Complete Guide to Starting a Web Design Business

Hold on tight! If you want to learn how to start a web design business, get ready for a wild ride.

The journey of a freelance website designer is often like a turbulent, yet exciting, roller coaster ride. From a state of confusion to a sense of accomplishment, from exhaustion to exhilaration, with detours along the way for sanity checks, strategy resets and supporter shoutouts. But if you do it right, all those banked turns and barrel rolls can lead to a successful career as a freelance web designer.

How to start a web design business: A comprehensive guide

It takes time to build a successful business, so manage your own expectations, and make a commitment to see it through to the end. Use these guidelines to stay on track as you get rolling.

  1. Are you ready to start a web design business?
  2. Set up your work environment.
  3. Build your support squad.
  4. Write your business plan.
  5. Address legal and administrative infrastructure.
  6. Name your web design company.
  7. Craft your brand.
  8. Find your clients.
  9. Set up products and services.
  10. Build your online presence.
  11. Establish proposals and contracts.
  12. Formalize project management and communication protocols.
  13. Establish a comprehensive client site launch process.
  14. Conclusion and next steps.

Let’s get started!

starting a web design agency

1. Are you ready to start a web design business?

First things first: Figure out if starting a web design company is the right move for you by considering the pros and cons.

Pros

Cons

Don’t quit your day job yet

No one becomes a web designer overnight.

Plan to spend a few years improving your technical skills, then start charging for your services, and continue to develop a stable revenue stream.

Remember that you won’t just be doing production work. You’ll also be the salesperson, bookkeeper, project manager, and account coordinator. These skills don’t come from online courses or from attending a fast-track coding school; they’re learned through hands-on experience over time.

How can you start gaining that experience now — even if you’re just starting your freelance web design business?

Use what you learn from these activities as a foundation to build on as you’re starting a web design agency.

Initially, most new clients will probably come from word-of-mouth referrals. But what if you have no existing clients? Consider activities that boost your visibility while demonstrating your expertise:

Learn more about the freelance life

Starting a web design business demands a change in perspective, from “I work for a business” to “I run a business.”

How can you make this switch from employee to business owner easier?

Solidify your expertise

Make a plan to whip your skills into top-notch shape.

You don’t need expertise at everything, but ensure mastery of the basics.

Identify classes, workshops and seminars you want to attend. Be sure to look at schedules for the next year to plan ahead for annual events.

Pro tip: Check out web design training and tutorials on Lynda.com.

Have a good transition strategy to cover your expenses

If you’re currently working full-time, before you quit your job you should have six to 12 months’ savings to cover living expenses, more cash in the bank for emergencies, and alternatives for covering benefits such as healthcare.

Build credibility, establish thought leadership, earn trust

Sharing what you already know boosts credibility and gives you an opportunity to connect with your peer network as well as others.

2. Set up your work environment

web designer home office

After you’ve done your due diligence, get ready to start your own web design business by setting up your work environment.

Create your very own workspace that enables work/life balance

Entrepreneurs know the work/life balance struggle is real.
To minimize that struggle, create a dividing line between work and the rest of your life, starting with a dedicated space that allows you to get work done, uninterrupted. Set and enforce boundaries, including rules ensuring your space is left untouched, and that you are given time to work.

Understand how many hours you can reasonably work, while maintaining your productivity, protecting time with friends and family, and continuing to pursue your own hobbies, sports, or other outdoor activities.

Consider how best to pace yourself, and be more productive each day.

Know your contingency plan

Power or internet service outages are a crisis for those who work at home. Know where you can park for a few hours, with an available wireless network and table space. Locate:

Invest in solid and capable hardware and software

You’re a web professional, so it’s critical to consider the right tools for creating graphics, modifying photos, and documenting your work.

Set up a file-sharing account at Dropbox or another provider.

Have a bullet-proof backup strategy

Don’t compromise on reliable security and backup strategies for your computers and office. Having these systems in place will let you sleep at night.
Select a remote file backup system such as Crashplan or Carbonite.
Determine if you will want a complete computer backup to an external server, and if so, add that to your hardware startup budget.

Establish financial accountability

Be diligent with bookkeeping and client billing information right from the start of your web design company.

You don’t just want this information to make sure you get paid, but also to have data for future project and income/expense estimation and forecasting.

Don’t be afraid to get help with small business expense planning.

Clarify how you’ll get paid

Nail down the details about requesting and receiving money before any billable work is done.

Pro tip: Put processes and policies in place to make sure invoices are paid on a timely basis.

3. Build your support squad

web design agency team

Now that you’ve got your initial space, processes, and tools in place, it’s time to surround yourself with a community for support.

