Web Design Business

For any of you web designers out there, get ready for a fantastic read!

As part of a continuing series on the Bidsketch blog, we’re going to talk with some really talented freelancers (and former freelancers) in the areas of web design, web development, coding, freelance writing, marketing, and many more.

Today it is my pleasure to bring you our very first entry in this series, an insightful interview with Rafal Tomal, the lead designer over at Copyblogger Media and an all-around talented and friendly guy.

While I’ve had the benefit of chatting with Rafal before on the importance of web design that converts, today he’s here to tackle a completely different beast: to tell the tale of his days as a freelance web designer.

First things first, let’s get to know the man himself!

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Gregory CiottiGregory Ciotti

Do you know how people make decisions?

Imagine you’re shopping for a new car. Now say you’re at the dealer and they tell you they have two cars within your budget that have the features you’re looking for.

“We have a Honda and a Swirt. Which one do you want to look at first?”

Chances are you’re looking at the Honda. The Swirt won’t get a test drive, much less bought. This is a very simple example of one of the tactics humans use to help make decisions.

I’ll be going over what you need to know about the decision making process and how you can use that your advantage in your proposals.

Pain saving shortcuts

It’s said the people spend almost 3/4 of their day making decisions. This process takes a large amount of mental resources. To deal with the easy ones we develop habits and routines. For others we use shortcuts that we learned early on in life to help us through the process; we tend to stick with these methods throughout our life.

There are three common techniques for making business decisions:

  • Recognition (the simplest)
  • Single-factor decision making
  • Estimating the Rate of Return


The opening to this post was a demonstration of recognition. Recognition is the easiest to explain. It basically means that the more recognizable you are to the prospect, the more likely they are to choose you.

This is part of the reason why large corporations spend millions of dollars making commercials that don’t sell you anything (think about major brands like Coca-Cola and Pepsi). It’s about brand recognition.

Building your own online brand will certainly help here but let’s be realistic about things. The internet is a huge place; you’ll be lucky to make your brand recognizable to a small fraction of your target audience. So while you want to work on developing your own brand, you also want to supplement this with things people will recognize.

An effective way of doing this is by mentioning any partners or technologies that your customers will recognize in a way that helps them build that association.

Single-factor decision making

Single-factor decision making is about using one key condition the person has in mind. So for a design related project, this means a prospect may be heavily biased in a single direction. Maybe it’s the pricing they’re most concerned with. Or perhaps it’s the timeline.

This isn’t to say that if they’re worried about pricing, timeline doesn’t matter. This just means that it’s the absolute most important factor for them, everything else is secondary and negotiable.

Keep in mind that projects aren’t always driven so heavily by a single component. In that situation the person usually falls back to using a condition that worked for them in the past. So you’ll want to ask two questions to help you get inside their decision making process:

What’s the biggest concern you have with this project?
What do you typically look for in a firm for a project like this?

Rate of Return

The last one involves calculating the rate of return for their efforts. People quickly (many times unconsciously) calculate the rate of return when making a decision. If you can show that they will receive a higher rate of return with you versus your competition, you’re on the right path.

Don’t confuse this with telling them that you’re the cheapest. You want them to understand that even if you’re more expensive, their investment will pay itself back many times over. Try not to give a broad statement, be as specific as you can.

Putting it all together

While people are typically heavily weighed in one direction, they tend to use all three factors (to some degree) when making these types of decisions. Your best strategy will be to find out which one they favor the most, focus on that one, and make sure you cover the other two

Remember, the intent isn’t to be dishonest here. You simply want to present yourself and your services in a way that flows with how the person on the other end takes it all in.

Now that you’re armed with all this decision making knowledge, you’re ready to read up on the art of proposal writing.



You became a web designer to create great web sites and applications. The plan didn’t include dealing with slow-paying clients or spending countless hours trying to find work.

It also didn’t include having to write web design proposals after you find prospective clients. Unfortunately, this is the reality you face. Quality clients expect to see proposals before they’ll consider hiring you.

What can you do about it?


