Hacking the Web Design Business: 10 Experts Share Their Best Tips and Experiences

“I want to start a web design business!” That’s a thought that countless numbers of fledgling web designers have each day. But making that dream into a reality can be much easier said than done.

There are a thousand things you’ll need to do to get your business off the ground. You’ll need to develop design and business-related skills. You’ll need a great portfolio to show off your work.

You’ll need to market yourself through various means to get your name out there as well. And that’s just the beginning… It can be a daunting task, for sure. But to help you get a jump start on your career, we’ve asked ten web design experts from around the world to share their experience and offer their best tips and insights to help you start a freelance web design business.

From friendly Twitter stalking to blogging to working for friends and family, this expert roundup has a lot of great information to get you going on the right track. Let’s begin!

Brad Frost (@brad_frost)

How to Start a Web Design Business Expert Roundup - Brad Frost

Work hard. Don’t be an asshole. And share what you know.

IMC: Tell us some information about yourself.

BF: I’m a web designer, speaker, writer, and consultant located in beautiful Pittsburgh, PA. I’m passionate about creating web experiences that look and function beautifully on a never-ending stream of connected devices, and as a self-employed designer and consultant I’ve been helping organizations do the same since 2013.

IMC: How did you first get started in design?

BF: My mom’s an art teacher and my dad’s an accountant, so I was that kid in high school that hung out in the art room as much as possible. It was there where I was introduced to Photoshop and Illustrator, although I didn’t actively pursue it.

In university, I played in a band, and naturally became the person responsible for updating our band’s website. That’s what got me into web design, and eventually I switched majors into something called Media Arts and Design, where I had classes in web design.

IMC: How did you get your first web design clients?

BF: Aside from my band’s website, I didn’t do too much stuff for other people. After I graduated, I got my first big break: designing my uncle’s chiropractic practice website. Haha…ok, so that’s not a huge break, but it did give me some room to explore and start applying web standards.

Eventually, I got a job at a small agency making websites for mortgage and real estate companies. This was right before the bubble burst, and while it wasn’t the sexiest job, it provided me an opportunity to learn the mechanics of how all this web stuff works.

I moved to New York and got jobs at a few web agencies. At R/GA I got into mobile web development, which, in turn, led me to start blogging and ultimately talking about the issues I faced.

I began to meet similar-minded folks, and those connections allowed me to leave my job and set out on my own.

IMC: What tips would you share with a new designer starting his or her own business?

BF: Work hard. Don’t be an asshole. And share what you know. That’s my advice across the board and think it especially rings true for a woman or man starting their own business. I’ll stress the sharing part, as that’s how you can make connections with your community as well as potential clients.

For more great tips, read our article on How to Start a Successful Web Design Business.

Karsten Rowe (@karstenrowe)

Start a Web Design Business Expert Roundup - Karsten Rowe

…find a mentor and work with people who are smarter than you – you will then be better prepared to do your own thing.

IMC: Tell us some information about yourself.

KR: I’m Karsten Rowe, a 29-year-old designer, recently relocated back to my hometown Harrogate, Yorkshire. Over the years, I’ve worked full-time at various design agencies and software companies – in Newcastle, UK, and Germany, but predominantly London and the United States.

I’ve always enjoyed side projects, which allowed me to build a stronger portfolio of work. Over time, I started to be approached for more and more work, so I started Karsten Rowe Limited two years ago.

IMC: How did you first get started in design?

KR: After I finished up at school, I went to Harrogate College and completed my Art & Design Foundation and then to Northumbria University to study Graphic Design. It was a lot of fun and stressful at the time, but looking back it gave me the time to learn, explore, and experiment.

I loved the library because there were so many design and business books at my disposal. I also appreciated the time it gave me to get good in Adobe Creative Suite (mainly Photoshop, Illustrator, and Indesign). During my courses, I did a work placement in Newcastle and Germany before getting my first full-time job in London.

I spent eight years in London working for design agencies and technology companies. I worked hard, found some good mentors, made a ton of mistakes, but learnt a great deal. It’s important to find people who inspire you – try and work with designers who are better than you.

Need inspiration from great designers? Read our article on Inspiring Designers to Follow on Social Media

IMC: How did you get your first web design clients?

KR: Like most designers, my first clients were my family and friends – branding, print and web projects for my mum and friends. Side projects, creating your own brand, and building your own website isn’t easy when you have a full-time job, but it’s rewarding.

I also started to promote myself on social media – mainly Facebook, Dribbble, Twitter and LinkedIn. Before long, I started to get a few enquiries. Some locally in London, then further afield – Scotland, Germany and then the United States. Skype and video calls are great, but I try and have a face-to-face meeting with every client.

