[thelist] Advice on Getting That First Client

Ben Henick persist1 at io.com
Sun May 12 04:54:00 CDT 2002

On Sun, 12 May 2002, { schaapy } wrote:

> > My question is....what is the going rate for web design?  Are there any
> sites out there that summarize what people are charging.  I suspect I
> undercharge.
> >
> > Amy

> I'm not sure if there is an actual going rate (i could be wrong however).
> One thing to take into account is - How much do you need to live? Taking
> account of things such as rent, food, etc... You'll have to put all these
> things together and figure out what you are needing per month. This will
> give you a much better idea of where you need to be.

A posted an analysis of this several days ago:


My focus there was on overhead.

There is one thing that have to be taken into consideration, that I
glossed over in that message:  total billings per annum.

Can you bill 1500 hours a year?  2000?  Are you a workaholic who's
possessed of good luck, and thus able to bill more than 2000?

This number is tremendously important.  If you spend so much time on
client service and/or sales that billable hours are frequently neglected,
then you've got issues to resolve.  The same is true if you are fulltime
parent to a preadolescent, or have volunteer commitments that constitute
a part-time job of their own.

The time management aspects of achieving suitable billings per annum are
better addressed by someone other than myself, who can impart successful
techniques; it's about working smarter, not harder.

That said, "how much to charge" remains thorny.

The relationship of overhead to business cases from a developer's
perspective was explained brilliantly by Martin last month:


Ultimately, your hourly rate (or target, since you are almost certainly
setting time and materials based targets for your own bookkeeping) should
be as much as the market will bear.

Why?  Because in the English speaking world, most independents are in a
buyer's market anyway - clients willing to hunt for bargains will
ultimately find an adequate vendor who's happy to work for beer money.
Most of the market makes little differentiation between the 16 year old
upstart who got a Dreamweaver license last Christmas, and the person ten
years older who's been around long enough to remember when the Internet
was stone knives and tanned hides compared to today's means... and sells
work of quality that reflects that experience.

Chris MacGregor discussed this on ALA last year:


So... where does this environment leave an independent, especially one
without much experience?

First, you have to consider business cases as Martin did - how much is a
Web site worth to the prospect?

Entry-level Web presence (brochure site) should be budgeted as a
proportion of the client's marketing budget over the site's lifetime,
since such a site will ultimately be part of their overall marketing
strategy and have a return on investment that is difficult to quantify.

Educating the client on how to derive their site's TCO can be... tiring,
because it can be difficult to drop a number that will be in the thousands
of dollars for even the smallest clients.  Done properly, it can also get
the client thinking about how to generate first order ROI, an objective
that requires additional expenditures.  ;-)

Winning viable bids ultimately depends more on networking, salesmanship,
and willingness to deal with clients within the constraints of their
workplace politics than it does on skill and experience.  That is not to
say that experience isn't important - if you know your stuff, that
confidence will carry through when it comes time to sell the client.  And
obviously, that same skill and experience helps to keep accounts that
you've already earned.

But the human factors are much more important than the technical ones,
when you're first trying to get your foot in the door.

What follows are twenty-five conclusions I've reached in the six (nearing
seven) years that I've been providing these services, many of which
conclusions have been reached before (and again and again and again):

 1.  People rarely impart value to things they received at a bargain.
 2.  The only person who made a huge fortune by putting volume ahead of
     margins was Sam Walton.
 3.  Allowing the client to take ownership of your ideas results in a
     better relationship.
 4.  Having one or two prospects in the queue is not enough - try to be
     negotiating with at least four at any given time, if not more.  (The
     rule is ABC:  Always Be Closing.)
 5.  At any but the smallest companies, there will be political factors
     beyond your control.
 6.  If you are intent on making a living as an independent, there is no
     such thing as a day off.
 7.  You cannot stop learning.
 8.  Since you have two ears and one mouth, you should be listening twice
     as much as you talk.
 9.  Once the client has made up their mind that they don't give a damn
     about what their customer may think about the site, your job is to
     accept their decision.  No matter how much it may hurt.
10.  Eye contact and a smile, not best of market skills, are what will
     make you a superstar.
11.  Eighty percent of your work is demanded by twenty percent of your
     clients - and usually not to the benefit of your bottom line.
12.  You will never know it all, so you need contacts with reliable
     people to whom you can refer your clients for out-of-scope work.
13.  Do not bow and scrape in the face of bad decisions... but don't
     complain, either.  Your backbone is your most valuable asset.
14.  Walk your talk.
15.  There is NO business case for giving freebies to any but your most
     reliable clients... they can expect you to work for free when they
     can also convince your landlord, utility providers, supermarket,
     accountant, and gas station to give you stuff without having to pay
     for it.
16.  Some money is always better than none... as long as you don't
     screw yourself out of better-paying work.
17.  Spend time outside, even if it's raining.
18.  Have fun.  Even if you can only do it on your own time.
19.  Don't go without sleep unless you are under deadline... and try to
     avoid that whenever possible.
20.  If your client is in town, do not negotiate over the telephone.
21.  You never know when you might meet a good contact or prospect.
22.  IIS4 with FTP-only access is not a viable environment for any but
     the simplest server-side code.
23.  Postive user experience transcends heuristics.
24.  When presenting, the introduction is about you... and the rest is
     about the client and their objectives.
25.  Be patient.  Be very patient.

