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Ask HN: Is there any money in website design for small businesses anymore?
411 points by throwjuly2018 on Jan 19, 2019 | hide | past | web | favorite | 205 comments
with all the website builders that are available, is there any money in doing web design for small businesses? I had a prospective customer whom I was offering website design and maintenance service. He ended up doing it all by himself using an online website builder. I suddenly felt like I don't have anything to offer that business. I feel so discouraged. I'm a decent programmer but it seems everything small businesses need is already built and is way polished that I could build. What should I do?

There is lots of opportunity out there, but it depends on what you mean by ‘small business’. Super small companies (under 10 to 15 people in this context) are usually best off with SquareSpace or Wix. Companies slightly larger than this invariably end up wanting/needing things that these platforms can’t offer, and have the kind of budgets that can support a solo operator or small team.

At this level, you are competing with advertising agencies and marketing firms. Or you can turn those ad agencies into your clients - many don’t do the kinds of volume to support an in-house team.

I did well over 200k last year building, fixing and maintaining WordPress websites, working from home in a region with a relatively low cost of living. I expect to do even better this year, though I have resisted the urge to grow via hiring - I prefer to pick and choose my projects and be exclusive. My clients are a mix of agencies and “mid-size businesses”. I turned away another 50k of opportunities that didn’t feel like a good fit.

Beware though: success depends on more than just being able to build nice websites. You have to know how to sell yourself, manage customer expectations and a whole slew of soft skills to position yourself as a trusted advisor and expert. You need to understand your customers business, their challenges and pain points, how their customers think and behave, etc. Etc.

+1 for pointing out that soft skills are as important as the technical aspects of what is mostly a small project consulting business. Self evaluation for soft business skills can be difficult but one (obvious) metric is how often do you get continued work from existing customers. I would also say that concentrating on helping current customers is usually a better strategy than constantly chasing new work.

Yes, and interestingly enough, this advice can be found in The Internship (aka The Google Movie) [0] towards the end with the pizza parlor.

[0] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2234155/

Soft skills are important period.

I don't know where you're located, but the situation is about the same here in Sweden. If you know how to sell yourself and get a nice network going you can be a one man army making enough to be in the top 1% of earners nationally.

But, consulting pays about the same, and since the contracts are usually for months if not a full year the situation is a lot more predictable.

Yes, if you search my comment history (not much there, I don’t generally have much to say here), you’ll find me lamenting that lack of predictability compared to my consulting friends with 1 or 2 anchor clients. But, I believe I have a more resilient business - not one of my clients represents more than ~12% of my revenue.

> Beware though: success depends on more than just being able to build nice websites. You have to know how to sell yourself, manage customer expectations and a whole slew of soft skills to position yourself as a trusted advisor and expert. You need to understand your customers business, their challenges and pain points, how their customers think and behave, etc. Etc.

Those skills are hard won. Sounds like you could create a great course and monetize it.

(Not talking about udemy etc, talking about a high end course with sensible price points in the hundreds or more)

I agree. Having started on the path to gaining those soft skills myself, I would now be more likely to pay solid money for a course on the topic. Hard won indeed.

thefutur.com has a lot of content for designers selling services which can cross over into web design/dev.

If (I assume) your skills are on the coding and architecture side of things, how so you cope with the visual design side of things, for your "build me a web site" clients?

I do both, and I’m not actually super awesome at either. It turns out to be less important than many think. My design work is professional, but isn’t going to win any awards. My dev skills are pretty good within the context of WordPress - there isn’t much I haven’t done on that platform. But I’m pretty sure I’d be laughed out of the room at a Google or FB. I was a senior engineer at a BigCo but my role there was more leadership and PM than coding.

If you're open to share, why did you decide to leave the leadership/PM role for freelancing?

I desire freedom and autonomy above all else. You don’t generally get that at BigCo.

love how self reflected and content you are about your situation. Kudos!

If he’s maintaining sores then maybe that’s already done.

What does maintaining sores mean?

I think “sites” fat-fingered with auto correction

You know how people keep patching things up for years without ever taking the plunge and resolving the problems?..


On a qwerty keyboard o is next to i, r is next to t.

Or he may have meant 'stores'.

> ...over 200k last year building, fixing and maintaining..., working from home in a region with a relatively low cost of living...

THIS! My goal is to move away from my full-time day job and concentrate fully on my current side hustle...and arriving at or close to where you are now - both income and low expenses/cost-of-living, etc. Even if i'm a little under the 200k, that's squarely within my goal. I applaud you on having reached this, and wish you continued success!!!!

I'd hate to call it "hustle"

"Side hustle" is some kind of SV slang for money-making side project. The SV-specific part is that it's not meant in a dishonest or otherwise negative (rather humoristic) way.

i feel like it's not even fair to call it a side project when you're doing it full time

Whats your hourly?

I'm more laravel/mobile/node/vue/react, and I find I under-charge, but I think if I were doing WP I'd need to charge even less... Currently my best-long-term client pays $40...but I feel I want/deserve 60-70 and trying to land that for my next couple clients... do people pay you more than $40/hr for wordpress or do you just charge per project?

You are grossly under charging. The first advice I give any dev is to up your rates by 25%. Period. You will not lose any clients. I promise. But $40 an hour for those skills is nuts. In the US WordPress providers typically charge $80 and I tell all of them - ALL - that they should be at at least $100/hour.

So how much will a finished WordPress website end up costing? Just considering 20 hours will make the website cost $2000, and after that work the client will usually ask for other features and little touches here and there. Are you sure that this is what you can ask for a smallish WordPress website? I've read many times that this segment is usually called the "$500 WordPress website" segment... I think that when you start going over $2000 people start expecting a custom built website with completely customizable design/structure/graphics... at least this is my impression regarding website market in Europe. Does anyone feel the same about it?

There is a market that will pay 500 that I would stay away from unless you can also get ongoing revenue as well (hosting, support/updates, content creation, etc). There is also an segment that already knows "a few thousand" is the starting cost of a quality site.

You are probably undercharging. Not parent, but my WordPress specific work was either a flat fee for standard stuff (setting up a site, installing and configuring an existing theme, plugins, etc), or $50/hr for customization either through writing new plugins or adding functionality to an existing theme via PHP or CSS.

Laravel or other custom work starts at $125 for clients I'm expecting volume from or $150 for one off projects, again given in estimates as a flat fee for the project. If I expect something will take 8 hours to build, then I'm giving them a quote of $1200.

You can scaffold up a lot of CRUD stuff in Laravel in 8 hours.

Where do you find clients? My bread/butter is basically reddit - /r/forhire, Upwork is total shit, so I don't even login there anymore.

I'm wanting to potentially do some sort of hosting/support plan...and work on a site that has a ton more inbound marketing related articles on my biz. Then hire some offshore or jr devs or techs wanting to become devs to support the easy issues, I'll take care of the harder stuff, or hire some tier 2 people to do that... basically have something like $200/month for hosting, unlimited non-coding issues, change fonts, update settings, fix white screen of death, etc...w/ backups/malware scans/etc... -- the idea being get some recurring income.

Then I can up-sell people who need custom apps, full-design, etc... But before I can move into agency, I need solid/steady income. I had a bunch of imposter syndrome/depression but I'm depression free since August (therapy), and I've lost 90 pounds, and just have more energy, and I'm a lot more focused now, and just want to take freelancing to where I know it can go.

This business model is tried and true (WP Curve, GoWP). In fact GoWP has a great white label solution to handle all the maintenance you speak of at a fair cost. I used to combine their service with hosting on WP Engine (which included Sucuri for security) and have a ready made MRR model for WordPress.

Depends - it ranges from 90/hr to several hundred or more. Some things aren’t priced hourly, instead I charge competitive market rates and focus on workflow/efficiency improvements for additional margin.

If you are US based, you can charge more than that, even in a low cost of living area. There is currently quite a bit more work than devs.

Question wasn't for me, but I charge $50 hourly and I know I'm undercharging because my clients end up being surprised at how cheap the invoice is.

If you uped your rate to 75, they know your value and probably wouldn't jump ship. Even if 25% did you still make more with less total hours and more potential revenue for any referral business you get. You also get the benifit of not feeling under valued which can drive you to increase the scope of services you provide to existing clients.

I did well over 200k last year building, fixing and maintaining WordPress websites

Does this involve making themes? Plugins? Is it only client billing or are you selling anything else like, reselling themes, affiliate etc?

My clients are a mix of agencies

I've heard this mentioned many times. How does one get agencies as clients?

You contact them. They are typically pretty vocal online, so finding them is not that difficult.

You mean, cold email them? Just pitch them and ask if they have surplus work?

