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September 25, 2016

3 Terrible Mistakes That Most Lone Web Designers Don't Even Realise They're Making

Published: 25 September 2016 

So there I was standing at the bar with fellow attendees after day one of WordCamp Sydney, it was Saturday night, Matter Solutions had helped with extending the bar tab, everyone was two or three drinks into a good night and the (nerdy) conversations were flowing.

A web designer told me that “They’d love to transition from being a one-person-operation to become an agency, something larger” but they also said they were afraid. What of? I asked. What is holding you back? The obvious answers came through. I’ve had similar conversations with dozens of web designers at this sort of event. This web designer explained that they didn’t feel they were charging enough for building and designing WordPress websites so fitting in someone’s salary would be hard. They also worried that there isn’t enough regular work to justify it.

I spoke at Sunshine Coast WordCamp in early May about exactly this… so I tried to help. My blog post and slides from that talk

I probed deeper and tried to offer some advice and answers for their questions. It was pretty clear this wasn’t a natural sales person, you know, one of those slimy hardball playing idiots. This was a person genuinely concerned with doing great work and wondering why their work isn’t valued more

There are three further questions here…

1. Are you paying yourself enough? Do you think you’re a superhero?

A classic symptom I see and hear about is web designers who say they can do a job in 10 hours and when it takes 20 hours they just buckle down and do it. This is hero syndrome and this has been written about and solved by people smarter than I. Here are some great resources for that issue, these are about coders, but they are equally true for website designers/developers and personally I think the issue is magnified when you’re in a small web design business, especially a one-man band. I believe this issue is especially serious for the one-man-band as there is no one to pull you up. No one to call you out on your bad behavior.I’m no saint. I know I’ve done it, I’ve said I can get something done in 6 hours and at the 10 hour mark I’m shaking my head, beating myself up that I’m still looking at 2-3 hours of hard work…. and think to myself that my poor client isn’t going to pay me any more than the 6. But again this super-hero complex brings out more problems:
- How do you know the client won’t pay more than 6 hours?
- Did you ask? With hindsight I know many times I should have been honest with the client about the challenges their work presents and said I could (a) stop and not charge anything, yes – throw the entire fee away, or (b) I can proceed and charge correctly.

The most important thing is to value the contribution you’re making to their business with your work. I’ve sunk extra time into projects. This has helped me acquire lots of great skills and get the benefit of looking more skilled than I really am but there’s a better way. When spoke at WordCamp Brisbane I asked Wouldn’t Life Be Better Without Clients? The answer is really a no, the problem is in us to deal with clients in a better way. Get that right and your worries about scaling will be reduced.

2. Is your pipeline working, i.e. do you have a regular flow of work inbound?
If you have to go chasing new work then you’re likely to be see-sawing. I talked about this at the Sunshine Coast too."See-sawing" is a symptom of being successful enough to move up a step. If you’re rushing between doing and selling then you can usually find someone to help or take over the “doing” part… you just need to make sure they can meet your quality standards. Write them a procedure, work with them show them your expectations, be clear about the rules, give them room to learn (and make mistakes) and check up on them to make sure they’re up to speed. The classic “growing” mistake is to think you need to clone yourself. This is bullshit. You just need someone who can do the bit you don’t want to do any more… and the better you are at simplify and clarifying those tasks the less you’ll need to pay for this new person in money and best of all it’ll take them less time to meet (and exceed) your expectations.

3. Do you devalue yourself with clients? Do you let clients devalue you?

If you tell clients that you’re a nerd, you love building websites and you’d probably do it for free if they didn’t want to pay……. Politely can I question you on the message you’re trying to send. When I spoke at WordCamp Brisbane in 2015 I stood in front of the crowd, of mostly web designers, and compared web design to tradesmen, tradies. Could you imagine a plumber saying, “I’m a tradie, a plumber through and through, I’d do your plumbing for free”. No, when you put it into a context like that we see that plumbers are valuable, but so too are passionate skilled and talented web designers. It’s a long ish talk but you can watch that here: Wouldn’t Life Be Better Without Clients. I just have one piece of advice for anyone doing this, STOP IT. Whether or not you choose to accept being devalued is on you. If you’re not sure whether or not you’re in control watch this sketch called Stop It by Bob Newhart.

Okay so I bashed this blog post out after drinking a few sherbets last night so if you spot a typo please do forgive me. If you're at WordCamp Sydney today come and say hello, I love to meet new people. Let me know if this was useful in the comments or tweet at me, I'll definitely get you an answer.


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Ben Maden

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6 comments on “3 Terrible Mistakes That Most Lone Web Designers Don't Even Realise They're Making”

  1. Nice post, I'll only add that someone has to sell you or the new agency. I've read many times that the problems you outline begin with poor sales tactics. Anyone can sale at a discount, and I think that's the root of the devalue argument. The way I look at sales is at the end of the day someone has to look Nat Geo in the eyes and reach for the stars. It feels like a lie to.many when you say you can do something you have never done with a brand new client...and it is. The whole process can come off the rails at any point, but sales is what gives me the ability to ticker away at rate.

  2. Hi Ben.
    It was nice to have a conversation with you again at the WordCamp Sydney and thank you for drinks. Great blog post. I have made most of mistakes: I have told clients that this will take me x hours only realising when I was doing it that it actually took me 2x if not 3x. And I do often find myself saying “I wish I can clone myself”. Hope to turn things around for the better.

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