Post updated April 17, 2018
If you’ve set your sights on how to start a web design business, get ready for a wild ride. The journey of a freelance website designer is often like a turbulent, yet exciting, roller coaster ride. From a state of confusion to a sense of accomplishment, from exhaustion to exhilaration, with detours along the way for sanity checks, strategy resets and supporter shoutouts. But if you do it right, all those banked turns and barrel rolls can lead to a successful career as a freelance web designer.
But where to start?
How to start a web design business in 9 steps
This is a good place. From beefing up your web design know-how to finding new clients, follow these steps in the “worksheet” below to get organized and build your to-do list.
Lay the groundwork.
Create your community.
Handle HR and legal concerns.
Get your IT in order.
Set up finance and accounting systems and processes.
Dive into marketing and advertising.
Plan for sales.
Set up systems for productivity and quality control.
If you’re trying to figure out how to start a web design business, this step-by-step guide will give you a great head start on your journey as a freelance website designer.
1. Lay the groundwork
Before you begin an actual design work, prep your new business for success with some important planning measures:
Solidify your expertise
Make a plan to whip your skills into top-notch shape. You don’t need expertise at everything, but ensure mastery of the basics.
- Identify classes, workshops and seminars you want to attend to have the latest training.
- Look at schedules for the next year, to plan ahead for annual events.
Pro tip: Check out web design training and tutorials on Lynda.com.
Get into the freelance mindset
Dig in and read all you can about the first-hand experiences of other freelance web pros.
- Review articles written by other freelance web pros.
- Check out books about freelancing, self-employment and home-based businesses.
- Contact other freelance web designers for an informational interview.
Here are some startup business tips a freelance web developer learned from experience, and a bit about personal accountability for freelancers.
Write your business plan
Your business plan should articulate your menu of services, financial plans, target audience, and strategies to deliver your services.
- Define your business vision and identity.
Pro tip: Use a lean canvas to create a starter business plan for your web design business.
- Set financial goals and targets.
Be sure to include these financial projections in your business plan.
- Identify pricing options
- Set long-term business goals around new products/services
- Estimate expected expenses and income
Yes, it’s a good idea to start thinking about your balance sheet early-on. Get help with small business expense planning for a new online startup. As you work through how to start a web design business, also keep in mind those pesky unexpected costs that can throw a monkey wrench into your budget.
- Define your ideal clients
This is huge. You can’t be all things to all clients. These resources will help you define your ideal clients:
- A comprehensive guide to finding your perfect clients
- What to include in a customer profile
- 20 questions to ask when building a buyer persona
Working through this first part of the checklist as you explore how to start a web design business will take some time, but the output will be well worth the return!
2. Create your community
Embrace your community of fellow freelancers — whether in person or virtually. Seek out the networking opportunities that connect you with others, including competitors, collaborators and potential clients.
Find your peeps
- Look for local Meetups or other networking groups of freelance web designers, including Meetups for WordPress designers.
- Join larger community groups such as the local Chamber of Commerce, service organizations such as Rotary, or a small business owners networking group.
Build your ideal team
Build a circle of known and trusted “Power Partners” providing complementary services that work in sync with yours, without cannibalizing work or clients. Consider outsourcing tasks that don’t require your technical or creative skills — including taxes, bookkeeping, shopping, and anything else you don’t enjoy doing.
- Identify and connect with in-person Power Partners, including:
- IT hardware specialists
- SEO specialists
- Social media specialists
- Branding specialists
- Public Relations specialists
- Identify virtual Power Partners, that might include:
- Hosting, domain registration and email
- Third-party software solutions to integrate website platforms you might not design yourself, such as Wild Apricot (organization management)
- Online print resources such as VistaPrint or Moo
- Stock photo libraries such as iStock, Shutterstock or Getty Images
GoDaddy Pro is an excellent resource for web designers. It includes a plethora of free tools to help you manage your clients and sites.
3. Handle HR and legal concerns
You can operate as a sole proprietor, but consider creating an LLC or corporation to protect your personal assets and maximize profit. Research business requirements of your local government, to determine if you need licenses or permits.
Establish your business entity
- Decide if you will operate as a Sole Proprietor, LLC, or Corporation.
- Consider engaging a lawyer to help you with the necessary paperwork and/or using an online service such as LegalZoom.