IMC: What tips would you share with a new designer starting his or her own business?

KR: If you are young and fresh out of university, go work in the industry, maybe in Berlin, London, or New York … but go learn from other people, more than one company, find a mentor and work with people who are smarter than you – you will then be better prepared to do your own thing.

Janna Hagan (@_jannalynn)

Start a Web Design Business Expert Roundup - Janna Hagan

I can’t stress enough how important personal connections and making a name for yourself within the industry – especially if you want to freelance full-time –  is to your success.

IMC: Tell us some information about yourself.

JH: I’m Janna Hagan, a designer currently located in Toronto, Canada. I’ve been freelancing for over five years and graduated with experience in design, development and business marketing. I’m currently working full-time as a UX Designer at Shopify in Toronto, as well as running and maintaining my own design shop on Creative Market.

IMC: How did you first get started in design?

JH: I first got started in development, actually, until I discovered that my true talents were in design. When it comes to learning, I have a hard time being disciplined with myself, so I chose to attend college, but I know many talented designers that are completely self-taught.

I think it’s more of a personal preference. I started blogging in college and also reached out to people to work on some small projects just to get some experience. I wouldn’t recommend working for free, but appreciate the fact that college is a great time to gain some valuable experience outside the classroom. Take it as a learning opportunity.

IMC: How did you get your first web design clients? JH: I mainly got my first clients through Dribbble and personal connections (my first client is still working with me to this day!). I started out small and gradually started raising my rates and moving onto bigger projects and higher paying clients.

I can’t stress enough how important personal connections and making a name for yourself within the industry – especially if you want to freelance full-time –  is to your success.

Get on your game by reading our article on What Really Makes Dribbble So Useful to Web Designers.

IMC: What tips would you share with a new designer starting his or her own business?

JH: The most important piece of advice I can give to young designers is to be visible online. I think the biggest factor that has led me to this point in my career is that I invested in my brand.

I blogged, I was active on sites like Dribble and Twitter, I guest blogged, I asked people if they could send me referrals…it’s all about being proactive about your success. Clients will not find you, you must find them – at least in the beginning. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that you will have slumps.

You will have projects that drag on longer than expected and some days, you’ll lose all motivation to continue. If you’re serious about making your own business work, you’ll find a way to get through this, but, it’s not all rainbows and “working from bed in PJ’s all day” like most people think. This was hard for me to realize sometimes.

Joseph C. Lawrence (@josephclawrence)

Start a Web Design Business Expert Roundup - Joseph C Lawrence

Communicate frequently with your clients and don’t be scared to show them early stage work – just tell them it’s rough, you are just formulating ideas, and ask them what they think so far – it will save you a lot of time (and money) later on.

IMC: Tell us some information about yourself.

JCL: I am a partner in a leading South African UX agency, Clickshape. I will never grow tired of design because ultimately design is really about learning more and more about the beautiful mysteries of the human mind.

IMC: How did you first get started in design?

JCL: I started off actually by being obsessed with psychology and cognitive science – with understanding how the human mind works, and how we experience reality. I think it helps a lot to find the aspect of design you feel like you always want to learn more about just out of pure interest and focus on that.

IMC: How did you get your first web design clients?

JCL: The good old-fashioned way – putting the word out there that I could design websites for people (even if I had never done it before), and then making sure I did a good job no matter what it took. I have never advertised – everything has been by word of mouth, or now by being found online (LinkedIn, Google, Twitter etc.).

Want some more great advice on getting your first web design client? Read our article on Easy and Cheap Marketing Tips for Web Designers.

IMC: What tips would you share with a new designer starting his or her own business?

JCL: Always plan for unexpected work, and for healthy disagreement with your clients. Factor this expectation into your quotes and timelines. Communicate frequently with your clients and don’t be scared to show them early stage work – just tell them it’s rough, you are just formulating ideas, and ask them what they think so far – it will save you a lot of time (and money) later on. Always start with a pencil sketch, no matter what you are designing, and share this with your client at the beginning.

Jon Phillips (@jophillips)

How to Start a Web Design Business Expert Roundup - Jon Phillips

My best piece of advice would probably be to learn as much as you can about the field you want to work in, be it web design, development, software engineering, mobile dev, etc… and the technologies behind that.

IMC: Tell us some information about yourself.

JP: My name’s Jon, and I’m from Montreal, Canada. I’ve been designing for the web and other mediums for about 10 or 12 years now. I’ve also launched (and sold) a few design websites and blogs over the years and collaborated on some relatively successful design-related projects.

