Freelancing for Web developers, beyond the first steps, is not just about building a Web site that a client wants. It can be, but if that is all you're doing then you're often selling yourself, and your client, short.

It is not just about building an About Us page, or a list of links, or throwing together some pictures of products. The next step is about stepping back and clarifying the processes a business uses - promoting, recording, organising, etc. It's about utilising the strengths of Web applications and integrating a business' processes to simplify and automate. Even on a basic level, the improvements will pay for the expenses such a project requires.

Before I continue, I wish to state that I'm writing this as a mid-level freelancer for other similar freelancers. If you work in a far more advanced environment, and on much larger applications, then you'll probably have a different way of looking at things (quit laughing at the amateur ;). As always, I encourage anyone to post their opinions - whether you agree or disagree - at the end of this article.

My suggestions can be applied by a lone freelancer, or a small team - I'm stating what works best for me, and what I think will also help you. Currently, I work primarily with one other designer/programmer, and a salesperson/project manager, but could undertake projects, such as the example to be provided, on my own if the need arose. So, if you're a lone freelancer, don't be discouraged!

Add in an intranet, and extend the power of your application

An Internet-based solution for a client need not be only a Web presence. It can easily extend to incorporating an intranet/administrative-area-mix also, enabling the business to take advantage of further aspects of an application (I'm using the word application to describe a set of dynamic templates which interact with a database - such templates are usually programmed using ColdFusion/ASP/PHP/Perl/etc). The intranet could even be one computer accessing a password-protected administrative directory - it's not exactly an intranet by definition, but it has the ability to fulfil a similar role.

The strengths of an application lie heavily in automating procedures, and providing storage for data that can easily be searched, arranged, and printed when the need for a paper-copy arises. A process that might take an employee a considerable amount of time, and consume unnecessary quantities of paper, could be automated to free up employee time, and reduce costs to the business. The best way to discuss this is with a specific example.

Improving the processes of a business

This example is of a real business which previously had no Web presence. The existing procedures described are real, and some of the solutions suggested are currently being developed, while others were not possible due to previous obligations and budget constraints. The overall solution described is essentially a "dream" situation - what would have happened if the business had access to unlimited funds, and had not already undertaken conflicting developments.

The business in question accepts holiday packages from operators of resorts, hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, etc, and allows customers to specify a price they're willing to pay. It's a business model which has bloomed on the Internet in recent times, but it's something that this business has done offline for eight years. It's a service to operators who are often unable to fill off-season accommodation.

Identifying current procedures

The day-to-day work of this company involves advertising new holiday packages to customers (via radio and television advertising), providing additional information (via expensive, specialised phone numbers), and then accepting bids (by phone). Each package is recorded on paper. Each phone bid is recorded on paper. Bid records are sorted manually to ascertain highest bidders. Follow ups are handled individually, by phone.

A mess, eh?

Sorting bids by hand would undoubtedly be a time-consuming process, and operator error could easily lead to decent bids missing out. Manual follow ups by phone also have distinct disadvantages: each phone call costs around 20 cents, and not every call will reach a bidder (they may not be home). At this stage, experienced Web developers will be racing to develop a proposal that incorporates an application involving a database. Inexperienced Web developers will soon learn to do similarly.

Matching application strengths with opportunities

These processes are easy to match with the strengths of a Web application. Storage within a database can easily reduce paper records, categorising and arranging can solve bid-sorting problems, and automation can handle bid follow-ups via email to minimise per-contact costs and timing.

Additional holiday package information can be made available on the Web to capture customers scared off from the information phone line by excessive call costs. Bids can be received via phone, and the Web - the former requiring entry into a database by an employee, and the latter by a customer. Holiday packages can even be entered by travel operators (to be discussed later). In these cases, such entry would be facilitated by easy-to-use forms.

You should now be able to see how a previously Web-less company could be almost entirely overhauled to take advantage of relatively inexpensive technology. What once consumed many hours of employees' time could be reduced drastically. Where at one stage, an employee might have to manually sort all bids pertaining to a particular package to find the top fifty, they could now emulate this by selecting a package within an application page, entering a maximum number of bids required (and perhaps a minimum bid amount), and quickly receive all appropriate bids, in printable form.

A further click could notify all customers (who have registered an email address with the company) of the success (or non-success) of their bid.

Very few businesses would complain about these things.

Sharing responsibility

Creation of an extensive solution, as described above, also assists by way of responsibility sharing. Allowing customers to enter bids via a Web site reduces the number of bids employees must enter themselves when receiving information by phone. Allowing travel operators to enter their own holiday packages (they should require approval by an employee - a simple check and then click of an "approve" button) reduces the number of packages employees must manually enter too.

Even more time saved.

And, for the developer?

Many new freelancers, when faced with developing a Web presence for the above company, would stop at a basic site: a welcome page, some history, contact information, and probably static and manually updateable holiday package details. Having read this article, you're probably a tiny bit closer to providing a more comprehensive consultancy service, building an impressive portfolio, and charging more money. These are three very important aspects of freelancing, and should not be ignored.

If you have any comments on the above example, or general information and advice provided, please post a comment below.

isaac