As more and more people are beginning to realize the freedom, flexibility, and financial independence that starting an online business can bring them, there has never been a better time for you to finally start that freelance web design business you’ve been daydreaming about.
Here's why it's a great time to start a freelance web design business:
- Businesses that have never needed online revenue streams before are pivoting to making money online.
- Brands understand how much more powerful online influencers can be compared to traditional advertising, which means anyone can start a blog and make money from sponsorships and affiliate marketing.
- Entrepreneurs who started businesses a few years ago by DIYing are now ready to up their game and hire a professional.
- People at the end of long careers are transitioning their skills and experience into a “second act” and needing websites to get started.
- Side hustlers are coming onto the scene at a record pace, starting businesses online to supplement (and even replace) their day job income.
The bad news…
Even with all this opportunity out there waiting for you, when it comes to marketing yourself as a web designer and getting your first paying client, you feel like a total imposter.
Why is that?
Let me guess…
- You’ve built a couple of websites for yourself or friends, but you’ve never had a paying client and you don’t have a portfolio to show potential clients.
- You feel like you don’t know enough. Maybe you’ve used website builders and never actually written any code. Maybe you’ve taken a course but not had a real client. What if someone asks you to do something you don’t know how to do? What if you mess something up?
- You don’t feel qualified to charge people yet. You think you just need more experience, and you’ll get it by building websites for free for friends and family until you have a good enough portfolio, and then you’ll slowly start charging for your work as you learn more.
This is what most wannabe freelance web designers think, and these thoughts are so overwhelming that most never even get started, or if do, they quickly burn out before they ever start to make any real money.
The good news?
I’m here to tell you that there is another way. A way to build your experience and credibility without having a portfolio or having to work for free.
I found it, quite by accident, and I’m gonna break it all down for you here. We’ll cover:
- How I got my first clients (and why it was a total disaster)
- How I burnt myself out and almost gave up freelancing
- The one shift I made in my business that unexpectedly changed everything
- Why I went from no clients to turning down clients.
- How I was able to go from side-hustling to quitting my day job and making between $8-10K a month as a web designer.
- How you can start marketing yourself as a freelance web designer and get your first client.
But before we dive in, I wanna invite you to sign up for my FREE on-demand training on how to get your first web design client!
How I got my first client
In 2014, I was working at a nonprofit doing marketing and IT support. I had been at the company for about 7 years and I was making great money… but I was miserable.
Every week sitting in the same rush hour traffic, listening to the same garbage morning radio show, rotating between the same five business casual outfits every week.
Every day, doing the same pointless busy work, listening to the same complaints, navigating the same office politics.
The one thing I loved about my job was WordPress.
It was my escape from the monotony and drama at my day job. I was completely self-taught, spending who knows how many hours combing through forums, trying things, breaking things, and fixing them all along the way.
I had thought about freelancing so that I could maybe make enough money to quit my day job, but I felt like because I had no formal web design education, no one would hire me.
So I just pushed the idea away in my mind and closed the door on it.
But then one day, I was at the gym and one of the girls I was working out with asked me what I did for a living.
“I’m in IT,” I replied. “Oh, and I do web design on the side.”
I immediately feel my face get hot.
“Why did you just lie to her?” I thought. “You’re not a web designer! You’ve never coded a WordPress site from scratch and you’ve never had one client!”
And then she says, “Ohmigosh, do you know WordPress? We use it at work, and our developer disappeared. I’ve got this huge event coming up and I have no idea what to do!”
We set a coffee date up, and I decided I would charge the same hourly rate I was making at my day job. She said yes, and I had my first client.
A few weeks later, I mention this cool new side hustle to a friend and he said, “You know WordPress? My dad’s site got hacked and he doesn’t know what to do. Can you help?”
Now I had two clients.
The following week, I get a phone call from a vendor at my day job. “Hey, who built your website? We have to move all of our clients to WordPress and we need help!”
And before I know it, I’m working an extra 40 hours a week outside of my day job.
I know this sounds really simple, but I know how hard it can feel when you’re just starting out – but the key takeaway here is that you simply have to make it known to other people that you’re a freelance web designer – even if you don’t have a portfolio. If you can solve a problem for potential clients, you’re on the right track!
Start building relationships with people in related fields, like virtual assistants, graphic designers, and digital marketing agencies.
