Setting up in Web Design

One of the most common questions I get is

"I want to get into web design. Where do I start?"

So this is my 10-step guide to setting up a web design or development business.

I won't go into all the general stuff about running a business (although some of this info is relevant whatever you do). I'll keep it focused on how you can quickly start doing good work and earning real money.

10 Steps

  1. Know your Strengths and Weaknesses
  2. Choose your Market
  3. Choose your Offering
  4. Promote Yourself
  5. Price it right
  6. Build a Support Network
  7. Build Your Web Site
  8. Train Continually
  9. Delight Everyone
  10. Just Do It!

1. Know your Strengths and Weaknesses

Knowing what you're best at helps you choose what to do.

Knowing what you're not that great at helps you avoid wasting time and energy on things that are best left to someone else.

Concentrating on work that makes the most of your talents and works around your weaker areas is the best way to maximise the value you offer to clients.

Divide a piece of paper in half. Write "Strengths" on one side, and "Weaknesses" on the other.

Being totally, brutally honest and fair, fill in as much as you can.

You may want to consider the following areas:

  • Graphic design
  • HTML / CSS production
  • Scripting in PHP / JavaScript / ColdFusion etc.
  • Writing copy
  • Branding
  • Selling yourself
  • Estimating work for projects
  • Communication skills
  • Database design & build
  • Team leading
  • Customer service
  • Conflict resolution
  • Handling money and legal stuff

Be open to the possibility that you don't have a wide enough skillset (yet) to offer a complete web design service. Don't worry. By concentrating on what you're good at, you may still do well as a freelancer, making the most of those more valuable skills while you develop your other areas.

2. Choose your Market

Your Market is simply:

The people who have a need that you can fulfil.

It's good to get as clear as possible about the people you're selling to. This will help you visualise them, what they need, and what will delight them.

Remember, you're selling your services to people, not companies. It may be a company paying the bill, but it's a person who's going to make the decision whether to hire you.

Try to picture your potential next customer doing a search for a web designer, and get into their head. Consider:

  • The size of the organisation
  • Their likely business goals at this point in time
  • Their price point
  • Their turn-ons / turn-offs
  • Those trigger words that will let them tick off items on their mental check-list (see Bytecon case study for an example)

Write down a description of these customers. This is your market (or one of them).

If you're stuck for ideas, ring up some people you know who might fit your potential client role, and ask them what their web-related business needs are right now.

3. Choose your Offering

Choosing what products or services to offer comes out of knowing your strengths & weaknesses and having insight into your markets.

It's important to be clear about what you do for people.

In general, try to imagine those services or products that are within your capability/comfort zone, that your target market actually need, and that you'll enjoy doing.

How do you want to work?

Do you want to do big jobs for big clients, or little jobs for local guys?

How much risk can you handle? How much money do you need to earn, and how soon do you want to see it coming in?

Are you likely to freak out when faced with something you don't know how to do, or do you tend to rise to the challenge?

If you pitch small site design packages at prices the smallest clients can afford, you may seem insignificant to bigger clients.

Likewise, if you aim too high, you may put off smaller customers. Knowing your market beforehand will help greatly here.

Do you want to be paid by the job, or by the hour/day?

If you prefer the security of being paid by the day, maybe offering your services for contracting or freelancing will be a good place to start.

However, if you want the challenge of delivering entire web sites, then offer a complete package.

Do you want to be responsible for entire web site projects, or just part of the process?

To be the anchor person, you need to be willing to deal with clients' various demands, and their problems, with a cool head.

You may come across challenges you don't have the knowledge or skills to resolve, so you may need to source help or further resources. Are you willing to do that?

Do you want to manage client relationships directly yourself?

If you're happier designing or coding than project-managing, maybe consider hooking up with a partner who can take the heat for you to give you space to do your stuff.

What do your Customers need?

