The Web Design Business
I've been a free-lance web developer since 1996. This page describes
how I got started, and how my business works today. This page is intended
to be useful to people who are interested in becoming free-lance web
developers themselves, and people who are interested in any kind of
free-lance work, and also possibly interesting to my customers.
When I first wrote this page I wrote:
My main piece of advice is that if you are at all adaptable to learning
new things, the economy is good right now, and the web is an area of huge
growth, so the thing to do is GO FOR IT! I was amazed at how easy
it was to get started as an independent consultant.
The economy today isn't nearly as good as it was when I first wrote that.
But I still think it's a wonderful time to be an independent consultant.
There's plenty of work out there, especially if you do work related to the
web. The web is going to be around for a very long time. Companies are
always going to need good people to work on their websites.
Table of contents:
- These things are not needed for writing web pages, but I got a
computer science degree and worked as a programmer for 8 years. I do both
web page design and also programming, especially CGI programming. (What's a
CGI program? That's where a web page runs a program, for example an online
shopping cart system or database.) There are a lot more people out there
who write web pages than people who program, so it's nice to have an extra
skill that is in demand.
- I accumulated enough savings to be able to eat for a few months, but
probably not nearly as much as I should have. It would probably have been
smarter to have saved up more first. But this worked out fine anyway, so I
have no regrets.
- I quit my old job.
- I told everybody I know that I was going to be doing free-lance
programming and web page design.
- For my first few months, I had little work to do. So I spent my time
intensively reading tutorials on the web about HTML and anything else that I
thought would be useful. (Back then, before Google made search engines
easy to use, you needed to know what you were doing to find things with
a search engine. So this was another skill I sharpened then.) With a
search engine you can find excellent tutorials on-line, free, on any topic
information about. Some of the tutorials are a lot better than others.
If you don't like one, you can always go read someone else's tutorial
instead. There are usually several tutorials out there on whatever topic
you want to learn about. I also continued telling everybody I knew that I
was now doing web design and programming.
The page I learned HTML from is
- A Beginner's Guide to HTML. Learning HTML took an afternoon. They've
revised the page since I learned HTML from it, but it's still a good place
to get started.
- At some point, someone who knew a lot of the same people as me started
asking around for a web page designer. He talked to three of the people
who I had told I was getting started, and they all told him to talk to me.
It sounded to him like I had to be the logical candidate, so he hired me
for my first web design job. From there, I had a much more "real"
portfolio, so it's been easier to find other clients.
If you're planning to do free-lance web design, here are some tips:
- Make yourself a nice web page.
- Ask each client if it is okay to put your name someplace on their web
site. Most sites I work on say "database programming by
Valerie Mates" or
"web design by Valerie Mates",
where the "Valerie Mates" is a
link back to my own website. I've gotten a number of customers through
- Get yourself two good internet providers. Even the best internet
providers suddenly crash for the day right when you have an urgent project
to finish. Also, if both your providers share the same connection to the
net, then if their connection goes down, you're still off-line. So
choose two providers with different net connections and as little as
possible in common. That way they are subject to different outages instead
of shared ones. (Note: I wrote this tip several years ago. Today's Internet
providers are much more reliable than they used to be, so this tip is no
longer as vital as it once was.)
- There are good shareware tools available on the web. I use a (yuck)
Windows XP computer. Some favorite tools are:
Opera web browser;
NetTerm (not perfect but
decent, and has a nice FTP server you can use on your own computer);
a freeware telnet program that has an SSH extension;
WinWord - a
wonderful, free, electronic dictionary and thesaurus;
Paint Shop Pro;
File Editor (which this document was written with);
Eudora for e-mail -- it has a
nice anti-spam filter, too;
something that can read MS-Word and Excel files (I use
MS-Works and the free readers you can download from Microsoft's
Sierra Print Artist was free
with my printer and turned out to be wonderful;
and lots of free fonts from all over the web. I'm a font junkie.
Some good download sites for shareware or freeware are:
- Support your fellow computer people. Register and pay for your
shareware!!! And pay for what you use: don't use pirated commercial
- Get yourself a good computer and printer that will last a while into the
future. The business expense is deductable on your taxes, and if you're
going to be staring at the same computer all day, it's nice to have one that
is comfortable to use and that works well.
