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How to Set Up Your Own Web Design Agency: Tips From the Pros


Do you want to be your own boss? If you’re working as a web designer, the prospect of going out on your own and setting up your own agency can seem tempting.

But it’s not a simple task. You’ll need to learn a whole new set of skills, from bookkeeping to marketing, as well as taking practical steps like figuring out whether you have enough money to get started and survive until you're breaking even.

So for this tutorial I got in touch with some web design agency owners, and asked for their best piece of advice for people who want to follow in their footsteps. Here are some of their tips.

1. Adjust Your Mindset

Being your own boss is an enticing prospect, but keep in mind that the boss’s job isn’t always easy.

If you work as a web designer within a company, you probably spend the bulk of your working day actually doing web design. It's up to other people to win the clients, set up the contracts, handle the finances, set the company’s strategy and objectives, and so on.

When you set up your own web design agency, all of those other tasks fall on you. Even if you can afford to hire other people to take care of some of them, you’ll still need to manage those people.

The bottom line is that the core activity of designing great websites is likely to become a smaller part of your workday when you go out on your own. And if your business becomes large and successful, you may stop doing it altogether, and become a full-time manager.

That may not be a bad thing—the job of an entrepreneur is pretty exciting in itself. And we’ll cover things like the finances and managerial side of running a business later in this tutorial. But it may take some getting used to, particularly if designing websites is what you love doing.

Another adjustment you may need to make involves your sense of what websites are, or what they should be. I asked Francis Barbero, Managing Director of Starfish Internet Solutions in the Philippines, for his best piece of advice for people setting up a web design agency, and he wrote:

“Beware of your own ingrained perception of what websites are. A website means different things to different people. For some people, it can be a cheap commodity, and for others it’s an essential business tool. Give thought to how your typical client, in the market you will have access to, perceives websites. Adjust your image, price and service accordingly.”

As an employee, this is probably not something you’ve had to think about too much. You get a brief, and you work with the client to create the site they want. But as a business owner, you’ll need to attract new clients, and that means talking in a language they understand, and structuring your service offering to cater to that.

You may think that you can be all things to all people, offering both the “cheap commodity” sites for clients who want that, and the more expensive, thoughtfully designed sites for clients who are prepared to invest more.

But business doesn’t tend to work like that. Companies get a reputation for doing a certain kind of work, and your agency’s portfolio will reflect that. It’s OK to have some variations, and different levels of service at different prices. But make sure that you think through what kind of website and service your typical client will want, and position yourself to meet those needs.

2. Get Clear on Your Offer

Web design is a crowded field. What makes you different from all the other thousands of design firms out there?

Perhaps you’ve done a lot of work for law firms, for example, and understand their unique requirements. Or maybe you’re going for the local market, aiming at small businesses in your town and offering them the local touch.

You can also aim to differentiate yourself purely on quality, but you’ll have to be very, very good, and/or work super-hard. Here’s some advice that Ryan McKay, owner of Japan-based Studiomochi, sent me in an email:

“Under promise and over deliver. Go the extra mile and surprise the client with something they didn’t request. Add value where they least expect it. And always, ALWAYS stay true to your word. Your word is everything in business. If you say you’ll send an estimate by tonight then send it tonight. If you say the site will go live by Friday, send it live by Friday. Don’t over-promise. Set realistic timings for project tasks and then add more time to be safe. Chances are your client has promised her boss a deadline and when you break it she looks bad.”

You could also differentiate yourself by the type of service you offer. Paul Boag, founder of UK web agency Headscape, wrote in a blog post that agencies these days need to do more than just design websites. Clients typically also need more long-term help with maintaining the site, keeping it up-to-date, measuring its success, and so on.

“You may have noticed that on the new Headscape website we don’t call ourselves a web design agency anymore, we refer to ourself as a web agency. That is because we believe our clients need a lot more than pretty pictures and development. Increasingly the work we do is as much about strategy, governance and measurement, as it is about building sites.”

So think about what else you can offer clients. What are their goals, beyond just having a beautiful site? How can you help them achieve those goals? Even if you don’t have the expertise yourself to offer something like a broader digital marketing solution, can you partner with someone who does?

When you’ve got clear on your offer, you need to create a compelling identity. Come up with a good name (see this series for advice on naming your business), craft your design and branding message, and of course it goes without saying that you need to put it all into an impressive website with a great user experience.

3. Get Financial Clarity

One of the things that may be holding you back from starting out on your own is the financial burden. Can you really afford to give up that regular salary, and start up your own business from scratch?

To answer that question, you need to create a full financial model.

Begin by defining your business model, and making some assumptions about how many clients you can get and how much they’ll pay, as well as how much your expenses will amount to—both startup costs and regular, ongoing business expenses.

