8 things I’ve learnt about business from being a freelance web designer

There are some lessons in life that you can only learn from personal failure and experience. Over my 9 years as a freelance web designer I made a lot of mistakes along the way but I also learnt a thing or two which have been invaluable lessons that I will always take with me into any business venture going forward.

Here are 8 things I’ve learnt and hopefully they can help you on your own business journey.

1. Don’t make promises you can’t keep

When I first started out doing web design, I didn’t really know my way around code very well. I’m pretty good at “faking it ’til you make it” so I managed to land some hotshot clients pretty early on, but then fell short when I didn’t know how to do the things they were requesting. So I outsourced the work, which is no problem, however you need to have an outstanding relationship with the people you’re outsourcing to if you plan on putting your trust in them to meet client deadlines.

If they decide to take the week off or stop answering their phone, or in my case, just take your money and not actually do the work, it’s you who’s in the shit with your client, not them. Before you take on any sort of project that is ‘bigger than you’ so to speak, make sure you’re setup nicely with a team of people who you are willing to put your trust in.

2. No, your customer is not always right

Aaah the well known customer service slogan that business diploma students like to quote: “the customer is always right”. I strongly disagree with this statement and at Wordcamp Cape Town 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting Chris Lema and he solidified this point for me. Watch this 1 minute video below to hear his argument.

If I’m being hired to design a website, it needs to have a purpose and it’s my job to find out what that purpose is and work out the most efficient way to make that happen.

Firstly, when a client sits down and starts dictating to me how they want their website to work and I know that what they’re suggesting is a dumb move and isn’t going to work, then I feel it’s my job to gently inform them of that fact and suggest an alternative, more user-friendly solution.

Secondly, if I decide to shut up because “the customer is always right” and is paying me to do the job, then I’ll ultimately land up creating something that isn’t going to reach it’s intended goals and that’s not going to turn my client into a walking advertisement for me and my business. Don’t compromise your integrity because a client is trying to force you into a corner.

Only do work that is in line with your values and only work with people who believe in you enough to trust your judgement.

My clients often value when I push back because a) they trust me, and b) they know I’m only doing it because I have their own interests at heart.

~ Chris Lema

3. It’s your job to get paid

If there’s one thing I’ve become really good at, it’s getting paid. After a number of bad experiences I’m now a 50% upfront girl all the way and if you don’t like that, then you can find someone else. It’s not cheeky, it’s business.

That is my number 1 rule, no matter how many times I’ve worked with a client. If a client is umming and aahing about payment before they’ve even decided to hire you, you can be guaranteed you’ll be fighting for your money at the end of the day.

The 50% rule tells your client that they’re on your turf now and they’ve hired you to do a job because they trust you and they know you’re worth it. It’s your job to let your website do the talking and prove to them that this is the case by using real life testimonials or client case studies. And if you’re upfront about your terms and conditions in a friendly manner from the start, then most people don’t tend to have a problem with it.

It’s also a good way to cover your hours as a freelancer, especially when starting out. For example, imagine a new web designer takes on 3 clients in January. Let’s hypothetically say a website takes 4 weeks to complete. If he/she works their ass off they could possibly complete all 3 websites in those 4 weeks. However, now they have to wait for client feedback. It could be weeks before final sign off and the actual websites going live. If he/she had collected a 50% deposit from all 3 clients, they wouldn’t have to stress about cash flow over the next few weeks and could take on more clients during the ‘waiting for feedback’ period.

4. Be honest

If you don’t have a particular skill which is common in your industry, be honest about it. For example, I often land up in convo’s with other web designers who are trying to show off by dropping terms like HTML5 and such. Or maybe they aren’t trying to show off and they just know more than me. Whatever, instead of nodding my head and pretending to understand what they’re going on about (which is what I used to do), I’ve learnt to be honest with them and say “actually I’ve heard of HTML5 but I haven’t experimented with it yet, sounds interesting“.

Sometimes you’ll have a similar thing with clients. They’ll call you up and drop some fancy lingo that they heard around the web and just have to have: “Yes, I’d like a jquery loading ajax accordian slideshow on the homepage which needs to auto hide on my mobi-site and change colour on my iPad“. Say whaaat?

Honesty from the start makes everything much easier in the long run. If you don’t know what they’re talking about, just be honest and say “I don’t quite understand what you mean, could you elaborate further so I’m clear on your request?“. Questions are good and help both parties understand the final details of the job.

5. On that note, ask questions even if you think you’ll look stupid

Sometimes I’d be sitting in a meeting with a potential new client and they’d be explaining their business to me. They’d say something like “so when the satellites are corresponding with the co-ordinators, we need them to be able to login to the website and check their facility application status”. For the client, this makes sense, but to me, it sounds like they need to be communicating with outerspace via the website.

Instead of allowing the client to continue, I always make sure to interrupt right then and there and ask them to clarify what exactly they mean by ‘satellite’. In this case, it turns out they just meant “office branch”. Phew, that saved me a lot of research…!

6. Clarity is key

It’s super important to make sure both parties are crystal clear as to what the job at hand entails AND what it doesn’t entail. Don’t just leave something out because you don’t offer it. Have a heading on your quotation that says “what’s included” and “what’s not included”. The clearer the better. It’s also a good idea to get signed copies of quotations / agreements, especially where larger amounts of money are involved.

7. Put yourself in their shoes

Sometimes your client will be having a shitty day. They might phone you up and be rude to you for no reason or send you an email with questions you’ve already answered. True, this is annoying, but if you take a moment to take a deep breath and respond with kindness and understanding, you’ll gain a little more self respect and maybe even turn their day around. (Of course if this is ongoing behaviour then it’s a different story.) You never know what someone else is going through that caused them to act the way they did so try not to let someone else’s bad day become yours.

8. And last but not least…

Trust your gut! If something feels off, it probably is! There have been soooo many times when I’ve had a bad feeling about something and not trusted myself. “Stop being paranoid, this is a great opportunity.” I would tell myself… and sure enough most of the time it would backfire in my face. I’m an advocate of thinking with your heart and not your head. Okay heart first, head second, you’re allowed to use your head.

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