Image credit: DeclanTM

Turning Proposals from Chores into Persuasive Sales Tools

You can’t avoid these tedious activities if you want to pay the bills. A lot of web designers just slog through them. They treat them like chores, do whatever they can to get through them, and move on.

But you have another choice. What if, instead of resigning yourself to being miserable every time you sit down to write a proposal, you figured out how to use proposals as effective sales tools?

This is absolutely possible.

The sooner you can figure out how to write professional proposals, the sooner you can free yourself of the burden of always scrambling to find clients.

Once you understand the key elements that make a proposal compelling – and how to structure them to grab attention – you’ll find yourself spending less time and landing more of the clients you want to work with.

The best clients (those willing to pay good money for whoever can offer them business solutions) expect to see these things. So an effective proposal is step one in negotiating the higher rates you’re looking for.

If you’re tired of struggling with this, you aren’t alone. So let’s take a Tim Ferriss approach to hack the proposal writing process, getting you better results with less effort.

The Anatomy of a Perfect Web Design Proposal


Image credit: ArtsyBee

You know the feeling. You get all geared up to crank out a few proposals… only to find yourself in the same place hours later. Besides a massive headache and few confusing paragraphs, there’s little to show for all that hard work.

This is the key reason why so many web designers struggle with proposals. They have a ton of value to offer. They just don’t know how to express that value effectively. Because they don’t know what to say or how to say it, they waste hours and their proposals still end up bland and generic.

Here’s the secret. While every proposal is unique, all of the persuasive ones follow the same basic structure.

Once you learn this structure (the “anatomy”), you’ll waste less time deciding what to say, what to leave out, and the order to present it. Best of all: your proposals get more effective at grabbing attention and convincing clients that you’re the absolute best fit for the job.

Every persuasive proposal has three basic parts:

  1. Problem statement
  2. Proposed solution
  3. Pricing information

There are plenty of nuances to think about with each of these (more on those in just a second). But as long as you include these key elements, in this order, you’ll position your proposals to succeed.

Now let’s tackle what you need to know about each of these parts.

Problem Statement


Image credit: Geralt

The first step in persuasion is showing someone that you understand exactly what they need.

That’s where the problem statement comes in. You lead with this section because it’s the best way to join the conversation clients are already having in their heads. They’re frustrated about something. They’re dwelling on a problem and need it solved.

The key difference between mediocre problem statements and good ones? Mediocre problem statements never dive beneath the “surface level” of the project. Their problem statements don’t really describe problems at all. Instead, they just rehash the project specifications.

A mediocre problem statement might look like this:

ABC Company is looking to have their website redesigned to give them a fresh new look. The redesign should include a way for customers to contact the company and a way to find locations.

Boring, right?

It’s just regurgitating what the client already knows (project requirements). That’s a sure way to lose attention. It doesn’t touch on why the client needs a fresh new look or a way for customers to get in contact and find locations.

An effective problem statement, on the other hand, gets beneath the surface and touches on the underlying reasons why the client offered the project in the first place.

A persuasive problem statement would sound something like this:

ABC Company has lately seen a drastic increase in competition. These new competitors have modern-looking websites, which are starting to attract some of ABC Company’s long time customers. ABC Company needs to redesign their website with a fresh new look to ensure existing customers are kept, and new ones are converted.
The redesign should include a way for customers to contact the company and a way to find locations.

See the difference? This approach shows clients you understand them on a deeper level than all the other proposals filling their desk or inbox. It grabs them right away.

Most clients won’t share this information with you in their requests for proposals. That means you’re going to have to dig a bit. Keep asking yourself “why?” until you pinpoint the business driver. Something is driving the project, and it sure as hell isn’t wanting a “fresh new look.”

It takes time to research this way. But every proposal you do submit will convey a deep understanding of what’s motivating the project. That translates into a higher percentage of winners!

Proposed Solution


Image credit: senjinpojskic

Now that you’re armed with knowledge of what’s motivating the client, it’s time to offer a solution.

A lot of web designers stumble here. The massive value they can deliver often gets “lost in translation,” driving would-be clients to move on to the next proposal in the stack.

