Tips for Dealing with Competition as a Designer

by Steven Snell

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+

  • paul

    Dec 17th

    thanks for this insightful article.
    It is truly a very competitive market, especially as I’m starting out, I don’t have a client base, so I get most jobs through oDesk at the moment.
    I recently tried crowdspring, but it’s a lot of work, and you’re never sure to get the job at the end.
    I got a direct enquiry today through my portfolio site, so that was a nice WIN for the day.

  • sam

    Dec 17th

    thanks a lot for the tips….:)

  • carlnunes

    Dec 18th

    My attitude:
    What competition?

    My Advice:
    Focus your efforts on the customers you do have, and the word of mouth business that can be generated from your excellent execution. Literally ask that your sane clients spread the word and a referral is the best way to thank you for a job well done. Clients ask me all the time if they can refer me to a friend. These clients are the ones that will be with you 5 plus years down the road. I speak from experience. This of course is only one way to better position yourself; in the race against web design service commodities groups; like the ones found in India and China. So niche is my other advice then; get in where you fit in and get those referrals going!

  • damian

    Dec 18th

    this is very nice, im going to start next week my own business i will open a web design place, and stsart my own buisnes at last :D so this help me a lot to think in so many ways :D u guys rock

  • Richard de Pijper

    Dec 18th

    Thx Steven for this article

  • Tyron Bache

    Dec 18th

    Brilliant article thanks so much :)

  • Bartosz Oczujda

    Dec 18th

    “starting a freelance business is very inexpensive…”

    Did Creative Suite turn freeware? And what about other expenses like monthly office rent, computer, monitor, printer, taxes etc…?

    Well. you could work from home, on a computer that you already own, but you still have to buy the software. The cheapest version of Creative Suite 4 costs 999$. That’s definitely not what I would call inexpensive :-)

  • vmDesign.fr

    Dec 18th

    Thanks a lot Steven for this article, it will certainly help lot of “starter” designers

  • Steven Snell

    Dec 18th

    Bartosz,
    Most people already own a computer that they can continue to use, and very few start up designers have any need to rent an office, most work at home. There are a lot of cheaper and free alternatives, like GIMP. However, even paying $1,000 for software is extremely inexpensive to start a business. Compare it to the costs of other types of business and it is next to nothing. Yes, I agree with you that there are some expenses involved, but there are not too many legitimate businesses that can be started with less money. Also, most people who would even consider starting a design business will already own Photoshop or at least some of the software that they would need.

  • Todd Gail

    Dec 18th

    Very helpful advice. I’ve been doing freelance work on the side for years, but have never put that much effort into getting work on a regular basis. As the kids have grown, their expenses have grown right along with them. More freelance income would sure come in handy!

  • Brian Jones

    Dec 18th

    Great article – thank for sharing this post. As a novice designer / developer (still in my self taught studies) hoping to begin freelancing next year – I need all the tips possible. Article bookmarked and ready for viewing again down the road..

  • Jon Crim

    Dec 18th

    This is a great article – you made some powerful points, which new freelancers would likely not consider. The extra resources on not leaving your full time job too early – are terrific as well!

  • John Koht

    Dec 18th

    Great article! Very solid points for freelancers. And I completely agree about getting to know the competition, you can learn a lot from each other, and in some cases, exchange services.

  • Crystal

    Dec 18th

    I think the design industry would be a lot harder without competition, mainly for a few of the reasons you listed above. I gain inspiration from my competition, and even some client work.

    Great article here, and some great points!

  • Ambulance

    Dec 19th

    I agree. Being a designer, it allows me to excel my creative and make other benefit by it. Yeah! Freelancers is the best option to begin with Zero Investment.

    I would recommend all designers to read this too

  • ariel sommeria

    Dec 22nd

    Hi,
    I found that a good way to meet clients is to teach. I found a company that gives classes on Flash programming, started giving courses for them, and I met quite a few of my first clients like that.
    Ariel

  • *-----Cute Web Designer----*

    Dec 22nd

    Great article .. Thanks For sharing..

    Nicely Done..

