83

Background: I'm a 17 year old schoolkid who does web design as a hobby. I'd like to do paid work as a freelance website designer but I have zero experience aside from projects for myself or friends.

Suppose one day I get a message from a potential client and they ask to meet up. How should I behave when I meet them? Should I act like the people on The Apprentice or Dragons' Den: all straight-faced, serious, well dressed, throwing around long words and business-y jargon. Or is it okay if I'm more relaxed and casual? By this I don't mean I'd treat them like a friend, but more like how I'd treat a teacher at school, or an acquaintance of a roughly similar age.

Given I have no prior experience, the straight-faced suit-and-tie approach seems a little daunting and scary. The second would feel a lot more relaxed and natural and as it's what I'm most comfortable with, but at the same time I would rather be a little uncomfortable than come off as laid-back, lazy, a slacker or worse offensive, vulgar or tactless.

Is there a rule or trick to this? Should I make a judgement call on which approach would be better for that person each time I meet someone new, or should I just go for one every time and only switch to the other if they do?

(FWIW, I'm in Birmingham, England)

  • 1
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Aug 20 '16 at 4:31
  • 2
    Don't act like the people on The Apprentice or Dragons' Den! Both of those shows have as much resemblance to a real-life workplace as a soap opera does to real life. BTW in many tech companies suit-wearing can actively hurt the image you're trying to project - @jkf's answer below has a lot of truth to it - catb.org/jargon/html/dress.html remains relevant. If you're freelancing/contracting then "dress like the client" is always good advice. – A E Aug 21 '16 at 21:41
129

As a 17 year old you'll probably find two sorts of clients to start with. Those who already know you or are referred to you and online ones wanting cheap work done.

With the online ones it's not actually necessary to meet them physically. I've done a lot of work for people I have never met. I've done the work cheap, and I'm not keen on taking time off from playing vid games to go out and meet them which is added expense as well.

With referrals and those who already know you, clean and tidy is all you need, and act seriously. They're putting their money on the line with you, act like you're worth it. Listen, make intelligent suggestions, don't disparage their half-baked ideas and work out a solution for them.

You live off your reputation after you have gained one, so do it properly from the start. Word of mouth will be your best advertisements. Always remember that what is a small, easy project to you, can often be quite a big deal to a client and they'll boast (or complain) about it for ages, so do the little things.

  • 15
    Good advice +1 Reputation is everything – Retired Codger Aug 18 '16 at 20:05
  • 1
    @BЈовић I have no idea what casual is, whatever is acceptable in the OP's locale. It's a pretty easy judgement call especially when the client is family or friend. – Kilisi Aug 19 '16 at 6:26
  • 3
    Jeans and a t shirt would be casual dress, while ripped jeans a t shirt with a logo on would be very casual. – Dustybin80 Aug 19 '16 at 7:42
  • 2
    @Dustybin80 Does really a logo ruin T-Shirt's professionality? I don't see many logoless T-shirts around. – Tomáš Zato Aug 19 '16 at 13:00
  • 13
    I'd suggest ditching t-shirts altogether. Even if you're just doing work for an extended family member, get a collared shirt (short sleeve is fine, button up or polo) and some slacks. Changing the way you dress -- even just a bit -- can affect your mentality and interactions with them. As someone who is seriously averse to "dressing up", I've found collared shirts and slacks at least tolerable. – Doktor J Aug 19 '16 at 18:56
35

There is a distinct difference between securing clients and working for them. When you're making your pitch, it's suit and tie, no visible tattoos or piercings, ready for action and chomping at the bit.

The reason being is that young people are known to be lazy. It's a fact of youth and we've all been there. It's also a bit of stereotyping and bigotry, but that's life and we've all faced it.

The way you get around it is to be professional. Show that you are not what we expect. If I, as a client am not impressed by your physical presentation, I'm not going to look at your work, because if I see a sloppy person, I will assume sloppy work. Is it bigoted on my part. Yes. But I'm the client and I don't need to impress you. You need to impress me.

Once you secure the job, you follow what the corporate culture is. If they all show up every day with a suit and tie, so do you. If they do business casual, so do you, with one caveat:

As a freelance/contract employee, you are expected to be better than the everyday employees, so you need to dress the part. Whatever the dress code is, you exceed it. If it's Jeans and T-shirt, wear slacks and a polo shirt. If it's slacks and a polo shirt, you wear slacks and a button down shirt. If it's slacks and a button down shirt, add a tie as well, and so forth.

I've been consulting for a few decades now and learned much of this the hard way. Learn the easy way and follow my advice.

15

Others have given the traditional businessy answer, which is to get out there and wear that suit -- this will impress people with your ability to, IDK, wear a suit?

I will offer a counterpoint which is IME more true in the modern world:

In my part of North America, the only people that wear a suit to work anymore are bankers, lawyers, and insurance salesmen, or else people who work for a large company with controlling management who feel that enforcing a dress code is important for whatever PHB reasons!

If you are meeting with any of the above people, then you should wear a suit.

