5 things I wish I’d known about the web design business.

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3 years ago this week, I left my government job. I didn’t leave willingly — I was 7 months pregnant with my son and had developed complications that meant I had to resign. I was terrified of the prospect of ruining my career in Policy, and wanted nothing more than to get back to it as soon as Jules was old enough.

It turns out that it was the best thing that could have happened to me, because it freed up enough time to take on some small graphic design projects, which became more small projects, which tuned into some larger projects, until all of a sudden, here I sit 3 years later, running a business that was literally formed from the ground up with nothing, with no formal training in graphic design or programming, that is growing more every week.

I have learned so much in a small amount of time, that to look back on my old bad habits of business make me cringe. In fact, the list became 10, but I will spread it over 2 posts :). So, here are the FIRST 5 Things I have learned, that I wish I knew 3 years ago:

1. Do NOT negotiate on prices (unless there is a substantial benefit. And yes, I mean substantial.)

Many of the freelancing and career sites will be very cut and dry in their advice about setting rates and sticking to them. In my case, having a degree of flexibility, and seizing opportunities for exposure, actually allowed me to build credibility in an industry where I was a hobbyist, with lots to learn, and I had no idea what my hourly rate was or should be. I had a fair amount of ability and unrefined skill (it’s still not fully there!), but not a whole lot of formal training. So, I offered to do work that other designers would snort at, eg $400 websites, just to get my portfolio up and improve my skills. It was awesome just to make some cash with a small baby at home, doing what I love!

It worked. Really well in fact.

But working for cheap for a good reason is not what I am talking about here. I had already made a conscious decision to do a certain number of cheap projects for the exposure, and I had already built that in to my strategy. Some of those lower priced websites still bring me new clients. That is just plain smart, because for my discounted work, I was getting, and continue to get, something in return.

But, there will come a point where someone contacts you and demands that you lower your rates, but will offer absolutely nothing in return. This is a mistake I had to make at least 3 times before realising that you do not want those people as clients. I was afraid that there would be “no more work” and that any client was better than none. Neither of those fears are grounded.

In hindsight, I still felt that I was winging it, and it affected my ability to stand my ground when people tried to set the price based on what they could afford. So I accepted those projects. And, guess what? They went nowhere. I will tell you that just about every single time I was pressured into discounting, the relationship went sour down the track. I don’t do it anymore.

When it comes down to it, if I have a slow month (which I haven’t had in a year and a half), ultimately, I would rather be spending time with my kids, or learning something new, or developing my own projects, than working for less than minimum wage for someone who doesn’t respect you. There are any number of jobs where you can do that!

2. Use contracts and clear specifications

If there is one thing that I will tell you to repeat, over and over and over again, it is touse contracts and have clear specifications. Use contracts and have clear specifications. Use contracts and have clear specifications.

Scope creep and chasing money are two of the biggest minefields in this business. I once had a 1 month project drag on for 9 months because I did not enforce the original spec and kept allowing changes to be made (and revision after revision) without reviewing the contract and the spec, or charging the client for my time. It was a complete disaster from start to finish, and needless to say, it was the catalyst for me not only upping my rates, but setting limits on what I will and won’t do as part of the payment.

There are lots of people out there who don’t understand the difference between a Flash site and a non-Flash site, and the substantial differences in costs between them. Never, ever assume that clients understand what they are getting for their money. Put it in writing.

And don’t be afraid to say “we are wandering off quote here” as soon as it starts to happen.

3. Be open and honest, but not too open or too honest

When I first started in this business, I was on a high. Everyone was my buddy, everyone was on the same page as me, and I didn’t care what people thought. I said what I wanted, when I wanted, and I made no apologies. I brought people into the fold, befriended them, confided in them, and occasionally even complained about clients on IM. People asked my opinion, and I told them honestly. I made small talk, I had even deeper conversations.

Oh, how naive I was!

Being an open book is great if you are the right kind of open book. If you use honesty and transparency well, it can benefit your business tremendously. But, there are limits.

Here are some things you don’t talk to clients about:

  • Other clients
  • Your Health
  • Your children, beyond the basics
  • Your marital problems
  • Your financial situation
  • Anything that can be used against you later on.

Try to keep some distance between your personal life and your work life, and definitely do not complain about other clients, no matter how tempting it is, and ESPECIALLY if they are in the same industry.

4. Be (emotionally) prepared for the hard times

There was a turning point for me where this business stopped being just “extra” cash, and started being, well, an actual business. There came a point in 2007 where I was being offered policy jobs, and was thinking of going back to the public service, when I suddenly realised that I was actually not that person anymore. I was a designer with my own little business. That was a massive shift in focus for me, and then I started thinking about it like a business.

When this mind shift occured, naturally, I started to wonder about the work, where the next job was coming from, and living invoice to invoice (something which I am still not entirely great at!). It is pretty common knowledge in all business literature that the first 2–5 years are very hard financially. The business books offer up a lot of advice on how to deal with ebbs and flows, and how to deal with cashflow (my single biggest problem and a common one for self employed folks), and how to avoid failing in those formative first few years.

What I wasn’t prepared for, however, is the massive emotional strain that business can put on you. I always knew it would be hard financially, but the emotional rollercoaster came as a huge shock to me. When the sale of a website was not just about keeping the business afloat financially, but it also determined my worth as a designer and a human being. That every success was met with extreme happiness, but every rejection being hurtful.

I used to let the mood of my day be dictated by the moods of my clients. I don’t do that anymore — well, at least I try not to. I have learned to distance “myself” the business-person and “me” the human being in a way that my mental and emotional well-being is not so entreched in the success or failure, or ups and downs, of the business. That takes practice, and I am still learning, but, be prepared for a wild ride!

5. Know when to end it

It’s easy to sell a website. I have skills that not many people can do (or at least, do well!), and eventually, even the people that suck at web design get some clients.

It is not so easy, however, to end a client relationship. I have been going through a process in the past 6 months of assessing clients that cost me the most time for the least pay, or don’t fit my future goals with the business and have been trying to gradually move away. The vast bulk of these have been US clients, who for varying reasons, can’t (or won’t) pay competitive rates with local people and even the UK. I have been taking on less and less US clients, who seem to want far too much for far too little.

It was a very hard decision to make, but it has been the right one. Knowing when to get out is as important a skill as knowing how to sell to a client in the first place. Some of the reasons I may choose to end a relationship:

Clients that:

  • refuse to pay market rates
  • want work-for-hire, or otherwise try to set the agenda or micromanage
  • don’t respect that your time = money
  • view you as replaceable
  • constantly pay late
  • often ask for free “5 minute” jobs, or expect anything for free.
  • threaten to use their cousin’s friend’s brother, or refer to said cousin’s friend’s brother who can do it “cheaper”, or threaten to go to India or find some other impressionable young guy…

……are NOT worth your time.

How you actually end it is up to you, but being able to look at your situation and realise that there are always better clients than that out there, is the single biggest leap I have made in the past year.

I enjoyed writing this list, and I actually thought of 5 more things whilst I was writing, so I might write a sequel to this! I am starting to see things growing, and getting better, and it DOES get better. But knowing some of these little things can maybe make it easier.

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