Step 1: Calculate Start Up Costs
Everything has costs associated with it - how much will a move to freelancing cost you? Make a list of the basic equipment you're going to need. At first, it might just be a computer and a phone.
You'll want to factor in the cost of registering your domain name and hosting your own website. You might want to get business cards printed, a dedicated desk, stationery supplies and so forth. You'll need new pajamas for sitting around in all day (optional).
I know people who hopped from one free trial to another for the first 6 months of their freelance career.
Will you need new software? As you start out, download free trials of popular web design software - like Espresso, Coda, Aptana, or Adobe Dreamweaver - it'll give you 30 days to get familiar with it. I know people who hopped from one free trial to another for the first 6 months of their freelance career. When you have the money, purchase the one you liked the best.
Do you need health insurance? Do you need personal liability insurance (yes, if you are taking office space)? Do you need any other insurance, or to pay any kind of taxes before you start out?
Finding a good accountant early on who can help you with this is essential. Most accountants won't charge you for an initial meeting, so meet up with a few local ones, and glean as much advice as you can up front as regards your tax position and any other liabilities you might have.
Step 2: Establish Your Brand
How are you going to brand yourself? Many freelance web designers use their name as their brand - this is great and can lend real personal attachment - clients know that they're getting an individual, someone who maybe has a bit more flexibility in their availability, someone they can hire probably a bit cheaper than a fully fledged agency.
Alternatively, like I did, consider using a more formal name for your fledgling business, especially if you envisage your business becoming more robust in the future. If you have plans to maybe turn yourself into a studio, with a couple of people working for you, you might want to start out with a more formal company name.
Think about how you would like to be perceived - as an individual brand, or as a young company. Think about what your potential clients will read into this and ask yourself whether that fits in with your view as a freelancer.
Step 3: Create Your Own Portfolio Website
You're going to need something to point people to - to show off your expertise, to seal the deal, to… well, you know why you need your own website: who's going to buy a website from someone who doesn't have one? That's right. Nobody.
Your website should at the very least clearly state the services you offer, provide a clear means for people to contact you, and wherever possible, showcase some of your work. 'Ahh,' I hear you say, 'but how can I showcase work if I'm just starting out?'. 'Well, ' you hear me answer, 'let me count the ways…'
I bet there are organizations or groups in your local community who could benefit right now from your services.
Do work for free. I don't mean take on spec work, or enter design competitions, or get your hopes up with the guy who says 'look, just do this one little project for me and I'll give you more work than you can handle in the future'. (Put the phone down on that guy. Now.)
I bet there are organizations or groups in your local community who could benefit right now from your services. Charity organizations, social clubs, church groups, community sports, local schools… whoever they are, they'd likely be extremely grateful to you if you could provide them with a new website, a Facebook page, some banner ads, a blog, or whatever. You can do it for free or very low cost, you're helping a worthy cause, and you're generating a portfolio piece.
Do 3 or 4 of these and suddenly your new portfolio is looking quite respectable. Nobody puts all the work they've ever done in a portfolio - so just having a few pieces in there might be enough for you.
Step 4 - Figure Out How Much to Charge
This is a whole separate debate in itself, but you need to at least have a framework for establishing your rates up front or else you'll end up working for peanuts, find it difficult to ever raise your rates, and it will take much longer for your freelance web design business to get off the ground.
Figure out your monthly costs - rent, heat, power, phone bill, travel, insurance, tax liability, etc. Multiply that by 12. Add on what you'd like your annual salary to be. Divide that whole thing by 48 to figure out how much you need to make in a week (allowing for 4 weeks vacation). Then, assume that you'll be able to do billable work for about 20 hours a week at first. That's a good place to start for your hourly rate.
You should try and get as specific as you can - although this can be difficult as you’re looking for your first client. But the resources below will help.
Step 5: Develop a Sales Cycle
Notice how I haven't talked about the actual 'doing web design' bit? That's because you're not really in the business of web design at all. You're in the business of selling. From now on, your only real job is to promote your services.
