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Starting A Web Design Business

Business, Web Design | Jan 27, 2011

If you don’t like the idea of working for somebody else and you’re quite attracted to idea of world domination then starting a web design business might be right up your alley.

Unfortunately though, contrary to popular speculation, it’s not an easy ride.

In fact it’s probably the number one most difficult path which you could choose to follow in this industry.

But, if it’s the right decision for you, then it’ll all be worth while regardless of whether you’re a student or working at a full-time job and looking for a change.

In today’s post we’re going to cover the most important things you need to know about starting a web design business, and get input from other people throughout the industry.

 

Stepping Into Your Shiny New Entrepreneur’s Shoes

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Coming into the world of starting your own web design business from almost any other career path is a real shock to the system. Take a percentage of how much you think you know about starting a business and divide by twenty to get a more accurate number.

It’s long term, it’s difficult and it can be really difficult to get off the ground. So why do so many people want to do it?

Mostly, people are drawn to the idea of being their own boss, making lots of money and doing a relatively small amount of work. While this is most definitely an achievable goal, the overwhelming majority of people will give up before they ever get that far.

Eighty percent of new businesses fail within the first year. If that scares you into thinking that maybe you shouldn’t start a business after all, then you need to listen to that gut feeling and not do it. It takes someone with raw drive and determination to succeed on this path, someone who is willing to read those statistics and know that they will make up the other twenty percent. The ones who succeed.

 

What to Expect

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When working for yourself you can expect an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment when things move in the right direction. There’s nothing better than being in charge of everything and having it go well. You aren’t just proving to yourself that you can do something, you’re proving to yourself that your life is worth something and that you’re working towards a proverbial bigger picture. Landing that big contract or securing that big-name client suddenly mean so much more than if you were working at an agency and simply completing the work for a company belonging to someone else.

Of course occasionally you might even finish a project ahead of schedule, which means you just earned yourself some paid holiday. Being able to put in the working hours whenever you like is definitely a bonus. If you want to work twenty hours a day for a week and then take the rest of the month off, then you can.

Kat Durant has freelanced on the side during her 11 year career, but she also recently started up a web design business with her partner. She says: “The greatest benefit for me is that I get total control, I get to stipulate my own hours, I get to speak to the clients first hand, find out exactly what they want and price up jobs accordingly (something I think companies I’ve worked for in the past have gotten very wrong sometimes). I have found that I am happiest when working for myself, I found in agencies that I was walking on eggshells if clients were not following the rules or if someone in the company had not done their piece and I got it in the neck. Now if work is not done to the standard or within the time specified I can take charge of the situation.”

Japh Thomson has been running his web development business for two years now. He adds that one of the main benefits of running your own business is “Being able to schedule your work in your own time (mainly), and the freedom to have more time to experiment with your own stuff, or hang out with your partner.”

 

Challenges to Overcome

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As previously mentioned: prepare to be surprised by just how much there is to learn. From accounting to tax law, to marketing, business development, customer service… the list goes on.

Being a great web designer does not make you a great entrepreneur so you’re going to have a lot of catching up to do in order to broaden your skill set. This area of web design requires a huge amount of self-motivation, you need to be able to force yourself to work to self-imposed deadlines and achieve self-imposed goals.

There is no one looking over your shoulder to see if you’re slacking off after lunch and while that may seem very appealing, it needs to be kept in check. If you’re starting out on your own then the life of a web design business owner can also be pretty lonely, especially if you work from home. Twitter helps with this a lot but it still can’t compare to having real interactions with other human beings.

Chris Schmitz has two years of experience when it comes to starting and running a web design business, he offers some valuable insights into further challenges that you will face:

“1. Working on my own time – Although this is one of my favorite parts of the job, sometimes it’s hard to sit down and focus at the computer when I know I can get to things later in the day.  If I happen to have an unproductive day, I quickly find myself buried in work and things can get pretty stressful.

2. Distractions – Some days everything seems to click.  I can take a few minutes away from a project to fire off a few emails and get right back to work without missing a beat.  Other days, responding to email and putting together quotes or proposals can take up most of the day.  Those days tend to feel very unproductive, but because I am managing every aspect of the web design process there are a lot of things to tend to.

