In a Father's Footsteps
My father has spent his life as an independent contractor, building houses, conducting renovations and working on the odd bit of carpentry. While the metaphorical similarities between his work and mine are evident, it was his smart business sense that helped me become a better freelance web designer.
My father is a contractor. He has spent his life behind a table saw and hammer, building houses all year round, dealing with demanding, fickle and financially questionable customers. He has been self-employed almost since day one and built his business on honesty and hard work. Like his father before him, his name became synonymous with quality carpentry and construction.
When I was growing up, my father asked me to not follow in his footsteps. I don’t remember his exact argument, but he pushed me to get an education (even though he himself has a college degree) and get a job doing what I loved: drawing.
Fifteen years later I work behind a computer, using the aesthetic and technical artistic skills honed from a lifetime of doodling to push pixels and write code that connects people to information across the globe. It’s not quite as honorable, tangible or time-consuming as building a house, but it pays the bills and keeps food on my table.
When I started freelancing years ago, I thought about the parallels of my career with my father’s. We both service customers by building things, and the success of our business is directly tied to the quality of work we produce. But it goes beyond good work.
Earn a Good Reputation
“Earn” is the key word. Reputations are not given, inherited or bought — they can only be earned through time and performance. Earning a good reputation as a designer is hard. We work in a global market (my two most recent clients are in New Jersey and Madrid), and the competition is incredible. Reputation is the one true way to organically market yourself — it can’t be faked.
But earning a reputation is about more than good work. It’s also about good customer service, keeping promises, being honest with money and all the little things that keep customers coming back — the common courtesies so often forgotten these days.
Build Your Business Through Referrals
With a good reputation comes referrals. I don’t think my father ever advertised (the wisdom of which is debatable) because he never had to — business came in from word-of-mouth. When people like you and your work, they will pass along your information.
It’s a cliché metaphor, but good business is very organic. Start with a seed (your first client) and feed well with talent, commitment and service, and the cells in the seed will split, begetting more clients and strengthening the business.
Pay Your Employees First
This applies to both business-owners and freelancers contracting other freelancers. When payment comes in, make sure your people get paid first. My father believed very strongly in this. Everyone has a family and responsibilities, and it’s only fair those performing a service for you should be compensated for their work. It’s too easy to ruin productive relationships over money.
Running a service business, however big or small, takes a monumental amount of work. It’s too easy to let the small things fall by the wayside when immersed in the day-to-day trenches, and it’s worth the extra sweat to respond to enquiries faster, work a little longer, promote a little more. Working harder is a distinct competitive edge.
Teach the Next Generation
We are the first generation of web designers. The craft is barely a decade old, and in the coming years, we will be passing the torch to the next wave of talent. My kids are still young, and their career paths are blank canvases.
While my father advised against going into carpentry as a career, he still showed me how to measure, saw and hammer. Depending on the future of the web, I might dissuade my kids in the same manner, but I’m still going to teach them how to write HTML.