I freelanced for about 7-8 years before I decided to make the jump back to being employed a few years ago — and I could not be happier with the journey so far. I currently work at BuySellAds as a UI and product designer. I still have some side projects, like Contrastly, a photography magazine I started in 2013. And I also freelance on the side for a few long-term clients as well.

IMC: How did you first get started in design?

JP: I started designing websites mostly out of curiosity, and because I found that a lot of the websites I was visiting at the time were lacking a great reading experience or had obvious flaws. The web has changed a lot since then!

I was mostly interested in online publishing at first (and I still am), which led me to want to learn more about what makes for a great online experience, as well as typography. So, with those goals in mind I bought my first domain name, installed WordPress — which was, and still is, my CMS of choice — and I started learning everything I could about CSS, HTML, typography, and tried my hand at some JS and PHP.

IMC: How did you get your first web design clients?

JP: My very first client was a friend of mine who needed a website for his business at the time. I have to admit, the results were not great, but it was a start. Then, I found a few more clients who were willing to hire me to design and/or work on their websites.

I gained a lot of experience that way and ended up getting more clients through word of mouth. Then I started making friends in the design community through blogs and forums. This led me to want to start my own projects and blogs.

Then, for many years I was juggling freelance clients and my own personal projects. It started to get more serious when I launched the SpyreStudios design blog, which I have now sold.

That site started as a humble online portfolio but quickly evolved into a multi-author design magazine. Writing about my experiences and sharing things I’ve learned about web design and development got a lot of people interested, and more and more people were getting in touch with me for freelance design projects.

SpyreStudios was an amazing source of qualified leads for my business and helped me land some pretty exciting gigs. I have to say, turning that simple portfolio site into a design blog was a great decision — I wouldn’t be where I am today without that site.

IMC: What tips would you share with a new designer starting his or her own business?

JP: My best piece of advice would probably be to learn as much as you can about the field you want to work in, be it web design, development, software engineering, mobile dev, etc… and the technologies behind that.

Have some long-term goals. But be willing to revisit those goals, because these things have a tendency to change quite often.

Another thing to keep in mind when you make the jump to full-time freelancing or start your own online business is to make sure you’re disciplined and stick to a schedule. When you’re working on exciting projects, it’s easy to just keep going, not look at the clock, and then realize you’ve been sitting there working for 12 hours.

That’s alright if it happens every once in a while — there’s always going to be deadlines to meet and rush projects — but not having a schedule and working all night can be very detrimental to your health. Trust me, I’ve had my fair share of all-nighters 🙂

For more insights into keeping a set schedule and other great business tips, read our article on the Must Have Skills for a Successful Web Design Career.

Tomas Laurinavicius (@tomaslau)

How to Start a Web Design Business Expert Roundup - Tomas Laurinavicius

Think of a value you can provide with your work. Choose an area that excites you and become best at it. Sharp focus and specialisation, I believe, is the only way to succeed.

IMC: Tell us some information about yourself.

TL: I am an adventurous designer, blogger and entrepreneur from Lithuania. I am founder of Despreneur and co-author of Mobile Design Book, and I travel the world with a mission to inspire and be inspired.

IMC: How did you first get started in design?

TL: In late 2007 I became bored of playing video games and was looking for ways to create things online. I’ve came across a Lithuanian online forum of digital arts and got immersed in that community and started learning graphic design by following tutorials. Since then, I’ve been focused on learning web design as it looked like a field that provided me a bigger opportunity to earn money.

IMC: How did you get your first web design clients?

TL: Once again, through an online forum focused on business. It was a Lithuanian community helping each other to build and grow businesses online and design jobs were posted there pretty often. My first job was to design an animated banner for a local company selling water pipes online.

Since then I’ve been learning more about the design and freelance business and mostly get jobs through online communities like Imagination, which is a design and art forum/community and Uzdarbis, which is an IT and business forum/community. Both are Lithuanian projects.

After that, I started blogging about design and people started approaching me to do some design work for them.

IMC: What tips would you share with a new designer starting his or her own business?

TL: Think of a value you can provide with your work. Choose an area that excites you and become best at it. Sharp focus and specialisation, I believe, is the only way to succeed. Become a good marketer and know how to explain your work. Blogging has helped me to establish a stronger personal brand and make lots of meaningful connections, so make sure you think about implementing blogging into your career.

Get additional information on the value of specialization in our article on Why You Should Develop a Niche Web Design Portfolio.