Either cold email them, or try to get an intro through your network (= how you would contact any business for anything). Then you pitch them your skillset and your daily/hourly rate, and they'll decide to place you on their freelance/consulting roster or not.

There is a small split for how you would freelancing vs. consulting via agencies in my experience.

For consulting, you will usually only be brought on if you have a special skill set that the agency themselves can't fill out, and often only if their client specially requests those services. So consulting work via agencies is much rarer in my experience.

For freelancing, as long as the agency is doing well there is almost always something to do, and ~20% of their tech teams consist of freelancers, so it's not really "surplus work" but more their part of their normal mode of operation.

Of course, all of this are just anecdotal data, and may vary widely from region to region.

Yes. Agencies pitch all the time to find their own clients, so they are not averse to getting pitched themselves.

A cold email better be great to work. A better bet is to go to meetups and local conferences for like Wordpress or SEO or digital marketing. You’re likely to meet some agency folks or people who contract with agencies. Chat them up, offer to buy them lunch, stay in contact.

Or, just look up agencies who are hiring for developers. Contact them and offer your contracting services.

A good portfolio is key. Strong client references are even better but it takes time to build those.

You can also do thought leadership type stuff like blog about topics, or participate in regional online communities.

Thank you for the comment. This is new to me, will try this out. Are you a freelancer too? Is this how you got started?

I got started in tech the old fashioned way: by hiring into a 1999 dotcom with minimal qualifications.

I’m familiar with agencies because I have hired and worked with a lot of them recently.

Get out to networking events, local business chambers, local community organiations, etc.

For example: One of our oldest business associates, who has passed over a lot of work over the years, we met volunteering for the local seafood festival.

How do you disconnect? As a solo guy charging retainers for support, etc. how can you take a couple of weeks off? Do you always have to check your emails even when you're on holiday or do you have someone else who can hold the fort?

Vacations haven’t been quite the same since I went solo. I have to be connected. That said, virtually all my clients are willing to wait for non-emergency stuff until I get back, so in most cases I don’t have to work a lot while I am away - maybe a couple hours over a week in total. I’ve never taken a 2 week vacation (I’m 44) and wouldn’t know what that even feels like.

Curious - which is a more profitable relationship, the agencies or serving a mid-sized business directly?

I imagine there's a longer selling cycle for the mid-sized business, offset by higher pricing? Which group is harder to serve? (eg. more iterations and drama inserted into the job vs. shaking hands, getting it done, and getting paid)

Agency work is less profitable and higher hassle. They tend to want to “manage the project” and many of them do it rather poorly.

My sales cycle is very short. I usually close the sale in the first meeting - or walk away knowing that a PO is imminent. Or I finish that meeting knowing that there’s no real opportunity there. Over many years I’ve developed a pretty good instinct of what is an opportunity and what isn’t, and where there’s a good fit and isn’t. Wish I could be more prescriptive, but it seems to be one of my magic powers.

Thank you - matches my expectations.

The older I get, the more I value clients who are willing to shake hands once and let us handle it from there (or better yet, send me an email before a project and a check after it).

Having some 23 year old AE clumsily attempt to "manage" us is a recipe for imminent violence.... (us => spouse and I)

> Agency work is less profitable and higher hassle.

I agree with the first part, but disagree with the second. Rather, partially disagree. Most agencies are inept. There are some out there that run a very tight ship and it is a pleasure to work for them. They tend to be larger and have a system for handling contractors.

That said, since it's always less profitable, you're always better off having your own clients.

This has not been the case for me. One of my best clients is a small agency that does not have an in house UX designer. They pass 100% of their UX work to me at the full price I decide. I had a very candid conversation with the owner and he was adamant about paying whatever to make me happy about the work to stay long term. It has been a win win relationship with them over the years. I charge a premium they are happy to pay and the work brings major wins for their clients which allows the agency to get even better and bigger contracts.

Mid size biz like the biz to biz approach. Agencies generally absorb a lot of the budget for creative directors, market research, etc and don’t leave a lot for actual development. Ideally you get in the position where you’re directly affecting income, that’s measured, by your efforts. That’s when you can charge based off of the value you’re providing, instead of an hourly rate.

I think a lot of mid-market web agencies suffer from this issue (going to one of my favorite patio11 articles): https://www.kalzumeus.com/2008/01/28/why-you-shouldnt-pay-an...

Impressive figures, congratulations for growing your business that much. I've always had a hard time being taken seriously when I was doing Wordpress websites, may I where do you get clients? You should share your experience in a blog, I'd love to read that kind of stuff.

100% referrals from happy clients, or people I’ve worked with in various contexts over the years. If you do great work and manage clients properly, word gets around. A client with 20 staff - in a year, 2 or 3 of those people will be working for another company. If you’ve left a good impression, over time the network effects take hold. The trick is to survive long enough to reach that point :) the first couple of years were tough.

That is very good advise.

The junior marketing person you are working with at one company a few years later may be head of marketing at a much larger company.

It can also work in reverse when your contact moves on and their replacement comes in with a pre-existing relationship with a competitor. Then it's nothing but work to keep them - same can happen when a small business sells and you have a new owner to build a new relationship with.

Have a client that is in the process of selling to what will be the fourth owner since I built their management software 12 or so years ago.

I think what you have done (and are doing) is great first off. However a few questions.

1) Why do you use your name for your site ( jasonpomerleau.com ) rather than something easy to remember? For example I run into cases where people are going to need a wordpress site but no way I am going to remember that when I need it.

2) Why does your site have a big picture of you as the homepage image? And I do mean a big picture of you? What is that your unique selling point?

Not intended to be snarky and what you have done is great just curious.

1) Businesses in my markets like to deal with humans. They’re not hiring a company (well, they are - I have a numbered company that is generally only of concern to the financial and legal departments) - they want to work with me. There’s no need for me to be memorable in any other way. Plus I really suck at naming things. :)

2) See 1). By the time a prospect reaches me, there’s already been a warm introduction of some kind. The big photo is the human you’re going to end up working with. I’m not super handsome but nevertheless i think it communicates that human component rather well. I do get teased occasionally about my “Steve Jobs” headshot but it doesn’t seem to have impacted sales.

If I was trying to grow and build out a team I would have taken a very different approach.

My growth strategy is oriented around productivity and workflow improvements, not adding heads. I’ve managed to become very fast and quite efficient, such that I usually blow my competitors completely out of the water. I’m only one semi-ugly dude, and thus every component of what I do has to be ruthlessly focused on what matters most.

Love that approach but fyi: first time visitors using Chrome on Android get to know your left ear exclusively, the rest of your face is cut off on mobile.

> There’s no need for me to be memorable in any other way.

I know a great deal about this topic. It always pays to make it easy for people to find or remember you. Even if you get primarily word of mouth.

> Plus I really suck at naming things. :)

Well then you should do what people who use you are doing. Find someone who does and pay them for the advice (per what I say about 'it always pays to make it easy for people to find or remember you).

Even if you already have more customers than you can service having more potential customers allows you to charge a higher price for what you do. There is no reason to have friction in marketing. It's not the same as HN trying to use a hard to find name to keep people out and have only higher quality comments (reason it's still probably news.ycombinator.com instead of something easier to find for newbies)

I've been doing wordpress sites as a side gig for a while but I'm stuck with really onboarding enough new clients who have enough budget to work with. Could you elaborate on how you get new clients as well as charging the rates you do? And it's all non-local clients or how many are local face-to-face type businesses? I live in the middle of nowhere so there's not even that option.

Out of curiosity, $200k revenue pre-tax? Or $200k take home in your pocket after operating expenses, taxes, health care, etc?

My friends who have consulted have pulled in some seemingly hefty sums, only to feel like they came out behind a good salary with good benefits.

It’s not fair to compare pre-tax salary with post-tax cash flow from your business.

Generally you pay less in taxes for an equivalent net profit as a small business than you would with that amount as a pre-tax salary. You pay slightly more in SE tax (~8%) but you get access to other write offs that more than make up for it, especially with the recent tax reform (huge deduction for pass-through businesses). And you can take as much time off as you want, which may cost you, but the flexibility is nice.

And operating expenses for most consultants are very low. For me it’s just been a new computer every couple years and a tiny bit of software and hosting. Basically nothing.

Healthcare is a big one though, if you’re not covered via a spouse or something.

But a good salary is pre-tax too unless you’re talking about the actual paycheck which is far lower than listed salary.

There are benefits. Like matching 401K, paid vacation (though if this isn’t long enough it can be a negative), and mainly, health insurance. Those should be counted for a normal salaried job. Otherwise taxes should be compared the same way, no?

If you are self-employed in the US, you pay an additional tax before you even start your regular taxes, and this tax isn't affected by your personal deductions.

