The web is an endless sea of possibilities. You can choose your own adventure, working at a design agency or as in-house designer. Or you can do something more daring — break out on your own.
But being an independent designer means that you also have to be a business person. You can't tune out the nitty gritty of contracts and ledgers. If you do, your business won't take off. It's a necessary evil.
In this post, we'll go through what you need to know about the business of design so that you can thrive as a self-employed designer.
01. You need to love your clients
Whether you're a self-employed designer or a business owner, you're either going to be passionate about your product or service, or you're going to be passionate about the people you serve.
I believe it's even more important for self-employed designers to love their clients more than their tools, than it is for many other types of business owner. The reason is this: the design world moves so fast, and changes so quickly, that it takes passion to keep up. That environment breeds passion for your craft — and rightly so! Remember to channel all that passion and energy back at your clients.
Because getting someone's business is about: “How can I give even more value, to more of my niche?”
When business is positioned like that, it's far more palatable for the self-employed designer. How can you help more people? How can you leverage your design skills to make more of an impact for your clients? How can you reach more people to make an impact for?
02. You need to know what you offer
The first step in getting someone's business is to be clear on what you offer. There's no room for vagueness and uncertainty. One way to ensure you're communicating what you offer is to know what you're best at and what value you bring to the table.
- Study your market. Learn about who's playing in your space, and who's satisfying their clients. What sells well? What niches of the market aren't being served as passionately or completely as others?
- Think like your prospective clients.The more time you spend researching from the eyes of a prospect, the more you'll spot where those prospects could be served better.
- Look for opportunities in the market. Perhaps there's a certain niche that gets less service because they aren't ‘hip'. Or maybe your competition isn't communicating in a way that your market understands. Maybe you're better at educating prospects. Or maybe you provide significantly more value than they do.
But defining yourself isn't enough. You have to know the difference between what you do, and what the client gets. For example, “we do persona development” means nothing to most clients, where “increasing conversion rates by targeting demographics separately” makes a whole lot more sense.
Home Depot sells customers 'drills'. The customers want 'a hole in their wall'. Same thing, different terminology.
Some clients will be interested to know what kind of drill you'll be using, and why you think it's the best drill for the job. All clients will be interested to know if you're going to give them the exact hole they want.
03. You need to make yourself stand out
Everyone that's fighting for a piece of the client pie says they're good. And you're going to have to cut through that noise and stand out.
To make yourself unique, you need to consider: what makes you unique, how do you pitch that to prospectives, how do you sell that on your marketing site, and how do you position yourself as an expert.
Even if it's true, it doesn't make a difference because everyone else is saying it.
Back before responsive web design was a thing, I remember selling responsive web design to prospects. It was like magic, and when coupled with the rest of our offer it was the icing on the cake. Now, responsive design isn't a nicety, but a necessity. The work may still be valuable, but if everyone else is also doing it, the magic is lost.
A few ways you can get around this:
- Case studies. Don't just file away past client work. Use it to your advantage and write case studies that highlight how you solved a particular problem. Don't just showcase work, walk through the steps that got you to a solution. Design agency Fairhead Creative uses case studies like this one that do just that.
- Testimonials from past clients. In addition to a well-written case study, you can make the case (pun fully intended) for you. Social proof goes a long way in getting others to trust in your skills. Never underestimate a juicy quote from a past client on your abilities.
- Keep your skills fresh. Always be learning. Stay on top of trends and the latest techniques, some of which you can brush up on in the free Web Design Book of Trends 2015-2016. It's the only way you'll stay competitive.
- Capitalize on your strengths. Have a think about what you bring to the table that others don't, or won't, or can't. With an industry as big as this one, there's lots of different ways to do things, and lots of opportunities to stand out.
There will always be others waiting to eat your lunch. But at the end of the day, the only person that you're competing against is yourself. If you know the market, then you can capitalize on the opportunities. But to do so, you have to keep up your skills and sell yourself on your strengths.
04. You need an onboarding process
Once you attract a prospective client, you need to have a clear onboarding process for yourself. If you do, and you're approached by a prospect, the confidence you have in your process will shine through. You'll know exactly what should happen next, and you can guide your prospect through the steps.
Prospects become clients when they're confident in you, your ability to deliver results and your value proposition. A solid process will really help you instill that confidence.
Similarly, declining clients that you don't believe will allow you to deliver results or your value proposition to is equally important.
Perhaps they want something you have no idea how to do (and it's sufficiently out of your wheelhouse for you to learn in a timely manner). Or perhaps their budget is too small. Maybe the product they're selling doesn't align with you ethically.
In any of these cases, it's your role to shut the deal down, rather than compromising your integrity or ethics by delivering bad work or building bad products.
While we're talking about shutting the deal down, there are a few things to look out for. Make sure...
- They have the funds to commit to working with you, or at least enough to get started.
- They're ready ready to start work on the project soon.
- Your personalities can work well together. Otherwise, communication breakdowns are far more likely to happen.
- They respect you, your work, and your rate. You don't want to work with abusive clients, or clients that will dispute your worth — it's too much hassle.
- They're legitimate. Do a quick Google search of their names and business name to gague whether they might be spam. I had a friend in the industry text me recently asking if a prospect of his was spam — a quick Google search revealed that it was.
- They have passion for their own project. You won't want to work on failures any more than the clients do, even if you are getting paid for it.
While it may be tempting to take any work that comes your way, you don't want to put yourself in a miserable situation. You'll want to make sure that you want to work with someone as much as they want to work with you.
05. You need a good contract
You probably know you'll want good contracts in place before you do business with other companies. That's well documented online, and there's lots of great free and paid resources online that can help you get set up with some workable documents.
But the best contract in the world may not help you if someone on the other side of the world decides to disappear without paying you.
Have good contracts, have clear payment guidelines, and be wise about who you do business with.
For example, Fairhead Creative uses simple but comprehensive contract documents that outline when we expect each partial payment, ahead of each piece of work starting, so that we can be paid incrementally as work is completed. Whatever payment details work best for your market, get it in writing, just in case.
As depressing as it may sound, I'd recommend brushing up on what the procedures are in your country and state for things like small claims courts and collection agencies. Hopefully you'll never need either, but knowing how to set the process in motion if someone breaks the rules will give you the confidence to tackle problems appropriately, rather than shying away.
06. You need to keep track of all those hours
Do you know how long your previous projects took you? How long did you spend on each part of the process? If you were to take away a specific section of the design work, how would that affect the price?
Without this data, you're screwing yourself and your wallet. The better you track your time, the more accurate your estimates become. Become a master time-tracker.
There's lots of great tools online, such as Freckle, Harvest and Freshbooks, but they'll only be as effective as the person using them: choose a tool, master it, and master your usage of it.
I'm better at leading than managing: better at creating value than counting value. It's probable that you're better at managing than I am, but even if you're not, commit to tracking your time effectively.
If you're one of the thousands of self-employed designers that don't take business seriously, you could be one of the thousands of self-employed designers struggling to get by. You don't want that, and I don't want that for you.
After all, knowing the business side of design is just…well, good business.
If you enjoyed this article, check out the free Field Guide to Freelance Web Design. You'll learn the pros and cons of striking out on your own. The book contains straightforward advice based on my 10 years of experience as a self-employed designer and tips from CreativeMarket.