Then you can calculate the break-even point: the point at which you’re making enough money to cover your costs. Obviously the goal is to make profits, not just cover your costs, but when you’re just starting out you need to know how long it will take you to break even, and calculate whether you have enough money saved to carry you through to that point.

If all of this sounds complicated, don’t worry—I wrote a tutorial called From Idea to Break-Even that takes you through the full process for creating a financial model for a startup. 

To make sure you keep control of your personal finances, you can also read A Freelancer’s Guide to Effective Budgeting. And if you’re not sure how much to charge, see this guide to pricing.

4. Communicate

Being a great web designer doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to run a great web design agency. I’ve already mentioned the financial side of things, but there are other new skills you’ll need.

For example, here’s another piece of advice from Ryan McKay of Studiomochi:

“Learn to be an awesome communicator. Often web designers are tucked away in agency studios where they can focus 100% on being creative. In business you have to master the art of communication and get out there. Almost all business problems can be solved by simply speaking up. Project running late? Tell the client as soon as your foresee a delay. Need new business? Pick up the phone and sell your services. Even when a project is running smoothly, send your client cool articles or links they might find useful. Become a business problem solver and the first person your client thinks of when they need help.”

If you’re not comfortable with things like networking, picking up the phone to make a cold call, or delivering a sales presentation, don’t worry. As I’m an introvert myself, I can sympathise. You may not ever love doing those things, but you can certainly become better at them, in the same way that you become better at anything: with study and practice.

A good place to start is the Tuts+ series on Presentation Fundamentals. There are also some one-off tutorials like How to Start (and Continue) a Conversation With Anyone. And for the sales side of things, check out the course on Promoting Your Services and Winning Work.

5. Get Help

Unless you have a lot of money in the bank, you probably won’t be able to hire employees right from the start. But even in those early days when you’re doing everything yourself, start looking for opportunities to outsource work, partner with other people, or eventually hire employees to help you.

“In the beginning you will need to be all things in the business, and it can seem a bit overwhelming,” Nalla Design founder Vicki Young wrote in an article for Creative Bloq. “It helps to write down all the jobs that need to be done and all the positions you are filling your day with, log what you are spending time on in a day. This then gives a clear vision of what you’re spending the most amount of time on and what would be the most productive way to invest in a new team member, to help you out.”

Keep in mind that getting help doesn’t necessarily involve taking on a full-time member of staff. You can start by outsourcing individual tasks through sites like UpworkFreelancer, or our own Envato Studio. Also, if you need a dedicated virtual assistant, you could look on a site like Zirtual. Then as your business expands, you can gradually start hiring more contractors, and then building up a team of full-time permanent staff. For more hiring advice, see this tutorial.

6. Keep Doing Your Personal Projects

With all the work that’s involved in setting up a new business, it may be tempting to let some of your personal projects slide. You know, the blog that takes up so much of your time, or the forum where you contribute so much expert advice for zero reward.

But web designer Daniel Howells, owner of Howells Studio, told me that’s exactly what you shouldn’t do.

“I get a massive amount of new business via my blog which has been a labour of love since 2009. Never underestimate the power of personal projects, even if you never earn a cent from them: they’ll help enormously when it comes to brand recognition and generating leads.”

Of course, you have to be selective. Starting a business will take up a lot of time, and something has to give. But maybe what gives can be your addiction to Game of Thrones, not the blog that could help you get your name out there.

So take a look at how you spend your time—maybe even formally record it for a week or two—and identify areas where you could free up some more of it. But try to keep doing anything that shows the world something about your web design expertise, knowledge or opinions, even if there’s no immediate tangible result.

Next Steps

The next step is to start your business. At first I wrote “take the plunge”, but actually that’s the wrong metaphor. You could quit your job tomorrow and sink your life savings into your new firm if you really want to, but most people will probably be better off taking a more gradual approach.

Start by doing the initial research I’ve outlined in this tutorial, so that you’re clear about the approach you’re going to take and how the finances will work. If you’re confident that it’ll work, then go for it. But if you’re not sure that the numbers stack up, then perhaps start by doing some freelance work in your spare time, setting up the website, and doing things like marketing and networking, so that you are starting to build up clients and referrals, while continuing to have the safety net of your day job.

That way you can gradually build up your business, and only go full-time when you feel comfortable doing so. Starting a new venture doesn’t have to be a sudden plunge. It doesn't have to be scary or risky. You can go at your own pace, taking into account your own life situation and responsibilities, and only diving in deeper when you're OK with the temperature of the water.


Graphic Credit: Meeting icon designed by Slava Strizh from the Noun Project.

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