Check your city government website to determine local requirements for:
- Business licensing
- Fictitious Name or DBA (“Doing Business As”) registration
Surely you have car or house insurance, so talk to your local agent about options for business liability insurance. Based on my experience, freelance projects for my city government, the school district, and the local hospital all require it.
- Determine extra insurance you might need, including liability and disability insurance.
- Contact your personal insurance agent to see if they handle business insurance.
- Get several quotes to make sure you are getting the right package for your needs.
If your previous job included medical, retirement, or other benefits, you’ll need a plan to get the equivalent items in place. Can you be covered on a spouse or partner’s medical insurance? What about setting up a retirement account? While you won’t earn paid holidays or vacation, you’ll want policies in place to set client expectations, and to provide for a backup resource if necessary.
- Identify if you will acquire medical/dental benefits through another family member’s work benefit, a group affiliation (such as membership in a professional organization), or independent procurement.
- Plan retirement contributions through your business or other means.
- Determine your vacation/holiday policy.
- Know how you will communicate time off to clients.
- Formulate a contingency plan if your services will be needed during scheduled time off.
There are many different types of clients who you will likely encounter as you get your web design business off the ground — so plan to adjust your communication style to suit each type of client’s unique needs.
4. Establish facilities
Create a home office that allows you to get work done, uninterrupted. Set and enforce boundaries, including rules ensuring your space is left untouched, and you are given time to work. Plan the office supplies you’ll want within arm’s reach.
Create your very own workspace
- Carve out a space for your at-home office — whether it’s a full room, or just a desk in the corner, and set boundaries around others using it.
- Work with other residents, such as your family or roommates, to establish guidelines around work time including working hours, and how to handle or avoid interruptions.
- Set up an office supply station so you’re never caught without printer paper, labels, folders or any other supplies you regularly depend on to get your work done.
- Identify just a few stores where you can consolidate business purchasing, and set up accounts that earn rewards or rebates.
Have a contingency plan
Power or internet service outages are a crisis for those who work at home. Know the local coffee shops or libraries where you can park for a few hours, using their wireless network and table space. Locate:
- Two to three local coffee shops at varying distances, as a power failure might extend further than your neighborhood
- The closest library (confirm open days/hours)
- Co-working locations (confirm open days/hours and fees)
5. Get your IT in order
You’re a web professional, so it’s critical to invest in solid and capable hardware and software. Consider the right software for creating graphics, modifying photos, and documenting your work.
Invest in hardware and software
- Acquire the best computer and peripherals you can afford, including larger monitor, printer and scanner.
- If you’ll be taking photos to use on client websites, consider a camera with more capability than your smartphone.
- Know how you’ll continue working in the event of a computer catastrophe, such as keeping your previous computer available, with battery charged.
- Identify which software you’ll need, and evaluate whether it’s more cost-effective to buy installable software, vs. a monthly license using cloud services. If you’re not sure, many offer 30-day free trials so you can check them out first. First candidate on your list should be Adobe Creative Cloud.
- If tools require licensing, determine which levels are most cost-effective. For example, GoDaddy’s ProSites offers bundles of specific features for managing larger groups of websites.
- Don’t forget ongoing costs for cloud-based software that handles financial tracking, video meetings such as Zoom, and remote login capability such as LogMeIn or GoToMyPC.
- Set up a file-sharing account at Dropbox or another provider.
Have a strong backup strategy
Don’t compromise on reliable security and backup strategies for your computers and office. Having these systems in place lets me sleep at night.
- Select an offline file backup system such as Crashplan or Carbonite.
- Determine if you will want a complete computer backup to an external server, and if so, add that to your hardware startup budget.
6. Set up finance and accounting systems and processes
Set up a separate business bank account, debit card and credit card. Get up to speed on financial tracking software.
Establish financial accountability
- Set up a separate business bank account with its own associated debit card.
- Set up a separate business credit card.
- Select bookkeeping software, such as GoDaddy Online Bookkeeping, Quickbooks Online or FreshBooks.
- Consider buying a few hours of consulting time with a financial expert to establish your chart of accounts and bookkeeping structure.
- Consider a long-term relationship with a tax professional, who can handle taxes as well as answer financial system questions.
