How To Start a Successful Web Design Business

It can be a daunting task trying to figure out what steps you need to take in order to get yourself established as a designer and ensure yourself a successful career. Should you focus on one niche or should you take every possible job you can? Should you join Dribbble or Behance or a different social media platform in order to gain exposure? How should you build your portfolio? In this post we’ll discuss these questions and more, and reveal what new designers should do first to start a successful web design business.

up the steps

Design and Develop Your Website

It goes without saying that as a successful web designer, even if you’re just starting out, you have to have a website, and it has to be good. No one will hire a designer with an ugly website! This does not mean that your website has to have every bell and whistle imaginable. On the contrary, a portfolio-based site in which your design work and skills are at the forefront and are easily accessible to potential clients will better serve you.

An excellent way to develop your website is to use a website builder that gives you the power to create your site with ease. You can customize an existing template or create one on your own, with either option providing you with potential pieces for your portfolio. Drag-and-drop editing, easy-to-use widgets, Google webmaster tools, and multi-language capabilities are but a few nifty options available to designers who utilize a website creator to develop their own site.


Build Your Portfolio

Since web design is a visually based occupation, everything begins and ends with your portfolio. People need to be able to see the work you’ve already done so they can determine if your design aesthetic is pleasing and if you have the technical skills they need for their project. Your portfolio is also a means for you to prove your legitimacy as a designer – after all, the proof is in the pudding! As such, getting your portfolio together is priority one.

However, as someone just starting his web design business, you may have difficulty building your portfolio because people can be a little tentative to hire a fresh-out-of-school designer. But there are a number of ways around this that will help you gain experience and will also give you some nice portfolio pieces to showcase your talents.


Work for Free

Obviously working for free doesn’t immediately pay the bills, but it does get your foot in the door. The marketing value alone is definitely worth something, with name recognition, customer testimonials, and word-of-mouth benefitting you down the road. You also gain much needed portfolio pieces to demonstrate what you can do when future (paying) clients come calling. Since web designers typically undertake a wide variety of tasks – from SEO to logo design to content management – your options for doing free work are pretty wide open.

Organizations such as churches, educational foundations, shelters, and other non-profits are always in need of free services due to their meager budgets. Many local small businesses are also often in the market for some free help in order to establish their own online presence. Contact a few local businesses or charities to get your name out there. Something as simple as leaving your business card (which you most certainly should have) with the organization’s director or manager can lead to some pro bono work. On a larger scale, Reddit has a directory of individuals and businesses that are looking for designers to take on some no pay jobs.


Work for Friends or Family

There’s usually no better source for work than people you already know. Chances are you know someone that owns their own business that doesn’t have a website, that volunteers for an animal shelter whose website is wildly out-of-date, or who is also just beginning their career and needs someone to help them get their name out there. Check in with the people in your life to see if they have any needs that you can fulfill. While the work may not pay well, it’s a great way to help someone you know while helping build up your portfolio as well. Plus, you can probably rely on mom, uncle Dave, or your best friend to give you a great testimonial!


Make Connections

As in all aspects of business, it’s usually about the people you know. Once you have a well-developed portfolio, making connections with other creative types and potential clients is of paramount importance because those connections can lead to an abundance of business. If you’ve gone to design school, you’ve already made some excellent connections in the form of your professors and classmates. If you’re self-taught, making similar connections can be more difficult, but it isn’t impossible. Here are a few great places to mingle:


Professional Organizations

There are a number of organizations that web designers can join in order to make connections with other professionals. AIGA is the professional association for designers and offers a host of benefits to its members. Aside from design competitions and conventions, AIGA offers design tips, sources for inspiration, reduced membership fees to commonly used websites like Shutterstock, and professional development opportunities. AIGA also provides a membership directory and online space that allows you to show off your latest work and view the work of others.


