How to Start Your Own Boutique Web Development Agency

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Written By Stefanos Bournias

So, you’re a web developer who has decided it’s time to become your own boss. You want to set up a boutique web development agency that allows you to do what you’re good at, from wherever you (and your laptop) may be. On projects, you are interested in, for clients that you actually want to work with.  

Good for you. This year more than ever, people are sitting at home and figuring out alternative ways to make money. They may be starting an online course. Or a freelance writing business. Or setting up a food delivery service. And they all need one vital tool for success. A website.

Your web development agency can give them what they want. But where do you begin setting it up? 

Here are some tips on getting started.

1. SET YOUR EYES ON WHAT’S HIGH ON THE TOTEM POLE

Most people overcomplicate starting a business and focus on stuff that isn’t important. 

For example, “I need exposure for my freelance writing business… I need to build a cool website.” 

Do you really? Or is what you actually need clients? 

Even for a web development agency, a website is pretty low on the totem pole if you can build a simple landing page or upload your portfolio on a free platform.

Now, the fact that building a website is the first automatic step for new businesses is obviously great news for your web development agency. But the truth is a website is pretty low on the totem pole if you can build a simple landing page or upload your portfolio on a free platform.

As a web development agency, you might want to still build a cool website. Your clients will definitely place judgment on your own website as a measure of your skills. But the same concept applies. Forget a business plan, focusing on SEO, and making Instagram content. 

Only go DOWN the totem pole when you have no other options. 

2. CREATE A PORTFOLIO FOR YOUR WEB AGENCY

Before you start reaching out to potential clients, you need something to reach out to them with.

One of the most important tools for getting web development jobs is showcasing your previous work. Preferably along with some glowing testimonials from previous clients, you have worked with. Portfolios show off your skillset, your ability to get projects completed, and satisfied customers.

If you have a lot of work to include, make sure you put the projects you are most proud of at the top. You should also put any projects for recognizable clients in a prominent position. 

If you don’t have a lot of previous work to include, find friends, family, and local businesses who can help you build up a portfolio. You can even offer them a discounted rate in return for a good review.

The key to a good portfolio is good visuals. Potential clients scrolling through your work may not have the time to read long explanations of your achievements. But they can get quick, memorable impressions from images and videos.

Taking decent shots of your work will increase your chances of getting noticed. Check out brand agency Folklore, whose online portfolio uses bright, clean images to make it easy for viewers to browse through their work.

Of course, it’s not all about pretty pictures. Disclosing the details of your case studies is equally important to your portfolio. Explain the problems of your clients (e.g. slow website speed) and the results you achieved with your improvements. Potential clients can then see clearly how you can be of use to them.

3. GET YOUR FIRST CLIENTS: PITCHING YOUR NETWORK

This is where most people get stuck. And it’s easy to see why – it’s not easy. 

Once you get your first few clients and have that momentum the wheels keep spinning. Getting started is always the hardest part. 

The simplest and most effective thing to do when you’re just starting out is to reach out to your network. 

Don’t have a network? 

I’m sure you have a Facebook account with at least 100 people. Reach out to your friends, their moms, and their dogs.

Then you can keep building your network by joining relevant communities. Facebook Groups is a good place to start. Find other people with an interest in your niche and other web developers. You can also use helpful lists online such as this one to find like-minded developers to connect with. 

These online hubs are a space to listen to advice, help others, and make useful contacts. Being an active member of communities will get your agency name out there and might even provide you with collaborative work or partnerships. 

StackOverflow, for example, has a public Q&A forum where you can reach out to other developers as well as a job search tool to find web development work.

4. COLD PITCH VIA EMAIL

You don’t just have to reach out to people you know when you’re on your first legs. You can also cold pitch via email to small businesses that need your services.

Think of all the times you’ve browsed for products online, opened a website, and closed it within 5 seconds because it looks a hundred years old. Or you searched for information, came across a relevant website, but found the layout too confusing to even bother using it.

It is not unusual to come across sites such as this tour company, for example, with a dated design, too much text, and a frustrating lack of “BOOK NOW” button.

Brands are losing business every day because their online presence doesn’t help their customers make a purchase. 