You also need to pay for your own computers, SAAS services you use, etc. The more you make, the less this becomes an issue.

The additional tax being social security and Medicaid? That’s 7.5% extra. And like child says half of it is tax deductible.

How can a 7% difference mean you compare non tax salary to taxed self employed income? As was the point of my comment. It doesn’t make sense. The disparity is way worse if you do that.

Also it was never said to compare revenue to salary. I assumed profit would be compared to salary.

You can business expense just about anything. Also 50% of your Medicare and ss contributions if I remember correctly. Insurance premiums also 100% deductible.

> I turned away another 50k of opportunities that didn’t feel like a good fit.

Interested in how you off-board those opportunities? Do you have a referral network who'll take on the lower-end prospects, or just offer them some guidance?

Depends on the opportunity. Sometimes I’ll refer them my competitors, or an agency if I think their needs are beyond what a solo operator can deliver.

Wow, that's quite an income for Wordpress sites. Well done! If you don't mind my asking a couple questions:

1. Are you based in an urban area like SF or NYC?

2. How long did it take you to build up your clientele?

1. Windsor, Ontario, Canada is where I am based and most of my clients are, though I do have customers here and there all over North America. One is based in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Canada. Now THAT is far north.

2. Several years. First couple were tough. I took a 66% pay cut on Year 1 from my role as a senior developer at a Fortune 50 company.

I should add - I’ve never met about 30% of my customers in person, and interact with them strictly by phone. I’m presently sitting in Mexico on vacation, and met one of my clients for the first time in the airport in the way here.

What kind of companies are your clients?

Insurance brokers, container shippers, various industrial markets, trucking companies, university faculties, law firms, economic development organizations, non-profits, small municipalities, biotech firms, marketing/ad agencies, construction companies, architects - I could go on and on. The one thing they have in common is that they’re big enough to have a budget for my services.

Wow! And after doing wordpress for a while, I can't imagine getting even close to that. Are you hiring or looking for someone to throw some projects his way. I can be of help.

Unfortunately no. I’m a solo operator for many reasons, and have decided that being responsible for the work of others just isn’t for me. Any referrals I do make tend to be ones where there’s a clean break, and the referral is local.

Email me. I regularly have WordPress work to subcontract out.

I am. Do you have a portfolio?

Not op, but a full-stack web consultant with 7y+ experience. You can check some of my work out at https://nmn.gl/.

How do you find clients? Can your mantra work from someone outside US trying to offer exceptional services? :)

Here's how we do it on the low end: - email a lot of business owners: "you're site could stand some help. Care for me to send some ideas?" - those that reply affirmatively, you send ideas and end with a CTA to schedule a call. - those that accept a call, you chat about their business and goals and how you might help - you now have a pipeline.

My company targeting this kind of cold outreach can typically pull one or 2 recurring paying client out of 100 cold emails. That's 100 outreach which products approx 15 people who give the affirmative reply (15%) which leads to 3 or 4 calls which leads to 1 or 2 clients.

It's a slog. But the math works and we have a system down for the outreach so it's very repeatable.

Good to know the old school way still works. Kudos.

Hey Jason, which wordpress stack(s) do you use? Do you have favorite tooling?

If you recommend SquareSpace and Wix, why not Wordpress.com?

As selfish as this sounds, because then it’s harder to make a clean break, because I’m still a WordPress guy and I can still help, right? I’ve learned that working with super small businesses it can be quite difficult to make money, because my fees are coming out of someone’s household income, which brings with it entirely different working dynamics. A simple example: having to take 5 minutes to explain a 30 minute invoice. Doesn’t sound completely unreasonable until you try to scale it up, at which point you find yourself bleeding to death.

I've found Wix to be painful to use (so slow). Godaddy website builder has been my go to for (very) basic sites these days.

Or Weebly.com

Can you shed some light on how you find clients?

Here are my thoughts:

I am far from my days of "building websites", but I built one as a favor for a friend just this week (simple contact form, single page). I was talking to him over the phone about his previous website, how it was built, who built it, etc...

I think there is A LOT of money to be made with building websites for small businesses.

Yes, the challenge is not technical, and yes, we (from an engineering point of view) think it's a commodity and that Wix and the likes are solving all the problems, that's wrong!

Let's start from the bottom, if you have real sales, that talk to small business and take care of their online presence, you will get a lot of business.

Forget about the CMS, forget about the self-serve, you act as the technical person and take care of:

1. Yelp Page 2. Facebook Page 3. Instagram Page 4. Website 5. Content writing

You can get a ton of business with targeting the right business types and pricing it right.

You have to figure out the problem you are solving. forget SEO and forget everything that we as engineers think about, think about the value you are adding to a small business.

If you tell a busy business owner that he can text you the updates they want, or you call them once a week and get a few new photos that you will update in the right places and get them more business, you will thrive.

If you develop a high-touch business in a market where everybody thinks they will win with a low-touch 5$ a month market, you can win.

My friend paid 3K$ for his previous website.

This is an excellent post and should get some love. 60% of small businesses don't have a web presence at all and 90% have only ONE of website, FB, and Yelp. Offering to handle all of this stuff and then wrapping in Proofer/AdviceLocal/Yext and twice-monthly blogging is a nice business to be in. PRetty common to get $3-5k site builds and $500-1000 a month to manage and maintain the other stuff.

You don't give a CMS, you talk to them where they are, on the phone, WhatsApp, anything. You give them customer service where customer service is completely dead.

Another thing, don't expect to create a website (for yourself) and have customers come to you. Not even with Google of FB ads. Go you them!

This is a cold-calling, customer facing, convincing business. It's ads in local papers, flyers and talking to people.

I think web-design in the SMB market is completely commoditized between website builders and even CSS toolkits like Bootstrap lowering the barrier to entry. I barely know CSS and will just buy a $20 design from wrapbootstrap and the client doesn't care.

Anything related to web-design should be a side-effect of the true product you're selling, which in your case should be web-based software application development (IMO).

My opinion:

#1) Get really good at a web-framework. Doesn't matter which, but something like laravel would be a great choice. Learn MySql/MSSQL to go with it.

#2) Market yourself as a specialized consultant and bill $100 hr+. I don't know what market you're in, but if this is a big leap for you then work up to it. The kind of clients you want to work with will pay this without blinking. Sometimes they won't even know about the bill because it goes straight to AP. blah blah blah patio11.

#3) Never say you do web-design. Say, 'I convert your MS Access application that runs a critical component of your business (barely) into a multi-user/role, always-online, accessible-from-home web-application. Along the way we're also going to streamline this to make your company more money. It will pay for itself. That will be $30k.'

Came here to blah blah blah but you beat me to it, thanks!

The thing I’d add is to not sell undifferentiated web design but rather find the business problem that web design is one approach to solving (e.g. “Your insurance agency doesn’t get enough leads”) and then sell yourself as the expert on fixing that business problem.

> The kind of clients you want to work with will pay this without blinking. Sometimes they won't even know about the bill because it goes straight to AP.

I agree #3, but on #2 - I've never dealt with any business of individual who operated like a blank check ("just send the bill to AP"). They all have budgets - implicit or explicit - and all want a rough idea of range at the very least. Is this a $3k project or a $20k project? They all have a need to know up front. You can sometimes tell up front - you get better at it - when people are going to complain about it more.

Told someone on a project they were looking "in the $2k range, at $x/hr". Sent a bill for $2200, and they flipped out. "You said it was $2000!"). Well.. no, I emailed you that it would be roughly in the $2k range, and if it was going to go much outside that, I'd let you know beforehand. I got you your project done 3 days ahead of when you wanted as well... blah blah blah.

Written agreements up front with clear expectations, etc.

More to the point on money, working with people where the money is coming directly out of their pocket (vs an operating business where there's a budget, and the person you're dealing with is simply managing a budget) will take you much further. IME, most of the people you work with where the money is directly from their pocket will watch every nickel and take $9 of time to explain a $2 expense.

This isn't to say you should pad billing or rip people off by any means, but... taking hours to explain how web hosting works, and that no, we can't build a custom ERP system on your godaddy account that you prepaid for 4 years in advance last week when you bought your domain name, and that if this really is a "million dollar idea", you will need to spend more than $200 for an MVP. All of that is low-value stuff you want to figure out how to avoid.

> taking hours to explain how web hosting works, and that no, we can build a custom ERP system on your godaddy account that you prepaid for 4 years in advance last week when you bought your domain name, and that if this really is a "million dollar idea", you will need to spend more than $200 for an MVP.

