10 tips for surviving your first year as a freelance web designer


Taking the leap from an agency environment or tertiary education into the world of freelance web design is intimidating thats why I wrote this post on 10 tips for surviving your first year as a freelance web designer, hopefully it will help you. Most businesses fail within the first couple of years and web freelancers are unfortunately not spared from this statistic.

It’s no lack of commitment or talent that holds freelancers back – it’s a lack of business acumen and the rapid learning curve required to become an effective self-employee. I’ve been lucky enough to successfully make the transition from the corporate world to the life of a freelance web designer. So I’d like to share with you my top 10 tips for surviving your first year of flying solo.

1 Get your accounts in order

From the very beginning you need to get your accounts in order. It is easy and tempting to think “I’ll do it at the end of the week / month / quarter / year”. Don’t wait. From the start you can use inexpensive tools that will streamline your quoting process and accounting. Quote Robot and MYOB Live are two of my favourites.

  • Quote Robot is excellent for generating professional web project quotes quickly. Time is of the essence when quoting because being quick to get back to a potential client shows you are assertive and responsive. This is a deal-maker.
  • MYOB Essentials is an accounting package that can be linked directly to your bank accounts. This means you can reconcile transactions online, saving you hours of sorting through receipts in shoeboxes. Your accountant can then easily access your MYOB account and quickly calculate your tax liabilities – another saving of time and money.

2 Aim for a diverse set of clients

One of the best things about being a freelance web designer is that you get to work on a range of projects. In an agency environment you might find yourself always working with the same type of client – or even on a single account. When you are your own agent you’ll find work comes from a number of sources. Be creative when searching for and engaging new business. Opportunities can come from web agencies (the kind you used to work for) when they need specialist help or are too overloaded in-house. You will always find work in the SME sector with much of your bread and butter work located here. These projects can range from law firms to boutique stores to personal trainers. Large corporates can be the dream for freelance web designers. They have big budgets and usually allow you – the creative and technical person – more control. On the flipside you may wait a long time for that pay cheque. Diversity is key and be careful not to rely on a single client too much because if their business goes quiet (unless they’re an online store) web is usually near the top of the luxury list that gets cut.

3 Keep your 9 to 5 (for a while)

Don’t be afraid to keep your full-time job and start a few freelance jobs on the side. This may seem daunting and tiring but it will provide an overlapping income as well as experience managing your own business. The extra cash flow can be a godsend during the first phase of your solo career because things can be eerily quiet for periods during that first year.

4 Work within your means

As tempting as it is to splash out on the best equipment and to rent a flashy studio it’s not worth it. The beauty of being a freelance web designer is that you can live the cliche: work in your pyjamas, work anytime, no-one to answer to. So make the most of this new freedom and do it from the comfort of your home. It will seriously keep your costs down. Just make sure you do go outside and interact with real people sometimes. It’s good for the soul.

5 Get a good tax accountant

Get a good tax accountant. You’ve got MYOB Essentials running now (you do, right?) so the next step is finding a tax accountant who can minimise your liability. Being self-employed has many benefits because a lot of what you do may have a work-related component. Everything from watching DVDs to reading magazines can be a valid business expense if they enhance your abilities as a web designer!

6 Client selection

Don’t be afraid to let clients go – you’ll soon work out which types of clients are cost effective and easy to deal with. Like any relationship some people you will gel with and some you won’t. The 80/20 principle comes into play: usually 80% of your revenue will come from 20% of your clients. If you have small, needy or demanding clients that are not providing rewarding work interactions (financially or emotionally) then let them go. Always stay on good terms and ensure that their website handover is as smooth as possible because in a connected world your name is your brand. And your brand is your future.

7 Show your skills

Build a good website that reflects your skills and update your portfolio regularly. Show your personality and flair by being creative. Your website should reflect your approach to and skills in web design. So find a balance between playing safe for potential clients and showing off your skills.

8 Build your brand

If you’re not working on projects focus on building your brand, whether that be through social media, improving your website or good old fashioned networking. Subscribe to The Fetch, they have networking events in major cities around the world where you can meet like-minded people who will offer advice, contacts, consolation and friendship. You can also build your own websites when work slows down. That big idea you’ve had for years? Build it! It may become one of your best portfolio sites, even if you don’t get a million subscribers. Being creative and social is intrinsic to your success as a freelance web designer in the first year of business.

