5 MIN READ

This Woman Taught Herself to Code — And Earned $137,000 in One Year

A portrait of Kelly Vaughn, a self-taught developer.
Kelly Vaughn taught herself how to code at age 11. Photo courtesy of Kelly Vaughn


Kelly Vaughn has never taken a class in web development.

She’s never attended a coding bootcamp.

Amid a sea of dudes and CompSci majors, she’s rare: a self-taught female developer.

At the age of 24, she quit her job to freelance full time — and in her first year, she earned $137,000. Here’s how she did it.

An Early Intro to Coding

Vaughn first started experimenting with programming when she was just 11.

She wanted to create her own community for the website Neopets, so her dad bought her an “HTML for Dummies” book.

Today, she says, there are many more resources for people who’d like to learn to code — including coding bootcamps and sites like Treehouse and Codecademy — but with her drive and curiosity, the book proved enough.

She continued to practice, and got her first paying gig at age 14, making a hunting supplies website for a friend of her father’s.

Her pay? One T-shirt.

Soon after, she began selling custom-designed MySpace themes for $15 each.

Taking a Different Path

Yet, when it came time for college, Vaughn chose not to major in computer science — she assumed working in the field would take the fun out of it.

Instead, she graduated with her bachelor’s in psychology and then pursued master’s degrees in social work and public health.

To help pay for tuition, she kept doing freelance work on the side — a move that eventually led to an aha moment.

“Halfway through grad school, I’m still coding, and I’m getting paid,” she says. “So it’s a job, and I don’t hate it. Maybe it’s something I could enjoy doing full time.”

Not wanting to be a quitter, she finished grad school, and accepted a job with the Centers for Disease Control. But after just nine months, she decided to take the leap to self-employment.

It was October 2015, and she was 24 years old.

Making It On Her Own

Despite her young age, Vaughn was prepared to leave her full-time job: She had an emergency fund, a husband with health insurance and a reliable income, as well as a contract for ongoing work with one company.

She focused her web development services around launching online stores for small and medium businesses — mostly using the Shopify platform.

During her first month as a freelancer, she tripled her income. During her first three months, she earned $28,000.

The following year, she grossed $137,000, with just $9,000 of overhead.

In Vaughn’s second full year, she began to scale: She built a team of contractors to help with design, search engine optimization, social media marketing and copywriting, and decided to rebrand as more than just a freelancer.

“If you want to grow, you need to separate yourself from the brand,” she says. “I could no longer be Kelly Vaughn Creative; I had to have a more established agency name.”

She launched The Taproom Agency in October 2017, and now has seven contractors working for her — all women, all remote.

“It’s a really special thing to be part of an all-female digital agency in a male-dominated industry,” says Gemma Haylett, a developer at The Taproom. “I think we are unique in that everyone is very supportive of each other… The only low is that I don't get to hang out with my awesome coworkers since we live all over the world!”

How Her Biz Grew So Quickly

A person types on a keyboard.
Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

It may seem like Vaughn’s success came out of nowhere, but the truth is she’s been working toward this moment for more than a decade.

“I spent a lot of time building up my customer base and my marketing — getting my name out there before I went full time” she says.

For years beforehand, she used social media to share her portfolio and interact with other people in her field. She also joined Facebook groups like Freelance to Freedom Project and Unstoppable ($97/year), and has seen a lot of people get their first clients that way.

“Someone will say ‘Send over your portfolio and I’ll pass on the names to my client,’” she explains. “It’s a really great resource for people who are just getting started.”

Another factor in her success was her highly focused niche. Not only did branding herself as a Shopify expert amplify referrals, it also helped her portfolio stand out in search engines and among other developers in her community.

“The local component was very important,” she says. “Even today, a lot of the clients prefer to work with someone who’s local. Even if we never actually meet face-to-face, the option is there.”

On Imposter Syndrome and Success

More than 90% of developers are male, which has led to some difficult situations for Vaughn.

“When I was younger — 19, 20 — I would occasionally receive emails on my personal portfolio saying ‘You’re really cute for a developer,” she says. “I was like ‘Cool, how about my work?’”

A few years later, one potential customer even asked her: “How do I know you’re not going to run away with my money and have a baby?”

Luckily, as Vaughn grew more experienced, she faced less and less negativity about her gender — but still, she worries about her age.

“I don’t like telling [clients] how old I am, because there’s a level of judgment that comes with being so young,” she explains. “Imposter syndrome is almost an everyday battle — how am I qualified to be giving you advice on how to run your business?”

But, with the support of her family and friends, and the success of the sites and stores she’s launched, she’s been able to continually build her confidence.

“It’s the overall feeling of accomplishment that matters,” she says. “That people trust the Taproom; that we’re able to help businesses actually grow.”

Susan Shain is a freelance writer and digital nomad. She covers travel, food and personal finance (basically, how to save money so you can travel more and eat more). Visit her blog at susanshain.com, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.

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