- I didn't do much of this, but when you're getting started it's often
useful to talk to local non-profit groups, charities, etc., to see
if any of them need some free or cheap programming or web design services,
or whatever it is that you do. This is a way to build yourself a great
portfolio and references and at the same time do something good for a charity.
- Handling leads: When someone inquires about a job they might
want you to work on, ask lots of questions. Find out what
their needs are and what kind of project they have in mind. Don't rush in
to give a price or to talk a lot about yourself; concentrate on the client.
(Don't hide info either; just make sure the focus is on the client and not on
you.) This establishes a relationship, and it shows the client that you
are listening. It also gives you a basis for setting an accurate price for
the project. Once you've accomplished these things, the potential client
is less likely to flee with sticker shock when you finally start discussing
prices. Look at the difference between these two dialogs.
Client: I'd like a website. How much will that cost?
Client: Okay, thanks. Bye.
See the difference?
Client: I'd like a website. How much will that cost?
You: Hi, thanks for inquiring! What kind of website do you
have in mind?
Client: I run a widget business. I want a widget website.
You: Widgets? Neat! What sized widget website would you
like? Would you like an on-line shopping system so people can buy
widgets on the web? [Etc.] (It's also good to give the
client some URLs of similar web sites you've worked on, if any, so
they can check out your work.)
Client: Yes, shopping! I'd like 5 widget pages, plus a
page of corporate background.
You: (ask more questions until you have a clear idea of
what the website will be like)
Client: (gives more answers)
You: Okay, that will cost $y
Client: Sounds good! When can you have it finished?
- My clients come from very diverse sources. They range from the parents
of a friend of mine from high school, to various local businesses, to
several people in Canada who I've only met by e-mail.
- Look for clients in a diverse bunch of different places.
This is good for a few reasons. One is that you're not putting all
your eggs in one basket. That is, if one source of clients dries up,
you'll still have lots of others. Also, most my sources of clients
have so far brought in at most one or two clients. For example,
I got just one or two clients from the HTML Writers' Guild
e-mail lists, even though I was subscribed to those lists for a long
- Be prepared for a lot of inquiries to turn into nothing.
People ask questions before they've really decided that they have
the funding and interest in going through with the project they are
asking you about. Even very serious sounding customers suddenly
lose their funding. Don't hesitate to follow up on more inquiries
than you can reasonably work on at once, since only a percentage of
them will really turn into anything.
- If you do overload yourself, be honest with your clients about
what your workload is like. Several times I've had to tell clients
that I'm fully booked until next month, but that I can schedule
their job then. None have run off because of this. In fact, one
decided I must be good if I was that much in demand. Another
offered me extra money to squeeze in his job ahead of others.
- Like I said, if you're doing web design, ask your customers if
you can include a link back to your own site. I've gotten
clients who found me from these links.
- I haven't personally tried it, but it looks to me like you
can find lots of people looking for freelancers at
elance.com. I've also heard
that there are job listings at dice.com,
and monster.com, and Michigan
but I've never
visited those sites, so I don't know if they'd turn out to be
useful. There sometimes are people posting for jobs at
look under both "jobs" and "programmers" on their front page.
On the other hand, I've also heard that bidding on those sites
tends to be fiercely competitive, and you can only get jobs if you
bid at far less than your actual cost will be. So I'm not sure if
this is a useful lead or not.
- Do several different things. For example, I called up
several local places that teach classes for "introduction to the
Internet" and asked if they needed teachers. One place did. So in
addition to writing web pages, I also teach people about how to use
the net. It brings in some money. It's useful to see the things
that confuse new users about web sites this teaches me how to
write better web pages. And, while I don't teach these classes to
find new clients, I wouldn't be surprised to one day have a client
who found me through these classes.
- Don't take jobs from bad clients. Life is too short.
- Dress up for meetings with clients. Look very professional. At
home you can wear pajamas all day if you like, but don't do this for
meetings with clients.
