How To Differentiate Your Freelance Design Business

Search results for a phrase like “web design services” should quickly tell you there’s a lot of competition out there. Why should someone hire you instead of any of those other companies listed in the results? What is it that you offer that they don’t? What is it that you do better? How you answer is how you differentiate your business and stand out in a crowded market.

One red fruit standing out among the green fruit

Last week we were talking about design as a commodity and if you remember my argument was that design itself wasn’t a commodity, but the business of design could be commoditized. I closed the post with:

If we don’t want the latter to happen we should do what we can to consistently improve our skills and create better and better designs. We should never use price as a selling point and by example show others that good design outperforms bad design.

Sarah left an interesting comment on the post:

the key is to concentrate on our strengths and differentiate by demonstrating the value we can add to a business rather than simply showcase our design skills.

It’s important that we promote our strengths and differentiate ourselves from the competition. It’s what keeps us from becoming a commodity and what inspires people to hire you as opposed to someone else.

Best in class award for Epic Pale Ale

How to Differentiate Your Business

One key to differentiating your business is in the word itself. You have to do something different. You have to do something your competition either doesn’t do or better yet, can’t do. Any time you offer something the competition doesn’t, you make yourself more appealing to a subset of the overall market that’s interested in that something different you offer.

Ideally you’d be acknowledged as the best or only one offering this additional thing, but realistically you won’t be.

I think that’s ok. Each way you can be unique or better separates you from some of the competition. It puts your business in a niche that will appeal more to some people. You may appeal to less people overall, but what your selling matches much more tightly with what a certain group of people are buying increasing the odds they’ll buy from you.

As a freelancer you probably realize you don’t need millions of clients to be successful. You need a handful. Your goal should be to align what you do with that handful of people as best you can in order to make yourself their best choice.

A simple example would be to focus locally. It might seem counterintuitive, since one benefit of working online is the broad reach, but there are many people who prefer to work with local businesses.

You’re likely not the only web design option in your home town, but there are certainly less web designers in your local market than across the world. Focusing on the local market will always be one way to differentiate your business from the majority of the competition.

There’s no one way or one best way to differentiate yourself, but there are three general ideas to help you determine what makes you unique and what you can offer that the competition can’t.

  • You – No one on this planet shares exactly the same experience you do. You are uniquely you. You have skills and interests that I don’t have and that other web designers don’t have.

    Look outside your skills related to design and development. Are you a musician? Then you’ll likely understand better what musicians want and need in a website better than I do. You could focus on sites for bands and specialize in a way that most web designers won’t be able to.

  • Analyze the competition – Spend some looking at the business of other web designers. What do they do well? What do they do poorly? If you find much of the competition fails to deliver on something then you can fill that gap by offering that something.

    Look at what indirect competitors are doing well that direct competitors aren’t. For example if you decided to focus locally what do designers in other cities do that designers in your city don’t.

  • Listen to your market – Potential clients will tell you where the competition is failing by sharing their frustrations and desires. They’ll tell you what problems they need someone to solve. Your job is to solve those problems.

    Remember that your market isn’t everyone. Be specific in regards to who you’re listening to. Again assuming you’re focusing on a local market it’s possible the problem clients face in another city aren’t the same as problems clients face in your city. Listen to the general market, but pay more attention to your specific market.

White flower standing out in a sea of red flowers

Once you have some ideas about how you can differentiate yourself be specific. It’s one thing to say you understand what musicians want and another to list specific issues they have and how you solve those issues.

Make sure you can really do what you’re claiming you can do. If you claim to understand the music industry better than other web designs, then you better understand the music industry better than other web designers. Potential clients will be able to tell easily whether or not you can back up your claims.

Be open to changing your unique selling proposition over time. People change, things change, technology changes. It’s ok to change what differentiates your business too. If you succeed by offering something unique your competition will notice and soon start offering the same thing.

Your business also needs to adapt and change. It’s possible that your skills and interests evolve over time. Maybe you’re no longer as interested in the music scene as you once were. It’s ok to change focus to another industry that interests you more as long as you understand you’ll need to do a little branding work.

Some will tell you that price is one way to differentiate your business. Technically that’s true, but it’s something you should avoid at all cost. Differentiating on price is what makes you a commodity and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.

The reality is that only the biggest of businesses can compete solely on price. Price differentiation means low margins. You make money in volume. I don’t know about you, but I can only serve so many clients at a time. Differentiating on price will only assure that you’ll work very long hours for very little pay.

One red smiley face and three gray smiley faces

My Story of of Being Unique

I’ve shared much of the following in previous posts, though maybe not in this exact context.

When I first started out I thought the best way to bring in clients was to appeal to as many people as possible. I offered every service I thought I could reasonably deliver. My thinking was that whoever the potential client was I would have something to offer that person.

I offered:

  • Web design services
  • Web development services
  • SEO services
  • Hosting Services
  • Writing services
  • Marketing services
  • Programming services
  • Carpentry services
  • Singing Lessons

Ok, maybe not those last two, but hopefully you get the point that I tried to offer a lot. Unfortunately trying to appeal to everyone means appealing to no one. When you cast such a wide net you offer no compelling reason to choose you. You have no unique selling proposition.

While I’d like to think I was more than competent in each of the services I offered, the reality is it would be impossible to be better at all those things than everyone else. Any person focusing on one of those services would be better at it than me in a short amount of time.

With each iteration of my business I’ve paired down the services I offer and I’ll continue to do the same in the next iteration. Most likely in the future I’ll scale back on some of the seo services I offer to place more emphasis on the design and development services.

That may sound a little weird if you look up at the unique selling proposition of this site. Mt tagline reads “People Friendly & Search Friendly Web Design.” Clearly seo is a big part of how I’ve been differentiating myself. However search friendly design is only one aspect of seo as opposed to something like link building.

I can still differentiate myself as someone who can build a site that serves as a great foundation for seo without specifically offering link building services or keyword research services.

I haven’t just scaled back over time. I’ve also added new services, specifically around WordPress. WordPress wasn’t something I worked with when I first started my business. Over time though, I listened to the market wanting more for less cost and part of my solution was using WordPress as a CMS. It enables me to offer a lot of backend functionality without having to do all the backend programming. I can charge the same while offering more. That’s not the same thing as charging less while offering the same.

In fact choosing to work with a specific application or two can be a great way to begin to differentiate your business. Not everyone who designs and develops websites works with WordPress or Drupal or Joomla or any of the other hundreds of popular applications running sites.

True if you focus on Drupal you won’t appeal to those people wanting a WordPress site, but you will appeal that much more to those people who do want a Drupal site.

One more point that bears mentioning is that since day one I’ve always worked to be better at what I do. That may not make me unique in the types of services I can offer, but ideally it helps differentiate me in the quality of services I offer. Being better, especially when you can prove you give better results is one very strong way to differentiate your business.


Being a commodity is not good for a freelance designer’s business or for a freelance designer’s soul. If your business is a commodity it means competing on very low margins. It means watering down quality for the sake of being able to mass produce more and compete on price. I don’t think that’s why any of us got into this business.

It also means that someone with more resources than you will always be able to outcompete you. If you charge $5 an hour and I can turn a profit charging $4.50 who wins the price war. It’s in our best interest to avoid being commoditized, by emphasizing what we do better and what we do different.

When looking to differentiate, look to yourself, your competition, and your market. Look for gaps that aren’t being served and think about what you can do better than others. Think specialization in order to reduce your competition and appeal more strongly to a smaller group of people.

How are you differentiating yourself from the competition? What are you doing better than other designers? What are you doing that they won’t or can’t do?

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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