The biggest lessons I’ve learned as a freelance web designer/developer

biggest lessons learned as a freelance web designer developer | charlotte o'hara

Normally these posts are saved for major business anniversaries and milestones. Here’s what I learned in my first year of business! or 5 lessons I learned on the way to seven figures!. Those are all fantastic reasons to write a post like this, but sometimes the inspiration strikes when you least expect it… in my case, while I was enjoying my daily Snickers bar.

Looking back on my business makes me smile and also cringe. There are SO many things I did wrong, but there’s also a lot I did right. I pushed outside of my comfort zone every day and decided to work through my limiting beliefs to get to the next level.

I’m proud of the work that I’ve done and the business I’m building, but it’s still fun to see how far I’ve come and what sticks out as the biggest lessons learned.

Related : Things I'm doing differently in my business this year

I want to share those today, both as something I can look back on sometime in the future AND hopefully to encourage anyone starting out on their own journey. A major thing that has kept me going through the struggles of running a business has been the idea that dumb people achieve success all the time so why can’t I? You have to go balls to the walls in order to get what you want and it's usually the people who are willing to put themselves out there, even when they feel silly/ridiculous/like an imposter, who come out on top.

Without further ado, here are the biggest lessons I’ve learned as a freelance web designer/developer.

1. Your tech skills will always improve

When I look back at my web design/development skills when I first started taking on freelance clients, I can’t believe how much I did considering how little I knew. 

For those of you who don’t know, I kicked off my career in tech after university by joining a software company, and my background is actually in analytics and implementation. I am mostly self-taught in web design and development. I took an intro course which was a great way to cover the basics, but otherwise I mostly learned by playing around and experimenting on my own. 

It’s crazy to think back on where I was a few years ago and see how much I’ve learned since then. Technology is changing every day and at such a rapid speed that it can be hard to keep up (let alone get ahead), but I know that I’m always improving! I am SO much faster now and I love seeing how much information my brain has stored, how much I’ve remembered. Things that used to take me an hour now take a few minutes, it's insane to see that progress.

A few factors that have helped me to improve my web design/development skills so much: #1 is that I’ve always been willing to say yes and #2 is that I go ahead and problem solve. Sometimes that means asking for help (shoutout to the people in random Facebook groups who have ever answered a stranger’s question!), but often that means doing a deep Google search or finding a solution from a Youtube video. I have yet to come across a problem that cannot be fixed or reworked in some way and I love that each roadblock seems less intimidating as I get more experienced.

2. Pitch yourself to get results

Like many newbie freelancers, I wanted to grow my business and attract more clients but I didn’t know what the best way to do that was. I looked online and was kind of surprised by some of the suggestions I saw. Participate in Twitter chats? Answer questions in Facebook groups? Blog a lot and hope you get traffic from Pinterest that one day converts into work? Those tips might work well for some people, and I’m not knocking them, but none of those felt like they would get the results I wanted in the time I had in mind.

Instead, I pushed wayyyyy out of my comfort zone and started pitching myself and my services to people and businesses I wanted to work with. To do this, I had to get over my fear of rejection real fast. Putting yourself out there to total strangers is stressful even if you know you are offering them a valuable & quality service (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!). Once I learned that pitching was a numbers game, I started to feel differently about it. Most pitches will go unanswered and you’ll get a lot of No’s or Not Now’s, and that’s NORMAL and to be expected. But every now and then someone will say Yes and if truth be told, some of those projects have been my favourites! Over time your pitch templates will evolve and get stronger so the Yes's happen more frequently.

Pitching your services also helps ensure that you’re working with the kind of people or businesses that you actually want to work with, instead of taking whatever you can get. It helps to streamline your portfolio and make your mark in a particular niche (more on that below).

Thanks to all the pitching I did early on in my business, I started to get repeat work and referrals from those clients and projects, which means that I rarely pitch myself anymore. I’m really glad that I started out my business this way!

3. Niche down

One of my favourite sayings in business is that “the riches are in the niches” and I know from experience that this is true. 

