October 14, 2020
By: Richard Lau
Tell us about yourself and how your journey brought you to where you are now.
My journey started pretty tragically. After being married for 10 years with 3 little daughters my wife decided she was done with the relationship. This left me not only broken emotionally but literally broke financially. The entire time I was married I was basically the equivalent of a full-time musician. I worked as a worship pastor for a church in the Phoenix area. And, I loved it. But, you don't make a ton of money doing that kind of work. Certainly not enough to support three kids as a single dad. So, I had to figure out a way to earn extra money while still having a full-time job and needing the flexibility to take care of my 3 young kiddos.
A friend of mine suggested I look into web development and pointed me toward a free online course at Codecademy.com. I was instantly hooked. For about 6 months I dove as deep as I could into all things frontend web development. Then I started telling people I was a web designer. I honestly had no reason to tell people that BUT I'm more of a jump and learn how to fly on the way down kind of person. Thankfully, I had some friends willing to give me a shot at building their website. After a few folks saw the work I did it just kind of snowballed into more work.
I eventually came to a place that I had built a website for everyone I knew that needed one and probably a few that were just being nice. So, I had to look somewhere outside of my network to find new projects. So, I turned to a platform called Upwork. It was slow going at first. It took around 6 months just to get my first job. But, after I had gotten some good feedback the projects started rolling in. Within 18 months I had doubled the income of my full-time job as a musician only working 18 extra hours per week. I had planned to do this for the rest of my life: work full-time for the church and part-time build my web design business. But, about right around the end of 2018, I felt like it was time for a change. So, I decided to pursue web design full-time while still helping the church in my free time. At first, I thought I would just go full force into freelancing. But, I found an amazing company called Showit.
I fell in love with the culture and the product and felt like it was a perfect fit. They felt the same way and hired me on as a UX/Web Designer. On a company retreat, I was hanging out with some of the younger guys on staff asking them where they saw themselves in 5 years. One young guy on the support staff, Josh, told me he wanted to build his own business. So, I asked why he hadn't done a web design side-hustle. After all, he was a computer science major and knew more about web development than I did when I first started telling people I was a web designer. His response shocked me. He told me he was afraid, afraid of not knowing what to do, afraid of not knowing how to get clients, afraid of something going wrong. So, I told him I'd help him along the way. I'd been through those scenarios before and I am for sure no expert but knew I could help him. He was up for it!
Within a few months, he was making $120/hour doing web design on the side as a college sophomore! I figured there are probably more folks out there like Josh who want to start a web design business but they just need a little help and encouragement to get started or keep going. So, in 2019 I started https://selfmadewebdesigner.com Since then I've had over 2,000 people go through my free Web Designer Starter Kit course and talked with so many people who are doing the same thing I've done: trying to go from knowing nothing about web development or design to having a full-fledged freelance web design side-hustle.
Was there someone or something that inspired you?
My main inspiration for getting started as a web designer was my kids. I didn't want to settle for a level of living where we had to scrape by from week to week. I wanted to be able to save for their college. I wanted to save for my own retirement so they don't have to worry about me when they get older.
Learning web design was literally life-changing. As a result of finding that out for myself, I'm inspired by helping others do the same. I've seen so many people who are in such similar situations as I was going after web design and it keeps me going!
How did you create your brand name, and logo?
I wish I could say there was a lot of intentional thought about the brand name. The truth is I was driving in the car on the way home from the staff retreat after first talking to Josh about building a web design business and the name just kind of popped in my head. It seemed perfect. It captured the idea of learning on your own and growing your income all from web design. The logo was not so easy.
I wanted to capture the idea of success while also giving a nod to web development. I tried a few iterations but eventually landed on what you see now. There are a few visual elements to the logo that I love about it.
1. The base of the logo is actually an HTML closing tag. In HTML, you have what's called tags that let the web browser know what type of element it's reading. There are all sorts of different types of tags. But, to keep things simple let's use a paragraph as an example.
You use the <p> syntax to tell the browser you're starting the beginning of a paragraph and a </p> to let it know where it ends. The Self-Made Web Designer logo is a closing tag </> shifted a little bit.
2. I added the arrow for a few reasons. First I wanted to illustrate success and growth. But, I also wanted to show that you can break out of a season that is "closing" down to find success in the next season.
That in a nutshell is my story. The season of being married was coming to a close and that was the catalyst to finding web design. So, having an arrow coming out of an HTML closing tag seemed really appropriate.
3. The logo also looks like the arrow is breaking out of a box. So, for those that don't catch the HTML reference can still see the idea of breaking out of whatever your current situation is to find a better one.
How did you go about establishing your marketing?
In my web design business, I started with close family and friends. When you're first getting started clients are essentially asking themselves, "can I trust this person to do a good job for me?" If you don't have a huge portfolio or a lot of testimonials to back up your ability you've got to find a different reason someone would be willing to trust you. In other words, you have to lean on people that know you're a trustworthy person because they know you personally. Donald Miller says, "you build your first bouquet with the flowers closest to you." It worked really well for me and that's how I encourage everyone to get started.
Tell us about your first experience in the industry.
My very first website was for a friend that had a personal fitness business. Her website had been down for a while and her original web designer was ghosting her. So, she was gracious enough to give me a shot with it. It took me forever and it really shouldn't have 🤣 But, I was literally learning as I was building it.
