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A Freelance Success Story

Atlanta‑based web developer Kelly Vaughn quit her government job to run her own digital freelance business. Here's how she did it.

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Roam where you want to

Standing just outside the front door of Roam Galleria — a cavernous co-working space located on the second floor of a large commercial building on the northwest side of Atlanta — you can see the entirety of Atlanta’s skyline.

Enter Roam’s door and everything turns bright, shiny, and new. Clean architectural lines complement modern office furniture that’s being used by dozens of neatly dressed people working, meeting, and networking.

One of these people is Kelly Vaughn, an Atlanta-based developer who made her office at Roam shortly after quitting her day job at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Today is another very busy day in Kelly’s life as a freelance web developer — a career that has given her the freedom to literally roam the world.

From strikes to keystrokes

Vaughn grew up in Tecumseh, Michigan (“Spitting distance from Ohio,” she says), where the cold climate gave her plenty of time to pursue indoor hobbies. “I was the best female bowler in Michigan for my age group when I was 11,” she says.

Her other hobby as a preteen was computers. Like many of her friends in the early ’00s, she took an interest in Neopets and Myspace. For her peers, these sites were for entertainment purposes only. But for Vaughn, they were a coding training ground.

The same year she achieved top ranking among Michigan’s female bowlers, Vaughn also created her first website. By age 14, she had built her first client site. She was paid one T-shirt.

Vaughn’s comes by her affinity for technology honestly. Her dad was a COBOL developer early in his career; her mom enjoyed taking apart and rebuilding computers on the side. Although Vaughn took only one computer class — AP Computer Science in high school — she continued to hone her development chops outside the classroom.

While in college, Vaughn decided to pursue a career where she could make a difference. After earning her Master of Public Health, Vaughn landed a job at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

It was a dream job on paper. But in reality, the opposite was true. “I had been used to having a lot of freedom, and this job really tied me down. We had meetings to plan other meetings.”

So she kept doing freelance development work on the side. Some of her CDC colleagues recognized how happy she was when she talked about the web work, and they told her she should consider pursuing it full time. In 2015, that’s just what Vaughn did.

Off to the races

Vaughn adjusted to freelance life fast. It didn’t hurt that the work rolled in at a steady clip. At first, it was mostly WordPress sites for small businesses. Then a friend asked her if she was interested taking on a new kind of project: an e-commerce website built on Shopify.

Vaughn had no experience with the platform, but she quickly fell in love with Liquid, the programming language that powers it. She also liked the challenge of creating a virtual retail space. “I loved the idea that a company could make money specifically from something I built,” she says.

Later, Vaughn shifted her freelance business to focus almost exclusively on Shopify websites. She got listed in Shopify’s expert directory for Atlanta, which resulted in even more inquiries. These days, the biggest challenge Vaughn faces is choosing which projects to keep, which ones to outsource, and which ones to turn away.

To manage her growing business, Vaughn has curated a small network of creative professionals — mostly designers and other developers. She’s playing project manager just as often as developer. Clearly, “freelance” fails to adequately describe Vaughn’s business at this point.

“Everyone still thinks I am a one-woman show, and that’s just not the case,” she says. But Vaughn is reluctant to identify her business as an agency. She has no full-time employees, and she doesn’t intend to hire any. For now, her plan is to rebrand in 2017 as something more than freelance, but different from an agency.

This newer, somewhat nebulous model is increasingly common in the creative community. Vaughn is part of a rising tide of young creatives who are rejecting the agency path in favor of a more communal approach that allows for both independence and collaboration. And, in Atlanta anyway, a sizable number of these people happen to be women.

Code of conduct

Vaughn doesn’t think of herself as a “female coder.” But it’s not really possible to ignore the fact that she’s a woman in a field that, even in 2016, is largely dominated by men. Did she feel like she was going against the grain when she decided to become a developer?

“Absolutely, yes!” But Vaughn is quick to add, “Less so now than I did 3 years ago.”

Still, there is an indisputable gender gap in the technology industry, and it’s not necessarily shrinking. As Melinda Gates noted at Code Conference 2016, “When I graduated, 34 percent of undergraduates in computer science were women…we’re now down to 17 percent.”

But in Atlanta, one gets the feeling that things are a little more equal. Groups like Women Who Code, Girl Develop It, and Rails Girls have a robust presence in the city. If you’re a woman who wants to learn to code or further your career as a developer, you’ll find no shortage of opportunities for community and support in Atlanta.

“There is a big push for promoting tech-based and STEM fields to women here,” Vaughn says. “A strong community of women who are already in tech are really pushing and helping each other.”

Vaughn hesitates to call this activism. It’s more like encouragement and education. “It’s a matter of letting these women know, ‘This is something you can do, and you can do it well.’”

"A good client knows what they want. They come in with a business plan, and they are ready to spend a little money in order to hit the ground running."

When in Roam…

Back at Roam Galleria, Vaughn is scrolling through the homepage of a website she recently finished for Chic Soul, an online plus-size clothing retailer for women. Working alongside designer Sarah Hutto, Vaughn built the entire Shopify-powered Chic Soul online store from scratch. Since its launch last June, the site has been wildly successful, with traffic and revenue increasing nearly every month. But Vaughn is quick to point out that she doesn’t deserve all, or even most, of the credit.

“They are a great company,” she says. “And one of the things I love that they do is include a handwritten note with every order they ship out. That’s huge, and it really helps with customers making a 2nd purchase.”

Chic Soul is what Vaughn classifies as a “good client,” and she makes it a standard practice to work only with prospects that fall into that category. “A good client knows what they want,” she explains. “They come in with a business plan, and they are ready to spend a little money in order to hit the ground running.”

Vaughn holds herself, her collaborators, and even her clients to high standards. While most freelancers take on pretty much any work that comes their way, Vaughn is almost obsessively selective.

And so far, it’s working. It even leaves Vaughn with enough spare time and resources to pursue the one thing she loves more than coding: international travel. She has already visited a good chunk of Europe, and her most recent trip — to Slovenia, Bosnia, and Croatia — was the most thrilling one yet.

3 tips for breaking free

Kelly Vaughn made the leap from a government job to running her own digital freelance business. Here are a few things to learn from her if you’re thinking of making a similar transition.

1. Nighttime is the right time — to work. Before you leave your day job, you’ll need to spend 6 months to a year working on freelance projects in your off hours to build up your confidence and client base. Home may not be the right place to do it, either. Vaughn often holed up at the Kennesaw State University library to work on side projects.

2. Make a co-working space your home base. When you first go solo, you probably won’t be able to afford an office. But that doesn’t mean you should set up shop at your dining room table. Find a co-working space where you’ll meet other creative professionals, find opportunities to collaborate, and even make connections that lead to more work.

3. Know when to seek help. If your business is successful, you’ll eventually need help keeping up. You may find some capable freelancers looking for work at that co-working space you just joined. And keep an open mind — you may find help where you least expect it. Vaughn, for instance, recently hired her mother-in-law as her assistant.

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