  • Packaged solutions or a by-the-hour service?
  • Might they want to start with low-cost option and upgrade over time, or do they want a one-off fit-and-forget service?
  • Hosting and all features included, or a pick & mix?
  • Will they need the ability to edit their own content, or will you propose to do that for them?
  • How quickly will they want support issues answered?

Put it all together. What does it look like?

Can you visualise the kind of service or solution you can provide for people? Perhaps picture the entire process from end to end in your head.

4. Promote Yourself

It's not a good idea to try to be "all things to all men", particularly when you're a small web shop.

Why? Well, there are a lot of web designers out there. And to win business you need to stand out in some way - you have to be remarkable.

Stand out - somehow! Promoting yourself means making the most of what you have to make yourself feel and appear as good as possible.

Make your strengths known and try to turn your weaknesses to your advantage.

  • If it's just you, emphasise your low costs
  • If you're new on the scene, say how keen you are to work hard and give 100% to every client
  • If you suck at programming, specialise in graphic design & branding
  • If you suck at design, push how you specialise in usability, accessibility or search engine optimisation

Read "Purple Cow"!

This book by Seth Godin makes an excellent argument for being remarkable.

I've read it several times and absolutely loved it!


5. Price it right

It's important to price appropriately for the quality of service and support you offer.

Pricing by the day or hour can be problematic. Customers usually feel better when given a fixed price for a job.

So, in our company, we usually estimate jobs based on the time we expect it to take to design and build a site to a certain quality. This gives our customers an idea of how much effort is going into their project, which is useful for setting their expectations.

Sometimes, we'll deliver the right result in less time than estimated - sometimes we'll take a little longer. However, the value delivered to the customer is the same.

How much should I charge for a web site?

I'm afraid it's very hard to say. Rates for web site design & development can vary enormously, depending on factors like experience, geography, the client's budget, even time of year!

As a guide, we've charged from GBP 700 (USD 1,220) to GBP 5,000 (USD 8,750) for whole web sites. (Obviously the more costly sites include a lot of programming!)

(Also, some of our non-profitmaking clients pay nothing.)

A basic site with a custom design and a simple content management system (which lets customers change their own text & images) from us will cost around GBP 1,000 (USD 1,750).

A good way to start may be to research what other companies in your local area (or chosen sector) offer - and at what price.

But don't feel you have to follow someone else's pricing - your offering will be different. If you appreciate your relative strengths and weaknesses, you'll be more able to put a value on your time.

Remember - It's easier to reduce prices or offer discounts than it is to put your prices up, so be careful not to start too low - in the expectation that this will bring lots of business.

Not all clients are looking for a cheap solution, but they are all looking for value for their money.

So get clear on what value you offer, so that you can explain it clearly to customers.

If you're confident in your value, you won't get drawn into defending your pricing. The better you can explain the things you'll do for your customers, the more valuable your service will seem.

And you can always choose to discount, whether for individual cases or as a blanket offer ("25% off for this month")...

6. Build a Support Network

The web industry moves very fast, and it's impossible to know everything. But, as an expert, your clients expect you to be able to solve their problems for them.

So you need to increase your capability by building a network of people with other skills who can help extend your offerings. These can be people with particular skills or specialisms you don't have, or who offer similar services at a more affordable rate.

I have a network of trusted freelancers I can call on for specific work, such as:

  • CSS production
  • Flash design & animation (I don't do Flash at all any more)
  • Logo design
  • Programming

This helps me to turn over more work each week and reduce bottlenecks, giving more clients a quicker service while still ensuring a high standard of service.

Get a mentor

If you're just starting out, another role to fill may be a mentor - someone with more experience in your own area, who's willing to coach you for a while.

Having a mentor can be enormously beneficial, especially when it comes to making critical decisions, and need not cost you anything. Many experienced designers or developers will appreciate the opportunity to pass on their hard-earned knowledge. Everyone's been through it, and everyone has experience to share.

