If you’re looking to make the jump from the day job and ever wondered what it’s like to work as freelance web designer full time, grab a brew and keep reading.
This is a roundup of my first 6 months as a full time freelancer, a bit of what I learned, did right and did wrong.
Just to put this article into perspective I’ve been freelancing on top of a day job since 1997, what I did find is that doing this as your sole source of income is a different beast entirely.
Hopefully, if you’re looking to take the same path and read this post, you’ll be fully aware of what you’re getting yourself into. It’s a rewarding path to take but by no means easy.
Why are you doing this?
Lets get this one out of the way right from the beginning. Be absolutely clear on why you’re doing this.
I left my day job in June 2014, partly because I realised it wasn’t going in the direction I wanted and the job and me were no longer a good fit for each other. Nothing bad, no slanging matches, just a case of circumstances changing on both sides of the wall.
Also I felt it was now or never, swiftly heading to my mid 40’s I thought if I don’t try now it will haunt me until my very last day on this planet. Even if I fail, it’ll be better than not trying.
For me it felt like the exact right moment to do this. Even if everyone else was scratching their heads, wondering why I left the security of a reasonably well paid job.
There were a few times working as an employee I thought freelancing was a way out of a problem but it’ll only land you in another much bigger one if you’re not ready to make that jump. I’ve not talked to many other freelancers but I think most (if not all) will say it’s definitely not easy starting out.
So be truthful to yourself on the reasons why you want to do this.
Also, take note that once you have worked for yourself it’s not that easy re-entering the jobs market afterwards. You might think it’s a badge of honour being able to say you’ve worked for yourself, and what employer wouldn’t want a new member of staff with a rock solid work ethic and bundles of initiative?
But some employers tend to see this as a red flag which is a bit short sighted in my books. So think seriously and bank that if you do ever want to go back to regular employment your prospective new employer will be researching you online.
The freedom of flexible working hours, errr ……. not quite.
Yes, there is an element of freedom but probably not how you’re picturing it.
I did start out with what I thought were the best of intentions and stuck to them, what I didn’t realise is that I was still working in ‘the middle’. What’s the middle?
7:30 – Go for a quick 20 mile training run
9:00’ish – Showered, fed and ready to start the day
13:00 – Stop for lunch
14:00 – Start work again
17:00 – 19:00 – Stop work
Plus maybe the odd hour in the evenings.
Cool, always made sure I racked up a few extra hours over the regular 37.5 for the week, and gave myself a pat on the back, really!
Isn’t this exactly the same thing you’re trying to escape from? The middle, just turning up for the standard 7.5 hours, then going home to do whatever it is you normally do in the evening. There’s nothing wrong with it if that’s what you want out of life, but if you want to make things happen nothing’s going to change while you’re sat watching Netflix.
What the ‘middle’ isn’t is different to everyone, living abroad, creating more family time or earning huge amounts of money, at the end of the day there always needs to be a passion to make the vision a reality. If you’re not prepared to give everything then stick to the day job.
This month, my first ever 70+ hour week (productive hours) made me realise I’ll always keep pushing no matter how rough it gets, but at the same time always try and recognise the signals you need to stop and take a break. Feeling burnt out can be even more damaging if you try to push through it.
There’s a brilliant video below from Gary Vaynerchuk that describes all of this perfectly and it’s always my motivation go to video when I’m starting to feel the wheels coming off.
Subscribe to Gary on YouTube if you get time, definitely worth it and they’re not the dry, boring business videos you’ll be used to.
Be financially prepared
There will be days when you wonder if you’ll meet your mortgage payments or put food on the table. If that freaks you out you’re going to need one hell of a large financial safety net of at least 6 months.
The other point is. That perfect moment to leave the security of normal working life may never come. You will need to play this moment by ear as most people, myself included are not living with a spare £15k in the bank, in fact most of us are living with crap levels of debt.
For me it was more a case of circumstance, flying by the seat of my pants and a little bit of good luck that led me to my chosen ‘quit the day job’ moment.
I was most definitely not prepared financially but did some major league budgeting before I left work, looking at ways to cut my outgoings.
To the extreme my monthly expenditure now is what it was 8-10 years ago, this has the added bonus that when you start earning on a regular basis you will end up with more spare at the end of the month.
