The Elephant In The Room

You can listen to me read this as an audio-blog (7 minutes).

I stood at the back of the auditorium of a popular web design conference listening to the next speaker. I had that calm sense of euphoria that imposter-syndrome-speakers always get when they come off stage and at least have the sense to know they didn’t bomb. I grabbed my coffee and settled at the back with a few of the other speakers who were happily tapping away and re-arranging slide decks.

On the stage, a very adept and confident speaker jokingly mentioned a web-related joke that feels decades old (which she was sarcastically referring to as being decades old) and the whole room fell about laughing; it was the first time they had heard this reference.

It was in that moment I realised the web industry had changed as we knew it. I looked at the other speakers and they too, had a similar look of realisation on their faces.

We have entered a whole new era of the web.

Now, I feel I should pre-face this. I’m entirely welcoming of new people to the web. I don’t believe it’s an old guys/gals club and I love getting emails from newbies into the industry; recently, those emails have had a similar theme. The web industry as a whole has had an undercurrent of secret whispering – yet no one is talking about it publicly.

There’s very few freelancers that I know of, making the same living that they were making 3+ years ago. Conferences that were once a staple part of every web designers calendar, have disappeared and no one from “the old days” can quite put their finger on why the web industry feels different.

Work has dried up.

“How can that be?” I hear you ask. 
“We have more devices than ever that need to be designed for – we’ve got more jobs than ever to do.” 
Or maybe you’re one of the lucky ones saying “I’m busier than ever!” – judging by what I’m hearing at conferences, and what I’m seeing come in on my inbox. You’re lucky. You’re in the minority. Lots (and I mean lots) of people are struggling.

We used to have to sell the benefits of being online to our clients. We were once in this minority group who understood this newfangled technology; pioneering best practices and solving problems that would simply be taken for granted. Why? Because we’re geeks and we love details. I love us for that. For that, the web industry will always be my home. However, and more importantly, what I’m hearing when I go out to speak at conferences, is that a large chunk of people at web design conferences haven’t been in the industry very long at all. They actually never even chose the web industry as their profession. They’ve been sidelined into the web job from another non-web-position within the company; and here lies the issue.

I spoke with three ladies who worked for one of the largest retailers in America who were telling me that the entire web team had been plucked from people from other parts of the company who showed “natural flair” for their web projects. The company did this after being exasperated by seeing how much they were spending on agencies to get the jobs done. They decided to go in-house.

This happened time and time again. Similar stories. Big companies realising they were spending on talent they didn’t own, so recruiting talent or finding existing people within the company to step up. It didn’t seem to matter who I spoke to last year, similar stories of hiring internally rather than using external agencies/freelancers, cropped up – and thus, a significant new breed of web designer was born. Companies who would have once used small studios or freelancers to complete their projects, no longer had a need to use them and work started to dry up for people who had relied on the abundant freelance lifestyle that was once afforded to them.

Now, I know it’s happening. I’m seeing it. I’m hearing it via friends. I’m seeing the heartbreaking repercussions of perfectly talented people emailing me in desperation asking me whether I have any tips or insider knowledge about getting work. These are people who are trying to pursue jobs for hours upon hours a day and getting zero leads.

At this point I feel I should point out that I consider myself out of the freelance game. I went to work for a startup in Los Angeles for over a year. I worked exclusively for them during that time, and there was no way I could continue freelancing and holding down working for a startup. When I returned to normal life from startup land, I made a conscious decision that I didn’t want to go back to selling my time for money as I knew it.

The web had become a hugely complex place. Raising rates to compensate for the additional time we now had to take in ensuring our websites were now compliant across every browser from an x-box to an iPhone, didn’t come without a fight and a huge amount of education. It was something that left me, as a single person studio, wide open and I had three “side” projects entirely zapping my time.