This last observation is probably the most important.  Why?  Because the
best clients are like the best {boy|girl}friends - you rarely find them
when you're looking.

However, the bad clients are easy to spot, if you know what to look
and listen for.  They say things like:

- "I could get a high school kid to do this for ten bucks an hour."
- "I could've gone on vacation for what I'm paying you."
- "We don't need to worry about the site architecture; we'll just make
  it up as we go along."
- "I need you here for the next three weeks."
- "I thought we were friends!"
- "Oh, I figured that since you're usually up this late, that it would be
  okay to call."
- "But doing it without software takes so much more time."
- "No, you are REQUIRED to use {name of tool}."
- "I'm offended that you won't undertake {objective requiring a skillset
  that was explicitly left out of your list of qualifications}."
- "Oh, I don't know anything about that - my job is to manage people."
- "I don't have the time to read that.  I'll get around to it next week."
- "Can you work under the table?"
- "Eh, we'll just retrieve the credit card numbers and transmit them from
  our retail terminal."  [which is illegal in a lot of places]
- "No, I haven't checked to see if the manufacturer will let me sell that
  online, but I want you to put it up on the site anyway."
- "I don't care if you're throwing up with the flu - I refuse to
  reschedule that meeting."
- "Well, we need {this out of scope project} finished first."
- "Can you help me move this furniture?"
- "Isn't my new car just the neatest thing?  Oh, by the way, I need you
  to {do x, y, z that are all out of scope} - we can work out the details
- "Ooh!  That sounds neat!  I want it added by the end of the week.  I'll
  call you when I've got time to negotiate the scope change."
- "You should be able to find a good illustration on this royalty-free
- "My {son|daughter|nephew|niece::high-school-age} wants to learn how to
  build sites.  Would you teach them?"
- "I've {done(x, y, z); for you so that you didn't have to spend $n out
  of your own pocket} and I think it's {unprofessional|unfair} of you to
  charge me for {a, b, c}."
- "I know that you were here for four hours last week, but we spent the
  whole time {doing or talking about something out of scope, because I
  directly asked you to} and I refuse to pay for the hours."

There are appropriate times and places for all of these comments, but very
rarely will you hear them from the mouth of a genuinely good client...
even if they are entitled to the privilege of saying them (for whatever

And all of them have been directed at me personally, at one time or
another.  (Most of them from the mouths of three people in particular.)

To those without a lot of business experience and thus likely to be unsure
of their professionalism - a lack of confidence shysters can smell from
miles off - the following warning is also relevant.

Clients who accuse you of unprofessionalism in order to get discounts are
to avoided whenever and however possible.  If the accusations are unfair,
that speaks for itself.  If the accusations have basis (usually construed)
in fact, the professional response is a WRITTEN reprimand at least - but
an error, omission, or transgression on your part does not automatically
entitle the client to free services.  It entitles them not to call you in
the future; it may give them basis for terminating the engagement, and
perhaps even taking you to court.  But the quid pro quo of {mistake ==
discount} is at the top of a slippery slope when requested by the client.

In the same vein, if you have overbilled or made a serious error, you
cannot just sweep it under the rug; you need to go into conflict-
resolution mode on your own initiative.  If there are discounts or waivers
to be given, it is your job, not the client's, to disclose them - and to
do so as soon as possible.

However, if you decide to rely on time and materials billing but want to
throw the word "free" around a lot - which never hurts - make sure to take
that aspect of your sales model into account when you set your rates.  I
know directly of at least one ad agency that charges atrocious hourly
rates, but puts waivers on a lot of their billings... specifically so that
their AE's can use "free" as a weapon when negotiating return business.
My impression is that there are lots of shops that do this, and there's no
reason that independents can't do it, too... once they can predict their
billings and adjust accordiingly.

Ben Henick
Web Author At-Large              Managing Editor
http://www.io.com/persist1/      http://www.digital-web.com/
persist1 at io.com                  bmh at digital-web.com
"Are you pondering what I'm pondering, Pinky?"
"I think so, Brain, but... (snort) no, no, it's too stupid."
"We will disguise ourselves as a cow."
"Oh!" (giggles) "That was it exactly!"

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