You’re ready to start your solo business — you’re craving the freedom, the versatility, and the chance to put your passion into play — but you’re not quite sure where to start. You’ve come to the right place. In our So You Wanna Be a… series, we highlight entrepreneurs who’ve built successful businesses doing what they love.
This month, we’re chatting with four web designers + developers — Sarah Eggers, Aleia Walker, Alison Monday of tiny blue orange, and Melanie Karlik of A Prettier Web — to get their inside advice on how they got their web design + development careers started.
(Editor’s note: The terms designer + developer are sometimes used interchangeably. The women interviewed here each have their own specialties, which you’ll notice in their responses. For a breakdown of the differences between designers and developers, check out this post.)
So you wanna be a web designer/developer? Here’s what you need to know…
Tell us exactly what a person in your role does.
Sarah: A freelance web designer helps people accomplish amazing things. No really, we do! There are thousands of people out there with life-changing ideas, but they stop and give up when they shudder at the idea of creating a website. Web designers are here to eliminate that website-building barrier and help people use their saved time to focus on their strengths.
Aleia: I am a freelance Web Developer who focuses on Front End Development. As a Front End Developer, I build the parts of the website that you can see. I also have a design background so I frequently handle projects from design to development. That includes figuring out how a site can have maximum impact for the client.
Alison: I'm a WordPress developer, so that means I create custom themes for WordPress based on designs that my clients have from working with a designer. I also input site content (blog posts, pages, etc.), run site updates, and do on-going maintenance/tweaks. Long story short, I spend all day being super nerdy with code + servers.
Mel: I help women tackle WordPress! I spend about 70% of my time with content creation -- I test out plugins, write blog posts, create videos, create visuals collateral, PDFs -- anything to share information that I think will be helpful for bloggers and online business owners. I have two WordPress themes that I sell right now.
How did you get your start? What are other ways someone else can get started?
Sarah: I got my start back in 2014 when I enrolled in a Skillcrush Blueprint for web design. I took the leap and paid for my first ever course, and I was totally blown away just a week in. It was super easy to learn, and my classmates and instructors were amazing. I highly recommend to someone starting out to take a high-level, paid course like Skillcrush. Before then, I just played around with free courses and never really learned much before my interest faded.
Aleia: I got started by taking a Web Designer course with Skillcrush. It was an intro course that catapulted my love for all things design and development. I definitely suggest taking a structured course to get your feet wet and determine if development is your path and what part of development you like.
Alison: I started out as a designer but loved bringing my own designs to life by coding them. All of my designer friends thought I was crazy because they hated coding + felt completely limited by it. The more I started helping them, the more I realized that I was happiest coding themes that others had designed.
Mel: I was working as a software programmer when I started my first WordPress blog, back around 2002! I really wanted to learn how to "tweak" the look and feel of my site so I taught myself HTML & CSS with whatever resources I could find online. Then, I took a part-time degree in Graphic Design from a local college. I'd spend some money and invest in a good course.
Is there a certain kind of person that would thrive in your role?
Sarah: You'll thrive if you 1) love to create things and can get in the flow and 2) can communicate well with people. I know a lot of web designers who love to create and get in the flow but have a hellish time communicating. You can be the best web designer in the world, but if you can't make your client happy and translate their words into design, then you're actually the worst web designer.
Aleia: A person who loves learning would do very well as a developer. There are always new technologies and tools. The learning never stops.
Mel: People who are creative would thrive doing design work. As for the tech side, I think it requires some persistence, resourcefulness and enthusiasm. It's easy to tell right away if tech is going to frustrate you or motivate you.
What do people need before they can get started in your industry?
Alison: If you have a way to write code, technically you can get started. I don't think it's necessarily required, but I'm happy as heck that I have business insurance, a legal business entity + a lawyer that I can send questions to. I'd suggest making sure you have a solid agreement/contract template to protect both you + your clients. Aside from that, you'll typically need Adobe CC or Photoshop as most designers work in that.
How do you currently seek out clients or customers? What are some ways you've considered seeking out clients or customers that you haven't tried yet?
Sarah: The traditional way to attract clients is to seek them out on job boards, whether through Upwork, Craigslist, or other markets. The non-traditional way to attract clients is to join Twitter chats and Facebook groups of your target audience. Someone in a group is going to be asking for web design advice and you can swoop in to save the day—and impress the rest of the group!
