Starting a freelance web developer business demands a change in perspective, switching from an “I work for a business” to an “I run a business” mindset.
It’s not a simple switch, but there is a way to make it easier: Ask your peers. Talk to the web designers and developers who’ve already branched out on their own.
That’s what we did when we surveyed more than 2,500 of our freelance web dev customers.
Here’s what we found.
What’s your business model?
Are you starting a web design business that will grow into a large team? Or are you a lone wolf?
More than 50 percent of survey respondents said they’re intending to start a one-person freelancing business. Of that group, a slight majority said they’d partner with other professionals as needed. The rest prefer being one-stop shops, often for specific niches like local nonprofit organizations.
Which approach is best for you? Consider the differences. If you hire employees you’ll spend less time on client work and more time on managing people. If you partner with other freelancers you’ll need a strong network of reliable professionals. And if you do everything yourself, you’ll need to develop a wide range of skills.
“What type of business model are you looking to build?”
|Solo freelancer (one-stop shop)||28.07%|
|Solo freelancer (partner with other freelancers as needed)||34.68%|
How long will it take to become a “pro”?
Five years seems to be the tipping point. We hear this when we speak with our web design and developer customers. They spend the first few years improving technical skills. Once they’re at a comfortable level, they start charging for their services. Then it takes another couple of years to develop a stable revenue stream.
Why does it take so long? Likely because these professionals aren’t just doing production work. They’re also the salesperson, bookkeeper, project manager and account coordinator for their business. These skills don’t come from online courses or from attending a fast-track coding school; they’re learned through hands-on experience over time.
How can you start gaining that experience now? Even if you’re just starting a freelance web design business, treat all your projects like paid projects (even if you’re doing them for free). Write contracts, track expenses, create project plans, gather testimonials, ask for referrals. Use what you learn from these activities as a foundation to build on.
“How long have you been building and maintaining websites?”
|I do not build/maintain websites||3.76%|
|0 – 12 months||6.45%|
|1 – 2 years||10.39%|
|2 – 5 years||26.68%|
|5 – 10 years||25.34%|
How many active clients will you have in your first year?
This question is useful for setting a goal to pursue.
The majority of our respondents are working with fewer than 10 active clients per year. We also learned that most work consists of site updates, rather than new builds. This suggests that clients will continue working with a pro for as long as possible.
According to our surveyed freelancers, most of their new clients come from word-of-mouth referrals. But what if you have no existing clients? Consider:
- Volunteering your services to an organization.
- Building sites for friends and family.
- Creating side projects of your own.
- Participating in communities (online and offline).
All of these activities boost your visibility while demonstrating your expertise.
“How many active clients do you currently have today?”
|0 – 5||53.97%|
|6 – 10||23.94%|
|11 – 15||7.38%|
Are you considering simplicity and scale when choosing technology?
You have some freedom when you’re starting a web design or development business. You can look for a solution that offers the features and capabilities you’ll need later on. Unfortunately it’s difficult to know what your requirements are until you actually need them.
Here’s what our survey called out; you can use these as a starting point:
Simplified workflows. It’s standard practice to switch between different pages while completing tasks. You want to be able to do everything in fewer steps, ideally on one page.
Product trials. It’s difficult to know if a product will be the right solution. That’s why web designers want to spend time investigating the technology before they commit.
Scaling with success. The more successful a freelancer is, the more projects they need to manage. The more they need to manage, the more time it takes. Web professionals want providers who can meet the demands of their growing business.
Transferring ownership. Freelancers frequently cover hosting costs and other fees on their clients’ behalf. But what happens when those costs need to move to the client? Transferring product ownership, while keeping services up and running, saves time and mitigates unnecessary headaches.
Are you paying attention to the business of running a business?
If you had to settle on one question to ask existing freelancers, this is it. Their answers serve as a forecast of factors you need to prepare for.
From the responses we received in our survey, these four dominated:
Lead generation. The web industry, like many service industries, is notorious for feast-and-famine. We go from periods of high client demand to dry spells when it feels like nobody needs a website.
Standing out from the competition. There are a lot of web professionals out there. How do you differentiate yourself from everyone else? This is particularly true for new businesses. They rarely have a strong portfolio or client base.
Pricing services. “How much should I charge?” is a frequently asked question. How you price is also a topic by itself. (Is it a fixed cost? An hourly rate?)
Explaining technical issues. You’ll inevitably need to explain something technical to a non-technical client. Doing this without jargon or familiar terminology can be difficult.
Ask these questions when starting a web developer business.
Learn from those who’ve started their own business. Find other web professionals. Ask them questions. See how they operate. Listen to their stories of success and failure.
Shift your perspective. You’re starting a web design business, not just working for one. The work you do on your freelance business does not equal the work your business does. And if you’re looking to start, grow or run your web design business, there is a rich source of peer expertise available in the GoDaddy Pro forum.
Also published on Medium.