Covered in part 1:
With almost 80% of employers saying they plan to increase their use of freelancers and outside agencies as they suspend full-time hires in the current recessionary period, now is a better time than ever before to launch a web design business.
In part 1 of this 3-part series, I’ll equip you with all the information you need to start a web design business from scratch in 2023; starting the day you decide to launch your web design business to the moment you’re ready to niche down and build out a scalable sales and marketing funnel.
A quick note before we begin
Whether you are a first-time entrepreneur or web design is a new business venture, congratulations. The decision to start a new business is not an easy one and a bigger step in the process than many will realize.
For this guide, I’ll skip over any information about developing your web design skills. I’ll assume that if you’re seriously considering starting a web design business, you already have the necessary HTML/CSS/Design skills and have completed at least a few projects – even if it was a free website for a friend/family member or a sample project to build your portfolio.
With this in mind, this article will focus on the steps you should take starting from the day you officially decide to begin your web design business up to about your 2nd month in business.
Make finding your first clients your #1 priority
If you’re scratching your head and saying, “Really!? He’s recommending I find my first clients before I have a website, brand, or even a name for my business?” let me explain:
While things like a slick website, fancy logo, and perfect business name might make you feel like an official business, those things often serve as nothing more than a distraction from working towards the only thing that actually makes you a business: paying customers.
Don’t get me wrong, quality branding is a critical aspect of the success of your business, but even the best branding only carries weight if you have the experience to back it up.
Your first few clients build a foundation for a successful web design business. They allow you to gain trust in your abilities and provide you with invaluable experience as a business owner.
Leverage your network for your first few clients
“But how do I get my first few clients if I’m not doing any marketing?”
Not so fast. I didn’t say you shouldn’t be doing any marketing.
While I recommended holding off on your website and branding, those are just two individual marketing components, and only some strategies to acquire clients (like the one I’m about to share) require them.
Leveraging your network is, hands down, my favorite approach to getting your first few clients. Here’s why:
– With the proper effort, it’s basically guaranteed to work
– You can get started immediately with only about an hour of setup work
– It doesn’t require a budget, branding, or a network of previous clients
Aside from being a tried-and-tested, quick-to-implement marketing strategy, leveraging your network for your first few clients provides another HUGE benefit:
People you have a relationship with already will be more forgiving than someone learning about you and your business for the first time – allowing you to work out the kinks in a low-pressure environment.
How to get your first web design clients
Of course, leveraging your network to close your first few clients requires a proper strategy and execution. Here is my playbook on how to execute this.
Targeted Email Outreach
While our guide on how to get web design clients provides step-by-step instructions for crafting a targeted email outreach campaign, along with email templates you can use, here are a few tips for using targeted email outreach specifically to close clients in your personal network:
Search your network for business owners:
Business owners you know and, even more specifically, owners of small businesses you know can make for exceptional first clients. I call out small businesses specifically because they often don’t have much of a marketing budget, leading to websites in dire need of updating. Couple this factor with a personal connection, and this makes them ideal first customer opportunities.
Offer a lower price:
Long-term, I am strongly opposed to offering lower prices to win a client. But, leveraging your network for clients is a short-term strategy – it’s simply a way to get from point A to point B. So long as your first few clients are paying you something, in my book, lowering your price is acceptable if it means the difference between signing your first client and not.
Don’t worry about your niche:
Provided a project isn’t outside your skillset, you should be open to working with anyone for your first few clients. Defining your niche can wait. In a later section of this guide, we’ll explain how to determine when the time is right for niching down as well as how you go about doing so.
Expand your reach with the “coffee chat” strategy:
Consider broadening your outreach approach by emailing everyone in your network, business owner or not. Mention your new venture and see if they would be willing to speak with you in exchange for buying them a cup of coffee. Even if they’re not in a position to hire you, they may know someone else that is and can refer you. For a real-world example of how this “coffee chat” strategy can be the perfect way to get your first few clients, check out this podcast episode with Robyn Young, founder of Young & Co.
About all that administrative stuff
Attracting your first clients is your #1 priority – but you’ve decided to start a business, which means that as a business owner, you will have to get used to juggling multiple competing priorities simultaneously.