Just wish I’d been this good at budgeting when I was in the day job. I could have built a bigger safety net.
The harsh reality of earning potential
It might be a simple calculation in your head…
[hourly rate] x [hours worked] = [earnings]
Granted, some of you will work to fixed project prices, some hourly but at the end of the day whether or not the client sees it you’re trading time for money.
If you’re not already established and don’t have leads coming in that match your current earnings, you can chuck that idea straight in the bin.
In this business client hand holding and scope creep while learning the ropes is all part of the routine when you’re starting out. Then there’s day to day admin and accounts, marketing, annoying cold callers who scrape your business details from directories (who nearly always call at lunch). Adding to all of that, the taxman then takes his slice.
In theory going by the hours I work and my hourly rate I should be pulling in around the £5-6k per month mark. It’s not even half that at the moment, mainly because I’m working on the foundations of my business.
To make that statement even more stark, December 2014, I worked just over 220 hours and had what I call an easy week off (probably most peoples idea of a normal working week) because of this thing called Christmas.
Everything you do in the first couple of years is all about building a solid foundation for your future regardless of the hours it takes.
I’ve also kept a very basic weekly schedule / Excel document of the time spent on various activities which shows the weeks totals (also to keep me on track with projects). This has been invaluable as I’ve been able to identify who or what is creating these ‘time sucks’ and reduced them by a third already, leaving me more time on tasks that add to the bottom line.
I would go by a very safe calculation that whatever you charge per hour, once you’ve taken out admin, marketing, meetings, other time sucks, the tax man etc. You’re actually looking at an hourly rate closer to half or a third of your original hourly rate figure.
The good news is, once you improve your processes and identify the people you do and don’t want to work with, this will shift back towards what you were aiming for as an hourly rate originally.
Before you even write a line of code or optimise an image, you need to set a payment schedule with the client and make sure they know this is how you operate up front, without exception.
Don’t let them bully you into working any other way, it’s not worth it. I’ve been there in the early days and paid the price. It’s a sad fact of life that some people who on the surface seem to be decent people, are not.
For most projects I’ll charge a 50% deposit up front before any work starts, then 50% to release the new website from the development server. If you can see the project running over a few months then set up regular payment milestones.
Not doing this, when I very first started years ago and was a little bit naive, left me with a couple of clients who actually ran off with my work, to the point now if a client doesn’t want to work that way I won’t even entertain the idea of working with them.
Losing a hot lead is one thing, losing 50 hours of work and all the time you invested in the client is not even worth thinking about.
There is also the subject of cash flow. Some clients who have all the best intentions of paying you can drag a project out, delaying that final payment. If you’ve not taken a deposit, this can cause serious cash flow problems for your business.
Just as a final note, if you’ve not been paid, try not to lose your cool until you have all the facts under your nose.
Getting paid 50% up front or working to a payment schedule gives you some flexibility but always think, sometimes the client may be having their own problems and won’t for whatever reason want to, or be good at communicating this too you so try not to burn your bridges with the client in a fit of rage until you’ve lost all reasonable hope.
Getting paid – part 2
Easiest way to get money into the bank
I used to run everything through Excel and it used to be a major pain to not only raise an invoice, but also keep track of who was outstanding and what I was pulling in each month.
Adding to that, last year I had the first client who wanted to pay by credit card and not the usual bank transfer or cheque.
So ended up doing a bit of hunting around, tested a few different systems but finally found FreshBooks.
I couldn’t recommend them highly enough! All the time I’m working as a freelancer, FreshBooks will be part of my setup. Clients have even remarked on it too as they all have their own billing area and can see all of the invoices I’ve sent. It gives a very professional feel to your setup.
The biggest bonus by far is I get paid much quicker, in fact, it’s the 25th Jan today and 4 of the 5 invoices sent out for this month have been paid already.
Update 11-05-15: Lots more invoices to deal with these days, in the beginning it was all about getting paid quickly but I’ve soon come to realise now I have more and more clients to deal with, Freshbooks is easily paying for itself just on the invoicing features alone, not only creating new invoices but keeping track of what’s owed. Invoicing has become one less thing to worry about.
Adding to this you can actually see if the invoice has been looked at, this is great as sometimes spam filters at some companies can be quite aggressive and chuck your invoice in the spam bin. If an invoice hasn’t been viewed I use this as a cheeky excuse to call the client and see if the invoice has actually made it to them.