During that time though, I cannot tell you the amount of “tyre kickers” I’ve had pop up. Another recurring thread. I convinced myself for a short period that maybe I wanted to do client work after all and engaged in enquiries in my inbox – these enquiries all went down a similar route. I would schedule the call, get on the call for an hour, and during that hour someone would bleed me dry of ideas or “how I would go about things” for me to find they would then take that advice to their in-house team and implement it before the week was out. I don’t do consultation calls without being paid any more. To have an open and honest conversation about what you think should be done, means pulling from your toolkit and knowledge base that’s taken you years of hard work and dedication. You should be compensated for that.

I digress.

Why is no one talking about this?

I received an email last night that was heartbreaking. One of many I’ve received recently, again, asking me for an advice on where someone could pick up solid leads and work and I simply told him the story of what I’ve found at conferences and speaking to people on the inside of the industry; there’s a handful of people I know still doing really really well, but there’s an awful lot of people struggling and not speaking about it.

I understand why, entirely – but that’s not going to solve anything.

Our power has always been in our web community – we are exceptionally good at creating movements and solving things, as a community. It’s time to dig deep and put as much time and effort into helping our community as we once did fixing browser quirks all those years ago.

  • Sarah Reinhardt

    You could say the same of print agencies. I was working over 10 years in Swiss advertising agencies and the trend was all about the same: Customers call to know what we think of their selfmade ad, just to hang up and implement our propositions into their Wordfile. Two days later the client calls again to tell us that the newspaper can’t print the (shitty rgb)-ad and asks us to convert it into a printable PDF. It goes by saying that all this happens without the slightest hint of shame and of course no bill would ever be written for that. I was supporting this development myself by teaching Adobe CC in evening courses and heard much the same: Small enterprises think that advertising can be made by their secretary, just need to send her to an 4h InDesign course – or a Joomla course, its the same at the end.

  • That sucks, but as a programmer since the early days of the Web, my skills have become obsolete maybe half-a-dozen times. You have to always be moving up the value chain, or else you’ll wake up one day and be a blacksmith.

    • I agree. Web designers need to evolve or die. Who cares.

    • tbf, there’s probably good money to be made in being in a well-positioned blacksmith.

      • Wow, I’d love to be a skilled blacksmith and get away from this desk.

    • ..happened to me, turns out it’s actually quite nice though!
      (hi sarah, long time no read!)

    • It’s never been about the technical skills; to well-run agencies and the firms who have hired them, it’s always been about business needs.

      It’s just that now, we’ve run out of the other type of clients: fools that are willing to buy snake oil from youngsters who appeared smarter than them.

      If you want to stay in business, you’ve got to learn how to market for both yourself and for those for whom you work. In most cases, increasing revenue is the name of the game.

  • I’ve been around a while and all I see is the cyclical nature of the industry. Also, you have to admit that there are a lot more people willing to enter the industry now and the rate hikes are mainly the fault of the clients scaling back their HR responsibilities and delegating them to recruitment firms.
    In terms of getting design jobs, we’re experiencing a particular agnostic era of design, where material design has overtook artistic expression or flare. The beauty (and terror) of the industry is that it never rests on its laurels, changing platforms and style. The current drive towards formalisation through frameworks and CSS will change again, most likely due to a increase in overall bandwidth globally, and an increase in processing power (as it always has).
    I don’t think the work has dried up, the industry just changes extremely quickly, and if you don’t stop to look around once in a while..

  • I’m not surprised the days of freelancers & small agencies living comfortably off high fidelity brochure/campaign sites are over.

    I worked at a small London based agency a couple of years ago that regularly pitched simple ~5 template brochure sites for £75,000. It was only a matter of time before businesses seriously looked at big outlays like that and considered their return.

    It’s simply makes more business sense to spend marketing/campaign capital on the walled gardens of social media where their customers already are than it does to launch a standalone campaign site for a limited period and face the uphill struggle of driving traffic to it.