9 Learn new tricks

Learn new tricks. You probably already follow all of the major blogs and digital media websites but look a little further and deeper and you’ll find amazing technology and concepts always bubbling just beyond the surface. Immerse yourself in the new wave of technologies. Even if you never use them, you’ll be better for knowing they exist. Someday you’ll be in a meeting when a client has an idea for something slightly obscure and – boom – you have the solution. Also be open to opportunities that may not even seem beneficial to you. Make a website for your local charity. You’ll get your link in the footer of their site and they usually have patrons who are highly connected.

10 Believe in yourself

Finally, most important of all is: believe in yourself. You’ve decided to take the leap and become a freelance web designer. It’s a road paved with immense happiness and freedom but you will also have times of stress and downright depression. Clients will fund your dreams, then call you at 3am to tell you their website has been hacked. The web changes so you need to stay in touch. You’ll need to be patient and understanding, responsive and reliable. You’ll have to work both hard and smart at times. But if you really want it and you believe in yourself, it will happen. I know freelance web designers who travel the world on endless adventures and others who work just a few hours per week. It’s up to you how you shape your destiny so have a dream and then get it started. The only thing to fear is fear itself.

The first year can be the most difficult when you decide to go solo but with perseverance and a few of my top 10 tips I think you’ll do just fine. Good luck and feel free to share your tips for freelance success in the comments below.

How to create images for your website using free online tools


I get many clients asking for an easy solution to update images / graphics on their website or email newsletters. There have been various tools over the years, more recently I’ve been recommending Canva as a tool that is not only very effective in giving my clients the control they want over their images, it’s also incredibly easy to use.

anva dashboard


What’s even better is that there’s an integrated stock photo collection which works seamlessly with the provided layouts making it super easy for you to create unique graphics for your website or email newsletters in next to no time! Here’s where it gets really good, each stock photo is just $1, that’s right $1! So not only can you create awesome graphics in no time for free, if you would like to add stock photography to your images it’s one of the cheapest places online to get great quality images.

Step by step instructions on how to create you own custom image

This is the image I created:

10 tips for surviving your first year as (3)


If you have any questions or know of any other tools which are great for creating images online please let me know in the comments below. If you’d like an invite to Canva please also please also let me know as I’d be happy to invite you.


Responsive email: transforming the mobile inbox


Responsive email technology provides users with an optimal viewing experience regardless of device, maximising the potential for user engagement and, ultimately, click throughs.

The internet and all of the devices we attach to it have evolved dramatically over the past decade, yet email has taken a while to catch up. With at least 23 major email clients in use (source: Campaign Monitor) businesses, designers and developers have faced serious challenges designing effective emails that work across the spectrum of desktop operating systems and platforms, nevermind on mobile phones.

Digital life today is all about conversations and these conversations are happening across more platforms and channels than ever before, from social media to apps and traditional mediums like SMS. But email remains firmly embedded as the most pervasive format for communicating with virtually everyone via the internet – and as smartphone adoption increases this will continue to grow.

In 2012 mobiles surpassed desktops as the primary email clients

This is a milestone that changes everything. Users are no longer checking emails at their desk on a large, flat screen or on their notebook. They are reading emails everywhere, all of the time. And time is precious, so wasting a few minutes trying to read an email that is broken or does not fit within a mobile screen is likely to leave your subscriber cold. It’s a surefire way to get a delete, if not an unsubscribe. Worst case scenario you get marked as spam.

Email usage stats

Enter responsive email design

If you’re going to send emails to your subscriber list it is no longer a ‘nice-to-have’ option to offer a mobile optimised version. The solution is here and it’s time for businesses, designers and developers to catch up with what will soon become industry-standard.

Developing emails using responsive technology means that layouts intelligently adapt to suit the viewer’s browser and offer an optimal experience regardless of device. Using HTML5 and CSS3 the dream of a seamless user experience has become a very necessary reality. A reality that is achievable and within the grasp, budget and resources of most companies to implement.

How do emails become responsive?

The workflow for creating responsive emails is identical to that of creating responsive websites. First, your design team will create mockups for the screen sizes of the devices that will be accessing your emails. You may like to get some analytics around device usage on your email lists to help target the majority of your users and focus your efforts. But there’s no better time to future-proof your marketing technology than now, so designing for all major devices is a solid business decision.

Responsive email development should include several best practice elements that will ensure an optimal user experience and the best chance for you to engage customers. These include:

  • An engaging subject line (of course!), this is especially important in a busy mobile phone inbox.
  • A layout that fits the device width, preferably in a single column so users do not need to scroll in more than one direction.
  • A bold and clear call to action.
  • Align text blocks to the left side of the layout (eyetracking research suggests that Western users focus more strongly on the left side of layouts) and ensure that text is sized generously.
  • Use images sparingly in your mobile email.
  • Make use of touch-friendly buttons along with your call to action.

