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The Web Design Business

I've been a free-lance web developer since 1996. This page describes how I got started, and how my business works today. This page is intended to be useful to people who are interested in becoming free-lance web developers themselves, and people who are interested in any kind of free-lance work, and also possibly interesting to my customers.
When I first wrote this page I wrote:
My main piece of advice is that if you are at all adaptable to learning new things, the economy is good right now, and the web is an area of huge growth, so the thing to do is GO FOR IT! I was amazed at how easy it was to get started as an independent consultant.

The economy today isn't nearly as good as it was when I first wrote that. But I still think it's a wonderful time to be an independent consultant. There's plenty of work out there, especially if you do work related to the web. The web is going to be around for a very long time. Companies are always going to need good people to work on their websites.

Table of contents:

Here's what I did:

  1. These things are not needed for writing web pages, but I got a computer science degree and worked as a programmer for 8 years. I do both web page design and also programming, especially CGI programming. (What's a CGI program? That's where a web page runs a program, for example an online shopping cart system or database.) There are a lot more people out there who write web pages than people who program, so it's nice to have an extra skill that is in demand.
  2. I accumulated enough savings to be able to eat for a few months, but probably not nearly as much as I should have. It would probably have been smarter to have saved up more first. But this worked out fine anyway, so I have no regrets.
  3. I quit my old job.
  4. I told everybody I know that I was going to be doing free-lance programming and web page design.
  5. For my first few months, I had little work to do. So I spent my time intensively reading tutorials on the web about HTML and anything else that I thought would be useful. (Back then, before Google made search engines easy to use, you needed to know what you were doing to find things with a search engine. So this was another skill I sharpened then.) With a search engine you can find excellent tutorials on-line, free, on any topic you want information about. Some of the tutorials are a lot better than others. If you don't like one, you can always go read someone else's tutorial instead. There are usually several tutorials out there on whatever topic you want to learn about. I also continued telling everybody I knew that I was now doing web design and programming. The page I learned HTML from is NCSA - A Beginner's Guide to HTML. Learning HTML took an afternoon. They've revised the page since I learned HTML from it, but it's still a good place to get started.
  6. At some point, someone who knew a lot of the same people as me started asking around for a web page designer. He talked to three of the people who I had told I was getting started, and they all told him to talk to me. It sounded to him like I had to be the logical candidate, so he hired me for my first web design job. From there, I had a much more "real" portfolio, so it's been easier to find other clients.

Tips specific to Web Design:

If you're planning to do free-lance web design, here are some tips:
  • Make yourself a nice web page.
  • Ask each client if it is okay to put your name someplace on their web site. Most sites I work on say "database programming by Valerie Mates" or "web design by Valerie Mates", where the "Valerie Mates" is a link back to my own website. I've gotten a number of customers through these links.
  • Get yourself two good internet providers. Even the best internet providers suddenly crash for the day right when you have an urgent project to finish. Also, if both your providers share the same connection to the net, then if their connection goes down, you're still off-line. So choose two providers with different net connections and as little as possible in common. That way they are subject to different outages instead of shared ones. (Note: I wrote this tip several years ago. Today's Internet providers are much more reliable than they used to be, so this tip is no longer as vital as it once was.)
  • There are good shareware tools available on the web. I use a (yuck) Windows XP computer. Some favorite tools are: Opera web browser; Netscape; CuteFTP; NetTerm (not perfect but decent, and has a nice FTP server you can use on your own computer); TeraTerm - a freeware telnet program that has an SSH extension; WinWord - a wonderful, free, electronic dictionary and thesaurus; Paint Shop Pro; Programmer's File Editor (which this document was written with); Eudora for e-mail -- it has a nice anti-spam filter, too; something that can read MS-Word and Excel files (I use MS-Works and the free readers you can download from Microsoft's website); Sierra Print Artist was free with my printer and turned out to be wonderful; and lots of free fonts from all over the web. I'm a font junkie. Some good download sites for shareware or freeware are: tucows, nonags, and download.com.
  • Support your fellow computer people. Register and pay for your shareware!!! And pay for what you use: don't use pirated commercial software.
  • Get yourself a good computer and printer that will last a while into the future. The business expense is deductable on your taxes, and if you're going to be staring at the same computer all day, it's nice to have one that is comfortable to use and that works well.