The main thing that kills me is email.  I think it’s important to respond quickly to clients, so on days where my inbox is flooded it can be very difficult to get much development work in when I keep switching back and forth.  I have trouble regaining focus when I have a lot of interruptions, but that could just be me….

3. Client Management – Some clients are joy to work with, others not so much….  Not only does taking on a bad client make your life more difficult, but it also affects your bottom line.  Difficult clients are more work, and if the majority of your clients are difficult to work with, your job is going to be a lot more stressful and you’re going to work a lot more hours than you should be.”

With over 7 years of web design business experience, Carl Crawley offers two further pitfalls to watch out for when getting started, particularly for people who are thinking about starting up with a business partner or two:

“1. Get an accountant/book-keeper.
Keeping control of day-to-day stuff is pretty easy these days with online invoicing systems like Freshbooks or Xero, however get someone with accountancy knowledge to sort the VAT/PAYE/Corporation Tax requirements. It’ll save you a fortune and many sleepless nights! Also, get someone else to ‘chase’ invoices. Unless you’re selling yourself as a one-man-design-studio, being the ‘accounts’ and the ‘design’ department doesn’t add much confidence.

2. Either ‘do the work’ or ‘find the work’ – Both doesn’t fly!
If you’re constantly on the road / email / twitter etc looking/quoting for work, then you need someone back at the office actually fulfilling the requirements – you can’t do both and it’s a quick fire way to get deadlines missed, unhappy clients or a lot of sleepless nights! Equally, if your forte is coding/design, then do that and employ someone on a ‘commission only’ basis to go out there and sell you and your skills! Once the business gets bigger, you’ll need to segregate parts of the business so that you don’t end up wearing too many hats. Keep Finance, Sales, Design and Technology all separate (with a common goal).”


 

Future Career Moves

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In terms of flexibility for the future this is just about the best career path you can go down. Running a web design business can lead to owning a web design business (run by other people), or it can be a great stepping stone to starting and running a web based service or application.

The business skills which you will pick up from running your own web design business are not only invaluable by themselves but they can also be applied to many other areas.

Finally, starting a web design business doesn’t mean you can’t ever go back to the world of the employed, should you so choose. But if you have ambitions of being a millionaire some day, then this is a good starting point to see if you’ve got what it takes.


This post was authored exclusively for WDD by John O’Nolan, a core member of the WordPress UI Team, writer and entrepreneur based in Surrey in the United Kingdom. John loves to talk to people, so why not follow @JohnONolan on twitter too?

What do you think? Do you run your own web design business? What advise would you offer to someone who is about to do the same? Let us know in the comments!

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  • http://www.garyrevell.co.uk Gary Revell

    Brilliant post! I am a newbie freelancer and finding it very rewarding but can often feel lonely. I find that it’s important to not stay in your ‘office’ all day everyday, but to have a different change of environment. This could be a great coffee shop, or cafe. It is also important to remain active in the real world by playing sport or partaking in exercise.

    This helps me.

    Gary

  • http://www.blazewebstudio.co.za/marketing_guide Geoffrey Gordon

    Hi John

    One of your followers on Facebook here, great post. I switched careers and went into website just like the above, I agree about 2 years later we are getting more and more busier.

    Things I learned along the way:

    1) Pay attention to the top designers in the world read their blogs, their books and
    advice and you will come a long way quickly.
    2) Marketing is key in the beginning if you can sell then you are dead in the water.
    3) Generate brand awareness blog often, speak at local networking meetings for free
    on a unique website related topic or solution. I chatted about social media.
    4) Watch you finances, admin and workflow the more organised the better.

    We just redesigned our website. You have been one of my inspirations.

  • http://www.webguide4u.com Vivek Parmar

    good tips, but before starting a web design business one must have enough knowledge of web design so that when he gets new project he will do it easily and he should be creative while designing websites.
    He should be able to promote his business easily and have lots of contacts which help him to get new business and keep future plan intact with him

  • http://www.phoat.com Fotis

    I went down this path a couple of years ago and I can tell you that the single most difficult thing of running your own web design business is dealing with the difficult customers that always want more. That’s why it’s important to have a solid and clear contract to prevent feature creep. When I was in the middle of it, it seemed like I was constantly running after my customers to try to please them – which is the worst time suck that can affect any business.