Find your peeps

Even when working alone in your own little office, be on the lookout for ways to interact and engage with others in the web design and development community:

Pro tip: Join online or in-person communities of neighbors, alumni or participants in your current hobbies or outside interests. People you meet in those communities may also need your services.

Engage a mentor

Taking the leap into a new tech-based career can be simultaneously exhilarating and intimidating, whether you’re a new college grad or making a mid-life career transition.

Mentoring works for everyone as a means to build confidence, enhance skills, and set achievable goals.

When moving from employee to freelancer, a mentor who’s already made that transition can impart wisdom only gained through experience.

Assemble your all-star extended team

Build a circle of known and trusted “ Power Partners ” providing complementary services that work in sync with yours, without cannibalizing work or clients.

Consider how and when you might outsource

As the leader of your business, you need to continue to prioritize and delegate. You’ll never be able to do everything on your own if you also want to learn, grow, and scale up your business.

Outsource tasks that don’t require your technical or creative skills — including taxes, bookkeeping, shopping, and anything else you don’t enjoy doing.

4. Write your business plan

Your business plan should:

Pro tip: Trying using a one-page Lean Canvas template to create your business plan.

Treat building your business as a project

It doesn’t have to be complex, but the project needs to be managed correctly to ensure that it sets clear goals, keeps focus, and stays within budget. This means having a basic idea of project management.

Many use a diagram called a business model canvas to show how the company will create value for itself and its customers. The diagram will show your business model and list key features, the size of the market, etc.

Use tools such as Google Trends and Facebook ads to evaluate market potential. Crunchbase is a good tool to evaluate competitors.

Set and faithfully monitor both short- and long-term goals

There’s no shortage of advice on how to go about setting and achieving your goals when starting a web design agency, but identifying your goals can be a challenge, too.

Ask yourself these five questions as you set or review your goals. And you’ll want to make sure they’re SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based.

5. Address legal and administrative infrastructure

Here’s where you get your paperwork in order. Decide how you’ll structure your business, check with local governments for any licensing requirements, arrange insurance and benefits, and manage your time so you set yourself up to succeed.

Establish your business identity

Decide if you’ll operate as a sole proprietor, LLC, or corporation. Consider engaging a lawyer to help you with the necessary paperwork and/or using an online service such as LegalZoom.

Get licensed

Check your city government website to determine local requirements for business licensing, permits and fictitious name or DBA (“Doing Business As”) registration.

Acquire insurance

Liability insurance is a good idea in general, and some clients may require proof of it. In addition, determine extra insurance you might need, such as disability insurance.

Solicit several quotes to make sure you’re getting the right package for your needs.

If you have car, home or renter’s insurance, get one of those quotes from your personal insurance agent.

Plan benefits

If your previous job included medical, retirement or other benefits, you’ll need a plan to get the equivalent items in place.
Can you be covered on a spouse or partner’s medical insurance? What about setting up a retirement account?

While you won’t earn paid holidays or vacation, you’ll want policies in place to set client expectations and to provide for a backup resource if necessary.

Ace the day-to-day tasks

Set and enforce boundaries, adopt time management best practices, and maximize your productivity by setting up tools and systems.

Identify the key tasks that would benefit from consistent execution. Set up processes, checklists and organizing strategies for:

Create templates for:

6. Name your web design company

Your name plays an important role in attracting customers and clients, submitting legal documents to form your business, and selecting a domain for your business website. Therefore, naming a web design company takes thoughtful consideration and planning.

Consider your long-term business goals when deciding whether to use a “business” name (Web Awesome Agency of Washington) or your personal name (John Doe Design).

In summary, here’s when to use a business name:

And when to use your personal name:

Take action and register your domain

Once you’ve identified your perfect name, be sure to register your domain right away.
Try to get a *.com*, but also consider variations and other extensions.

7. Craft your brand to tell your compelling story

Your brand starts with a logo and color scheme, but beyond that, it’s about the messaging connecting you to your target audience, and it affects buying behavior.

Let your “voice” represent your values, your strengths, your style.

Young and trendy, or mature and experienced? Serious or whimsical? Luxury service or economical alternative?

Your brand is unique, so tell a compelling story that makes clients want to hire you instead of your competitors. Identify your unique selling proposition (USP) to have ready answers to these questions:

Create marketing collateral

Start with business cards, flyers or brochures, and any giveaways that get — and keep — your name in front of potential clients.

8. Find your clients

how-to-start-web-design-business-designer-and-client

Photo by Kobu Agency on Unsplash

Find your niche

You don’t want to be known as just a generic “web designer.”

In order to showcase your expertise, consider specializing, whether based on the types of clients you take, or the types of projects you do.

Specializations could focus on market space, geographic area, or a particular type of site, such as eCommerce or membership management. Communicate your niche throughout your materials.

Your sweet spot is the intersection of both your skills and your passions.

