Thinking about starting a web design business? It seems that everyone wants a slice of the digital pie, but it isn't for everyone. I'll take you through some of the steps that you'll need to take if you're deciding to build websites for clients (or yourself).
I'll be honest. Owning a digital publishing & marketing company is lucrative. Everyone wants their fair share of the web, and quite rightly too. Companies are still scrambling for their piece of digital real estate, and pay handsomely for both creating their online presence, and attracting the masses to their websites.
UK companies spent a whopping £4bn on digital advertising in the first half of 2015, and the figure is rising year-on-year. Tap into a tiny amount of that and you're clearly onto a winner.
Oh, if only it was that simple.
Before I advise you to quit your day job and attempt to start a web design or online marketing company tomorrow, I am going to advise you to stop right here, and take note of the following advice, because it 'ain't as easy as people claim.
Of course, any advice I'm going to give comes from my own experience of running a digital business. Some of what I say may not apply to you. Some of my advice may be sneered at by other professionals in my industry, and other tips I give may be downright contentious.
But these snippets of advice all apply to me, and I've enjoyed my fair share of success by doing things 'my way', so I'm not too concerned about those who try to tell me I'm wrong. I've been making money online from as early on as the mid-90s when the web was in its infancy. Today, I earn enough from my online ventures to give me the lifestyle I want - one that is flexible, allows me to pursue other ambitions (such as my pilots licence), enjoy lots of time with my family, and give something back to the community. For me, this is the ideal lifestyle.
Right, putting this aside, I shall carry on. So, here we go.
Step one - be realistic
(AKA, "it's bloody tough out there")
Before you take the plunge into making cash from the web, the first thing that will need to sink in is that EVERYONE wants to do the same. Both web design and online marketing is a highly competitive space, and it's dead easy to get swept aside by your competitors. Think long and hard about whether you have what it takes to make a few bob from the web.
It's tough. There are times when you want to give up. You need tough skin (titanium recommended) to handle all the rejection, the weeks with zero visitors, the ad revenue that won't break through the £10 barrier. Yes, it's tough, and it also takes a long time, unless you a starting your business with a huge bank balance and want to blow it all on entering the market and making your presence known.
Step two - is it for you?
It takes a certain breed of individual to make a career from earning money online. There are some absolute essentials to check off if you're deciding to give it a go. You need to...
- Be resilient, and very persistent. You're going to earn very little from the outset.
- Have a good knowledge of computers. Sure, you can learn as you go along, but if you're uncomfortable getting your hands dirty in code, then it's not for you.
- Be open to learning. You'll never stop learning. Embrace change quickly, and learn to pivot. Being able to change direction quickly is a skill that will keep you ahead of the game - and your competitors.
- Be prepared for loneliness. If you're happy working alone for long periods of time, then you have an advantage. There are times when I need to go a straight ten hours without talking to a soul.
- Have a supportive family. Starting - and running - any business puts a strain on relationships. You're going to have to make tough decisions, some of which your family aren't going to like.
- Understand practices of good design and usability. You don't need to be a professional designer to build websites. Hell, I don't consider design to be one of my strong points. However, I do know that despite my natural aversion to designing, I do understand the principles of design, and I try to stick to them at all times.
- Be opportunistic. There are always to increase your earnings by a couple of pounds a day if you look for tiny areas where you can improve. This doesn't sound like a lot, but keep finding a way to increase by this much each month and after a year you'll be pulling in an extra 720 quid a year.
Step three - know how to code
If you don't have any experience in coding then don't let that put you off. Although I've been comfortable with writing code for many years (since 1984 when I got a ZX Spectrum for Christmas) it's not that difficult.
Ignore those who say that you don't need to code because Wordpress, Joomla, or Wix does it all for you. That's really naive. What if a customer wants something bespoke creating on a website? You'll need to roll up your sleeves and create it yourself.
Personally, I don't use any content management systems when I'm creating a new website - I make my own. The only exception is to use existing frameworks (such as Bootstrap or JQuery) to speed up my development.
So, learn how to code. It'll put you head and shoulders above those who don't/won't code.
Here are three languages you'll definitely need to learn:
Those three above form the basics of most websites, from Facebook to the BBC News website. However, they only determine how the front-facing side of the website operates. You'll also need to learn a server-side scripting language.
Server side code allows you to perform other tasks before the website is presented to the end user. These tasks include connecting to a database, checking user credentials, determining what to display etc. - and many more other important aspects.
Therefore, you'll want to consider which scripting language you want to choose. Some of the more popular include:
- Java - (popular for developing native Android apps)
- C# - a general purpose object-oriented programming language
- PHP - one of the most commonly chosen languages for web development
- Ruby - a language that is great for quick development
- .NET - a framework built by Microsoft for developing websites on Windows platforms
- ASP - an older language that has been surpassed by other, better ones, but still in use, and my personal favourite as it was the one that I cut my teeth on.
Which one you choose is down to personal preference. There are plenty of books written on all of these languages. Whichever one you settle on try to immerse yourself in the way that it works. If one language suits you above all others, stick with it, and don't worry about those who frown when you tell them the underlying language behind a website. Build with what you're comfortable with. As long as it works, is quick, and it makes your life easier, then go with it.
A great place for learning about all of these languages is W3Schools (http://www.w3schools.com/)
Step four - Understand online marketing
You (or your clients) won't earn any money if you don't know how to build a website with the fundamentals of online marketing in place.
