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Advice for Self-Employed Web Designers

As someone once said, being employed gives you the illusion of security, while being self–employed gives you the illusion of freedom.

How to Get Started

Unless you have some savings to fall back on, the best way to make it as a self–employed web designer is to start by treating it as a paid hobby, and do the work during evenings and weekends, or part–time if your day job allows it. Once you are sure you are going to have enough work coming in, you can take the plunge.

You Probably Won’t Make It

Sadly, the majority of self–employed web designers go out of business within the first year.

As you can probably tell from the number of awful websites out there, a lot of web designers are not especially good at their jobs. Many customers can’t tell good from bad, so plenty of website work goes to this large, constantly changing pool of relatively poor web designers. You are unlikely to make it unless you are noticeably better than average.

Incidentally, it isn’t the case that web design agencies are professional and someone working from home is an amateur. There are some terrible agencies and some excellent one–man–bands. Overall, the range of quality is much the same in both groups, but the self–employed are vulnerable because customers tend to assume that a fancy office is a guarantee of competence.

Watch out for Dodgy Customers

You may come across the occasional customer who tries to get away without paying. Any competent web professional will know how to pull the plug on a website — a blank screen will normally encourage the customer to look for his cheque book. If you behave professionally from the beginning, customers won’t be tempted to take advantage.

Don’t provide any web services for illegal activities. If you do, you will be an accessory to whatever crime is being carried out. We were approached once by a drug dealer who wanted an e–commerce website to sell his herbal wares. The money would have been good, but unfortunately we had to turn him down, man.

Make Sure the Price is Right

The most common mistake self–employed web designers make is to try to attract customers by pricing themselves too low. All customers will have an upper limit, but most will be happy to pay a fair price. The only customers who are likely to be swayed by an extra–low price are:

  • Those who want something for nothing. They won’t value your work, they will make extravagant demands, and they will be reluctant to pay.
  • Those who don’t have much money. They too will be reluctant to pay.

You’ll spend more time trying to get money out of people like that than you will spend actually creating their websites.

Most Customers are Reasonable

It is worth bearing in mind that if a customer says, “I don’t want to spend a lot of money,” he or she is not necessarily going to be a bad payer. Most customers haven’t got much of a clue about the price of a website, and are understandably wary of being ripped off. They just need to be persuaded that they will get value for money.

Do not differentiate yourself from other web designers solely by price. Offer something that will appeal to the sort of customers you want, such as a good design sense, a record of successful search engine optimisation, or friendly service (preferably all of those, of course).

Most customers will recognise that creating a website takes time. They will generally be suspicious of anyone who offers a very low price. So don’t be afraid to charge what you think your skills and time are worth.

How to Calculate the Price of a Website

Your price for a particular job will be your standard hourly rate multiplied by the number of hours you think the job will take. The former will be easier to work out than the latter, which will improve with practice.

What is a fair rate for a web designer? Well, a good web designer has a range of intellectual and creative skills, so find out what the going rate is for someone in another line of work with comparable skills. A decent web designer can expect to earn less than, say, a doctor or a lawyer, but more than the average clerical worker.

Your Standard Hourly Rate

When working out your standard hourly rate, don’t forget to take account of all the time and money you will have to spend on non–creative aspects of the job, such as:

  • Dealing with enquiries from customers.
  • Dealing with enquiries from people who don’t turn into customers.
  • Sorting out advertising.
  • Turning away nuisance cold–callers who try to sell you advertising.
  • Creating and sending invoices, and keeping accounts.
  • Keeping your portfolio up to date.
  • Keeping your web design skills up to date.
  • Investing in computer equipment, software, and office supplies.
  • Allowing yourself time off occasionally.

Finally, don’t forget the essential tasks that come with every website: registering a domain name, setting up the hosting, and uploading the website files to a server. These represent a fixed cost that will be more or less the same for a tiny website as for a very large site.

None of these activities will generate income directly, but all are essential and will need to be subsidised by your paying customers. As a rough guide, you should expect to spend half your time creating websites and half your time sorting out all the other things that come with the job.

Fixed–Price or Made–to–Measure?

If you offer fixed–price packages, your price should depend on how long the average website of its type will take you to create. If you find that some jobs take substantially longer to complete, you may want to offer a more limited range of features. If the packages include renewable items such as domain names, hosting, or support, you may want to reduce the initial price and make up the cost over future years.

Whether you offer fixed–price packages or made–to–measure websites, you will need to allow extra time for making adjustments to the website once it seems to be finished. Sometimes there will be spellign spelling mistakes to fix, sometimes the customer will change his or her mind, and sometimes the customer will demand alterations simply because he or she wants to feel in charge.

How to Deal with Customers

Make sure that both you and the customer know exactly what is involved.

You should allow for the fact that most customers won’t know much about the technical side of websites. They may assume that certain features will be included, or be reluctant to ask for features that can be incorporated easily and cheaply. They may not be able to express themselves clearly: we had a customer who wanted a website “just like Ebay” — what they meant was that they liked one small design feature of the Ebay website.

Although it is up to the customer to make you aware of exactly what they want, it is up to you to do everything you can to get all the correct information out of them.

Deposits are Essential

Get some money up front. No matter how nice the customer sounds on the phone, all sorts of things can happen between their agreement to go ahead and your delivery of the final website.

Always get a deposit! Creating a website will take, at the very least, several hours of your time, and in most cases several days or even several weeks. Sooner or later you will come across a customer who decides that actually, they’ve changed their mind, and they don’t really need a website after all. At least if they have paid a deposit you won’t be completely out of pocket.

Don’t have anything to do with any customer who is unwilling to pay a deposit, no matter how good their website might look in your portfolio or how desperate you are for business. And make sure the money is sitting in your bank account before you start work.

The amount of the deposit is up to you. The standard arrangement is 50%, with the balance upon completion of the website. For large, long–term projects, it is usual for the fee to be split into a series of payments at specific intervals.

Terms and Conditions, and Contracts

Before any money changes hands or you start work, you need to clarify such things as payment schedules, the customer’s requirements, the supply of material, the ownership of files, how much support is included, and so on. Make sure that you have a comprehensive set of terms and conditions, written in plain English, and make sure that your customers read them. If there is anything that you won’t do, such as making allowances for Internet Explorer 6, put this in your terms and conditions.

Most small businesses will be reluctant to go to the bother of signing a proper contract for the supply of a modest website. A set of terms and conditions will normally be considered legally binding, provided they are reasonable and that the customer has been given the opportunity to read them. Bring them to your customers’ attention before they pay a deposit, and you should be safe.

Larger organisations will usually expect you to provide them with a proper contract. If you need to supply a contract, get a solicitor to create one. You can draw up some terms and conditions yourself, but leave a contract to the professionals. Don’t worry about the expense of employing a solicitor: if your customer insists that you supply a contract, add the cost to their bill.

The Most Important Lesson

Get a deposit. Every single time, without exception! We can’t emphasise that enough.

Good luck!

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