Why does this happen?

Service providers fail to connect the proposed solution to tangible business benefits – things that clients can understand and appreciate, no matter their industry.

As web designers, aesthetics and beautiful websites resonate with us strongly. But we can’t afford to assume that clients value those things like we do. We can’t assume they’ll shell out cash to invest in a slick new design… just for the sake of having a slick new design!

Here’s how a mediocre proposed solution might look:

We recommend a complete redesign of the existing website. This would include a new updated logo, location search, contact form page, etc.

Pretty standard, right? Every web designer is familiar with those elements. Most clients will be too. The problem: not justifying why those elements should be included. The lack of tangible business benefits.

Now take a look how a good proposed solution might approach this:

To effectively recapture the market from new competitors, the website design must implement a marketing strategy focused on this goal. This will start with a needs analysis session that will identify the key elements of the website, different customer types, and all necessary calls to action.

Needs analysis will be followed with a content plan focused on specific goals, and will move into the design phase which will include the following…

Which one sounds more promising? The second example includes more work so it’s probably going to be more expensive, but it’ll still win the job.

Connect every aspect of your solution to a business benefit, and you’ll stand out from the pack.

Here are some business benefits that people from almost any industry will appreciate:

  • Access (if they need you to quickly tweak or update the design)
  • Convenience
  • Making more money
  • Ongoing support and maintenance
  • Saving time
  • Simplicity
  • Spending less money

Pricing Information


Image credit: bykst

The question on almost every would-be client’s mind:

“How much is this going to cost?”

The pricing information (also known as the Fee Summary) is the last major element in any persuasive proposal, and certainly one of the most important ones.

It also makes a lot of web designers uncomfortable. They find themselves trying to skirt around price completely… or itemizing every little service in an attempt to justify their rate.

That’s confusing for clients, many of whom flip directly to the pricing section before deciding whether to keep reading the rest of your proposal. A killer problem statement and proposed solution isn’t worth much if your client doesn’t read them.

Good news: you can turn your pricing section into a sales tool all on its own. By sticking to one price tag and keeping things high level, you make it easier for clients to digest. From a typography point of view, it’s best to place it in a grid.

Here’s an example:


Notice how things are nice and easy to understand?

That’s the goal. A client should be able to flip to the page and have their cost question answered within seconds. Anything more complicated, and you risk losing their patience.

Depending on the length of the project, you might want to tie payments to specific milestones. Include this in a section called “Fee Schedule.”

Proposal Element Terminology

The purpose of the three key sections above is universal, but the terminology isn’t. Each element is referred to by multiple names.

  • Problem Statement. Client Needs, Client Goals, Client Objectives, Goals and Objectives
  • Recommended Solution. Recommended Solution, Recommended Strategy
  • Pricing information. Fee Summary, Fee Schedule, Project Pricing

You can pick whichever options you like best in your proposals, as long as clients are able to glance at the element and quickly grasp its purpose.

Developing a Repeatable Process


Image credit: sarangib

Now that you understand the elements found in persuasive proposals, you can save time and trouble by streamlining your proposals into a repeatable process.

A repeatable process helps you save time instead of starting every new proposal from scratch. But it also leaves room for personalization to fit the specific project at hand. Adopting a process frees up time for you to pursue other crucial tasks, like creating recurring revenue streams.

The best way to create a repeatable proposal process is to use proposal software. Not only do you get the persuasive structure you need without a lot of manual steps. You also get an eye-catching presentation and other cool features, like electronic signatures and customizable client landing pages.

Another option is to create your own proposal templates. I’ll walk you through creating two in Microsoft Word right now.

Start by classifying each temple by proposal size: large and small.

This makes it easy to know when to use which proposal. A little project, like a three-page website, gets the small proposal template. It’s tempting to try to get away with just a simple estimate on these kind of jobs. But your efforts will pay off if your pricing information includes an element of persuasion.

