How to Run a Web Design Business (in Under 1,600 Words)

Let me guess: you got into web design because you’re creative, not because you love business...Am I right?

Of course, I could be wrong about you; maybe you’re the Larry Ellison of web design. But, if so, you’re the exception. Most designers I know love making things look amazing, but sometimes lack confidence when it comes to running a business. If that’s you, then don’t worry: you can run a successful web design business. In this post, I’ll tell you how.

It’s a big topic, so this is just an overview—I’m limiting myself to 1,600 words (I know, I know—that’s not that brief but, hey, I’m trying to describe how to run an entire business here, so cut me some slack!) Shortly, I’ll write a series more in-depth about each of the topics below. So treat this post as a trailer for the epic movie franchise coming soon to a Rocketspark blog near you.

1. Quoting, terms, and processes

This phase is all about getting off on the right foot. And asking for a deposit at this stage is standard practice. But how this shakes out is up to you. Commonly, designers will ask for a 50% deposit upfront and the remaining 50% upon completion. At Rocketspark, we ask for 50% initially, 25% upon design completion, and 25% after the website goes live.

We always include content and photography in our quote, even if the client hasn’t asked for it. Why? Two reasons: (1) it sets an expectation that they should get professional content and photography, regardless of whether that is through us or not, and (2) it gives them an idea of the amount they can expect to invest on it.

If you’re regularly having to give quotes, quoting software will make this process easier. Our go-to software is Quotient. It comes with a raft of features, doing the whole quoting process electronically and efficiently.

I recommend you have terms written down in black and white, outlining the conditions of the job. The key is to have strict conditions, but be lenient in enforcing them. Then you can be flexible most of the time, but you’ve got more rigid terms in place if you need to get tough.

2. Dealing with difficult customers

Speaking of getting tough, occasionally you’ll have a client who is hard work. Maybe they’ve got unreasonable expectations, are unpleasant to work with, or simply won’t pay. This is never easy, but there are some ways you can deal with it or minimise the negative impact of difficult customers.

These are the occasions when you’ll be pleased you have strict terms in place. For example, having a clause about requiring extra to be paid for revisions (or a particular number of revisions) is great when a client is constantly demanding time-consuming alterations. Once you remind them that they’ll need to start paying for those revisions, they’re often suddenly satisfied with your design! I also recommend including a clause about how you will manage client-side delays e.g. if they are holding up the process, then after a particular time-frame, you’re entitled to start charging or increase the price. Another rule, one we operate by here at Rocketspark, is not working on a project until payment has been received. It’s simple, but it means you won’t be chasing up a client who hasn’t paid for work done.

And remember: you don’t have to work with anyone you don’t want to. Granted, when you’re starting out, you usually can’t afford to turn business away, but once the work is steadier, you can be pickier about who you work with. Sometimes this means “firing” a client. Again, we hope it never gets to this point in our relationship with a client but, on the rare occasion it has, we’ve sometimes found it serves as a bit of a wake-up call. The client sometimes quickly changes their attitude and often becomes a great client.

3. Pricing

Knowing how much to charge isn’t always easy. Charge too much and you risk driving prospective clients away; charge too little and you’ll struggle to make a healthy margin (most designers, however, tend to under-charge). One way to assess your charge-out rate is to look at your quote acceptance rate: if over a period of time, (close to) 100% of quotes are being accepted, that suggests that you’re charging too little. If about 60% of quotes are being accepted, you’re probably charging about the right amount.

You can charge for the time it takes (i.e., an hourly rate) or the value of what you’re offering. There’s no right or wrong answer, though the trend these days is toward the latter. These days, designers often offer packages with set prices. If you fly through the work, you still get paid the same amount. And what if the job takes longer than you expected? Most designers include a clause in their terms that allows them to charge extra if the project’s scope changes, thereby increasing the time required.

4. Building sustainable cash flow

Finding that sweet spot between being too expensive and too cheap is crucial to healthy cash flow. Early on in the life of your business, you might need to take on jobs that you would rather decline just for the sake of keeping money coming in. Once the work increases, however, there are other (and more enjoyable) ways to ensuring a steady stream of income. You might offer a retainer to some clients, doing regular and ongoing work for them. Alternatively, you might have some kind of referral network akin to our partnership scheme, in which you receive regular income for clients you refer on to others (e.g., depending on their tier, Rocketspark design partners receive 10–30% of their client’s Rocketspark’s subscriptions ongoing).

5. Selling and pitching

Don’t pitch products—pitch solutions. In other words, don’t tell the prospective customer what you’ll use or do so much as what you’ll solve for them. For example, at Rocketspark, if an enquiry comes from somebody who has a difficult-to-use web platform, we’ll talk about Rocketspark’s ease of use. If they’ve been hacked, we’ll go over our web security with them. If their web guru always seems to be away, we’ll focus on our availability and technical support. Solution, not product.

But to pitch solutions, you need to know the client’s problems. This is the discovery phase, in which you try to get a deep understanding of their business before you launch into your pitch. Make sure you ask plenty of open-ended questions about their business, goals, processes, and the problems they’ve been facing. This helps you weed out early anybody who might not be a good fit for your business but also gives you some direction regarding how to sell them on the solutions you can offer them.

6. Project management software

Once you’ve got several projects on the boil, keeping track of them can be tricky. That’s where project management software comes in handy. Some project management software will take you through the entire process, from start to finish (e.g., WorkflowMax, RollHQ), including quoting, invoicing etc.. Others focus strictly on project management (e.g., Basecamp, Asana). At Rocketspark, we use Asana Premium.

7. Invoicing

When it comes to the all-important stage of invoicing your client, software can really help. A lot of companies, Rocketspark included, use the cloud-based accounting program Xero, which makes the invoicing process simple, clean, and efficient. See our discussion about quoting for other important information about invoicing.

8. Scaling, growing, and streamlining

One of the great things about growing is that you can choose to focus on the stuff that is most profitable, or that you get the biggest buzz out of.

But there’s an art to growing your web design business, because not every business grows in the same way. Some businesses will choose to take on employees, which depends on having steady work. Others might look to hire interns or students in short-term roles, which requires building strong relationships with local tertiary institutions. Still, others prefer to work solo and simply outsource various tasks (e.g., content, photography, social media, Google Ads) to independent specialists. Some designers prefer to refer to these other specialists without taking a cut (as per outsourcing), because sometimes knowing your client is in good hands is reward enough. I cover these various options in our blog about scaling your business up.

When it comes to streamlining your business, increasing its efficiency, again, hiring or outsourcing can pay dividends. Using the services of a bookkeeper, for instance, can make the process of getting invoices paid on time more efficient. But technology too is a great way to grease the wheels of productivity. At Rocketspark, for example, we find Zapier to be really useful software for taking care of those pesky manual tasks.

Conclusion: You got this!

If design is your thing, not commerce, then the thought of launching and/or running your own business can be a tad freaky. But, in my experience, designers are an intelligent breed. You got this! Just follow the steps listed above, and you’ll be well on your way to being the proud owner of a thriving web design business that lets you do your best creative work completely on your terms. And there it is: we’re done in just a smidge under 1,600 words (1,583 to be exact). And stay tuned: there’s more on this topic to come!