If you are meeting with anyone else, particularly if you are not that comfortable in a suit, your wearing a suit will make them feel uncomfortable, and possibly think that you are strange or untrustworthy.

I am a freelancing CS professional; I happen to be very comfortable in a suit, and have a nice one to wear when meeting suit-wearing clients. This is becoming increasingly rare as the years go by, and I am starting to err on the side of not wearing the suit if I am in doubt, due the above effect.

Therefore, my advice is this:

Get yourself a few nice pairs of slacks and some button-up, collared shirts. Not from Walmart, but you don't need to spend a lot of money either. Wear them fairly often for day to day life, so that you feel comfortable in them, and they look broken in when you do wear them on a sales call.

This is already much less casual than what most people are wearing, and will show more than enough respect/professionalism in most cases. If you get a call to build a website for Donald Trump or Kevin O'Leary, go find a good tailor and get them to build you a nice suit. It will last you for a long time, and you can also wear it for nights on the town, going to the opera, or other worthy occasions. Other than this type of situation, nobody expects a web designer to show up wearing a suit.

The fact is that in some areas, people might expect a web designer to show up in jeans and a t-shirt, and find the button down shirt to be a sign that you are too uptight; but you've got to find a middle ground somewhere.

All of the above applies equally to how you act/behave when meeting a client -- don't be casual as though you are hanging out with your friends, but don't bluster like you are Donald Trump!

Just be relaxed, competent, natural, and intelligent -- this is what people want.

  • 7
    Upvote for "nobody expects a web designer to show up wearing a suit". In fact, anyone wearing a suit most likely is not a web designer. I'd trust a web designer in a suit almost as much as I'd trust a banker with a nose ring. – MSalters Aug 19 '16 at 8:24
  • This answer deserves more upvotes; it sums up my opinion on the matter quite well. While you should hold yourself to a minimum standard (e.g. button-up shirts and khakis or slacks), there are very few situations in which a suit would be necessary, and just as many -- if not more -- where it could actually make the potential client feel awkward or uncomfortable. Present YOURSELF, not your clothes. If you want to look nice, do your hair, shave/trim (if male), and brush your teeth. – Doktor J Aug 20 '16 at 5:14
7

This is a balancing act between being true to yourself and matching your client.

If you're meeting with a very traditional company/person (bank), dress more formally. If you're meeting with someone less traditional (tattoo artist), dress less formally.

At the end of the day, be true to yourself.

If you're naturally very casual and laid back, don't feel pressured to wear a suit and tie to meet with the more traditional client. Be clean, tidy, and more nicely dressed (slacks and shirt or khakis and polo instead of torn jeans and tank-top). If you're naturally buttoned up, don't wear torn jeans and a tank-top just because you think your tattoo artist client would be more comfortable that way. Wear your normal business casual or formal attire.

  • 1
    unlikely to be getting any bank work at 17 with no experience I would think. – Kilisi Aug 18 '16 at 20:12
  • 10
    Yeah, that's one problem you won't immediately have to worry about. In fact, at 17, still in school and upgrading a hobby, if you find yourself needing to buy a suit just to get a meeting with a prospective client then either you're absolutely smashing it or (more likely) barking up the wrong tree. I find it hard to imagine the client that consciously thinks they're happy to hire a part-time web dev who's still in high school, but only if they wear a suit to the first meeting. First impressions can have surprising effects, so you never know, but likely not the questioner's market. – Steve Jessop Aug 18 '16 at 21:22
  • 3
    Certainly, Bank of America or Chase isn't going to hire a freelance high school student, however, you'd be surprised by what a small, local bank or credit union, law firm, or other more formal organization might want/need. Formal does not equal big, sophisticated, or technically knowledgeable. If Deep is in a smaller locale, there may not be a lot of web design options nearby or willing to charge small town prices. – Chris G Aug 18 '16 at 22:14
  • Yes, if the bank is small/new/rural and doesn't already have a site, they likely won't have an immediate desire for the whole online banking shebang -- in which case having a 17 year old do the site isn't entirely out of the question. The one caveat here would be that you should be willing to turn over the site to a professional firm when the bank does decide they want online access. – Doktor J Aug 20 '16 at 5:10
6

The most important part of your question is this.

Suppose one day I get a message from a potential client and they ask to meet up, I go in to meet them. How should I behave?

Emphasis mine

The answer of course is it depends.


At this point you should be saying "Well, that's not very useful. What do you really mean by 'it depends'?"

With that, lets segue into talking about branding (not branding).

Before you get/acquire/talk to/meet clients, think about how you want them to perceive you. How you talk, how you act, what you wear, your professional courtesy (or your lack thereof) are all part of your personal brand.

It's easier to understand with some examples.

Close your eyes and imagine—wait, open your eyes and finish reading this first—you're walking into a bank.

Imagine you walk up to the teller. What types of clothes is the teller wearing? The janitor walks out of a back room; what types of clothes is the janitor wearing?