You joke, but I was in this exact position on Wednesday. It's natural to think that web consulting is dying or that there's a race to the bottom on pricing, until you come face-to-face with the level of ignorance many business owners (even successful ones!) have about technology. The world of business software is mysterious to many people. And while it's easier than ever to build a solution that replaces clunky .xls files or (worse) paper -- that can still be a major hurdle for someone not familiar with it.

I think the solution to OP's question is to see yourself as not just a developer but also a tour guide. Educate your customers without judgement. Teach them why what you do matters (translation: market to them!) Lots of people won't see the value and will never pay $100+/hour. But some of their competition will. And that's how you build a consultancy of your own.

Well... I don't joke :) The $200/MVP is a slight exaggeration, but not much. I've been approached by people about MVP, but they only focus on the M, not the V or P.

You're right on #2.

To clarify, any clients I have that behave that way are firmly out of the SMB segment (or have grown to that point as we have worked together), seem to be in cash-flow heavy industries like manufacturing or construction, and we've been working together for several years.

I think you made the point I was going for - it may be more hassle than it's worth to do work for a client that makes a fuss over $2200 vs $2000.

What's your strategy to avoid future work from such clients? I've thought the contract should include creating documentation for maintenance (e.g. login details to various services to update payment information or software versions or whatever) that the business can keep secured and that while you can be reached to perform certain kinds of maintenance at some fee you aren't obligated to. I had a friend in freelancing who self-hosted everyone on his own servers and charged an ongoing fee, though if I were a client I'd be nervous if the freelancer decided to raise their fee for the understandable reason that maintenance costs can increase.

You would be surprised... also don't rule out middle market companies ($50MM - $500MM in sales) in low-tech industries. Suspect these could be highly profitable clients (yet potentially infuriating, details below).

Examples from my day job:

- Transaction pricing, trade system setup, and item costing is effectively controlled by Excel VBA (written by one guy who left, and maintained by a third-string developer who moonlights from his job at another company)

- Was told we couldn't do something on our site because it was "an old WordPress site" and had to be totally rebuilt for over $50,000.

- Apparently PhotoShop is too complex for mere mortals, thus everything must be outsourced and under no circumstances should we invest in our copy and do anything in house.

Oh - and I should mention that the process owners for these areas are usually technically clueless and utterly paranoid about anyone else touching their baby. The fastest way to get anything done is to pay up for OT and let the existing insane clown posse do the additional work at overtime rates. Rates are ridiculous - my spouse and I run a digital business on the side and our equivalent total project costs are 1/10th (if that!) what these guys seem to shell out (then again, we're both ex-IT / developers, so we know how to design and buy things correctly...)

I've flown past most of this crap since I've been retained to deal with a slightly more fundamental problem (aka: Dude, Where's My Sales?)... but there's probably a lot of money sitting in these kind of messes if you do some networking.

> but there's probably a lot of money sitting in these kind of messes if you do some networking

Possibly, but you may just be stuck doing donkey work (almost regardless of rate, that gets boring after some time). You can identify problems and offer to 'fix' them for businesses, but they need to be willing to actually change their processes. If there's political turf wars over "don't touch my pet project", no amount of money thrown at the problem will make it better. And yes, you possibly can siphon some off of those for a while, but I think for many people it's going to end poorly (political types will turn on you, etc).

You already mentioned some issues in that scenario above - never do anything inhouse with the talent you've got there - people need to set themselves up as middlemen. When the answer to the company's inefficiencies involves "remove the middlemen", it's a major battle.

> Was told we couldn't do something on our site because it was "an old WordPress site" and had to be totally rebuilt for over $50,000.

Interestingly tho, I can possibly see that. I might not tell someone $50k, but if I see some old WP site, and someone's asking for moderately complex functionality, I do not want to touch the existing site. It'll be a rebuild, or a separate service, and then integration work between the two. The $50k price may have just been a "we don't want to do this but this is our 'happy' price" sort of deal. If a new piece of functionality may cost, say, $10k of service work, I don't want to have to tie it to whatever legacy stuff came before, as I'm now responsible for supporting everything on it, because I was the last one to touch it ("it never used to do that before - you broke it!")

Some of my favourite projects have been very similar to the ones you described, basically technical webapps that help improve internal workflows. Been focusing on that and offering "quick" MVPs for the past few years.

However, finding such clients seems to be extremely difficult. Is there any advice you might have?

Ad agencies here in NYC sub-contract out work all the time. They are sick of outsourcing to 3rd world. I'd connect with ad agencies in your area see if you can get sub-contract work. And you can charge $1,500-$3k to set up a SquareSpace site. Target dentist, interior designers, yoga studios. Forget the local pizza shop as a customer. If your building with WP then offer support. WP is being updated all the time and with so many plug-ins, who can keep track of that? not the small business owner. Offer monthly support. Just don't offer TXT messaging support , they'll never leave you alone. Bill for your time. Goto your local meet ups and present yourself as an expert. You help grow the small business. If its a restaurant help them with optimizing their yelp listing or bad reviews. What delivery company to use. You need to help with small business's market online with the goal of helping them get more customers and less bad reviews. Help with setting them up with a google business page and reviews, same with FB... a website is only the beginning. Have a goal to have lets say 20 customers who pay you $250/month = $5k. There is mad money out there you just need to up your game and adapt to the needs of the business. They need to make more money get more customers get more positive reviews and less bad reviews. You charge for a small discovery phase like your a doctor diagnosing a business problem , then layout it out for them. Good lucky!

> Forget the local pizza shop as a customer

The local pizza shop's potentially a good customer if you're selling them a way to take orders online and get people to buy their special offers and refer their friends through social media. Plenty of value in that, especially if you're yielding more proven results than those flyers they pay to have printed and delivered every couple of months. If you're selling them a homepage with a picture of a pizza and a phone number then yeah, that's what Wix etc are for.

I take it back. Pizza shop guy needs to know what delivery service to use. The local guy down the block from me uses door-dash, uber eats and needs help with his yelp listing. Just uploading the menu to his yelp. He has no FB page. I explained to him he can take orders , get more customers using his FB page and use FB messenger. You can market this stuff to your local pizza guy. Just a 1 pager with Location, Menu, yelp links and an about us ( People love a good story) But the damn pizza has to be good. We have 50 pizza shops in a 1 mile radius.

Actually, you can do a lot more with Wix Code, and make a site with all kind of custom functionality, including 'a way to take orders online and get people to buy their special offers and refer their friends through social media'.

But to use Wix Code, you will need to know some level of coding, hence value to sell for your clients.

And I agree, there is a huge market for people to build websites for customers, you need to focus on the value you deliver to your customers, from design all the way to coding, SEO, content and social.

You can do that but the pizza guy may not know how to manage it. So the game has changed from making a static site to making a site and then figuring out how to make the pizza guy more money , get him more customers. Google business page optimization just basic stuff and then yelp listing. Just make sure the address is correct and no spelling errors. You put him on a subscription and meet him once a month to go over value , you become his digital media expert. You then ask him to promote you to his customers. I get free pizza , pasta from the pizza guy. Just for talking about this stuff with him. You can charge for it.

Here in Texas, http://www.whatismavn.com/ has made a pretty good business out of this. Although, I believe they had to also integrate with existing PointOFSale systems or implement some hardware in order to offer online ordering. Nice niche market though, and I have nothing but praise as a buyer of food through their customers.

There's a fundamental question to ask - am I adding value?

If you're a low-skilled web developer who can knock together a reasonable website using something like Wordpress, you probably aren't offering a service that is usefully better than Squarespace or Wix. You might still pick up some work from businesses that just can't be bothered to do it themselves, but you'll be continually squeezed on your rates.

If you understand online marketing and can help businesses increase their sales, you're in a good position. Some small businesses just want a pretty website or a cool app for the sake of vanity, but most would prefer to make more money. If you know a reasonable amount about UX and SEO and direct marketing, you can justify a decent daily rate.

Basic stuff like "you haven't updated the menu on your website since 2015" or "Google Maps is directing people to the wrong side of your building" can make a meaningful difference to someone's bottom line. I've spoken to a lot of small business owners who were surprised to learn that an email newsletter subscriber is usually several orders of magnitude more valuable than a Twitter follower. It's not rocket science, but it's worth paying for. Squarespace can commoditise the technical function of web design, but they can't commoditise marketing consultancy.

Right. A common thought among small business owners is "I should have a website because everyone else does." The details like content freshness, design aesthetic, or site speed don't even matter. So long as my-business-name.com goes somewhere familiar. But this line of thinking escapes the opportunity to drive business over the web.

In my experience, there's plenty of money for the consultant who teaches a business how to stop settling for their website as a commodity and start seeing it as an extension of their "brand".