Small Proposal Outline

  • Client Needs
  • Recommended Solution
  • Fee Summary
  • Next Steps

This will come out to around a two-page proposal. Notice how all the three key elements we discussed above (problem statement, proposed solution, and pricing information) are included.

I also included a section called “Next Steps.” The purpose is to give someone who’s interested in moving the project forward an easy way to do so. What is the one key step a client should take right after reading to get the ball rolling? Now’s the chance to include that information.

A good next steps section might look something like this:

To get started with the redesign, ABC Company should:
1. Call us at (xxx-xxx-xxxx) to accept the proposal as-is or discuss desired changes
2. Finalize and sign the contract.
Once the contract has been finalized, we’ll reach out to ABC Company to set up a meeting to discuss timelines and the desired look and feel of your new website.

How many times have you thought about doing something, but put it off and forgot about it because you didn’t have a clear next step? Don’t let this happen! Give interested clients a simple way to move forward, and more of them will hire you.

If you’re looking for a sample contract to see how the “legalese” might look, feel free to check out this example website design agreement.

Large Proposal Outline

  • Goals and Objectives
  • Recommended Solution
  • Fee Summary
  • Fee Schedule
  • Estimated Project Schedule
  • Next Steps
  • Terms and Conditions

The large proposal template looks more complicated than the small version. But it really shouldn’t run that much longer. Our research of over 25,000 client proposals found that proposals less than 5 pages long were 51 percent more likely to win than those that ran longer.

The key additions here are timeframe and legal information. It’s a good idea to break down large projects into phases or chunks to help clients envision which work will happen when. Naturally, both parties will want to protect themselves legally when a good deal of money is involved.

Finishing Touches


Image credit: insspirito

Now that you have your two templates with outlines in place, consider adding a little style to make your proposals really pop.

Create an elegant design (easier said than done) and use it as a header and footer in your Word template. Keep your design elements to a minimum. You want to use them tastefully, hinting at your creative ability without overpowering your content.

You can save even more time by adding some help text to your proposal outlines. This text will remind you what to write about in each section. If you’d like, you can even copy and paste some of the instructions in this article. Just remember it’s a placeholder, not real content.

Be wary about paragraphs of “recyclable text” that you find yourself including in every proposal. This stuff is too generic to be useful. Every project is different, so any content that you can reuse like that is garbage in the eyes of of the client.

Remember, clients are only concerned with their own project and how you might be able to help them!

If you want to include a Company Information page or a Clients section, feel free to do so as long as it comes after your pricing information. You want to structure the information in the most persuasive manner possible. Keeping things about yourself (or your company) last gives clients the option to read it if they want to – without forcing them.

Tools and Resources

Like I mentioned earlier, you’ll get the highest return of your time by using proposal software. This is the best bang for your buck because you get a professional look and a persuasive structure. You don’t have to worry about time-consuming details, like adding in simple page breaks within a PDF, because the features take care of those things. Proposal software also streamlines your workflow by integrating seamlessly with software like FreshBooks.

If you have to use handmade templates, follow the instructions above to create your own and be sure to include all the key elements. If you’re struggling and need some help getting started, I’ve made a few web design proposal templates available here.

Finally, web design and marketing services often go hand in hand. After all, a great website still won’t be found without adequate marketing. If you also help clients get more customers, be sure to check out or  marketing proposal template.

Any Questions?

Submitting proposals – and not just sloppy ones, but good ones that grab attention and win bids – can seem daunting. But it doesn’t have to be. With an understanding of the basic persuasive structure and software (or templates) that make creating them repeatable, you’ll save time and land more clients.

It’s time to stop wasting precious time and racking up unpaid invoices with low-end clients. It’s time to attract the clients, projects, and rates you deserve. Great proposals will help!

Do you have any other questions about what it takes to create and submit compelling web design proposals? If so, leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!



A couple of days ago I read an interesting post on 5 reasons why you should network with your competition and it got me thinking. Why not be friendly with your competition? If you think about it, there’s really nothing to be afraid of.

The thing is, there’s nothing to be afraid of because your competition isn’t like you.

