Building a Lifestyle Web Design Business

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The dream of many web designers is to become their own boss. Unfortunately, this dream all too often turns into a nightmare. How can we take control and return to our initial vision?

Many of us picture running our own business as a utopia where we work less hours, escape that horrendous boss, pick and choose the clients we work with and do all of this while earning more money. Instead we swap one difficult boss for many demanding clients, struggle to bring enough work through the door and work longer hours in order to get everything done. We end up living to work rather than working to live.

Before embracing the entrepreneurial lifestyle it is important to be aware of these pitfalls. If you have already taken the leap, now is the time to take back control of your business.

Signs of an Unhealthy Lifestyle Business

Many of us do not realise that our businesses have taken over our lives. Those who do convince themselves that this is a short-term problem which will resolve itself when the business becomes more well-established.

Fortunately there are signs that can snap us out of these delusions .

Working Long Hours

If you find yourself regularly working evenings and weekends it is a strong indication that something is wrong. Even if you passionately love your job and considerate it a hobby, working evenings and weekends is not sustainable for the long-term and indicates something fundamentally wrong with your business.

A similar problem relates to holidays. When was the last time you took a vacation? Are you worried what will happen to your business if you go away for a few days? If so, this is another sign that your business is in control rather than you.

Disliking Your Clients

Finally, do you find yourself regularly dealing with difficult clients? Although the occasional awkward client is inevitable, if this is happening regularly it is an indication that you are being forced to take on work that is not suited to you in order to keep the business fed.

Although we make excuses for these problems, they were not apart of our vision when we first went self-employed. We should not settle for them.

Recapturing Your Vision

Ask yourself what your perfect job would be and hold on to that vision. You may be required to compromise, but you should be able to see steady progress towards that vision. You should also be dissatisfied with anything that does not line up with that ultimate goal.

Once you have a clear vision in mind you are much less likely to fall into the trap of allowing your business to dictate life.

Of course having a vision and achieving it up two different things. However, in my experience there are three areas that will enable significant progress towards your vision. These are:

  • Picking and choosing which clients to work with.
  • Becoming more organised.
  • Nurturing repeat business.

The process of creating a lifestyle business that facilitates the way you wish to live begins with picking and choosing the kind of work you do.

Pick and Choose Your Work

As web designers we are fortunate that it is not hard for us to find work. However, just because we are busy does not mean we are running a profitable business or that we are happy with our clients.

If we wish to run a business that facilitates our life, we need to pick and choose our clients. That is easier said than done. Picking and choosing clients means turning away work. That is always painful to do.

How do you ensure that you have enough work coming in? Only then will you be happy to turn away projects that would either be less profitable or less enjoyable to do. You must invest in sales and marketing.

Investing in Sales and Marketing

Most web designers do not have a sales and marketing background. We tend to neglect this area, relying instead on referrals as our primary marketing tool.

The problem with referrals is that they are unpredictable and tend to generate the same kinds of clients. If you wish to improve the clients you have or be more confident in turning away clients you do not want, you need a sales and marketing plan in place.

This post is not the place to go into details about creating a sales and marketing plan. Fortunately it doesn’t need to be that complex. The most important thing you need to do is to dedicate time each week to actively promoting your services.

When we are busy with client work we tend to invest less time in promoting ourselves. However, we will never improve the clients that we have or be able to pick and choose, unless we have considerably more clients banging on our door than we can take on.

Specializing

Once you have ring fenced time each week to market and promote your services, I would highly recommend specialising in who you market to and what services you promote.

It may seem like common sense, but if you really enjoy building WordPress sites this is the service that you should be promoting through your marketing. Equally, if you really enjoyed working in a particular sector (for example charity websites) then focus your marketing efforts at reaching this audience.

Too often web designers feel that they need to market the whole range of their services to ensure enough work comes in. However, in reality they are spreading themselves too thin and their marketing efforts are left too unfocused to have any significant effect.

Pricing Properly

One of the best ways of picking and choosing what work you do is to significantly increase the amount you charge.

When they start, many web designers undercharge. This happens for two reasons. First, they are so keen to bring new work in that they will do anything to win it. Second, they overestimate how much of their time will be chargeable, forgetting to factoring things like admin and sales.

Unfortunately after setting too low a rate, web designers are afraid to raise that rate for fear it will reduce the amount of work coming through the door.

What you must remember when increasing rates is that you do not need to take on anywhere near as much work. Furthermore the clients you win will not be hiring just on price and so are likely to be better clients.

Finally, you may actually find that by increasing your rates you see an upturn in the quantity of enquiries. This is because people may have previously perceived you as being too cheap.

I would therefore encourage you to experiment with increasing your pricing for new clients.

Controlling Growth

Finally, if you wish to pick and choose your clients, remember your break-even point. The more expenses you have, the more you have to earn each month. This is especially true if you decide to take on new members of staff. Every employee is another mouth to feed and that puts more pressure on you to bring in new business.

If you want to be able to pick and choose your clients, I recommend keeping your business small so that you do not have to take on work simply to keep members of staff busy.

Not that having the ability to pick who you work with is the only criteria for creating a healthy lifestyle business. You will also want to reduce the number of hours you work. That means being organised.

Get Organized

I will let you into a little secret; work expands to fill the time you are willing to give it. You may feel obligated to work weekends and evenings, but that is only because you have allowed your work to expand into those times. It is perfectly possible to work less and achieve more if you just take the time to organise yourself.

