10 Tips for the Beginning Freelance Web Designer

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So, you’re a talented web designer with a few projects under your belt and you’re thinking about setting up a small freelancing business for yourself. That’s great! But, there’s more to succeeding as a freelancer than just knowing how to design a functional web page. Freelancing demands a constant balance between learning new skills and building expertise in a particular area of focus, while at the same time developing opportunities for your business to grow. That last part is the toughest for most freelancers, and with good reason. But, with the right motivation, skill set and some preliminary knowledge of what to expect, the bumpy road of starting your own web design business can become quite a bit smoother.

Here are a few tips I’ve found to be helpful along my path to setting up as a freelancer.

 

1. Develop a Contract

Okay, this is the big one for me. After interacting with my first client without the use of a formal contract, I will simply never work without one again. Having a set contract is the easiest way for you to define your boundaries as an independent consultant, guarantee payment for services completed and protect yourself with a ‘scope of work’ agreement. You wouldn’t believe how easy it is to fall into a situation where a client may decide to change the entire definition of a project while you have no way to amend cost or deadlines for that project.

In my own experience, I found myself trying to defend my initiative and professionalism with no contract agreement to back me up. Besides not agreeing on a time schedule to post payment for services completed, I found myself wasting a lot of my time on smaller aspects of the project. Something as simple as a Google image search for ‘something that would fit here’ can be a real time-drain, especially if your creation isn’t what a client wanted in the first place. I’ve also heard horror stories of freelancers completing an entire project just to find that sufficient funds never existed for it or, in one case, a designer who waited over a year for a client to provide content, just to have that client eventually demand that their down-payment be returned.

To get an idea of what a contract should cover, take a look at SitePoint: Bulletproof Web Design Contracts.

2. Invest Intelligently In Your Business

Now that you’ve decided to ‘do it freelance style,’ you’re going to need to do some initial spending for your business. Some key things to ask yourself are:

  • Can I do everything I need to with my current technical equipment?
  • How comfortable am I with my current backup solutions?
  • Will I need a separate business phone or fax number?
  • How much time do I foresee myself devoting to this each day?

 

Let’s take a closer look at the first point. In my case, I began my freelance business from nothing but a laptop, external hard drive, printer and some outdated Adobe software. Since much of what I do revolves around photo quality and clean presentation, I had to prioritize whether I could make do with a better monitor while I built the financial security needed for a complete upgrade or to go for broke with the latest souped-up system or new software I really wanted. Well, I actually just stuck with what I had for the time being and instead invested in business cards, social networking advertisements and print materials, exactly those things I didn’t originally think were necessarily at the top of my to-do list. After all, without potential clients, that system would have just sat there collecting dust anyway.

One thing is certain in the freelance world: you will have to spend some money up front. Let’s say you plan on developing apps for the iPhone software. You may be best off investing in an iPad or iTouch (assuming you already have a Mac and are a part of Apple’s dev program). Or, maybe you foresee yourself growing quickly and needing more space. You might look into renting a cubicle in a shared office space. Either way, one thing is certain; If you play it smart and prioritize, you’ll find yourself making the right decisions every time.

3. Create a Comfortable Office Space

As a new freelance designer, you will probably spend more time in your home than anywhere else. If so, its imperative to set up a separate area that you can dedicate to work, away from distractions. If you’re like me, take the TV out of the room and replace it with an indoor plant or a piece of art. And maintaining a clean, open desk space can really come in handy when it comes time to field that phone call and take a few notes. Besides, a peaceful working environment with few social distractions [generally] works wonders for the creative mind. Check out www.creativepublic.com for some tips on getting started with a home office.

Ask anyone who sits in front of a computer all day, and you’ll hear one response over and over: Your office chair can be either your greatest asset or biggest disappointment. Okay, dramatics aside, one of my first business expenses was a chair for my home office. And looking back, it was the best thing I could have purchased for myself at the time. Without it, I would probably find myself comfy-ing up to the couch, trying to use that awful laptop-mouse-thingy to do some tedious photo editing (while feeling the urge to give in for a nap. Better to just stay at the desk. When designed correctly, your desk space will be someplace you won’t mind being for a while, anyway. Take a peek at my small, but comfortable home office.

