Know your personal value - Web Designer Dave Smyth

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Dave’s always been freelance. First as a musician while he was studying, and more recently as a web designer working mostly with independent business owners.

After starting out designing websites for musician friends, he built a solid reputation for himself on Upwork, gaining clients in the UK and overseas.

When he began networking with other freelancers online, Dave soon saw the value in community. He’s now an active member of several groups and has recently launched a new project especially for freelancers.

Work Notes is a resource full of advice that helps freelancers tackle the more practical aspects of running a business. It’s Dave’s way of giving back to the freelance community. And this is his story so far.


Dave Smyth:          I've always been freelance actually, but I've only been a freelance web designer for the past five years or so. I started building sites in around 1999, started learning how websites work and then I trained as a musician and shortly after I graduated I fell out of love with playing and a couple of things happened and I started building websites for other people, and that was about five years ago and here I am.

Steve Folland:          So was there a period where you were a freelance musician?

Dave Smyth:          Yeah, I did that for one while. It was while I was studying, so maybe 10 years or so.

Steve Folland:          Wow, you dark horse. Okay. So when you decided to start doing those websites, who were your clients? How did you find your first line?

Dave Smyth:          The typical thing? Initially it was friends and family. In fact the first thing I did was just put up a post on Facebook saying does anybody need a website? But it was a real dive into the deep end because I had no idea how to price projects, how long things took because I built websites for myself throughout that whole time that I was studying and performing and then the occasional thing for other people. But yeah, I'd never really tracked it properly or had any idea how to price work or anything like that.

Steve Folland:          So your first clients were friends, did you then start to exhaust that?

Dave Smyth:          So yeah, initially they were musicians and as you can imagine, they don't have huge budgets. I actually started getting work through Upwork. It was elance then, but that was my first sort of foray into working with other clients and businesses who did other stuff. So I started doing some really small jobs on there and worked on the profile and got a lot of work from those platforms over a few years.

Steve Folland:          So it was quite a positive experience for you?

Dave Smyth:          Yeah, it's unusual and they're always slightly controversial platforms, but it really worked for me and I basically found that if I just ignored all the local jobs and the low ball pricing, there's a tier of clients on there who are willing to pay normal rates.

Steve Folland:          And the thing is that they're willing to pay normal rates, but they're also ready and willing to start a project. It's like there's no romancing them. They want to get straight down to business.

Dave Smyth:          And actually for me, one of the things that I really liked about the platforms was that it removes some of the initial uncertainties about getting paid because everything goes through an escrow system. So if you're doing a flat project or something, the client will pay 50 percent into an escrow system and then you'd have and then that money would be secure even if there was a dispute, there was quite a strong chance if you've done the work that you'd get the money. So I quite liked that element of it when I was getting started and didn't really know what to do about contracts and things like that.

Steve Folland:          What did you learn was a good way to get work on there?

Dave Smyth:          Get a good profile basically. So I saw a really great tip when I was starting on Elance, which was basically as soon as you get your first job, I asked the client if they can leave a five star review and if they couldn't, if for any reason what you needed to do in order for them to do that and not really worked for me to quickly build up a few clients and a rating that looked really good. The other thing that I always tell people if they want to experiment with those platforms is to get a client that you normally work with to hire you through that because then your not only have a good rating hopefully, but they will be paying you a normal rate. So it sort of kickstart your profile at a decent rate rather than having to feel like you need to reduce your rate to get that first job.

Steve Folland:          That's an interesting idea because I always thought like there could be a fear that you think, oh, but what if they've never heard of this sort of freelance job site and I'm introducing them to this Aladdin's cave of cheaper services and mine as it were, but it worked.

Dave Smyth:          You can see it like there's loads of competition, but people hire people. If they're willing to pay a certain rate and they like working with you or they like what you your work and your approach, then I think they're going to pick you anyway actually, and I know loads of clients that have come to me and they've initially they've gone for cheaper options and they found that it's not worked for a variety of reasons. Either communication breaks down or something's not right, so if the client's willing to pay your normal rates, then there's no reason that they are going to suddenly just look at other people. It also takes so long to find freelances and find someone that you'd be happy to work with.

Steve Folland:          How did your business start to evolve from there then?

Dave Smyth:          Well, I guess it's that sort of recommendation snowball. There were clients that I got through those platforms that would recommend me to other clients that went through there and then there were people that I'd worked with outside of that platform because I wasn't just using those platforms to find work. I guess most mostly it just came through word of mouth through one way or another.

Steve Folland:          You said like really early on that initially costing was an issue and stuff like that. Like how have you gone on with that over the past five years?