- Identify items that can be purchased through your business (save money by using pre-tax dollars), including hardware, software, internet service, cell phone and office supplies
Consider using a payroll service, where the small monthly cost lets someone else worry about ever-changing tax laws, and correctly filing government forms. Determine how you’ll handle money, including establishing a pricing model, invoicing, and accepting payment online.
- Define invoicing processes and policies:
- Invoice creation
- Invoice delivery to clients
- Payment due dates relative to invoicing dates
- Requirements for deposits
- Penalties for late payments
- Consequences of unpaid invoices
- Clarify how you will accept payment:
- Credit cards
- Online payment through PayPal, Stripe, Square, or other providers
- Know how you will pay yourself. Will you receive a set salary on a regular schedule, or asynchronous payments based on income
- Decide if you will use a payroll service to handle money transfer, payment of taxes, and government forms.
7. Dive into marketing and advertising
Now it’s time to prep for promoting your new web design business. Start with these basics.
Tell your story
Your brand is unique — so be sure to tell a compelling story that will make clients want to hire you instead of your competitors. What puts you ahead of the pack? Why should someone hire you?
- Identify your brand and unique selling proposition (USP).
- Have ready answers to these questions:
- Why should I hire you instead of your competitor?
- What makes you a better solution than someone else?
- Why should I hire a solo freelancer instead of an agency?
Build your online presence
Create the vehicle that showcases your work, shows your product/service offering, and covers your policies. Establish your social media accounts.
When it comes to selling your services, nothing tells your story better than your portfolio of completed work.
Assuming you’ve already built a few other websites (whether for fun or profit), you’ll want to highlight your accomplishments and demonstrates the value you offer.
- Create your own website, including as a minimum:
- Set up social media accounts, and consider whether you want business profiles separated from your personal profiles:
Pro tip: If you don’t have much completed work to highlight, consider building a few volunteer sites (such as for local nonprofit organizations) to beef up your portfolio.
Create marketing collateral
Start with business cards, flyers or brochures, and any giveaways that get — and keep — your name in front of potential clients.
- Business cards
- Optionally, flyers or brochures
- Optionally, giveaways such as pens, coffee cups, or mousepads
8. Plan for sales
Identify the right web design clients for you, and evaluation criteria for candidate clients. Strategize ways to find, meet, and land those folks. Having your elevator pitch at the ready means you’re prepared when you meet potential clients in unlikely venues, including the gym, Starbucks, or at a concert.
Know your audience
- Identify how and where you’ll find and meet prospective clients.
- Develop an advertising strategy.
- Craft your elevator pitch.
- Plan to carry business cards with you at all times.
- Know how you will respond to requests for discounts, such as from nonprofit organizations or friends and family.
- Determine whether referrals deserve compensation, such as a token thank-you gift or credit toward future work.
Fine-tune your engagement strategy
Once you’ve found and landed those ideal clients, you’ll need processes in place for providing estimates, proposals, and contracts.
- Plan the process you’ll use, once you’ve connected with a prospect, including:
9. Set up systems for productivity and quality control
Establish enough structure to ensure your work gets done, while allowing enough flexibility to protect a sane lifestyle. Don’t forget to educate clients around expectations.
Ace the day-to-day tasks
Set and enforce boundaries, adopt time management best practices, and maximize your productivity by setting up tools and systems.
- Choose a to-do list application such as Teux Deux or Todoist.
- Set up a system to track time and tasks for each client.
- Have a process to migrate that daily tracking information into invoice or reporting format.
Establish checklists and templates
Identify the key tasks that would benefit from consistent execution. Set up processes, checklists and organizing strategies.
- Create templates for:
- “Let’s get started” emails that outline initial needs from clients when starting a new project
- Commonly sent emails, such as those announcing a planned vacation to clients
- Client Info Sheet to consolidate key information into one page per client
- Create checklists for:
- Starting a new site
- Pre-launch clean-up tasks
- Post-launch testing and approval
- Any daily, weekly, or monthly tasks around tracking, reporting, or bookkeeping
- Should something happen to you, the Dire Emergency Checklist includes the list of key people to contact (insurance, accountant, bank, etc.), including instructions for finding the Client Info Sheets and getting them to each client.
Ready to start a web design business?
Figuring out how to start a web design business might seem like an overwhelming project — but starting off with a plan and mega-checklist is a great way to begin. Get ready to hit the ground running!