    There has also been a lot of derision in the design community recent years about web design becoming homogeneous due to the rise of patterns & frameworks, like candlemakers complaining that bulbs provide light too consistently.

    Users don’t want to relearn how to use the internet every time they visit a new site – they want to complete a task at hand, quick and with as little friction as possible. Many businesses have realised you can get a very long way down the road simply using a framework out of the box.

    Another reality is that fixed price project model is badly busted and no longer works for clients or freelancers/agencies.

    The web is now mature enough that clients are fully clued in to what’s possible and they want it all while providers undercut and compete on price to win a declining pool of available work. The end result is projects that are over-promised, under-costed and ultimately over time not to mention all the pain that comes that relationship.

    However – I see lots of reasons to be optimistic.

    While brochure sites may be declining , web apps are exploding. Strip back all the tools and frameworks and they all still boil down to the same three magic ingredients that we’ve been crafting for the past 20 years – HTML, CSS & JS.

    Put the time and effort in to skill up a little and you’re using those same core skills to build native apps (using React Native for example)

    While work in traditional off-site freelancing is in decline , consider contracting – embedding yourself within an in-house team for a set period. In-house teams will always have resourcing issues – resulting in overspill.

    Many in-house teams also experience productivity/process issues and benefit from an outside perspective.

    I’ve been contracting for the past four years in London and work is everywhere.

    Sarah mentioned in her original post that things have changed significantly in the past three years – I think we should always expect that in this industry. I don’t expect my job as a Front End Developer to exist in ten years – it’ll have evolved into something completely different without doubt.

    In the big picture, the web industry is still in it’s absolute infancy yet is irreversibly changing how the world lives – it’s inevitable that we stand on quicksand, the trick is to keep moving with it.

    • Sarah

      Another great answer. One of my favourites. You’re absolutely right. Thank you for chiming in, Barry.

    • Spot on! I could not agree more with you.

    • Nicely said Barry.

    • What a brilliant answer – I agree completely, I think over the next few years we’re going so see a huge switch towards the ‘walled gardens’ of social media – that is where the internet will live (more so than it does already).

  • The web is maturing. The wild west years where self declared “web-designers” without any marketing or design training would build anything with an html code underneath and selling it to clueless clients as a “website” are over – and it’s a blessing. Clients haven’t left the party, they just got more educated about the possibilities and limitations of the web, and what it takes to run an effective campaign. They have realized that the technical parts can be streamlined by using tools like WordPress or Squarespace, but it’s the strategic and creative parts where they still need expert advice, more than ever. And this, friends is our future. Not offering pixels and nifty pop-ups, but selling brand and sales strategies that help them solve problems. At least this what we do. My only problem in this is, as a design firm we have to reclaim “design” not as a sexy shiny product but as a craft that delivers what clients are really looking for: sales support.

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  • Great perspective Sarah. I think it’s the same thing with freelancers of any nature, design or otherwise. I too dipped into freelancing for a short period on oDesk / Upwork, and although I was able to meet enough serious clients to re-launch my managed WordPress hosting business, LittleBizzy, it was a painfully good waste of time and emotion that I quickly bailed… more on that here:

    I’m now getting flooded with requests from freelancers around the world due to the article above asking me where they should find reliable clients who pay fairly. I think the answer lies entirely in specializing in a certain skill and/or niche industry, becoming an expert of that niche, and then generate enough leads or recurring services that you can literally choose who you accept as a (long-term) client.

    Instead of just deliverables, niche packages and services are still very successful. Hell, I’ve even re-invented the wheel with WordPress hosting, a very saturated niche, following this philosophy.

    Cheers and best wishes 😉

  • Great article, Sarah. And a really interesting perspective.

    Barry hints at something I think is critically important – the economics of it all.

    The industry has matured – businesses are now more knowledgeable than they were only 9 years ago when the iPhone was released and changed the digital world forever.

