Joshua Wold

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Four Ways to Ensure Your Design Project Fails

If you create websites for a living this article is for you. Do you want to ensure that the only time the client uses you as a referral is when they’re swearing? If so, here are three surefire ways to make sure you never successfully complete a web design project.
  1. Don’t agree on a scope

    Before you start the project only speak of the scope in vague terms. Make sure that you speak in person, or on the phone, so that anything you agree on won’t be in writing. Also, never agree to sign a contract, or provide a written estimate. You’re counting on the client having a fuzzy memory, that way you can…

  2. Over promise and under deliver

    Anytime the client mentions an idea agree that it can be done, even if you have no idea how to do it. Make the project as big and grandiose as possible, promising that it will be the next big thing, with millions of guaranteed visitors in the first six months. Always say yes to every request, and throw in a bunch of ideas yourself. Then promise it all for the lowest price possible.

  3. Make sure you’re under qualified

    Don’t take on projects that you can actually handle, make sure they are way out of your expertise and skills. If they client needs the website created in a specific technology, an acronym you’ve never heard of, ensure them that it can be done without a problem.

  4. Communication

    If you’ve over promised and under delivered you’ll likely close the project. Now, to ensure that the project fails you’ll want to do everything you can to confuse communication. Don’t stop communicating altogether, the client might get suspicious. Instead, wait as long as possible between every phone call and email until the client is completely impatient. Disappear for a month at a time, coming back with the revised version of the site and insisting that it’s perfect without their input.

  5. If you do these four things, especially ensuring that communication is as convoluted as possible, you’ll be sure to fail at every project you start.

When Not Requiring a Down Payment Taught Me a Valuable Lesson

I landed my first paid design project when I was 13 years old. I will protect the guilty by changing the name of the owner, we’ll call him Bob.

My job was to create several hundred icons for an online kids gaming website. Designing icons was fun for me. So when Bob contacted me, it was a dream come true. My first chance to get paid to do something I loved.

In my young understanding we had a gentleman’s agreement that I would be getting paid about $500, a huge amount to me at the time, in exchange for designing hundreds of icons for Bob’s site.

I spent hours meticulously creating the icons on my computer. Sure, they weren’t all great, but it was the best I could do at the time. Looking back at my work I still think some of them looked pretty awesome.

When I was done done I showed the work to Bob. He thanked me, asked for the original source files, and said the check was in the mail. Over the next few months Bob said the check was in the mail 3-4 times. I finally realized there was no check. I had been scammed. Years later it still hurts. Thankfully I learned a valuable lesson at a young age.

Instead of being bitter, let me share three positive things I’ve learned from this project:

  1. Get it in writing

    Never start a project until you have an agreement in writing that states the exact amount you will be paid.

  2. Don’t start until you have a down payment.

    Always get a down payment, usually this is 50% of the total amount you’ll be paid. For larger projects I sometimes accept a third of the payment initially, a third in the middle of the project, and a third upon completion.

  3. Don’t do spec work.

    Spec work is when you create a website, or do design work, for free in hopes of getting paid IF the client likes your work. Often this happens when multiple designers are bidding for work with a prospective business.

    If you really want experience doing websites offer to help a non-profit or ministry for free. Then, when you’re done add them to your portfolio and ask for an awesome testimonial.

  4. Always get a down payment for your work up front. If a potential client insists that they see some design ideas before paying you, be careful. There’s two reasons they could be doing this.

    1. They’ve worked with inexperienced designers in the past who were willing to work for them in hopes of getting paid, also knows as spec work.
    2. They are going to rip you off.

    Either way your job is to educate in a polite manner and explain that you don’t work for free. If you’ve explained this thoroughly and in a patient way, and they still refuse to pay you, they probably weren’t going to anyway.

How to Barter Web Design Services

Bartering can be a lot of fun. Craigslist is teaming with folks who barter on a regular basis. If you’re a web designer you can barter your services. Try it next time you’re closing a project. Offer a percentage of your services in exchange for your client’s products or services.

A friend of mine talked to a dentist about creating a website for her business. They decided to exchange services. It worked great, he got his teeth fixed, and she got a website essentially for free.

