I'm considering to take up freelance software/web development. I could use some opinions from people who are already doing this so I can find out whether this is a viable and realistic option for me.
The biggest questions/topics for me are:
1) Who am I going to sell my services to (and how do I find my clients)? Is it possible to start out with freelance sites like elance, guru and so on and then start getting references from there? Are there other ways to find clients online? Should I use forums (like this one) to offer my services? Is the market for software development big enough so that there's a reasonable chance of getting in or is the competition so fierce that you have to be either exceptionally good at what you do or be exceptionally cheap?
2) Looking at those freelance sites, there is only a small number of buyers who pay a decent price. I think I'd need to charge at least 30-40$ (and about 80 billable hours/month) in the medium term to be able to live off it (i.e. I would need to reach that rate within a year or so from now on; in the long term I would probably need 50$ or more), so those sites are only an option to get started and to build a portfolio. What would be the best way to go about get clients who aren't only looking for cheap work? I have no problem to work for low or no pay for a while in order to get there. I don't know though how I would discern people who just want a one-time job done for free from those who have more promising projects coming up and who are just interested in testing out developers without too much of an investment to start with. I'm a bit concerned whether I might end up doing a lot of volunteer work but getting no references from those efforts.
Any recommendations what I should focus on next? (I already have a formal education in CS and experience with a number of programming languages)
4) Concerning a portfolio: should I try to build applications that actually go live on a domain for a general public (even if I have no uniquely useful ideas)? Or is it enough to build example applications which demonstrate a number of features (also: what kind of features should I include in a portfolio?)? The former would require a lot more effort, however it would probably look more convincing too. And there is at least a small chance that people would actually start using my applications.
5) Should I set a deadline until I try to establish myself as a freelancer and how much time should I give myself?
I really need to get clear on whether I should pursue this path any further or whether I should cut my losses and find another solution. Up to now my plan was to build a portfolio with sample applications/sites that I build on my own or that I do for free/low rates so that I can later get referrals and clients who pay better. Plan B is to do the same and impress potential employers enough so they might consider hiring me. I also have no idea whether this might work out, whether this would then count as relevant work experience. But I guess that would be another topic.
Is there anyone out there who is a web developer/IT freelancer who would be willing to mentor me a bit? I don't know what I could offer in return, but I'm kind of stuck, so I'll just ask. I think I could really use someone experienced looking at where I'm at and helping me evaluate my expectations and maybe plan my next steps.
I could also use some feedback on an application I built for demonstration purposes. Please contact me via PM if you would be willing to help me.
Thanks very much for reading and any answers!