    The rapid growth in the design/technology industry has attracted large numbers of talented people. Our agency is starving for talented people, but I meet many freelancers who just aren’t interested in a full-time job. Our cultural hysteria around entrepreneurship has led many people to believe that you can, with relative ease, do highly-compensated work with a schedule you control and no official boss. But there’s a difference between being an entrepreneur and being a tradesman – a tradesman/woman often believes what they do is valuable simply because they love to do it or because they’re very talented at doing it, and they have a hard time understanding why they can’t find work when it dries up. But entrepreneurship isn’t about the trade – it’s about creating a market in which you are valuable, regardless of the trade.

    It’s not about making great websites/apps/campaigns. It’s about creating immense value.

    I believe our industry is there – there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, but to continue being successful in the digital space freelancers and agencies alike must recognize that they won’t be called simply because they are good, but because they understand and communicate the tangible value they provide to the organizations they work for, and because they create new ways for those organizations to create more value for themselves.

  • Max

    The web has changed, but from my perspective it’s always been like that. I’ve been building websites for the last 11 years and it’s the only industry that I find that you have to level up your skill set every year or you become irrelevant.

    How to survive? It’s actually pretty simple. Learn HTML, CSS, Javascript, Javascript, Javascript, and Javascript! Notice what I did there? HTML and CSS in today’s world is like putting a quarter in those candy machines found at your local grocery store. It’s great, but it’s cheap. There are so many sites that provide Content Management Systems (CMS) that come equip with themes that the average Joe can simply stand up a really nice looking site in a matter of minutes.

    When I say minutes… I mean it. Now that hosting companies, offer one-click installations of blogging platforms, blogging platforms offer one click installation of themes and plugins, and your day to day ‘designer’ really does become irrelevant.

    I guess what I’m saying is in today’s world you can’t get by just being a web designer, you need to propel your self to become a web designer who can web develop. Freelancer jobs are still plenty if you know how to wrangle some JS code or you can manipulate any of the JS frameworks out there and companies are paying upwards of 6 figs. for a talented developer to get it done for them.

    So I throw this out there… Don’t be just a web designer, be a UI/UX Software Engineer 🙂

  • Paul

    A number of really good points there Sarah. I have to confess it was a touch deflating to listen to this blogcast, perhaps because as you say, you are simply voicing something that many of us have known or at least suspected for a good while. I see several reasons as to why we are feeling this:

    1. As efficient and techy people we like to knock the sharp edges off of things. This is great we have pre processors, amazing browsers that support what we only would have dreamed of ten yeas ago. Our lives are much more DRY but we have at the same time reduced barriers to entry. Efficient composition and execution requires the hard earned and learned knowlege that we have put our lives into but web design per se’ is dead. Anyone can set up a free website, use a simple framework etc. We have efficiently made our jobs less valuable and less needed.

    2. We have grown up with the web. This means several things. We are knowlegable and experienced (and remember compuserve cdroms on magazines) but we are also weary and fatigued from the constant demand of evolution and learning new things. Learning is a privelage and a necessity but with the frequency web guys n gals have to develop new skill sets it is not suprising that we fatigue. I hit middle age last week. I love learning, but I know that the constant evolution fatigue has lead me to look for common denominators, to only developing key skills that have a firm future. Quite simply, we are all getting older. We by nature of the demands, cannot be the pioneers ad infinitum. Nor should we be. This is the nature of things.

    3. The economy. 15% of our workforce is now self employed. Whether it be through redundency, change in lifestyle etc. the web industry with its lack of requirements for qualifications and its openness in sharing solutions has made it easy for literally anyone to learn and get into as a career. Don’t mis-understand me, the openness of our industry is one of its delights, but also means it has become saturated with low quality low price workers. I myself used to be one of those low price low quality workers well over a decade ago, I am only doing the job I do because the industry allowed me to do it and encouraged me to be great at it. The explosion in online learning and youtube etc has even further reduced barriers to entry. The saturation of our industry has brought down rates and reduced the number of opportunities per person. Thats life and I don’t mourn the loss of those that don’t see the value in good design. I simply differentiate myself by other means.