That’s where you want to spend most of your time, so if an activity is not in that sweet spot, consider delegating, automating, or deleting it from your task list.

The benefit of spending all your time doing your best work is that the work quality tends to be higher, the outcome for your clients tends to be better, and you’re happier — which is good for avoiding burnout.

Know your audience

Once you’ve identified your sweet spot, ask yourself, “Who stands to benefit the most from working with me when I’m doing my best work?”

Customer satisfaction is critical to the success of a web design business.

Even more critical is your own satisfaction. Engaging with web design clients who are the right fit for you is one way to facilitate that.

Strategize to find clients

You may ask “How do I find new clients?” as if they are hiding. In fact, clients are not hiding from us; they are waiting to be served. The trick is finding them.

Business development is an ongoing process to ensure there’s always work coming in the door. It’s not just something you do when you need new clients, but an always-there task.

Tips that can help you find clients:

Strategize ways to find, meet, and land those folks.

Having your talking points at the ready means you’re prepared when you meet potential clients in unlikely venues, including the gym, Starbucks, or at a concert.

9. Set up products and services

Define your services well, then productize them to bring in recurring revenue. You’ll also need to choose the proper price point for each service.

Keep in mind simplicity and scale when choosing technology

Look for a solution that offers the features and capabilities you’ll need later on. When selecting technology, keep in mind:
Simplified workflows. Look for tools that help you minimize steps per task.

Product trials. It’s difficult to know if a product will be the right solution, so plan to spend time investigating the technology before you commit.

Scaling with success. The more successful you are, the more projects you’ll need to manage, and that takes time.

Transferring ownership. As a freelancer, you may cover hosting costs or other fees on behalf of clients. Know how you’ll transfer ownership if costs need to move to the client.

Clarify your service offerings

In addition to defining a niche market in terms of your audience, you’ll want to craft a well-defined scope of offerings. For example, you might offer any or all of the following:

You might also offer complementary services, such as:

Productize your services to create recurring revenue

Recurring revenue should be part of every web designer’s monthly income.

It’s automatic money coming in every month, without requiring you to constantly be in the mode of selling. When it comes to developing long-term relationships and reliable income, multiple recurring revenue streams keep business flowing — and cash flowing into your bank account.

Recurring revenue is scalable, sustainable and profitable.

It removes a lot of the waste from the traditional service business model, such as design revisions, project management, account management, invoicing, and chasing payments.

Recurring revenue succeeds when you’re providing recurring value.

Turning your services into a product that works on a short-term-but-renewable basis is key. That value could come from a variety of sources, including:

Price to be profitable

It’s preferable to charge for value instead of time, so you’ll want to figure out which pricing model (e.g., hourly or project-based billing) is best for your web design business.

Defining a per-project price avoids conversations about how every last minute is spent, and price negotiations based on specific features or items clients may feel are not important.

Keep in mind:

Here’s the punchline: not all of the activity that goes on in your business is directly related to any specific client, but all of the activity that goes on in your business must be built into the price that clients pay you.

If clients are not paying for all of this activity, it means you are.

10. Build your online presence

You’re proud of your work — time to showcase it to the world with a website and social media presence that attract your ideal clients!
Take time to connect with your audience on social and build a comprehensive marketing strategy.

Create your own website

Create the vehicle that showcases your work, shows your product/service offering, demonstrates the value you provide and covers your policies.

Nothing tells your story better than your portfolio of completed work.

If you don’t have much completed work to highlight, consider building a few volunteer sites to beef up your portfolio.

It’s OK to start small, but continue building out and improving your site in the background. As you finish with pages or sections, publish and test the site with your potential customers: feedback is key.

As a minimum, your site should include:

Include details around any certifications or specialized training, and make sure readers know you are indeed trained, with experience and skills they can use. Show how you stand out from the hobbyist crowd, with a reliable background and formalized education.

Establish social media connections

Set up social media accounts, and consider whether you want business profiles separated from your personal profiles.

Focus your efforts on the few best platforms for reaching your target audience, and work them effectively. Confirm which platforms your audience is most likely to spend time on, based on demographics such as age, gender, geographic location.

Get customers to your website

Getting potential customers to your site requires a marketing strategy.

Use tools such as Google AdWords , Facebook ads, and GoDaddy Email Marketing to raise awareness about your business and products.

11. Establish proposals and contracts

Do the pre-work to confirm client fit

Before proposing work for a prospective client, additional pre-work can help you minimize re-work, avoid gifting clients with “free” work and steer clear of projects that are not a good fit for you.

That pre-work includes recon on your part: Is there an existing site? Where is it hosted? Is their business model ethical?

You’ll also want to ensure prospective clients have a solid grasp of key factors involved in developing a successful web design for them, including purpose, measurable objectives, realistic budget/cost/schedule expectations, and the site’s intended audiences.

