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Freelance

9 Steps to Starting Your Freelance Web Design Business

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So, you want to be a freelance web designer? Ah, the glamor of it all.

Your own boss, answering only to the call of your creative muse… get up, feel inspired, do some work, go for a walk, laugh knowingly with other freelancers who have also discovered The Secret of: high profile projects, the big bucks, expensive coffee, conferences in glamorous European cities, laughing at the corporate rats you've left behind… enjoying the high life that you so richly deserve. Hurrah!

Or… welcome to a world of uncertainty, of irregular income, of blurred lines between work and home. Where, instead of having just one boss telling you what to do, you have 20 bosses across 3 different time zones who want their logo bigger now, dammit!

The truth lies somewhere in between, of course - but you're more likely to achieve the success you would like (and the balance you strive for) if you can create a plan and structure for your freelance business early on.

In this post you'll learn the main issues you need to consider to set up your freelance web design business. Up front though, I'm going to make some assumptions about you - I'm going to assume that you're motivated to do this. It's not something you want to fall into by accident.

I'm going to assume that you have some basic skills in web design - that you've learned your craft and that you're ready to promote your services to potential paying clients. And I'm going to assume that you have a little business savvy, a good amount of time, and a real commitment to doing this. Okay? Okay! Let's get started.

Resources: Are you ready to freelance?

  • How to Become a Successful Freelance - Outsourcing and social media mean there's never been a better time to freelance. Check out these top tips to see if freelancing can work for you.
  • 20 Reasons You Shouldn’t be a Freelancer - Make an informed decision about whether freelancing as a web designer is really something you want to do in your career.
  • The Web Design Business Kit - This resource from SitePoint is the bible for many. It’s not cheap - at $247 it may be your largest start up purchase. But people swear by it.

Step 1: Calculate Start Up Costs

Everything has costs associated with it - how much will a move to freelancing cost you? Make a list of the basic equipment you're going to need. At first, it might just be a computer and a phone.

You'll want to factor in the cost of registering your domain name and hosting your own website. You might want to get business cards printed, a dedicated desk, stationery supplies and so forth. You'll need new pajamas for sitting around in all day (optional).

I know people who hopped from one free trial to another for the first 6 months of their freelance career.

Will you need new software? As you start out, download free trials of popular web design software - like Espresso, Coda, Aptana, or Adobe Dreamweaver - it'll give you 30 days to get familiar with it. I know people who hopped from one free trial to another for the first 6 months of their freelance career. When you have the money, purchase the one you liked the best.

Do you need health insurance? Do you need personal liability insurance (yes, if you are taking office space)? Do you need any other insurance, or to pay any kind of taxes before you start out?

Finding a good accountant early on who can help you with this is essential. Most accountants won't charge you for an initial meeting, so meet up with a few local ones, and glean as much advice as you can up front as regards your tax position and any other liabilities you might have.

Resources: the cost of becoming a freelancer

Step 2: Establish Your Brand

How are you going to brand yourself? Many freelance web designers use their name as their brand - this is great and can lend real personal attachment - clients know that they're getting an individual, someone who maybe has a bit more flexibility in their availability, someone they can hire probably a bit cheaper than a fully fledged agency.

Alternatively, like I did, consider using a more formal name for your fledgling business, especially if you envisage your business becoming more robust in the future. If you have plans to maybe turn yourself into a studio, with a couple of people working for you, you might want to start out with a more formal company name.

Think about how you would like to be perceived - as an individual brand, or as a young company. Think about what your potential clients will read into this and ask yourself whether that fits in with your view as a freelancer.

Resources: Developing your brand

Step 3: Create Your Own Portfolio Website

You're going to need something to point people to - to show off your expertise, to seal the deal, to… well, you know why you need your own website: who's going to buy a website from someone who doesn't have one? That's right. Nobody.

Your website should at the very least clearly state the services you offer, provide a clear means for people to contact you, and wherever possible, showcase some of your work. 'Ahh,' I hear you say, 'but how can I showcase work if I'm just starting out?'. 'Well, ' you hear me answer, 'let me count the ways…'

I bet there are organizations or groups in your local community who could benefit right now from your services.

Do work for free. I don't mean take on spec work, or enter design competitions, or get your hopes up with the guy who says 'look, just do this one little project for me and I'll give you more work than you can handle in the future'. (Put the phone down on that guy. Now.)

I bet there are organizations or groups in your local community who could benefit right now from your services. Charity organizations, social clubs, church groups, community sports, local schools… whoever they are, they'd likely be extremely grateful to you if you could provide them with a new website, a Facebook page, some banner ads, a blog, or whatever. You can do it for free or very low cost, you're helping a worthy cause, and you're generating a portfolio piece.

Do 3 or 4 of these and suddenly your new portfolio is looking quite respectable. Nobody puts all the work they've ever done in a portfolio - so just having a few pieces in there might be enough for you.