I’ve been at this since the ninteies. At the peak I was getting $2500 for a ten page Drupal site I could do over the weekend. These days you can get a ‘custom’ programmed site from a guy reselling the services of an Asian programming group for $100, so how are you supposed to compete? I have made some money ‘fixing’ those sites, but for the most part my business is dead agaist things like Wix (Ugh), or Goddady Site Builder. I still make money extending those sites when the business wants to do more with their Web presence than the basics, but essntially there doesn’t seem to be any way to convince the more frugal clients to spend ten times what the site builder guys charge. I have had some success selling functionality. I offer a basic, ten page Drupal site, with additional charges for added functionality, but you’ll never be able to charge more for adding pages. I will even advise a prospect to go with those services to start with, just so I can be a good guy, and have them remember me when they need more.

Someone once gave me the advice to never offer a discount. You can do things for free, but never discount anything. If you do, you’ll end up discounting everything.

Yikes, doing this since the 90s and your top price is 2500k?! You are focusing on the wrong opportunities and I bet you lose a lot of opportunities and you don’t know why.

If you pitch a 2500k website to a 20+ person business there is 0 perceived value in that. That’s one persons time in their org for 2 weeks.

What’s the value you are bringing? Decades of experience, marketing experience, conversion optimization, inbound marketing strategies, CRM integration...

If that business is - say a law firm for 20 attorneys.

A sale to them is 10K+ for a new legal gig.

If your website can outperform others and you bring them 5 more leads a month, 50+ more leads a year ... 10+ more sales then you can charge much more!

You are losing jobs to companies charging for the real value they bring.

Let those small one to two person companies use wix or whatever

And if that’s the only value you bring then you need to learn different skills

Companies WANT to pay good money for good services. They are probably laughing at your 2500 quote and going with the 25,000 quote.

Move of the value chain. They get a new website but that’s not what you’re selling.

You’re selling leads, sales, new business, business growth, hands off / zero worries on their part.

Start charging way more today.

1. maybe not your intention, but this reads as quite rude

2. you mean 2.5k not 2500k. The latter would be a king's ransom for a wordpress site, even by your (apparently) high standards

Reads more like ‘tough love’ to me. It’s harsh, but definitely well intentioned.

people involved in cold calling and selling expensive services to reluctant buyers who will tell you to f off should ideally develop a thick skin with regards to minor online snark -- take it as a skill-building exercise

i do very little freelance work but none of my clients have a custom site. it's all updating/tweaking squarespace, shopify, wordpress. people LOVE to have custom stuff, even on the pre built platforms.

There's lots of mileage building on top of pre-built platforms. I know many people who are doing very well, who can barely cope with hosting their sites or write code, but can work and skin other systems.

There are two questions that need to be addressed here. One, whether the web design business model can be sustainable in the long run, and secondly what a freelance developer can do.

The problem with the web design business is that a big percentage of the job that needs to be done is ad hoc which makes it unaffordable in the long term. There are too many hidden costs in communication and negotiations not to mention that nine out of 10 times the client isn't exactly sure what he wants. This is why most shops try to build their own CMS so they can commoditize the building process and start charging for software licensing instead of design.

So what could you do as a solo developer? My advice is twofold. Either try and build a service and not just building websites (for example a Facebook scheduler), or enhance your skill set with some consulting. Don't just build websites, build experiences. Make the client feel like you're the guy to help him take advantage of the whole "Internet" thing. That may include social media moderation and whatnot.

Another very lucrative niche is building themes for WordPress sites. You build a very good theme for various devices and you charge a fee which includes support and updates. There are people out there who are killing it with this model (I know a guy who makes €12k/monthly from building themes). Of course it requires good design skills but perhaps you could team-up with a designer.

My two cents.

> Another very lucrative niche is building themes for WordPress sites.

I guess barrier of entry is a bit higher into themes requiring software development, graphic design and even a bit of UX expertise. So there is less competition. You would still be competing globally though.

Generally, you don't want to compete with Squarespace, Wix, Wordpress, or Shopify. Unless your goal is to just churn out those kind of sites within a couple days. But even then, you'll probably lose out to some Indonesian who's doing it fast, cheap, and high quality.

I've found a good niche making sites with minimal login and membership features. These are far too customized for the likes of Wordpress, but can be built in just jQuery and Bootstrap, without all the overhead of a full web framework. Some examples would be sites that track individual members actions, listing sites, websites that would track their employees' performance.

with all the website builders that are available, is there any money in doing web design for small businesses?

If you’re willing to be the person configuring a website with one of these builders, yes. As other commenters have mentioned, these builders only get clients so far (pretty far in fact) but eventually they’ll need something else. Being a web “guy” or “expert” to them is what you want.

Clients want a convenient solution to this problem. That’s why website builders are so successful. Once they’re busy enough, they don’t want to think about this at all and that’s what they’ll pay for. Be that person.

I am not a web developer by profession (I'm a marketing director and entrepreneur), but I freelance 2-3 sites per year on the side. Most of these sites are fairly simple sites for small businesses and organizations. I make more money doing this (per hour) than most other freelancers I've met, and it's because I offer what my clients can't get with Wix/Squarespace: effective, high end design. I'm a decent web developer (most of you on here would destroy me, but I do what I do well), but I'm a really good designer, and I understand how to impart a site with a certain brand and professional gloss due to my marketing and design background. Anyone can launch a website these days, but not anyone can create a tool that changes perceptions and increases conversions.

So you have to offer something more than just a website. You have to have a portfolio that shows that you can create a site that puts their business/brand above their competitors in the eyes of their customers. Most importantly, to make this viable, you have to find clients that understand and appreciate the importance and value of this and have the budget to spend on it. Forget building sites for restaurants, mom and pops, and other cash-strapped businesses. You have to build relationships with the companies who make big money, and then give them a tool to make even more. Then the payment you're asking become an investment, and investments are easier to stomach than costs.

Can I have a look at your portfolio?

Would also be interested.

Sell an online course for $49 that helps small business owners create their own site for their business, using no-code tools, thus saving them thousands of dollars, hours of their time, and the potential embarrassment from doing it wrong.

Start writing Medium articles dumping everything a small business owner should know before creating their own site, about running their own site, about hiring a consultant like yourself, about marketing themselves online, etc...

Record 2min YouTube videos summarizing each of your articles.

Put the videos and articles on your site with a CTA to buy your course. Explain how, after they take your course, how their life/business will be different and better.


Yes. I run a small, profitable web design and development business that serves small business. Biz owners who choose Wix/Squarespace are the very bottom of the market. We instead service those who have graduated beyond that level, who need more advanced solutions, and more importantly someone to do the work for them. We slot right in between DIY and a biz that has in house web team.

Hilarious to read some comments here from the "no" crowd - talk about out of touch. Are all you guys holed up in San Fran/Boston disconnected from the small business that actually powers America?

Are your clients local? Would you mind talking about the city you're located in?

95% are local, we live and operate about 1.75 hours from Boston.

I've recently got an opportunity to work with a trusted partner doing local web design in a small Canadian city. Is there some way I can talk to you for tips on how to market to & convert local clients?

All the comments here make me sad for my young children. I am now a lead dev at a medium-sized company, but I had a side business doing web design/development from age 14 to about 26. I never made big money, but when you're 15, a $2k payday for a month's worth of learning experience is pretty incredible. And a $15k project for a couple months of work in college buys a lot of beer.

Based on the comments here, it sounds like that time is over for good :(

Maybe the time is over for web design, but there's always something new around the corner that the kids have figured out, and the more conservative businesses haven't.

I would ditch website design and move into marketing.

Leads are what any business wants the most:

- How to drive free traffic to sales funnels.

- How to connect with a potential customers.

- How to build the right audience for the product.

- How to craft the sales message that resonates.

- How to understand A/B/N metrics and speak in plain english to the business owner.

I know of companies which do the entire process for big companies:-

1) Manage the ad spend for campaigns

2) Build the websites to convert, the sales funnels to sell

3) Some even offer the customer support for the website.

Some even charge a fee for the building of said materials and even a % of each product sold.

I would be careful though. These systems for online businesses are becoming better and better and some aren't just 1 products, but multiple products now.

Give it another 5-10 years and even what I'm talking about will be fully automated!

How would you recommend a web developer to learn & pick up these skills? Any books or courses?

If you’re looking for a course, Sam Ovens at consulting.com has a lot of good stuff.

Looks interesting. Have you enrolled in any course in the past? Any other resources you could recommend? Thanks!

If you're a decent programmer, then use those strengths. As you say, web designers are ten a penny now and there are even drag-and-drop website builders like Squarespace and Wix.

You need to go upmarket in terms of delivering value and consequently charging more for this extra value. Sit down with your prospective customer and learn more about his business. What are his pain points? Where and when does he earn most of his revenue, and from what type of clients? Can some of his processes be automated to save him money and bring in more revenue? That's where I think your focus should be.

