Tips for Dealing with Competition as a Designer

by Steven Snell

on December 17, 2009

in Business/Freelance

Being a web designer or developer offers plenty of opportunities for your career. If working as an employee isn’t for you, starting a freelance business is very inexpensive and there are virtually no barriers to entry into the business. While this presents great opportunities, it also means that your competition is basically unlimited because others can offer services as a freelancer just as easily, plus you’ll also be competing with design agencies for clients.

With the level of competition that exists for designers and developers, being successful as a freelancer or working independently requires a combination of technical and creative skills, as well as business skills. Naturally, most freelancers are more comfortable with the technical and creative aspects and less comfortable with running a business. While you do need to have some capability to run the business, you do not need to be a business guru to be an effective and efficient freelancer.

Part of the struggle from the business aspect involves knowing how to encourage clients to use your services when there are a million other options out there. In this post we’ll take a look at the subject of competition for freelancers, and discuss some things that you can do to thrive in this competitive industry.

1. Embrace the Competition

Although this is an industry that is filled with “competitors,” the nature of the community of designers is completely different than that of most other industries. Designers generally are very approachable and other service providers aren’t usually viewed as competition. Take the time to get to know others who are offering similar services, whether they are freelancers, employees of an agency, or in-house designers.

There are a number of significant benefits to embracing the competition and making friends in the industry. First, there is a lot to be learned from other designers. Most designers do not attempt to protect the secrets to their work. There is plenty of information freely available through books, magazines, and online tutorials that will allow you to learn from those who could easily be viewed as your competitors.

Second, a lot of referrals that are passed on to clients for other designers and developers. When designers are too busy to take a particular project or when it is not a good fit with the type of work that they do, it is not uncommon to refer the client to a friend or contact that may be able to help. Of course, if you are not connected to others in the industry you will not be getting these types of referrals.

Third, everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. If you are working independently as a freelancer you will not have the resources at your disposal that you would have if you worked at a larger agency. You won’t have co-workers who excel in certain areas that you can turn to for a quick question or some advice. In these cases, if you are friendly with others in the industry you may be able to get some assistance when needed. And of course, you’ll also be able to help others when the situation arises.

2. Know What You Do Best

Because there are so many options out there for your potential clients, it’s important for you to be able to show them (whether it be through your portfolio site, through email, or over the phone) why you would be a great choice. Knowing what you do best and exactly what you have to offer will make this a lot easier. Ideally, your potential clients will be looking for something that is a good fit for your talents and experience.

Take a look at the situation from the client’s perspective. Why should they hire you? What can you do for them that others cannot? Once you’ve seen these things from the client’s perspective it will be much easier to communicate with them in a way that will put your best foot forward.

3. Emphasize Continual Improvement

You won’t be able to change the fact that there are lots of other designers out there offering their services to clients. What you can control is your own skill levels and knowledge. Web design is an industry that requires continual improvement in order to stay on top of new technologies and to avoid simply following the trends. Rather than getting down about all of the other designers out there, focus on your own abilities and what you can do to improve them. If you are constantly improving yourself you are moving in the right direction.

Making yourself better at what you do will obviously help you to attract more clients and to overcome the challenge of dealing with competition. However, it will take a serious effort that includes leaving part of your schedule open to learn and study. Additionally, you could take certain work or pursue your own projects that will allow you to get more experience in particular areas.

4. Don’t Leave a Full-Time Job Too Early

If you currently have a full-time job and you are considering giving it up to start freelancing, I would encourage you to hold on to the job as long as you can. That doesn’t mean that you should never leave the full-time job, but most of us have the urge to leave a job before we’re really ready. You’ll have a much better chance to succeed as a freelancer if you can get some experience by taking projects on a part-time basis before going full-time freelance.

For more on this subject please see:

5. Look for Collaborations

One great way to deal with competition is to work cooperatively with others for mutual benefit. Typically this will involve collaborating with someone who offers complimentary services. Other designers and service providers could have something significant to offer your clients that you do not, and vice versa. Designers, developers, marketers, copywriters, often work with others to provide a more complete range of services for their clients, and to help each other to land more clients.

Take a look at the services you offer and the talents that you have. What other types of services could benefit your clients in addition to what you are providing? Make an effort to find others who are offering those services but not offering the services that you provide and you could have potential for a valuable collaboration.

6. Give Your Portfolio Site Plenty of Attention

The online portfolio of most web designers is a critical asset that is one of the best ways to attract new clients. Many of your potential clients will get their first-impression of you from your portfolio site, so it should make as good of an impression as possible. Be sure to take plenty of time to design a portfolio site that does an effective job of displaying your work.

