Starting a career as a web designer is far more than having an Internet connection and a computer. You need to spend some time and money investing in the setup of your business, including the tools you will need to create your designs and programs you need to manage jobs, track time, and create invoices. You’ll also need to generate buzz about your services through advertising. In this article you’ll learn about the must-have investments to build your web design business, many of which are free or low cost to you!
Invest in Tools of the Trade
As a web designer having the right tools is essential. Before you even build your portfolio or begin to advertise your services, you need to have the appropriate tools to get the job done.
Yet it’s important that you don’t be seduced by the idea that you need the latest 27” iMac or the newest version of Photoshop in order to do your work. It’s likely that you already have a lot of the software and hardware you need to get your business off the ground. And if you don’t, there are all kinds of opportunities for free stuff, even if on a trial basis.
Unless your computer is ancient and lacks the memory capacity to run the programs you need to do your work effectively, whatever you already have will be just fine to begin with. While having a giant new computer would be great, paying the giant bill for it would not, especially when you’re just starting out. If you can make do with the hardware you’ve got – even for just six months – do it! If your machine is running slowly, buy more RAM. If you need a new hard drive, find a new one on eBay. As your business grows you might find that a large display for your computer, a graphics tablet, a new laptop, or top-shelf printer are in order. But to begin with, using what you already have is a better use of your money.
Designers make use of other hardware as well. Don’t forget that you’ll need to invest in at least a basic office space with the following goodies:
- A desk or workspace of some kind
- A good mouse that fits well in your hand
- Methods to back up your files, such as an external hard drive or a few flash drives
- A printer/scanner/copier to print out all those contracts!
Investing some time and money in creating an awesome workspace that’s free of distractions, that’s inspirational, and that’s comfortable is one of the first things you should do. Sitting in front of a computer all day necessitates a space that creates a good workflow, and if you don’t have that it will show in the work you produce. If you splurge on any hardware at the outset, make it a good chair. Your back will thank you!
There are all kinds of fancy programs that web designers might use to create their designs. If you were lucky enough to purchase reduced-price copies of programs like Photoshop while you were in design school, continue to use that version. Even if the version you have is older, it will still serve the purpose of helping you create your designs. While Dreamweaver CS5 may not have all the bells and whistles of Dreamweaver CC, it’s still worth it to use the older software than shell out hundreds of dollars for the latest version.
Many web designers that don’t already have copies of essential software opt to try free trial versions in order to figure out which one best suits their needs and workflow. Adobe offers one-month free trials of Photoshop, Dreamweaver, InDesign, and other popular programs so you can get familiar with them. Microsoft Expression Web is available for free download, but will no longer be updated to make way for Microsoft’s new Visual Studio suite. Some designers even hop from one free trial to the next for the first few months of their career until they can afford to purchase the full copy of the programs they like the most.
There are also many open-source programs available that will help you accomplish your web design work. Here are a few of our favorites:
- FTP clients – FileZilla and Cyberduck are both feature-rich programs offered for free.
- Text editing – Komodo Edit and Notepad ++ are both widely used and free to download.
- Photo/graphics editing – If Photoshop isn’t in your current budget, try out one of many Photoshop alternatives, which provide some great free and low-cost options for those on a tight budget.
- Fonts – Before buying a new font, check out one of the many lists of fresh, new fonts, or visit FontSquirrel, which provides thousands of free fonts for commercial use.
- Testing/debugging – Firebug is a popular option that can be added onto the Firefox browser to make testing and debugging a breeze.
For an all-inclusive solution, try a website builder like IM Creator. Website builders offer a great option for web designers on a budget because they offer just about all the services you need, from font integration to SEO to domains and hosting. You can create new designs or edit existing ones for free. There’s also publishing capabilities built right in, so there’s no need to download programs that take up space on your hard drive and there’s no need learn how to use new FTP clients, text editors, or other complicated programs.
Invest in Business Tools
When you’re just starting out as a web designer, it’s important to set up the business-related tools that will help you remain productive and grow your business. This means finding ways to track your time and expenses, manage your projects, and bill your clients. Some designers immediately purchase software to help them with these tasks without realizing that there are many free online tools that allow you to take on these tasks. Give some of these freebies a try and save your money!
Track Your Time
Tracking your time serves a number of purposes. First, it can keep you on task on those long afternoons when you’d rather be napping than working. Secondly, it gives you insight into how long certain projects take, which gives you a clearer picture of the rates and fees you need to charge to make a good living. There are dozens of feature-rich (and expensive) time tracking services out there, but good options for a new designer are Toggl or Harvest. Both services offer free or low-cost options for you to stay on top of how you spend your time.
When you have just one or two ongoing projects, having a good supply of sticky notes may be enough for you to manage what you have going on. But as your business grows investing in some project management tools is a good plan. Podio offers task management, reports, and file sharing for projects large and small. If you want to have the ability to collaborate with a client, Podio does that too. Freedcamp is another online project management tool that allows you to create to-do lists, discussion boards, and calendars. Both Freedcamp and Podio are free.
Financials and Billing
Something as simple as premade templates from Microsoft Word and Excel will suffice for your early billing needs. If you have either program the templates are free and you can easily customize them to suit your needs and fit with your brand. For even more functionality, The Invoice Machine and Timetrack both offer the capability to create and send invoices, create and update timesheets, and synchronize with third party programs like Excel and iCal. Both sites include free basic packages that have more than enough features for a freelance designer.
Invest in Advertising
Some web designers leave school with relatively little knowledge or understanding of how to market themselves, yet getting your name out there is how you’re going to make money in the first place. Taking some of the money you save on not buying new hardware and software would be well spent on placing an ad in a local newspaper or magazine, purchasing air time on a local radio station, or having fliers printed to hang in local coffee shops. There are other effective methods to get your name out there as well, many of which cost little to nothing.
Create Business Cards
Another must-have investment is a set of stylish business cards. Some designers create amazing designs themselves, while others opt for customizing a pre-made template. Whatever you do, having business cards on you at all times is an absolute must. You never know when you’ll encounter someone looking for a designer, and you need to be ready to present your business card when you do. Paying for business cards isn’t nearly as sexy as buying new hardware or software, but those business cards are what will ultimately get you the money down the road to buy the new hardware and software you covet.
There are also many ways to advertise your services without spending a dime. Gain exposure by writing a blog post about a web design-related topic and submit it to design blogs that accept guest posts. Make an announcement on Facebook, Twitter, Dribbble, and other social media networks that you’re ready, willing, and able to work. Volunteer to provide services to local charities, churches, or businesses to gain exposure. Cold-calling potential customers, albeit a scary proposition for some designers, is a highly effective way of getting your name out there and drumming up business. The point is, although advertising should be a central component of your early investments in your business, there are all kinds of options that are highly effective and which are completely free.
While this isn’t an exhaustive listing of all the investments you need to make in order to get your design business going, it will get you started off on the right foot. Remember, investing in your business doesn’t necessarily mean spending a lot of money. There are an abundance of free resources out there that can help you get established and maintain a business with strong growth. If you’ve come across an excellent resource that’s helped you get your business going, share it with us by leaving a comment below!
Photo Credits: Special Set – 16x hi-res Neourban Hipster Office by Markus Spiske via Flickr Creative Commons Productivity by Sean MacEntee via Flickr Creative Commons