of anything web or computer related; but rather a field involving death, “business” proves to be a steady constant. It took nearly 12 years to find employment within an institution that provides adequate challenge, and a high sense of reward, and for this I am continuously grateful. It is truly bliss to smile (nearly) each and every day I head into the work place, rather than ending my work week, dreading the following beginning.

28. Jason Santa Maria says… sep 28, 2005 | 9:42 am

Joshua: Involving death, eh? Wow, that’s very interesting. I imagine death is fairly constant work. So, is it safe to say you are a mortician? Anatomist? If so, how did you end up on a site like mine?

29. Paul says… sep 28, 2005 | 11:00 am

Alright, I admit it. My past couple months have been a little slow.

I’ve been a freelancer for over two years now. Overall I’ve had a good year so far (one dry but well-paying contract and two fun, exciting but low-paying contracts that have carried me from Jan to a little while ago).. but recently its been quiet except for a few small things.

But hey, I can take longer walks with the dog in this nice NYC fall weather!

30. BEWB says… sep 28, 2005 | 1:55 pm

In my 6 years of web experience, this has been by far the busiest year. I’m expecting to nearly make as much in freelance as I do in my full time job salary. The last month has been absolutely crazy, I received 3 requests in one day and I do no marketing, advertising or other, all word of mouth.

Congrats on your’s and everyone else’s success.

31. Dane says… sep 28, 2005 | 2:19 pm

I had been pondering the freelance route for a couple years. I started seriously considering it this past winter, but I had a few things to clean off my plate (or a few plates to clean, as it were) before I could commit myself to it. I spent the summer guiding canoe trips in the wilderness, and when I got back to civilization my world had meanwhile stuffed itself silly with clients.

I am mere days into the wonderful and dangerous world of self-employment, and opportunities keep comin’ out of the woodwork. I whole-heartedly agree with the “stay small, stay flexible” philosophy, as that’s the whole reason I wanted to freelance in the first place. I’ll be guiding a three-week backpacking trip to Yellowstone next year, and so long as I match myself with the right clients, I’ll be free to disappear into the wilds for another summer.

Yessiree, it’s easy to get carried away when the bucks start flyin’ around. It’s times like this, though, where you really need to maintain discipline. Wait for those fun projects, even if it means eating Ramen for a month. Remind yourself why you do this job in the first place.

Me? I’m a dirtbag who needs a trad rack for the local crags, a season pass to the local mountain, maybe a plane ticket to Baja. Web design and self-employment just so happens to be a fun way to get to it.

32. Dale Cruse says… sep 28, 2005 | 3:49 pm

I’d love to chime in and agree with everyone about being busy, but I have too much client work to do! Back to it!

33. Rachael says… sep 28, 2005 | 9:51 pm

I think I’m in the wrong profession… anyone in the EU or Asia need an EFL teacher/ painter?

34. Joe Clay says… sep 29, 2005 | 12:30 am

After forever of working at Target I got a client with steady PHP work about three days after I sent them a resume. Now I no longer work at Target and I’m an independent contractor for this new client. Seems to be going well for me :)

Also, to those in Ireland, you should be raking it in in your own market. A lot of the sites I looked up from there weren’t good and a lot of the places I wanted to see have sites, didn’t.

35. Ryan Smith says… sep 29, 2005 | 12:44 am

Well, I am also one of the many who is walking the tight rope between a 9-5pm full-time web design job and my 6-12midnight freelance web design projects.

Work at the full-time gig is flying in and my team has been underwater with design and development work since Sept. ‘04 … but the deadlines are hell and the stress is getting ridiculous.

As for my freelance work, it’s been pretty slow: a project here, a project there, but nothing really too serious (at least nothing serious enough that couldn’t be taken care of over a week of late nights and a few sleepy mornings).

But recently, over the last months or so, my side work has also picked up tremendously. 2 e-comm sites are in the works, a couple small shop sites; I’m updating a few old sites too, and picked up a logo/branding project as well. My wife hates my double-work schedule: coming home from the full-time job only to grab a quick bite to eat and it’s off to my corner of the home office.

{I really do need to fix this quick …}

Even still, I too have been thinking about making the jump to full-time freelance over the past year or so. I have been thinking even more lately because of the fact that I do want to spend more time with my wife. I also love what I do in both jobs, but my freelance projects are heading in the direction I want my career to go. My full-time job on the other hand seems to be a stick in the mud.

My good friend made the leap from full-time hell to full-time freelance bliss just over 6 months ago and he’s totally underwater as well. He loves it! He’s so busy that I’m starting to get some of the overflow of his design projects.

This not only makes it even harder for me to stay “working for the man” but it also keeps me thinking that the longer I wait, the worse I’ll be. I keep thinking that I’m doing more damage to my freelance business by not growing (client base AND money wise) when the industry IS growing. Build capital now, sit on it, and when the rainy days and slow months come along, it should not hurt as bad. Right?

