Setting up shop as a web designer

Photo of an open sign in a window

It’s been 17 years since I set up shop as a web designer.  I had just ended a partnership in a gift and trophy PLLC that I joined with four friends. I learned a lot about running a home business in the 18 months I was part of that company.  I discovered that you had to set up a home business just like you would any large company with different departments for different tasks.  I also learned that dividing profits with others made making a living a lot harder.  When I decided to leave and start my own web design business, there were two main questions I had to ask myself. If you are considering your own design company, I suggest you ask yourself these questions, too:

1. Am I going to be a company of one or many?

You will need to know if you are going to start your business on your own or if you are going to be an agency with employees, subcontractors and/or partners. For me, my short time as a business partner answered this question for me. When I left, I knew I wanted to be my own boss and most of all, I wanted to keep all the profits to myself.  My decision to start a company of one allowed me to get started with very little risk or investment.

If you are considering starting an agency right out of the gate, I applaud you.  Maybe you’re a great project manager but lack coding skills.  I know many agency owners that fit this description and run very successful agencies.  You have a bigger risk and investment with this choice.

Whatever you choose, you can’t just wing it and make sure you are setting things up for the long haul.  Research online, look for business books at the library, ask friends and relatives that own their own businesses what they did.  Take your time setting things up right.

2. Can I wear many hats?

Whether you are doing it solo or with a team, you need to know the skills needed in every aspect of your web design business. Remember hearing stories of family businesses where the child had to start working on the factory floor before they worked their way up to management?  My best advice is to do the same.

You need to have a good understanding of the different roles needed and how they fit together.  Being a jack-of-all-trades is a requirement for any home business owner. For web designer success, you need strengths in the following areas:

  • Coding skills: Understand and know how to read and write HMTL and CSS.  You also need to know Javascript.  If you are working with WordPress, make sure you understand PHP.  Don’t just be a fill in the template designer on your own.  And if you are heading up an agency, don’t be a salesperson making promises your developer can’t keep.
  • Design skills:  Understand color, layout and basic design concepts.  Don’t Make Me Think and The Design of Advertising are two of my favorite books for this.
  • Salesmanship:  You can’t be shy when it comes to selling yourself.  Unlike a behind the scenes freelancer, you need to be good at meeting with strangers and selling your services.
  • Money Mangement:  You need to be good at bookkeeping.  Tracking your profits is incredibly important.   Even if you hire a bookkeeper, you will need to be on top of your cash flow.
  • Leadership:  Being your own boss means being the CEO of your business, even if it’s just you.  You have to rise to the responsibilities and always think about the big picture, your next move and set your own expectations.

Looking back, I started out with:

  • pretty good coding skills even though I was inexperienced
  • strong design skills
  • a gift of gab for sales (without enough confidence)
  • low start-up investment and a bit of Quickbooks knowledge
  • the simple drive to know what I wanted to do

You don’t have to be an expert at everything to get started.  Remember, you will grow and learn along the way. If you start out as a company of one, you can always grow to an agency later.  That might be the best path for success.

Looking back, how did you take the leap and start your business?  What can you share with someone considering becoming a freelance web designer?  Please share!

Resources:  SITEPOINT – 10 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Starting a Web Design Business

About WebCami

Cami MacNamara has been designing websites since 2002 from her home office in Seattle, Washington. Her career started as a way to be a stay-at-home mom. Certification soon followed and persistence paid off. Cami has designed over 400 websites and wants to share what she learned along the way. Look for her at WordCamp Seattle. Follow: WebCami.com / Twitter / Instagram