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.

Summary

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.

19 comments

  1. Excellent article. I world is now saturated with designers/coders etc more than it ever used to be.

    A lot more competition now and you really have to be on top of your game with production, technology & trends no matter how good you are.

    Tough times but good times.

    • Thanks Anil. You definitely have to be on top of a lot of things, but more than anything you need to stand out in some way. You need to be better at something than most of the competition.

  2. Like you, when I started out I tried to be everything to every one. But in 2004 I fell in to the wine industry and it was a match made in heaven!

    Now, I only offer my services to small, boutique & micro wineries all over the US and by focusing on such a specific niche, I have ready made solutions that are affordable and easy for me to implement.

    Marketing is also simple! In such a small niche, word of mouth really works, my site is also optimized for the search engines and I use Google Adwords (by choosing specific keyword combinations and negating the words I don’t want (like ‘free’) I get a ton of qualified traffic and only pay around $60 a month)

    • That’s a cool niche Rachell. Did you have an interest in wine before or did you really just fall into it?

      Good point about the word of mouth spreading in a small niche. I didn’t talk about it in the post, but it’s so much easier to market when your business is more focused on some specialty. Even without the word of mouth so many other aspects of marketing are simplified, like AdWords as you pointed out.

  3. I needed this. At times, the fear of scaring potential clients away tricks freelancers into assassinating their profits. I did it for way too long. This article just reminded me why I integrated print brokering into my design fold. It allowed me to quality control projects and offer a wider range of products to my clients. Good show! No retweet button?

    • Glad I could help give you the reminder Don. I did the same thing when it came to being afraid of turning some clients away. Best thing I ever did was say no to some and hold to my prices with others.

      At the moment no retweet or Facebook like buttons. I built this site a few years back and over time added to it and I think adding more will just slow it down. I’m working on a redesign that will give me an opportunity to recode things, get rid of some things, and a few new things like a retweet button.

  4. Excellent article, structured, complete and it considers the problem very pragmatically.
    I will forward & recommend it.

  5. Great article. And Anil, your right, the market for design services is very saturated and differentiating is the only way to survive.

    We’ve differentiated in 2 ways;
    1) offer more than just a design service, a full branding service
    2) target small businesses but offer large agency quality.

    • Yeah, you really do need to give people a reason to specifically hire you over everyone else. With the branding services do you offer a full range of print design services in addition to web design? I assume you do logos, but how things like business cards, letterhead, etc?

    • Thanks Brett. Yeah differentiating yourself is important especially when there’s so much competition and when clients may not always be able to easily recognize the difference between you and the next designer.

  6. This is exactly what I needed to read… I’m starting my own business and I’m very confused… I’m still trying to figure out what makes me different. My “main problem” is that I’m interesting in doing a variety of different things (graphic designer)… and I still don’t know wich one to choose, because I kind of like all of them …
    Thanks so much for the information!

    • Glad I could help Romina. Starting a business can be confusing. I felt the same way when I started so don’t feel like you’re alone in this.

      Do your best to figure out what makes you different and more specifically why someone should hire you over the next person. You may not get it right immediately, but if you keep thinking about it and are willing to adjust you’ll get there.

      Don’t feel like you have to open the doors on day one knowing everything. No one does. We all have to learn as we go.

      If you like a lot of things and are able to serve clients with many of them then explore those different things. Maybe one way to differentiate yourself is by offering clients many services so they don’t have to hire a lot of different companies. Small business owners often prefer dealing with one person than many different people.

      You may later find that some of the things you really like you don’t like as much a year or two from now or you may find a couple of things a lot more a year or two from now.