On top of all of this you have a very capable accounting system. This is hands down the best system I’ve tried that feels like it’s specifically geared for people like designers or programmers.
Site specifications, contracts
and avoiding the he said, she said.
Tied closely with getting paid are site specifications.
Ironically I failed on this one for the first time in years only very recently. With a good deal of complacency I took on a client job a bit hastily, and for the first time in as long as I can remember I didn’t supply a site specification before the client put down their 50%, as they were keen to get started as soon as possible (literally the same hour). Luckily for me they seem to be a decent bunch but that could have gone so very wrong.
Not a problem for the client, but if they start to abuse the project scope it means either one of two things. Suck it up and carry out the extra work for free, or drop the project.
I’ve seen some site specifications that look like a set of legal documents, all you really need if you’re creating basic sites is a set of bullet points in an email highlighting the pages they expect, any extra functionality and who is going to supply the content and anything else you can think of like hosting and domain names, I would add in what you’re going to test the site on if it’s not already in your T&C’s.
Edit: I found this video from Mike Monteiro shortly after completing this article. This takes things a step further but it’s an absolute must for all web designers to watch. To the point you should be watching this before diving into any sales or marketing. If you don’t, then prepare at some point to get right royally shafted.
Side note about supplying content
I’ll normally play this one by ear with the client as there’s a couple of ways to look at it. The content can drag a project out if it’s going to be supplied by the client, so you will need to set deadlines for them.
Most of the time the client will supply the content themselves or it’ll be outsourced. Either due to the volume of content needed, or it’s a subject that you are going to struggle writing about.
On the odd occasion I will supply the content myself for a fee, if it’s a small site and the client is busy, just to stop the wheels on the project falling off, also I like writing as you might have guessed by the length of this post.
Set realistic expectations
The seedy underbelly of SEO has made it so difficult to set realistic expectations. Early turn of the century, people would ask me to build a website. Only requirements being it looked good.
Due to the shed loads of emails that come in every day from unscrupulous companies looking to do a few months “SEO” work, who then offload the client when there’s no results. Clients now expect their business to be fixed with a £1000 website.
It’s not the clients fault. This is what they’ve been led to believe is the norm.
One of the best videos I’ve seen was part of Rand Fishkins whiteboard Fridays.
This is something I’ve recently buzzed over to a new web design client who had the very same concerns. He’s not technical but he got the general theme of the video that in order to achieve results a number of steps need to be completed.
He will tell you, I was extremely up front about what was to be expected and didn’t gloss over the fact that there is no silver bullet. If you want results, it’s a lot of hard work and that doesn’t come free.
With a well-built website being the very first step.
It’s also nice to have you and the client start on the same page as to the purpose of the website and the benefits of what you’re doing for them.
If you think you can’t do a job within the deadlines set by the client, explain why. 99% of the time, a rush job turns into a hack job which ends up with the client not achieving the results they wanted through poor site performance.
Ask, wouldn’t they rather just spend that extra time on the project than get the job done in record time and then not achieve any results.
There is a bigger tip though, you set the deadlines, remember who’s boss!
At the end of the day the client shouldn’t be dictating how you run your business. I fell foul of this a couple of times still running in employee mode (it’s hard not to after nearly 30 years of full time employment).
Yes, you need to be aware that the work you do most of the time will be to a deadline for some reason or another. If you can see problems with the deadlines set then you should talk with the client about your concerns.
But they need to be fully aware, you have other clients to look after and various business tasks to attend to. To have one client with a tight stranglehold on your business (that’s what it’ll feel like) is not a good place to be.
Don’t cut your own throat
The web design world is totally oversaturated!
If you’re going to compete on price, you can be certain unless you’re operating in a third world economy it’s something best left for clients who don’t really care about the quality of the work being produced and just treat web design as a box that needs ticking.
This is just my own personal view, and it’s completely up to you if you want to be the equivalent of a web design sweat shop but try not to get into a bidding war with the cheaper end of the market.
Whatever your skill level. Always aim to provide a decent level of service, which goes from answering the phone and emails quickly, quality of your work, to the final handover of the project. Then also look at ways you can over deliver for the client.