Say things like, “If you know anyone that needs help with their website, I’m taking new clients.”
For me, getting clients happened quite naturally after I got over the fear of telling people that I was a web designer, but what I didn’t yet know is that my imposter syndrome was still lurking in the background and had me on a path to disaster.
I had several clients, but I was far from the web designer I always imagined – a creative genius who is building gorgeous, innovative websites that I’m proud to show off.
Instead, I was constantly on call, fixing emergencies, and working on everyone else’s schedule. I didn’t know how to set or hold boundaries as to when I’d be available for work.
Worse, I realized that I wasn’t charging enough, but I didn’t feel confident in raising my prices because I felt that I couldn’t because I was self-taught and didn’t go to college for web design.
So I was working full time, side hustling full time and feeling completely overwhelmed. Blend all of that with a family emergency and I had a total breakdown – which came in the form of me yelling and breaking down into tears in the middle of a meeting at work, sending a poorly written apology email, and taking the rest of the day off.
“This is not what I thought it would be. I’m wrapping up these client projects, and then I’m done,” I thought.
My dream of becoming a freelance web designer had died.
Or so I thought.
Because if you’re anything like me, once you REALLY want something, you’re not going to stop until you figure it out.
The one shift in my freelance web design business that changed everything
One morning I’m sitting in rush hour traffic, and instead of listening to garbage morning radio I had started listening to podcasts.
This particular morning, Chalene Johnson was interviewing this guy, Pat Flynn, who makes money by giving away everything he knows about creating passive income online – and he earns affiliate commissions on the plugins and themes and hosting and services people bought to implement what he taught.
“Wait, did I just hear that right?” I thought. It’s like I heard a record scratch in my own mind. “This is a thing? You mean, I can create videos teaching everything I know about WordPress and make money from it – AND I won’t have to work with clients? Um, SIGN ME UP!!!!”
At that moment, everything changed.
I started researching affiliate programs and was astounded at how many existed for stuff I already used.
I began to outline my tutorial videos and scheduled time to record them. In the evenings worked on building my website and signing up for affiliate programs. On the weekends I recorded my tutorials and added them to my website.
In just a couple of months, I had created the 5 Day Website Challenge, a free 5-module video course that teaches how to build an entire WordPress site, the same exact site I built for paying clients with no steps left out. It had a few affiliate recommendations in it for tools that I used myself and were teaching inside of the training, but 90% of it could be done at no cost to the Challenger.
Okay, it’s done… now, how do I get people to find it? Which led to the bigger question that I had failed to ask myself before diving in and building the thing… Who is this actually for?
There have got to be more people out there like me, I thought. Women in their mid-thirties who just looked up one day and thought, is this it? Is this all there is to life? I had a different dream, and now I’m just trapped and I want the freedom of being my own boss, being in control of my time, and taking the glass ceiling off of my earning potential. Women who want to start an online business like that B-School thing I kept hearing about or like Chalene teaches in her Marketing Impact Academy. I want to help those women build their websites so that they can have their dream too!
The other thing that I knew from listening to Pat Flynn and Chalene Johnson is that I needed to build an email list. And so I set my WordPress training up to be something that I’d give away for free in exchange for an email address so I had that part down, but I wasn’t quite sure how to go about building my email list.
So I just Googled “how to build an email list” and I found Nathalie Lussier’s 30 Day List Building Challenge – and the strategies I learned in that training are what led me to my very first subscriber and my very first affiliate commissions, and the realization that I had created something that people really, really need.
So I put my head down and focused on list-building. Get as many people as possible to sign up for the 5 Day Website Challenge so I can earn affiliate revenue and not be an order-taking pixel pusher (outside of my day job anyway).
What I did not expect is that my dream clients started asking me to build their websites for them.
Why I turned down potential clients
Powerful women building life-changing online businesses started reaching out to me and asking me to build their website for them.
And at first, I told them no. I was so burnt out on my disastrous freelance experience, I never wanted to feel that way ever again. So I told them, “I’m sorry, I don’t work one-on-one with clients. I just teach you how to DIY.”
And I was also very confused as to why someone would pay me to do something that I was showing them how to do, step by step, nothing left out – for free?
But then it hit me.
I had earned their trust by peeling back the curtain on my process. I had built credibility by freely giving away my knowledge and sharing it in a way that anyone could understand.