The important thing is to find someone who has relevant knowledge, but who isn't a direct competitor.

Also, you could soon be part of your mentor's own network of skilled contacts - someone she or he can turn to for help on a specific task!

If you don't ask you don't get.

7. Build Your Web Site

Of course, if you're going to be a web designer, you need your own web presence.

This should practice what you preach, showcasing what you specialise in, whether that's 3D graphics, accessibility, illustration or affordable templated sites.

The important thing is that people can quickly get an idea of what you offer just by looking at your own site.

A few things to consider for your own web site

Customer testimonials

I think these are often worth their weight in gold. Each time you do a good job, make sure you get some feedback in writing from the client (at the end of the bit where you've asked them if there's anything else you can do to help.

I prefer to sprinkle short testimonials around a site (usually in a side column or callout box), rather than putting them on their own page, as I don't expect visitors to browse that far before making up their mind.

Create a good portfolio

Don't hold back on showing your portfolio. If people are going to steal your ideas, they're going to steal your ideas - the stuff's up there on the web anyway.

The cost of not showing your best work is greater than the benefit of defending your intellectual property.

If you don't have a professional portfolio, you can't show your range of skills, and you'll find it hard to convince a visitor to your site to get in touch.

Do what you need to do to get examples of your work up there! So do sites for free, or do personal projects.

Share your knowledge

Don't be afraid to publish your knowledge, out of fear that a competitor will use it.

In fact, on the contrary, write everything you can that gives evidence of your expertise!

Write everything you know about web design, programming or marketing. Write about trends, pitfalls, usability, software, hosting, CSS, AdWords, standards, experiences, search engines, accessibility, things you like, things you don't like, highs, lows...

Do this to show visitors that you really know what you're talking about - they'll never really believe you do just because you say you do. You have to show them.

Maybe some of the visitors to you site will use the information you publish, instead of hiring you to help them. But are those self-help customers really the ones that are going to support your business? And don't forget - if they've used your knowledge, it means they respect your expertise, and who are they going to turn to first next time they need something they can't do for themselves?


This web site is my only marketing channel - and brings me all my business.

8. Train Continually

Web technology never stands still. What looks good and works never stands still. Standards and best practice are constantly moving forward, and we have to move forward with it.

This means that everyone in web design or development needs to train continually.

Often, you'll do this as part of your normal work: researching scripting or design solutions to help you solve particular problems.

But in order to find these other solutions, you have to be consciously aware of what else is out there.

Make sure you bookmark a bunch of sites where the latest CSS, Javascripts, and site designs are posted - where people discuss best practice - and try to tour round these once per week.

Here are some good starting points:




  • A List Apart - home of best practice
  • Cre8asite - one of the best online communities for people who make web sites

By the way, I often get asked if it's a good idea to take a formal course in web design.

Generally, my answer is "No" - because qualifications have almost zero value, and also because you have to be able to learn stuff through your own motivation or you won't be able to keep up in the industry.

However, if you feel you don't quite know where to start, there's no harm in getting a bit of experience and confidence from a book, online course, or real-world course.

9. Delight Everyone

I can't stress this enough. Aim to delight every customer. Don't just satisfy them and move on. To get the most out of your own work, go that extra mile.

The simple proof is well known by most businesses:

It's more expensive to win a new client than it is to keep an existing client.

Delighted customers give you:

  • Great testimonials to attract other customers
  • Repeat work
  • Word-of-mouth recommendations
  • Useful feedback
  • References

Don't be tempted to skimp on work - rushing the last bit because you only quoted two days for production and you've used two already - do whatever you have to do to make the project a success and delight the customer.

If you underestimate your work, or mis-understand your client's needs, be a Hero and take responsibilty for that yourself, do what you need to do to make a success, learn and move on.

10. Just Do It!

Go on, what are you waiting for?

Get a simple web site up there, stop fiddling with it, and start finding those people who need just what you offer!



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