Well, all the agencies I worked with in the past are still in business, and hundreds of such companies come up in Google when I search for 'web design agency in [place name]', so there definitely must still be at least some money in it.

Either way, I think there's definitely still interest there. Yes, you can make some types of basic sites through stuff like SquareSpace and Wix. But a lot of business owners don't want to do things themselves. They're not design like, often not too tech savvy and just don't feel being the one responsible for their entire website.

For them, they'll go to an agency or development company for the same reason you may go to a restaurant or cafe; because they'd rather someone who knows more about the topic build in than play designer/developer themself.

They also often like having support in a place that's easier to reach. If the company who built the site is local, they can phone them, send an email without worrying about time zones or pop down the office when something breaks rather than having to deal with a multinational corporation via support tickets or live chat.

There's also (as said) the many types of sites that are a bit too complex than can be done via a site builder but too simple to require an in house development team; those are often things these small web design/dev businesses take care of too.

So yeah, overall the market is certainly a bit smaller than it used to be, but it's still there, either because people want a professional to do the job rather than doing it themselves or because their needs are a bit more complex than can be achieved with a site builder.

Yep. Understand conversion. Figure out what the business needs the website for and how you can deliver that. 90% of templates cover the generic business needs. Make your money by explaining the difference between warm and cold leads, how 98% of the website traffic will be warm leads (unless they are blogging/content generating all the time, which they probably aren't if Squarespace etc is an option) and how creating a set of specific lead pages can be used with AdWords etc etc., which could be built in to your offering.

I don't know how relevant "field of dreams" is for a bunch of people here, but "if you build it they will come" absolutely does not apply to the web anymore. Explain that to your client, explain that a Squarespace site or WordPress template relies on pretty much that - and you'll make something that they can a tally generate leads from.

Of course, if it's just brochureware you'll need to tailor this a little better - "what are they looking for, should this be all on the homepage? Do we need lead gen pages?" etc - this is the custom solution.

Yes, but you need to shift your focus to using those platforms (when it makes sense) and also look into adding value in other places of their business.

For example if someone wants a store set up, you probably don't want to ask them to pony up for a custom $20,000 solution. Just get them onboard with Shopify on a retainer, and if they have custom needs start programming custom Shopify apps.

You can also look into ways on how to optimize their current set up. Like introducing a way to schedule appointments in a way that removes a bunch of headache from their point of view. They might not even have thought to do anything like that because it was unknown to them.

I talked about this recently in a podcast I was on about being a freelance web developer at https://twitter.com/nickjanetakis/status/1086296676640456704.

But, long story short. Before you know it, you're not just "the web guy" to them. You're the guy they come to for answers for a lot of things related to their business.

I wanted to see what other people thought about this. My experience is that in web dev, it's better to keep your hourly rate lower, just bill more hours. People will LOVE a 100 hour contract at $30/hr, but would freak out if an estimate was 25 hours @ $120/hr. Clients just can't seem to get past the hourly rate, even if the total project cost is the same.

As you become more skilled and significantly more productive, you'll find you can't capture this value because the client can not get past the hourly rate. And in their mind they can hire someone vastly cheaper who's 'almost as good'. The reality, as we all know is that the dropoff from a skilled dev is quite large.

I've found that overbilling hours at a lower rate results in happy, happy customers who get a quality product at a lower perceived cost. In the end their project is successful and they feel like they paid a fair price and I get paid what I'm worth.

Dishonest? Immoral? Curious on other's thoughts..

Managers often have limits to what they can approve without going higher up the chain. That can be hourly limits like $100p/h or bulk limits like $50k for a project. And they’d rather spend time trying to argue you down than argue with their CFO.

Like they say, never bother arguing with someone who can’t say ‘yes’. If you need a yes, you need to start talking to someone higher up.

I work at an eCommerce firm with a design/dev arm. It's absolutely integral for us to be able to provide the full package for clients for a number of reasons.

Sure, straight-up "let me build your website" style sales may be an industry that's slowing down, but it certainly isn't for online sales or integrating any other services, so ymmv.

Just like OP, I build small sites for clients. I'm looking to stay relevant by getting into eCommerce. I've been building Shopify stores and apps in my spare time. What software does eCommerce generally use?

Do you think eCommerce dev jobs will still exist 10 years from now?

Thanks for any advice!

I've had great success by setting up and customizing Shopify stores for clients, but I rarely am able to find such work. Any advice on how I could find more such clients, who want e-commerce stores set up and have a decent budget for it?

As a small business owner who has paid for web design, yes I think you can make money at it. I was looking for some help developing a unique look and I found it and paid for it. I looked for someone who focused on the art, and we used SquareSpace to implement the site. This has worked out well because SS doesn't seem to go down and they have analytics baked in. I'm not beholden to the designer for hosting like I have seen with other small business websites.

Other companies I've seen doing it have been focused on a vertical, telling their customers that they'll solve all SEO problems and all that for a small initial investment and a monthly fee. I haven't believed them yet so they don't have my money.


(I am working for Wix)

Website design is not a uniform business. A lot depends on what your client needs.

For simple needs, solutions such as our Wix ADI are a great self service tool.

When you want pixel perfect design, the Wix Editor is the tool for you. Most people are able to use the Wix editor, but creating a great design is a challenge, simply because not everyone have the training and talent of a designer. We do see a lot of designers working on wix and making money that way.

When you want more, Wix Code comes into play. With it, you get a serverless platform and a database as a service, and you are able to code whatever solutions you need for the customer.

While in theory your customer can do the coding and design, in practice they are more then likely to hire a professional to do so for them.

You say your are a decent programmer. Take another look at Wix Code.

We see people looking to hire programmers to help them build websites using the platform.

There is a demand for programmers among the Wix Experts community.

The way I think of it is that there are £50 sites and £5,000 sites (and upwards) but there are no £500 sites any more.

If the requirement is a simple how-to-find-us page for a street corner sandwich shop, there is no point in bringing in a professional web developer in 2019. You can get a self-service site, with better appearance and automated security updates, for a fraction of what it would cost just to have a hands-on pro get out of bed, using any of the builder tools and an off-the-shelf template.

When the requirements start to get significantly more demanding, then it’s time to call in a pro. This can happen for all sorts of reasons, but there is always something that’s specific to that client’s needs and not available in a cheap, off-the-shelf solution. It could be because a business really does need completely bespoke layout/styling for its site. It could be because there’s more interactive functionality that needs some custom UI work in front of a database or other back-end system. It could be because aspects of the site need to integrate with a client’s existing IT systems in some way. It could be because the client really needs more than just a site and you’re providing additional services as well as the site to support them.

Naturally any larger businesses with more complicated requirements will tend to fall into the latter category, but you can also find smaller businesses there, for example if they need a tailored interface for taking details of orders or have some sort of scheduling element to their system.

The best business model I've seen to service small businesses is to become a channel partners with Squarespace/Shopify/Wix/whoever, charge a fixed rate, and then optimize the hell out of your process to increase your margins.

Here's a few off the top of my head:

Shopify: https://ethercycle.com/

Squarespace: https://knapsackcreative.com/

The first thing you should do is realize that not every "lost sale" is your fault. There are some people in this world who won't be willing to pay you, even if that ends up costing them more in the long run. As far as what you have to offer that particular business, though? Does the online website builder he used provide customer support that's better than yours? Does it provide copy writing and editing for his basic pages and ongoing support for his blog? How about the e-commerce side, what percentage are they taking (and what would you be taking)? How much are they charging for the kind of long-term support you're offering?

One other major place to focus: How long did it take him to build the site himself? Was it free, aside from time?

Online builders are pretty slick nowadays, but I think that you're not fully automated out of the market just yet. The problem is, you can't beat free for some people. Even if a year down the road, five years down, they end up having laid out more time and lost more money on their "free" website, there are certain people in the world who'll always take the nominally free option.

I started out my career building these sorts of websites, making $3000 Wordpress custom themes. The secret sauce was my lead source who had super developed business sense and social skills, and went out and wined and dined clients and sold them these sites. He went on to build an agency and I was the first freelancer he hired. I'm pretty sure he was pitching wide reaching marketing and strategy help to these clients, and a website was just one part of that.

If a business just wants to make a simple website themselves, I see absolutely no reason not to just use Squarespace or equivalent. I agree with others in this thread that this kind of website has become completely commoditized when taken in a vacuum.

I've done much better as a solo freelance software developer doing webapp development - Django/Vue is my current stack of choice but any full stack can work. The advantage this has over building design-heavy sites for small businesses is that this kind of dev still has a long way to go before being commoditized, and in general is worth north of $100/hr.

