I’ve reviewed thousands of websites of freelance creative entrepreneurs, including both part-time, and full-time freelancers. One common pattern is the use of a generic gmail address, and a free sub-domain website via Dribble, Coroflot, MyPortfolio, or Behance. Over 60% of freelance creative entrepreneurs rely on gmail and a hosted platform for their portfolios.
I get it that, for a freelancer, time is of the essence, and hard overhead costs need to be kept to a minimum. But when it comes to professional appearances, using your own domain for both your email and website has a disproportionate impact on how you’re perceived. Use of a gmail address, and Behance portfolio signals “freelance vendor.” A branded domain name, and corresponding email address, signifies a professional practice.
Why Being Perceived as a Professional Matters
In my article, “Is ‘wholesale’ freelancing limiting your future?,” I discuss the implications of the typical wholesale freelance rate—one that must fit into another agency’s fees, and a retail rate—one that’s closer to what the agency’s charge. When you find your own clients, as agencies do, you can set your rate much higher than when you must make room for an agency’s profit margin.
The key to charging a full retail rate is finding your own clients. But what a shame, if after finding such a client, you undermine your ability to charge a retail rate because of how you are perceived. Do they see you as an opportunity to cash in on a wholesale rate? Or are they hiring you because they see that you offer just as much value as a firm, even though you happen to prefer operating as a solopreneur? Their first impressions are going to bear serious weight on whether they expect to pay you a comparable firm-level rate, or a discount wholesale rate. And so your very first point of contact, your email address or website domain, anchors you in their minds as one or the other.
So while it may cost $10-$15 per year to register a domain name, and while setting up and configuring domain name records can be a tad intimidating, the benefits of being perceived as a professional by your prospects and clients is 100% worth the effort.
Some Technical Guidance in Getting Your Own Domain
If you decide to go this route, there are a few technical aspects to managing your domain that you should think through. A bit of forethought upfront can keep you from frustrating problems later on.
There are four main parts to the domain name puzzle: the domain name Registrar, the DNS host, a website host, and an email hosting provider. Many solopreneurs end up buying one comprehensive domain/hosting package to handle all four elements. This might be fine, but you should understand what you’re doing when you make that decision, because it’s also possible to have four completely different providers for each part. This, if you have the tolerance, is a more flexible long-term option.
The Domain Name Registrar
Go Daddy is the most popular domain name registrar but there are others, such as domain.com, HostGator, and NetworkSolutions. Keep in mind that all these platforms will want to sell you a bundled deal that includes your domain, web hosting, email, and other services. This can be appealing because it’s cheap, and offers a one-stop shop. But most people discover that they end up with limited options, and terrible support.
Another common approach is to identify a hosting provider first, and register your domain through them. This has similar appeal, but some of the same problems. And when your web hosting provider controls all four of these pieces, moving away from them later can become a technical nightmare.
But in fact, while you do need to register your domain name somewhere, you don’t have to have them host all four parts of your domain structure.
When you view a domain name’s registration information, there is one critical piece of information to note: the domain Name Servers (primary and secondary). Your DNS records are really the control tower for all aspects of your domain. And you do not need to use your Registrar as your DNS record hosting service. You can point to any DNS server you want by simply updating the Name Server records with your registrar. In my case, I’ve chosen to both register my domain with CloudFlare, as well as use them to manage my DNS Records.
A Note on “Propagation”
Whenever you make a change of Registrar or DNS service, it can take up to 24-48 hours for those changes to make their way across the world, as every DNS server on the planet updates its records. If you’ve ever been a part of a website redesign that involved a new domain, you may have experienced a period of time, after the launch, when some people saw the old version of the site, and others the new. This all depends on the update and refresh schedule of every DNS server in the world. One reason I like CloudFlare is, due to their popularity, most DNS servers update CloudFlare data quickly, thus propagation tends to take just minutes, rather than hours or days.
Your DNS service is the place where you direct traffic to whatever other services you prefer. Technically you use “A Records” to point internet traffic to your website, and “MX Records” to your email hosting service. Which again, might be the same provider, but in the case of email I would recommend against that.
Choosing a Website Hosting Provider
Building a professional website is a critical element to how you are perceived by prospects, and whether they expect to hire a creative professional, or a cheap alternative. Your use of a domain name, or reliance on gmail and hosted services, is a subtle yet significant factor in this perception.
The quickest and easiest platform to get a website under your own domain is SquareSpace. Personally, I prefer WordPress because it allows for more growth and customization, but you have to keep updating WordPress, whereas SquareSpace self updates.
If you go the WordPress route, you’ll need to pick a website hosting provider. Two things to consider. First, I strongly recommend that you not use your web hosting provider for your email, even if they include it. If you ever want to make a switch, moving your email can be a real chore. It’s better in the long run to maintain email separately.
Secondly, you really do get what you pay for when it comes to support. If you opt for the cheapest $3.95 solution, don’t count on much help, if when you really need it. While there are so many options, you really can’t go wrong with WPEngine for a WordPres site. You’ll pay around $30 per month, but their support is totally worth it.
One last consideration when it comes to a website hosting provider—make sure that they offer automated SSL certificates to make your site secure. Otherwise Google might block your site. SSL certificate expiration, or misconfiguration, is one of the main causes websites go down. If they do not include this, it could cost you $75 per year to buy your own certificate, and you’ll need to remember to renew and update this annually. Better to go with a host that offers automated SSL certificates.
Email is such a ubiquitous tool that we take it for granted. But when you set up email under your own domain, things get a bit more complicated. Separating this essential tool from the other parts of your domain name platform provides the most long-term flexibility for changes.
The default approach to hosting your email, outside of your registrar, or web hosting provider, is to use Google’s G Suite for domains. But while that’s very common, the support for this platform leaves much to be desired. And if you need help with your email, time is going to absolutely be of the essence. For this reason, I recommend either Rackspace hosted email, or FastEmail.com. Both provide specialized and dedicated email hosting and support. I recently switched to RackSpace, and their support is fantastic. During the process of migrating my email, I ended up having to update my DNS records Christmas day. I was having trouble getting Gmail to redirect some of these accounts, and needed help. I quickly able to talk to an expert who got me straightened out right away.
What are the Costs of Maintaining Your Own Domain?
Let’s tally up the potential costs of setting up your own domain.
Domain Registration: $10-$15 per year
DNS Hosting: CloudFlare- free (or it’s usually included in your Domain Name Registration)
SquareSpace $12-$18 per month
WPEngine $30 per month (there are many others in that range).
Email Hosting: $3-$10 per month (per user account)
TOTAL: $16-$55 per month
Compare that cost to the cost of not using your own domain. The difference between being perceived as a low-cost alternative or recognized as a valuable professional solopreneur can mean the difference between a wholesale or retail rate. I’ll let you do the math on that, but I think $20-$50 per month, and gaining a bit of understanding of the four pieces to the domain name puzzle, is well worth the effort.