How Much Should I Charge?

This question gets debated a lot, and seems to have recently risen to prominence again in some well known blogs. And rightly so, of course, for even though the majority of us would do this stuff for free, it does help to be able to afford to keep that roof over your head.
This question is particularly tricky for people starting out in the web design business, so I thought I’d give my take, based on my own experience.

Don’t expect to make any money in the first year.

There, I’ve said it and I believe it to be true. At least it was for me. Of course, you will make some money, just not enough to live on. Indeed, your first couple of gigs may even be free, as at this point your goal should not be to make a realistic wage, but to do three things:

  • Build up your portfolio.
  • Get testimonials.
  • Get your site ranked highly on search engines.

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

Build up your portfolio

Web design is the most transparent of businesses. As a client, I can go to a web designer’s site, check out their portfolio and see very quickly whether they are worth further investigation or whether all that fluff about their “web design process” is so much hot air. No portfolio equals no interest.
I’m also only interested in seeing current sites that you actually link to. This shows me that your company is still developing sites and provides me with a sense of comfort – if other people are using your services then you must be at least pretty good.
Web designers that show screenshots of past sites are a red flag to me. Why are you showing me this old stuff – don’t you have enough new work to fill up your portfolio? Hmmm, next designer please…

Get testimonials

Again, there’s that comfort feeling. If so and so said how great you are to work with and it’s there in black (or grey) and white on your site, then it must be true. It’s even better if you link to their site as well, so that I feel confident that you’re not making this stuff up.
Testimonials are a key means of getting potential clients to see you as a person who is good to work with and not some faceless organization.
Testimonial tip: most clients are too busy to write testimonials, don’t know what to say and are not great writers. So, write the testimonial for them and send it to them for their approval. They’ll be happy that you saved them the effort, and you get exactly what you want said about you.

Get ranked on search engines

Sure you can get clients by word of mouth, but there’s a whole world of potential business out there that’s only going to find you via a search engine. Your market expands exponentially once you are ranked highly. For Smiley Cat Web Design, try “professional web design” or “affordable web design” to see what I mean.
This is key to getting enough leads. I’m not going to go into all the details about getting ranked well, except to say that a reciprocal link program has worked well for me, and starting a weblog has helped as well.
For others, their weblog has been a huge source of business and income. However, I don’t have the time to write that much, so I do it primarily for myself and also to share things I learn with others. But I digress.

One year later

So, you’ve got a reasonable portfolio going, you’re ranked pretty highly on the search engines so you get a regular stream of inquiries – now, how much to charge?
Well, sadly, I would say that the answer is still not as much as you are worth. Unfortunately, it’s a fact that the vast majority of your potential clients do not know or care about what goes into making a site cross-browser compliant, accessible, or optimized for the search engines.
As a result they’re not prepared to pay for all this stuff (except, maybe, for the SEO part – although they do not understand the time and effort that goes into properly optimizing a web site) – it just needs to work in the browser that they use – which is likely to be IE or AOL.
So, what to do? Well, you can either take the moral high ground and charge what you’re worth – and get no clients. Or you can try and find a compromise point where you get paid a reasonable amount and you can still win bids.
Then, over time, as your portfolio and your confidence grows, you can keep increasing your fees until you are finally being paid a reasonable wage – as long as you don’t include things like insurance, medical insurance, retirement stuff and so on. Hey, no one ever said it was going to be easy!