Often small businesses are limited on cash. Offering to exchange services might give you an edge in closing the project. Just make sure the bartering actually works in both of your favors. If you’re designing a website for a cookie business, you may not need a six month’s supply of cookies.

Once I bartered snowboard gear in exchange for working on a client’s website. My wife and I were able to go into the shop and get suited up. It was really exciting. Since the shop owner was limited on cash, and I wasn’t going to pay to buy the gear anytime soon, the transaction worked perfectly for both of us.

Typically a client will be more likely to barter services as opposed to products, since it’s less cost out of their pocket.

However, there is one advantage to bartering with a retail shop. Let’s say that you’re planning to barter with a bicycle shop in exchange for creating a website. You can offer your services at your hourly rate in exchange for the retail price of a bicycle.

In this case the shop owner will be getting a great deal. They paid wholesale for the bike, so they’re getting your services at a discount, which means less cash out of their pocket. For you it’s still a great deal, so long as you wanted a new bike, because you may not have closed the project otherwise.

One thing to keep in mind is taxes. Bartering is still considered income and is taxable. Check with your CPA on this to make sure you’ve filled out the right paperwork.

One final example. A friend of mine has bartered haircuts for years in exchange for hosting his barber’s website on his server. Free haircuts? Not bad.

Avoid debt in business

Having debt in business is a horrible idea. From practical experience I can tell you that it’s far better to start small and build slowly then to acquire debt and build too fast.

You’re asking for trouble the moment you borrow another person’s money to try and run your business. Any risks you take are enlarged. Subconsciously you don’t feel risk, since it’s not your money. When you have to make a decision using your own money then it’s on, you’ve got skin in the game.

At one point I was involved in a project where we took on a loan to get started. We wanted to get into a new industry and believed that it was easy money, which of course should have been warning number one. We thought we’d pay back the loan within a month or two. Half way into the project we ran into some unexpected challenges. Unfortunately this forced us to stop the project entirely. Since we had borrowed the money we had to pay it back out of our own pockets, which ended up taking nearly two years. We took on a loan and believed we’d immediately return the money.

Dave Ramsey has helped to completely change my mindset on debt. If I borrow money I’m a slave to the person loaning the money. Plain and simple. It’s not that having debt is a sin, but do I enjoy being a slave?

Had we been forced to use our own money we would have either started smaller, or decided to not do the project at all. When we used borrowed money to accomplish something it only magnified our risk. When you use your own money to start something you’re far more careful about how it’s used.

Saying No to Projects

One of the guiding principles I’ve learned is the importance of being willing to say no to a project, even if it makes financial sense to accept it.

If the project doesn’t fall in line with my principles, I won’t accept it. In the short run it may hurt, but longterm it establishes core values for myself that set me up to succeed. I have two simple criteria for deciding what projects I won’t accept.

  1. Does the project match my ethics?

    I live by moral ethics that help to guide my life. As a business owner I apply these ethics to my business when deciding what projects I will and won’t accept. A simple question to ask is whether you could use the product or service that the website is offering without going against your principles. If the answer is no, I don’t take the project. For example, if the website sells porn, I won’t work on it. If I couldn’t honestly use the service or product myself, I won’t work on it.

    While the line of ethics will vary by individual, I’ve set that line much further out than most people. Since I don’t smoke, drink, or gamble, and since I believe those three activities lend themselves toward injury and pain in families, then I don’t believe in supporting these activities by developing websites associated with them. Now, just to clarify, these are my personal choices, I don’t force this opinion on anyone else. I believe in the freedom to choose.

  2. Does the project add value to the world?

    I’ve messed up on this one in the past. I’ve taken on projects that were uninspired, improperly managed, or just plain bad ideas. As such the projects have generally gone down hill. Basically, if it’s something I wouldn’t be proud to say that we’ve worked on it, it’s ultimately not worth doing.

I’ve said no to a good number of projects. My values are important to me. Once I had a project offer for a website that didn’t fall in line with my principles. In good faith I couldn’t make use of the service myself. I decided to turn down the project, even though the financial benefit would have been helpful. That same day I was contacted by an organization who’s values matched mine completely. And the project’s budget was much larger. Now, I’m not going to say this always happens, but in the end it’s worth saying no to a project that doesn’t match your values. You’ll be able to sleep well at night.