The perils of working alone as a freelance web designer (and how to deal with them)
A lot of web designers are intrigued by the idea of working on their own. Whenever I meet a fellow designer and they find out that I’ve worked at home as a freelancer for the better part of two decades, they are often surprised. They ask how I’ve managed to keep things going that long and for tips on how they can do the same.
And it’s easy to understand why. The daily grind of commuting, not to mention the office politics we often face, can be very stressful. People love to daydream about the time and energy they could save by working at home by themselves. The thinking goes that those resources can be put to better use – such as spending more time with family.
While it’s true that a solo career in web design has many benefits, there are also some real challenges to go along with it. Let’s identify a few of those challenges and some ways we can meet them.
It’s all you, all the time
Working by yourself, whether at home or a small office, can provide you with a feeling of freedom. That is, until you realize that you’re ultimately responsible for every aspect of your business – not just design.
When you think of all the duties you have as a business owner that go beyond the fun of actually working on creative projects, it can feel overwhelming. You might just have to sit in that office chair a lot longer than you had hoped.
Here’s just a bit of what you might need to deal with:
- Accounting and Billing
- Customer Service and Support
- Marketing and New Client Procurement
- Plus, working on the things you actually want to do
The fun of creativity can get easily overtaken by the more utilitarian tasks you’re charged with.
How to deal with it:
A big part of how successfully you deal with all the demands of running a business depends on how organized you are. Put some systems and processes in place to better help you keep track of everything.
For example, you may want to keep track of client billing as you mark projects off of your to-do list. The same for marking down the payments you’ve received. Don’t wait until the end of the day or the end of the week to sort it all out. Taking care of these items while they’re fresh in your mind is easier and helps ensure that you won’t forget later on.
Meetings can be difficult because some clients really value the old-fashioned face-to-face get together. But every moment you’re out of the office, you’re also falling behind. Try to turn as many meetings into phone calls or video chats as possible. And, for those who simply must meet in-person, block out specific times in your monthly schedule to take care of them.
Taking care of your clients, of course, should be a top priority. Part of the challenge you face is figuring out what requires an immediate response and what can be put off for a few hours while you work on other things. The good news here is that providing excellent customer service may just lead to referrals – thus lessening the time you need to spend on marketing and bringing in new clients.
It’s also worth mentioning that using third-party providers is a good way to alleviate some of the burden, when possible. For example, hiring an accountant or signing up for a service that allows you to conduct business tasks online can be a big help.
When something goes wrong, it’s your fault
There’s nothing quite like one of those “oh, snap!” type of moments to bring on the stress. The hard part of this is that, when something bad happens, you’re most often going to be responsible for making it right again (even if you didn’t cause it in the first place).
Sometimes, things beyond your control go wrong. You may even personally make a mistake or two. It’s times like this when you wish you could look around and blame the person sitting next to you.
Even if you’re not really being blamed by anyone, you may still be expected to fix the situation yourself or coordinate the effort with a third party – like a web hosting company, for example. This not only is frustrating to deal with, but it also takes precious time from the other things you have to get done.
How to deal with it:
This is one of those areas that is often learned the hard way (it sure was for me). While some situations may be unavoidable, there is a lot you can do to both prevent issues from cropping up and also managing client expectations for when the unexpected does happen.
One way to minimize damage and save time is to keep routine backups of your key files. Whether you’re backing up a remote website or other key assets located on your own computer, a backup can be a true lifesaver when needed. It’s something proactive you can do to make life easier.
The other part of the equation is to let your clients know what you can and can’t be responsible for – preferably from the outset of working with them. For example, they should know if you can’t fix things like their server, email account or other problems you have nothing to do with.
If something breaks and it is within your jurisdiction, keep clients updated on what’s happening and do everything you can to make it right. Be as transparent as possible by explaining the situation.
As difficult and stressful as it can be to find yourself alone when something bad happens, handling it properly can bring at least some peace of mind to everyone involved.
Finding projects you actually like
When you’re flying solo, it’s entirely possible to get yourself into a situation where you feel stuck. As in, stuck working on projects you hate. Part of this has to do with the fact that you need to make money. You might feel compelled to say yes to projects and clients you don’t want because, well, survival.
While survival sounds like a good enough reason, continually working on stuff you hate will become a serious demotivator. And, when you think about it, you probably started your own business to get away from these types of creative black holes.
Early in my career, I took just about every soul-sucking project I could find. I figured it would earn me enough to stay in business for the long-term. But I found that it actually made me question whether I even wanted to be in business anymore.
How to deal with it:
Every one of us, especially when we’re starting out on our own, are tempted to take on projects that aren’t the most satisfying. If you’re in a situation where you desperately need some business, then it’s probably fine to (cautiously) pursue this type of work.
But, before you sign your life away, ask yourself this question: How will I feel about working on this project a year from now?
It’s an important question because you’ll have clients who are with you for a long period of time. Either the project is an ongoing one or perhaps that client will bring you different projects over the years. Take a moment and envision what things will look like and how it makes you feel. If you’re not getting a great vibe about something, maybe it’s not the right thing to do.
Now, this doesn’t mean you should only take on projects that give you a warm, fuzzy feeling. Real life doesn’t often work that way. You will probably have to sacrifice a little joy here and there in order to pay the bills. Just avoid the soul-suckers and you’ll be fine!
An opportunity for growth
Running your own web design business, no matter how small, provides you with an opportunity for both professional and personal growth. You’ll learn a lot about the work you do – not to mention a few things about yourself.
Despite the many ups and downs you’ll face, being a one-person company is still a pretty cool gig. Embrace the challenges and may they bring out your best.