Featured Freelancer: Dave Smyth, Web Designer

Little prepares someone for their new life as a freelancer, as the challenges vary so much to those in the employed world. But surely being a musician has to be up there with one of the best, as this week’s Featured Freelancer describes. Plus, we’re a step closer to forming a Freelance Heroes band. Before we do, here is the story of a freelancer who is celebrating 5 years of his Web Design business. Enoy…


What is your name, where are you based, and what do you do?

I’m Dave, and I’m from London. I’m a web designer, and I mainly work with small businesses, startups and other freelancers.


How long have you been freelancing and why did you decide to become a freelancer?

I’ve actually always been freelance. I originally trained as a jazz musician, which taught me how to live on absolutely zero money, and I worked as a musician for about seven years. A little over five years ago, I was let go from a part-time teaching gig with no less than two days’ notice. The job was providing the bulk of my income, so I was in a pretty desperate financial position. My then-girlfriend, now wife, suggested I start creating websites for other people to tide me over. I’d been making websites since 1999, so I started building some very cheap sites for friends. Over the next few years, I slowly shifted my focus over to web design.

My experience of being a musician removed many of the traditional fears of going freelance. I’d never had the security of a regular wage and musicians are always juggling different jobs, so I wasn’t afraid of relying on myself for work. I was used to terribly paid jobs, rent-critical gigs and teaching being cancelled with no notice (and no payment!), so moving to an industry where clients generally expect to pay for your services was quite a welcome change.

As it happens, this week marks five years since I became a freelance web designer. It’s gone very quickly!


What support did you have from family and friends? Did anyone advise you against becoming freelance?

My wife and family have been amazingly supportive throughout. When I was younger, my parents wholeheartedly encouraged me to follow a career in music, and they’ve been entirely supportive of the switch to what I do now. They made lots of sacrifices to enable me to do what I do, particularly when I was studying for my postgrad. After I switched career, I felt guilty about that for a couple of years, despite them being nothing but encouraging throughout the entire transitionary period. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have such unconditional support.

For anyone in a similar position, I’d highly recommend reading Ken Robinson’s book, ‘The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything’. It’s an insightful read.


Did you use any professional support resources in starting your freelance business?

No, as I wasn’t really aware of them. I joined IPSE a couple of years ago, mainly for some of the cover their membership offers, and then I only recently discovered some of the social media freelance groups.


How would you describe your clients or customers?

All of my clients are either small or one-person businesses. I love working with smaller clients as it’s great to work with people who are so invested in their business. There are lots of practical benefits to working with smaller clients, too, but I really do enjoy that aspect.


Why do your clients/customers select you over your competitors?

Apparently, I’m easy to work with, and clients enjoy working with me. Or so I’m told. This is always a difficult question to answer, but I think part of it might be the level of service I provide to my clients.

Many clients that I work with have had suboptimal experiences with previous designers/agencies. In most cases the work is good, but they’ve had a poor customer experience. Either they’re left waiting weeks for a response to something small or, in some cases, they’ve been told that their project isn’t a priority because it’s too small or not bringing in enough money.

One of the things about working with smaller businesses is that the budgets aren’t often expansive and I understand that choosing where to invest the money is a big decision. I think my clients appreciate that I value their business and will always try to maximise their budget, wherever possible.


Is being a freelancer what you expected? e.g. Do you work more hours (or less) than you had first anticipated?

It’s better than I expected! There are times when I definitely work longer hours than I should, but the benefits far outweigh this. I don’t think you can put a price on the value of having control over your time, the clients you work with or your work schedule. I love working from home, too!


What app or website could you not run your business without, and why?

There are so many… If I had to pick one, it would be Evernote, but that’s a cruel question!


What advice would you give to anyone who wants to start a freelance business, specifically in your field?

Use a contract. Don’t be afraid to talk about money.  Don’t be an island. Make sure you charge enough. Make time for self-development. Learn when to say no. Start a pension. Don’t be afraid of the word ‘business’. Use apps to make your life easier. Get business insurance. Make use of your flexible schedule. Enjoy it!

These things apply to any area, but I wish I’d done all of them when I started out, rather than cherry-picking the ones I thought involved the least effort!


What are the most notable things you have learnt since starting your business; either about running a business or about yourself?

Over the years, I’ve started to recognise the value of my experience in both the work I produce and the business side of things.

Also, I recently discovered that I really enjoy writing. That’s something I never expected, and I had no idea it took so long…


What is it about being a freelancer that you most enjoy?

Primarily, I love the variety of my work. Over the last week or so I’ve been working on designs and a logo for a company selling beekeeping products, developing a site for a musician, writing a few blog posts and making some changes to my own site. It’s great to be able to spend my time doing such disparate activities.

I enjoy building relationships with my clients, too. And the freedom, of course!


What do you enjoy the least about being a freelancer?

I’m definitely better and more confident at dealing with the financial side of things than I used to be, but you can’t get around occasional lean periods. I used to take on some bigger projects, but I found the stress of those wasn’t worth the money, so I’ve reduced one of the pain points in my work.


What is your ultimate professional goal as a freelancer?

I’ve considered scaling the business when things have been hectic in the past. It’s an idea that I toy with from time-to-time as it would allow me to spend more of my time on the aspects of work I really enjoy. Ultimately, if I can retain this as a lifestyle business, I’ll be happy!


What one thing do you wish you had known before you became a freelancer? 

It can be challenging to stay motivated all of the time, and that’s ok! It’s important to take time off to recover, even if you feel like work won’t allow you to. It’s easy to lose sight of that and be unnecessarily hard on yourself, especially when you’re working by yourself. Reaching out to other freelancers though communities like Freelance Heroes can be a real help – I wish I’d known about this group earlier!

To connect with Dave, visit any (or preferably all) of the following sites:

Website: websmyth.co
Twitter: www.twitter.com/websmyth
Medium: www.medium.com/@websmyth
Facebook: www.facebook.com/websmyth
Instagram: www.instagram.com/websmyth
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/dave-smyth