Arpad Szucs (@whitex3d)

How to Start a Web Design Business Expert Roundup - Arpad Szucs

I say that life’s too short to create average designs – every piece of work should be portfolio worthy – so don’t waste your precious time! The real thing starts after putting together that awesome portfolio!

IMC: Tell us some information about yourself.

AS: I’ve been a professional web designer and front-end developer since 2010. I’m a passionate brand maker, Drupal & WordPress fan, and hobby 2D-3D artist.

IMC: How did you first get started in design?

AS: Everything started when I was a child. I really liked drawing. Later, my passion transitioned to the digital world where I discovered some drawing tools. Actually, my first web designs were more like drawings than actual website designs. This slowly changed after studying about UI and UX design – your stuff has to be usable not just pretty 🙂

IMC: How did you get your first web design clients?

AS: My first client was a good friend of mine. They say it’s not good to work for friends or close relatives, but I was lucky enough to maintain our good friendship during and after the project. Anyway, be careful with this.

IMC: What tips would you share with a new designer starting his or her own business?

AS: If you don’t have anything to put in your portfolio, pick up a charity project and do high-quality work. It’ll result in some nice portfolio pieces and it’ll feel good. I say that life’s too short to create average designs – every piece of work should be portfolio worthy – so don’t waste your precious time! The real thing starts after putting together that awesome portfolio!

For great tips on developing an awesome portfolio, read our post on How to Wisely Plan & Create an Online Portfolio.

Jonathan Torke (@jonathantorke)

How to Start a Web Design Business Expert Roundup - Jonathan Torke

Confidence in your idea is all that matters. With self-confidence, every opportunity will be given at the right time that you need for the realization of ideas.

IMC: Tell us some information about yourself.

JT: Hi, my name is Jonathan Torke. Since 2008, I’ve helped with the realization of web projects based on modern content management systems and online marketing strategies. Since 2012, my focus has been on WordPress. I am fascinated by WordPress and programming themes. Therefore, I launched my first Premium WordPress theme on jotothemes.com in March 2015. On my German blog, I write about my experience in web design. On Twitter, I share fresh resources each day for web designers and developers.

IMC: How did you first get started in design?

JT: After my studies, I started to work at a small Internet company in 2008. In the beginning, my tasks were to create screen designs and very shortly thereafter to program the designs for CMS. Over time, new and additional tasks were added. Some were:

  • Realization of websites in compliance with web standards
  • Implementation of CMS templates (Joomla, WordPress, and Drupal)
  • Maintenance and updating of existing websites
  • Creation of user-friendly design
  • Creation of graphics
  • Preparation of documentation (copywriting for websites, instructions for operating processes, technical articles)
  • Usability optimization of existing frontends
  • Search engine optimization of websites
  • Development of online marketing concepts and strategies

IMC: How did you get your first web design clients?

JT: In spring 2013, I started my own business. Twitter has and continues to be an important marketing tool for me. Many business contacts have come about through this network. Therefore, the expansion of my Twitter network was extremely important. My first customer came from Twitter. I see a lot of potential in Twitter as a marketing tool. Therefore, I recommend 10-15 interesting articles from the web each day in my Tweets for my followers and for the web design industry.

I also recommend my own blog articles, so people approach me. The cooperation may be different: Some customers like to advertise on my blog, others need me for a web design project, and others need my advice for SEO and online marketing, affiliate marketing, etc. Even a book publishing company has visited my blog in this way. And now I’m writing my first book.

IMC: What tips would you share with a new designer starting his or her own business?

JT: The most important tip I can give is to start now. Don’t invest too much time in planning of ideas. Start today, so that your visions become reality tomorrow. Confidence in your idea is all that matters. With self-confidence, every opportunity will be given at the right time that you need for the realization of ideas. On the web are a lot of high-quality sources, which you need for all your web design and online marketing projects.

Check out all of Jonathan’s favorite sites (and more!) in our article on the Best Web Design Blogs to Follow in 2015.

Chris Thurman (@chriswthurman)

How to Start a Web Design Business Expert Roundup - Chris Thurman

Great design will often get you in the door, but a great experience will keep your clients coming back for more and send countless referrals your way. Treat all of your clients as if they were your only client. Make them feel special.

IMC: Tell us some information about yourself.

CT: I’ve been working on the web since 2008. In 2010, I left the comforts of a 9-5 job and ventured out to start my own company. At first I started out freelancing under my own name, Chris Thurman, but I am now in the process of growing an agency named Cleverbolt.

IMC: How did you first get started in design?

CT: I didn’t go the traditional route of design school and design internship. In fact, I have an accounting degree (not what you’d expect to hear from a designer). My creative skills were developed through countless hours of design tutorials and browsing inspiration galleries.