I cringe when I think about it now BUT everyone has to start somewhere. I always encourage people to give themselves permission to fail for a long time. If not you'll get frustrated and probably end prematurely. The one great thing about the project was I learned a specific WordPress plugin called Optimize Press. Then I used that knowledge to market myself to other clients. Essentially, I became the "Optimize Press guy." And a lot of my original clients were people that wanted to work specifically with that plugin.
What is your work structure like and what does the average workday look like for you?
My days are always pretty different which I love. But, for the most part, I spend a decent amount of time designing websites or landing pages. That involves looking for inspiration, mocking things up in photoshop, getting feedback and making adjustments. I also do a little bit of web development every day. Sometimes that looks like building a WordPress plugin but other times it looks like adjusting the CSS to a page. The rest of the time is spent interacting with teammates or clients.
What philosophies do you integrate into your workflow most often and what philosophy inspires you in your work?
There are a few systems and philosophies that have really helped. To be fair, I'm not always great about sticking to them. But, when I'm intentional they really help. The first is a concept called "deep work" that comes from Cal Newport's book of the same name. It's pretty simple. You remove all distractions from your workspace and try to reach a place of "flow" in what you do. Flow is the place you get when your work just becomes automatic. You don't have to think about it. It's like it's all happening automatically. There are no self-revisions. There are no rabbit trails it's just work in it's purest form.
I could spend hours talking about what I do to get to that place but suffice reading Cal's book is probably the best place to start. There's another great resource called CaveDay.org. Cave day is essentially a group of other people trying to reach a state of flow in their work and open to having a bit of accountability with it. Everyone jumps on a zoom call and a leader orchestrates things. You talk about what your goals are to get done for that session. They turn on some white noise and everyone puts their head down and works. It seems silly but it's actually really helpful. I've also tried to adopt something called "The 12 Week Year." Basically, it's a system of goal setting that operates 12 weeks at a time rather than throughout the entire year. That way you've got small achievable goals that you get to see progress happen pretty consistently. There's also accountability within it as well.
What do you think you do that drives your success?
I say this every week at the end of my podcast: "If you don't quit you win." I'm not the most talented web designer by any stretch of the imagination. But, I do have an ability to keep going despite being really discouraged or realizing the finish line is much further away than what I originally thought. And, I've seen that the people who are really successful are those that keep going despite all the odds being stacked against them. I was in an AMA with Darrell Vesterfelt of Copyblogger.com and he mentioned that your business only fails the day you decide to stop working on it.
How do you engage with your clients and build your following?
More recently I only find clients through word of mouth and relationships. So, I've gone full-circle back to where I started. I'm not doing freelance web design on the side as much now that I'm helping people learn how to become web designers themselves. So, I keep my clientele in that area pretty small.
How do you use social media and what recommendations do you have?
I'm actually horrible at social media 🤦🏼♂️I'm incredibly inconsistent and honestly dislike social media altogether despite always checking Instagram. I do think one of the best things that have helped me in this area is less about content and more about just trying to build relationships. I reach out to people I don't know on social media all the time to try and build a relationship. Sometimes I ask them if they need my help with a service I offer but even if they say "No," I just like making new friends.
What do you wish you knew before you started? What advice would you give to someone entering your field now?
If I could go back I would focus more on maintenance packages for clients. I interviewed Josh Hall on my podcast and he talked about how he built his web design business off of maintenance packages for clients. Maintenance packages are something clients really need. Without them, their sites run the risk of getting hacked or crashing. And, they're something you as a web designer can do easily. So, it's a win/win for both parties, and it frees you up from constantly having to find new clients or projects which can make freelancing a bit of a rollercoaster.
Is there an event or situation that you can point to that was life-changing for you that you can share with us?
For sure it was my divorce. As hard as it was, had it not happened I know I would not be here today. So, despite the struggle, I'm actually thankful that I was able to go through the process.
What has been the most memorable or inspiring interaction with a client or customer?
The most memorable thing that has happened was a little while ago when someone reached out to me who had just recently gone through a divorce and was also trying to learn web design to make extra money. He found a lot of encouragement from my story and was excited about his future. It's honestly for that very reason that I started Self-Made Web Designer.
What has been the hardest challenge for you in this industry?
The hardest challenge in web design has been the roller coaster of having too much to do in one season and nothing to do in the next. It's a pretty common problem for web designers. BUT, there are some ways to overcome it. Maintenance plans are a good example BUT you've also got to make sure that you are consistently looking for new work. That doesn't necessarily mean you're always pitching to new clients. BUT, it does mean you're trying to build new relationships. It takes a while for someone to say "yes" to hiring you. So, you've got to be sure you're nurturing relationships all along the way.
What are the trends in the industry that you are excited about?
I'm really excited about a lot of the low code or no-code platforms out there for building websites. There's of course my companies platform Showit but there are also platforms like Webflow or Elementor for WordPress. You might think it challenges my job security but for me, it just makes me excited that more people have an easier barrier to entry for becoming web designers than I did.
What are you looking forward to in the next week/month/quarter or year and what are your aspirations? I'm working on my first course! It's going to be all about Upwork for web designers. I'm going to outline all the steps I took to become a top-rated freelancer and double my income as a web designer through the platform. Super excited about it!