It seems that too often in the modern world we are reliant on technology. I wouldn’t be writing this article without it. Your banking? Online. Your shopping? Online. Chatting with your friends? Online. Your business? Yes, probably online.
So when you take the first steps in starting a business, you will probably think – I need to set up a website.
But do you really need one if you’re self-employed?
What does a website offer?
A website is not just a portfolio to show samples of your work. It certainly shouldn’t be just an online business card for people to find your contact details.
A website can be much more. It offers the chance to personalise in a way other online platforms can't. It can be the first impression given to potential clients, and it’s the platform where you have the most opportunity to show people what you can do for them and then get them on board as paying clients.
Katy Carlisle runs The Wheel Exists, creating modern, professional and mobile-friendly online websites for freelancers. For her, a website can be a really useful tool: “It gives you credibility… as a consumer, I generally don't purchase services from someone who doesn’t have a website – I want a feel of who they are before I work with them.”
Think about how often in your life today you judge goods or services on whether or not they have a website.
A website, perhaps more fundamentally, offers the opportunity to put your brand front and centre, rather than your name. Your name is what the likes of LinkedIn etc. will put front and centre; any branding associated with your business will be secondary.
Is a website necessary?
Yet, of course, a website isn’t always necessary. Karen Kay, a freelance journalist, copywriter and media trainer, has had a successful career without ever having a website. Why? “For me, I think it will be more of an online business card, with testimonials and a brief outline of services, instead of a comprehensive overview of my business, with endless social media feeds and clutter. Is a website a vanity project or a strategic business tool designed to generate business?”
Regularly updating a website can take time. In certain industries, such as journalism, it’s almost a necessity to keep it updated, otherwise prospective clients will see a writer that hasn’t written in some time. The consensus appears to be that it'll look like you’re not very active or, worse, that you’re unprofessional. As Katy says: “Remember that your online presence should reflect your offline presence, and vice versa. Make sure your website reflects you.”
And Karen agrees: “A poorly-executed site is the digital equivalent of turning up to a meeting in crumpled clothes, unprepared and lacking the social and business skills to communicate effectively. It leaves a very bad impression.”
Regardless of whether your website is extremely impressive and professional, engagement and interaction are key – see page 34 for more tips on how to market your business.
What else is there?
Having an online presence doesn’t have to mean having a business website. Portfolio-based community websites such as LinkedIn and freelancer.com can be extremely useful marketing tools. LinkedIn is one of the go-to job platforms for recruiters looking for employees or self-employed people. Despite not having a website, Karen is set up on LinkedIn, paying for a professional membership: “I think it is a valuable self-updating contact book. As a journalist I feel it’s a great way to see where people are, and stay up to date with an industry that is constantly changing.”
Don’t forget real-world interactions
Just because you have a shiny new website or another form of online presence, it doesn’t mean you can rely on it solely. IPSE’s Guide to Freelancing flags up the importance of meeting face to face with clients as a means to cement relationships.
There’s also the trap of spending too much time building or adding to a website instead of being out there networking. After all, for many a website is probably not a number one source of work.
Many self-employed people get work via a referral or through word of mouth. As Karen notes: “In my experience, I don’t know of a single commissioning editor who would look randomly for freelance contributors online; they use journalists they know, or someone the publication has used before, or will try a writer who pitches an idea to them directly.
“Ultimately, I think that only you can decide whether a website is best for business. They are certainly easier to set up and run than they were, say, five years ago, and they can be a very useful marketing tool. But don’t go and set one up for the sake of it. Give it purpose. Give it professionalism. Give it the right amount of time.”
Words by Nick Walton, IPSE Press & Policy Adviser. Nick crosses between the press and policy teams, covering infrastructure and co-working amongst other things.