Finding Customers:

  • I didn't do much of this, but when you're getting started it's often useful to talk to local non-profit groups, charities, etc., to see if any of them need some free or cheap programming or web design services, or whatever it is that you do. This is a way to build yourself a great portfolio and references and at the same time do something good for a charity.
  • Handling leads: When someone inquires about a job they might want you to work on, ask lots of questions. Find out what their needs are and what kind of project they have in mind. Don't rush in to give a price or to talk a lot about yourself; concentrate on the client. (Don't hide info either; just make sure the focus is on the client and not on you.) This establishes a relationship, and it shows the client that you are listening. It also gives you a basis for setting an accurate price for the project. Once you've accomplished these things, the potential client is less likely to flee with sticker shock when you finally start discussing prices. Look at the difference between these two dialogs.

    Wrong idea:
    Client: I'd like a website. How much will that cost?
    You: $x
    Client: Okay, thanks. Bye.
    Right idea:
    Client: I'd like a website. How much will that cost?
    You: Hi, thanks for inquiring! What kind of website do you have in mind?
    Client: I run a widget business. I want a widget website.
    You: Widgets? Neat! What sized widget website would you like? Would you like an on-line shopping system so people can buy widgets on the web? [Etc.] (It's also good to give the client some URLs of similar web sites you've worked on, if any, so they can check out your work.)
    Client: Yes, shopping! I'd like 5 widget pages, plus a page of corporate background.
    You: (ask more questions until you have a clear idea of what the website will be like)
    Client: (gives more answers)
    You: Okay, that will cost $y
    Client: Sounds good! When can you have it finished?
    See the difference?
  • My clients come from very diverse sources. They range from the parents of a friend of mine from high school, to various local businesses, to several people in Canada who I've only met by e-mail.
    • Look for clients in a diverse bunch of different places. This is good for a few reasons. One is that you're not putting all your eggs in one basket. That is, if one source of clients dries up, you'll still have lots of others. Also, most my sources of clients have so far brought in at most one or two clients. For example, I got just one or two clients from the HTML Writers' Guild e-mail lists, even though I was subscribed to those lists for a long time.
    • Be prepared for a lot of inquiries to turn into nothing. People ask questions before they've really decided that they have the funding and interest in going through with the project they are asking you about. Even very serious sounding customers suddenly lose their funding. Don't hesitate to follow up on more inquiries than you can reasonably work on at once, since only a percentage of them will really turn into anything.
    • If you do overload yourself, be honest with your clients about what your workload is like. Several times I've had to tell clients that I'm fully booked until next month, but that I can schedule their job then. None have run off because of this. In fact, one decided I must be good if I was that much in demand. Another offered me extra money to squeeze in his job ahead of others.
    • Like I said, if you're doing web design, ask your customers if you can include a link back to your own site. I've gotten clients who found me from these links.
    • I haven't personally tried it, but it looks to me like you can find lots of people looking for freelancers at elance.com. I've also heard that there are job listings at dice.com, and monster.com, and Michigan jobs at hardcoregeeks.com, but I've never visited those sites, so I don't know if they'd turn out to be useful. There sometimes are people posting for jobs at cgi-resources.com — look under both "jobs" and "programmers" on their front page. On the other hand, I've also heard that bidding on those sites tends to be fiercely competitive, and you can only get jobs if you bid at far less than your actual cost will be. So I'm not sure if this is a useful lead or not.
    • Do several different things. For example, I called up several local places that teach classes for "introduction to the Internet" and asked if they needed teachers. One place did. So in addition to writing web pages, I also teach people about how to use the net. It brings in some money. It's useful to see the things that confuse new users about web sites — this teaches me how to write better web pages. And, while I don't teach these classes to find new clients, I wouldn't be surprised to one day have a client who found me through these classes.
    • Don't take jobs from bad clients. Life is too short.
  • Dress up for meetings with clients. Look very professional. At home you can wear pajamas all day if you like, but don't do this for meetings with clients.