To be successful you have to have something that makes you stand apart from the competition. A reason why people pick you and not your competitors. Your unique selling proposition. You see, you’ll certainly have some overlap, but you should never be 100% (or even 90%) like a competitor. If you do, then take a serious look at what you’re offering and think about how you can differentiate yourself. And do it quickly!

Being that you and your competition should differ, it becomes pretty clear how getting cozy with the competition can work to everyone’s advantage.

The question becomes, will they have the guts to accept your friendship if you reach out?

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I’m sure you’ve been there before. Stuck on a project because the client hasn’t gotten back to you so you can keep working. Emails and phone calls go unanswered; and when they’re answered, you’re greeted with excuses rather action items.

It’s a site for them and they just don’t seem to care.

You continue to chase them throughout the entire project. The worst part of it is that it’ll most likely end badly. They’ll be surprised with what you deliver

They’ll wait to come up with a string of never-ending changes and revisions because it’s not what they wanted.

And they blame you.

If you just would have consulted with them, they wouldn’t have to ask for all these changes. The undercurrent is there. You’re the bad guy.

Who’s Really at Fault?

After much back and forth you work through the final phase of the project and somehow end up keeping your sanity. Interaction with the client at the end isn’t pretty but you somehow pull it off. Still, you end up with a pissed off client. You end up stressed out and making too little money for too much hassle.

So why did this happen? Why do some clients lose interest once the project starts? Don’t they care? It’s for them after all!

They should care, but they don’t.

There are many reasons why they don’t, some of them are:

  • They procrastinate
  • What you want is not very important (to them, at the moment)
  • It’s just plain boring
  • It’s hard work (they’re lazy)

That’s right, you’re dealing with people not robots. So people get bored. They procrastinate. They slack. It’s human. We all do it. It’s just that some people do it at different times than others. And some do it more often than others.

You’re being paid money to be on the ball, so you are. They’re having to deal with this abstract idea of a web site and it’s just not all that exciting. Sorry to break it to you but what you’ve done early in a project isn’t all that interesting to them.

What can be done?

Make it a Visual Process

People are visual. That’s why you’re a lot more likely to get feedback on early mockups or comps than you are with content changes or questions about processes.

So make it a visual process. Don’t tell them how something is going to work, show them process flow diagrams, mockups, mind maps and screenshots.

It’s simple but it works. It makes things more interesting.

Make them Commit

A simple way to get clients to follow through is to make them commit. How’s this done? Give them a deadline.

Instead of saying:

“Can you send the pricing plan information so we can work on the pricing page?”


“We’re ready to work on the pricing page, to prevent delays we will need the pricing plan delivered no later than Thursday”

And don’t just say it but make sure you get them to agree to the deadline and then repeat the confirmation: “Ok, so you’re sending us the pricing plan packet by Thursday, right?”

Without making them commit to a specific date, there’s nothing preventing them from doing it later. Giving them a date makes it concrete. If you can get them to commit to a deadline in front of others (in person or through email) even better.

Motivate With Pain

One thing most of these clients have in common is that they’re motivated by pain more than pleasure. If they were motivated by pleasure then the thought of having the project completed quickly would be driving their behavior. In these scenarios, it’s not.

Ways to motivate with pain?
Jamaican Hot Sauce

Make them pay. Delays on feedback or deliverables are billable. Work that into your contract. Remind them if it looks like it’ll become an issue. Hold them to it.

Consider other penalties for delays. One of the vendors I contracted had an interesting penalty written into their contract.

The contract stated that I agreed to get required items back to the vendor no later than a week after they’ve asked for them. Delays beyond that time would be billable. And beyond that, the project would end — final payment due at that time.

Seems a little harsh but I didn’t mind at all. If anything it told me these guys meant business. They move quickly and get things done.

In the End

There’s no guarantee that any of these suggestions will turn the tide but they’ll certainly help. You’ll most likely want to use a combination of the items I’ve suggested for best results.

It’s important to remember that there’s a certain way to go about doing these things. Don’t be a hard ass about it. Be polite yet firm. Doing so will help make dealing with slacking clients a lot less painful.

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