I'm pretty frustrated lately, I've got one client and looking to replace them or at least fill my pipeline with higher paying ones and back burner the other client unless we can renegotiate rates (current is $40/hr -- all parties live in USA), I would kill for a $100/hr contract, but I have no clue how to land/pitch one.

My primary stack: Laravel / Vue, though I've been playing with node (Feathers/express backends) as well a lot lately. I've also been playing around w/ react quite a bit. I think if I had $100/hr I could put more in the bank... this feast/famine cycle is killing my sanity.

Dude, just don't charge hourly and don't do hourly work. Only charge by the project. Estimate how long it would take, times by $100-$200/hour, then set that as your fixed rate. Just make sure you estimate 2-3x the time you think it would take just in case.

I've been doing something similar with Express / Vue. Glad to see a lot of comments here concurring with webapp development, the same thing that I naturally ended up doing. I'm always for the look out for more such clients, do you have any advice on how to do that better?

Most of the value these websites were providing has been supplanted by various other services.

I no longer need to scour through some crappy website for opening times etc. because it's on Google Maps, even a photo of the menu on Google Maps is a much better experience than any restaurant website I've ever visited.

If the site needs interaction with customers it's probably better off with Facebook or WhatsApp.

This. I used to do a lot of web site development. Certainly for larger organizations there is still a need. But for small commercial or retail concerns, there's little reason to not rely on social media for all of your web marketing. It used to bother me when I found a company by Googling and found that Google directed me to Facebook and there was not other web site. It doesn't bother me any more - I get it.

> Is there any money in website design for small businesses anymore?

> I suddenly felt like I don't have anything to offer that business. I feel so discouraged. I'm a decent programmer

It's not about programming but about design and offering the customer a better product than they can do themselves. Plus you have to have the type of clients (or be able to sell them) on what you can do for them that is better than what they can do themselves. Even if it's just making it simple and not requiring them to think ('don't make me think'). I am sure in the comments here others have said the exact same thing. This is no different than any other sale and marketing. You are one person you aren't trying to fill the pipeline enough for 20 programmers just yourself.

I compete in another area (not web design) which is similar. There are people that do the same exact thing and practically give it away. If I can't get that account either I am not selling or I've got the wrong prospect.

In a word sorta, but if you are on HN you are probably overthinking it. A guy I work with looks for bad small business sites on the side then he tries to convince them to let him "redesign" the site. He then moves their site to WIX and loads a default template that they like. He charges $3000 USD for this. 99% of the work is non technical.

how does he convince the business to spend money just to redesign it and how big are his clients(10+ employees)? I was able to convince a client(3 person company) that he should have a website, but he just did it himself. Now he wants me to do seo and get more conversions which feels more like an art rather than science to me.

SEO is definitely a science. The formula is authoritive content + number of high quality backlinks = highly ranked site.

However, I do agree that there is a lot of bad information out there, but the process of googles algorithm for ranking sites (page rank) is pretty straight forward at the end of the day

What you shouldn't do: take advice from Sitepoint forums or pricing clues from UpWork.

What you should do: leave your home, talk to strangers at a networking event, and listen to their technical problems. Maybe 1 in 10 will have a problem you'd like to work on solving, if you've gone to the right event. Ask for a fair rate and overdeliver. Repeat.

OP here: Wow, did not expect so much response. I owe more details. Our client(his mom rather) used godaddy website builder template which had payment and appointment booking feature just for $15 a month(hosting extra). She did this in a day. As few people pointed out maybe thats all what he needs right now.

My skillset varies a lot. Although I'm confident taking on any technical challenge from wordpress customization, mobile app, CRM integrations to machine learning, I'm little behind on soft skills.

It seems business owners like talking to me about technical stuff(so do I), but none of them are showing interest hiring us. As the top comment pointed out maybe I should target businesses more than 10-15 people. But it's easier to just walk into a mom & pop store than cold calling a firm with more than 10-15 people. I tried online(fb/linkedin) advertising, email marketing but didn't get any customers through it.

I've tried looking for contractors in the past who can make small changes to static HTML landing pages.

I've since given up just learned to hack together changes myself as everyone on the big web design markets ignores the original request for alteration and instead spins up a $50 Wordpress theme they try and resell to me for $800.

I run a business that does outreach for agencies and can attest to the fact this there is still PLENTY of opportunity building sites for small business. We were "throwing so many fish back in the water" that had too little budget...but they had SOME budget so we spun out a business for that. I am a terrible WordPress programmer and only a moderate designer but even I make nice income from this division of our business. We build a 5 page brochure site for $1500 then charge $100/month for security and hosting . It adds up fast.

Soft skills are crucial, building a referral network is crucial.

How important is doing all of this locally? Meeting clients face to face? I assume businesses of this type would have to be totally readjusted for one living in a very small low tech isolated American town?

Negative. We sell into America, Canada and a lot of english speaking Europe

I live in the Austin area and tried this for a bit. There are tons of decades-old local businesses here, so I thought it'd be a treasure trove of jobs building fresh ones. I got one solid gig with a local music shop who needed a website with a CMS for maintaining an every-changing product inventory, but that was all I could find. Everybody else was good with Squarespace, so I went back to a desk job. I'm sure if I'd looked a little harder I could've found some "medium businesses", but I'd expected the finding part to be easy, and it wasn't.

How long did you spend looking?

Do not sell yourself as a technician, but as a web expert and a professional

So I’ll tell you from my past experience that there are plenty of designers that make money building websites using platforms like squarespace.

The trick is that the designer adds additional polish and takes the full service approach:

- wiring up CRM platforms

- mailing list management

- SEO optimizations

And so on. In some cases these folks are more than comfortable working in something like Wordpress or Jekyll, but they also want the site to be maintainable by their customer and choose Squarespace instead.

But I would agree that the days of “make me a simple website” are long gone. Now you have to be a full service shop.

Of course; how many small businesses want to tinker with Squarespace or Wix for hours? They are easier than Wordpress but far from turnkey.

Learn those platforms down cold and you will be able to build a site on them way faster than almost any small business owner. And interacting with you will be way faster for them. Combine those deltas and that’s your business.

Or, if you want to do more custom work, target bigger businesses, like midsize. Or look into PR firms, which are constantly setting up new sites for campaigns, coalitions, candidates, etc.

It depends. I don't pursue the business but sometimes I end up taking a side-job, I just made a website, took me about 5 hours and I made about a thousand bucks. I did do a quickie logo design too. I didn't even really "build" the site, I used a static site generator and a template and made some tweaks for the client. The value to him is that he doesn't have to worry about any of the details, even if I am using a template, something he could probably do.

I’ve positioned myself as a CRO consultant who does UX work. My projects span from e-commerce to landing pages and apps. I never mention “web design” anywhere and will turn down a 5k project pretty quickly if there is poor fit. I think opportunities exist for those who position to offer solutions to business problems. You must be able to say “no” many times to give one yes to find the right client - this means having lots of leads which can be tough.

How can one reach the point of getting lots of leads?

I hope it's OK to piggyback on this question and ask: are there any opportunities in designing (and selling) website themes, particulalrly non-Wordpress themes?

Many replies here say don't offer design. But presumably, even when you're developing the backend, you need to reach for a front-end design or template - either free or for sale. The market for HTML/CSS themes is completely saturated though - is it fruitless to pursue this avenue?

It might depend on where you are; here (south EU) it works fine. I know many one person companies making a nice living of making sites for restaurants, real estate agents etc aka very small companies. They have no clue Wix exists but they do not care anyway; they do not want to do it themselves. Even if it is easy, most realize a site is not enough; it is a continues process and they want to spend as little time as they can on it.

You might consider partnering with web marketing services (the kinds that do marketing sites and SEO). They might send you contracts for custom work.

You might also consider getting into web application development. There's a lot of need still for small and medium businesses for custom portals that manage their line of business.

Yes. I work at a 15-person agency doing website design and SEO for small businesses up from about 5 when I started there 4 years ago. We specialize in a few verticals and have a few industries we won’t work with. We do wordpress only and turn away plenty of clients who we don’t want to work with.

Really curious about the state of agency SEO services these days. Do you guys just do the standard on-page tweaks, or is there some backlink building too?

I once looked into the backlink profiles of a successful SEO agency's clients and I discovered a makeshift PBN going on; they had 100s of sites ready to go and would just add client links to them. In predictable patterns (# of referrer pages would jump weekly etc.) Presumably this is fine because it's working and this is how they promise position increases / page 1 for certain kw etc.

We don’t do the PBN thing. Honestly that’s pointless unless the sites have enough authority to give the shared link any value and it takes years to build up a useful network.

