Starting a business as a web developer can be difficult. Without a portfolio and references, the only thing you can offer is skill and imagination. Showcase that by developing a niche product - a website designed to meet the needs of a specific type of business.
The difference is in the approach.
For an independent web designer just starting out, finding work may be a daunting proposition. Online job boards are often flooded with people who promise to work for peanuts and deliver on an impossible schedule. Businesses who hire the lowest bidder will most certainly get what they pay for in the long run, but how does a new developer get a foot in the door? How do you gain credibility without an impressive list of references? What would make anyone want to hire you?
One answer is a tried and true advertising staple: find or create a niche. A niche is a specialty or a unique position in marketing. For a web developer, a niche would be a website designed to address the specific needs of some type of business; one that could be marketed to a large number of businesses with similar needs.
Niche marketing is perfect for the web, although it does take a leap of faith. You may have to do a lot of development before the payoff; building the product before you can sell it. But a package deal that appeals to a lot of potential customers can be the fastest way to build a portfolio and a reputation on the web.
Identify a need.
To find a niche, first consider your skills. Make an honest assessment; deluding yourself won't net customers in the long run. Do you have experience in merchant services, back-end CMS, or member services such as forums and chat rooms? Once you have determined what your capabilities and strengths are, look for a category of business or organization that fits your skill set and develop a website loaded with features to meet their needs.
One good example of niche marketing to consider is HOA (Home Owners Association) websites. HOAs are member organizations and need services that cater to their members and a way to communicate news and information to the neighborhood and potential buyers. A good way to start is by looking at HOAs online and making a list of common features, then expanding on that list to include more than what you can find on the web. Most organizations depend on member interaction, so an HOA website with a social structure at its base would be an easy sell. You might develop a newsletter formatting tool that produces an html output for mailing, a mailing program to send out to all the members, a services directory, an emergency alert mailing program, etc. Figure out what they need and offer it to them.
Build a better mousetrap.
To create a solid niche for your business, you'll need to build a better mousetrap. Offer more, make it visually appealing, be more accessible, and keep the price reasonable. Consider this: in any given city, there are hundreds of HOAs and many of them are not online. A tiny percentage of that number would generate a great deal of income. If your website is functional, self-serviced and user-friendly, maintenance will be minimal and referrals would be frequent. It just doesn't get any better than that.