Laurence Bradford talks about how to grow your skills and community as a freelancer.

How one freelancer built her skill set, found an efficient workflow and began networking in a community.

After landing my first desk job shortly after graduating, I realized that traditional corporate culture wasn’t for me. Like many freelancers, I hated being confined to my desk. I wanted to create my own schedule, be able to work on different projects and always be learning.

But as a newcomer to freelance world, I had a lot to learn.

At that very desk job, I began to dabble on Codecademy whenever I had an extra moment. I started with basic HTML and CSS. I then moved into programming with Python. While I was still a beginner, and I still consider myself to be a beginner in many ways, I quickly realized that this was what I was supposed to be doing.

I had a long way to go. Aside from learning business skills, I also needed to improve my digital skills and find a workflow that fit my style. Perhaps most importantly, I had to find a community of like-minded individuals and grow my network. I would argue that networking is probably most important part of surviving as a freelancer, but it’s also the most difficult for me.

Below I outline the three most important skills I’ve learned so far as a freelancer as well as the tools and resources that have helped me along the way.

Improving Digital Skills

Freelancers and small-business owners in the design/web space are always trying to broaden their knowledge and learn latest skills and technologies. Since I was a history major with little technology background, I had to start slowly as I moved into the digital world.

The following are a few of my favorite learning resources I use time and again to improve my digital skills.

Favorite places online to learn

Coursera – Coursera tends to have more of an academic than professional feel, but it’s free, which is hard to argue with. The main issue with Coursera is that they offer some classes only at certain times, like a college. If you miss a class that took place, you may have to wait until the following semester to be able to enroll. But because Coursera classes are college-style, they also have video lectures, quizzes, and assignments, all to help you learn just like a real college class. – Lynda is more aimed towards professionals than Coursera is. It’s ideal for freelancers because you can take courses at your open pace and the courses are always open. Lynda does, however, cost money. Considering how many classes they offer, it’s worth it. I’d say about 35% of what I know today is thanks to Lynda.

Lynda was crucial for me when I was first starting out. I used it all the time because aside from their design and development classes, they also have courses on topics such as growing your business, online marketing, public speaking, interviewing, and so on, all of which I found useful.

Lynda revolves around video lectures and project building, and all of the videos within a lesson tend to be less than ten minutes long. This means it’s easy to break up the course. Furthermore, if you upgrade your membership, you get invaluable class resources and content to help yourself learn.

Codecademy – Again, I can’t argue with free, and Codecademy is super free. In my line of work, which is more tech-driven, I find practicing concepts I learned in other places (such as Coursera or Lynda) on Codecademy useful. Sometimes the Codecademy interface can be a little buggy, but the awesome discussion forums make up for it. Codecademy is a great place for total beginners to get started.

Here are a few of my favorite places to go for help:

  • CSS-TricksThis site is my favorite for anything CSS related. Chris Coyier also has an amazing Almanac for reference. While some topics are more advanced, there are lots of beginner-level articles.
  • WPBeginner – I use WordPress frequently, and this is my favorite resource for WP help. They have lots of helpful articles on WP “how-tos” and also a  comprehensive beginners section.
  • StackOverflow – StackOverflow is a question and answer site for programmers. There are already lots of questions already answered, so chances are you may never even need to ask your own!
  • firstsiteguide – firstsightguide offers free guides and resources to those creating a web presence for the first time. From video tutorials and PDFs, this site is perfect for anyone just starting out.

Favorite place to learn offline

While learning online is awesome and convenient, there’s nothing like face-to-face interaction.

While I’ve attended other workshops and classes, my go-to is Girl Develop It (GDI). GDI now has chapters in 35 cities across the US and Canada and is constantly adding more. I’ve taken multiple classes through this organization, from Intro to HTML to Intro to JavaScript to SEO. All the classes are affordable, and most are at a beginner level. (And men can attend, too.)

Fine-tuning a Productive Work Routine

Having a killer workflow is crucial when it comes to being a successful freelancer or small business-owner.

There are books, websites and tons of online tutorials all dedicated to productivity techniques, but here are two tools I use day in and day out that keep me on point.

Kanban Flow – Kanban Flow is a productivity and collaboration tool. Kanban Flow has the same features as any great productivity tracker: there’s the ability to collaborate with others on projects, task cards, ability to assign end dates, and different columns to organize which phase a project is in. But after experimenting with a few other productivity tools like Trello and LeanKit, I found that I prefer Kanban Flow. The reason is simple: Kanban Flow has a built-in timer based off the pomodoro technique.