- Look around on the net for e-mail lists that relate to what you
will be doing. There are generally many lists on any topic. Subscribe to
a few of them. Each list has its own personality (supportive, flame-prone,
high-traffic, full of teenagers, full of gurus, etc). Keep subscribing and
unsubscribing from lists until you find ones that seem good to you. I get
a lot of support from mailing lists. When I was newer to what I do, I
learned a lot from watching the answers to other people's questions. Now
that I've been around longer, I appreciate the lists because I can ask
questions about things that are difficult or obscure, and get answers from
people who have dealt with them before. Mailing lists are also good
because it's a bit of socializing while I'm home all day. (It helps too
that my partner is home free-lancing at his computer all day too, even
though sometimes we don't talk all that much during the day.) Some of the
lists I've been on are:
- Several "webwomen" lists, for women who write HTML, design
graphics, run Linux systems, and a few other topics. These were
very wonderful lists, but they all went silent a few years ago.
Still, please let me know if you want the signup information.
I'd love to see those lists come back to life again.
- I used to be on some of the
HTML Writers' Guild
lists. Back then, the HWG was full of control freaks who liked
writing rules and chastising the people who didn't follow them,
and a lot of very immature people who needed an environment like
that. But, if you can ignore these things, there's also a goodly
amount of useful information available on those lists. And maybe
they've improved in recent years. The hwg-business list
used to have the occasional job posting. I've gotten good clients
- Find your local groups of computer people. I'm on the mailing
lists for a lot of local groups, ranging from Unix gurus to
Internet business people to "computer people who go to the bar
together on the last Friday of each month". Also, when the local
chapter of the Association for
Women in Computing imploded, I volunteered to resuccitate the
local chapter and even ended up as the chapter's president for a
Local groups are especially nice because you can
go to meetings and get to know the computer people in your
community a source of information, clients, and camaraderie.
If you're in Ann Arbor, you can find a list of some local computing
groups on the AWC
- I haven't used it, but I'm told that
keeps lists of mailing lists all over the net. You can also
find a lot of e-mail lists on
- My local public library has an entire wall of good books about
self-employment and small business, covering a huge array of topics.
This is worth checking out, especially when you're getting started and you
have free time. I spent a lot of time absorbing books about anything that
looked like it might be relevant, from marketing to the legal aspects of
running a business. Some of the books were helpful, others turned out
not to be so relevant, but I don't regret reading any of them.
It's hard to say how much to charge. Here are some different ways to
- They say to take your annual salary, cancel the last 3 digits,
and charge at least that much per hour. So if you make $50,000/year at
your current job, they say you should charge $50/hour. I don't
know if that's realistic, though prices in the computer
industry are insanely high, so it's amazing what everyone is
- A friend of mine who is a free-lance web developer says he read
somewhere that your rates should be high enough that 40% of your
prospective clients don't buy what you're selling because it is too
expensive. (By that standard my rates are much too low. I've almost
never scared off a client with my prices.)
- Another place to find information about what to charge is to
look at the web sites of other people who do the same thing
as what you'll be doing. Some people post their prices. Compare
your own level of experience and expertise to theirs, and set your
- Yet another way to set your rates is to look around at what
people in other jobs get paid per hour. If an auto mechanic in
your area charges $60/hour, for example, compare what you do to
what an auto mechanic does and set your rates comparably. That is,
if your work is twice as difficult, set your rates at $120/hour;
if it's half as difficult, set your rates at $30.
- Another way to set your rates is to add up how many hours you expect
to work each year and how much money you want to make each year, and divide.
To figure out hours you will work, take into account sick time, vacation
time, days off to go to the doctor, non-billable hours spent educating
yourself, non-billable hours spent finding customers and doing clerical work
like printing invoices. Say you come up with 800 hours. (I made that
number up; you should put more thought into that number than I did.)
Then add up your living expenses, your expected business expenses, and how
much profit you want to make in a year. For example, say your living
expenses are $30,000/year, your business expenses are $2,500/year (mine only
get that high in the years when I buy a new computer), your expected taxes
(say $8,000 per year another number I made up, but you should
calculate it more carefully), and you want to make $10,000/year in profits.
Then your total is $50,500. Now divide: $50,500 dollars per year divided
by 800 hours per year is about $63/hour.
