How to become a freelance WordPress developer

As a content management system in 2022, it now powers around 40% of all websites. So, if you’re looking for a self-employed career in coding, it might make sense to find out how to become a freelance WordPress developer.

Obviously, it’s not the only option for freelance programmers, with demand constantly increasing for specialists in a variety of platforms and languages. But as the most popular choice for websites, and an open-source content management system (CMS), learning is cheap and accessible. And there’s a huge pool of potential clients looking for reliable help.

Being open-source means you’re free to take the core software and access the code, and then learn by tweaking and changing it around. And setting it up locally on your computer means you don’t even need to pay for a domain name, or hosting.

 

What does a freelance WordPress developer actually do?

It’s difficult to define the exact tasks expected of a freelance WordPress developer, as you may want to cover front-end and back-end development of websites, specialise in a particular area such as eCommerce or cybersecurity, or develop themes and plugins which will change the look and functionality available for WordPress users.

In fact, it’s possible to sell your services as a WordPress developer without being able to code at all. A large number of freelancers are able to set up WordPress websites for clients using a combination of ready-made themes, plugins, and page-builder software. And while this may be frowned upon by those who can build everything required from scratch if needed, it’s one route to be able to start earning while you’re learning.

While many developers will split their time across various areas, you could probably split the WordPress community into groups by their main focus:

  • Core developers: This means you actually work on the core WordPress software itself, by recommending or making changes to the code.
  • Website developers: You might use software, focus on the back-end of sites by working with the databases and functionality, or be involved in creating the front-end design that visitors will see. And it’s possible to further specialist in areas such as publishing, eCommerce, membership sites, etc.
  • Plugin developers: Many self-employed WordPress specialists produce their own plugins either for clients, to share for free, or as paid solutions for users needing specific functionality.
  • Theme developers: Working alone or with designers, you’ll be producing themes which alter the look and feel of sites. And then selling them either via your own website, or the various marketplaces for premium themes.

Unless you’re working on the WordPress core, this will mean splitting your time between coding, and dealing with customers, clients, or a mixture of both. And it will dictate what tasks may be expected of you, as developing websites for clients may involve consulting with them, wireframing designs, migrating existing content, recommending plugins and organising licences, custom design and development, and ongoing optimisation, security and maintenance.

Selling your own products may seem like an easier option, but you’ll still need to factor in the time and resource to ensure your themes or plugins are maintained and updated to work with the latest WordPress release, legacy versions of the CMS, and to provide maintenance and customer support.

It also involves marketing your products. For example, more than 45,700 templates and themes are already available via the EnvatoMarket, and 59,524 free WordPress plugins are already available via the official directory.

If you’re looking to focus more on pure coding and development, many freelance WordPress developers quickly find themselves teaming up with self-employed designers, or other people who can take on some of the additional tasks. Or white-labelling their services by supplying development resources to other agencies or freelancers.

 

Why become a freelance WordPress developer?

Everyone will have their own reasons for becoming self-employed, and WordPress developers are no different in that respect. Many freelance developers will have grown their experience in employed roles, often for web design and development agencies. And they want to have more freedom in choosing projects, where they work, and their schedule. Or to devote time to their own projects, such as plugin and theme development, alongside client work.

Being self-employed also allows you to potentially earn more than a salaried role. If your skills are in demand, you might build your freelance business into your own agency. Or a theme or plugin you develop could become massively popular and financially rewarding.

Ultimately, most people become freelance WordPress developers because they love coding and problem solving with the software. If you love the idea of spending all day working in WordPress, whether you’re helping clients overcome challenges, or providing new options to users, then it could be an ideal career.

There are some downsides, particularly if you’re responsible for ongoing hosting and maintenance. Clients may expect you to be constantly available at all hours, and to instantly respond if any problems occur. And it’s a similar situation if anyone buys a theme or plugin you’ve provided.

The availability of WordPress freelancers means that clients can expect projects delivered for unrealistic budgets, especially if they’re comparing an experienced developer with a non-coder who is just starting out with page builders. And you can find yourself working on websites which have been half-completed or abandoned by other developers, meaning a stuck-together mess of bad choices.

But if you love technical tinkering and problem-solving, and don’t mind reading documentation and release notes to find solutions through a process of trial and error, then freelance WordPress development might be for you.

How to become a freelance WordPress developer

What skills or qualifications do you need to become a freelance WordPress developer?

There are currently no official WordPress qualifications or certificates required to become a freelance developer. And there’s no official accreditation for the paid courses offered by a variety of providers. If you’re planning on investing in any training, then it’s important to research whether the content is useful and appropriate (many WordPress courses are for general users rather than developers). And whether it’s offered by a company or individual that has a worthwhile reputation within the WordPress developer community.