The Kanban Flow timer runs on 30 minute intervals where you work for 25 minutes, then take a break for 5 minutes. It reminds you when to take a break and tracks total time spent on a particular task, which is great when it comes to billing for time spent on a project.

Google Calendar – I know, this is sort of a no-brainer, but my life basically revolves around my Google calendar. As I love to say, “If it’s not in my calendar, it doesn’t exist.” Everything from doctor appointments to client meetings to dinner with my parents – it’s always in my Google calendar.

Lately people online have been raving about the Sunrise Calendar, which offers a mobile app and desktop application. I tried out Sunrise for a bit. What I don’t like about Sunrise is that I can’t color code my appointments/tasks, which I constantly do. I also don’t like how the desktop version doesn’t allow me to see just the day view. The only options seem to be the weekly and monthly views.

A few additional articles I recommend on productivity and related workflow improvements:

Community Building

I saved the most important component of building up your freelancer prowess for last. Without the help of other people, you’ll get nowhere. People are your current clients. People are your future clients. People are colleagues you exchange ideas with.

I think all of us as freelancers have witnessed others with seemingly less talent than us score better gigs than us because of their connections. This falls under that well-known adage, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

Given my introverted nature, it took me a while to accept this. Luckily, though, there are two types of communities we can build: offline and online.

Finding a Community in Real Life

Being able to exchange ideas with real people in real life is important. This is something I admittedly struggle with. However, nowadays I do have a few close professional pals I can bounce ideas off of.

Moreover, keeping company with those “smarter” than you, at least in a specific area, can help you stay up-to-date on the latest advances in your field. Some of my best discoveries haven’t been mine but rather have been thanks to friends with more experience than me willing to help out. People further along in their careers than you will help point out the latest trends and technologies, things you might have missed out on or discovered much later if you were on your own.

But where can I find these people? Here are a few things I’ve done to broaden my in-person and local community.

    • Joined local networking groups in my given space (tech-related).
    • Attended Meetup talks related to tech and design .
    • Instead of working at home or in a coffeeshop, I joined a local coworking space.
    • Got involved by volunteering at a local organization I care about (for me, I volunteer with the previously mentioned Girl Develop It).

I completely empathize with the people who dread networking events and happy hours. I’ve found it much easier to connect with others when you’re there for an underlying cause, hence my suggestion of volunteering.

Of course, not everyone lives in areas with these sorts of offerings. Luckily, there is also the online world.

Building a Community Online

For me, building a community online has been much easier than building an in-person community. However, it did take some time to build, and I still have a long way to go.

I primarily used social media and my blog to create my online community.

As far as social media goes, I’ve connected with the most people through Twitter and, more recently, Tumblr. I’ve only been on Tumblr for a few months, but so far I’ve enjoyed the community aspect of the platform.  Also, Reddit, although not strictly social media, has provided me several opportunities to connect with like-minded individuals.  If you’re a newbie to the freelancing world, join a subreddit like r/freelance, which has lots of helpful people and thought-provoking discussions.

The one thing that has helped me connect with others the most without question has been my blog Learn to Code With Me. This endeavour, where I write about learning how to code, has given me the chance to talk to a ton of different people. Through my blog I have been able to “meet” novice programmers like myself as well as those with more experience. I have also connected with business owners, startup founders and many other cool folks.

Some of these new people I have met from my blog introduced me to new things. A great recent example of this is a girl I interviewed recently who is a Meteor.js developer. Before speaking with her, I had no idea Meteor existed. But because of my site and being able to connect with her, I learned about this Javascript framework and all its amazing applications.

I think that anyone who doesn’t have a blog should start one, but only if they’re committed.  Blogging demands a lot of work and isn’t a quick win. It takes a while to build up content and a platform, but, at least for me, it’s well worth the effort.

On the whole, having real people to exchange ideas with is a fantastic way to find new opportunities and learn new things, whether offline or online.

To not only survive but to also be successful as a freelancer, it’s crucial to keep learning new digital skills, fine-tune your workflow and find a community of like-minded individuals.

I still consider myself a newcomer in the freelance world with a long way to go. But the more I learn, the more I perfect my workflow and the stronger community my community is, and the opportunities that come my way just get better and better.

Do you run a personal blog? How has social media helped you reach out to others in your area? Let us know!

Author Bio

Laurence Bradford is a freelance web-designer and copywriter. She is currently teaching herself to code and writing about it online at Find her on Twitter @learncodewithme or shoot her an email at