Jason … Sorry for the long post. I’m new to posting to your site, but I have been reading it for some time now. Great job. BTW, when are you going to update your BBNE section?

Good luck everyone!

Those of you looking for work keep your heads up and don’t forget to also concentrate on networking!

Those of you with too much work, share the love.


36. Joshua says… sep 29, 2005 | 1:02 am

I work in the Dept. of Cell Biology & Anatomy, U of Arizona College of Medicine; so that makes it both anatomist and mortician. I have a great interest in your particular field of interest; I don’t remember how I stumbled on to your abode, I know it was quite some time ago - I probably saw you heavliy complimented, quoted - something along those lines.

37. bearskinrug says… sep 29, 2005 | 7:45 am

I have to say, requests for a FREE drawings have stepped up a bit. There must be a lot of up-and-coming teenage bands out there in need of album covers.

The “You Have To Make the Birthday Card For Fellow Employees Because You Can Draw” market seems to have died down since I left work, however.

38. Justin Kistner says… sep 29, 2005 | 2:01 pm

We’re busier than ever here in Portland too. Although, that has been the case for us since February.

I think that it’s 1 part economy and 1 part the web is a much more important market place than ever before and 1 part we’re all getting much better at this development game.

39. Micah Ellison says… sep 29, 2005 | 8:01 pm

What’s your secret? A very talented friend of mine and I just started up a web development partnership, and we’re having a hard time finding this business boom here in Seattle. Any advice on starting out and building up a good client base would be much appreciated!

40. jeff says… sep 30, 2005 | 12:29 am

Opinion 1:
The secret is to find a nice company that is likely to go out of business soon then get laid off and have a grand 6 month vacation. Then repeat. This method works great for me.

Opinion 2:

41. Dan Wilkinson says… sep 30, 2005 | 3:47 pm

I’m just starting out freelancing and definitely have a tough time finding work. Certainly not enough to even think about quitting my day job.

I always chalked some of it up to my location (Montana), but I guess that’s not necessarily it.

42. Miko says… sep 30, 2005 | 4:10 pm

I’m working on a huge website project now, and I’ve just received requests for 4 more new sites. I would love to take some of them on, but now I just started school at the University. It’s the same case you presented: I haven’t recieved offers for work all year up until now. Huh.

43. Jason Santa Maria says… sep 30, 2005 | 6:19 pm

Micah Ellison: I don’t think there really is a secret to it. But, you will find that what many people tell you is right, it’s all about networking. Making a name for yourself by writing on your site and reaching out to your local community and others online, will help people recognize you and your work. Many times people ask me if I can refer them to someone if I turn down their jobs, and I also get work from referred to me from friends of mine. It’s a big bloody incestuous community!

44. Justin Goodlett says… sep 30, 2005 | 6:32 pm

This is very exciting news to hear! I’m starting to seriously consider starting as a full-time freelancer/leaving my current position to explore more creative work. I just need a couple ins to help make that transition easier.

45. Fabian says… oct 4, 2005 | 10:03 am

I do it part time, I have had 6 projects in a month and a half and a proposition came in two days which I havn’t replied to yet.

46. struiling says… oct 4, 2005 | 6:17 pm

The next question, of course, is: are more companies hiring? Or is it just an upturn in freelance work? As someone who’s pretty much just out of school and not ready to strike out on my own, it doesn’t seem to me that there are that many places job vacancies.

47. Veerle Pieters says… oct 5, 2005 | 3:18 am

Hi Jason, I get a lot of requests here (=Belgium) too lately. It’s been a while since I’ve received so many within such short period. September and October are the busiest months so far this year. It looks like it will be very busy here at least till the end of November. And usually, December is even busier.

48. George says… oct 5, 2005 | 8:04 pm

I haven’t worked in 7 months. I have no idea how to market myself though.

49. Craig says… oct 6, 2005 | 4:53 am

Do you think with the boom in standards compliance and accessibility we are now seeing more work?

50. Josh Pigford says… oct 8, 2005 | 10:51 am

I actually just quit my day job to return freelancing doing both design work as well as various website start-ups…life is good my friend…life is good.

51. Tony says… oct 11, 2005 | 2:01 pm

I’ve worked independently as a web developer for the past 5 years, and it’s always been up and down. I see that many of you guys are experiencing a surge in new work, but honestly, I’m not feeling as much of an increase as you all appear to be.

I’ve just recently converted to web standards and plan on continuing along that path - and it definitely was the right choice.

As far as creating a more consistent flow of incoming projects, I honestly don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I’ve never really done any formal advertising or marketing of my business. It’s always been through word-of-mouth, but it seems that that is not enough anymore. Perhaps it’s time to resort to more assertive marketing?

I am glad to hear that many of you guys are keeping very busy. It is great news for our industry, and it gives me something to look forward to - hopefully sooner than later.