Setting up in Web Design
One of the most common questions I
"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.
your Strengths and Weaknesses
- Price it
a Support Network
Your Web Site
- 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
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
- Graphic design
- HTML / CSS production
- Writing copy
- 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.
- 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
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
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
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
- Might they want to start with
low-cost option and upgrade over time, or do they want a one-off
- 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
Put it all together. What does it
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
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
A few things to consider for your own
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
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
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,
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
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
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
where people discuss best practice - and try to tour round these once
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
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
- Repeat work
- Word-of-mouth recommendations
- Useful feedback
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
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!