And people felt like they already knew and liked me because I shared stories like this one about why I was giving it all away for free to them because I didn’t want them to be held back by the tech.
I didn’t have to “sell” my services, people were asking me if they could BUY from me. It’s a business owners’ dream!
But I still said no, because I was afraid. I didn’t want it to feel like how it felt before when I had no systems, no processes, no boundaries and no help and placed no value on my skillset or my time. Plus I still had a day job and I wanted to have somewhat of a life outside of it!
Why I started working with clients again
By then, I had released a paid WordPress training course that was not making the money I had expected it to make, so I set up a consultation with a sales expert who had taken my 5 Day Website Challenge. She had reached out to me for some advice and when I read her website copy I knew she was the person who could help me sell this course!
That free twenty-minute conversation changed my life. I walked away realizing that it didn’t matter how I had learned what I knew or whether I knew everything there is to know, my years of knowledge and experience matter!
The fact that I know how to find the answers quickly matters. The fact that I want to help people get what they want matters, and it all has value.
And when I decided to put systems and processes in place and create a web design package together that I knew I could deliver while still working full time at a price that felt good to me, I started to say YES to people that asked to work with me.
And every time I worked with a client, I learned something new that would lead to a change in my process or my pricing.
Oh, that took WAY longer than I thought it would. I need to charge more for that next time.
We got off track here, how can I prevent that from happening with the next client?
I need help, I’m going to bring in some subcontractors so that I can get all of this work done on time.
And over the next two years, I consistently grew the passive income I was making from courses and affiliate marketing, and the time-for-money income I was making building websites for clients.
When I got to the point where I was completely maxed out on time and the amount of money I could make while still having a day job, I put in my notice at work. I quit my day job on January 2, 2018, and I’ve consistently earned between $8,000 – $10,000 month since becoming self-employed.
Here are five things that I want you to take away from my story:
1. You don’t need a portfolio to build credibility.
I still don’t have a portfolio on my website! Simply give away everything you know for free by creating tutorials, training and content. It positions you as trustworthy and as credible to people that need what you have to offer.
2. You can call yourself a web designer whether you’ve had paying clients or not.
If you know how to build a website (code or no code), then you’re a web designer! But I get it… if you’re not ready to say that just yet, you can offer web design services. Or say you build websites. Just know that no one has to bestow the title upon you.
3. You are definitely going to mess things up, but like Marie Forleo says, everything is figureoutable.
Something is not going to go as you expect on every single project, but if you’re a problem-solver, if you’re persistent and you’re willing to dig in and figure it out, you’ll be fine. Yeah, you might lose some time, but you’ll know for the text time you come across that same problem!
4. You are never going to know everything there is to know.
You just aren’t. There’s no better way to learn than as you go in real-life situations. Yes, it might take you longer. But are you confident in your ability to find the answers as you go? If you’re not confident, there’s no amount of learning or schooling that can get you there because you will always run into something you don’t know how to do.
5. Please don’t work for free or barter for experience or exposure.
You’ll end up working for that client for free (or super cheap) forever. How do you draw the line between what you’ll do for free and what they have to now pay for? And once you get some paying clients, who is going to come last? Yep, the client who doesn’t pay you. And then they get resentful because now they are in a bad spot and you’re not available to help them.
When you work for free, you also start getting referrals of clients that also can’t afford to pay you for your services. Your time and knowledge is valuable, even when you’re just starting out, and it gets even more valuable over time. You have got to start right out of the gate setting firm boundaries on your pricing, otherwise, like me, you’ll feel resentful, burnt out and at risk of giving up on your dream! If you’re going to spend any time doing something you aren’t immediately getting paid to do, spend it on creating free content that builds your credibility and putting together packages of services you feel confident you can deliver!
So how do you start a web design business without a portfolio or having had a single client?
Start by building the best website you’ve ever built for your own business. Pretend you are your own dream client and just knock your own socks off.
Then, start creating content that helps other people get what they want and positions you as someone who knows her stuff. And give it all away for free to attract traffic to your website. You’re not giving away your time for free, you’re giving away your knowledge. There’s a difference.
Then go create something extra awesome to build your email list, build trust over time through consistency and then let people know when you have open development spots on your schedule and set up free consultations.
You’ll be closing sales with confidence in no time, and you’ll look back at the days where you worried about not having a portfolio with fond memories.