  • web design miami

    Dec 29th

    nice tips ! thx for sharing, kep up the good work

  • Web Design Cambridgeshire

    Jan 5th

    These are some great tips! This will really help a lot of start up designers. Thanks for sharing them! :)

  • Web Development Services UK

    Jan 6th

    Wow! This is a very thorough article with lots of great advice. IN terms of avoiding distraction, I tend to put my phone on ‘do not disturb’ so that I can work for an hour at a time without interruptions. Reducing the number of times you check your email in an hour is also a great way to increase productivity.

  • Chris

    Feb 18th

    excellent article – thank you! i’ll definitely be sure to peek around at some of your other articles as well.

  • RhettRO Creative Web Design

    Mar 1st

    Great advise. I was laid off from a full time job in July and have been freelancing my creative services ever since. It has been fun and rewarding, but a little scary at the same time. The biggest upside is that I’m getting to spend so much more quality time with my family. Now, I can’t imagine going back to the corporate world.

    Thanks for the advise.

  • TheAL

    Jun 7th

    Agree with a lot of thing, the rest I’m still mulling over. I’d say one of the biggest frustrations associated with the exorbitant amount of competition, at least in the web design/dev world, is that lack of an entrance barrier you mentioned. That means that wannabes abound, and a lot of prospective clients out there go with them because of two major things:

    A) They can’t tell the difference between a pro and a wannabe. It’s especially hard for them to see who is legit when every freelancer under the sun is making the same claim of having 8-10 years of experience, basically just by counting the years since the big web boom of the 90′s. That makes the claim plausible, right? Doesn’t matter if they’re 30 now or 15 (meaning they were 5 when they learned javascript? huh?). Come to find out they made a Geocities page with a wizard-builder in 1999 and then didn’t really learn xhtml/css until they started freelancing a little while ago. Also hard to tell them apart when everyone says by default that they’re all about “strict, semantic, insert-buzzword-here” practices while their pages are barely getting a score of 70 with Google Page Speed. I doubt they do “extensive market and SEO analytical research” their portfolio says they do when they’re working alone and pumping out 6-7 typical websites a month.

    B) Wannabes are often cheap (with the exception of greedy ones who think they can START off charging the same as a 5-year old firm with 200 finished projects) and perpetuate misconceptions about what these services are worth, leaving clients spitting their coffee out at the sight of legitimate quotes. And the wannabes aren’t always freelancers, sometimes they’re small office businesses. I have a few in my town that sprung up seemingly overnight. Their websites all look horribly cooker-cutter. Some even brag about using templates! But they’re soaking up all the business, so they’re doing something right.

    *takes deep breath* Sorry about the rant, folks.

  • Bractus

    Jun 7th

    I have issue with number item #12.
    Currently are reviewing our existing process to address our frustration!

  • vuitton

    Aug 15th

    this is very nice, im going to start next week my own business i will open a web design place, and stsart my own buisnes at last :D so this help me a lot to think in so many ways :D u guys rock

  • TheKoolDots

    Mar 20th

    Great Post.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Homzmart

    Apr 30th

    I am very knowledgeable after reading this. Not because I liked this article, but I got this in a very well manner. Very well explained. One can get inspiration with this read. The most striking thing about the centre of Detroit these days is how quiet it is.

  • Homzmart

    Apr 30th

    I am incomparable to enjoy myself when i appreciate your beautiful article from my deep heart!

  • Web Design Tampa

    May 2nd

    Naturally, most freelancers are more comfortable with the technical and creative aspects and less comfortable with running a business.

  • wedding shops

    May 30th

    I agree with you that there are some expenses involved, but there are not too many legitimate businesses that can be started with less money. Also, most people who would even consider starting a design business will already own Photoshop or at least some of the software that they would need.

  • body weight loss

    Jun 2nd

    I go through from your stuff its very effective and your tips make definitely changes in our achievements and competitors will shocked.

  • crowdSPRING

    Jul 9th

    Really informative post.. It has been fun and rewarding, but a little scary at the same time.Well Some designers have done very well by setting up some basic packages for clients with lower budgets…Thanks

  • Amy McCraken evergreen custom media

    Jul 21st

    Being a designer is not easy,designers really always have to deal with much competition…your post is helpful in this case! it is very well written! thanks for the great tips!

  • eBridge interactive

    Jul 28th

    Well being successful as a freelancer or working independently requires a combination of technical and creative skills, as well as business skills…Nice post..

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