How to Start a Web Design Business

Jennifer Xue
Web Design

As more businesses and individuals need websites to showcase their products and services, web design services are getting increasingly popular. Since the job can be done anywhere, it can be a lucrative business for those who prefer working virtually. A web design business can be pursued on a full- or part-time basis.

Skills and Training

A web designer is someone who designs the appearance of a website using popular software applications and light programming codes, such as HTML, CSS, Javascript, and PHP. He or she might not be fluent in back-end programming, which is the job of a "back-end developer." A web designer is more concerned about the layout, color palettes, images, and navigation of a site. Thus, he or she is often referred to as a "front-end developer."

Take an inventory of your existing skills to see whether you're ready to plunge into this field right away or if you need additional training. In general, a web designer needs two sets of skills: technical and marketing.

Technical Skills

Computer coding

As of December 2016, 75 million websites use the Wordpress CMS (content management system), largely due to its high adaptability and simplicity. It's perfect for a new web designer. With all kinds of automation in web 2.0, you can create breathtaking sites with premium Wordpress themes, all of which can be easily tailored to your client's needs.

Some of the more widely used Wordpress theme frameworks are Divi by Elegant Themes, Thesis by DIY Themes, and Genesis by Studio Press. The clean and developer-friendly frameworks allow you to tweak the design elements with CSS, HTML, and Javascript conveniently. Once you've mastered these frameworks, you can create "child themes," which are add-on design themes that inherit the same functionality from the parent theme (like Divi, Thesis, and Genesis).

At minimum, a web designer should have a working knowledge of the following.

  • Visual design - Understanding principles of clean and clear designs and color combinations
  • UX (user experience) - Understanding how the web pages are used and translating that into functions
  • HTML - Coding web pages
  • CSS - Coding web page design elements
  • Javascript - Coding interactivity for various web page functionalities, like drop-down menus, shopping carts, and chat rooms
  • PhotoShop (or substitutes like Pixelmator) - Manipulating images to be incorporated into the site design
  • Illustrator (or substitutes like Sketch) - Creating images for websites
  • Copywriting - Writing content for web pages

While there are many places offering web design classes, these online schools are both affordable and highly praised:

  • Coursera offers a series of five courses within the web design specialization, created by the University of Michigan.
  • Code Academy features free online courses, including an introductory program on HTML and CSS.
  • Tree House boasts an extensive web design track with 44 hours of lessons and material.

Marketing Skills

After you gain the technical skills and understand the Wordpress frameworks, you'll need to promote and sell your web design service. Consider using inbound marketing to attract more visitors to your business site, which utilizes strategically written articles (like blog posts) and page descriptions. To implement them properly, polish your skills in these areas:

  • Search engine optimization (SEO): Optimizing website content for optimal search engine rankings for targeted keywords
  • Web marketing copywriting: Writing content that attracts specific target audience
  • Inbound marketing: Using both SEO and effective copywriting to attract visitors, increase leads, and close sales
  • Social media marketing: Creating text and image-based content for marketing via social media
  • E-mail marketing: Creating drip "auto-responder" campaigns and e-newsletters

You can learn these skills at various online classes. Free and affordable programs are offered at these websites, among others.

  • The Hubspot Academy empowers you to learn online with modular training in marketing and sales.
  • Copyblogger offers "superior content marketing education" for building your online presence.
  • Yoast SEO Training adds new courses to its program every quarter.

Before You Get Started

Web design layout

A web design business doesn't require much office space, investment or equipment. You can use your existing computer and work from home; you don't need much else. You do, however, need to purchase image editing software applications like PhotoShop and Illustrator. There are cheaper substitutes that are more affordable too, like Pixelmator and Sketch.

New Business Registration

Consider registering your new business as an LLC (limited liability company) or run it as a sole proprietor. Both formats are simple and flexible, but be sure to talk to your legal and taxation counselors for professional advice. Alternatively, you can consult with a local SBA (Small Business Association) chapter, which is a government agency helping individuals to start a small business.

According to Nolo, a sole proprietorship is "a one-person business that, unlike corporations and limited liability companies (LLCs), doesn't have to register with the state in order to exist. If you are the sole owner of a business, you become a sole proprietor simply by conducting business."

By contrast, an LLC is a business structure combining aspects of both corporations and partnerships. It is not a separate tax entity like a corporation. Instead, it is what the IRS calls a "pass-through entity," like a partnership or sole proprietor. Thus, there is no double taxation.

If you plan to have a physical storefront, you'd also need a business license, which can be obtained for a fee at your local city hall. Even if you've registered your business as an LLC, a local citywide business license is still required.

Running the Business

With a business plan, you can be more confident, as it provides clarity on the goals and how to achieve them. It's particularly useful when applying for a loan or inviting investors. A basic business plan includes an executive summary of the business and information on products and services offered, marketing plans, operations, the founder, and development plans.

Business Insurance

Once you've written the business plan and the legal format is established, it's time to request business insurance premium quotes. Every small business needs insurance coverage to protect the property of others or against injuries to others, as well as protection from claims of libel and slander. Contact your insurance agent or use portals like BizInsure or CommercialInsurance.net to ask for a quote.

Payments and Taxes

To process payment via credit or debit card, you can choose payment gateways like PayPal or Stripe. For online invoicing, Bill.com is a good and reliable option, which connects to Quickbooks accounting software. Other accounting and bookkeeping applications to consider include FreshBooks, Xero, and Wave.

As a self-employed web designer, you'll need to pay quarterly federal and state taxes toom, as well as annual income taxes. While it's recommended to hire a professional tax preparer or an accountant when things get complicated, you can use simple tax software for simple tax preparations. Several excellent tax software includes Turbotax, H&R Block, and Jackson Hewitt.

Pricing Your Design Services

As a beginner web designer, you can charge a few hundred dollars for a simple site. As you become more experienced, you can accept more ambitious projects requiring more advanced skill sets. Some experienced web designers charge thousands of dollars for sites with advanced functionality.

Use these web design quote wizards to get an idea of how much other designers charge.

  • Design Quote Wizard from DesignQuote generates an estimate range based on the features needed for the website.
  • Webpage FX offers a free and simple design cost calculator, accounting for such considerations as number of pages and database integration.

In the project agreement, make sure to state the number of revisions you're willing to provide and the hourly rate for the subsequent revisions. Also, be clear about what are and aren't included in the deliverables. Most designers don't include the original PSD (PhotoShop) files, for instance.

Getting Your First Client

Discussing design

Create at least ten websites to be included in your portfolio. These can be your own or work that you do for pro bono clients. Preparing these designs serve as good training before working on orders from actual paying clients.

Consider designing several sites for local non-profit organizations and solo entrepreneurs in exchange for future referrals. Another option is marketing your new business via freelance gig sites, like Upwork and Freelancer, to obtain the first few clients. Also, remember to include inbound marketing for your own business site to attract organic traffic.

Managing Multiple Projects and Clients

As your business grows, you will need a project management solution to keep your clients updated. This is also useful whenever you hire freelancers to help out with certain projects. Three recommended apps that provide free accounts for basic functionality are OrangeScrum, Asana, and Taiga.

Taking Your Business to the Next Level

Now that you've started an exciting business, take it to the next level with collaborations. Introduce yourself to local marketing agencies and neighborhood businesses. Join the local chamber of commerce. Last but not least, be proud and stay visible online and offline. With passion and solid marketing strategies, you can be successful in this lucrative business.

How to Start a Web Design Business