Troy Dean wants to spare you the hardships that he experienced at the beginning of his career. Here are his 3 crucial key business lessons for anyone attempting to make a living as a web designer.
As of writing this, my son Oscar is young enough where I (mostly) have control over all his movements and decisions. Heck, I was pushing him along in a stroller as I worked out my thoughts for this article.
But what happens when he grows up and wants a different type of direction and guidance from me? What if he says something like, “Dad, I’ve decided to become a web designer”? Should I wish him luck and let him blaze his own path? Or should I share some of my business wisdom, even if he doesn’t ask for it?
Here’s the thing: my journey to this point was not a smooth one and I would never want that for anyone trying to make a living in web design (or any creative field, for that matter).
That’s why, if my son were to tell me he wanted to follow in my footsteps, I’d tell him to ignore the footprints I’ve left behind and to set about a different path.
I started on this journey as a university dropout and struggling musician. I now run a very successful business training program where I teach web designers and other WordPress creatives to close the gap between barely surviving and thriving in this space.
Similar to the strategies I share on a daily basis, I would want to instill three key business lessons upon my son and anyone else attempting to make a living as a web designer. Really, what it boils down to is a reconfiguration of one’s mindset.
Business Lesson #1: Be Resilient
My original dream was to be an actor. But you know how it goes. Parents, friends and anyone else you share a dream like that with will say: “Oh, that’s nice.”
But what they really mean to say is: “Why don’t you find a more realistic and practical career first?”
So, that’s what I tried to do.
I went to university with the goal of becoming a drama teacher. But, of course, I was miserable. I dropped out and moved to Melbourne to pursue a career as a rock star.
I recognize that this part of my story doesn’t have anything to do with starting a business in web design or WordPress. However, I think it demonstrates how important it is to build up a tough skin and confidence in yourself early on. Otherwise, you run the risk of:
Complacently accepting a job you’re not meant to do and wasting your life being bored, unhappy, unfulfilled or all of the above.
Spitefully accepting a job you’re not meant to do and hurriedly quitting with no clear aim or direction other than you want to be “anywhere but here”.
Look, people are always going to have an opinion about what you choose to do with your life. It’s up to you to be emotionally resilient and secure enough in your skills and business savviness to say, “Thanks, but I got this.”
And, trust me, there are going to be times when the chips are down and you start to wonder if they were right. This is the time when you need to leverage your confidence so you can pick yourself back up again. If you can see the path clearly before you, then you shouldn’t give up at the first (or second or third) sign of trouble.
Like Rocky Balboa once said:
“It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
Business Lesson #2: Be Resourceful
If I’m sitting here in the WP Elevation offices telling you this story, it’s obvious that my days as a rock star were numbered.
It’s not that I didn’t have some success with it, but it also doesn’t mean I didn’t experience the lowest of the lows with it either. Which is how I ended up working in software. I needed to pay the bills because my main gig wasn’t cutting it… and Microsoft Office paid.
I did a lot in my earlier years to survive. I taught corporate teams how to use Microsoft products. I worked as a voiceover artist. I published s***ty websites for my friends. I did whatever I needed to do to cash a paycheck.
It would’ve been easy to give up at that point. But I didn’t. I wanted to stop feeling so vulnerable and working at the whim of employers. I wanted more control over my life.
In 2006, I decided to get more serious about designing websites so I worked on strengthening my coding skills. I kept at it, kept teaching myself new things each and every day. Then, a year later, I discovered the power of WordPress and everything changed.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you take on any side hustle in order to make ends meet. That’s not the kind of resourcefulness I want to promote.
It wasn’t until I found my niche in web design that I really felt like I could stand on my own two feet and support myself. And I needed that stability in order to do what I eventually did. However, I never would’ve gotten to that point if I’d simply said “I’m a web designer” with my crappy intro-to-coding skills and tried to sell myself that way.
The only way you’re going to succeed in web design or WordPress development is if you actively work on learning and growing within your space, and continue to do so no matter how far you get with it.
This isn’t just beneficial because you acquire more knowledge and skills that allow you to charge more (though that’s a nice perk). Having a continual desire to discover things on your own and to be resourceful enough to find answers to your questions will help you run a business successfully, too.
When you go into business for yourself, you’re constantly having to solve problems, deal with clients and pivot sharply between and within projects. If you get into the habit early on to always be learning, you’ll find that running a business isn’t all that difficult since research and problem-solving will already be second nature.
Business Lesson #3: Be Committed
When I first started building WordPress websites, I was selling them for cheap. It’s not that the websites I designed were super bare bones either. I just thought that, in order to win contracts, I had to start with lower prices and then eventually work my way up.
So, I did that for awhile, slowly making the upward climb. I could see the top — the designers and agencies charging tens of thousands and, gulp, hundreds of thousands — per website. I desperately wanted to get there, but I had convinced myself that I had to “pay my dues” before I deserved to be there.
This is why so many creatives are willing to accept a measly payday for years, all the while struggling to get by. Worse, they do this for long enough and it becomes an accepted way of life.
“Why would anyone be willing to pay me more than $500 for a website?”
But that’s flawed thinking. There’s absolutely no reason why a skilled web designer can’t start at the top.
Why is it that so many web designers and creatives feel as though they have to start at the bottom then? Ultimately, it comes down to a lack of clarity around and commitment to their business:
Finding the Sweet Spot
When web designers commit themselves to ill-fitting activities, take on draining clients and fail to make much of a profit in the process, of course each day is going to feel like an uphill battle.
But there is a sweet spot for everybody — a place where you do what you do best and spend your time on tasks that make you happy. That’s why I host podcasts, webinars, and live events. I feel energised by this kind of work. For others, it might be the act of creating websites, writing content or analysing data. And there are those who feel at home when they work with certain kinds of clients — like the designer that works with socially good companies.
If you can’t find that perfect place where you do something that comes easily to you and that feels right, your business is going to make you miserable.
Knowing Your Why
Do you ever feel as though you’re charging full speed ahead just so you can get to the end of the month or year and look back at how much money you made? If there’s no “why” powering your business, you can’t expect yourself to stay motivated or committed to what it is you do.
That’s why every web designer needs to take a good hard look at themselves and ask:
“Why do what it is that I do?”
In other words, without clear motivation, it’s easy to get lost in your business. You take on any job because it helps you pay the bills. You negotiate on price because you’re nervous about where the next client will come from. You work in order to survive, rather than work with a purpose.
That’s why it’s so important to nail your sweet spot and identify your why. When you feel great about what you do, you won’t mind working hard, putting in long hours or doing what needs to be done to realise your dream.
There’s a lot to say about how far passion and happiness will take you in this line of work. But I think many creatives are so used to compromising. They took the boring route in uni. They took the safe jobs afterwards. And now they’re taking on bargain-hunting clients. Why shoot for the stars if you didn’t earn it, right?
Wrong. You can start at the top so long as you’re resilient, resourceful and committed to what it is you do.
Keep your head up no matter how hard it may seem at times. Always be learning. And stay in your sweet spot so you’re always doing something you’re good at and that makes you happy. Do that and you’ll never have a day where you wake up and realize you’ve made a huge mistake and regret the life you’ve created for yourself.