So, buckle up: You’ll need to cover all of the following administrative work while simultaneously hunting for your first few clients.
Get the legal stuff in order
Since we’re talking about legal matters in this section, I have to start with the classic disclaimer and say that I am not a lawyer, and none of what I mention in this article constitutes legal advice.
Disclaimer in mind, something I’ve found with other guides is they often do everything in their power to avoid giving even the most general recommendations when it comes to the legal aspect of your business. My goal for this section is to equip you with enough basic knowledge to handle your business’s legal matters as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Register your business
Out of any legal aspect within your business, this one can be the trickiest to navigate. The requirements to register your business change depending on how you structure your business and where you do business.
Determine your business structure
Because I’m not a lawyer, I cannot cover every possible scenario or provide specific recommendations for structuring your business. However, I can share some general knowledge as common observations about what most solo owners/operators of web design businesses in the United States do.
The most common business structures in the United States are sole proprietorship, partnership, C corporation, S corporation, and Limited Liability Company (LLC). However, when it comes to solo owners/operators of web design businesses based in the US, you’ll typically be deciding between the following:
In most circumstances, you will be considered a sole proprietor by default if you hold off officially registering your business. The lack of paperwork makes a Sole Proprietorship an attractive choice when you’re just getting started, but it does come with some disadvantages:
Liability – with a sole proprietorship, you are personally liable for any debts or obligations related to your business. An example of how you can be held personally liable is if an unhappy client decides to sue, they can come after your assets.
Taxes – sole proprietorships offer no tax advantages for the owner, meaning you’ll have to pay the full amount of taxes on all business profits.
Disadvantages aside, starting as a sole proprietorship can be a decent choice to get your business up and running quickly when your revenue and risk are relatively low. Another benefit in your early days is that you don’t need to come up with a formal business name.
Limited Liability Company (LLC):
Explained in the simplest way I know how: An LLC is a legal entity that separates the owner(s) from the business.
An LLC might be the right option if you have a partner. If you are the sole owner of an LLC, you might incur the same taxation as a sole proprietor. As such, if you’re the only owner, you will likely want to choose between a C Corp or an S Corp.
C Corp or S Corp for Web Design Businesses
As discussed above, an LLC is likely not the right option if you are a solo business owner. And that leaves you with C Corp or S Corp.
In nearly every case, you will want to choose an S Corp. Due to a number of laws over the last decade, taxation for S Corps is significantly more favorable than C Corps. The primary exceptions to this are if you are raising venture capital or if you plan to sell your company and want to qualify for QSBS (Qualified Small Business Stock). While we all dream of selling a company, in all likelihood, your taxation situation over the long term will be most favorable as an S Corp (again, not an attorney nor an accountant).
While every situation is unique, deciding how to structure your business is a step that should not be overlooked, as it comes with legal and tax implications. If you have questions about how you should structure your business, it can be well worth the investment to get the advice of a lawyer. Services like Rocket Lawyer offer an affordable way to get help with the process.
This article provides excellent guidance on choosing the right business entity.
Create a bank account for your business:
You’ll need an Employee Identification Number (EIN) to open a bank account regardless of how you structure your business. Don’t skip this step, as having a separate bank account for your business is critical for year-end accounting and understanding your profits and losses.
Get your contracts in order:
Remember how I mentioned you’ll have to juggle competing priorities at the beginning of this section as you get your business up and running?
Client contracts are a prime example of this. Even though you may be in the middle of reaching out to your first potential clients, you’ll need to have a contract for when your first client says “yes!”.
Another benefit of hiring a lawyer to register your business is that they can help create the web design contract you’ll use again and again with clients.
What to include in your web design contracts:
I won’t go into detail about everything you should include in your web design contract, but I will provide my top “must-haves”:
1. A clearly defined scope of work:
Completing work for a client in addition to what was originally agreed upon (i.e., scope creep) costs your business money. Because of this, it’s critical that your contract clearly explains what you will be doing for your client and what you are not doing. For example, if you don’t offer copywriting or proofreading services, make sure to call this out in addition to all of the things you will be doing.