Start the negotiation with preliminary costing

Most projects start with speculative preliminary documentation that initiates the project costing conversation — ideally leading to a more formal contract.

Estimates provide a general idea of whether services can be delivered within budget in the client’s required timeframe — and are offered with the understanding that details could change as more is learned about requirements.

Quotes are more formal, with a fixed price constrained by a limited valid timeframe.

Bids provide documented responses to a set of well-defined specifications, often submitted in competition with other bids.

Proposals deliver a comprehensive, detailed document, and are perfect for letting you outshine the competition.

Once you’ve negotiated an agreement with your client based on one of the above methods, it’s time to seal the deal with a comprehensive contract.

Create a contract that protects both you and clients

A web design contract protects you, your time, your bottom line, and your sanity.

As with any contract, a web design contract defines the business and legal relationship between you and your client, as well as the personal relationship concerning business practices, communication and interactions.

Legally, it’s a mutually binding agreement, where each party makes commitments around deliverables and compensation for the work to create them. If either party fails to meet its commitments, the contract becomes the basis for possible legal action.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and the web development agreement that’s right for you won’t be right for others. Contracts are critical in:

Developing your own contract from scratch can be time-consuming, and you may forget something important. Then again, paying someone else to create your custom contract can get expensive. The compromise solution starts with finding a free, customizable web design contract template.

12. Formalize project management and communication protocols

Tracking time and communication, establishing an onboarding process and effectively managing scope changes are all part of a web designer’s job, and it’s critical to have the right tools and processes to help you stay on top of everything. Here are a few proven tips:

Formalize project management

Find an online tool that makes it easy to keep track of communication. Managing projects through email is impossible once you get bigger.

When you bring someone in, or the client brings in a new employee to handle the project, you will need a way to go through what has been done.

Establish a new client intake/onboarding process

Once you’ve found and landed those ideal clients, and have the signed contract, plan the process you’ll use, including:

There are many different types of clients you will likely encounter as you get your web design business off the ground — so plan to adjust your communication style to suit each type of client’s unique needs.

Track time obsessively

Track your time on everything. Time adds up, with a phone call here, and email there. Time is one of the only things you can’t get more of.

Control change requests

You will always want to keep a client happy, but if you start off making simple unplanned changes to the project you’ll be opening the door for your client to expect big free changes.
Have a way to document a change request and make sure they know that it costs something.

One of the quickest ways to lose profit in a web design project is to mismanage client expectations when it comes to scope changes.

A good way to avoid this situation is to get your client interacting with the website as quickly as possible.

Even a prototype with limited design elements gets them viewing the site as if they were an end user, so questions will come up sooner. This is where the concept of interactive prototypes comes into play.

There are many ways you can develop prototypes quickly using WordPress . The idea is to keep it as plain as possible and get your client to sign off on functionality.

13. Establish a comprehensive client site launch process

When it’s go-time, your job is to make sure the website is absolutely ready to launch. First, the content and technical check, including these topics (although you’ll want to customize):

Then you need to prepare your client for their website launch, including the following considerations:

Here is a fantastic resource to make sure you cross your t’s and dot your i’s before you launch a website.

Solicit social proof

When it comes to attracting new clients, few things are more powerful than social proof.

Getting good testimonials is about delivering value before you ask, and then timing your request.

If you have over-delivered on value, offered a service that really solves their problem, provided exceptional customer service, and made customers feel like you’re there for them, then they’re usually happy to give you a good testimonial. Best to ask immediately after the project is done, as soon as they have begun getting value from your work.

14. Conclusion and next steps

Even with all of this information to get you moving in the right direction for starting a web design business, you may be wondering … what’s the secret to making it happen?

Mark Twain said “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” Take the time to absorb all that’s covered here, dig into the linked articles for more information, make your plan, choose a starting point — and then go for it!

To summarize the main steps in the process:

No matter what, the best thing you can do is just *get started*. What are you waiting for?

*This article includes content originally published on the GoDaddy blog by the following authors: Kristina Romero, Randy A. Brown, Aaron Reimann, Troy Dean and Andy McIlwain

Photo by Olia Nayda on Unsplash

Lisa Stambaugh

Lisa Stambaugh has been a freelance Web Diva® since 1998, during which time she has designed and implemented more than 600 websites. When she’s not creating online, her hands are probably busy tying knots in yarn with a couple o’ sticks. Her book Web Diva Wisdom: How to Find, Hire, and Partner with the Right Web Designer for You was published in 2014.

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Add as many websites as you want for free, no credit card required. Sign up and start saving time!



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Over 65,000 WordPress professionals are already using ManageWP

Add as many websites as you want for free, no credit card required. Sign up and start saving time!



Have questions? Get in touch!