Ensure that you bring yourself up to speed with the following:
- Search engine optimisation (SEO) - Always build a website with SEO in mind. Remember to follow best practices of SEO at all times, and don't be tempted to use sneaky activities that we in the industry call 'black hat' SEO.
- Content marketing - Have a strategy that allows you to publish content regularly. Content is (and always was) King. Think about what your website visitors want.
- Speed - not really online marketing, but if you've got a slow website people will leave. It also helps to rank your website higher in the search engines.
- Your users/market - Build websites that engage with the user, providing them with what they want to see, not what you want to see.
Step five - Get yourself online
There's no point in offering your services if you don't have a website of your own. Contrary to popular belief you don't need to have an all-singing, all-dancing website that will blow the socks off your prospective clients. It just needs to look good, be fast (far too many web design companies have sloooow websites), be functional, and open to scrutiny by the more technical savvy clients who look at your underlying source code.
Show off your portfolio of designs. This will tell the client whether your design styles fit their needs.
Step six - Start your engines
Running a web design or online marketing business is no different to any other, in terms of getting it operational.
There are comprehensive steps that you should (both for best practices and legally) follow when you start a business. These include:
- Discovery - Understand your business idea completely, and discover whether you and your product or service can be turned into a viable business that makes money.
- Research - Find out more about your market. Without an intimate knowledge of your target market your business will struggle and most likely fail at the first hurdle.
- Registration - There's some red tape to tackle, and you will need to register your business with the authorities to ensure that you comply with any legal requirements.
- Finance - Money. We all need it, and as a startup you'll need to keep expenditure to an absolute minimum, as well as understanding your current financial position.
- Workplace - Of course, we all want a fancy office in the heart of Mayfair, but let's be more realistic. Examine all the potential workplaces whilst you're starting up.
- Sales & Marketing - The backbone of your business. Without knowing how to market and sell your product or service, you'll struggle to get any new customers.
- Support - Help is just around the corner, and it need not cost the earth. There are plenty of organisations that are ready and waiting to help you succeed.
- Launch - Probably the most exciting time of any start-up. Get your launch right first time, without spending a bucketload of cash.
Has that put you off already? Starting a business isn't as simple as many think. Luckily, I built StartPad, a platform that helps budding entrepreneurs plan, develop, build and launch their business. Use it. It's free.
Step seven - Stay on top of your game
Fads come and go. Search engines change their algorithm constantly. People's habits and requirements change. Design trends are constantly evolving.
Move with the times, and don't be afraid to change. Seeing visitor numbers plummet because Google updated their algorithm is disheartening, but you've got to pick yourself up, analyse what needs to improve, and do it. There's no use crying over spilled milk.
Always be on the look-out for opportunities. Strike up deals with complementary businesses. Offer an affiliate/referral programme. Improve your click-through rate on your pages by 1%. Make it slightly easier for visitors to convert. There are opportunities everywhere - you just need to know where to look for them. Think outside the box.
Keep learning too. Not just about your trade, but your market too. Understand what makes your customers tick by learning as much as you can about their buying habits, their motivations, their concerns, and their needs.
Step eight- You're not the boss
If you're building websites for yourself (as part of your own portfolio of websites), then you are obviously your own boss, and you can ignore this step.
However, if you're in the web design business and you're creating or marketing other companies' online presences, then you have to come to terms very early with the fact that your clients are the boss, not you.
Sure, you can advise your clients that they shouldn't create an in-your-face 'splash page' that obstructs their visitors before they enter the site. You may think a client's logo belongs in the 80s. It's worth bringing any issues to the attention of your client (for the purposes of helping the visitors - the most important people), but there will always be a customer who absolutely insists on their way or the highway.
Don't let these people bother you too much. Just go along with them and make sure you get better clients next time who understand that you're the expert, and the decisions you make are based on the needs of the end user.
Which brings me onto a related point - choose your clients carefully. If you get a client who thinks they know best, head for the door. It's not worth the hassle, and I guarantee that they will irritate the hell out of you.
Step nine - originality sucks
Or, at least it does for the vast majority of us designers/developers/marketers who struggle with creating something truly original.
If you're one of the lucky ones who is able to come up with a 100% unique design, idea or method that works, then congratulations.
For the rest of us, don't worry too much about pushing the bounds of originality, especially when it comes to design. Most people in creative industries take inspiration from other people's work, whether they're web designers, musicians, writers or painters. Take an idea, put your spin on it, improve it in some way and always - always - think of the needs of the end user. They're the only one's that truly matter.
Step ten - keep going
Success won't happen overnight. If you're passionate about something (assuming you have a modicum of talent) and you enjoy it, then you should be able to turn it into cold, hard cash by sticking to your goals.
Get yourself out there. It's all too easy to sit at your desk emailing or cold-calling prospective clients, but at the end of the day most business is won face-to-face. Become involved in the community in some way. Join networking groups. Provide valuable expertise to others who don't have your knowledge. Offer to help build websites for charities. Best of all, find a niche and create your own website for yourself, allowing you to experiment, tinker and muck around at no-ones expense other than your own.
So, there you go. A (very) brief overview of starting a web design / marketing company. As with any new business, there are many stages in the lifecycle of getting from idea to launch, and there are many other aspects to consider.
Over the coming months I'll revisit this post to expand on areas that I haven't already covered. The topic is a huge one, and I am already in the process of creating a new online course that teaches people about online marketing. This course will be announced later this year.
To summarise this post, treat the web design business as any other. Do your research, get your books in order, sort out your marketing activities, get support from those who have already been successful, and launch with gusto.
Good luck - and go crazy!