While it is ambitious to pitch a whole new website to a business, letting them know how you can improve their current website is very realistic. Finding sites that are lacking in speed, clear design, or easy user experience will lead you to potential clients.

Remember that you won’t be able to cold pitch to every business in town. Reaching out to local companies who might need web development needs to be well executed.

It is better to make one perfectly personalized pitch every week than it is to send out 20 generalized pitches every day.

5. NICHE DOWN

How to Start Your Own Boutique Web Development AgencyFinding your niche in the web development world is how you get clients by doing one thing well. Maybe even being the best at it.

Casting a wide net and chasing after everybody is only going to make you lose time and money. You cannot be what every demographic wants or need.

Jump into a small pond, however, and you can be a very big fish.

There are a few questions to ask yourself when niching down:

What are your web development strengths?

 Are you a pro at building e-commerce sites with Shopify? Or WordPress plugins and themes? Do you create interactive UIs like no other?

What are your web development interests?

What hooked you into web development in the first place? What has your favorite project been since? Is it perfecting a sales landing page that gets you up in the morning? Or creating custom applications from scratch?

What are your other interests?

Which industries are going to align with your expertise outside of web development? Would you rather spend your time making online sportswear stores? Or healthy food blogs? Or business consultant portfolios?

What ethics or principles are important to you?

Would you feel proud to only work for NGOs or charities? Do you share an enthusiasm for environmental awareness projects? What changes do you want to see in the world?

Starting your own company means that you can finally do work that represents your own values, beliefs, and passions. And following these will lead you to your niche. WebsiteDojo, for example, only makes websites to help martial art schools.

Once you know what your agency does, why it does what it does, and who it is for, you can also define your target audience. Then you can approach brands and businesses in this category with more confidence that they will be interested in you.

6. ESTABLISH YOUR RATES

Your hourly rate will largely depend on your qualifications, years of experience, and level of expertise. It will also rely partly on the economy your clients are working with. 

Researching the average rates in your local area (for someone of your ability) will give you some basic knowledge about where you stand. Codementor has a quick rate calculator for different regions and levels, though the regions are broadly based on continents rather than countries or cities.

Then it’s time to do some of your own simple maths.

  1. Add up your monthly costs (bills, travel, insurance, tax, software subscriptions, server fees, plugins, web domains, accountancy help)
  2. Times this number by 12 to get your yearly costs
  3. Put your desired annual income on top of this number
  4. Divide by how many weeks you want to work in a year (to see how much you need to make weekly to achieve your goal)
  5. Divide again by how many hours you plan to work in a week

For example, someone who wants to earn $1000 per month would calculate:

They are looking at charging their clients around $15 per hour (it’s always nicer to round up rather than down).

Your clients will have different levels of needs depending on which assets they already have and which they don’t. If you are outsourcing photography, graphic design, and copywriting for your clients, it’s a good idea to create some packages.

These can also include different rates for different levels of freelancers. (Beginner, intermediate and expert). For example, you may have a client who needs expert web development but only simple graphic design and copywriting.

It might also be smart to include a web maintenance package. This includes a monthly or annual fee for you to fix any problems that come up after their site is launched.

7. DECIDE YOUR PAYMENT METHODS

This doesn’t only mean making sure you have a bank account, PayPal account, or other transfer methods to receive payments from your clients. It also means knowing when your clients will have to pay you, and how much at a time. 

If it’s a small job, which you know exactly how many hours you will spend on, you might feel comfortable asking for the full amount upfront. 

If it’s a longer project, it will likely be in the interest of both parties if the payment is made per milestone. That will ensure an ongoing income for you and smaller, more affordable payments for your client.

A popular middle ground is for clients to pay a 50% deposit of the expected fee upfront and the remaining 50% when the project is completed. This way both parties have some security if any obstacles come up which delay or call off the project.

One of the biggest challenges for consultancies is ensuring that payments are made on time. Once you have decided on your different payment methods, create some invoice templates.

Remember to include instructions to your clients on how long they have to make the payment. Within 30 days is usually a reasonable length of time.

THE FINAL STEP: JUST GET STARTED

Don’t let perfection get in the way of good.

You may not have the resources to launch a web development agency that completely fits with your vision right away. But unless you take these steps to get started, you never will.

Tweaks and updates can always be made later once you have the clients and cash flow.

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