9 Tips for the Newbie Freelance Web Designer / Developer

9 tips for the newbie freelance web designer / developer

As someone who made the leap to freelance web design/development fairly recently, I wanted to share 9 tips that have helped me out enormously and that I really took to heart from the start.

There is SO much information out there covering topics of interest to established web designers/developer, but for those who are just getting their feet wet, there's a noticeable lack of useful content.

Freelancing is a totally different ballgame from in-house salaried work, my friends.

When you break out on your own and start freelancing, you'll be thrown into a world that is equally wonderful and exhausting. You might have the technical skills covered but that's only a small percentage of what it takes to make a sustainable business for yourself. 

Without further ado, I'd like to share the 9 tips I've found helpful for building a successful business so soon after starting out as a freelance web designer/developer. By no means is this list exhaustive but it does focus on the points that had the greatest impact for me and I believe they can for you too.

1. Have your own website

This is freelancing 101 but if you're looking to build an actual business and not just accept one-off projects, you NEED your own website.

It doesn't have to be super fancy but it must outline your services/offerings and showcase your work. As a freelancer, you're essentially a small business built around you so it goes without saying that your business needs a home base online. It's also the place where you'll direct people to check you out via social media and your email signature so it's important to have a website right from the start.

Honestly, I'm shocked when I meet fellow freelancers at networking events and find out they don't have a professional website. Like, whaaaat? I really don't understand how you can expect to build a business without a professional place to direct potential clients for information about you and the work you do. Some web developers might have a public Github account or something but that isn't going to cut it... you don't have the same ownership of the content and to be honest, most people outside our industry have no clue what Github is.

If you're interested in getting into freelance web design or development, the first thing you need to do is build a professional website for yourself. I have a free 7-day email course that walks you through everything you need to know (sign up for it here!) but I'm guessing you have the "how" covered, you just needed a reminder about the "why.

2. Niche Down

When you're starting out as a web designer/developer, it might be tempting to take on any project that comes your way so that you can get experience and build your portfolio. While I totally understand this rationale, it does make it harder to attract your ideal client in the future if you're known as a Jack/Jill Of All Trades.

One of the best pieces of advice I received when I was starting out was to find an industry that appealed to me and focus on building websites within it.

We call this niching down.

While this might seem limiting at first, it actually allows you to play a stronger long game. Instead of being known as "someone who does websites", you can instead position yourself as the "expert web designer/developers for XYZ".

Not only does niching down make it easier to advertise your skills, it also makes you more appealing to future clients since they can see right off the bat that you know and understand their industry. By standing out within a particular industry, you can make a name for yourself and build a much stronger referral network.

Personally, I've niched down to small professional business with a particular emphasis on law firms. This is partly due to my background and social circle (I grew up in a family of lawyers and most of my friends are lawyers) and the fact that I have a deep understanding of the industry. I also enjoy working with small professional businesses because I find communication between myself and clients to be very natural, and they are respectful of the work I do and appreciative of the insights I can offer to our projects. 

You might find yourself more interested in e-commerce projects or working with people/businesses in creative fields. The great news is that there's room for everyone and always enough work to go around! My recommendation for those starting out as web designer/developers is to find a niche they're interested in and build a portfolio around it.

3. Be selective about the clients you work with

Once you've narrowed in on the niche you'd like to focus on as a freelance web designer/developer, it's time to reach out to potential clients and lock down some projects. This is where you should be selective. When I was starting out, I was advised not to say "yes" to every prospective client who came my way and really listen to my gut feeling to see if they would be a good fit. 

When you decide to work with clients, there are so many things to consider that you might not think of when you're starting out.

For example, have you considered the client's budget? How does that compare with what you want to charge for your work and what you believe is a fair rate? Remember, as a web designer/developer you're trading hours for dollars so you don't want to work for a meagre hourly rate. Not every client will have a budget that fits your project rates and that's okay.

If you still want to work with them, consider ways that you can meet them in the middle. Is there any way you can scale back your offerings so that it's a more fair exchange? Maybe instead of including 5 marketing materials in your design package, you might only make one or two for this particular client. Along those lines, if you really want to secure the web design contract with a particular client but their budget is lower than what you want to charge, consider limiting the number of pages you'll build for them or getting them to input all the content instead. That will lighten the load for you and the project can be a better fit if you still want to take it.