On the subject of replying to clients, don’t be that web designer who takes 2-3 days …… Sorry, that’s just a pet peeve of my own after experiencing it first-hand.
There will be some clients who take the mickey with scope creep and it’s something you will learn to deal with, but overall delivering quality is the foundation for your business to feed it with referrals. More referrals, less time you need to spend marketing or trying to convince business owners you’re the right person for the job.
What I try to do, and have to play it by ear with the client, is with the good ones I bend over backwards for them. It may seem unprofitable and a gamble that sometimes will go totally un-noticed but I’ve quickly learned that most clients have a much larger long term value if they like working with you. Not only through continued work but also referrals.
It’s hard to learn as there are a lot of scam artists, time wasters and tyre kickers out there, but going above and beyond for a good client will pay off massively, or it has in my case anyway.
Someone once said to me …… ‘You’ll need to build a lot of websites each month to meet your bills’.
Something that even I didn’t realise is that 5-6 decent regular clients on retainer and a reasonable marketing setup feeding your business with a few new leads each month will keep most single freelancers safely afloat.
If I had gone down the web design sweat shop route and competed on price I’d be building god knows how many websites each month, not to mention the stack of complaints due to the lack of quality. Then to add to all of that the marketing needed to generate that many sales.
How can you win playing that game?
Always keep in your mind to put aside time for personal development, things did go a bit too quiet during September and October, so on top of my daily marketing routine I would always make time to keep upskilling. Something I still put aside a few hours or more for depending on workload.
My favourite place for this is Lynda.com, I think this is so important as it also gives you that extra confidence.
A tip of mine is to also take the occasional look at the jobs market and see what skills the top employers in your area are looking for too. It’s also a good way to see who’s been advertising and for how long, should you ever need to return to regular employment it gives you a slight upper hand if you know someone has been advertising for a good while.
Do a bit of IT
Long long ago I used to run the IT for a small company (along with the website), and found backups, no matter that they’re a pain in the bum to do especially for CMS websites will be your best friend done properly, and you knowing the routine for getting everything back up and running again is a valuable skill.
Just like the scene below, know how to disassemble and reassemble your clients website, “Your backup is your friend”
For web design you might be thinking ‘ah yeah but the hosting companies take care of this’.
Yep! Along with that in the small print can sometimes be a small paragraph about the fact they’re not contractually obliged to unless you have set up a specific backup service.
Do yourself a favour and have a trustworthy backup system in place that you know how to use.
For my managed clients on sizable retainers I’ll go that extra mile. The web server is checked every single minute 24/7/365, audits are run weekly, and regular backups are taken without question.
If the worst ever happens I’ll not only know there’s a problem before the client I’ll also be able to deal with it promptly.
Getting the Work
For some businesses it would be criminal not to put a large percentage of your efforts into SEO as the business niche the client is operating in is so easy to break into, but being realistic web design is not the niche it once was to attack with SEO, unless you have the money or the time.
For most local areas it’s a tough nut to crack unless you’re going to go overboard optimising your site just for say ‘web design in Ashford’ but then that would be so short sighted to limit your business in that way. In fact the competition is majorly fierce in some counties, looking at my MOZ analytics account and the competitive data, the figures I originally took to work on the SEO for TN2 Networks show it’s almost as hard to rank at town level as it is at county level where I live for web design.
Let the SEO happen naturally, client site links, outbound marketing. Then attack tasks like general link building little and often.
I know from the affiliate world if you go in all guns blazing you will have to keep that same momentum going, otherwise all Google will see is a massive spike in your link building activities followed by a long flat line …… That’ll be one big red flag in Googles eyes.
SEO does convert nicely from what I’ve found but if you’re going to wait for it to happen you’ll be broke before you know it.
Get in peoples faces
I’ll be the first to call myself out on this one.
I’m really not the most outgoing type who would look forward to a network meeting. I’ve done cold calling and I’m normally fine if I’m plonked at a table with a new client or two.
But if you can either run business workshops, or network meetings don’t phase you, then do them, hands down nothing beats human face to face interaction.
Even just walking into businesses, not with a template script but something that resonates with the potential client is by far the best option against waiting for something like SEO to work unless your website has been up and running for years collecting a ton of backlinks.
Then again if half of us were any good at selling face to face I imagine we’d be selling second hand cars or working as estate agents, not designers or programmers.