When you’re starting out, you probably don’t know what you want your focus to be. Do you want to focus your designs on a particular platform (Squarespace, Wordpress, Shopify, etc.)? Do you prefer working with clients in creative industries or traditional businesses? Would you rather work with solopreneurs or larger companies? Are you keen to work with people just starting out or who have been in business a while? Would you rather work on a bunch of small sites or one larger site every month? Are you interested in one design style only? These are all things that you should seriously consider!

It can be tempting to take on any project so long as the person/business is willing to pay you for your services, but this can be a disservice if you want to be known in a certain niche. The great thing about niching down in business is that it helps your ideal clients know that you are the perfect fit for them. They see that you have experience with people/businesses like them, that you know what they are looking for, and understand how to meet their needs. Plus, they will likely hear your name as a referral from their peers which is always a bonus. 

I learned that by focusing on a particular niche, I’m positioned as an expert or the “go to” person to my ideal clients and that has a positive effect on my bottom line. 

4. Diversify your income

Have you ever heard that almost all millionaires have multiple sources of income and that 7 seems to be the gold number? When I heard that I was like, well duh. It’s never a good idea to have all your money coming from one place because if something happens to that revenue stream, then you’re left with nothing. Instead, it’s better to have a few ways that the money comes in.

I wasn’t that smart when I first started my business and I only had one income stream : my design and development package. I built websites and that was it. As I connected with others in the industry and learned more about money management and business planning, I knew that needed to change and I started diversifying my income.

Today my income comes from four main areas: design & development package, strategy and consulting sessions, digital products and affiliate income.

Over the next few years I want to build up the “passive” sides of my business even more so that I’m not exchanging time for money (like I was when all I offered was my design & development package), and this is a lesson that I’m very happy I learned.

Related: My 2018 goals

5. Set up clear processes and systems

Oh man, I have to admit that organization and administration isn’t my forte. It’s something that I have greatly improved over time and often it’s because I had to learn certain lessons the hard way. I now fully recognize the value of clear processes, system, project management tools and paid software and the role they play in helping me run my business.

In the early stages of my business, for example, I did everything via email. It was all super informal and I hadn’t yet created any professional documents or templates. I did everything on the fly as it came up, which often left me feeling like a hot mess.

I quickly learned that I needed to create templates for things like my Getting Started Guide, Client Questionnaire, Invoices, Work Agreements, etc. Having a set document that I could easily customize for prospective & new clients was a game changer. This saved me SO much time and made sure that I never forgot a step or important detail. 

I also started creating canned email responses, started using Asana for project management (which helped me to move client communications off email and into a specific platform), and embraced Google Drive like never before. 

The lesson here was that in order to run a business, I needed to make it EASY and communication had to be clear. Once I figured out where the gaps were, I was able to create the required templates, outline timelines and project guidelines, streamline email, and do so much more. 

Game changer!!!

Final Thoughts

Starting a business of any sort is a terrifying and rewarding thing, but doing it as a solopreneur/freelancer adds a whole other level of crazy to everyday life. There aren’t many quality resources that tell you step by step what to do and how to set things up (correct me if I’m wrong!), so most of what you learn will be trial and error. And that’s ok! Everyone else is in the same boat.

The important thing to remember when starting out as a freelancer in any industry is that you have to roll with the awkward punches and learn as you go. You’ll be reminded every day how imperfect you are, how experienced your peers are, how far ahead other business are, AND that you have been doing something “wrong” since day one. You’ll also see that you’re quick to learn and adapt, you can be fearless when asking for what you need, that your idols and mentors were once in your shoes, and that with enough perseverance you can build a successful business too! It’s a total trip, let me tell you.

I hope you enjoyed this (very personal) post about the biggest lessons I’ve learned as a freelance web designer/developer and that it gave you a little more insight into my business and where I am now. I’d love for you to leave me any comments, words of encouragement, criticisms, whatever in the comments down below. If you’d like to share any lessons YOU have learned, even better! I’m all ears.


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Charlotte O'Hara

Vancouver