Alternatively, you may have formally studied programming, gained self-taught experience through resources including W3Schools, Codeacademy, or in entry-level employment. The key languages and skills to understand include:

  • PHP – the scripting language used by WordPress
  • MySQL and SQL queries – the database management system and language
  • HTML – the standard markup language for how pages look in an internet browser
  • CSS – the style sheet language to handle layout, colours, fonts and more.
  • Javascript and jQuery – the programming language for dynamic content
  • JSON and XML – used for structuring data
  • RESTful API – an application program interface for sending and receiving data.
  • Web server admin – particularly for smaller clients, you’ll probably be responsible for hosting, configuring and setting up sites.
  • An understanding of the current WordPress Codex (the official manual), and options for solid, reliable themes, plugins, frameworks or page builders where required.

Along with the Codex, WordPress also provides official Developer Resources to help guide you through working with the CMS, creating themes, or authoring plugins. And it’s a good idea to build a library of useful resources and solutions as you come across them. You can choose whether to store them privately, or potentially share them via a blog or social media to help others, and support your learning and reputation.

In addition to understanding how to create with code, you’ll also need to know how to debug websites, plugins and themes, as any update could potentially break a client project. And understanding how to include optimisation for search engines and page speed have both become increasingly important.

A typical web project could require you to help develop the specifications, provide recommendations for themes and plugins, set up a production environment, build the site with any custom functionality required, test everything, and then manage the migration to a live environment.

That’s in addition to general skills required by any freelancer to negotiate rates with clients and understand their requirements, project manage your work to meet deadlines, and set out your responsibilities for support, maintenance and additional client requests.

Fortunately, in addition to the resources available to help you learn the nuts and bolts of WordPress, there is also a thriving global community, including WordCamp events. And lots of great advice on self-employment (including the IPSE Incubator if you’re just starting out).

One method to ensure that you’re not caught out by unexpected problems is to build relationships with more experienced developers. If you can find someone to offer support or mentoring when you encounter particularly difficult technical issues, they’ll help you avoid letting clients down, but could also end up referring work to you.

 

How much can freelance WordPress developers earn?

If you become a leading freelance WordPress developer, build a successful agency, or develop a solution which becomes a default choice (e.g. WooCommerce or Yoast SEO), it can be hugely financially rewarding.

Not everyone will necessarily make it to the top of the pile, but as a guide, Glassdoor estimate the average salary for a WordPress developer in the UK as £39,534. There’s a slightly lower average of £33,706 at Talent.com, or £32,700 via Indeed. These are for employed roles, with the lowest average hourly rate of £22.50.

As a self-employed WordPress developer, you’re able to decide whether to charge on a time or project basis. The key to a sustainable career will be securing work which covers both your living expenses, and allows you to cover costs including sick days, holiday time, and business necessities including equipment and insurance.

Options to increase your income as a freelance developer include offering additional services such as hosting and maintenance, or to recommend those solutions on an affiliate basis. You can also choose to specialise in areas which can deliver higher rates, such as eCommerce and membership sites, or branch out into supporting other platforms.

How to become a freelance WordPress developer

How to find clients as a freelance WordPress developer?

While work can ebb and flow for established freelance WordPress developers, the hardest time to find clients will be when you are starting out.

If you’re planning to offer web development, then it’s important to display your skills with a polished and professional example for your own business. You don’t have to code a completely bespoke solution, but potential clients will want to see your portfolio and previous experience, and the services you offer.

The examples of previous work that you share don’t always have to be client projects. If you’ve built websites, themes or plugins to practise and learn new skills, then those will also demonstrate your abilities. And you can choose to share your learning process and results via a blog or social media to show how you’re building your knowledge.

Building a network of contacts is important for freelancers in any career. If you have friends, family or former colleagues who need WordPress help, this can get you started (although there are some precautions to take when you have family or friends as clients).

We’ve mentioned WordCamp and the various networks and groups for WordPress developers around the world. These will help you to learn, get support and potentially find collaborators for the future. But it’s also useful to join non-developer networks and attend more general events, especially in your area.

It’s unlikely you’ll be the most knowledgeable developer in the room at a WordPress meetup, but it’s entirely possible at a general business event. Which means you’re instantly the person people will be asking for help with their website. And becoming part of freelancing groups, including our own Creative Freelancers UK, means you can meet a whole range of self-employed people who may need help with their own websites, want to team up for client projects, or may need someone they can reliably refer work to.

Freelance marketplaces can be a good way to build up your client work, especially if you’re just starting out. General freelancing sites with a large volume of potential projects include Upwork, Fiverr, and PeoplePerHour. But you’ll tend to secure higher rates and more specialist work by listing yourself on specific developer communities and marketplaces.

Specialist sites for freelance WordPress developers to find work include fairly simple job boards like WPHired, or Codeable, which requires professional reviews and technical exams before freelancers can be listed.

 

More support and resources to become a freelance WordPress developer

Researching other freelance careers? Why not check out our other guides:

And you can get support and help if you’re starting out with self-employment, or still in the early stages of building your career, with the IPSE Incubator. The 12-month programme is currently free with IPSE membership, and includes advice, events, webinars, networking and more, tailored to anyone just beginning their freelance business.