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Becoming a Website Designer: Find a Niche, Watch the Overhead

Michelle Bryner, BusinessNewsDaily Contributor


A recent survey of small businesses found that, in spite of the recession, three-quarters either have a website or plan to build one this year. For those considering opening a website design business, those statistics spell opportunity.

While there’s certainly money to be made in web design, there are also lots of challenges. The route to varies on what kind of work you'll want to do.

Web design firms offer a broad range of services, including basic web page design, logo development and search engine optimization. Their client base varies, as well. But whether the business owner is a dentist or a photographer, each will want the design of the company's website to be unique.

Business identity

Defining your business is one of the first steps you’ll want to take.

“An important thing is to decide what kind of web designer you’re going to be early on and find a niche and work well within that niche,” said Brad Weaver, chief creative officer at Suckerpunch Studios, a web and print media design firm.

A successful web-designing friend of Weaver’s “only works with photographers, which is crazy to think about because photographers have no money usually,” Weaver told BusinessNewsDaily. “But she’s the best darn small website designer for photographers in the country.”

Another aspect of defining your business is deciding what types of website you want to build, Weaver said. They could be commerce, blogs or social media websites, for example.

“There’s too much out there, and it changes too much, to try to build websites of any flavor and any color … and to run a profitable business, because you’re always trying to figure something out while you’re doing it and you’re losing hours,” Weaver said.

That was one of the mistakes Weaver says he made when he launched Suckerpunch Studios, located in Atlanta, a few years ago. Suckerpunch now focuses on horizontal markets for blogs and brochures.

Realistic scaling

Weaver also learned a lesson on size from the first incarnation of his web design business.

You might be tempted to start off with a bang, and that’s what Weaver did – investing $50,000 for such things as an office in the chic Atlanta suburb of Marietta, the most expensive business cards and letterhead, and new furniture and computers.

The result of this hefty investment: astronomical growth in the first year, followed by a quick fall, which included giving up the office space, laying off employees and being stuck with lots of idle equipment. A box of stationery now serves as a doorstop.

“The thing that I’ve learned about web design in the past year, looking back, is that you literally – as simple as it sounds – buy stuff as you need it,” Weaver said. “You very quickly get into a turning of the Titanic situation with web design if you take on too much overhead.”

Suckerpunch Studios now operates with a “thin overhead philosophy,” Weaver said. He'll use   free software when possible as well as any kind of free advertising.

Suckerpunch Studios will gross about $150,000 this year, with overhead of approximately $35,000 to $50,000. Weaver is targeting a gross of $300,000 and net of $175,000 for 2011.

Building a portfolio

It sometimes seems as if the cart comes before the horse: You need clients to get clients.

“My best recommendation is to build your own portfolio of sample projects so you can show your skills,” said Becky McKinnell, owner of graphic and web design firm iBec Creative, located in Portland, Maine.

To get early work, “be sure to ask around to family and friends to see who might need a website, to build your initial client base,” McKinnell said. “Volunteering to help a nonprofit will also help build your portfolio.”

McKinnell invested $5,000 to start her company in 2006 and now has eight employees and expects to exceed $750,000 in sales this year.

Differentiating your business

There are a lots of web design firms for clients to choose from – making it important to have a competitive advantage.

For example, LightSpeed Designs, a husband-and-wife graphic and web design firm located in Portland, Ore., sells more than just website designs. It also offers search engine optimization, logo development, and marketing and public relations support.

“We’re kind of like a one-stop shop,” said co-owner Marion Olsen.

For EF Design Austin, it’s about development knowledge and customer service, said owner Adrian Rodriguez.

With plenty of editors and software available to the general public, it may seem as if anyone can design a website.“In a sense anybody can do a certain level of design, but at the next level you need to know how to code in various languages,” Rodriguez said.

Web design by the numbers

Olsen and her husband, Byron, invested about $20,000 in the business when they started it in 2002.

LightSpeed Designs opened as a side business for the Olsens, and just this year became a full-time gig. Marion has the business and marketing background while her husband has IT experience and a passion for technology.

They made a few initial investments, but most came over time, Marion Olsen said. Expenses included two laptop computers that can handle the necessary graphic design software, software, and basic business expenses for phone, vehicle, office furniture, accounting fees, external hard drives, printers, and business cards.

LightSpeed has little overhead, as it’s just Marion and her husband and converted office space in the basement of their home. Each works 40 to 60 hours a week.

Sales are expected to reach $120,000 this year.

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