Educating Yourself:

  • Look around on the net for e-mail lists that relate to what you will be doing. There are generally many lists on any topic. Subscribe to a few of them. Each list has its own personality (supportive, flame-prone, high-traffic, full of teenagers, full of gurus, etc). Keep subscribing and unsubscribing from lists until you find ones that seem good to you. I get a lot of support from mailing lists. When I was newer to what I do, I learned a lot from watching the answers to other people's questions. Now that I've been around longer, I appreciate the lists because I can ask questions about things that are difficult or obscure, and get answers from people who have dealt with them before. Mailing lists are also good because it's a bit of socializing while I'm home all day. (It helps too that my partner is home free-lancing at his computer all day too, even though sometimes we don't talk all that much during the day.) Some of the lists I've been on are:
    • Several "webwomen" lists, for women who write HTML, design graphics, run Linux systems, and a few other topics. These were very wonderful lists, but they all went silent a few years ago. Still, please let me know if you want the signup information. I'd love to see those lists come back to life again.
    • I used to be on some of the HTML Writers' Guild lists. Back then, the HWG was full of control freaks who liked writing rules and chastising the people who didn't follow them, and a lot of very immature people who needed an environment like that. But, if you can ignore these things, there's also a goodly amount of useful information available on those lists. And maybe they've improved in recent years. The hwg-business list used to have the occasional job posting. I've gotten good clients through there.
    • Find your local groups of computer people. I'm on the mailing lists for a lot of local groups, ranging from Unix gurus to Internet business people to "computer people who go to the bar together on the last Friday of each month". Also, when the local chapter of the Association for Women in Computing imploded, I volunteered to resuccitate the local chapter and even ended up as the chapter's president for a while. Local groups are especially nice because you can go to meetings and get to know the computer people in your community — a source of information, clients, and camaraderie. If you're in Ann Arbor, you can find a list of some local computing groups on the AWC links page.
    • I haven't used it, but I'm told that www.liszt.com keeps lists of mailing lists all over the net. You can also find a lot of e-mail lists on Yahoogroups.
  • My local public library has an entire wall of good books about self-employment and small business, covering a huge array of topics. This is worth checking out, especially when you're getting started and you have free time. I spent a lot of time absorbing books about anything that looked like it might be relevant, from marketing to the legal aspects of running a business. Some of the books were helpful, others turned out not to be so relevant, but I don't regret reading any of them.

What to Charge:

It's hard to say how much to charge. Here are some different ways to figure it:
  • They say to take your annual salary, cancel the last 3 digits, and charge at least that much per hour. So if you make $50,000/year at your current job, they say you should charge $50/hour. I don't know if that's realistic, though — prices in the computer industry are insanely high, so it's amazing what everyone is charging.
  • A friend of mine who is a free-lance web developer says he read somewhere that your rates should be high enough that 40% of your prospective clients don't buy what you're selling because it is too expensive. (By that standard my rates are much too low. I've almost never scared off a client with my prices.)
  • Another place to find information about what to charge is to look at the web sites of other people who do the same thing as what you'll be doing. Some people post their prices. Compare your own level of experience and expertise to theirs, and set your rates accordingly.
  • Yet another way to set your rates is to look around at what people in other jobs get paid per hour. If an auto mechanic in your area charges $60/hour, for example, compare what you do to what an auto mechanic does and set your rates comparably. That is, if your work is twice as difficult, set your rates at $120/hour; if it's half as difficult, set your rates at $30.
  • Another way to set your rates is to add up how many hours you expect to work each year and how much money you want to make each year, and divide. To figure out hours you will work, take into account sick time, vacation time, days off to go to the doctor, non-billable hours spent educating yourself, non-billable hours spent finding customers and doing clerical work like printing invoices. Say you come up with 800 hours. (I made that number up; you should put more thought into that number than I did.) Then add up your living expenses, your expected business expenses, and how much profit you want to make in a year. For example, say your living expenses are $30,000/year, your business expenses are $2,500/year (mine only get that high in the years when I buy a new computer), your expected taxes (say $8,000 per year — another number I made up, but you should calculate it more carefully), and you want to make $10,000/year in profits. Then your total is $50,500. Now divide: $50,500 dollars per year divided by 800 hours per year is about $63/hour.
  • I used to be happy to charge clients on either an hourly or a per-project basis, whichever the client prefered. Today, after some customers who had endless numbers of "just one more thing" that absolutely had to be added to the site, leading to sites that took three times the number of hours I had originally estimated when I set the price, I now strongly prefer to work on an hourly basis rather than a fixed price basis. That way if the client wants one more thing added, you can simply do it rather than having to go through a new round of price negotiations. I do have a few clients who need fixed prices for one reason or another, for example if I'm subcontracting to them and they need to know how much to charge their customers for my part of the project.
    • If you're charging a fixed price, you need a very thorough description of the project that isn't going to change as the client thinks up new things to add. Or you need an agreement for how to handle that kind of addition.
    • If a client is going beyond the original estimate with new additions to the project, you need to talk to them about adjusting the price to cover the additional work you are putting in. Clients understand that when they ask for additions they need to pay you for them.
    • For both fixed-price and hourly projects, I track all my hours very carefully so that I can see how I did compared to my original estimate of how much time the project would take. This helps to make a better estimate for the next project.
  • As your skills improve and as the industry's prices increase, raise your rates. Don't feel locked into last year's rates when your skills this year are 100% better and the industry's prices have gone up 40% since last year. In early 1998 I increased my rates by 60%, and in late 1999 I increased them another 50%. For what I do, my rates are still quite reasonable.