Dave Smyth:          Mainly through tracking time on every project and seeing how long it takes that. That was the thing for me. I did that on all of the projects that I did from the get-go. It was just on the first, I don't know, maybe like first 10, 10 or 20. You've got absolutely no idea. I've just found that by tracking time it's really helped to work things out and I did a lot of hourly projects by trying not to do so many of those these days.

Steve Folland:          So you'll do it for project fee, but you're basing that project fee on how many hours you think it's gonna take based on what you've done before?

Dave Smyth:          Sort of. Sometimes I don't really do the value pricing type thing because it doesn't really work for the type of client that I usually work with, but it's usually an approximation of the time, and then adding a bit of a buffer on that for anything that might take longer than expected.

Steve Folland:          I mean obviously introduced to as a web designer, but do you build and like host the sites? I'm just wondering, is there like a recurring source of revenue that you have?

Dave Smyth:          Yeah, I build them and I host some, but only clients that are in the UK, that can be a tricky one as well. So I'm not sure if I'm going to do that forever because as soon as you host the sites, you're suddenly responsible for it if it goes down on Christmas Eve or something like that. So I might get out of that some point in the future.

Steve Folland:          So you mentioned UK clients, so you've got quite a lot overseas hopefully?

Dave Smyth:          Yeah, I reckon probably more than 50 percent of my clients are overseas.

Steve Folland:          How do you find that sort of working relationship?

Dave Smyth:          Oh, it's cool. I really like it. You have to factor into your workflow a bit. So I've got a few clients that are in Australia and I tend to do their work in the morning and then any American clients in the afternoon if I've got them both working at the same time, but it's fine. It's just the same as if I was working with somebody down the road really.

Steve Folland:          And how about how you get paid?

Dave Smyth:          Well I use transfer wise, I don't know if you've come across that, and it's amazing. I used to use PayPal because it's just instant payments, but they take such a huge cuts and transfer wise is the rate you get is almost exactly what you'd see on Google. So it's really good. It takes a little bit longer, but it's really worth it. Particularly if you're doing loads of work or you've got a big contract with an overseas client.

Steve Folland:          I haven't used transfer wise. Do you invoice through that or is it more like you send an invoice and it's a link through to a transfer wise accounts, are they?

Dave Smyth:          Yeah. Well actually the thing that's really cool about transfer wise is that they actually set you up an account in another country or that's how it appears. So the strapline is paid like a local or pay you like a local or something like that. So the idea is that you set up an account in Australia or the US and then you have local account details. So in theory it makes it easier for them to pay you, like they're paying somebody else in the country. It's pretty cool actually.

Steve Folland:          So it's kind of like, it will be like a sort code in a bank account number that they're paying into as far as the client experience because that's interesting because I tell you what I have paid people overseas using banks and it's just a, unlike from a client's perspective. There's so many more codes that you have to put in and you're paranoid that you're gonna get the code slightly wrong and thousands of pounds is gonna go to some lucky person's other accounts and on top of that you can get hit with like a 15 pound international bank transfer fee and it's a horrible experience.

Dave Smyth:          Yeah. TransferWise, I don't work for them. It's about I bank on them all the time, but it's really good.

Steve Folland:          In terms of, we talked about costing and not knowing about that first. Have you sort of learn lessons as you've gone along that in terms of, I don't know, like contracts for example and things like that?

Dave Smyth:          Oh yeah. There's so much stuff.

Steve Folland:          How couldn't I.

Dave Smyth:          Are you sure you want to get me started on this?

Steve Folland:          Well, what was the stuff that hurt you most that you've learned?

Dave Smyth:          I think I've been quite lucky that I've never really properly been burnt, but I've seen lots of situations that would have not gone as smoothly as it did if I hadn't had a contract in place or I didn't have certain clauses in place. There's a client that I do some design work for in America. We were doing some work for a hedge fund and we'd come up with this design and it was everything that they'd asked for and they were happy with it, but with a few tweaks that they wanted, there were pretty horrendous. Anyway, we didn't hear from them for like a month or two and my guy in a mercury saying I'm chasing them but I haven't heard anything back. And then one day he got an email saying, "Oh, we're looking for some SEO on the site, can you help? And he was like, what? We haven't finished it.

Dave Smyth:          And they sent through a link and they'd finished. They've got somebody else to finish the sites and push it live and stuff with all their horrible amends. And I wrote a blog post about this because I was really surprised that the agency didn't have anything in place about intellectual property. So they had nothing in their contract about, you can't steal the design, or anything like that. So I think contracts are, even if you never have to use one, just having things written down and having sort of rules of engagement in place are really useful.

Steve Folland:          And you mentioned blog posts, so how long have you been doing that? Like what are you get out of it?