Resources: Developing your own portfolio website

  • Building a killer online portfolio in 9 steps - Building your portfolio is easy. The hard part is making it good. A killer portfolio does more than just showcase your work. It transforms visitors into clients. Best of all, it’s an automatic work generator. In this post, learn how to take your online portfolio to the next level.
  • 10 Solutions to easily create your online portfolio - Here’s are 10 solutions for easily creating an online portfolio of your own, giving you the platform to showcase your work to the world. These are some great portfolio networks to tap into.
  • 10 steps to the perfect portfolio site - Learn the key factors that will help yo answer the question of: what makes for a good personal portfolio website? This article on Smashing Magazine is filled with portfolio design tips.
  • Creating a Successful Online Portolio - Take a close look at 5 pitfalls that commonly plague portfolio designs. This article also delivers portfolio tips that, if carefully considered and well executed, will deliver quality results for your portfolio.

Step 4 - Figure Out How Much to Charge

This is a whole separate debate in itself, but you need to at least have a framework for establishing your rates up front or else you'll end up working for peanuts, find it difficult to ever raise your rates, and it will take much longer for your freelance web design business to get off the ground.

Figure out your monthly costs - rent, heat, power, phone bill, travel, insurance, tax liability, etc. Multiply that by 12. Add on what you'd like your annual salary to be. Divide that whole thing by 48 to figure out how much you need to make in a week (allowing for 4 weeks vacation). Then, assume that you'll be able to do billable work for about 20 hours a week at first. That's a good place to start for your hourly rate.

You should try and get as specific as you can - although this can be difficult as you’re looking for your first client. But the resources below will help.

Resources: how to bill and what to charge

  • Freelanceswitch Rates Calculator - FreelanceSwitch developed this hourly rate calculator to give you an interactive guide based on your costs, number of billable hours and desired profit. This very handy tool will help you figure out how much you should be charging per hour.
  • Hourly vs. Fixed Pricing - Learn the most common ways freelancers charge their clients for work. Learn the benefits and drawbacks to hourly and fixed pricing with additional advice as well.
  • Estimate time for web projects more accurately - A two part guide from Sam Barnes - goes into great detail about how to break a project down for pricing and is essential reading.

Step 5: Develop a Sales Cycle

Notice how I haven't talked about the actual 'doing web design' bit? That's because you're not really in the business of web design at all. You're in the business of selling. From now on, your only real job is to promote your services.

Being a fabulous web designer might make you feel all tingly inside, but it means nothing if you’re unable to sell your services.

Being a fabulous web designer might make you feel all tingly inside, but it means nothing if you're unable to sell your services. It won't put food on the table, that's for sure.

So, you need to formalize a sales cycle: a process for finding prospects, cultivating your relationship with them, educating them about your services, offering your services to the right ones, fulfilling their expectations, and developing that relationship with them.

You're going to need ways to find good prospects. Start by identifying your ideal client, who are they, what do they do and where do they hang out (either in person or online)? Start hanging out there too and engaging them in conversation. Work on your elevator pitch - that little burst of information that explains clearly to potential clients how you can help their business and why they should hire you to do it.

Use your elevator pitch to summarize who you offer your services to, identify the biggest concerns facing those people, explain how you solve those problems, show how you've helped similar people in the past. In conversation it might go something like this:

You know how small businesses often struggle to get the most out of their websites? Well, what I do is create websites that really engage browsers and work hard to convert them into customers - with measurable results. One company I worked with recently was able to increase online sales by 40% over 3 months.

You've told people your target market, and what their concerns are. You've explained how you tackle the problem, and you've given an example of how you've achieved it.

LINKS: for building sales cycle, book yourself solid, etc.

Step 6 - Organize a Routine

Your day is going to need structure. It'll help you if you can have a consistent structure for your working day. Have a daily schedule mapped out which works around when you are most productive and when you are more likely to get things done.

I try and group like tasks together - if I have a bunch of phone calls to make, I try and do them all mid-morning (after my 2nd cup of coffee). Emails I typically handle mid-afternoon. If I'm coding, I find that easiest to do first thing in the morning when my brain is fresh, and, oddly, last thing in the evening when I get a second wind.

Go with whatever works for you. But being able to stick to a similar routine each day will help you.

Resources: sticking to a routine

Step 7 - Find Your Community and Work It

The great thing about being a freelance web designer is that there is a tremendous community of professionals who can support you in what you do. It's a very open, communicative bunch of people. So start following people on Twitter, getting to know them on LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media hang outs. There are other people out there in similar situations and they have a lot to offer.

Be sure to get involved in the communities where you customers are.

LinkedIn offers a number of groups for freelance professionals. Many are great places to network. Answering questions on LinkedIn is another great way to network - both with fellow professionals and potential clients. Sign up to receive RSS updates on questions from web development boards and spend 10 minutes each day helping out people in need. You establish your expertise and help people out who may be looking for your services.

Be sure to get involved in the communities where you customers are. If you're targeting a specific niche, what online forums do they use? Are there newsgroups that you should belong to? Are there regular meetups that you should be attending?

Immerse yourself in the communities in which you operate and you'll build up a really strong network - not just of other web designers but of potential clients and referrals.