Honestly, our work isn’t really cutting edge or innovative. Optimize content (we usually rewrite/redesign it all from scratch to hit both keywords and user-experience), claim profiles, get a few good backlinks.

I think the biggest thing is simply to track results over 6+ months and react to what you’re seeing. And looking for opportunities to continue creating good long-tail content, which is admittedly a crapshoot sometimes. But by working with a lot of similar companies, we kind of have a head start on what will probably work.

I think there is money to be made still. If you focus on niche websites you can definitely charge a premium. I know lawyers that pay 4-figure monthly subscription fees for their websites in return for professional looking site tailored for a law firm and some type of SEO guarantee.

I see a lot of people using Wix and Wordpress for this purpose, presumably because they've got so many ready-made components that can be "snapped" together. Is there any other stack - Python, .NET, etc. - that works as well for rapid web development like this?

I’m a small business owner, we have 2 take out restaurants and we use wix for the design and go straight to our square store for people order pick up from us. I know that there’re restaurants paying 20000$ for their website and apps a few years ago!

There is some money in doing more custom things. I.e. a friend of mine earned few thousand EUR by writing a website for a local conference, including registration, e.t.c.

I think that for the really small businesses, your lunch will be eaten by i.e. SquareSpace.

Those website builders are terrible from a seo perspective WordPress can be moved easily from one hosting provider to another and can be optimised for search.

The sort of client that would be satisfied with wix is not the sort of client you want to deal with.

I wouldn't guess in mom and pop businesses but I would think in small financial services, real estate firns, or other where the design might matter more.

I would assume the money is in the customization. Every business is unique and the cookie cutter website builders get them 80% of the way but there is usually something they really want that needs to be customized. All of the players have plugin systems and raw editors to tweak as needed.

The website presence itself is commoditized. The processes that accelerate business usually require customization, even if it’s using an off-the-shelf product and then integrating, configuring, and training. You could even become a sales channel and get a cut of the product revenue for making the sale.

The other factor is website quality. When all the competition uses a Squarespace or Wix site for their marketing pages, your site can stand out using something like Gatsby JS to be ungodly fast. But this involves writing the whole thing from scratch specific to the customer.

I’ve had very good success with this marketing pitch. Customers love to see how their sites are faster and better looking than their dime-a-dozen competitors.

Clients don’t see nor will they pay for the difference between Squarespce fast and Gatsby fast.

Exactly. 98+% of their users won’t care and less than 25% are even likely to notice.

You can standout on Wix using Wix Code, which allows you to use your programming skills to code you site, your site backend and a dedicated database for the site.

You will not need to write the whole thing from scratch specific to the customer. Instead, just code the extra bits.

Having said that, I think there is a large market for websites designers and coders, and we see an active community on Wix of people who build websites for customers

I think you should move to designing UI/UX for web apps instead of relatively static websites. There are a opportunities there and good pay.

I'm partially encouraged by this. It's great that a small business is in a position to build their own site.

Indeed this is a good thing not just for them, but for developers already doing this. As small businesses opt for these build-your-own-website services their competitors , particularly those who have little-to-no knowledge of design/UX, may decide to up the ante and hire a developer.

I've launch ~25 custom-theme WordPress sites for clients over the past 6 years and there has yet to be a shortage of clients who are willing to pay for someone else to deal with it (and even maintain it long-term).

My most recent project, approved just last week, is exactly this: a client with a SquareSpace website who needs to step-it-up as a result of the increased local competition, so we're doing a full redesign and building on WordPress.

There is always demand for well-designed things that last a long time. I never run out of work or referrals.

It's... complicated. I actually started a sort of "startup" (intrapreneurship/ startup within a corporation) to help designers make more money/ be more successful [1]. So I talked to many people and studied what makes them successful.

In my experience/ opinion, what sets a successful designer apart is... marketing, and client management. I mean, they're not bad at their trade - you have to be good enough; but the most appreciated ones were standing out to me not because of their amazing graphical skills, or innovative ideas - but on how structured they were in approaching the projects & the relationships with their customers. E.g. some tricks that I've learned and seemed to work well:

- get the client invested early: ask a token price to analyze the project - weeds-out non-serious clients who have no intention to pay; then get them to do some consistent "work" for you - e.g. one designer was asking clients/business owners to fill in a consistent form with details about his business, how he sees his clients, the market, the competition, what he does well (better than competition) etc. By the time the client finished this, (s)he was already invested both financially & with work/time, and actually _wanted_ the designer to succeed. - Pay attention to what the client says; use the client's own words to justify design decisions/ present your work. Makes the client feel you truly understand him - NEVER, EVER surprise the client. You don't want to proudly present you final work, hoping that he'll be pleasantly surprised by your skills; that seldom ends up well. You want to constantly keep him in touch with what you are doing, and ask him to make (inconsequential) decisions along the way. That way, he "owns" the work too, and you won't risk that he wants "just a small change" or to "try something slightly different" in the end. - Along the same lines as with previous points - introduce "checkpoints" (with payments whenever possible) along the way, where you get explicit "ok"/ "you're on the right track". Once humans have agreed to something, it's psychologically hard for them to go back and ask for something else.

I don't know, there were lots of "tips" like that, but the bottom line is that you're a "small business owner" first, as a freelance; and only then you're a designer. So what really really matters is to learn to work well with your clients.

[1] The opportunity is real, I believe. I was afraid initially that people won't be willing to share their process/ how they work/ what makes them successful, but that turned out to be a complete non-issue. There's a sort of pride in all of the successful people, they don't feel they are successful because they know "a few secret tricks", and thus are in fact very open & willing to share details of how they work. It's sort of a way to brag about how good they are.

BUT - I got to a point where unfortunately I didn't have enough internal support in the corporation, and to make the project successful I would've needed to invest many nights & weekends of my own time, to build the MVP and prove its success. And all that, while retaining exactly zero ownership of it all - I would've basically worked for the hope of a bonus or promotion, and with zero control - even if I was successful, at any point a senior manager could've taken control of the project and taken it to a different direction that I didn't want. I just decided the rewards were not worth the effort, and gave up :(

FWIW, you're talking about selling a product. Your complaint is that Big Company makes a better product, so how do you compete on product sales? You should adjust your thinking - stop selling a product and start selling knowledge. In this particular case, it takes no special talent to make a product so there's no distinction between your's, Big Company's, or anyone else's product. Selling knowledge to your local businesses on how to better use the product and achieve their specific goals is a service not everyone can provide.

TLDR - sell your knowledge and treat the product as a complimentary add-on. If you can help your customers improve their bottom line in a meaningful way, you will always have clients.

No. Most people used Wix and Squarespace now.

While many people are using Wix and Squarespace, there is an active and large community of Wix Experts (who are not working for Wix) that are building websites for customers.

So I guess there is a place for a professional business for building websites

Mind if I take a look at your portfolio?

Not OP, but am a full-stack web developer with 7y+ experience. Here's some of my work https://nmn.gl/.

I think a) no or b) at least not in America. You cant make a living earning $100 a pop, which is what you're competing with.

they still need someone to copy the text from the office doc into the website builder ...

Is this a joke? Of course there are ways to run successful business nowadays like Web Design. Here's an example: https://www.bluecompass.com

Seriously, these types of "Ask HN" seem like trolling. How can people be this ignorant? Is it lack of schooling? Lack of parenting?


If your a decent programmer, then "web development" is below you - I mean marketing web site development like done in WIX or in Facebook. If you want to write code, there's more interesting and lucrative work in the B2B transactional and business intelligence work. Web sites built around APIs are also interesting

I guess the underlying question here is will designers be able to add any value to the marketing requirements of firms over and above what is readily available and templatized... be it SMEs or large corporates, doesn't matter.

Refer to the literal meaning of standard and template, they originally are meant to perform the same duties they have been assigned in the same manner. On the contrast, any business who aims to succeed has to continuously innovate..(do not confuse it with discovery), keep thinking differently, keep changing strategies, keep upgrading themselves to be at par with this rapidly changing environment and cut throat competition. And this is where creative minds chip in.

Gone are those days when businesses use to write paragraphs after paragraphs to explain their products and USPs. Today, just one right and well though word is enough to put your point forth that directly hit the mind of consumers.

Design is deep. Mere creating graphics is not design. Decoding, understanding and relating to the subconscious message behind a thought or a communication being sent and being able to represent it in its most impactful form is true designing.

The day a designer starts empathizing with this, he will not find himself in doubt and out of work a single day.

I am a co-founder at http://draftss.com and we are catering to all kinds of businesses from SMBs, Freelancers, Agencies and even budding founders who require design and development. What differentiates is the approach and brand placement.

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