It was always a passion that turned into a hobby that finally turned into a job. My first gig in design was for a non-profit. I was actually hired for video production, and they told me I’d learn and manage this whole web design thing for them.

Turns out I fell in love with the web, and I haven’t looked back. My big break, however, came from my design blog, Visual Swirl, that I started back in 2009. While it’s not the next Smashing Magazine, it did allow me to become fully immersed in the design world, and when I went out on my own, it helped me look more credible.

IMC: How did you get your first web design clients?

CT: Two strategies helped me get going early. The first was putting together a really strong portfolio. My initial goal was to take a cutting-edge concept (back then it was a single-page scrolling design) and knock it out of the park.

After I had my site designed and a few good samples of work, I went to work promoting my portfolio to design galleries and blogs. I think it helped that I had built some relationships with other bloggers, and I was fortunate enough to get my portfolio featured on a variety of websites.

This turned into quite a few “random” quality leads that got me off the ground. The other strategy that I used early on was what I call “Twitter stalking.” Basically, I set up a search filter to notify me anytime someone asked about a web designer recommendation (I believe the search phrase I used included “anyone” and “web designer”). So when someone tweeted something like “Hey, anyone have a good recommendation for a web designer?” I’d get pinged.

Then I’d try and find their contact info and send them a personalized email. This led to quite a few great conversations and a few small projects. Then from there, referrals got me the rest of the way.

IMC: What tips would you share with a new designer starting his or her own business?

CT: First, be everywhere you can. Do guest posting on design blogs, stalk people on Twitter (politely, of course), put your work on Behance and other portfolio sites, and get the word out. After that, become excellent at communication and customer service.

Great design will often get you in the door, but a great experience will keep your clients coming back for more and send countless referrals your way. Treat all of your clients as if they were your only client. Make them feel special.

Basically, do things that don’t scale. They’ll remember and refer you far more for the experience than the actual design. Although, you should be pretty good at design too, but hopefully you’ve figured that out by now.

Find additional tips for making your client’s experience a good one in our article on The Art of the Testimonial: How to Get Your Clients to Rave About You.

Stephen Petrany (@spetrany)

How to Start a Web Design Business Expert Roundup - Stephen Petrany

The most important piece of advice I have is to not be afraid to charge what you think you’re worth. This is not the time for self-doubt.

IMC: Tell us some information about yourself.

SP: I currently work full-time as a graphic designer and part-time as an instructor at the local university. In my spare time, I freelance and write tutorials. For more tips, tricks, and techniques on design and Photoshop, follow me on Twitter or visit my blog.

IMC: How did you first get started in design?

SP: I originally started working for a 3D visualization studio. It was a good experience, and it helped me learn a different aspect of design. However, when they downsized, I fell back on my graphic design experience from college and began to freelance. I tried to stay in 3D, but there’s more work for a graphic designer than a 3D artist.

IMC: How did you get your first web design clients?

SP: I started picking up freelance work from friends and family. I also attended several community events to network—eventually you can build a reliable customer base. The key is to get out and make yourself known.

IMC: What tips would you share with a new designer starting his or her own business?

SP: The most important piece of advice I have is to not be afraid to charge what you think you’re worth. This is not the time for self-doubt. Remember that you are making a living and have bills to pay (I’ve been guilty of reducing my rates and in the end, I’m only hurting myself). Also, don’t be afraid to raise your prices as you become more experienced. People will pay for quality work. Not sure how to set up pricing for your services? Check out our article on How to Charge for Web Design Projects.

Final Thoughts

Whether you want to start a web design business from home or lay the groundwork for developing a full-blown design agency, the experiences of our ten web design experts will give you the direction you need to start off on the right foot. Notice that a lot of their success came not just from being talented and good at what they do, but also by being persistent, engaged in the design community, and constantly dedicated to improving themselves and their craft. What tips do you have to offer new web designers that want to build a web design business? Get in on the conversation by leaving a comment below! And be sure to sign up for IM Creator’s monthly newsletter for more great tips, tricks, and free web design resources.

Erez

Erez is the online marketing director of IM Creator. Erez writes about web design as a business, online marketing, and website building tips.

One comment

  • Its such an inspirational post. Reading what these designers shared in this article is very interesting.

    I completely agree what Tomas said. If you don’t have anything for your portfolio, start doing charity projects and do high-quality work. I remember when I started my online business I was not having any project to put in my portfolio, then I started offering free websites to people and later on I got few leads from those free clients.

    Thanks for sharing these tips and experiences.

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