The Ultimate Guide to Starting a Web Design Business – From Finding Your First Clients to Making a Name for Yourself

The prospect of starting a web design business can be a bit overwhelming. However, at the same time, if you’re stuck in a job that you don’t 100% like, the prospect of using your skills to build a web design business that operates based on flexibility and freedom is hard to deny. Would you rather toil away as you are, continuously bogged down by stress? Or are you willing to take a risk for a chance at something better?

The prospect of starting a web design business can be a bit overwhelming.

However, at the same time, if you’re stuck in a job that you don’t 100% like, the prospect of using your skills to build a web design business that operates based on flexibility and freedom is hard to deny.

Would you rather toil away as you are, continuously bogged down by stress? Or are you willing to take a risk for a chance at something better?

To be sure, there are a lot of different elements that you’ll need to consider when starting a web design business. This guide will teach you:

  • How to find and deal with clients
  • How to run the backend of your business
  • How to plan for the future and grow

The easiest way to beat your budding sense of overwhelm before you’re all-in on starting a web design business? Proactively prepare for all of the possibilities!

Starting a Web Design Business

1. Before you do anything else…

Let’s get one thing straight: without clients, you don’t have a viable business. Of course, when first getting started, you’ll inevitably be spending more time chasing down opportunities than you will be doing actual work.

1.1. What to do before you quit your full-time job

If you currently work a full-time job for someone else, it can be useful to start your transition by pitching prospects before you quit. Ideally, you’ll also wait until you have at least a few months of emergency expenses built up (6-12 months is the gold standard).

While you’re biding your time, you might as well make it productive. Start working on the professional materials you’ll inevitably need, such as:

This can also be a great time to build thought leadership. There are so many web design and WordPress blogs (or other websites where your target client hangs out) that accept guest posts — you might try your hand at writing for a few of them. Just make sure to include a compelling link back to your portfolio website. WPMU DEV offers insights for making successful guest blog pitches.

If you’re not much of a writer, at the very least, comment on those industry blogs and make your name known that way.

When you start a web design business, a portfolio website is necessary because it allows you to show off your unique style and skills. It’s a lot more personal (and professional) than just making an account on a portfolio platform like Behance.

Since we are talking about starting a web design business, I assume that the “creating a portfolio website for yourself” -part doesn’t sound like something difficult. Here’s some inspiration – a set of cool portfolio sites.

If you don’t like writing, there are plenty of other ways to become known in the community (both WordPress/web design and your specific area of focus), such as:

  • Participate in Twitter chats (check out TweetReports for a searchable list)
  • Regularly post thoughtful content on social media. It helps to come up with theme ideas that demonstrate your expertise: web design tips, work examples, articles you’ve written, and so on.
  • Participate in online summits and/or conferences like WordCamp. Get to know conference organizers for a better chance of getting your pitches accepted!

Of course, in order to be known for something, you have to stand for something. Specifically, you need to niche down.

1.2. Decide who your target client is

It’s not enough to add a vague “Web Developer” title to your LinkedIn profile. If you want to build clout, you need to specialize. While you might be worried that this is limiting, it’s honestly how all the top earners have made it to six-figure earnings (and more).

Once you’ve established your niche (and it’s ok to play around with this after the fact), make sure you’re communicating this on your portfolio website and other online mediums. As part of this process, spend some time developing your target customer persona (a basic bio of your target customer).

HubSpot’s MakeMyPersona tool offers a straightforward way to do this.

You should learn as much as possible about those people.

Where do they hang out? How to best reach them? What do they require from a website? Etc.

make persona

1.3. Decide what to offer

We’ve already touched on the importance of niching down. The question is: how?

Here are some ideas to help define your specialty when starting a web design business:

  • Offer WordPress maintenance services (core, plugin, theme updates)
  • Design complete website projects for new businesses
  • Focus on a specific type of website design: ecommerce, membership sites, etc.
  • Convert websites from other platforms (i.e. Weebly, Squarespace, Drupal) to WordPress, or even do PSD to WordPress
  • Focus on redesigns/responsive retrofits
  • Work with clients in specific industries: government, small business, B2C, etc.

There are no wrong answers — play around with the possibilities until you land on a winning combination!

