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Sometimes people ask me if I went to university to become a website designer (the answer is no). Next they’ll ask me how I became a website designer, and the truth is, it feels like it happened accidentally.
I learnt HTML and CSS (the most basic languages on the Internet) designing pet pages on Neopets in 2002. In 2006, my design savvy became a hit after my family moved to a new city in the USA and my MySpace page design skills gave me social clout with new classmates.
Fast forward to 2017, over 10 years later: I started teaching myself WordPress website design. People were approaching me for quick fixes on their WordPress websites, and with every gig I learnt more about the platform.
And then someone actually wanted to pay me to design and develop their MLM referral website.
I received $400 to design and develop that first WordPress website. Three years later, I’ve leveled up to charging about 10x that – and as a website designer, this leaves me with plenty of room to grow.
But it’s not all social clout and fairytales. Learning how to run my own freelance design business has had its pros and cons.
- I decide my boundaries around work
- It feels like I learn something new every day
- Expenses like my iPad and Macbook Pro are essential to my business, and thus tax deductible
- I’m in charge of my design + marketing education
- When a mistake happens, I seldom have anyone to turn to for advice
- Because I operate solo, I may be undervaluing my services
In this post, you’ll get a behind the scenes of what it’s like to start a freelance website design business!
Do I need to know coding, or design, to start learning website design?
You do not need to be a talented developer, nor be particularly creative, to start learning website design. To grow as a website designer, you will need to pick up and develop those skills along the way – but they are not a prerequisite to starting.
Website platforms are getting so advanced that you can build websites without code.
Still, if you are going to design and develop your own website, it helps to have technical skills in your repertoire. Even without code, you’ll have to learn how to navigate those platforms to develop the websites – and technical skills help!
I did not consider myself particularly creative when I started designing websites. My design eye is something I’ve developed over time.
If being creative intimidates you, start a swipe file with inspiring designs you come across online. Figure out what it is you like about each design and why so that you can develop your unique design eye.
Protip: Designing websites, you need to understand how people will interact with a website and how to showcase important information. During the design process, think about how you can achieve client goals on a website. It does not take an artistic talent to develop this kind of goal-oriented thinking.
If you are going to develop websites as well, instead of being the designer who can build the website on all platforms, I recommend learning a specific website design platform like Showit, Squarespace, WordPress or Webflow.
It’s more valuable to double down on your knowledge and become an expert on a platform, than offer average solutions for every platform.
- When you specialize in a platform, you learn all the shortcuts and nuances
- You work more efficiently and can deliver designs quicker
- You can position your offering as a truly custom, advanced solution
Only after you’ve mastered a platform do I recommend you start to learn another platform.
Learn from someone else
A few weeks ago I was having coffee with my neighbor, a man with a few decades over me. He emphasized to me about the importance of mentorship.
“Let’s say you’re learning something new,” he told me as I sipped my coffee enjoying the view of the rice fields. “You can either go through the jungle trying to find your way home – take the long way home – or, you can enlist the mentorship of someone else. When we want to do things without the help of others, we end up taking the long way home.”
If you’re trying to get the ball rolling on your website design services, actively find ways you can learn from someone else.
Because you can take the long way home – or, along the way home, you can learn from others which shortcuts to take along the way. Some ways you can learn from others include:
- Work an apprenticeship (underneath a more experienced designer)
- Enroll in website design courses
- Learn from other designers
A part of my journey was working an unofficial apprenticeship at a small website design agency.
Working at the website design agency, I learnt more about website design project management, how to communicate with clients about design, and optimal website design practices.
It was an invaluable experience.
I would also recommend taking courses that develop your website design and marketing skillset. You might understand that as a freelancer, you are selling more than a website (you are selling a solution) – but how can you apply that in practice?
Find your first clients
I found my first web design client from a Facebook group. She paid me a whole $400 to put together a WordPress website.
Whether you find your first clients on Facebook groups, Upwork (which charges a huge finders fee), or another platform, pay attention to your rate, your take home pay, and whether or not you are participating in a race to the bottom.
When it comes to finding your first web design clients and building a sustainable network, the most important things to keep in mind are:
- Understand your potential clients’ needs. Why are they looking to invest in a website in the first place? What do they need the website to accomplish for them?
- Focus on the transformation, not the product. Have you heard the phrase “features tell, benefits sell”? What is the benefit someone receives by working with you? You’re not just providing them a website; you’re providing them a sales-generating tool that will work for them for years to come.
- Leverage your network. Reach out to others to let them know about what you’re doing, and who your services are best for. Go to your local Chamber of Commerce, and ask for introductions to business owners. If you’re just starting out, let it be knownst you’re building simple yet functional websites for a small fee.