    So what is the answer?

    Well, as people we are not just ‘web designers’. We are ‘enablers’. Largely that is who we are as a group of people. Frustrated creatives who excel more in code and frameworks and structures than perhaps freehand drawing. Possibly ‘on the spectrum’ to a small degree and most certainly wishing to help and enable others through our chosen vocation. THis is in itself the answer. As an earlier poster remarked, web apps are exploding. Yes they are, and tomorrow it will be something else. If you or I looked back to the start of our life in web design surely it was that newness and excitement that we latched onto. Playing with new things, creating, enabling. Our talents as enablers are now in huge demand but in a different way. Clients, jo public etc can all create websites with ease. They do lack strategy knowlege, UX knowlege, conversion strategy, graphic design skills, branding etc. For every small company doing their work inhouse, I can point you at a large company outsourcing. For every person who builds a site from a theme there is a need for an excellent theme designer. For every low quality web guy or gal watering down the industry there is a need for someone to teach. For every in house person without the long learned skills there is a need for a consultant. Regular web design is dead, and thats not bad.

    We have opportunity everywhere if we are still able to look for it with fresh eyes. Unlike some professionals who have been known to safeguard knowlege to maintain power, web people share. We have made some of this situation we are experiencing but we can simply use the same enginuity and outlook to look for new opportunity.

    One thing we do need to get over though is using how busy we are as a way of gauging ones value. I am tired of meeting people at networking who are compelled to constantly say how busy they are when I know they are struggling. God forbid a person say that they aren’t that busy, you can see people shy away from them immediately like lack of work will be catching. No one will say what I am seeing which is “for the last three months things have been awful”. I have seen london agencies close, brighton egencies close, freelancers go out and get ‘proper jobs’. The enquiries arent there, the calls arent there. We have missed something, and I for certain would like to know what it is. I suspect to some degree the uncertainty about the economy and whether we are or are not going to be in the EU has made problems. I fully expect that after the referundum, regardless of the outcome, people will start to ramp up spending again.

    One brutal reality is that an over saturated industry is now actually shrinking back to a level which is sustainable. In time, the work available per head will rise even if the nature of that work has changed in some way. And to top it off the phone just rang and I’ve got some work……nice. They did however tell me in their enquiry how much my estimate was going to be. LOL.

  • Beautifully written, well said.

    I’m going to start reading your blog 😉

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  • ::high five::
    The elephant in the room, indeed.
    As a content manager planning training for web technologies, I’m rather amazed at the exponentially-increasing demands on even translating web standards into more basic, fundamental terms due to these increasing career shifts. Thanks for shining a light on this from an agency/freelance perspective to help give broader perspective, Sarah.

  • It has obviously taken longer for this to hit design. This issue has been in web marketing, and specifically SEO for well over a decade. Perhaps especially because many designers and developers have always felt that SEOs were just selling hot air (or snake oil) anyway.

    Back in 20001 you could never, ever fall for the trick of telling them exactly what you’d do for them, (however hard they pushed, and indeed, especially if they pushed notably hard for such detail), as 90% of such questioning was always a time-waster mining you for ideas they had no intention of paying for. I had to take the exact same step – of charging up front for any consulting – back in those days. And to be honest, my business is better for it. I waste less time on those who never really intend to pay because they never even get their foot in the door.

    You need to change perspective though. Look again at what you have described. It is a market shift. A decline in outsourcing is, naturally, and increasing demand for training and education. All these new, underqualified and inexperienced in-house folks are desperate to get up to speed and learn. That’s a keen market demand. A market begging for someone with your experience and knowledge to find a mutually beneficial service to supply their demand.

  • Roger Ryder

    thank you for reading your blog, it helps (:

  • Lee

    Great article, very interesting, but I’m not 100% sure this trend is a complete certainty… There are still a few grey areas.