1.4. Set your prices

In general, project rates are better than hourly rates for big projects because people won’t question you about how you’re spending your time — it’s already accounted for and they’ve already paid for it. Hourly rates set you up for annoying conversations and the devaluation of your expertise.

That said, hourly rates may be what you use to estimate project rates.

It’s a good idea to calculate your ideal hourly rate, even if your clients are never privy to this information. If you’re going to freelance full-time for the first time, don’t forget to build in the cost of benefits (medical insurance), sick days, and vacation days. Also, don’t forget that you should plan to save 20-30% for taxes!

web design business

2. Start with clients – here’s how to find them

With all of the most important questions answered, it’s time to start publicly sharing the news that your web design business is ready for clients. There’s much less risk involved in quitting your full-time job if you have several clients lined up!

The key to success? Not treating marketing as a one-and-done task. Successful designers are constantly looking for opportunities to promote their business — not waiting until they get to a point where they have no clients and nothing to do.

2.1. Leverage your existing network

One of the best first steps is to start by making your intentions clear with your existing network. Post publicly about starting a web design business on social networks and reach out to friends, family, and colleagues who may be able to send you referrals. Just don’t be pushy — it’s not their job to find work for you.

2.2. Make a presence on social media

While we’re on the subject, it can also be beneficial to create a social media strategy to stay top of mind with your network using some of the theme ideas outlined earlier in this article.

LinkedIn can be a great source of leads because of its B2B nature. Twitter is an awesome place to build clout with the web design community. So start conversations with other WordPress professionals and prospective businesses you want to work with. Build lists to help you organize your conversations (my WordPress is Best Twitter list may be a good place to start!).

linkedin

linkedin

2.3. Experiment with video

If you don’t yet have much of an audience, you might try building one with video marketing. Video marketing is quickly becoming one of the most popular content marketing mediums. Create a weekly Facebook Live series based on your web design specialty and offer free advice to build thought leadership.

2.4. Experiment with learning platforms

On a related note, it can also help to create short classes on platforms like Skillshare or Udemy to fill up your sales funnel and build an audience of people who can act as your brand ambassadors.

Specifically, Skillshare provides a lot of beginner resources to get started and supports new teachers by hosting monthly challenges with prizes (including marketing features).

They allow outside links to landing pages, where you can provide class resources in exchange for email addresses.

skillshare

2.5. Build an email list

In tandem with these efforts, start building your email list by attracting qualified leads with a relevant lead magnet on your portfolio website. In order to gather the actual email addresses, you can use any of these tools.

A lead magnet is something compelling to your target audience that you offer in exchange for a person’s email address: perhaps a handy checklist, ebook, or list of resources.

Spending time on email marketing is important primarily because an email list is something you own — the followers you reach on other platforms could go away if the platform ever decided to kick you out or shut down.

ebook

2.6. Do cold outreach

No matter what, business development efforts shouldn’t be something that happens only when you need new clients — it’s an ongoing process to ensure that you constantly have work on your plate. Create a goal to cold pitch a certain number of businesses each week and track your success rate in closing prospects to determine how many inputs lead to closed and won deals.

While pitching for work is slightly different than some of the aforementioned marketing ideas, at least when you first get started, you’ll need to do both.

Use a CRM (customer relationship management tool) to keep track of your deal stages with various prospects and who you need to follow up with.

Hubspot offers a robust free option.

hubspot

3. Run your web design business effectively – the behind the scenes

So here’s the thing: it’s not enough to do the work and the marketing. When starting a web design business, you also have to take over some roles typically handled by specialized departments within a company.

This might actually be the hardest and most annoying part of running a web design company! But the best part, creating freedom and flexibility around your passion, more than makes up for it. As you’re starting a web design business, you’ll find ways to alleviate some of this pain and find more time to focus on our core business tasks.

But since you’re just getting started, let’s focus on what you need to be thinking about right now.

3.1. Contracts & proposals

Ideally, before you quit your full-time job, you’ve spent some time creating a winning proposal template.

Some of the most important things to include in your proposal/eventual contract:

  • A clearly defined scope of work (including what your project rate doesn’t cover)
  • Specific deliverables in customer-friendly language
  • Timeline and milestones

Don’t forget to build in the cost for WordPress themes, plugins, and any other necessary tools to get the job done. For example, if you’re helping with SEO, you might factor in the cost of your SEO tools.

