6 painful lessons I learned as a rookie web designer

It was 2007 and business was booming. I was getting 2-3 requests for web development work a day and could barely keep up.

To cope with the growth, I brought my brother and a friend into the business with me.

Neither had much experience, but I figured I could train them quickly.

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Then, I met the client. I’ll call him Bob.

He was a nice guy and it looked like it would be a great project. He was designing his own website and just needed someone to help him code it and put it on WordPress.

I wrote out a simple outline, breaking the project into three “phases” (Design, Coding, and WordPress Integration), with a set amount of time estimated for each phase. I gave him a firm price. We agreed, and I scheduled the work to begin.

Then, I started making mistakes, painful ones. There were 3 major mistakes that stand out from the rest:

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  1. Turning The Work Over– I gave the project to my brother, a brand new developer at the time (he’s now a great designer).I was so busy with client communication and work on other projects that I just forwarded the emails from Bob over to him, with little or no explanation.I figured I would help out where necessary and there’s nothing quite like learning as you go, right?
  2. Ignoring The Red Flags – After we agreed on the project price, Bob sent over another email. He gave his thoughts on the initial design, and then proceeded to include a list of 14 things that he would like the site to include.That would have been a perfect time to stop everything and work out an actual scope that spelled out what would and wouldn’t be included. I was so “busy”, though, that I ignored the email and just forwarded it on to my brother.That would come back to bite me (keep reading).
  3. Continuing When I Should Have Stopped – Suddenly, my brother had to leave. He went off for about a month to work on another venture. I quickly brought in another young man to help with the work, who was also very inexperienced.I wrote to Bob and offered him to either get a full refund or, give me some extra time to get the new guy up and running and carry the project on. Bob agreed to wait. I should have stopped then, given Bob his money, and done all I could at that point to make it right.Instead, I kept going. Big mistake.

Then, the young man had to leave. I paid him for his time and took over where he left off. I figured I could wrap things up quickly and keep my losses to a minimum. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of the project. It continued on for more than three months and over 60 additional hours of work on my part, with several months of follow-up after the project was complete.

I learned a lot, though, and there are 6 painful lessons that I hope you don’t repeat as a new (or experienced) web designer:

1. Don’t Rush The Sale

With business growing fast and what I thought was success all around me, I was eager to rush through the formalities and get the project started.

I ignored the warning signs in favor of doing everything I could to just please the client and close the sale.

In hindsight, I should have charged him a small fee to evaluate the project and create a clear scope.

If I had asked more questions and really gotten to the heart of the project, his list of 14 extras would have come up sooner and I could have planned for them in the beginning.

Take time to work through the details. If you’re feeling a rush to get through the sale, you’re probably going to fast.

2. Grow Slowly

As the amount of work I was taking on began to overwhelm me it seemed that the obvious answer was to take on more team members.

The problem was that I spent more time on training than if I had done the work myself (not to mention paying them) and, at that point in the business, I wasn’t ready.

I should have said “No” to the projects that weren’t a complete match and focused instead of refining my own processes and capabilities.

If the demand for your services is high, raise your prices and start saying no.

Save money to get you through the time it will take to thoroughly train someone new while ensuring that your current clientele don’t suffer for your absence.

3. Create a Clear Scope

My scope for that project was nothing more than a list of phases with an estimate of the amount of time I thought each phase would take.

Each phase was completely open to interpretation and included the assurance that a phase wouldn’t be complete until he was “happy”.

While my heart was in the right place (I wanted to over-deliver) I had set myself up for months of extra work outside of what I had planned, because I didn’t have a scope.

As you talk through a project with a potential client, work diligently through each part of the project and write down exactly what you’re going to do.

If you can’t detail the work before you begin you’re either moving too fast or you’re about to enter into an unknown, in which case you need to think very carefully about how you price the project.

4. Don’t Stretch Too Far

Even with a growing number of projects behind me I was still a rookie.

