5 more things I wish I knew about the web design business

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In my previous post, I mentioned that my list of 5 things had blown out to 10 things I wish I knew about the web design business. Well, here they are:

5. Don’t take criticism personally

All of the business advice and freelance blogs will talk about the idea of “you” being the Point of Difference when it comes to your clients. People approach LinkArtist, fundamentally, because they want me, the word about town is that I do excellent work and have a personal touch that not many other designers can replicate. My pricing is set according to people’s desire to have a site that has been designed by me. I don’t compete on price alone, and that is because I have a reputation as a designer that pours my heart and soul into my work.

But what happens when you have put all of this physical, emotional and mental energy into creating something, and the client rejects the work? Don’t take it personally. Yes, it’s really hard when you are selling yourself as the product, to distance “you” from “the work you do”, but it is necessary to keep you from burning out from stress, or worse, being rude to a client and acting unprofessionally.

When a client approaches you for a project, more often than not, they want “you”. Or, more specifically, they want you to help them look the way they think they should, and the unfortunate reality is that, sometimes, clients have a mental picture of what they want, and they expect us to pluck it out their head. We try our best, but, sometimes, we get it wrong, they change their mind, or whatever, and yes, it’s frustrating. But, it is also a big part of business.

So, remind yourself that yes, your business is you, your work is you, and that’s great, but criticism comes from the customer wanting a certain result — and does not mean that you are at fault. Of course, if a client if abusive, or is deliberately changing the spec of the project those are different things entirely!

6. Take risks

It is tempting to get complacent, earning the same money for doing the same things, over and over. But it is also very easy to get yourself in a rut. And even worse, get into a situation where you feel ripped off.

I recently took a very big risk. I broke up with my very first client. The person who supported me when I was nothing but an amateur designer and wannabe webmaster. The person who cheered me on when I didn’t think I could do it anymore. The person who became a very close friend. There were lots of very good reasons to stay.

I broke up with this client because even though they were ultimately very supportive and nurturing, there came a time where they were not prepared to pay beyond my entry-level rates, and were taking up more time than I could afford to grow my business. I started to grow resentful, and often felt as though my opinion didn’t count — much like that aunt that still sees you as a 10 year old: they couldn’t see that I had grown up and could no longer be bought with candy.

So, I made the risky decision to dump my highest profile and first-ever client. I was worried that I would be frozen out of the network somehow, or that I would stop booking clients. But, that didn’t happen. I took a calculated risk and it paid off for me. And, the friendship has remained intact!

I have increased my prices and billable hours 3 times in the past year. Each time I have felt it was risky and I have lost some clients because of it. But others have stayed, and I am attracting a higher level of budget than a year ago, and am building momentum.

So, even though some situations or decisions may seem risky, you need to assess what the payoff is. For me, it was actually having time with my children, or at least, if I was having time away from my children, being compensated justly for it.

7. Know when to ask for help

I have a tendency to think that, as a generalist, I can do it all.

I have also spent many a night going round and round in circles trying to figure out a solution to a problem that was then promptly fixed in 15 minutes by a programmer. I don’t do this anymore, of course, because I have learned that there are a hundred other things I could be doing with my time, and, for the sake of a few bucks, my sanity, self confidence and sleep are saved.

Start compiling lists of people you can contact when you’re stuck. I also encourage them to contact me, so it becomes a loose network of troubleshooters with particular skillsets. If you want to be on my list, email me, because I always need programmers to call on with half an hour’s notice for small jobs 🙂

Part of knowing when to ask for help, is also being able to identify when you aren’t coping with your load. I now let my phone go to voicemail to avoid interruptions, I do invoicing once a week (with some exceptions like deposits to commence work), and as soon as I can afford it, I will be outsourcing all of my admin. You can’t be expected to do it all AND be good at your work. It’s just not possible.

8. Don’t pretend to be bigger than you are

If you do this, people will expect certain levels of service and availability that one person just cannot provide. Even though it is tempting to talk about the “we” or big-note your “team” of people, this will come unstuck VERY quickly.

I have always tried to explain to my clients that I am small. Even though the personal touch makes for excellent service, the reality is that having to provide personal service to everyone at all times becomes overwhelming. There are many benefits to going with a freelancer over a bigger Agency, but one of the costs of that is that often, I may not answer my phone, or I may take a little longer to get those “5 minute jobs with a minutes notice” done.

Being honest about your size and your time will make your life easier in the long run, contrasted with any short term gain you may get by overselling your services and capacity.

9. Don’t befriend clients without knowing the risks

Freelancing, and especially freelancing from home, is very isolating sometimes. Despite working every day, I can go several days without actually speaking to anyone outside my family. I have plenty of friends, but because I am so busy, it is hard to fit them all in. It is inevitably those who are on Facebook, or take the time to email me, that stay in touch. It can be lonely.

Then, you get that client who is just like you. They too work at home, find it isolating, and are very chatty and personable and you have a lot in common. Your kids are similar ages and you talk about anything and everything. You don’t censor yourself. It’s all roses, the projects go well, they love you and you love them. You’re on a high, you cannot believe your luck of finding someone who finally “gets it”. You go above and beyond for them, because that’s what you do with friends.

Then, there is a problem that needs to be dealt with, business to business, and it goes to shit faster than bad seafood, because you blindly went into a friendship without negotiating what it means to the client relationship. The boundaries were never negotiated, because you think “oh that person would NEVER treat me like that”. And then they do. And it makes you question whether you even want to continue working in the business, and if only you’d defined some clear boundaries from the outset, and not befriended clients, it wouldn’t suck this much…

I just had a friendship and client relationship fall apart like this, so I am speaking from experience here. Tread very, very carefully when you decide to become friends with your clients. I talked about being too candid with clients in the previous post, but this one goes a step further. Be very, very aware of what can happen when a client falls out of love with you, or there is a disagreement over money, or you feel tempted to give them more than what they can afford in the name of friendship. Or, in this case, if the client starts to rely too much on you for stuff that is in their “too hard basket”.

Think about friendships with clients like you would if you were going to have a pre-nuptial agreement. As hard as it is to think about, you need to consider the “what-ifs” if it goes sour.

10. Hosting just ain’t worth the effort.

If you are a web designer or developer and are tempted to sell hosting as well. DON’T DO IT. It is not worth the grief, the disruption or the small amount of money you will get. Clients will expect you to provide tech support, and this is a full time job in its own right.

Take it from someone who has been there and is currently trying to wind back from hosting… DON’T DO IT.

So, hopefully some of this list can help you with your journey, whether you are at the beginning, or partway through, like me.

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