2. Details on your feedback, revision, and approval process:
While offering unlimited revisions may seem like a good idea on paper, it can also lead to projects dragging out indefinitely and preventing you from taking on new clients.
In the same way revisions can drag out a project, so too can waiting around for client feedback and approval. I recommend contracts explicitly call out the number of revisions a client is entitled to, the cost for additional revisions past the agreed-on amount, and the timeline in which clients need to provide feedback or approval after receiving a deliverable.
3. Protection from copyright infringement:
Even though it wasn’t common, there were multiple times at Brighter Vision when I had clients demand we add images to their website taken from Google that they did not have the rights to use.
In these situations, having a clause for copyright infringement not only protected us should we accidentally add the image to their website, but it made explaining the situation to the client much easier when we could catch it ahead of time. In addition to the image example, your contract should protect you from text-based copyright infringement (ex., clients sending you plagiarized copies for their site) and unauthorized use of your designs.
4. Details on what happens if a project is terminated:
While you may occasionally have a client wanting to voluntarily end their agreement with you, the more common scenario for a project being terminated is you need to fire a client. Your contract should explicitly state why you have the right to fire a client and what happens after the project ends.
Get your tech stack in place
Keeping with my assumption that anyone reading this guide has at least the basic prerequisite skills required to design and launch websites, I’m skipping over any information about choosing what website platform you build on (WordPress, WebFlow, SquareSpace, or ShowIt) and purchasing a design tool like Adobe Suite. Instead, I’m focusing on the technology needed to run the operational side of your business.
How to create a basic tech stack for your web design business
When it comes to the tech stack needed for your first clients, I want to emphasize the word basic – because, at this time, you likely won’t know enough about your sales funnel and client process to make investing in expensive tools with all the bells and whistles worthwhile. Here are the most important things you’ll need:
1. Business email:
Even if you haven’t decided on a name for your business yet, purchasing a domain that is your first + last name is often worthwhile. While it may only be a short-term solution, purchasing a new domain name will allow you to swap out your [email protected] address with something more professional. When it comes to a business email provider, my top pick is GSuite for the familiarity and ease of setup.
2. Project management tool:
Keeping track of where various projects are in the process and what work you need to do by when is critical to delivering a client experience that will ensure the long-term success of your business.
I may be biased, but after using nearly every project management under the sun to manage web design projects, I fully believe that Motion.io is the fastest and easiest to get up and run.
Learn more about how Web Designers use Motion.io.
3. A way to send contracts:
Please, I’m begging you, do not try to use paper contracts or standard PDFs for your contracts – it’s frustrating for your clients and only adds work on your end. There are a plethora of tools that make sending, signing, and countersigning contracts quick, easy, and fully digital. Dropbox Sign and Docusign are two options I’ve used that worked previously well.
4. A way to collect payments:
This one is a bit tricky, as the way your contracts are structured can often determine what payment tool you use. While long-term, you’ll likely want a robust and flexible tool for collecting payments, PayPal, Venmo, and Square can be good options for starting. To help you avoid surprises when receiving your first client payment, know that all payment processing companies charge a transaction fee (usually between 2.7 – 3% of the total transaction) to process credit and debit payments.
Lay the groundwork for future marketing initiatives
At some point, you’ll run out of people you can sell to within your network.
While I advised against picking a niche right away or doing any larger branding projects, there are certain marketing pieces you’ll need in place early on, including:
– An elevator pitch that describes the services you offer
– A basic website with a home, about, services, and contact page
– Social media accounts for your business
– Think about starting a newsletter
I won’t sugarcoat it:
Between all the setup, administrative tasks, and juggling client work, the first few months of running a business are often some of the hardest.
But you shouldn’t let the challenges that come in the first few months of starting a web design business discourage you, and here’s why:
Once you’ve worked with a handful of paying clients, established a basic process for completing projects, and have the other critical operational pieces for running your business in order – is when, in my eyes, the fun really begins, as it’s time to create the building blocks that will allow your business to unlock powerful growth opportunities and evolve into the go-to choice for a specific type of customer.
Ready for the next steps?
Be on the lookout for part 2 of this guide, which we will release within the next week.