Keep feeding the funnel
Whatever you do, try not to slow down or stop the momentum of new leads coming in. You might sit back and think you have £4-5k worth of hot new leads and start coasting. In reality, unless you’ve taken a deposit for each and every project, in my books they don’t exist.
Yes, like any lead, they need nurturing, but they definitely don’t exist to get my hopes up that I’m going to have an easy ride that month.
At any point the whole lot can come crashing down to a big pile of nothing, or the most likely scenario is the clients need to take some time to make their minds up.
Stop with the industry speak
Right from the outset you need to assume your client knows absolutely nothing about how a website is built.
When I say nothing I don’t mean at the HTML, CSS, PHP level. Go back even further.
It’s not even their job to know that a website is designed and then coded. That’s why they’re talking to you. Believe me, I’ve already had that conversation after showing a client the initial design PSD their next words were ‘ah, so the site’s ready to go live then’.
The further you go down this route using industry speak, the more frustrated the client will get. Remember, if you’re going to go geek on your clients they’re not going to feel at ease working with you.
Develop a split personality
There is no place on Linkedin for ‘Facebook me’ and visa versa. I stand by a general rule that only close friends and family connect with me via Facebook. A couple of very select clients have slipped through the net but these people are very similar in nature to me and very good friends who I’ve known for a couple of decades.
In the same breath, everyone on Linkedin sees ‘professional me’ with a tiny hint of ‘Facebook me’. I still think it’s important to let some of your personality shine through but at the same time I’ll be the first to admit too much of the real me will be, well ………… too much for some people.
Always have a long game and set targets
Mine is to be working more in the affiliate space, whilst keeping my favourite web design clients. Along with the usual financial targets.
I swear if I was 100% affiliate I’d never need to leave the house apart from to get the weekly shop and would become a miserable old git.
Also the affiliate world is great for learning the sharp end of business.
I think there’s too much emphasis on learning all the new frameworks and languages that some web designers have totally lost focus on why businesses want a website built in the first place.
This has been going on with affiliates for years where new traffic building methods and systems would come out almost weekly to the point new affiliates were paralysed from taking action or keeping focus because of information overload.
Know your end goal, then keep your learning specific and specialised to your end goals, then keep taking action.
A final word
You might think this final part goes completely off on a tangent and wondering about the photo, but it’s relevant to this post, I promise (I’m the one in the red, green and yellow).
In my early 20’s I was obsessed with cycling, to the point my dream was to become a pro tour rider. I never did make it and don’t think Team Sky have any places for slightly overweight 43 year olds these days. Think they’d need to drag me up Mt Ventoux with a tow rope.
Was I disappointed? Yes, a little, but this was something I enjoyed doing regardless, it was a passion. Even for my 40th I disappeared out for a 100 mile training run, because that was how I wanted to spend the day doing something that makes me happy.
There even used to be an in-joke in the team. One teammate in particular used to ask me before quite a few races which lap I was going to drop out, think I went 3 to 4 years, never finishing a road race with the bunch, was even lapped on 8-10 mile circuits on more than one occasion.
I put the hours in on the road, even in the middle of winter I’d be out for 90 mile training runs in the freezing rain. Then more hours in the gym doing weights and circuit training, but it just wasn’t happening.
Then out of the blue one year, we’re in the changing rooms for the divisional championships, a 96 mile road race with a pig of a hill in the middle that needed climbing 9 or 10 times (not good for a big lad like me). Usual drill, same teammate came up ….. ‘what lap you dropping out on today mate …… 3?’.
He dropped out, I finished 17th.
Soon after, I’m on the fast end of road race bunch sprints, winning time trials and generally doing ok, nothing special as a rider and never went on to ride a pro tour but that was ok in my books.
Same way I think it’s going to take quite a few cracks at freelancing to get it right. Some people, will for whatever reason hit the ground running, but there’s always going to be the majority who don’t, me included.
I think too many people start a business in this day and age and expect to have everything handed to them on a plate. Then give up too easily because things don’t go their way.
If you’re passionate about what you’re doing then bloody well fight to make it work, put the hours in and don’t give up. There’s no shame in failing if you’ve tried your best, in fact this is one of the few businesses where the only way to fail is to stop trying.