4. Network, Network, Network

With all the readily available (and mostly free) social networking sites many of us use everyday, there’s just no reason not to set up an account for your business. Posting tweets, updating your status or sharing a photo is simple, quick and may even get you a client or two. I’ve heard of many designers getting that break-away gig because a client found them through a friend on twitter or Facebook. Fact of the matter is, you just never know who people know. I try to stick with a somewhat-regular posting schedule on the big social networking sites, and frequently look for fellow designers to build a relationship with. Not only is it a great way to keep up with new trends and meet new people, its a simple practice that can really help you to network your small business.

I also carry a few business cards with me wherever I go. They’re really nothing too fancy (just a quick web address and my business email), but they come in handy quite often. I’m pretty good about not only passing them around to friends (like I said, you never know who people know) but also generally keeping my ear open for any potential business opportunities. You’d be surprised at how many folks don’t mind a quick conversation while in a grocery line, walking the dog or waiting for an oil change. Of course, you need to establish your own boundaries and try not to appear desperate or creepy.

Do yourself a huge favor and come up with a simple one-liner to pitch yourself to a potential client. Rather than responding to the profession question with “I’m a web designer,” say something like “I help small businesses and organizations establish a strong and lasting presence on the web.” Essentially, you’re telling them the same thing, but the second is more of a conversation starter and will probably help them to remember you. Slip them a business card and you may just hear from someone they know a few days or months later asking for a quote.

5. Stay In Contact

This one goes without saying, but it really is pretty easy to fall out of the practice of staying in contact with your old clients. A few months after the project gets finished, give the lead contact a quick phone call just to check up on how the site is doing. Make it clear that you don’t want to tie them into buying anything else from you, but that you would appreciate it if they pass the word along to others they may know. Usually, anywhere from 30-70% of a web designer’s business comes from referrals by happy clients.

Even more often forgotten is the generally smart rhythm of keeping in contact with fellow designers and others in related fields. Remember, freelancing can be a challenge. If you’re going through a slump (it happens to everyone) an overbooked fellow designer may be open to passing along some work they can’t handle themselves. And likewise, when you’re feeling like you need a twin to complete a project and have more coming your way, share the wealth. There’s always someone looking for a designer, and just no reason to try and keep yourself extra busy all the time. And, the old saying is true: What goes around comes around. And with the network of freelancers you’ll be building for yourself, it should be pretty easy to make a few friends in the business.

6. Research and Get the Necessary Tools for Your Work

As a freelance designer, what’s the most efficient way to handle a time sheet? Do you intend to keep all your past client contact details in a paper Rolodex, or is it better to manage all that with online software? How about individual project contracts? Trust me, you will have to find a way to manage these elements in a project quickly and with ease. One of the drawbacks of doing freelance work is that there isn’t a company keeping the books for you. What we do, we most commonly do on our own. Fortunately, there are literally hundreds of tools (both online and as stand-alone software) to help us through it. The tricky part is finding what works best for you.

For Windows users, look for online services such as e-Task, Harvest or Toggl for ease-of-use invoicing and simple project management. If you’re on a Mac, you should already know about BaseCamp, a complete project management solution. And, as always, feel free to search the web for other tools, many of them free, that may offer specific solutions to suit your project goals.

7. Take Care of Your Own Needs

Since freelancers don’t work on a fixed salary and don’t have the luxury of vacation time, the ball lands in our court to plan appropriate time off and provide self-care. It may be nice to dictate our own schedule and work at our own pace, but it can be easy to fall into the habit of not looking after ourselves. Just as everyone else, freelancers get sick, take vacations and need to deal with emergencies– things that sometimes can’t be foreseen. Setting appropriate self-boundaries is a must.

Firstly, make sure you have sufficient medical coverage, either through a spouse’s plan or individually. It can be a real challenge, but you’ll be happy when the time comes… and it will. Second, don’t be afraid to take breaks. I’m talking here about both hour-long lunches away from your desk as well as planned time off and ‘personal days.’ If you get sick, it may be best just to pound that medicine and sleep through it. If you’re feeling overworked and a bit stressed out, take a walk down to the beach or a jog around the park. Turn on the tube if you have to, just make sure you’re looking out for number one.

Its not uncommon for a freelancer to work clear through the weekend in an effort to meet a project deadline or satisfy a client’s schedule. But, that means sometimes not getting a day off for a while and (for me) feeling temporary burn-out.

Last, don’t let freelancing get in the way of your work-life balance. All too often, designers will neglect their spouse, friends, dog or themselves by not allowing time to unwind and eventually end up leaving their freelance lifestyle behind. Don’t be that guy. Don’t replace your life with the computer… just add it to your life.