More than half of the extras that Bob brought to my attention were beyond my current capabilities.

Always the optimist, I figured that I could quickly learn.

I didn’t (and couldn’t) anticipate the types of problems that I would run into by stretching as far as I did. The good news is that I had chosen to work with WordPress.

I was able to find plugins to accomplish most of what he wanted.

The bad news is that I had waited unto after the project began and I wound up stretching myself far more than I should have.

It’s good to stretch yourself beyond your current comfort levels and it’s even OK to make less money on projects because of the experience you gain.

Don’t stretch too far, though.

Carefully evaluate your current experience level against the complete scope and identify the parts that would stretch you. Be willing to say “No” or “Maybe later” to the pieces that you feel would be too much.

5. Don’t Avoid Conflict

I have a personality type that, by default, prefers to avoid all conflict.

Unfortunately, conflict in business is inevitable.

I tried to avoid conflict by being as agreeable as possible and saying “Yes” to Bob’s additional requests when I should have said no.

As the project carried on, I wrestled inside as I felt my boundaries crossed.

The problem is I didn’t let Bob know! Setting up boundaries and limits felt like conflict to me, so I left things open.

If you struggle with conflict, challenge your perspective and decide to embrace it inside. As painful as it is, conflict is the door to growth and maturity. Find books on dealing with conflict. Read Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud.

6. Persevere

There were more than a few times when I wanted to give up.

I felt completely worn down and stretched.

The rest of my business was struggling under the time and effort I was dedicating to this project. I had made an agreement, though. As painful as the lesson and experience was I knew that a man is only as good as his word and I was going to honor the commitment, regardless of the cost.

I did it.

The project was far later than either of us had anticipated and it had grown far beyond the original expectations.

But I finished the work and Bob was pleased.

I also learned lessons that I won’t ever forget.

If you’re tempted to throw in the towel on a project and your commitment is on the line, don’t give up. Pressing through those difficult projects teaches you to make better commitments and think twice before jumping in to the next project.

In the end, I am thankful for the experience. I much prefer to learn from success than failure. If I’m faced with failure, though, it’s not all a loss if I’ve learned lessons and keep on going.

How about you? What painful lessons have you learned from past (or current) projects? What would you tell yourself if you were starting over again? Leave a comment and let me know…

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  1. Just got my first client by dumb luck. And I’m related to an experienced freelancer/developer, so I technically cheated through to negotiations. But I don’t know how to get the next projects. I can only hope to have the problems you describe here in the near future. But when I start getting close to that level of business, I’ll come back and read this post again, which I guess is also like cheating.
    Right now I need all the cheats I can get.

  2. Thanks, Jonathan.

    I was expecting the results of my efforts like graph which start from the bottom and keep going on.

    but that’s the mistake I make, now I realized that:

    there would be a time when we have no clients and not a single project after 10-15 projects.

    and also there will be time when we have from 10 to 100 projects.

    Just never give up.

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  6. Great tips!!! These tips can save lots of time for us designers which we can use in designing a different website. Thanks for the helpful article!

  7. I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was pretty good. Cheers!

  8. I agree with Galvin
    It’s not difficult to think how hard you have been through as we have the alike struggle before.

  9. Hi Jonathan,

    Great Article, You did really did good job here. I am beginner in web development your article will really helpful for me to web designing.

    Thanks for sharing,

  10. The painful lessons for web designers are Grow Slowly, Create a Clear Scope, Don’t Stretch Too Far, Don’t Avoid Conflict

  11. Hi Jonathan,

    Great Article, You did really did good job here. I am beginner in web development your article will really helpful for me to web designing.

    Thanks for sharing,

  12. Wow! I really admire the valuable information on web designer you have been able to share us through this post.

  13. I’m also a newbie in this Web designing field. I build WordPress sites for past four months. It is a really challenging business for me. I have got 10 clients per month. They add extra design requirements for me. It is time consuming process. I planned to hire a designer. After that, I hope the designing process will go smoothly.