    I have been building websites for about 10 years. The last 4 have been freelance. I appreciate I might be one of the freelancers caught in a lucky “bubble” of work, but so far every year I have substantially increased my turnover. I mainly work for graphic design and web design companies completely from home. 90% of what I do is fixed cost project work, no ad-hoc support or hourly work unless it’s for my regular clients.

    The work im getting from agencies has shown no sign of slowing down. I still see there being a need for businesses using a freelancer or agency in the medium/long term. Especially smaller companies. They simply don’t have the money to employ a developer or have the knowledge or time to create a bespoke website (im excluding the really small companies that just buy a wordpress theme for £30). Having said that, I get a good proportion of work from those companies who have out grown their initial purchased theme.

    I have certainly seen a trend over the last few years of larger companies using freelancers more and agencies less. I have worked with some household names recently who said they are fed up of paying agency fees.

    I still fundamentally believe that certainly in the medium term there is a great need for freelancers and agencies. I can possibly see the logic in larger companies employing in house developers, but i think that small to medium sized companies will always have a demand to outsource this. I think someone mentioned in an earlier reply about recruitment agencies, it’s not completely the same, but it’s a good analogy. I actually used to be a recruitment consultant many years ago and anyone can do that if they like sales, web development is still a relatively specialist skill so should be more resilient.

    The thing that worries me the most is in the long term is the improvement of self building websites and a flood in the market of coders, especially now that it’s in the curriculum. This is good for the internet, but not so good for a freelancer or agency.

  • Web design like most things are becoming increasingly a commodity. If anything can be replicated, it will be. This is even more profound with the proliferation of DIY website services. The same thing happened with Graphic designers. Services like Canva and similar are going to make even a specialised skill like design a drag and drop affair. Assembly line production is here to stay. Repeating everyone’s sentiment on this thread Web designers will need to move up the value chain and quick. There are huge opportunities with UX now that apps and services need a friendly human interface and no commodity driven service can solve that in a hurry.

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  • proxwell

    No, the work is not drying up. The web industry has experienced continual massive growth over the last few years. The market is larger than before and continues growing robustly. At the same time, some of the things we used to do by hand a couple years ago are now automated or commodified. In general, clients are more educated and have more of an idea of what they are looking for. The expect more. Responsive design is no longer a wow-factor but something which is simply expected. Frameworks and technologies emerge to make our work faster.

    Working in a rapidly changing industry requires constant adaptation. But the work is absolutely there. Sure, there has been an influx of new people due to the appeal of decent incomes, supported by the myriad boot camps and classes that have emerged to support people entering this industry. As a vetran, this shouldn’t be a concern. We have a head start measured in years. Any experienced designer who is having a tough time in this market needs to examine the skills/services they have on offer, as well as their process for making sales and negotiating deals. The people who navigate these changes successfully are having back-to-back record-breaking years. The ones who don’t are blaming the market…

  • Max

    We live in a “good enough” generation, where having a Facebook page instead of a site is, well, decided by companies as good enough. People are starting to realise the potential of the web in relation to marketing outside of a social circle, and it appears to look terrible.

  • What Barry said.

    It’s increasingly harder to obtain work as a small team or studio. As much as I get frustrated with agency contracting, it’s allowed me and my contemporaries to gain a wealth of interesting freelance work and cross-discipline experience over the years. I should imagine outside of London is a totally different game but saying that if you have no family, visa issues or financial commitments then the opportunity to freelance in agencies around Europe is also readily available. Many of the london recruiters now have branches in all the hot spots, so why limit yourself to one economy?

    After 8 years of freelancing/contracting I can honestly say the rates are better and the work is more diverse, pump up the day rate and get out there.

    Great post Sarah and some superb comments.