Read More: How to Find Freelance Clients (Medium)
At some point you might wonder if you should offer a website design for free in exchange for the experience or a testimonial. I think this is a personal question to answer. Personally, I think you should be compensated in some way for each project – whether that compensation comes in dollars or a skill exchange.
Think about the value the person you are doing the work for gets by having a website. Also think about the fact you have bills to pay.
When you do find your first clients (and every client after that!), don’t forget to celebrate! I actually use this GIF to celebrate with my clients.
After each project, pay attention to what did and did not work
As I developed my website design services, I built websites and landing pages at lower rates. Following each project, I looked at my design process and what I could improve or elevate. This gave me the confidence to raise my rates with each project as well.
Here are some questions to ask yourself after each project:
- What kinds of questions did your clients ask? What kind of resources did you need?
- How did you collect assets and copy from your clients? How did that work for both parties?
- Did the project stay on schedule? If there were holes, why or why not?
- How did the project feel for you? Were you overwhelmed or overextended? How can you make the process feel more easy?
A little known fact amongst beginner freelancers is a big part of the value for mid and high ticket clients is the experience. Investing in a website is a huge step – and you want to make every part of the process as exciting, and seamless as possible!
Paying attention to what did and do not work (so you can upgrade your process) helps you improve the client experience, increase client retention and inspire clients to refer more business your way!
Think about freelancing like a business
I run my freelance business like a business. This means I:
- Keep a spreadsheet where I can project revenue months in advance,
- Pay myself the same amount every month, and
- Invest in sales and marketing
As a business owner, I do the extra legwork to understand what my clients need – and how my services can fulfill those needs.
Instead of thinking spending is icky, I look at spending like an investment. Buying things like a Macbook Pro and Adobe subscription are essential to running a web design business, and I don’t give those investments a second thought. I budget for them.
As someone who grew up with a frugal, saving mindset, changing the way I approached thinking about money has been a huge work in progress.
Behind the Scenes: How my own income is distributed
As a freelancer, having multiple sources of income helps carry your business through slow periods (like the holiday season when everyone is focusing on spending time with their families).
To give an example, I looked at my income between October 1, 2019 (the last month I was paid for my web design apprenticeship) and October 1, 2020. I have 7 sources of income. Although website and brand design brings in a significant amount of my income, it helps to have income coming in from other sources including writing and affiliate marketing.
- Website & Brand Design: 71% | My signature branding & website design services are the primary source of revenue for my freelance business. When I send a project proposal to a client, I suggest 3 different packages for them based on their needs.
- Web Development: 11% | I work with clients to maintain the backend of their website. They are organizations or solopreneurs who spend their time focusing on the business, and need a go-to gal to make website updates, etc.
- Design (Other): 9% | This includes other types of designs like PDF design, social media image design, and advertising design.
- Other (Freelance Brand Management + Writing): 4% | This includes freelance writing and virtual assistant services, the latter of which I stopped offering in December 2019.
- Affiliate Marketing: 3% | Although I didn’t actively create any new affiliate marketing content, I still earned an income from posts I wrote in 2017-2018.
- Other (Products + Gratuity): 2% | I tried launching products this year and failed – haha. I am also grateful to receive gratuity from some of my clients!
I look at my business income regularly, where I’m spending my time, and what bears the most fruit with the least effort. Unless you already have it handy, you’ll need some time to track this data. But it helps to see where the most profitable parts of your business are, so you can potentially double down on those parts (especially if it’s something you enjoy).
Protip: Use Toggl to track how you spend your time. After each project, take note of how long you spent on the project, any overhead costs (including taxes), and your estimated hourly rate (after overhead).
Behind the Scenes: Website Design Expenses
Here are some of the most notable expenses to keep in mind if you are starting a website design business:
- Website Tools: website hosting, Elementor Pro license
- Client Relationship Manager: Dubsado
- Finances: Quickbooks subscription, Accountant, Bookkeeper
- Contractors: Developer, Pinterest Manager
- Buy Design Assets: Creative Market (fonts & graphics), The Noun Project (icons)
- Create Designs: Adobe Photoshop, Canva, iPad Procreate app
- Courses: Flux Academy & Branding School 2.0
- State and Federal Taxes
Over the years, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on marketing and website design courses. And because I am selective with which courses I purchase, I see the ROI on my bigger course investments.
I enrolled in two Flux Academy courses that helped me grow as both a designer and marketer. I’ve also taken Branding School 2.0 by Hey Sweet Pea, which helped me grow as a brand strategist and a marketer.
If you are just starting as a website designer, I recommend learning from someone else. If you don’t have the money to invest in a course, enroll in Skillshare, watch videos on YouTube, or work as an apprentice designer at a lower rate.
I asked my friend about this article and he suggested I go into the technical and creative process behind website design. But that’s a whole different article! Is that something you’re interested in reading? Let me know below!