The Internet is becoming mainstream, and business opportunities are growing fast. More than ever, I see ads claiming to show you how to make shitloads of money by working from home, via the Internet. One way is by working as a freelance website designer/developer. I wrote this post in order to expose the risks of this industry and what I’ve learned from working in the field.
Throughout the post, I will assume you will be dealing with both the design and the development of websites, as I have been doing.
Reason #1 – It takes time
It takes a long time to learn how to design, how to see. In order to design a good website, you have to learn how to compose the elements of the page, what colour palette to use, typographic hierarchy, font pairing, in one word: design.
But designing websites doesn’t end there. You must also learn how to write good copy, headlines that attract the attention of the user, what makes users click, design for older browsers and devices, how to make a site usable, accessible, analyse analytics, and so on.
If you’re also coding the website, it takes time to master HTML and CSS. You might learn them in a few days, they’re easy languages to learn, but it takes time to master them.
In the beginning it will be hard to get it right. With time and practice, you will train your eye to see good design and you will create better websites. Around that time, your pay rate will also go up.
The super-fast growth of web technology, makes it hard to keep up. Browsers constantly evolve, new ones also emerge. You might be thrilled having just finished a new website, and just for fun you decide to test the website with other browsers; you discover that in one browser, one particular browser…, your website isn’t displaying properly. Now you have to search for hacks and solutions.
Mobile phones have entered the game, and now you also have to learn how to optimise your website for mobile phones—small file sizes for fast loading times, big type and contrast for small screens, and so on.
There’s a strong possibility that by the time you’ve learned and mastered all these skills, the trends would have already changed. Now you are left behind, watching helplessly how others who ride the “trend wave” get all the clients.
There is a hidden pitfall, which goes by “I don’t follow trends”. Well buddy, as far as I’m concerned, you can design your website like it’s 1999 but don’t expect to lock-in any clients. Adapt or die…
Reason #2 – The competition
You’ll find out sooner or later that competition is fierce! I often think that the Internet is filled only with website designers and developers! Wherever I turn my head—digitally of course—there is a dude or a dudette offering website design services.
Now, whether they know how to design and develop a website is irrelevant. Yes, completely irrelevant. Because there are many clients; hell, the majority of them who will want a website done for the minimum cost. It doesn’t matter if it’s going to cost them more in the long run. They just don’t see the forest behind the tree.
I want to share with you a trade secret: avoid clients who say they don’t have the budget. Those who suggest you do it for free or some other bullshit compensation. They’re a pain in the arse to work with. I figured a way to repel those timewasters. In your contact form, show a “what’s your budget” input field, if the message is work related. I wrote more on the lost art of pricing and negotiating.
And remember this: there is always going to be someone who can do the job faster, or cheaper, or even better than you. This applies to any business. But in the website creation business, the amount of people who can do it faster and cheaper than you is infinitely larger! So you have to differentiate yourself, and stand out from the crowd.
Reason #3 – There are no standards
There are certain standards and quality controls that you need to follow when manufacturing a laptop, for example. From the client’s perspective, there is also a standard of price versus quality.
You know that if you want to buy a good laptop you are required to spend something between $600 – $1000. If you want a “top of the range” laptop you will go for an Apple MacBook Pro, or an Alienware, and expect to pay something between $1200 – $7000. My point is that you can estimate the value and cost.
This kind of standard, the baseline price you need to pay for a quality product, is inexistent with websites. You can pay something from $0 (carbonmade.com, webs.com, wix.com), to $45 – $159 (PSD to HTML: xhtmlchop.com, psd2html.com), to $50,000 (for a full e-commerce hand crafted, custom made with extra features). There is no price point limit! Apart from this being confusing to clients, it is also confusing to you, the website creator. You don’t know how much to charge; hell you aren’t even sure if you should charge by the hour or by the project!
No matter how crappy the coding is, if you deliver, the client will say thank you. That is until they realise that blind users can’t browse their website, or that older versions of browsers don’t even render the website, or that conversion rates suck and users are not returning back. Too late for that, the bird has left the nest…
Wrapping your head around all these issues can be overwhelming. Want to join this chaotic business? Be my guest! But again, don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Reason #4 – The Client
This one is tied with the previous reason, the lack of standards. Because of a utopian perception, the client thinks they can ask for the moon and the stars, and be given to them. Moreover, they make an outrageous request and offer to repay you with an X amount of money. When you say that it’s impossible because you need at least 3X to complete their request, they threaten to go to someone else. At this point you have two options:
- if you are low on cash you will suck up and do the job.
- if you are a kick-ass person (a starving kick-ass person or not, it doesn’t matter), you will show them the finger and move on.
There is one personal trait you need to improve in this kind of business: dealing with clients. Sure, bad clients exist anywhere but if you join this business you will discover that there is no shortage of them here.
Don’t get ripped off by clients. Use contracts to avoid headaches in case something goes wrong, and ask for payment up front—depending on the scale of the project either 50%, 30%, or 20% of the total price.
Reason #5 – It can get lonely
Being a one man army, jack of all trades can become tiresome at some point. Working infinite hours in front of a computer (developer, designer), dealing with money (accountant), dealing with problems (IT support), dealing with clients (support/secretary), etc. can burn you out in no time. You have to develop all the aforementioned qualities, and have a strong character to keep going.
If you’re going through hell, keep going - Winston Churchill
There won’t be anyone behind you (or “above” you) checking to see if you’ve done the work. Your work/life balance will also get disrupted. But if you’re like me, and you can get more done by eliminating distractions such as coffee breaks, telephone interruptions, meetings, colleagues, then this profession might be worth trying it out.
If you’d like to join us, and want to learn more about freelancing, where to get started, books and resources, etc. ask me anything on Twitter.