Getting started as a freelancer

I’ve put this one at the top of the list, because if you’re not enjoying it then don’t do it. Web design and all its facets isn’t for someone who’s not willing to put the time in. The learning curve is constant and the industry never sits still.

Getting Started As A Freelancer – Web Design

There are new technologies and techniques coming in like a shotgun blast of learning. Getting started as a freelancer is hard, hard work; if you’re ready doing it on a part time basis, think forward and ask yourself if you could face this for longer hours every day. Not just the really good bits, like being able to crack on without interruptions – it’s the stuff that you may not have experienced yet – those days where you seem to do nothing but conference call, answer emails or deal with clients who have a tenuous grasp on reality.

Tough times never last, but tough people do

Specialise in a subset of skills

It seems everyone is a ‘web designer’. It’s an unregulated industry, with no qualifications to bar entry. In pretty much the same way anyone who’s ever picked up a monkey wrench in anger and called themselves a mechanic, there are entire levels of crap out there, knocked out by someone who ‘knows a little bit about web design’.

In my opinion, the word ‘web designer’ has not only got itself a bad name, it’s too much of a catch-all term. You’re screaming in a sea of noise, desperately trying to get yourself heard and you are on a hiding to nothing. This is why you should specialise as a ‘Your Niche Skill Here’. Throw your efforts into a niche, and then you can market yourself into this niche; it’s a quiet room next to that sea of desperation.

For example:

  • Do you know Joomla or WordPress inside out? You’re a Joomla or WordPress developer.
  • How are you with Magento or Prestashop, or any of the other open source CMS’s? E-commerce specialist in either of these.

Do you code? If not, then get to grips with the common languages of the web – PHP, Javascript, mySQL; they’re not difficult (with a little planning) and certainly easier than learning a new spoken language, giving you another arrow in your quiver to climb above the competition. Just remember – there’s not a single person on the planet who nows EVERYTHING about any language; they’re tools, not an all-ecompassing zendom.

So now, when we take that niche target and start marketing your website, you’re not fighting against keyword hell when it comes to getting your website together. ‘wordpress developer Hampshire’ is a damn sight easier to rank for than ‘web design Hampshire’.

Getting work as a freelance web designer

For the freshly born freelancer, this is the hardest part and can seem like a catch-22 situation and there are many ways of coping with this. For this section, I’ll deal with how I did it myself. There may be easier ways to go about it, but this is my experience.

I started out in pretty much the same way as anyone else, with a grand website I’d slaved over and zero results for my efforts. Step one was to build a handful of sites for myself, taking ultra amounts of care in the end result. Choose subjects that interest you, and get them hosted. This is going to form your initial portfolio.

Step 2 was to approach the freelance networks, odesk.com and peopleperhour.com. Now, you might think that no-one’s ever going to be so truly desperate that they’d hire a new-born, but you’d be wrong; you have websites in your portfolio now. Big yourself up; don’t be daft enough to bill yourself as ‘inexperienced but learning’, bill yourself as ‘capable, skilled and reliable’.

Work for a pittance; go for the little, easily manageable jobs first, even if you’re working for a goat and a cabbage. Right now, right at this moment, you’re aiming entirely for feedback; testimonial that you’ve done a great job. These networks (and your future career) THRIVE on great testimonial, and it’s recorded, official testimonial that you can point people towards.

Only choose jobs you know you can do; my first was a few simple template changes for a Joomla website. As these come in, slowly raise your prices until you’re at a survivable level.

Getting freelance web design work outside the networks

At the time, I lived in Skegness, a rather grubby holiday resort on the east coast of the UK. This place is caravan mecca, an ode to towing your crap around the countryside behind a car. This made it an obvious target, so I bee-lined my way towards this industry and developed a couple of simple 5 pagers for my portfolio and managed to charge a decent rate for both.

At the same time, my website was SEO’d to hell and back, at which point I ran into a problem – one town simply isn’t enough to gain sustainable amounts of work. So, change of plan – I aimed the website for the county of Lincolnshire, with landing pages aimed at individual towns and key worded to suit. Much more effective; that got me work across Lincolnshire, and as I was in a niche (Joomla developer), I stood much more chance of getting said work than as a plain old catch-all ‘freelance web designer’.

Networking with businesses and sales pitches

The classical image of the socially inept web designer is skewed. The slightly grizzled looking loner vanishes after a few months, because the key behind running a business of any type is networking (actually meeting people) and a touch of entrepreneurship. You are effectively selling a product, be it via email, telephone or face to face. Lets call this the ‘ Sales Cycle’.

      • Get the prospects initial interest – advertising, word of mouth.
      • Qualify yourself – can you match the clients expectations? Tell them how.
      • Presentation – you’re selling both yourself and your skill set.
      • Concerns – quell any concerns the client has by expelling just how you’re going to tackle issues.
      • Sell it to them – ask for the sale. You’re the captain of the ship and you should be subtly steering them towards that sale.

The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.

Play the numbers game

Lack or response might be dragging you down, but lets work on percentages; the more people you contact, the more likely the percentage of those will contact you back for services. Think about it – if you have a good brand and the skill set to match it, there’s every reason to believe that your services will be in demand.

Sell your associated services

You’ve built a handful of websites, and it’s likely that you’ve had to write the body copy for them. You’ve got your own blog and write regularly. Have you done it well? Then welcome to the world of copywriting. Offer it as an associated service, or hop back onto the freelance networks; people are screaming out for engaging writers.

Time Management

Get used to writing task list. Better still, write task list of your task lists. Plan your way to a great working day – it’ll stop you getting sidetracked and provide an outline of your projects. My usual approach is to spend the last half hour of every day writing a task list up for the next. If I don’t do this, I’ll spot an interesting jQuery plugin and spend the entire morning fiddling and trying to work out ways I can make it look needed. Focus on this task list, and make it your priority.

At the same time, you have to bear in mind your own marketing, networking, SEO and blog; set aside a few hours a week for this. There isn’t a single week where you’ll be focusing purely on a client website. Welcome to the world of egg juggling.

Getting started as a freelance web designer – achieving your goals

Goals are good. If you don’t have something on the horizon to aim for, you’re lost and wandering in the desert and that water isn’t going to last forever. Don’t aim for material goods (as a web designer, that Bugatti might be a little out of reach). Aim for the place where you’d like both yourself and your brand to be in six months – what is your turnover likely to be, will you be breaking a profit that’s going to provide a comfortable income?

These goals must be:

          • Measurable – if you are aiming for 100 new likes on the business facebook page, how are you going to get them?
          • Attainable – no, that Bugatti’s still out of the question.

Your new income expectations

Are you devaluing your work? Research your competitors; remember, at this point we’re no longer slumming it for the feedback. Self-confidence is everything, and low prices create expectation of low prices and crap work. What would you trust more, a socket set from Bargain Buy or something up-market from Drapers? Take a median of your top ten competitors and gauge your work against their work. Do you compare well? Then up that pay grade.

In Summary

Getting started as a freelancer can be face-slappingly difficult at the start; it’s difficult to know where your starting point should even be. The trick is to break the process down into manageable, bite-sized tasks that don’t drag you down with the enormity of it all. Above all, be confident; confidence is everything.

      • Break down the process into manageable chunks that don’t drag you down with the enormity of it all.
      • Work to a plan, day by day.
      • Above all else, BE CONFIDENT.
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