  • Tim

    We are terrible at solving big things. We create a new problem that is little more than a home remedy for the plague at hand. In the beginning there was nobody to ask for help, and what popped up were a few spotty resources, but mostly the feel of support groups, not community. The inherent problem here is that the vast majority of coders are not the alpha personality, just try organizing them or finding one that will without the rest resenting them. They don’t engage.

    I can say after 22 years, a lot of what the community does is “because we can” technology, rather than improving. We use half-baked ideas and libraries because of the fetish for the new. What has resulted is a lot of legacy systems in dead languages that were the hottest thing for the blink of an eye and there is no end in sight of this folly. I make toms of money getting people off ruby, cold fusion, backbone and angular once they wake up with that code hangover.

  • +1 also for Barry.

    I do have a vested interest in saying this (co-founder of YunoJuno), but the proportion of what Barry refers to as contractors – working on-site in agencies, brands and studios, filling gaps in resourcing and adding new skills to existing teams – is only going one way as a % of overall staffing – and that’s up. Long-term retained client relationships are decreasing, client work is moving to campaign/project based, and this makes taking on permanent designers / developers / ux etc. very risky. It is _more_ cost effective to use freelancers to supplement existing staff based on demand, and crucially to buy in experience and skills that you simply cannot afford to keep on tap.

    (NB there are nuances – we have had difficulty in the past trying to find a designer who really understood product design, rather than promotional design – the sort of thing you did for News International. That’s valuable.)

  • Tim

    Looks like I’m a bit late to this party, but from what I’ve experienced the last 3-4 years since starting my own tiny agency is that you’d be stupid to think you could charge 50k for a 8-10 page website (what my old agency used to do) when there are marketplaces out there like ThemeForest, or startups like Squarespace, offering up the same perceived level of quality that’s relatively cheap in comparison to some custom built from scratch platform.

    It’s just a matter of adapting your skills, product offering, and services to meet the demands of the marketplace.

    One thing that’s exciting to me as a small company is the idea of online marketplaces with lots of motivated buyers like an iTunes for web designers. In this case, something like ThemeForest, so that instead of running around hustling for a new project every 2 months, I’d have 500 customers who pay me $50 once a year for a theme license, plus any premium upgrades at an agency rate if they want it customized. That way, I’m only responsible for maintaining and supporting my product, thus making it better as time goes on, and getting work from clients who want their theme customized. This way I’m always generating passive income, building out my own audience of customers who like my product, and unlike project-based work for clients, I keep getting paid for it! Even my biggest web projects won’t pay out in the long term as well as a premium product sold on a marketplace.

    As far as getting new work goes, my experience has been that maintaining existing relationships with good clients who have solid business models and financials will always lead to more work down the line. Just like any career, you have to pay your dues when getting established, but after a few years of doing that, you’ll find more work coming to you where you can price it at a fair rate since you’re now a sought after service-provider. If you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have as many quality leads as you had previously, then it’s time to start reading up on basic content marketing, and finding out how you can reach new customers by establishing thought leadership.

    And always remember, design/development is NOT a commodity.

    I say no to more ‘exploratory request for proposal’ type of calls than ever now because if there’s one skill that I’ve gotten better at that I implore every young designer/developer to learn is to learn what your work is worth, and say no to clients who don’t understand the value of it. (And are trying to get you to work for cheap)

  • Thank you for your cogent blog post, Sarah. And thank you for uncovering the “Elephant in the room.” I’m a single-person web design and social media freelancer and for me this year has been awful. There is another development adding to the pain: free web design tools are springing up like Webbly, Wix, Simply and others that promise “out of the box” websites for small businesses. More and more I’m also getting calls or emails asking for design advice and then watching as these people use the free tools to throw up a website.

    Yes, I’ve been trying to pick up contracts and work onsite but my age is getting in the way. I was told that my 25 years in marketing made me too old to understand Tumblr and Snapchat. I’m also told that my pricing is way too high considering that off-shore sources will work for almost nothing. The same goes for web content writing. I was just told a client will pay $25 for a research article of 2,500 words. One can’t live on that.