  14. I had to learn these lessons the hard way also, I know have very clear and binding contracts before I start a project. my two biggest tips to add would be
    1) Have a plan for extracting money from the project before completion
    2) Have a plan for stalled projects (stalled by client) and how to kick them along

  15. Great post I really enjoyed it!

    on a side note you might consider changing the last point from “8. Persevere” to “6. Persevere”

    *you can delete this comment after changes if you like

  16. I kind of got a shiver reading this. I made some of the very same mistakes when I started out. I was very eager for any new business so I said ‘yes’ to any client requirements, even when I knew I had no idea how to actually implement them at the time.

  17. Thank you for this. I often see many red flags with clients and I press forward to rush the sale. I like the idea of saying no to business, and raising prices. I will be glad when I have that probelm . Great read!

  18. Learning to turn away work that doesn’t fit my core competency is something I still struggle with. Partly because I want the revenue, partly because my ego convinces me I can do anything. Often times saying “no” is the best thing to do.

  19. I agree, it is common human tendency to ‘stay away’ from ‘risks’. I did the same mistake and learnt that ‘things will not stop happening because we closed our eyes’. I even didn’t read emails from clients and directly ‘forwarded’ them to the designer.
    Another thing which we cant avoid is ‘people management’. We never know when people move away from us for ‘better prospects’. The only thing that we can do is to cross-train the people and of course, having couple of ‘buffer’ resources.
    In this post, I could see myself in my earlier days of my career. Thanks a lot for sharing your experiences. Very helpful.

  20. These lessons are really great to know. I hope they will help me a lot in my future of Graphic Design.

  21. Firstly… Thank you so much for giving us insight into your initial lessons learned. It is going to help so many people. I wish I had a list like this when I got into design back in the day. I had to learn the hard way.

    As they say… Life often gives you the test first, then the lesson.

    “Turning The Work Over– I gave the project to my brother, a brand new developer at the time” – We’ve all been through that. Maybe not necessarily with our brother, but with elance providers, Craigslist providers, etc

    Great post. Thanks again for sharing.

  22. I have experienced all of this. You really hit the nail on the head. I am actually stuck sort of on the growing piece. I seem to make the mistake of taking on too much, and not getting paid enough. My pipeline is full yet I am broke and sometimes miss deadlines. I am attempting to take on interns, and I am hoping that my speed and focus increase while I am finalizing more and more projects. Thanks for the great read, I am bookmarking it.

    Ted, 763-614-6684

  23. These are great tips – thank you for sharing. I feel like this ALL the time and am just writing a post on my own blog for ‘when it’s OK to stop working on a project’ – I have had a few painful refunds as well; not really for anything I’ve done ‘wrong’ or otherwise – and I’m a girl (as are my entire team, LOL) – so that amplifies the fact that I (we) take it all VERY personally. But bottom line – sometimes it’s OK to walk away – if you do it with integrity, courage and kindness. Thanks for sharing!

  24. It’s not hard to imagine how harsh you have been through as we have the similar experience before. As the role of business developer in the team, it is always hard to collaborate the project scopes that exactly suits the needs of your client because they always want more than that.

    Well, we learn a lesson that never discount your quality of work when they are asking for more.

    Keep up with your good work. More importantly, cheer up!

  25. These mistakes are great insights and lessons that you can only become better off from. No one gets it right the first go, and website design definitely takes a little getting used to for all the things you mentioned

  26. Amazing tidbits! I so needed this information right now. I am working on my first web design project and am at t the sitemap/ wireframe stage and quickly learning things I will do differently with my next project. I am learning more doing this project than i would have learned just reading a book about doing websites. Nothing like real life experience, it truly is the best teacher.

