The Design Business

How To Build a Successful Freelance Web Design Business
(A sample for the up coming book)

I love designing interactive Web sites, and it is fantastic that people pay me to do something I love. I have been working full-time freelance for almost 3 years now and I have been doing part-time freelance since 1993. There is nothing more rewarding than managing your own creative process and producing creative that has not been tampered with by an overly opinionated supervisor. Being the master of your own domain is truly a pleasure, especially when it comes to producing a flawlessly designed Web site. Of course, freelance is not without its headaches, and I hope to help you avoid some of them in the following paragraphs. Learn from my mistakes and successes, and you will find building your freelance Web design business to be a very rewarding endeavor, both for your ego and your pocket book.

Why designer’s freelance – fun or fear?

It has been my experience that designers freelance for one of two reasons: for fun or out of fear. You need to decide what “f” word is motivating you. It was the fear factor that drove me into freelance. I was employed at a small interactive firm that laid me off due to an economic down turn. I tried to find a full-time position that paid as well as my last one, but I was unable to land a job in the weeks that followed. For fear of loosing my house, my car and the shirt of my back, I had to find paying freelance clients and fast. Fortunately, I had been freelancing on the side for several years and I was able to convert some of my part-time clients into full-time revenue streams. For any Web designer wishing to freelance in the future, that is what I recommend. If you are working full-time right now, either inside the interactive field or in another discipline completely, I highly recommend you start to build up a small base of freelance clients. This makes the jump into full-time freelance less difficult and not as overwhelming. That way you can be as motivated by the fun factor as you are by the fear factor. The problem with starting freelance full-time or “cold turkey” is that you do not have enough business to sustain even a modest income. There is nothing more stressful than trying to find new clients simply because you have too many bills to pay. It is much better both for your mental health and your bank account if you build up a small base of clients first. By acquiring a list of clients and potential clients before you go freelance full-time, you can achieve the following:

  • Build your project management and creative management skills.
  • Give yourself the confidence and experience necessary to be successful.
  • Build a network of client connections.
  • Decide if you can handle the headaches of freelancing full-time.
  • Learn how to better manage your finances.

By doing a little freelance on the side you can learn a lot about what being a full-time freelancer is really like. I think it is crazy when I read get-rich-quick advertisements claiming to give people everything they need to open their own profitable business in thirty days or less. It’s never that easy. Being self-employed is not for everyone. If you can not manage your own time or your part-time freelance clientele, or you have trouble with self-motivation, then starting a freelance Web design business may not be for you.

TASTEY MORSEL
Freelance is a family affair.
When I decided to freelance full-time, I had a long talk with my spouse. The decision to move from a bi-weekly pay check to the roller coaster income of a freelancer was a decision we needed to make as a couple. It is important that you consult your significant other before you begin this risky adventure. You will need the emotional and possibly the financial support as you grow your business. Without my wife’s consistent income, I would have been unable to help pay the mortgage in the first few months of starting my freelance business.

A line of credit: a lifeline or a rope to hang you?

A few years before I began freelancing full-time, I had the good luck to become friends with a financial planner. At the moment I was working full-time for a world-renowned advertising agency and I was pulling in a good salary. Financial problems were the furthest thing from my mind, but my friend insisted I apply for a line of credit for a rainy day emergency. His advice paid off because a few years later I used that line of credit to help jumpstart my full-time freelance business.

The best time to apply for a line of credit is when you are already employed full-time. This way the bank is more likely to give you an amount of credit sufficient to meet all your emerging needs. Think of the line of credit as your insurance policy and not another bank account or credit card. You will need to suppress the impulse to shop until you drop. I will talk more about that later when you consider updating your software and purchasing the $2500 PDA with built-in digital camera and electric toothbrush. Like my friend said, the line of credit is more like a rainy day fund to help get your new business through the rough spots.

I recommend anyone who is going to jump into the freelance business full-time to either save enough money to cover your expenses for at least three months, or to obtain this line of credit. I do not claim to be a business or financial expert (keep in mind I have a visual art’s degree), but my own experience has taught me that running your own business can have numerous ups-and-downs. You need to be prepared for when you experience the down times.

TASTEY MORSEL
Danger, Will Robinson, danger!

Being a creative person does not always mix well with starting your own business, and running your own freelance Web design business can be big business, even if it is just little old you! Securing a line of credit can be the best way to ensure security for some bumps in the road as you start out. However, individuals with loads of debt may think twice before taking on more credit. It is better to pay off or down the debt you have first before attempting to go freelance full-time.