Now imagine you walk into a different bank (not in Hawaii) and the teller is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts. Would you trust this bank with your money?

To further the point. Imagine you're checking out at the grocery store and the bag boy is dressed in a full suit with a top hat. Would it make you feel uncomfortable?

These examples are set to illustrate the point that there are expectations for different roles and meeting or challenging these expectations can have very real consequences for business.

With all that said the exact choices every company makes for these experiences is part of their brand. Grocery stores use t-shirts and jeans for staff so that they're approachable. Banks use formal attire to give a sense of security and trustworthiness.

So how does this apply to behavior?

Your behavior is part of your brand. At a bank you expect courteous formal behavior. At a bar you'd expect informal friendly behavior.

How you behave will directly affect how you are perceived.

As far as deciding how you should behave. First determine how you want to be perceived.

Pick some keywords:

  • Smart
  • Courteous
  • Casual
  • Fun

or maybe

  • Trustworthy
  • Polite
  • Accurate
  • Experienced

and then elaborate on what sorts of behaviors would drive the characteristics you want to embody.

For the "smart/fun" person, maybe you talk using slang and communicate via text while wearing shorts and sandals.

For the "trustworthy/experienced" person, maybe you speak formally and follow up every phone call with an email to recap.

But in the end, it depends on you.

What if you pick wrong?

If you don't like the choices you've made, there's a simple solution: Rebrand. Companies do it all the time. Don't be afraid to change to better serve your clients.

2

It used to be said that you could recognize an IBM service technician because, when he took off his blue blazer, his sleeves were already rolled up.

Most are more comfortable if they can initially put you in a category they know how to deal with, and then note how you differ from other examples of that category. It's helpful if that category is one similar to themselves. So IBMers, whether sales, service, or anything else, would dress like "businessmen" when dealing with businessmen.

The exception was the Research division, whose people were expected to be wierd academic types and thus could get away with outfits and hairstyles and behaviors that were more typical of college campus than boardroom. Besides, they were often dealing with other academics, so the non-uniform was in fact the correct uniform.

Of course these days business garb has become more casual. But the old rule about "dress for the job you aspire to" still has some truth to it. Executives still tend to dress up a bit, and since the executives are the ones who will probably make the decision about whether to spend money on you or not you probably want to go at least half way to meeting their dress code.

-2

I don't want to seem too negative here. But the key thing that people look for from any contractor or other freelancer is experience. They want someone who they know can just do the job for them in a way which works 100% of the time. More importantly still, they want someone who can do a job which future people can easily add to or modify.

If you're 17, then you simply don't have the experience for anyone to hire you. By the time you've got the experience, by working a couple of years for someone else, then you'll know how to handle meetings because you'll have been doing that all along.

  • 4
    So not true. There are plenty of small businesses out there for whom hiring a full time webmaster is a completely ridiculous and unnecessary expense, and mom-and-pop shops in particular may not even want/be able to afford an experienced contractor/freelancer. Such jobs are ripe for the picking by an "inexperienced" 17 year old, especially if he/she has personal samples available to show (i.e. template/sample type sites just to show skill and style). – Doktor J Aug 20 '16 at 5:18
  • Inexperienced doesn't need quotes, because it's a simple fact. He hasn't been alive long enough to have experience. I'm sure there are mom-and-pop shops where mom's friend says "my son likes messing around with this stuff - give him a go?" and that's fine. Any kid taking a Computer Studies/IT module at school should be able to do this anyway. He might make some pocket money now from doing stuff for friends and family, and anything he does with this will look good when he applies for a proper job. But no-one prepared to pay him enough to make a living will hire him. – Graham Aug 22 '16 at 9:03
  • "Inexperienced" does need quotes. Experience doesn't need to be career/professional experience unless you're an HR flunkie checking off bullet points on a list of requirements. I've seen plenty of young, "inexperienced" people who have a more intimate understanding of and more passion for their chosen field than many so-called "experienced" professionals. I've seen websites by so-called professionals that looked like crap and had poor browser compatibility, as well as websites by "inexperienced kids" that could rival a $1000+ "professional" design job. So yes, I use quotes very intentionally. – Doktor J Aug 22 '16 at 21:53
  • Personal anecdote: as an "inexperienced" 15 year old, I wrote student and fleet tracking software for a driving school, and if you were to do the per-hour calculations, I made about $20/hour off the jobs, and this is back when minimum wage was under $7/hour. So your comment about "no one prepared to pay him enough to make a living will hire him" is factually FALSE. – Doktor J Aug 22 '16 at 21:54
  • Well done for that. Seriously- it's a great achievement. To make a living out of it though you need a lot more than one client. Say $200 a week for the bare minimum to scrape by? I'll guess at $600 for how much you got, which is 3 weeks survival. So you need to find one of these clients every 3 weeks in order to not starve to death. If you want to run a car, rent more than a single room, or have a social life, then make that every 2 weeks. – Graham Aug 23 '16 at 9:42

protected by Jane S Aug 19 '16 at 2:54

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.