    Thanks for sharing:)

  27. “It seemed like such a slam-dunk job…” About a year ago a print client wanted to turn a seemingly simple InDesign file into an e-book. She took a few extra weeks to get the file to me, so I loaded up on tutorials and even a couple e-books about creating .epub files from InDesign, and successfully converted a similar test project I made. OK, I’ve got this. It’ll be so easy, right? But for reasons I still have not figured out, her file just would. not. convert. properly. There were bizarre formatting artifacts not even listed anywhere (such as random letters looking sort of superscripted), skinny columns that wouldn’t respond to any reformatting before or after conversion, just crazy-making things that made no sense. I wound up referring the project to an agency with e-book experience, and that wouldn’t charge her any more than my quote. I asked to see the final file when it was done, but I never heard back.

  28. I am a new start up freelancer. Reading your article sure give me a lot of inspiration. I am currently struggle on finding right customers.. Hope one day I can get to your point where I have an opportunity to turn down any of my customers.

  29. I am also want to make career in web designing its helpful for me to become good web developer although in these days i am going to make website.

  30. Having read the above it was déjà vu! The best advice I ever received was learning how to say No! it is nice to be able to give people what they want and be helpful, but you have to be realistic, look at it this way, don’t worry about losing a job if you are unsure you can deliver, because if you can’t meet what the customer wants you are not going to get paid anyway, and the damage to your reputation can be un repairable.

  31. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I guess one learns from their mistakes by experiencing it in real life. Also the image you choose is very painful, hard to look at 🙂

  32. Thank you for this. I often see many red flags with clients and I press forward to rush the sale. I like the idea of saying no to business, and raising prices. I will be glad when I have that probelm ;-). Great read!

    1. It’s a difficult balance, especially when you’re getting started. I’ve found that if I am feeling that I “need” the work that usually means it’s time to step back and look at the project objectively and make sure the feeling of “need” I have doesn’t show. There are times when it’s wise to cut your rates – when you don’t have any work. Otherwise, look for those red flags and be willing to say no, irregardless of the financial potential of a project. I’ve had clients send a down payment and, not being entirely sure about the project, I sent it back with a decision not to go forward. I haven’t regretted any of those choices.

  33. These are some great tips that I will definitely be using as I continue to get more clients. I had spoke with a lady that needed a website so glad I was honest and I definitely rushed the sale. I moved onto other projects until my web design skills improve.

  34. I made the mistake once of taking a large deposit, then being unable to complete the job due to underestimating the pressures of a new baby!

    To be fair after 4 full designs they still wanted to basically copy their competitors website, which caused the main conflicts.

    I got someone to complete the job last minute, who let me down. So I had to pull out and give the deposit back.

    The problem was I’d already spent it on council tax. Had to borrow £400 to pay them back in full!

    Don’t ever do that…

    1. Ouch! I’ve had a few of those painful refunds myself over the years. I’ve kept my integrity, which is what counts – the pain is still there, though! Thanks for sharing your story, Craig!

      1. So I was making the mistake to avoiding conflicts and rushing to sale.

        This is why I lost lots of clients.

        Thanks Jonathan.

  35. Fantastic post! Some points I will remember for the future – some I had to learn myself. Thanks again for sharing!

    1. You are welcome, Mark! Experience is a powerful teacher. Wherever possible I like learning lessons (especially the painful ones) from the experiences of others. It’s not always possible, though, and the lessons I learned from that experience with “Bob” are going to stick with me for a long time :).

  36. I find your post very actual. As I’m pressing through my first project in website design and I’m combining both WordPress pages with html.
    I have a lot to learn, especially in the WordPress word and I’m doing it for the last 6 month. Still not giving up challenges of customer’s new demands

    1. Keep pressing on, Carmit! Working with clients, especially when you’re just getting started, can be challenging. You’re learning a lot, though, and the important thing is to keep on going.

    2. carmit,
      Best of luck to you in your business endeavor! I’ve been programming in wordpress for years now and still find myself constantly googling ways to do new things with it. The fun never ends! 🙂

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