Taking the leap from an agency environment or tertiary education into the world of freelance web design is intimidating that’s why I wrote this post on 10 tips for surviving your first year as a freelance website designer, hopefully it will help you. Most businesses fail within the first couple of years and web freelancers are unfortunately not spared from this statistic.

It’s no lack of commitment or talent that holds freelancers back – it’s a lack of business acumen and the rapid learning curve required to become an effective self-employee. I’ve been lucky enough to successfully make the transition from the corporate world to the life of a freelance web designer. So I’d like to share with you my top 10 tips for surviving your first year of flying solo.

1 Get your accounts in order

From the very beginning you need to get your accounts in order. It is easy and tempting to think “I’ll do it at the end of the week / month / quarter / year”. Don’t wait. From the start you can use inexpensive tools that will streamline your quoting process and accounting. Quote Robot and MYOB Live are two of my favourites.

  • I used to use online tools to output quotes which even though semi automated were still a chore to produce and took way too long. Right now I have a set of powerpoint slides where I only really need to updated 3 slides that contain bullet point lists. The 3 slides I update are scope, pricing, timeframes. The entire presentation is around 15 slides long and it a mix of what we do. customer testiminials and our fixed offerings like hosting etc.

    Quote Robot is excellent for generating professional web project quotes quickly. Time is of the essence when quoting because being quick to get back to a potential client shows you are assertive and responsive. This is a deal-maker.
  • MYOB Business (I use this) or Xero are the way to go for accounting packages that can be linked directly to your bank accounts. This means you can reconcile transactions online, saving you hours of sorting through receipts in shoeboxes. Your accountant can then easily access your MYOB account and quickly calculate your tax liabilities – another saving of time and money.

2 Aim for a diverse set of clients

One of the best things about being a freelance web designer is that you get to work on a range of projects. In an agency environment you might find yourself always working with the same type of client – or even on a single account. When you are your own agent you’ll find work comes from a number of sources. Be creative when searching for and engaging new business. Opportunities can come from web agencies (the kind you used to work for) when they need specialist help or are too overloaded in-house. You will always find work in the SME sector with much of your bread and butter work located here. These projects can range from law firms to boutique stores to personal trainers. Large corporates can be the dream for freelance web designers. They have big budgets and usually allow you – the creative and technical person – more control. On the flip side you may wait a long time for that pay cheque. Diversity is key and be careful not to rely on a single client too much because if their business goes quiet (unless they’re an online store) web is usually near the top of the luxury list that gets cut.

3 Keep your 9 to 5 (for a while)

Don’t be afraid to keep your full-time job and start a few freelance jobs on the side. This may seem daunting and tiring but it will provide an overlapping income as well as experience managing your own business. The extra cash flow can be a godsend during the first phase of your solo career because things can be eerily quiet for periods during that first year.

4 Work within your means

As tempting as it is to splash out on the best equipment and to rent a flashy studio it’s not worth it. The beauty of being a freelance web designer is that you can live the cliche: work in your pyjamas, work anytime, no-one to answer to. So make the most of this new freedom and do it from the comfort of your home. It will seriously keep your costs down. Just make sure you do go outside and interact with real people sometimes. It’s good for the soul.

5 Get a good tax accountant

Get a good tax accountant. You’ve got MYOB Essentials running now (you do, right?) so the next step is finding a tax accountant who can minimise your liability. Being self-employed has many benefits because a lot of what you do may have a work-related component. Everything from watching DVDs to reading magazines can be a valid business expense if they enhance your abilities as a web designer!

6 Client selection

Don’t be afraid to let clients go – you’ll soon work out which types of clients are cost effective and easy to deal with. Like any relationship some people you will gel with and some you won’t. The 80/20 principle comes into play: usually 80% of your revenue will come from 20% of your clients. If you have small, needy or demanding clients that are not providing rewarding work interactions (financially or emotionally) then let them go. Always stay on good terms and ensure that their website handover is as smooth as possible because in a connected world your name is your brand. And your brand is your future.

7 Show your skills

Build a good website that reflects your skills and update your portfolio regularly. Show your personality and flair by being creative. Your website should reflect your approach to and skills in web design. So find a balance between playing safe for potential clients and showing off your skills.

8 Build your brand

If you’re not working on projects focus on building your brand, whether that be through social media, improving your website or good old fashioned networking. Subscribe to The Fetch, they have networking events in major cities around the world where you can.co meet like-minded people who will offer advice, contacts, consolation and friendship. You can also build your own websites when work slows down. That big idea you’ve had for years? Build it! It may become one of your best portfolio sites, even if you don’t get a million subscribers. Being creative and social is intrinsic to your success as a freelance web designer in the first year of business.

9 Learn new tricks

Learn new tricks. You probably already follow all of the major blogs and digital media websites but look a little further and deeper and you’ll find amazing technology and concepts always bubbling just beyond the surface. Immerse yourself in the new wave of technologies. Even if you never use them, you’ll be better for knowing they exist. Someday you’ll be in a meeting when a client has an idea for something you haven’t done before and – boom – you have the solution. Also be open to opportunities that may not even seem beneficial to you. Make a website for your local charity. You’ll get your link in the footer of their site and they usually have patrons who are highly connected.

10 Build your team

No matter how good you are at some point you’re going to need a hand. Whether you are web designer focussed or heaver in the  web developer front sooner or later you’re going to need something complex done. So work on building a team there’s nothing wrong with reaching out and filling the gaps in knowledge that you don’t have. So long as the client benefits and the outcome of the job is good then there’s nothing to feel bad about. When I first started out you had to do it all; design, development, SEO, marketing etc. The reality today is that each discipline goes so deep that its impossible to cover everything to output excpetionally high quality websites virtually on your own. Today you could split just the deign element in to multi disciplines (think; web designer, UX designer, animation designer, product designer etc). So build the team around you where you are waekest so your websites are well rounded masterpieces!

11 Believe in yourself

Finally, most important of all is: believe in yourself. You’ve decided to take the leap and become a freelance web designer. It’s a road paved with immense happiness and freedom but you will also have times of stress and downright depression. Clients will fund your dreams, then call you at 3am to tell you their website has been hacked. The web changes so you need to stay in touch. You’ll need to be patient and understanding, responsive and reliable. You’ll have to work both hard and smart at times. But if you really want it and you believe in yourself, it will happen. I know freelance web designers who travel the world on endless adventures and others who work just a few hours per week. It’s up to you how you shape your destiny so have a dream and then get it started. The only thing to fear is fear itself. The first year can be the most difficult when you decide to go solo but with perseverance and a few of my top 11 tips I think you’ll do just fine. Good luck and feel free to share your tips for freelance success in the comments below.