Don’t move forward without a signed contract agreeing to your terms — and payment upfront (even if it’s just a partial payment).

And.co is a great free contract tool to start with that offers eSignature capabilities and alerts about when your documents are viewed. You can also use it to collect a deposit and future payments.

and.co
Another option? LegalZoom legal document templates available as part of an affordable monthly subscription.

It’s also beneficial to get your initial contract template reviewed by an attorney. In the United States, a local small business development center (SBDC) can provide access to legal and accounting professionals free of charge!

legalzoom

3.2. Business incorporation

At some point, you may deem it necessary to incorporate your business — providing some legal protection in the form of separation between personal/business assets. In order to do this, you’ll need to fill out some forms and submit payment to your state/country. It helps to have a good lawyer or accountant on your side (or help from a local SBDC, as mentioned above).

Regardless of where you’re incorporating your business, make sure to check on local rules and regulations as well as consulting with other businesses in your niche to determine what you need to get started.

3.3. Business administration

Starting a web design business means taking on a bunch of roles you’d probably rather not — but don’t ignore them!

Here are a few hats you’ll have to wear as a new web design business owner:

  • Accounting/Bookkeeping: Use an accounting tool like Freshbooks or Quickbooks to send invoices, receive payment, and track expenses.
  • Marketing: We’ve already shared some specific tips but the point is that you shouldn’t wait until you’re low on client work to market your business — it’s a long-term process.
  • Hiring/Management: You may eventually decide to outsource smaller projects and administrative tasks (you can try Fiverr for that), so it helps to build a process around hiring and management as soon as you start to recognize this need. In the meantime, create process documentation for as many things as you can so that even if you’re not ready to hire yet, you’ll be prepared when the time is right!

3.4. Get your tools in order

As you’re working in the trenches and getting through your projects, it makes sense to stop and think about the tools that you’re using. You might already be familiar with many of the essential web design tools, but at the same time, not all of those are going to be as effective when scaled up and incorporated into a web design business.

In other words, just because something worked for you in the past, doesn’t mean that it’ll continue to work in a professional business environment that you’re in now.

Consider this roundup of excellent tools for web designers and WordPress users. The list covers things like time tracking, document handling, project management, communicating with clients, working with graphic design, code development, and more.

4. Scale up, make more money & provide more value

When you’re first starting a web design business, you’ll have to build your way up the ranks. This might mean taking on low paying job in order to build out your portfolio — not exactly glamorous, but something basically everyone in your position has had to do!

Once you’re more established, you’ll want to start thinking about how to build more value into your offerings so that you can make more money. To be fair, there’s nothing stopping you from getting started with these things right now. You’re only limited by your energy and focus, which will be somewhat split doing many of the other activities outlined earlier in this article.

Here are a few ideas to make more money for your web design business:

  • Sign up as an affiliate for your favorite WordPress products (plugins, themes, hosting) and recommend them to your customers for a commission. To find success, be clear with affiliate disclosures (e.g. “This article contains affiliate links”) and be transparent about your experience with the product.
  • Make even more money by directly managing customer web hosting and ongoing WordPress maintenance (plugin, theme, core updates — as well as periodic website content updates/changes as requested by your client).
  • Keep learning new things. Of course, there’s no reason to try to learn everything there is to know about web design/development but you should work to stay current in your niche/specialty. Follow Google’s 20% rule for learning/developing — spend time going to conferences, completing courses, and reading more about coding to stay fresh. By spending time on this, you’re also essentially writing your own raise with current/new clients. Your expertise is definitely worth something!
  • Create information products. Selling services means that you’re limited by available time and energy. Selling products means unlimited revenue potential. Ask yourself, “What do I know enough about to write an ebook or create an online course about?”.

Final thoughts on starting a web design business

By taking each of these steps in stride, it doesn’t have to be completely overwhelming to start a web design business.

What other questions do you have about starting a web design business? Share your thoughts in the comments and together, let’s help grow the community through helpful support!

Don’t forget to join our crash course on speeding up your WordPress site. With some simple fixes, you can reduce your loading time by even 50-80%:

Posted by wiredgorilla