Aleia: I currently use word of mouth, but I’d like to step it up and make more effort in marketing my services. I am looking into building an email list and ramping up my blog game by providing useful content to prospective customers.
Alison: Because of how long I've been doing this, most of my customers come via word of mouth or by clicking my site credit link at the bottom of a site I built. In the past, I've done a lot of sharing/helping in Facebook groups. I also reached out to mentors who in turn would send work my way that was a good fit for me but maybe too low of a budget or not complex enough for them.
Mel: Everyone that has purchased my themes has either found me through my website, social media or on Creative Market.
How do you normally work with clients or customers?
Sarah: I work with clients 1-on-1 in-person or through video chats. I strongly believe in spending important decision-making time face-to-face. What a client says to you in-person vs what they may say they want their website to do in an email can sometimes be two different things.
Aleia: I generally start and end client engagements with 1-on-1, in-person contact when available, especially when working with non-tech clients (i.e. small business owners). During the project, all of the communication is online -- Google Hangouts and emails galore. When our lines get crossed, I will hop on an impromptu phone call or Hangout to get us back on track.
Alison: I typically work with clients online in a 1-on-1 or small group setting. There are times where I work directly with the designer and don't interact with the client much at all, but I'm happiest when the designer, final client, and I are a small team. That way questions are directed to the right person.
How did you decide how to set your pricing when you were starting out?
Sarah: Pricing is a mystery to early career freelance web designers. We sort of shake the eight ball of arbitrary pricing. After a while, we then start to research the market and get a better understanding of our work quality, how price affects what type of clients we get, how it all fits into our finances, and the going rate in our area.
Aleia: I played around a lot. I didn’t want to under or overcharge and ended up doing a lot of free jobs before I eventually started charging. While learning I preferred to charge flat fees instead of hourly rates to take into consideration the time that I would spend looking things up that a more seasoned developer would already have a grip on.
Alison: I used the AIGA survey on industry pricing based on my area to set my base hourly rate. As I did more and more projects, I tracked my time and figured out approximately how many hours I spent on each site build. From there, I created a flat fee so that I benefit from being faster and clients know exactly what to expect on their invoice.
What is an industry-specific tool that you couldn’t live without?
Sarah: Inspect element. (Click that link to get a preview lesson from my course that describes how to use it.) Looking at what's behind the website and making live changes is amazing.
Aleia: Git [a version control system] & GitHub [online project hosting]. I love being able to keep track of and share my code without needing to keep hundreds of versions of a project on my desktop.
Alison: I know everyone has a preference, but I can't imagine coding outside of espresso. It's my absolute favorite software for writing code.
Mel: Photoshop, Sublime Text [a text editor] and WordPress (of course).
What are some great resources for people looking to learn more about your industry?
Aleia: Twitter is a great catch-all for information, especially if you follow the right accounts. It’s an awesome place to learn of new tools, tips, and products. There are also a few great resources to stay current on all things development: A List Apart and its counterpart A Book Apart, Webdesigner Depot, and of course the Skillcrush blog!
Alison: Codecademy is a great website for learning code. I got my most "hands-on" learning by taking existing WordPress themes (especially the ones made by WP) and making changes to them. Create your own child theme (‘cause that's a great first lesson too!) and then start changing things. You can learn a lot by breaking and changing something that's already built. I also love Codrops for tutorials, CSS-Tricks for ways to rock CSS, and Google for searching for specific tutorials + problems.
What is something that someone getting started in your type of business would be surprised to hear?
Sarah: The #1 thing brand new freelancers are surprised to hear is that their pricing dictates the kind of clients they receive. If you have cheap pricing, then you're more likely to have someone who tries to barter with you, or give you major scope creep. If you have high quality work and high prices, you'll mostly get people who are extremely appreciative of your time.
Alison: I'm still surprised by the fact that simply replying to emails sets me lightyears apart from others in this industry. "My developer fell off the face of the earth" is something I hear every single week, without fail. Life/things happen, but to me it's about being respectful to those that are paying you.
Mel: You don't need a degree to make websites - you can learn it all online!
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