Another thing to consider is whether the client will be the type to casually "scope creep". As awful as it sounds, some people will try to weasel their way into a larger project without adjusting the contract or pricing to reflect that. If you get a feeling right off the bat that a potential client could be that type of person, I recommend one of two things:

  1. Walk away!
  2. Make sure you have an iron clad contract that protects you from scope creep, and enforce it if the need comes up

I also recommend nurturing a warm, supportive relationship with your clients while also keeping them at arms length. A tip I heard when I was starting out was to keep communications within "office hours" and this has helped me a lot. By setting expectations that I am not available 24/7 or on holidays or weekends, I have been able to maintain a positive working relationship with my clients. I know of certain designers that do not communicate via phone with clients, only through email or in-person/skype meetings. I haven't gone this route (yet?) but it's something to keep in mind if you're having trouble setting boundaries with clients.

4. Streamline the Client Process

When I began my freelance journey as a web designer/developer, I was blown away by just how much administrative work goes into running a business. I wrongly assumed I would spend most of my day building websites but that simply isn't the case! Honestly, the process was often overwhelming and I made it through with a lot of trial and error! I have no doubt it'll be the same for you, haha ;)

The biggest thing I learned was how valuable it is to streamline the client process. Consider the following points:

  • What happens when someone inquires about your packages/services and pricing? Could you cut down on the number of inquiries that don't pan out by being more explicit on your website and including prices publicly? Is that something you want to do? Why/why not?
  • What communications can be scripted or made into a template? For example, how about the welcome email, getting started guide, client questionnaire, scheduling meetings, etc.
  •  If you work with an assistant, is each step of the project clearly outlined and how is it checked off?

I recommend using a project management tool like Asana to keep track of the client process and streamline the whole thing. This way, every project will run smoothly and you can always make updates to tighten it up. I leave a tab in my browser open so at any time I can easily log into Asana, pull up an email template to send out or include a standardized document. 

Yes, this might take a little bit of time to set up initially but trust me when I tell you it's worth it and it'll make you more efficient moving forward! It'll also make you seem more professional to existing and potential clients, which is always a good thing.

If you're looking for a great place to learn more about streamlining the client process, Nesha Woolery has a wonderful free 7-day email course that teaches you the ins and outs of project management for design clients. Check it out here

5. Protect Yourself with a Killer Contract

Ahhh, contracts. Some people think of them as a necessary evil that makes you seem too serious or hostile to potential clients, but this is an incredibly damaging point of view.

Contracts are insanely valuable since they protect both parties from unexpected or unpleasant situations. A good contract also shows your client that you run a legitimate business and that you value everyone's time and efforts. This is turn gives the client greater confidence in your abilities as a freelance web designer/developer and they are more likely to respect your work and be satisfied with the project.

A good contract should always outline the project details and establish how much and when you'll be paid. 

It doesn't have to be filled with legal jargon either. In fact, the best contracts are written in language that is easy for both parties to understand! 

Janna Hagan has a wonderful article that looks at the nitty gritty of contracts for web designers, you can read it here. She even links to a free contract template if this is your first time drafting one!

6. Share Your Work

One thing I noticed when I was starting out as a freelance web designer/developer is that the people who seemed to have the most success in their business were those who shared their process and insights into their work. I was reminded of a book I read a while ago, Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, and just how much it influenced me to get over my fears and just start doing. 

People are nosy by nature and this isn't a bad thing! Instead, take comfort in knowing that people want to see what you're up to so why not share behind the scenes look at the work you're doing and the process you have for your projects? Trust me, I always see a lot of traffic on these types of posts and they are often widely shared. 

Using your blog as a way to share knowledge and your thoughts is also a really fun way to engage with the community. Personally, I love writing long-form posts that walk people through my process, my struggles, things I've learned, etc. There's always room on the internet for another fresh voice so go ahead, hit publish! 

Related: My Top 2 Tips for Better Blog Posts

Your portfolio is a great place to showcase the work you've done but how about taking it a step further and really dig deep into your process? I enjoy writing blog posts to accompany every new client launch that explain what we did and why (seen here, here and here). These posts offer a lot of insight into what happens behind the scenes and shows the value of my work. An effective portfolio is more than just a collection of your previous work; it's a chance for you to show off! 

Taking a look at any changes to your process and seeing exactly how you've progressed over time is one of the most rewarding parts of sharing your work. By having a reference starting point, you can evaluate your growth and share that with your audience. Not only is this a fun way to engage with your peers and potential clients, it also let's you give yourself a pat on the back because dang it, you're kicking butt!

7. Talk to People

Online and offline, my friends!