8. Manage Your Time Seriously

When beginning a freelancing career, ask yourself the fundamental question that will serve to define your purpose as a designer: Will I be doing this full or part-time? [I'm guessing that by this point you are looking to freelance more as a business venture than a hobby] Often, self-employed designers start out by taking a part-time position at some mediocre job to help build income while getting started at a career from home. But, if you’re serious about making this your only profession and main source of income, you will need to ultimately set some general working schedule and revenue goals. During those times when work is hard to find, will you take a few days for a road trip or devote that time to widening your network base or learning a new skill? The more you put into your business the more you’ll get back from it. Or, at least that’s the hope.

Try as we may to keep it under control, time management can get pretty tricky sometimes. There will always be things that come up and we have to deal with immediately (for me, its playoff hockey). But, with some planning and a bit of foresight, agreements can be reached. Either I DVR the game and get to it later or offset the time I spent glued to the TV by working late or taking a working lunch. As long as your guilty pleasures don’t hinder your work, you’ll be alright.

9. Develop Multiple Targeting Strategies

What is your strategy for ‘getting people in the door?’ Is it your pricing points? Maybe you advertise heavily on SEO? Or are you a Flash guru? Chances are, you already rely on a number of skills and design practices to get noticed by potential clients. But, deciding which to fall on in particular situations is what separates a great designer with clients from a great designer with old clothes. Finding that balanced strategy isn’t easy, but it can pay off with work.

Let’s say you run an advertisement in your local newspaper or through a social networking service that gravitates toward logo design and awesome branding skills. You may want to run a second advertisement through a second outlet that focuses on your excellent customer service or low prices and points the visitor to a different page on your site tailored to that purpose. The truth is, different clients look for different skills in web designers, most of which we all have in common. But, the only way to set yourself apart from all those others is to target the right consumer. There is a ton of information on how to do this, even on a limited budget, to be found online. Do some research and remember to sell your services wisely.

10. Keep Yourself Motivated

If you’ve made it this far, you deserve a thumbs up! And here’s your reward: this might just be the easiest of my 10 tips. Let’s face it… if you’re really serious about freelance web design, you’re (hopefully) a self-proclaimed geek. And, what do geeks like to do more than keep up on the latest trends in technology and web based standards while learning new tricks and techniques as often as we can? Nothing, I tell you. It is in our blood.

Playfulness aside, it is über important for us freelancers to stay on top of things. We don’t have the opportunity to attend company trainings or, more importantly, focus on one aspect of what we do while a co-worker lends his specialty to a project. Nope. We get to do the work all on our own. But, we also have to compete with those larger companies and provide comparable services. It can seem like a pretty daunting task at times, but as long as we are constantly learning new skills and improving on our tried-and-true methods, there will always be work for us.

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Freelancing is hard work… anyone that tells you otherwise is selling you something (but, probably not a website). The best single piece of advice I can offer anyone just starting out is this: Stick to your guns. There will be times when you just don’t feel you can handle a gig or just flat-out need a break. Just like any other job. Stick to your guns, and you might just surprise yourself in the long run.

About the Author

Dave Winter focuses exclusively in WordPress design and development (some have labelled him a fanatic) but has hands in many other projects, including photography and music. He's never far from a computer... or an iPad (for testing purposes, of course). If you've been to a WordCamp in Southern California, he probably already knows who you are (or maybe not - he's terrible with names). Dave currently teaches courses at California State University, Long Beach alongside his home-brew business at dauid.us (and his students think he's pretty boss).

Comments

  1. Me and my dad were speaking about how to start a business recently. We argued that it better to spend money first, and get work after that. And we talked too about using business cards to get customers. Many thanks for the proof that I had been correct and after this I can have a dig at him about this!

    • Dave Winter says:

      Elfrieda,

      I’m glad this post was helpful for you. Just don’t be too tough on the old man– at least, leave me out of it.

  2. Dave,

    Thanks for the poignant insight. I am nearing the point of moving into this professionally, part-time at first, and really appreciate the advice in this post.

    Erik
    Folly Beach, SC

  3. Great article Dave – and beautiful site by the way. I’m sure it’ll help many a freelance dreamers get things off the ground :-)

    • Dave Winter says:

      Thanks for the comment, Ben! Funny enough, I find myself re-reading this post every now and then, wondering how I strayed so far from my own advice. It really is an ever-changing business!

      Thanks also for the kind words about the site… I’ve been thinking about a redesign lately. Maybe I’ll keep it this way for a while longer. :-)

      Cheers!

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