    • Niez

      read yo post but like what contracts

  • http://questfr.com/ Sarbartha

    First of all it’s a nice article to read :)
    But sometime it is frustrating when you doesn’t get work.
    Overcome it as you can think of that you are on the way to get something BIG.
    Reading some, +ve mentality books help a lot..

  • http://www.zipbox.co.uk Hannah Hurst

    This is a really interesting article to read and I think you have got every statement spot on. We have recently set up a web design company and the first month was most definitely scary! But its like you said, if you want it enough, you will succeed. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://markpetherbridge.co.uk Sheffield Website Design

    This is a really nice post. I’ve been freelancing for a while now and its always good to read these types of posts. I have only had a quick read but when I have time Ill reply with a much larger more detailed response. Keep the good posts coming.

    @mgpwr

  • http://www.themanagementskills.com Johny

    The biggest disadvantage of being a freelance web designer is that you feel alone. It is very difficult to find work in your initial days. Most of the time you loose motivation but apart from the problems and difficulties, you can’t disagree with me that nothing is easy in life.

  • http://www.impresspages.org Audrius Jankauskas

    I would like to add for fresh web designers to search for the best tools to create the best value for the clients. Including web CMS (clients want to make changes and do it easily), client system online to show finished work (instead of sending everything through email). It will increase your value a lot.

  • http://www.hirewebdesigner.co.za Muzi Mohale

    As a novice in this arena, I find some clients too demanding and wish I could just fire them. I enjoy working with clients who are prepared to pay, than those expecting you to over deliver and are not prepared to pay for extra work.

  • http://moobreak.blogspot.com Adnan Zulkarnain

    why move career if had enjoyed ?

  • http://www.tyronbache.com Tyron Bache

    I enjoyed this, just want to know where you got your stats from, specifically, “Eighty percent of new businesses fail within the first year.” Where is that in the world? Is it specific to the web design industry?

    • Alan Jones

      80% of new businesses fail is a fact among all new startups. I’m not certain as to the percentage for web design in particular but I would imagine it would be close to that.

      • http://tyronbache.com Tyron Bache

        To say it’s a fact with out any data is a bit short sighted, I don’t mean to be irritating about it but do you know for sure? Just because people blog about it and others agree doesn’t make it a fact, let alone true, to be honest I think it’s a rumour made to make business people who have made it feel better about themselves. When was the last survey done regarding businesses who failed in there first year, who was it done by? and where?

      • Tim

        I think it’s apparent that some people focus on the more technical aspects than seeing the larger picture.

    • http://www.phoat.com Fotis

      @Tyron – That figure is a rule of thumb and has been stated many times in the past regarding businesses in all fields, not just web design. I’ve heard the 80% fail quote since my days in college about 20 years ago.

      The reason they fail is because of poor planning. Many times new business owners overestimate their income and do not hold on to any contingency money to keep them above water during those first difficult months.

      My advice in the web design industry is to build a good portfolio first. That might mean making sites for your friends, making sites for free, or even creating fake sites as if you had real clients. Customers almost always want to see what you are capable of and a solid portfolio speaks for itself.

      • http://tyronbache.com Tyron Bache

        So it’s a rule of thumb, not meant to be accurate or reliable. I’ve heard this since my days at college, “42.7% of all statistics are made up on the spot.” Just food for thought.

        However I agree that the do fail because of poor planning, and brilliant advice would be to make sure you have a contingency plan.

  • http://www.sametomorrow.com/blog adam

    Good post, I’ve been freelancing for a couple years and have my own company but I only have to worry about myself. But like you said it can definitely be a bumpy road at first and it does take a lot of hard work but if everything goes well in the end its really worth it.