The problem is that when we are busy we spend less time thinking about what we have to do and more time desperately trying to churn work out. However, when we fail to plan and organise ourselves we worked less efficiently and so get less done.

Entire books have been written about how to organise yourself efficiently, but I want to just suggest three ways you could organise yourself better.

Have One List to Rule Them All

Have one place where you keep all of your tasks. Too many people have tasks spread across a variety of different places from notebooks to task managers. Even more people try and hold tasks in their heads, which inevitably leads to mistakes being made and stress levels increasing. Personally I recommend the approach suggested by David Allen in his book Getting Things Done. However, what system you use does not matter as much as having a single place that you know contains all of the tasks you need to complete.

Organize Your Inbox

Like it or not, email is still an essential tool for any web designer. It is often the primary way we communicate with our clients and so needs to be managed efficiently.

Too many web designers have an inbox full of thousands of emails many of which contain important information or tasks to be completed. It is easy for these tasks and snippets of information to be lost among the huge quantities of unsolicited email most of us receive.

I recommend viewing your inbox as a temporary holding place for unprocessed email. Two or three times a day go through your inbox and decide what to do with each email you find in it.

Emails that contain reference information should either be filed or added to a document repository such as Evernote. Email containing tasks should be processed and those tasks moved to your master task list.

Anything that remains should either be filed, deleted or delegated to somebody else.

Avoid Distraction

Although email is important that does not mean we need to have our email clients open all of the time. By default an email client checks for new email every five minutes. When a new email arrives (which it almost always does) we feel obliged to see what it is. That equates to over 31,000 interruptions per year. It is hardly surprising that we struggled to get things done.

Not that email is the only form of distraction. Twitter, Facebook, family life (if we work from home) are just some of the distractions that surround us. Unfortunately because of the nature of our work, recovering from a momentary distraction can take a considerable amount of time. It is therefore extremely important that we minimise the distractions in our work environment.

You will be amazed how productive you can be if you just close your web browser, disable notifications from Twitter and Facebook and only check email two or three times a day.

If you are easily distracted check out the Pomodoro technique. This simple approach to time management will allow you to work in short sprints free from distraction.

Not that creating a distraction free environment can be allowed to compromise your relationship with clients. That is because repeat business is a key factor in creating a healthy lifestyle business.

Nurture Repeat Business

If the idea of picking and choosing your clients, as well as working less appeals to you, then pay attention to nurturing repeat business.

If you have a client that you enjoy working with, put in the effort to ensure you can work with them again.

Generating repeat business is considerably easier than winning new clients. It therefore fits well with our desire to work smarter rather than harder. If we can get existing clients to come back, we will ensure a continuing revenue stream with minimal effort.

The key to getting repeat business is exceeding the clients expectations. This can be done in a number of ways:

  • Go above and beyond on a project. If there is a feature you would like to implement on a client’s website (because you feel it will significantly improve the final result) offer to do this work for free. This will impress the client and lead to a more successful website. Together these things will significantly improve the chances of them coming back to you again.
  • Be proactive and full of suggestions. Do not wait for a client to come to you with more work. If you have done a piece of work elsewhere or even seen something online that you believe will apply to your client make a point of discussing it with them. Clients like it when you actively make suggestions about how their site could be improved. Even if they do not implement your idea it will impress them that you care about their site.
  • Build more than a business relationship with your clients. Get to know your clients personally. Take them out for meals, get to know their interests and talk to them about their family life. If you succeed in building a sincere relationship with the client, they are much more likely to refer future work to you or even actively look for opportunities for you to work together.
  • Be the guy that says yes. I would encourage you to encourage your clients. I realise that not all client suggestions are feasible, but wherever possible try and be positive and upbeat about their suggestions. Some of their ideas will be outside the scope but that doesn’t mean you cannot enthuse about them and compile a list of these ideas for future development. After all this gets the client thinking in terms of working with you long-term.
  • Although you should avoid becoming overly reliant on one or two clients, having half a dozen that you work regularly with will transform your business. Therefore if you find a client that you really enjoy working with make sure you do everything possible to ensure that you will work with them again.

    The Most Important Takeaway

    If you remember only one thing from this article, I hope it is the importance of investing time in proactively running your business. Too often we are so consumed with the day-to-day management of projects that we forget to step back and think strategically about the business we are building.

    Ultimately if we do not take hold of the reins of our business and actively run it, before we know it our business will be running us instead.

    Always remember that the ultimate goal is to work to live, rather than live to work.

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Paul Boag

Paul Boag has been working with the web since 1994. He is now co-founder of the digital agency Headscape, where he works closely with clients to establish their web strategy. Paul is a prolific writer having written the Website Owners Manual, Building Websites for Return on Investment, Client Centric Web Design and numerous articles for publications such as .net magazine, Smashing Magazine and the econsultancy.com. Paul also speaks extensively on various aspects of web design both at conferences across the world and on his award winning web design podcast boagworld.

Comments

9 comments on “Building a Lifestyle Web Design Business

  1. Awesome! Best advice is “Pick and Choose your work”. If you’re excited about the things you’re working on (and getting paid for it), everything else seems to fall into place much simpler.

  2. Comprehensive article and great quote “…the ultimate goal is to work to live, rather than live to work”

  3. Paul, thanks so much for writing. This post was super relevant to my upstart web firm. I’ve been in business for a little over a year.

    All those things you talk about – underpricing, working too much, attracting the wrong clients – are all things I’ve struggled with, and am still working on.

    Thanks for the encouragement to keep pressing on!