Resources - web design community

Look for any sites where the blog posts have a high number of comments and regular contributors. The following are some of the blogs I follow for that reason:

  • Nettuts+ - Nettuts+ is a site aimed at web developers and designers offering tutorials and articles on technologies, skills and techniques to improve how you design and build websites. This popular tutorial site is part of our Tuts+ educational network.
  • Chris Coyier’s Css Tricks - One of the top sites for learning CSS and web design techniques, with articles, tutorials, and videos - all excellent.
  • A List Apart - Essential reading for people who make websites.
  • .net magazine - Always relevant with a strong community, active Facebook page, and great newsletter

There are too many others to mention, but look up the blogs of Jeffrey Zeldman, Dan Cederholm, Eric Meyer, Ethan Marcotte, Sarah Parmenter… they’ll all inspire you at one point or another. Freelance Switch, of course, is a great resource, with daily posts publishing regularly and years worth of advice in the archives.

On LinkedIn, the following groups I’ve also found helpful:

Step 8 - Sign Up and Use Learning Sites

There are a wealth of web design conferences and other opportunities out there for you to keep on learning your craft. Fabulous resources with a wealth of information to share - some free, some paid for. The important thing is to make time for yourself to develop your craft, to continue learning and to share what you learn with others.

Something often overlooked though is to continue learning the art of freelancing itself - not just web design. There comes a point where, for most of us, continuing to learn more about web design is 'only' about our own professional and personal development. It becomes less valuable to the majority of our clients that we know XYZ about latest technology ABC. (It is still valuable to us, but the salable value of the skill becomes diminished). It is at this point that becoming a better freelancer is more important than becoming a better web designer - so never stop learning that also.

Resources - for developing your core skills

  • Tuts+ Premium - A Premium subscription based site offering: tutorials, eBooks, videos, courses and more. It covers advanced training in web design, web development, and numerous other topics. This site is a jewel in our network.
  • Treehouse - Excellent subscription based video training with a library of well designed content.
  • Code Lesson - This site provides hands-on, practical, online instruction to learn programming.
  • W3 School - Well developed web design site for learning coding with ample free learning resources.

Step 9 - Get Set up with the Tools You'll Need

Of course, as you go on you’ll need more bits and pieces. I use software to track time, keep on top of task management, you might use tools for project management or for managing your finances. Here, I’ve listed out a few for each main category of my day to day freelance existence. Most are paid for services, but some are free or have very cheap entry level plans.

One word of advice, take an audit of all your monthly web app payments at the end of each year (or every 6 months) You may well be surprised at how many things you’ve signed up for - and how much it’s costing you!

Time Tracking

  • On the job - I use this to track time. It will also create invoices for you, but I personally don’t use it for that. I like this because it’s a stand alone app - rather than a web service. I sync the data via Dropbox (although that is not officially supported, I’ve never had any problems with it) and so it’s available on all my machines.
  • Harvest - Full featured online service for time tracking and invoice generation.
  • Toggl - A relatively new player, but it’s a smooth interface and looks cool with its iOS / Android apps.

Finances / Invoicing

  • Free Agent - This is an impressive piece of software. Use it to track time, send estimates, send invoices, integrate with your bank accounts, make cups of tea. (It may not actually make tea). For me, I prefer to separate these processes, but I can see the appeal for many.
  • Freshbooks - Is more of a bookkeeping / invoicing solution. It does less than Free Agent and, in my opinion, is better for it.
  • Xero - Another full online financial management and accounting system.

Project Management

  • 37Signals products - I can’t go through this without mentioning 37Signals product. Basecamp, their project management tool, is probably their most popular.
  • Podio - This is my favorite solution, since it incorporates some CRM elements and, get this, is free up to 5 users.
  • Team Box - This is another good solution for team collaboration and project management.

Task Management

My favorite apps are always task management apps, and I’m genetically incapable of limiting this to just 3 items. Currently, I use three of the below - Things, TeuxDeux and Omni Outliner. I’ve tried all the others though and they’re all fab. It depends on what fits your needs the best, but check them all out:

  • Things - This is Mac only but integrates nicely with iPhone and iPad apps. Not cheap, though very slick.
  • TeuxDeux - Very simple, very effective, very free. It’s a simple to do list, and all the better for it’s simplicity.
  • OmniOutliner - Strictly speaking this is an ‘idea organization tool’ (no, me neither). Since it’s release OmniGroup have put out an app specifically for task management OmniFocus, but OO came first and it’s what I’ve been using for organizing to-do’s on projects for the past 5 years. I can’t fault it - but I haven’t tried hard to.
  • Remember The Milk - This is a strong online task management tool. Another that benefits from the ‘do one thing, and do it well’ philosophy. Great integration with mobile phones and iPad.
  • Ta Da List - A free product from 37Signals - very simple online to do lists.

So, there it is. A by no means comprehensive, easy to disagree with, guide to the things you’ll need to start your freelance web design business. Don’t take my word for it though - get out and do it!

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by NexusPlexus.

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