  • http://www.psyched.be/wordpress Darkened Soul

    harsh, true, and still very exciting! :) although I do think u will have to do most of this by yourself at first, until u start getting a lot more projects to tend to, then hiring someone else is indeed a plus so you can be creative all day long withough having to worry about… paperwork… we all hate paperwork… i think…

  • http://wetuts.com/ Jahangir Hussain

    Grate post. very helpful for anyone who is just staring or has started but don’t know where to go from there. thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.fldtrace.com Lucian

    While in my first year of business, I could barely afford paying the bills, the second ear was much better. Actually, income doubled.

    Now, in the third one, I can already afford taking projects I enjoy working on and I can focus on quality projects.

  • http://www.aledesign.it aledesign.it

    A brilliant post…really nice article! In special way I love the first image THIS IS THE OFFICE!!!A dream!

  • http://www.drivvedwebbyra.se Erik

    Nice post, I enjoyed reading this… got some new ideas i have to try out!

  • http://www.visual-blade.com Daquan Wright

    I’ve decided I’d like to freelance part-time, this post is excellent.

    But the things in this article are not specific to web design/development. These are really skills you need in any industry where you are selling and networking. :)

    I think it’s good to gather 3-4 years experience in what you like and meet people. Once you gain some expertise, selling yourself is simple because you can explain the benefits of your skill-set to people or employers. You just have to want it….like anything else.

    Networking, gaining technical/creative expertise, and organizing yourself are definitely top notch skills to have.

  • http://inglesnarede.com.br Renato Alves

    There are several aspects of creating a business that some people either don’t know or don’t understand. Accountability, tax issues, regulation and so forth, are things to consider very closely before starting out whatever business be it a web design consulting or office.

  • http://twitter.com/z0r z0r

    Kat Durant link is wrong, check it out.

  • http://www.pixelslip.com Chris L

    Great article! I’m in my first few months freelancing and totally agree that it is a bit daunting at first but with the right work organization, skills and biz dev going on you’ll start seeing results.

    Re: accounting, I personally use Harvest, I find their system to be pretty good and the companion iphone app works well. (and no I’m not affiliated with their company in any way haha)

    It’s definitely rewarding knowing you are running your own business! Worth the risks IMO

  • http://twitter.com/olilish Oli

    Great post.

    Anyone got any advice on terms and conditions?

    I’m freelancing for a few different people but don’t have any t&c’s setup.

    Where should I start? – is there a template etc…

    Thanks!

  • http://inspirationfeed.com inspirationfeed

    This is extremely inspiring, these kind of article make me want to take action right away!

  • http://free-magentoextensions.com/ aleisha

    Web designing is not the easy task now because it have many complexional it now……but now there are much modern tools are available to get the web with the convenience

  • http://graphicarmory.com/ Matthew S

    Great post.
    I have been student freelancing slowly for the past two years. Granted my first six months were spent looking for work and not doing any.
    It’s great to see a community of freelancers together, especially in the comments

  • http://www.gekkoshot.com Woz Giffin

    Thanks for a great post, we are a small group of freelancers working together and I was surprised how well this works. We share the workload and each of us specialises in different aspects. We are all self employed, but it still has a hint of the teamwork aspect you feel working for a design house etc.

    Also, isolation is a huge factor in this line of work, you can go for days (even weeks) without getting away from your home office, take time each day to do something you enjoy and enforce proper tea breaks and lunch breaks on yourself, AWAY from the computer.

  • http://iamautocomplete.com/ Angelee

    Since web design business is like a one-man-band venture, so it’s quite tough especially when you are just about to start. “prepare to be surprised by just how much there is to learn”..from customer service to self-janitorial services… and just as I quoted it!.. I’m starting to take advantage of the user-friendly CMS but I really wish to enhance my knowledge on the coding part.

  • http://barbaradilisio.com Barbara

    Love this post! Being your boss is a lot harder than working for someone else. You don’t get paid sick days, maternity leave, or holidays. You might not even be making a lot of money when you first start out. If you stick with it though, it pays off in the end!

  • http://www.egstudio.biz Liad Guez

    Nice post, however I do not completely agree with Carl Crawley regarding sales. I own a web agency for over 3 years now. We had a few unfortunate attempts with sales people who we’re supposed to go after clients. The problem is that our product is complex and in order to sell it you need to know what you’re talking about, otherwise you’ll have a rough time doing it. I don’t think that employing someone to chase clients at an early stage is the way to go. It’s just not so cost effective, I would prefer delegating time for networking and marketing.