Being a fabulous web designer might make you feel all tingly inside, but it means nothing if you’re unable to sell your services.
Being a fabulous web designer might make you feel all tingly inside, but it means nothing if you're unable to sell your services. It won't put food on the table, that's for sure.
So, you need to formalize a sales cycle: a process for finding prospects, cultivating your relationship with them, educating them about your services, offering your services to the right ones, fulfilling their expectations, and developing that relationship with them.
You're going to need ways to find good prospects. Start by identifying your ideal client, who are they, what do they do and where do they hang out (either in person or online)? Start hanging out there too and engaging them in conversation. Work on your elevator pitch - that little burst of information that explains clearly to potential clients how you can help their business and why they should hire you to do it.
Use your elevator pitch to summarize who you offer your services to, identify the biggest concerns facing those people, explain how you solve those problems, show how you've helped similar people in the past. In conversation it might go something like this:
You know how small businesses often struggle to get the most out of their websites? Well, what I do is create websites that really engage browsers and work hard to convert them into customers - with measurable results. One company I worked with recently was able to increase online sales by 40% over 3 months.
You've told people your target market, and what their concerns are. You've explained how you tackle the problem, and you've given an example of how you've achieved it.
Step 6 - Organize a Routine
Your day is going to need structure. It'll help you if you can have a consistent structure for your working day. Have a daily schedule mapped out which works around when you are most productive and when you are more likely to get things done.
I try and group like tasks together - if I have a bunch of phone calls to make, I try and do them all mid-morning (after my 2nd cup of coffee). Emails I typically handle mid-afternoon. If I'm coding, I find that easiest to do first thing in the morning when my brain is fresh, and, oddly, last thing in the evening when I get a second wind.
Go with whatever works for you. But being able to stick to a similar routine each day will help you.
Step 7 - Find Your Community and Work It
The great thing about being a freelance web designer is that there is a tremendous community of professionals who can support you in what you do. It's a very open, communicative bunch of people. So start following people on Twitter, getting to know them on LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media hang outs. There are other people out there in similar situations and they have a lot to offer.
Be sure to get involved in the communities where you customers are.
LinkedIn offers a number of groups for freelance professionals. Many are great places to network. Answering questions on LinkedIn is another great way to network - both with fellow professionals and potential clients. Sign up to receive RSS updates on questions from web development boards and spend 10 minutes each day helping out people in need. You establish your expertise and help people out who may be looking for your services.
Be sure to get involved in the communities where you customers are. If you're targeting a specific niche, what online forums do they use? Are there newsgroups that you should belong to? Are there regular meetups that you should be attending?
Immerse yourself in the communities in which you operate and you'll build up a really strong network - not just of other web designers but of potential clients and referrals.
Step 8 - Sign Up and Use Learning Sites
There are a wealth of web design conferences and other opportunities out there for you to keep on learning your craft. Fabulous resources with a wealth of information to share - some free, some paid for. The important thing is to make time for yourself to develop your craft, to continue learning and to share what you learn with others.
Something often overlooked though is to continue learning the art of freelancing itself - not just web design. There comes a point where, for most of us, continuing to learn more about web design is 'only' about our own professional and personal development. It becomes less valuable to the majority of our clients that we know XYZ about latest technology ABC. (It is still valuable to us, but the salable value of the skill becomes diminished). It is at this point that becoming a better freelancer is more important than becoming a better web designer - so never stop learning that also.
Step 9 - Get Set up with the Tools You'll Need
Of course, as you go on you’ll need more bits and pieces. I use software to track time, keep on top of task management, you might use tools for project management or for managing your finances. Here, I’ve listed out a few for each main category of my day to day freelance existence. Most are paid for services, but some are free or have very cheap entry level plans.
One word of advice, take an audit of all your monthly web app payments at the end of each year (or every 6 months) You may well be surprised at how many things you’ve signed up for - and how much it’s costing you!