Part of my success so far as a freelance web designer/developer is that I've really made an effort to connect with people online and offline and build meaningful relationships. Some might call this "networking" and it is, to an extent, but it's also a whole lot more than that.

Schedule time in your calendar to actually attend events in your city and introduce yourself to fellow designers/developer. When you're starting out, this might seem a little intimidating but trust me, even the experts were once in your shoes. 

People constantly talk about the hustle and the grind that comes with being a freelancer or entrepreneur and as obnoxious as that is, they're speaking the truth. In order to be successful, you must get face time with people in your industry as well as those in other industries. There's something to be said about expanding your circle and connecting with people in related (or totally unrelated) industries. You never know when they'll think of you and pass your name on to a potential client. This is called a "reciprocal referral network" and I can say from personal experience that it's something you should focus on.

Talking to people online can be tough since it's never as genuine as in-person relationships but that doesn't mean that it isn't still worth your time! Think of the internet as a free marketing tool so be sure to spend time on social media connecting with your peers and publish blog posts that people will want to read and get something out of. Take a few moments to introduce yourself to people you admire or who you want to collaborate with them and offer them something more than just a hello. Could you write a guest blog post for them or create a video tutorial that their audience would love? How about offer yourself to be a guest on a podcast you enjoy? Are you able to co-host a Twitter chat? Offer up these ideas and I'm sure you'll be pleasantly surprised with how receptive people are!

8. Establish a Routine

Being a freelance web designer/developer is glorious in that you have a ton of freedom and flexibility with your schedule. However, the flip side is that it can be hard to focus and get work done without a boss telling you what to do.

Personally, I've found it extremely helpful to create and stick to a routine. Not only does this keep me in synch with the land of the living, it has also made me more efficient and improved my work-life balance.

I recommend two main things when establishing your routine:

  1. Create a dedicated workspace you enjoy and can focus in. I usually work from a coffee shop in the mornings, come home for lunch then make my way to the library for the afternoon. I enjoy getting out of the house first thing in the morning and working around people over a cup of tea but the afternoons are when I'm at my most productive so I appreciate the silence of the library. I'm not a huge fan of working from home all day/every day but I do work from home on occasion.
  2. Wake up at the same time and stick to a morning routine. I'm an early riser so I'm usually up by 6:30 every morning. It helps that my roommate gets up at this time too so we keep each other accountable. I know that when he leaves for work, that's my cue to make my way to the coffee shop and get started. 

I also like to plan activities in the evenings so that I'm forced to close my laptop and end my work day. This could be a fitness class, dinner with friends, an industry event or even something as mundane as running errands.

Having a routine is a great way to keep structure in your day and it also signals an end to your work day, something that many freelancers struggle with. By giving yourself a set amount of time in which to get everything done, you're forcing yourself to work within certain limits. This is proven to be very effective and I can certainly vouch for this!

9. Be Brave, Take Risks

Going out on your own as a freelance web designer/developer is can be scary at times which is why I found it very empowering to remember that everyone feels this way and you won't improve by staying silent.

One of my favourite quotes is a little cheesy but give me a kick in the butt when I need it:

You miss 100% of the shots you don't take - Wayne Gretzky

Put yourself (and your work) out there and be deliberate with how you present yourself.

If you want something, go after it or ask for it. The worst that can happen is someone could ignore you (not a huge deal) or say no (which could turn into a yes at a later date).

When I was starting out, I had several people remind me that the squeaky wheel gets the grease and it took a lot of the pressure off me. I pushed outside of my comfort zone and while I was definitely anxious and awkward at times, I was also thrilled by how receptive people could be! I honestly think that if I had been less assertive and if I had played it safe from the start, I would not have grown as quickly as I did.

If I can do it, you can do it.

Go ahead, send that cold email.

Final Thoughts

Making the switch to freelance web design/development can be challenging but also hugely rewarding if you're strategic and are willing to put in the work. I hope this list of my top tips is helpful and that you can apply it to your own journey. Freelancing is a totally different experience to working in a traditional 9-5 job but it's something I have loved so far. Advice can be a funny thing since people are really just talking from their own experiences but there's still plenty you can learn if you pay attention and select what's right for you.

Now it's your turn, what tips do you have for new freelance web designers/developers? Were you offered any advice that stuck with you when you were starting out? What would you pass along to those getting started and what would you tell them to ignore? I'd love to know! Leave me a note in the comments.


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Charlotte O'Hara

Vancouver