The World Organization of Webmasters, now known as, is a non-profit professional organization committed to providing support to people who create, manage, or market websites. Like AIGA, WebProfessionals offers educational resources and trainings for web designers, as well as a member-only online community where designers and other creative professionals can communicate with and learn from one another. WebProfessionals also works to identify and disseminate resources that will help designers prepare for and find employment.


The International Webmaster’s Association also offers its members professional development opportunities, including certification programs for commonly used software, and promotes members in its database to potential clients around the world. The organization fosters communication between members to share ideas and build professional contacts as well. Networking opportunities are available at the local level up to the international level to help designers expand their reach worldwide.


Go to Conferences & Other Design Events

Design conferences are so much more than getting cool free stuff. They are a great place to learn new tips and tricks, interact with other professionals, and offer your services to individuals and businesses also in attendance. Many conferences, like Development Week in San Francisco, hold events specifically for people looking for jobs. The conference, which will be in February 2015, gives you a chance to meet rock star developers and mingle with prospective employers. If you have an interest in UI, UX, and usability, there are conferences all over the world coming up in 2015. Organizations like AIGA hold annual conferences as well, including their 2015 event in New Orleans, Louisiana.

SMBs and marketing conferences are also a great place to find potential clients and make new connections. You could also learn a tip or 2 that will help you with your next marketing oriented design.


Get Social

Social media is a fantastic way to meet people in creative fields and network with potential clients. New designers, in particular, can use everyday platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to promote themselves, show off their work, and interact with peers and potential clients. These services are especially useful when you’re just starting out: You already have an established network of people you follow and who follow you, many of whom might need some web design work done or at the very least know someone who needs a service that you offer. To get even more exposure and business, there are some social media hot spots just for people in creative fields as well.

Follow these inspiring designers on social media.

Dribbble is a place where designers can display their work, connect with other creative folks, and get hired. Think of it as sort of like Instagram but only for people who design things. Members can post shots of their work and other members can view, like, and comment on it. People seeking a designer can search the Dribbble membership directory by the skills desired or by the location, making it a great place for new designers to be discovered. Members can also include their other social media networks on their Dribbble page, making for a nice interconnected social media presence. Various membership levels are available, ranging from free to $100 per year.

social flowers

Behance is another popular online community for creative professionals. Like Dribbble, members can post samples of their work, exchange messages with other members, and view, comment on, and appreciate (their version of liking) others’ work. Users can search for designers based on the tools used, where the designer went to school, and even the colors the designer has used in past work. Behance helps maximize exposure for members by sharing designers’ work with other online galleries, which is a nice touch for a platform that is free to join.


Join Freelancing Sites

Many have built a successful freelance web design business by joining Elance, which recently merged with Odesk to develop the most comprehensive freelancing platform in the world. The premise of Elance is simple: People post a job for which members of the site compete for hire. In the job posting, the scope of the work is detailed, including a proposed budget and the type of work needed.

For freelancers, it’s just a matter of searching Elance’s marketplace for job postings that fit their skills. Freelancers submit a proposal, which requires them to explain their experience and qualifications, their approach to the job, and the cost and timing of the project. Elance handles all exchanges of money, provides intermediary services if things go awry, offers opportunities to earn badges and demonstrate skills, and allows freelancers to compile feedback ratings as they complete jobs. It’s a great way for new designers to get work and get some street cred at the same time. Membership to the site is free, but a service fee of 8.75% is deducted from each transaction.


Wrapping it Up

There are dozens and dozens of tasks that you’ll need to undertake as a new designer. You’ll need hardware and software and an office space of some kind, as well as a marketing plan and the ability to write contracts. Freelancing is not just about design, but about development and entrepreneurship as well. The steps we’ve listed here will get you started off strong. To really get yourself going, give IM Creator a try. With our design and development tools, you can create an awesome website that will show off your skills and talents and get you on a path to success.


Image Credits:
Up! by Beverly Goodwin via Flickr Creative Commons
Game Design Expo 2011 by Vancouver Film School via Flickr Creative Commons
Growing Social Media by mkhmarketing via Flickr Creative Commons


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

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