- I used to be happy to charge clients on either an hourly or a
per-project basis, whichever the client prefered. Today, after some
customers who had endless numbers of "just one more thing" that absolutely
had to be added to the site, leading to sites that took three times the
number of hours I had originally estimated when I set the price, I now
strongly prefer to work on an hourly basis rather than a fixed price
basis. That way if the client wants one more thing added, you can
simply do it rather than having to go through a new round of price
negotiations. I do have a few clients who need fixed prices for one reason
or another, for example if I'm subcontracting to them and they need to know
how much to charge their customers for my part of the project.
- If you're charging a fixed price, you need a very thorough
description of the project that isn't going to change as the client
thinks up new things to add. Or you need an agreement for how to
handle that kind of addition.
- If a client is going beyond the original estimate with new
additions to the project, you need to talk to them about adjusting
the price to cover the additional work you are putting in.
Clients understand that when they ask for additions they need to
pay you for them.
- For both fixed-price and hourly projects, I track all my hours
very carefully so that I can see how I did compared to my original
estimate of how much time the project would take. This helps to
make a better estimate for the next project.
- As your skills improve and as the industry's prices increase,
raise your rates. Don't feel locked into last year's rates when
your skills this year are 100% better and the industry's prices
have gone up 40% since last year. In early 1998 I increased my
rates by 60%, and in late 1999 I increased them another 50%. For
what I do, my rates are still quite reasonable.
- I thought figuring out taxes would be scary. It's not.
As long as you take your last year's tax bill and send in 1/4 of
what you paid last year, quarterly, the government is happy.
Doing the self-employment tax forms isn't any harder than any other
- Self-employment taxes in the US are astonishingly high. In my
first full year as a free-lancer, my income was lower by $7000 than
when I had an employer, and yet my taxes were $3000 higher! This
caught me totally off guard. It could happen to you too. Be sure
you're saving a percentage of your income to give to Uncle Sam.
- Keep track of everything business-related that you spend money
on: shareware paint programs, ink for your printer, charges for your
web host, charges for that extra phone line, etc. It's all business
expenses. Keep the receipts for tax time.
- I'm not sure how good it will be to be a free lancer when the economy
has its next downturn. I started during the current economic bonanza.
My plan to get through the next downturn in the economy is to find lots of
clients before then and make them very happy by doing very good work for
them, so that I'll have repeat business and good references when times are
leaner. (I wrote that a long time ago. Now that the economy has slowed
down, it has indeed turned out to be good advice.)
- I use a "reminder program" to help remember things. For example, if I
agree to call a client on Tuesday at 3, I'll set my reminder program to
beep and pop up a box that says, "Call so-and-so" on Tuesday at 2:45.
(I'm using a buggy freeware program that I downloaded off the net.
One day I want to write my own to replace it.)
- It's important to me to take evenings and weekends off. I work during
business hours, and I'm off duty during other hours. I'd get more work
done faster if I worked during off-hours too, but it's important to
me to have personal time when the work pressure is off and I can do
what I like without a deadline hanging over me. If needed, I will work
occasional evenings or weekends, as long as it's not an everyday thing.
Your work values may, of course, vary this is simply what works for me.
- My personal goal is to have free time and do fun, high-quality, work
that I am proud of, not to maximize the amount of money I bring in. So far
it's going great. For example I took most of the summer of 1997 off, with
free time to roller blade or hang out on my favorite on-line discussion
forum system or whatever, doing just enough work to pay the bills. In the
winter, I increased my workload. In December of 1998 I had a baby and
in April of 2002 I had another one; now my partner and I both take
turns doing free-lance web work and watching our kids. It's great having
control over your own schedule.
When you run into a question that you don't know the answer to, there are
lots of places to turn.
- The Service Corps Of Retired Executives (SCORE) offers free
business counseling in many cities. In my city, you can set up a
free appointment with these folks by calling the local Chamber of
Commerce. Most of these retired executives are knowledgeable about
business in general, but unfamiliar with the Internet. So,
they are generally good people to ask general business questions to,
but not so good for questions that are specific to Internet
business. I haven't visited them recently, but I'm glad they're
- A lot of local computer lists are good places to ask questions too.
I've gotten good business advice from the local Association for
Women in Computing list.
That's everything I can think of right now. Good luck to you in your
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