    • http://www.jecadesign.com Auz

      I agree with you Liad, but it’s tough to take on many hats. We have had the issue so many times of a sales person under selling a project. Eventually, we had to remove the sales people in attempt to resolve this problem. It makes since, but is very rough if you don’t have the right kind of clients.

      Clients that don’t understand the technology at all become hard to work with and can actually be better to throw a middle man at in order to reduce contact time.

      That is where the networking and marketing part comes into play, though. By doing these the right way you can make the “right” clients.

  • http://www.templatesrule.com/ Ryan QM

    Nice, these guidelines will also help us promoting our templates business.

  • http://www.ntouchmarketing.com Houston Web Designer

    I agree with Liad on the hiring of a salesperson to soon in the early stages of the company. We have been in business about a year, and it would hurt is more in the long run if we had to hire someone to go out and find sales. As they said, our business is to complex, it is hard enough to talk to clients about new websites and other marketing issues, much less have someone that doesn’t know much about the field trying to explain it. With that being said, it was an excellent article in the fact that it helps you take a step back and see how you are doing, by using someone else’s notes. Thanks for the article.

  • Kick Interactive

    A really nice article.

    I started Kick Interactive in 2007 with a business partner. I wouldn’t say its been an easy ride, but it’s definitely been worthwhile.

    We have now completed many projects and have 7 members of staff.

    I would recommend starting a business to any self motivated driven person, but don’t expect to be working 8 hour days. It takes a lot of hard work to start a web agency.

  • http://www.benstokesmarketing.co.uk Web design Shrewsbury

    Nice post – Starting in the industry is very hard, I would advise anyone looking to start there own web design company to put everything in for the 1st year. To survive you need to push your company as hard as you can & pick up the phone! Contact as many businesses in your local area who do not have websites and sell them one! Good luck if you are thinking of starting up :)

    • Niez

      how can u sell the idea please

  • http://www.everythinginkonline.com Lethbridge Web Design

    Starting your own web design company can be a great endeavor – it takes time, perseverance and commitment. I started my company 2 years ago. it’s been challenging at times and very rewarding at other times. If you’ve got determination to succeed it can be a great career.

  • http://www.graphicdesignboss.com GraphicDesignBoss

    As a graphic designer of 20 years experience, and one that has run his own graphic design business for the last 10 years I love this post!

    Start small. Think big!

    From little things big things grow!

    I blog especially to help newbies enter into the design business… if you are interested check me out.

    Here is my latest post: “8 Ways To Develop New Business For Your Graphic Design Business” http://bit.ly/f2D0pW

  • http://www.newwebdesign.com NewWebDesign

    Well written article.

    We have been up for a few years now, and this article hits fairly close to home. It really is treacherous in the beginning, but when everything starts to click there’s no better feeling.

  • steve

    I’m working for a company and taking personal jobs in my freetime. In my country nobody gives you a job if you’re only a webdesigner. You should know PHP, JavaScript as well.

  • http://www.heymonkeydesign.com Lenny Terenzi

    I like to article quite a bit thought i take small issue with hiring someone out to sell your services. Perhaps if you are a two pr three person group. Maybe. But no one can sell and answer questions better than me about my process. What would a good middle ground be I wonder. Overall great read and very well-timed for the new year.

  • http://www.sonnydesign.com sonnyd

    Great article. this is something i can relate to very well.

  • http://www.mavermedia.com/blog Brad Maver

    Good post. The web design field is flooded. That being said, there are sereral people out there with no passion or desire to learn the right way. Posts like this help alot to put things in perspective. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.ryanbrock.com Ryan Brock

    Anybody else notice the bong in the home office photo?

  • http://www.sixfiguredesign.com Sandi

    Great post! Another note to mention is how to successfully multi-task with several projects at once. Working with customers who have different deadlines can be beneficial. For example, when you are waiting on one customer to get back to you, you can be working on another project. Take caution about how much you can handle at once, though.