90 Days to Starting Your Own Freelance Design Business

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Starting a Freelance Design Business

Working as a freelance web designer would be a dream job for many people. You’ll be able to work from home, or anywhere with an internet connection. You’ll have some control over the clients that you work with. You’ll benefit from a flexible schedule and more freedom than a typical 9-5 office job. And you’ll get to work on fun projects that truly make a difference for your clients.

There is obviously a lot to love about being a freelancer.

However, simply having some design or coding skills will not be enough to have success in running your own business. You’ll also need to be able to handle all of the details from landing clients, to managing projects, to the financial aspects of the business.

If you’ve ever considered freelancing but you thought the process was too daunting, hopefully, this article will help. Here you’ll find the most important tasks broken down in a way that makes sense and gives you the best chance to succeed. Follow these steps and in 90 days or less you could be running a profitable freelance business.

When I started Vandelay Design more than a decade ago, I did some things right and I did some things wrong. The main thing that helped me to have some success was the fact that I kept going. When I made a mistake, I learned from it and I adjusted my approach.

Let’s take a look at a plan that you can follow.

Related: 100 Invaluable Resources for Remote Workers and Digital Nomads

First 30 Days: Structure

During the first 30 days, the focus is on establishing the foundation for your business.

Week 1: Name and Domain Name

Most freelancers will simply use their own name, but some will prefer to create a separate business name – for example, Vandelay Design. Either approach is fine, it’s just a matter of which one you prefer.

Using your own name is great for personal branding and establishing your reputation and building name recognition.

But using a separate business name may be more ideal if you want to grow the business beyond yourself in the future.

Once you’ve decided on a name, check to make sure the domain name is available (a .com domain name is highly recommended) and go ahead and register the domain.

Week 2: Define Your Services

Web designers and developers can offer many different services, and it’s a good idea to think about exactly what you want to offer. This will be influenced by your skills and experiences, but even if you are experienced in many different things, you may still want to limit your services for branding purposes.

There are tens of thousands (maybe more) of freelance designers and developers out there. Don’t simply call yourself a designer or developer and expect people to come to you for their projects. I highly recommend some sort of specialization, and one way to do that is by offering specific services.

Here are examples of some of the services that you could offer:

  • Full website design
  • Custom WordPress themes
  • WordPress setup (using existing free or premium themes)
  • WordPress maintenance and support
  • Ecommerce website development
  • Logo design

That is just a short list of possibilities, but there are plenty of other specific services that could be offered as well.

In some cases, new freelancers have more success with smaller projects. Taking on a large, custom design project for a customer may be great in terms of what you can earn, but clients hiring for bigger projects are usually going to look for a proven track record. As a new freelancer, you may want to start by offering some services that provide options for clients with smaller budgets. Bigger agencies typically don’t have any interest in these jobs, so you may face less competition and there is still plenty of money to be made.

Right now, many clients are interested in hiring a designer who will set up a website for them on WordPress. Some freelancers can complete these jobs without even touching code. It may involve things like installing WordPress, setting up a premium theme and some plugins, creating the initial pages for the client, and some small customizations to the layout or design (which is often possible through the theme customizer or with the help of drag-and-drop plugins). You can read in this interview about a designer, Peti, who is making $60 per hour using WordPress to create websites for clients with no coding involved.

Week 3: Define Your Audience

Another way to specialize is to serve a specific audience. It is highly recommended that you customize your services and attempt to reach a particular audience.

There are many options here, including:

  • Entrepreneurs and small businesses
  • Clients in a specific industry
  • Local clients

Targeting a specific audience allows you to create a message that is tailored to meet the needs of the exact people that you want to land as clients. You can also offer your services in a way that would be helpful for them, and even show work samples from past projects that were very similar.

Week 4: Decide on Your Rates

Most web design projects are billed with an overall fee for the entire project, rather than charging per hour. Flat rates per project usually work best for the client (they know what to expect) and for the designer. But when you are providing a quote to a potential client, you’ll need to estimate the amount of time it will take you to complete the project and multiply that by the hourly rate that you want to earn.

For example, if you want to earn $50 per hour and you expect a project to take 20 hours of your time, the total project price would be $1,000. You can also give yourself some room for error and quote the price a little higher in case you wind up spending more time than anticipated.

I recommend that you do not post prices on your website. If you list your prices publically, you’ll have less flexibility. It’s usually better to list your services without any prices and then provide a custom quote for each project.

Next 30 Days: Setting Up Your Website

After establishing the foundation for your business in the first 30 days, its now time to set up your portfolio website, which will be a critical part of your business. It’s important to think about things like the specific services that you’ll offer and the audience that you want to target BEFORE creating your portfolio website.

Week 5: Create Your Portfolio Website

Your portfolio website will be the first experience that many potential clients will have with you. For good or bad, they are likely to judge your ability to handle their project based on what they see from your portfolio website. The projects that you showcase on your portfolio websites and the design of your site itself are critical parts of convincing the client that they should contact you.