  7. Very good artycle. I like design very much, and so i want to get bussiness with my hobby. Would you like help me to be enterpreneur of designer? I’m an Indonesian. Thanks before

  8. Excellent, I had my studio for almost 2 years now, and you make a very valid point that truly applies to design and any business that has competition. In the design world having a differentiating factor is extremely hard even if all you do is design no SEO or any other offerings. The other issue is going niche, is only good for the designers bottom line as it hinders growth and creativity, and for the client, not so good either – i often see these final products of niche designers, and it’s not hard to tell the many skipped steps in the creative process & who can blame them (If all I do is design site for X niche, why would I do any research, it’s another X niche site to add to my hundreds, frankly wouldn’t be surprised if all they do is change color in CSS) given I see their clients all ending up with very very similar looking sites. As a design studio your business should come from meeting people and referrals if both you are good and plan on charging your worth.. From your site the larger majority of inquiries will be from people who think you are wal-mart and trouble is there are too many wal-mart’s out there willing to do it for nothing..
    What I am trying to say is clarify the above on your site or you will spend more time giving proposals then working on projects, and for the sake of the industry if you are talented, stop devaluing yourself and the industry. Your site is very important it helps show people what you can do and you never know what the exposure will bring you, and because you never know, do not rely on this to be your only source or you are 97% likely to be in for a harsh reality.

    • Interesting points Tony. I do think you have to differentiate yourself in some so as not to be presenting yourself as the Walmart of design. There are lots of ways to differentiate yourself though.

      Designing for a specific industry or two is only one way. Sure it means you may not explore further out than what’s necessary for the specific industries, but in a way that’s the point. You focus on a smaller set in order to better serve that smaller set. I don’t think it means you have to skip part of the overall process. I’m completely with you about this being about the bottom line and not necessarily for your growth as a designer. Those two things often seem to be at odds.

      I completely agree that meeting people and getting referrals is the best source of clients, but even there you specialize in who you meet. The referrals they send will also be specialized to a degree based on the work you did for the original client.

      Good point about showing people what you can do on your site and not devaluing yourself.

  9. Steven, I agree with where you are comming from on the personal perspective.. It is not hard to differentiate ourself’s because we are all different and so is our backgrounds.

    What I was trying to say was in term of a studio (why your studio over his studio, Value added differentiator) the only two I could come up with are: (1) only serving a specific sector
    only doing certain types of design, such as app design vs web.
    You donate to charity

    That is basically it..

    Clients will not choose you over others because you are a studio/freelancers that only does “custom web design & no or other service.” Also will not choose you because you
    Use different words that mean the same thing “I don’t build websites, I build online experiences” also not a differentiator because it adds no value & differentiators must add value.

    I know your article was geared towards individual, I just bring up the studio part.. I was actually talking about this earlier today do think going niche is a great idea because of the direction and focus it gives you.

    • I see your point. For example one way I’d say a business could differentiate itself is by focusing on local clients. There are some people who simply want to work with someone local. However, where design is concerned, I see how that kind of client is likely to be smaller and more likely to approach a freelancer than a studio.

      I would offer that the personal always applies. Even in a studio there’s likely one or two public faces who’s personality could be the differentiator. I’d also add the work itself is a differentiator. Because we are all different and produce different work that work should show a different “personality” from studio to studio.

      Another thought popped into my head as I’m writing this. At the moment a studio could differentiate itself by being known as a “responsive studio.” That won’t be the case for long, but I think it might still apply. It certainly could have been a differentiator a year ago to be known as a responsive studio. It probably still can be today. I’m sure there will be other similar things a studio could jump on for a time as the industry changes.

      Still thinking out loud, I would think a studio could differentiate itself by deciding what kind of clients to serve Fortune 500? Small businesses? You might gear your marketing to work with businesses more likely to be of a certain political or religious bent. You might market to attract women or men. You might market to attract who value quality over price. Any way you can define the characteristics of people gives you an opportunity to differentiate your studio by trying to appeal to those characteristics.

      I completely agree that custom design or different words like building online experience aren’t a differentiator, except maybe in a bad way. :)

      I do see what you’re saying though. Working as a freelancer I naturally come to this with the perspective of a freelancer and readily admit some things I’m suggesting might not apply as well to a studio.

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