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Starting a Business: How to Find Clients & Build Your Portfolio

August 29, 2012

I think this might be the most highly anticipated part of this little series I’ve put together. Most of you were interested in the why I started a business post and several of you messaged me with thanks for posting more about the legal aspects of being a business owner. But for the most part, this seems to be the post that everyone’s been waiting for. I hope that my tactics don’t let you down. I learned by trial and error, so don’t forget that just because this worked for me DOESN’T mean that it will necessarily work for you. Take some time to explore all of the possibilities before ruling out an idea for growing your business.

I’ve divided this up into a few very important, need to know sections for you guys to make it easy to skim, bookmark or refer back to.

You aren’t ready to charge $1000 for a design…yet.

One of the hardest aspects of owning and running ANY kind of business is figuring out what to charge for your service. So before you even dive head first into finding clients, you’ll need to figure out what your baseline price is and go from there.

When I first started, I did my first custom WordPress design for $150. I worked and worked and worked and truthfully, didn’t make any REAL money. The site took me about a week to design (communication between the client, the actual process of drawing up the sketched for the overall idea, etc.) and then another week and a half or so to code and style because I was still learning CSS and design techniques through a series of trial and error. I worked several very late nights and typed and retyped bits and pieces of style sheet until my eyes crossed. But, in the end, despite not making any profit from the site, I had a new design to add to my portfolio. (By the way, if you’re really interested in what that first site looked like, you can find it over at The Mum Project.)

All of that to say, I never could have (or would have, for that matter) charged that particular client what I charge now for that design. I didn’t know what I know now, my technique wasn’t what it is now, and they wouldn’t be getting the same quality of work. Let me also say, that I’d never do a custom WordPress Design for only $150 now.

As your abilities and know how expand,you should feel comfortable enough to increase your prices.

When I started, I figured up a scale of prices. Where I wanted to start and where I wanted to end up. I only did a specific number of designs at each price range. Once I filled that price quota, I went up on my prices. Just a little here and there. My first price increase was $100. Then I went up $200 and then $250, etc. I tried to stay within a competitive price range of other designers of equal or slightly more advanced technique.

I always judge whether my prices are too high or low by how my clients and potential clients respond.

I know what my ideal workload is, and I’m still working to reach that point by how I price my services and what I offer to my clients.

You may not be ready to charge $1000 for a design, but you are worth SOMETHING.

There is a lot of debate about this in every aspect of business and how to go about getting started. I read an article last year around the time I was getting ready to dive into designing for others written by a photographer and for other photographers. I don’t remember who wrote it, but the general gist of the article was that if you don’t take yourself seriously enough to charge for your services, no one else will either.

I have never worked for free. Even if I was only charging $150 for a design, I did not work for free. Even if my talent isn’t worth as much as some of my competitors, my time away from my family and away from my son, my blog, and the other things that I enjoy IS worth something. And I was determined and remain determined to ensure that whatever I’m doing, whatever project I’m working on is WORTH the time that I spend absent from the other things.

That being said…I  have bartered for designs and offered giveaways as a means of promoting my business and increase my audience.

You guys might remember that I offered a full Custom WordPress Design earlier this year (which was won by Robin at Farewell Stranger). I offered various ways to enter-including lots of social media outreaches-and increased my page views and my potential clientele by giving away something that people were interested in. I’ve exchanged products that were beneficial to both my business and theirs on multiple occasions. They received a new design, I received a product in return AND gained another site to add to my portfolio.

That’s really it. I wish I could tell you that there was some magic formula to gaining clients and upping the number of sites in your portfolio. But, if there is, I haven’t found it yet. I feel like I have been both incredibly lucky and incredibly blessed to have worked with clients who were happy enough with their designs and my customer service to share my business with their friends. I can credit at least half of all of my business to date fromword of mouth marketing and social media amplification. Someone knows someone who needs a site and they refer them to me. Or, someone sees another site that I’ve designed and they seek me out to work with them.

Don’t underestimate the power of word of mouth marketing online. I’ve heard people say that it’s not as big of a deal online because it’s “just an online business.” For photographers who only shoot in one particular area, that may be so. But for a business and a service like this where there are no limits to how many miles apart you and your client are, this type of marketing is crucial.

Customer Service should be your top priority.

If my client isn’t happy at the end of the process or if their experience isn’t pleasant enough that they would be willing to tell everyone who asks them who designed their website/blog/brand, then I haven’t done my job. And making sure that my clients not only love what we have created but that they enjoyed working with me, is my top priority.

Have questions about the portfolio building process? Leave your questions in the comments and I’ll definitely respond to them!

  1. Kimberly says:

    Yes! You are absolutely worth something! And you are so right – if a client wouldn’t recommend the service at the end, you haven’t done your job.

  2. So great! I think this is important for anyone who is hoping to monetize whatever they do. Design, photography… even writing and blogging. Thanks for sharing it!

  3. […] Starting a Business:  How to Find Clients and Build Your Portfolio […]

  4. […] love hearing about how other designers got their […]

  5. Brittany says:

    I’ve been following along and have yet to post a comment. You actually inspired me to want to advance my skills as far as design goes. How did you come up with your first baseline price?

  6. Amy says:

    I totally can relate to that first wordpress design with all the trial and error! And I completely agree with needing to take yourself seriously…sometimes I worry about charging too much but at the same time realize that potential clients might not take me seriously when my pricing is too low. Its a definite balance.

  7. Rich Gilbert says:

    Great article, Courtney! You continue to inspire… Oh, and hey, I love the font you’re using – Pontano Sans, I see! Goes to show you, you don’t need to spend an arm and a leg for lovely web fonts!

  8. As the winner of that blog design (which I love, am still using and get compliments on) I can attest to that being a good strategy. Courtney was awesome to work with and I’ve recommended her countless times. It wasn’t because it was free – it was because she was good at communicating, prompt and really listened to what I was looking for, so that when she sent me the initial designs I was right where I wanted to be.

    The lesson (I think): Free is good, but not because it’s free. Use a giveaway to show off your working style and your skill and you’ll have an advocate to get you going.

  9. Alison says:

    I love that you said you never do something for free (outside of the giveaways etc – but even then you get something back there!) – because yes, your time and your skill is what you’re selling, so that should never be given away for nothing.

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Courtney Kirkland is a Southeast Alabama Writer & Designer. Since 2008, Courtney has passionately provided beautiful,  intentional, high-quality design to small businesses and bloggers and encouraged thousands to walk in a rich faith in any situation.  Value and celebrate the beautiful, messy, and uniquely-special moments of everyday living.