How to Start a Web Design Business

Can you still start a profitable web design business with so many low cost web design companies in the market? That’s what one of our readers wants to know. The answer to this question is an answer that also can be applied in many other businesses that think they have to compete on price.

Dear Janet,

I am scheduled to be “Sequestered” on June 28th. I have been plastering the local community with resumes and applications but we’re approaching a date when, given the lag between ads being posted and interviews being scheduled and offers being extended, it’s likely I’ll be out of work for a few weeks, at least.

I have an EIN number for a Web design business that I toyed with for several years. I had a Web domain that I let expire a while back because I just wasn’t using it and we’re cutting down on expenses that we can, because the future is so uncertain. But I’m considering gearing it all back up again and trying to freelance my way out of this. But I’m scared.

We are awash in a sea of television advertising touting $5 Web sites. Just log in and point and click and you can have a “professional looking” Web presence in just minutes. I need $1200-$1500 at a minimum to make it worth my while. How do I compete with that? I can talk about custom, bespoke Web pages that don’t look like a dog trainer’s site in Denver or a used-car site in Milwaukee or a bakery in San Diego, but still. $5 or $1500?

I’m wondering what the future of this all might be. I feel like maybe I’m Blockbuster Video, getting hammered by Netflix and a new way of doing things. What do you think?

— A Web Developer Friend

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Dear Friend,

I feel your pain! It’s difficult to find a good job, and the thought of having to replace the income from a day job with freelance income can be pretty scary if you are starting the business from scratch.

You’re right that there are plenty of places where a business can set up a website for very little money, but nevertheless, there are web developers who have very successful businesses, providing income not only for themselves, but also for employees and freelancers who work for them.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Offer services that businesses can’t get from DIY site-building software. These may include database driven sites, sites with rotating graphics or custom designs, complex forms, and other features that require programming.  Simple brochure-type sites and simple Word Press sites are harder to make money from  because they are easier to create and there are  a lot of developers who have only basic skills competing for the work. (There are also all those low-costs DIY solutions.)
  • Target clients who realize that the way their website looks and works may play a critical role in whether or not they land new business.
  • Focus on targets whose businesses are big enough that they can budget for quality web design work.
  • Network and get known in business groups that the types of customers you want are likely to frequent. As you start to get involved in various business networking groups, look through their member directories and click on member website links. Non-working links and links to site that need improvement could be a source of business. But tread carefully. Never tell someone their site looks unprofessional. They may have designed it themself, or their spouse, or son or trusted friend might have created it.  Just let them know you’ve just started a web development business and are available if they are thinking about changing the design or functionality of their site.
  • Encourage friends and satisfied customers to give you referrals.
  • Network with other web developers, graphic designers, and SEO specialists. If you find a client who needs a skill you don’t have, one of your networking contacts may be able to handle the task on an outsourced basis. Likewise, when they need what you can do, they may pass work to you.

To get started, you will  need to get a website of your own set up again, and put some samples on it. If you don’t have any current samples to display, do some pro-bono work for friends or volunteer groups in your area.  Because developing clients, a reputation and referrals takes time, you many also want to contact established web developers in your area to see if they ever use freelancers. The work would help bring in income while you get your own website and a portfolio set up.

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