    I’m going to take the advice about learning how to create applications.

    By the way, I’m one of those folks who use Joomla! and WordPress to create all kinds of sites. You can be creative with frameworks and CSS. In the end, the client dictates what they want. Right now, they won’t pay for anything from a freelancer, even updating the software.

  • I have to agree with some of what you say, and definitely agree with Barry McGee who has posted a brilliant answer. I’m in Australia, working as a single-person studio, and I faced the same issue a year or two ago: small and medium enterprise would contact me asking for advice, not on building an entire website framework from scratch but on fixing some issue they had with their previous agency/designer, who charged like a wounded bull but had no inkling of the challenges faced on the other side of the relationship.

    In most cases, especially in the larger organisations, the contact you speak to and work with every day is merely the tip of the iceberg. They need to take your advice, knowledge and recommendations and present that to their many levels of management. Having sat on both sides of the fence, I can tell you it’s incredibly awkward to be that person, explaining to the CEO why responsive design just cost her $50,000. It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate good advice, expertise and the need to remunerate appropriately for such, it’s just that she needs to see the business case for her own organisation in that spend, and that’s where the web agency has fallen short over the years. Yes, a good site costs time and therefore money. But it needs to fulfil a PURPOSE for the client, solve a problem, and ultimately, generate revenue/profit to be sustainable.

    Pitching a $50,000 site might be good for your business, but a $10,000 site is good for THEIR business, and that’s the key.

    Since facing this change, I’ve now begun restructuring my own business to ensure that I am not re-creating the wheel every time I begin a project, and rather than rubbish WordPress, frameworks, etc. I honestly believe that in the right hands these very things could be the saviour of a web business. We now have the ability to provide a strong, reliable platform that end users are becoming increasingly skilled in, which still requires expertise and knowledge for anything beyond the simple blog, that we can generate our own revenue in providing. Good bookkeepers don’t walk in to a small business and throw their accounting package out the window for another, they learn to work with their client’s idiosyncrasies and processes.

    Of course there is still work in the “old arts”. Theme developers, for example, rarely provide for the needs of businesses that are not in the marketing or sales industries. Bridging that gap is where the sweet spot should be for the hard-core coders.

    In every single case so far that I’ve implemented this approach, and made only a quarter of the money I’d have made in the past at that first interaction, I’ve had the client come back to me to spend more money, because they now truly trust that I have both our businesses’ interests at heart. Good customer service will always win folks.

    Thanks for reading my rant. 🙂

  • Andy

    The party was always going to end when digital marketing became an actual thing; something that required measurement, budgets and ROI. The realisation that online strategy did not just mean website.

    The complexity of digital, channels, planning, testing, refining, managing; simply cannot be achieved correctly by a single person any more. Marketing managers now actually know a fair bit about this stuff. If I hear a freelancer who says they are a full stack developer, ux specialist, designer, SEO, email and social media specialist I just laugh.

    Freelancing is not dying because of in house. Sure there are more in house content managers and such but the real reason is agencies are being challenged to deliver measurable results. Freelancers don’t have the capacity or resources to provide this sort of ongoing service.

    Freelancing may be a little dead but right now there is a ton of contracting and salaried roles for talented web specialists.

    Just not some much left for those who some more time on Twitter than improving their craft.

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  • Thank you for this! I’ve seen the in-house/consulting mix wax and wane throughout the years, and I firmly believe that will continue to be a variable, shifting as reliably as the tides. Also, I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me:

    — someone would bleed me dry of ideas or “how I would go about things” for me to find they would then take that advice to their in-house team and implement it before the week was out —

    So frustrating! Here’s to continuing to do excellent work, whether freelance or full-time, but never gratis (unless it’s for a good cause, ’cause we all give back)

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  • Hi Sarah,

    This article links to your post, and includes a bit of a rebuttal:

    Thought you may find it interesting.


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