Dave Smyth:          I started writing some sort of freelance blog type things over the summer, mainly because I joined a couple of social media groups for freelancers and I could see that lots of the same issues were coming up time and time again and I just wanted to write some things about my own experiences and as something to help people being burnt. I know that when I started I didn't do everything correctly, and there were some situations that I got myself into that if I had known a couple of things it would have been easier. So I guess it's a bit of a way of giving back to the freelance community and I hate seeing freelancers being exploited or stitched up. So it's to try help with that, I guess.

Steve Folland:          Yeah, that all learning from each other. What were the things that stung you?

Dave Smyth:          Well, I remember the very, very first proper website that I did for somebody. I just didn't talk about the price with them at all and they didn't bring it up and so I built this website for them and then at the end they were like, so how much do you want for this? And that's not how you want to start. Yeah, and there were lot of things like I didn't put a contract in place for ages, mainly through a ridiculous fear of missing something from it, like one little piece of it and there's so many resources out there. The contract I always bank on about is antique clocks, contract killer, which is aimed at web designers or people who work in the web industry, but it's an amazing boilerplates. It's written in plain English. It covers everything that you need and it could be easily converted for any sector really. And I even knew about that and didn't put it in place straight away and I wish I had.

Steve Folland:          Why didn't you, what held you back?

Dave Smyth:          I think it was a pure fear of missing something and somehow feeling like the first client that I had the contract with would pick a hole in it or that they would somehow find a way of skirting around something that I've missed or it completely illogical stuff, and I should've just got cracking with it because it's better just to have something than to have nothing.

Steve Folland:          Uh, but way we'll put a link at for you read the contract killer. So if you want to link for to that. You mentioned your clients, you are starting off a lot of musical people who didn't have much budget. What sort of people do you work with?

Dave Smyth:          Almost exclusively individuals and small businesses. I realized quite quickly that I didn't enjoy taking on massive projects or massively complicated projects so much so I've really sort of focused on working with other freelancers or one person businesses or small businesses. I really like working with people who are, I hate this word, but passionate about what they do, and there's a real buzz of knowing that what you're doing is making a difference to them and their business and seeing how it all pans out.

Steve Folland:          And then you mentioned like joining social groups or you just a member of groups online or meet people having forbidden the real world?

Dave Smyth:          I'm not very good at that. Well, no, I'm fine. I'm fine missing people, but I work from home which I love. I love not commuting and everything like that. I remember if you slack groups, which helped to keep my sanity and then a couple of groups on Facebook and quite active on twitter as well, but I find talking to other freelancers is really great way to maintain your mental balance, particularly if you're being tested at any time.

Steve Folland:          So like for help and just for chat sort of thing?

Dave Smyth:          Yeah. The great thing about those social media groups, and there's a really great one called freelance heroes on Facebook, which is worth checking out is people are asking questions, but you can also share your own experiences in your own advice. So it's a real to a supportive, non-judgmental, safe space for freelancers. I see them as a bit of a water cooler. The water cooler that you don't have when you work from home, the highly worth checking out for any only freelancers.

Steve Folland:          Can you avoid, it was like when you first joined those groups as in like is it almost like a thing in reality where you've almost nervous to join in or is it just like you straightaway you feel part of it?

Dave Smyth:          Yeah, I think initially I was sort of sceptical of how useful joining something like that would be. By that time I'd already been freelance for five years or so and I felt fairly confident about what I was doing and I wasn't sure what benefits it would have for me about actually joining those groups have been one of the best things that I've done in recent times. I don't know what it is about it, but they just feel like a really positive group to be a part of.

Steve Folland:          Cool. We'll put links again You mentioned working from home. What's your like your work-life balance like?

Dave Smyth:          I guess my work life balance is reasonable. It's probably not as good as it could be, but I play tennis a lot, which is, which I find is amazing just to get out of the house and talk to some other people and do some exercise and then in terms of working, it's the classic things like it can be hard to switch off in the evening. I'm not allowed to work past a certain time which is actually good for me.

Steve Folland:          You're not allowed?

Dave Smyth:          Yeah. My wife won't let me.

Steve Folland:          I like that. Was that like a specific conversation as in have you got a sign on the wall, Dave laptop closed?

Dave Smyth:          No. I hope she doesn't hear that idea.

Steve Folland:          Of course.

Dave Smyth:          Yeah, well actually my wife's a freelance piano teacher so she's often working in the evening and basically when she gets back I got to say I've got to stop, but otherwise it'd be times when I would just work through the evening if I was left unchecked. So it's quite good to have that external reminder.

Steve Folland:          Now if you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?

Dave Smyth:          I think not to underestimate your personal value. The common thing that people talk about underpricing, don't undercharge. I think if I'd known how much value there is in the client actually wanting to work with you, that would have been quite useful to bear in mind at certain times when I was worried about getting a job, or if there's an issue or something. I think I wish I'd known that.