How I started a 6 figure, single person consultancy while learning to code

2 and a half years ago I quit my job.

It was a good job, and compared to my peers, I was doing really well. The problem was, the  non-profit organization I worked at had contracted a small Rails consultancy to build a web app that consolidated some of the business processes. They billed $120/hour while I made $21/hour to manage the project.

I loved the role. I got to shape the way that my co-workers’ lives functioned every day, giving them a tool that was vastly superior to the spreadsheets and badly designed access databases they used. Everything was in one place and productivity soared!

The problem was this - I made the product. I didn’t write the code, but I functioned as the product manager, shaping the user experience and making sure that the edges were polished. Because it was ‘mine’, I wanted to keep working on it, but as the project neared completion the consultants we had hired were looking to wind down their shop. We needed a replacement.

At the outset of the project, the developers asked me to sign up for a GitHub account. I watched their commits and when I would ask them to change something and I would see the changes that happened. It looked like HTML and CSS, with a bit of  extra stuff inside of these other ‘special’ tags that looked like this: <% %>

I had a realization. I had taught myself to build websites in the past; this meant that I could teach myself learn to build web apps and building web apps is a skill that commands a $120/hour billable rate.

I set to work to develop this skill set. After 6 months of reading Ruby books, doing Rails tutorials and trying things in the browser. I sent my first pull request and it was merged into the project. Success! I was a developer and I was addicted to the unlimited opportunity to learn more. Shortly after, in February 2011, I quit my job and was retained on contract to work on the app.

February was a scary month. I had one client and no savings to speak of. I knew that I needed to hustle to get enough money to pay my cost of living. At the time, this was about $1300 minimum. I started my search on google for rails developers in the area, hoping that there would be a meetup or somewhere I could interact with local web people. There was nothing, but one day, by chance, I met someone who ran a local web development shop. One of the baristas at a coffeeshop I frequent told me who he was and where he worked. I went to introduce myself.

“Hi, I’m Matthew. I’m a Rails guy and figured I should introduce myself to you.” This worked out pretty well - he gave me my first contract as an independent for a mobile site built with backbone. Prior to this, I had very limited exposure to Javascript, but 8 weeks later, and $4000 richer, I was writing reasonable object oriented code in it. Essentially, this was a $4000 pay-cheque to fund my time spent learning Javascript.

Because I was writing for underpowered mobile platforms, I was required to learn good javascript practices for memory usage and speed. While the amount I made, per hour, was significantly lower than the pay at my previous job, at the end of the contract I knew that I could teach myself any other tools that I needed to be an excellent web developer. And be paid to learn.

I learned to say yes. When an opportunity arises that will take you in the direction that you are interested in, say yes. Even if you’re not currently equipped to deliver it, you can pick up the knowledge and tools along the way.

Following this first contract, I realized that I just needed to tell people about what I did. Over time, new contracts materialized out of this process. For the next year, I kept working, kept learning and kept trying to meet more people this behaviour has yielded the greatest growth to my consultancy.

I have made a lot of mistakes along the way and the process has been difficult at times but now, at two and a half years in and I’m through the worst of it and am running a successful freelancing business that brings me a monthly 5-figure income.

Next week, I’ll be giving out my top 4 tips for first time freelancers. If you are a freelancer or are thinking of making the switch this advice will save you time and money.

Caveat: I know the title of this post will generate some questions, so I want to say that getting to a point of generating a 6 figure income took more than one year of running the consultancy, but it didn’t have to.

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