  • I thought figuring out taxes would be scary. It's not. As long as you take your last year's tax bill and send in 1/4 of what you paid last year, quarterly, the government is happy. Doing the self-employment tax forms isn't any harder than any other tax form.
  • Self-employment taxes in the US are astonishingly high. In my first full year as a free-lancer, my income was lower by $7000 than when I had an employer, and yet my taxes were $3000 higher! This caught me totally off guard. It could happen to you too. Be sure you're saving a percentage of your income to give to Uncle Sam.
  • Keep track of everything business-related that you spend money on: shareware paint programs, ink for your printer, charges for your web host, charges for that extra phone line, etc. It's all business expenses. Keep the receipts for tax time.

Miscellaneous Tips:

  • I'm not sure how good it will be to be a free lancer when the economy has its next downturn. I started during the current economic bonanza. My plan to get through the next downturn in the economy is to find lots of clients before then and make them very happy by doing very good work for them, so that I'll have repeat business and good references when times are leaner. (I wrote that a long time ago. Now that the economy has slowed down, it has indeed turned out to be good advice.)
  • I use a "reminder program" to help remember things. For example, if I agree to call a client on Tuesday at 3, I'll set my reminder program to beep and pop up a box that says, "Call so-and-so" on Tuesday at 2:45. (I'm using a buggy freeware program that I downloaded off the net. One day I want to write my own to replace it.)
  • It's important to me to take evenings and weekends off. I work during business hours, and I'm off duty during other hours. I'd get more work done faster if I worked during off-hours too, but it's important to me to have personal time when the work pressure is off and I can do what I like without a deadline hanging over me. If needed, I will work occasional evenings or weekends, as long as it's not an everyday thing. Your work values may, of course, vary — this is simply what works for me.
  • My personal goal is to have free time and do fun, high-quality, work that I am proud of, not to maximize the amount of money I bring in. So far it's going great. For example I took most of the summer of 1997 off, with free time to roller blade or hang out on my favorite on-line discussion forum system or whatever, doing just enough work to pay the bills. In the winter, I increased my workload. In December of 1998 I had a baby and in April of 2002 I had another one; now my partner and I both take turns doing free-lance web work and watching our kids. It's great having control over your own schedule.

Finding Business Advice:

When you run into a question that you don't know the answer to, there are lots of places to turn.
  • The Service Corps Of Retired Executives (SCORE) offers free business counseling in many cities. In my city, you can set up a free appointment with these folks by calling the local Chamber of Commerce. Most of these retired executives are knowledgeable about business in general, but unfamiliar with the Internet. So, they are generally good people to ask general business questions to, but not so good for questions that are specific to Internet business. I haven't visited them recently, but I'm glad they're out there.
  • A lot of local computer lists are good places to ask questions too. I've gotten good business advice from the local Association for Women in Computing list.

That's everything I can think of right now. Good luck to you in your future pursuits!


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