There are many considerations when planning a responsive email user experience and Campaign Monitor have an excellent guide available at http://www.campaignmonitor.com/guides/mobile/

As a business you have an opportunity every time you send out an email. You can make the most of the opportunity and present your client or lead with a beautifully optimised piece of digital communication or you can stick to old ways and hope for the best. The time and effort spent building a great responsive email gives you the best possible opportunity for more click-throughs, engagement and, ultimately, more sales.

Responsive email means that users have a seamless experience when they read your message on their mobile – and perhaps when they read it again on their notebook at home. If the message is readable across devices you’ve already made their life easier. If it is beautifully optimised and consistent on both devices then you are maximising your ROI potential.

Responsive email technology is here. Now is the time to adapt and prosper.

Big Agency versus Freelance Web Designer


It’s like watching those YouTube clips – you know – “lion vs tiger” or “shark vs crocodile“. You know the ones. Umm, you do, right?

Well, anyway, in the search for the perfect web solutions provider many businesses encounter the following seemingly age-old dilemma:

“Do we choose a big agency because of their reputation, skills and reliability but then face a massive expense which we can’t quite justify? Or do we go with a freelancer who is way better value for money but could go A.W.O.L. or simply not deliver a suitable product? Will the big agency be unresponsive and bureaucratic (think change request forms to alter a typo…)? Or will the freelancer be responsive and flexible (except when the surf is good)…? ”

Okay, deep breath. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each.

Big Agency

Ahhh, the plush warehouse office, the sweet-talking men in suits, the trademark kooky creatives and hipsters who don’t seem to do much (but do look incredibly good doing it). Oh, and don’t forget the cute office dog! Big agencies are creative hubs and certainly can provide an edge in a hyper-competitive online world. If you’re looking for creative genius you just might find it here. The problem is that there is a price tag attached to potential brilliance. See the guy with long hair playing fuseball and drinking a Corona? You’re getting billed for that!

Even if you do splash on a big agency it’s important to remember that unless you’re one of their key clients you’re inevitably not a major priority. Sounds harsh and there are, of course, exceptions but I’ve been in these worlds and I know.

The line I often hear is, “The concepts were great but they just wouldn’t listen to my suggestions and then when they finally did, the project went so overbudget that we couldn’t move forward.”

Now, let’s think about some of the genius that does come out of the big agencies… mind-bendingly awesome campaigns like the Old Spice guy or websites like Nike+ with its suite of revolutionary tools. If you can afford it and need a touch of creative flair and big agency service then do it. Genius is priceless and a catchy slogan, new perspective or viral campaign could transform your business forever.


Freelancers… well the things I hear about them every day astound me. Tales of abandonment, of developers missing in action (later to be found in Bangkok or Budapest), of sites going down with no support, of broken links and broken dreams…

The line is often, “they were so good but then they just disappeared.”

There is an intrinsic risk to using a freelancer and that is simply that there is (usually) just one of them. If they get eaten by a shark you lose your web team. By the same token, they’re often just a phone call away and will happily make a change to your contact details without invoicing you $350. Buy a freelancer a coffee and you’ve often got a friend for life. Many freelancers are actually the geniuses who worked in the big agencies, but who decided that they would be more fulfilled (and free) doing it themselves. Unfortunately many just are not business-minded or customer-orientated enough to provide a great customer experience.

The Solution

My clients have often tested both sides of this web conundrum with mixed success and war stories. The web is no longer a baby or an adolescent. It is a Gen Y twenty-something with refined technologies and big ideas. You can play your part in the future of the most exciting communications tool in history… you just need the right help.

I believe that I can provide the skills and support to bring success to most web projects – and have the track record to prove it. Sometimes clients get their ideas and designs from the big agencies and then bring them to me to be built. I’m not precious about using someone else’s concepts… I love it! Collaborating with the best keeps my creative vision tuned.

Sometimes clients who have been badly burned come to me because they hear I am reliable, creative and enthusiastic. I love that too. The web is my passion and getting projects done the right way makes me really happy. Even if it means I sometimes refer my clients to someone better-suited for the job (like the big agencies!). I want what is best for my clients and what ultimately makes the web a better place.

Either way, feel free to give me a call to discuss your web needs. Buy me a coffee and you’ll have a friend for life 😉

P.S. I hear you wondering, “What about middle-sized agencies – where do they fit in?” Well, I don’t do middle of the road anything. If you’re with me, as far as I’m concerned, you’re getting the best. Go with a big agency – same deal.