The Path to Epic Success

By Anna Debenham

After finishing 6th form in August ’08, I became a freelance web designer. I’d already done a few websites for clients, and (after a lot of consideration) decided that uni wasn’t for me. Maybe you’re considering taking the same or a similar route as me, or maybe you already are.

Japanese sign of a child being prevented from entering an area
Photo by Paopix

It often feels like you’ve got to try twice as hard at being professional to make up for your age. People often assume that because you’re young, you’re the typical teenage stereotype – sitting in your room bashing out table-based websites for quick money, not caring about the meaning of code you churn out as long as the site looks ok. I would like to point out that this is not you, because you have come to this site to learn more about the industry and how to do things better. But how do you get it across to other people that you are not that stereotype?

What follows are some mistakes that not just young people make, but also people who have been in the industry for years. Many of these have tripped me up along the way.

Don’t pretend to be something you’re not

If you have a website, make sure the ‘about me’ page has information about you, about what you do and how long you’ve been doing it. This is usually the first thing that people want to know when they visit your site. Put a photo up to prove you’re a real person. If you’re studying, say it.

Don’t make out you’re more than one person. Never, ever use “we” when you mean “I”. There’s nothing wrong with being a one-man-band, and making out you’re more than that will cause problems later on. Also, be up front about your age early on…

Tell people how old you are

Avoid an uncomfortable situation later on and let the client/potential client know how old you are. If you don’t tell them and they find out later on, they may think you’ve been deceiving them. They may even walk away from the project (leaving you out of pocket).

It can feel really unfair when someone turns you down because of your age (this has happened to me a couple of times), but you’ve got to accept it and move on. In a few cases, my age has been a big advantage. Some clients perceive me as some sort of computer whisperer (aren’t all teenagers?!). I’ve even given advice to computer technicians who have been so impressed, they’ve taken a load of my business cards and handed them out to their clients.

Don’t take on too much work

Photo of a donkey with a very heavy load
Photo by Coldcut Crew

If all goes well, you may find you’re so successful that you’re constantly being asked to do work for people. This is where, if you’re not careful, it can all go horribly wrong.

Firstly, make sure you have enough time to complete these projects. Are you still studying? Have you made allowances this? What if you become ill?

It’s a good idea to break down projects into stages and work out the number of hours each stage will take. Then triple it. In my experience, a project will take 2 to 3 times longer than you think it will take. As you get more experienced, you’ll be able to work faster.

Don’t be afraid to turn work down. Politely say that you’re very sorry but you’ve got a lot of work on at the moment, and that you will get back in contact with them when things calm down in a few weeks to see if they would still like your help. Or if you’re a really nice person and know someone who is in need of some work, recommend they contact them.

Watch out for clients who will rip you off

Some clients may want to take advantage of your age, and they’ll either be really bad at paying you, or get you to do more work than you’ve agreed. Other web design companies can be the worst offenders if you do freelance work with them. Make sure your invoices state that they need to be paid within 30 days, and don’t be scared to follow up late payments.

Write everything down and confirm it with the client. If they’re asking for more than you’d originally agreed to charge them, tell them this. It’s vital to write a specification before you start work so both yourself and the client know where you stand.

Don’t Undervalue Yourself

Don’t lead yourself down a slippery slope by undercharging. I have made this mistake too many times, and from it I learnt that by undercharging, I am undervaluing the work I do. If you charge too little, people will assume you’re not very experienced at what you do. However, at the same time you’ve got to be careful not to tip the scales the other way.

But Don’t Overcharge

You are not a web agency, and if you’re just starting out, you don’t have the experience or the running costs to justify charging a lot of money yet.

Use qualitative calculations when working out how much you should charge. A good way of finding out how much you should charge is by using the Freelance Switch web calculator. this calculates an hourly wage, and you can increase this wage as you become more experienced and your running costs become higher.

Do your paperwork

Photo of paperwork
Photo by Videolux

If you’re working as a freelancer, you need to contact HMRC (her majesty’s revenues and customs) to tell them you’re self-employed. This is no biggie, you just need to fill out a form, and pay national insurance contributions. Otherwise they might fine you for earning money and not telling them.

You must must must keep receipts for everything. Invoices (your own and other peoples), travel expenses when meeting clients, software and phone bills. I’d recommend attending a free Business Link course on this (see the paragraph on milking it).

I’d strongly recommend writing down how long everything takes you to do so you can learn for estimating a project next time.

Don’t blame the tools… Too much.

Just because you use GIMP to make sites doesn’t mean you’re a bad designer. It sucks not being able to afford CS4, but having amazing software doesn’t make you a good designer. Know your limitations, and know your software, whatever you use. I’m still discovering things I didn’t even know I could do with Fireworks, and I’ve used it practically every day for the last 3 years.

Don’t use the same website that you market your services on as you do to blog about getting drunk

If looking professional is important to you, make sure your online life projects that. If the website you use to attract client contains feeds from Twitter, Facebook or Flickr, make sure the content you put up there projects the same image you want to convey.

I’ve visited too many portfolio sites where people plug in their Twitter feeds, and tweet inappropriate things about their clients.

And related to this…

Get to grips wiv gramma an spellin an stuff.

Be professional with all communication with your clients. It reflects badly on you if you’re spelling is sloppy, and makes it look like you don’t care. We’re not all perfect, but take a minute to spell check your emails and webpages before publishing them.

If you’re terrible at spelling and grammar, use the phone more, but make sure you write everything down (see being ripped off).

Plan ahead

Think about what you’re going to be doing in 6 months time. Will you be heading off to uni? What will you do if a client phones you up in a year asking for changes, or saying their site is down or their email is down. Remember that you are taking responsibility for part of the functioning of their business. It’s incredibly unfair and unprofessional to neglect them 6 months down the line because you don’t feel like doing it any more. If you decide web design isn’t for you, make sure your clients are given all the information they need to hand over to someone else.

Be realistic

You’re not going to have the opportunity to redesign Coca-cola any time soon. Start small.

Thinking “it's good enough”

This is a very difficult lesson to learn. There are so many terrible websites out there, and it’s easy to compare your sites to these and think “hey, the sites I make are a lot better than some of this rubbish”. Do you want to make average websites, or do you want to make amazing websites? Aim to make sites that stretch your abilities, that make you learn new techniques and at the same time perfect the old ones.

Find out what’s important in the industry

Well, you’re reading this, so you obviously care about the industry. I’d really recommend making an effort to attend any web-related meetups too. This can be difficult for cash-strapped students, especially if the events are far away or require a stay in a hotel. When I started out, I really wanted to attend the Future of Web Design conference in London. There was no way I could afford it, so I asked my school if they could help me with the ticket cost (in return for redesigning their website) and they did!

Don’t forget to milk it ;)

Often schools have budgets set aside for this sort of thing. If you’re in secondary school, I’d recommend talking to an IT teacher and showing them the details of the conference. Say you’d represent the school (they love it when you say that). If they say no, it may be worth emailing the conference organizers to explain your situation and ask if they could offer you a student discount, or if you could volunteer and help them set up.

Enjoy what you do

Finally, you need to enjoy what you do to be successful.

Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.

Herman Cain

Anna Debenham

The Path to Epic Success

After finishing her A-Levels, Anna set up as a freelance front end developer. At the beginning of 2009, finished a 4-month internship at Clearleft