Hiring a freelance web designer on retainer

In our last post, we talked about why it’s important to keep your website alive and evolving over time. I feel like a natural reaction from a lot of web design clients reading that post might be that you’d love to do all that stuff, if it didn’t cost too much.

In this post we’ll talk about how hiring a freelance web designer on retainer can help your website get the maintenance and constant improvement it needs without spending a crazy amount of money.

A lot of organizations that can’t afford to hire a full time employee (or a full-time staff) to design and maintain their web presence instead choose to hire a freelancer. This is usually the right thing to do, but the question then becomes how long and for what work are you going to pay the freelancer. Are you hiring a freelance web designer to build you a site over a 3 month period and then be done and gone? Or are you hiring someone to design your site and then be your go-to web person for the long haul?

This is where understanding a little about the lay of the land in the web design industry can help you get good work without breaking your billfold. The important nugget is this: Lots of web designers have good full-time jobs with benefits and stability, but also enjoy the autonomy, challenge, and extra cash that goes with doing freelance work on the side. In other words, a lot of great web designers are available for freelance work, and don’t care whether you provide them conventional benefits like health insurance, as long as you don’t care about conventional things like whether they are working from home at odd hours.

You can often get a better web designer at a better price if you agree to hire him/her for ongoing work through some kind of retainer agreement. It’s good for the designer, because he/she can count on this stable work (at least for some amount of time), and it’s good for you because it allows you to work with somebody long term, with the goal of having your website constantly evolving and improving over time. There are other reasons it’s good for you too, starting with the fact that it can save you a lot of money.

Typically, the kind of freelancer we’re talking about is not going to work 40 hours per week for you, but if you think about the kind of scenarios that could be positive for both parties, there are quite a few. For example, let’s say you pay $50 per hour and ask your freelancer to work for 10 hours per week. Then let’s say you don’t really need him 52 weeks a year, but you do want him available most of the time, so let’s say you arrange for him to work 40 weeks per year. That averages out to one week each month he’s not working. Details can vary, but the bottom line is that in one year you’d pay that person $20,000.

Maybe that sounds like a lot to you and maybe it doesn’t, but compared to hiring someone full-time and paying them $40K, $50K, $120K or more plus benefits, it’s reasonable. Of course, the most important thing is what that person does for that $20,000 and how much return you see on the investment, and this is where things get interesting. Often when you hire a freelancer on retainer, you get a better class of web designer than you would by hiring an entry-level designer for $40K + benefits.

Yeah, but the freelancer is only working 400 hours a year while a full-timer could do more like 2000 hours. True enough, but the trick is that there is a huge difference in what web designers with different skills can do in varying amounts of time. I know plenty of web designers who can do more work (and better work) in 10 hours per week than lots of other designers can do in 50. And it’s not so much about how much work they do, it’s about which work they do.

Highly-skilled web designers know how to do the right things, the things that will truly make a difference in how your company gets along. They can also help you do what we talked about before, in terms of building, evolving and growing your website so that it constantly responds and improves based on the needs of your customers and your business.

If $20,000 per year is too much money, you could try a 20 hours per month for $12,000 or 10 hours per month for $6,000. Or go down to $10,000 and $5,000 by shaving some hours off that for holidays and downtime.

I should point out that while you can get a good web designer for $50 per hour, there are plenty of designers who charge more than that. In actuality, you may end up needing to pay somebody $75/hour or $100/hour, maybe more. But whatever you pay per hour, you can get a better designer if you pay for the hours each month regardless of whether you use them or not.

This is where the rubber meets the road on a retainer. A lot of web designers will take a little lower rate knowing that there’s going to be a steady income coming in. It’s also better for them because they get to work on a more long-term project, which can often be more gratifying. Another factor that sweetens the pot for the designer is he might make 5 projects worth of money but not have to deal with 5 different clients and go out and sell his services to get those jobs in the first place.

You may at first find it unfair that you’d pay the same amount for August even if it was a slow month, but by doing this, you know your designer will be available to you for the work you need done over a long period of time. Also, just as the designer gets the advantage of not having to sell himself for 5 different projects, you get the same advantage in that you don’t have to go out and hire 4 different web designers over a 2 year period.

You can sort out the details of a retainer system any way that works for both the designer and for you, but like any arrangement, you want it try to make it work well for both parties.

If you hire the right web designer on retainer, you’ll have a competent, committed, go-to person that can do great work for you without paying for a full-time employee. If you really get the right person, you’ll have a relationship with someone who can communicate well with you about web work and teach you all about using the web effectively over the years. Working with someone for a long period of time, asking lots of questions, and talking about why different decisions make sense on the web will allow you to get the most for your money and the most from the web.

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