If you’re interested in seeing some examples of well-designed portfolios, please see:

7. Start a Blog at Your Portfolio Site

One of the best things I ever did for my business and to attract potential clients was to start a blog. From my own experience I have seen that a blog is an incredibly effective way to add content to your portfolio site that will attract visitors, links, and search engine traffic. Blogging does take some time, but you don’t need to post every day or even every week to have an impact on a portfolio site. There are a lot of potential clients out there searching for a designer, and having a blog in your site will give them a better chance to find you instead of someone else.

For more on this subject please see Guide to Blogging for Freelance Designers.

8. Be Active in Other Places

In addition to having a great portfolio site and starting a blog, there are plenty of other places where you can be active. For example, you could post some of your work on sites like the Behance Network, deviantART, and Flickr. Also, social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook provide opportunities to connect with other designers and potential clients.

Having a presence at other places aside from just your own site will increase the ways that potential clients can find you, and they’ll help you to build up your own profile within the industry. Another option is to write guest posts for various design blogs. Writing for other blogs is a great way to get your name out there and to build some valuable links to your portfolio site (most blogs will include an author bio with a link to your site).

9. Focus Your Efforts

Although I just recommended that you should be active at other places, I do think it is important to keep this under control. You’ll be more effective if you have a higher level of activity and involvement in a small number of carefully-chosen communities rather than trying to maintain a profile at 100 different sites, and not really being very active at any of them.

This doesn’t only apply to what networking sites you use, but also to your marketing efforts in general. Take the time to develop a plan that will focus your efforts in a few areas for attracting potential clients. Find methods that are effective for you and work to maximize the impact.

10. Diversify Your Income

Particularly if you are just working to get established, earning a living from freelance work can be difficult. One the best ways to deal with this is to diversify and earn income from a few different sources. If you’re having trouble staying busy and earning enough money from client work, use some of your time to develop these other sources of income. Just some of the possibilities include template/theme sales, stock photography, stock graphics or icons, freelance blogging, selling ads on your blog, affiliate marketing, and much more.

In most cases these things will not bring in enough money to live on, but they are all capable of providing a nice supplement to your income from client work. Another nice benefit is that they will give you some variety in your work and you can pursue things that you enjoy doing.

11. Consider Specialization

One way to avoid direct competition for clients is to specialize your services. For example, instead of simply marketing yourself as a web designer you could specialize in working with WordPress or Drupal. Any type of specialization you choose will help you to stand out to clients who are looking for those services. Of course, you’ll want to make sure that you are choosing something that you enjoy and that will have a large enough audience and demand for services.

12. Have a System for Client Intake

It’s possible that you could get more business and earn more money without even attracting more leads or inquiries. How? You could examine your process and find ways to improve your conversions from potential clients to paying clients.

What is your process for talking with potential clients and giving quotes? Think about how you could make that process more streamlined and more appealing to the potential clients. The subject of client intake is too large to go into detail in this post, but generally you should have a system that allows you to respond quickly, find out exactly what the client wants and needs from you, decide on a price or an estimate, communicate to the client everything that you are offering, and get a contract signed.

For more on this subject please see How to Make a Positive First Impression with Potential Clients.

13. Offer Options for Various Price Levels

If you’ve offered design services for any amount of time you know that clients come with a wide variety of needs and budgets. If you find that you are loosing potential business because you are unable to offer anything to a number of your potential clients, think about how you can meet them where they are at with their needs and their budget.

Unfortunately, many potential clients have unrealistic expectations in terms of what they want to get for a small amount of money, but that doesn’t mean that you cannot at least offer them something in their price range. It may not be exactly what they had in mind, but at least it would give them an option. Some designers have done very well by setting up some basic packages for clients with lower budgets. Additionally, other designers have templates or themes that they offer to clients (with or without customization services added on) who are unable to afford a custom design. This way you may be able to still generate some business and income from clients that you would otherwise not be able to help.

14. Subscribe to Job Board RSS Feeds

There area a lot of sites out there that can help you to find web design jobs and freelance opportunities. Unfortunately, if you’re monitoring a number of these sites it can take a considerable amount of time. Some design job boards offer RSS feeds that you can subscribe to. This way you will get updates when new opportunities are posted, but you won’t have to be constantly visiting multiple sites to see what is new.

Some that you may want to consider are:

15. Live on Less than You Make

If you are spending everything that you make, chances are you will always be feeling the pressure to bring in new business. If you want to relieve a little bit of the pressure from being in a competitive environment, work on your finances to get to the point where you don’t need all of your income to pay your bills and your taxes. If you can put something aside each month you will not feel as much stress to constantly be finding new business. Additionally, you’ll also have some money to re-invest in your business, which hopefully will allow you to earn even more in the future.

What’s Your Advice?

How do you deal with the issue of competition?

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About Steven Snell

Stephen Snell is the owner and editor of Vandelay Design. Connect with Stephen on google+