Designing your freelance Web site

One of the most important parts of your advertising arsenal is your Web site. Your Web site is the place where you display your product to potential customers. Your product is design and interactive media, and it is important that these potential customers can view a wide range of projects. Often interactive designers will post what they feel is their best work to their Web site. While this is a good idea, I have learned that it is better to have a wide range of styles and types of projects posted online. Even if some of the work is not your best, it is better to post projects that represent a wide range of work. For instance, I have work posted in my portfolio from when I helped design the 1999 refresh of the Chevrolet.com Web site. The designs look old and dated, but the brand name recognition helps build my credibility with new clients. As designers we are often very critical of our own work. I have been pleasantly surprised by how much a new client likes a past project of mine that I consider old and inferior to my more modern work.

When you design your freelance Web site you need to think about your target audience. Every designer has their own style and market niche. You need to decide if you want to do work for any or all of the following: advertising agencies, B2B organizations, B2C organizations, non-profits and mom-and-pop shops. It is a good idea to do a little research before you begin sketching out the design. Try to learn about what your target audience looks for when they select a freelance Web site designer. In the case of my site, Airgid.com, I have gone through many iterations over the years. One of those iterations consisted of a heavy Flash interface that infused aliens and robots throughout the Web site. The theme was a 1950’s horror movie.

The Attack of the Killer Web site” gained a lot of attention in the design community. It even won a few awards, but I lost business because it did not communicate the right message about my entire skill set. You can view an archived version at http://www.airgid.com/flash/

The Attack of the Killer Web site” generated a tremendous amount of attention in the online design community. When I launched the Web site it was featured in several design portals around the world. My Web site usage statistics skyrocketed and I even had to move up to a new hosting plan to keep up with the bandwidth the site used. Although it was receiving a lot of attention from the Web design community, it did not generate new work. I did a little digging and talked to some of my clients. Most of them did not really understand why I had a slew of aliens and robots dominating my site. They could not see the “business logic” behind it.

Another big problem with this version of my Web site, was that access to the most important information was four clicks deep. An analysis of my server logs revealed that users went straight for the portfolio section, they viewed a few projects and then they left. The time spent searching for this area and the hindrance of not being able to view brief highlights of my work became a major concern. Users where forced to follow this path to look at my portfolio pieces:

Splash page > home page > portfolio page > portfolio piece

Another issue with this Web site was the fact that the home page was extremely overweight. It required a download of a little over one megabyte, and secondary pages where not much better. So even with a fast DSL connection, the Web site took a good deal of time to load. All of these mistakes coupled together made for a bad user experience. My target audience is full of busy marketing managers, creative directors and CEOs of fast-paced companies. They do not have the time to click, click, click, to find valuable information. They want it now and often they need to make a decision fast… should I hire Kevin Airgid to do my work, or should I look elsewhere?

The new site is faster, meaner, and is 1 click from my portfolio

I have since created a leaner, meaner Web site. Even though it is much more business-oriented, it has just the right touch of creative flare and professionalism. I have gained both highly creative and engaging projects, as well as steady corporate design assignments. The portfolio now follows the popular Amazon.com one-click methodology. When the user arrives, my portfolio is the first thing they see. The home page is cleverly disguised as the portfolio page, and my product is served for consumption by the masses. Keep the the following lessons in mind as you design your next freelance Web site.

  • Your work should sell itself. Do not worry about lengthy explanations or marketing jargon for each project. A short, punchy paragraph emphasizing the skills utilized is sufficient. Most users only skim text online.
  • Make your portfolio easy to access and fast to download. Keep in mind even speedy corporate T1 connections partition bandwidth and can slow down.
  • Even though your clients may want to hire you for your Flash animation skills, do not make them wait to see your portfolio. Resist the temptation to use your portfolio interface to flex your animation muscles. If you need to show this off, create a separate “demo reel” that users have an option to select.
  • Corporate design may feel boring to Web designers, but in my experience it helps keep a Web site grounded in reality, especially when you have a lot going on in your portfolio. If we do our job, the information architecture and interface design should compliment one another and provide a pleasant user experience.

If you thought this article was helpful you will enjoy my up coming book on the same topic. I will cover many topics like this in the book, and provide tutorials on how to setup content management systems, mailing lists and all other sorts of handy things freelancers need to know to help build their business. You can sign up to be notified when the book is ready to be purchased here: http://book.airgid.com/

Written by Kevin Airgid
Kevin Airgid is an interactive designer who has concentrated in the interactive field for many years. He has worked exclusively in interactive design since the inception of Mosaic, the first graphical web browser. His previous experience includes designing multimedia projects such as CD-ROM, touch screen kiosks and graphic user interface for interactive television and the web.

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