Your portfolio website doesn’t need to be big, in fact, most portfolio websites only have a few pages (home, about/bio, description of services, examples of previous work, and contact), but it should look nice and function on any device.

Related: How to Create a Portfolio Website to Promote Your Business

Weeks 6 – 8: Gather Items to Include in Your Portfolio

You may or may not already have some samples of work you’ve done that would be appropriate to include in your portfolio. If you don’t have work samples that you can use, you need to use this time to create some. The good news is, you don’t need a lot of work samples. Quality is better than quantity.

If the primary service that you are offering is web design, even having 3 quality work samples in your portfolio is enough to get started. If you need to get those 3 work samples, check with your friends and family to see if anyone is in need of a website. You may be able to offer a deep discount in order to get a project that can serve as a good sample for your portfolio. Another option that you may want to consider is to use a personal project. You could create a website for no particular client simply for the purpose of having something to include in your portfolio.

It’s important to keep in mind that if you are specializing your services or targeting a particular audience, your work samples should be relevant. For example, if you’re focusing your services on creating ecommerce websites, the samples in your portfolio should be ecommerce websites. If you are focusing on church websites, the samples in your portfolio should be church websites.

Final 30 Days: Finding Work

Once you have your portfolio site setup with some work samples that showcase your best work, it’s time to focus on finding paying clients.

During this 30-day period, you’ll be using several different methods to land clients. If you have success early on and you land some clients, you can use your time to complete the client projects and skip some of these methods for finding work.

Before you do any work for clients, be sure that you are protecting yourself by using a contract.

Week 9: Your Personal Network

The best place to start is with your existing personal network. Many freelance designers get the majority of their work from small business owners, and chances are, you know at least a few small business owners.

Think about your family, friends, neighbors, people in your social circles (church, associations, clubs, etc.). Contact anyone who is a small business owner and anyone who works for a business that may benefit from your services.

Most freelancers are able to find their first few clients simply by talking to people in their existing network. It’s possible that a lead will come from someone who knows someone, rather than actually being hired by someone that you know personally.

Week 10: Social Media

You can use your existing personal social profiles (like your Facebook account) to mention what you’re doing and the services that they offer. You can also create new social profiles for your business and start to be active.

There are so many different social networks and you won’t be able to be active at all of them. I recommend picking one or two that may be a good fit or you and dedicating your time to those social networks.

Don’t forget about LinkedIn. It may not be a site that you use a lot for personal reasons, but if you are looking to get work from small business owners, LinkedIn is a great place to be active.

Week 11: Cold Outreach

It may not be anyone’s favorite way to find clients, but cold outreach can be effective after you’ve exhausted your personal network.

There are a few different ways you can go about cold outreach. Obviously, you can call, email, or send snail mail. Calling can definitely be the most effective if you’re able to reach the right person. Email can be effective too, but snail mail has the chance to cost a lot of money in printing and postage expenses, so I would suggest skipping that one for now.

When it comes to targeting businesses, you have a few options. First, you can target local small businesses that may need your services. Of course, your clients don’t have to be local, but many business owners feel more comfortable hiring a local designer. Even if you don’t meet with them face-to-face, dealing with someone who is local can be easier.

Next, you can target businesses based on your specialization. Contact the exact types of businesses and organizations that are your target market, regardless of where they are located.

Week 12: Advertisements

In the early stages, you probably don’t have a lot of money to spend on marketing and advertising. So far, we’ve looked at a few ways to find clients without spending money, but now we’ll take a look at some options for paid ads that are realistic even with a small budget.

Advertising with Facebook, Google AdWords, or Microsoft Ads (formerly Bing Ads) can be inexpensive and extremely cost-effective. You can target the exact audience that you want to reach, so you’re not paying for useless advertising.

Even with a budget of just a few dollars per day, you can set up a campaign that will bring leads to your portfolio website day-after-day.

If you do run paid ads, I’d recommend setting up a landing page rather than directing visitors to your homepage. Create a landing page that includes a call-to-action, like a form to fill out for a free estimate or quote.

When it comes to ads, Google and Facebook get the most attention, but other platforms can be effective as well. I’ve run ads for a few different campaigns with Microsoft Ads and had nice success. The prices tend to be lower than you’ll pay with Google AdWords, and you have the same targeting features. The only downside is the volume is not as high, but from my experience, Microsoft Ads is definitely worth trying.

Going Forward

If you’ve followed all the steps to this point, hopefully you have a freelance business set up, a portfolio site that showcases your best work, and maybe you’ve been able to land a client or two.

Going forward, you’ll need to keep your work in front of potential clients. Getting referrals from clients as you complete projects can be a big help, but what will be even better is converting some of your one-time clients into recurring clients. Many of your clients will have a need for ongoing maintenance or updates to their site (even if they can do it themselves, many will prefer to pay someone else who has more expertise). Whenever you have a good client, be sure that you offer them some sort of package for ongoing work. It could include a specified number of hours of work per month or certain maintenance tasks. These types of clients will go a long way towards stabilizing your income and reducing the need to constantly find new clients.

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