Yes, there is a freelancing food chain. Where you fit into it can greatly affect your pay and how you are treated.
The Rabbit is a beginning freelancer who is trying to get their first couple jobs. They may be very good at what they do, but they have yet to prove themselves. They have little experience freelancing and are unable to spot a bad client. They are sometimes too hungry for that first job, agreeing to bad terms and completing very large projects for little pay.
Just like in the forest, the rabbit has many predators. If the Rabbit is not careful, he will end up working with a demanding client with unrealistic expectations. Like a client that ‘wants a site like Uber’ for a fixed price of $200. Even if they completes the site on time, the client will come back with unlimited changes, essentially stringing the developer along as unpaid help. The Rabbit may end up with a bad review after working with this horrible client, or simply think the money is not worth it and move onto something else.
The Gazelle is a competent developer but fairly new to the game. They have not built a strong reputation so struggle to get big projects on their own. For this reason the Gazelle works for a more modest rate. They typically get work from a bigger freelancer like a Lion or project manager, who scopes a small portion of work out to them. They may also work for an individual with a pet project.
The Gazelle is sometimes abused by bigger freelancers or project managers, who pressure them to complete jobs on time and micromanage their work. They are more likely to be required to complete projects and tests before being hired for work.
The Wolf is a skilled freelancer that typically works with small businesses and individuals. They have a good reputation and can complete fairly large projects on time. They rarely hire others to help them, preferring to do all of the work themselves. They easily avoid bad clients and sometimes work on a retainer. They are not shy about charging what they are worth. They do not jump through hoops to get a job, preferring to show their previous work or solid reviews.
The Lion is at the top fo the food chain and works directly with medium to large-sized businesses. They’ve established a reputation of trust and getting things done. No problem is too hard. Once they agree on a deadline, they meet it.
They have access to a solid developer network and resources that help them solve problems. They know their worth and can sell and market their services well. They are quick to walk away if an agreement does not sound reasonable or the client seems difficult. Because of this, the Lion commands the highest rates, under very agreeable terms. They often hire others to complete the simple parts of their work while making a profit.
The Lion makes use of retainers, and is likely to charge by the day or in larger chunks of time.
How to Move Up in the Food Chain
Just like in nature, the keys to staying alive in the freelancer food chain are to:
- Avoid bad clients (predators)
- Spot bad deals (tar pits)
- Know your worth
You are most vulnerable as a new developer. It is natural to be hungry and seek out jobs to prove yourself. But you must be selective and avoid bad clients and bad terms. By choosing good clients you will stay happy, get good feedback, and move up in the chain.