When it comes to your career in web development, you’ll come to a fork in the road at some point where you decide whether you’re going to work within another company, or open your own/freelance.
We’ve asked Seb Dean, owner of Imaginaire Digital, for his thoughts on building a scalable web design company if you decide to go it alone.
Tip #1 – Brand Trumps Everything
The first thing that I think is vital to mention is that you should prioritise your brand from the very beginning. I don’t mean just the colours and a pretty logo, I mean giving some deep thought to the kinds of clients you want to work with, what their pain points are and how they’d expect your brand to look.
If you’re looking to work with legal professionals, for example, it’s unlikely that they’d feel an affinity to a brand that was heavily cartoon based, with bold colours. They’d probably feel more aligned with a brand that used muted colour palettes and serif fonts. This isn’t to say that you can’t go with the cartoon-based brand idea, but you just have to think about what makes sense.
From there, your brand should permeate everything that you do. It should define how you do business, how you deal with people and your approach to winning new business.
Tip #2 – Develop a system for attracting new clients
It’s easy to start a business in this day and age, but building a business that lasts is a different story.
The main issue that new businesses have is attracting new clients and, ultimately, revenue. It’s worth dedicating a huge amount of your time to building systems and processes that will help you attract new clients to your business.
When I started Imaginaire Digital, I sat down and thought about all of the ways in which I could attract new clients over the lifetime of the company. I came to the conclusion that the ‘ideal world’ marketing strategy would look similar to this:
- SEO — attracting people that were searching for a web design agency within 50 miles of our location. The drawback was the time it would take to rank for commercial phrases in a very competitive space.
- PPC — similar to above but eliminating the time drawback. The drawback here was the investment required.
- Content Marketing — creating regular blog posts to help prospects understand the world of web design and digital marketing and creating stand-out content pieces to attract links (such as our digital marketing career guide)
- Telesales — a proactive marketing channel that I could do myself. The drawback was that it could annoy people, but (as with all sales), it’s how you approach it.
- Referrals — it goes without saying that referrals would play a huge role in the growth of the business, unfortunately we started without having any clients to refer us!
- Offline channels — such as billboards, radio advertising etc. — very costly!
- Networking — Similar to telesales, a proactive channel. The drawback is that a lot of people at networking events aren’t serious business people and can waste a lot of your time.
After defining the ideal marketing strategy, I broke it down into smaller timeframes:
Short term (0-6 months)
- SEO — start working on building the authority of the website via guest blogging, using the press, content marketing and competitor link building. Ensure the website is optimised properly.
- PPC — focus our efforts on a small group of keywords to keep to a low monthly budget
- Content Marketing — blog regularly and make sure the articles are helpful, create a stand-out content piece to attract high quality links.
- Telesales — roll my sleeves up and spend 4 hours per day cold-calling local businesses with a soft approach. Aim for 1 appointment generated for each day of calling.
- Networking — after becoming disillusioned with ‘networking events’, spend time going to industry specific shows instead and network that way.
In the early stages, I worked off a very conservative target of turning 1 in 4 quotes into a sale and I aimed to generate a minimum of 4 appointments per week from the various channels. The result ended up being that I actually averaged a close rate of 66% vs the 25% I’d targeted.
Mid term (6-12 months)
- Content Marketing & SEO — continue with linkbuilding efforts and aim for more competitive commercial terms
- PPC — increase budget and target more phrases
- Telesales — outsource this
- Networking — only attend shows in niches where we have customers so that we have a specific message — increases the effectiveness of our efforts
In the short term, I wasn’t interested in monitoring the data behind our marketing, I just wanted to generate appointments by any means necessary. However, once we’d achieved a good level of revenue, I wanted to double down on the effective routes to market and eliminate the non-successful channels, so I needed to drill down into the data a lot more.
Luckily, part of our core business is adding measurability to marketing campaigns, so this was easy!
We moved from 4 appointments per week to 9 in this period, with the same close rate.
I’m only going to discuss the first 12 months strategy with you as I think that sets you up nicely for your future business and it’s sometimes better to focus on the now instead of getting carried away with things that are far in the future.
Selling the appointments
In terms of ‘selling’, I’d say that the main thing is to be non-salesy and actually take a helpful approach. Also, plan your meetings, don’t just turn up and blindly hope to sell them a website. Think about what they’re looking for and have a look at some of their competitors that have better websites and educate them about the good, bad and ugly elements of competitor websites — it positions you as the expert that they can trust.
I also think there’s an enormous amount to be said for the 80/20 rule of meetings. You should be listening for 80% of the time while the client tells you what they need and the 20% of time that you’re talking should be used for asking probing questions about why they need the website, what they need it to do, what they’re looking to achieve from it etc. This way, you get the full picture and can quote accurately.
I’m a fan of giving the client a ballpark figure in the meeting and then going away and putting a more accurate proposal together for them.
From there, please, please, please: prioritise following up. Call them when you say you’ll call them.
Tip #3 – Fulfilling orders
Once you’re generating business, you’ll find yourself in a strange situation where you still need to be selling, but the work also needs doing. Unfortunately, against the advice of many wellbeing websites, you’ll just need to dig in and accept that there will be a period of time where you’re working crazy hours to get everything done.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to be organised in this stage of your business. This is where new processes are formed that will carry through as your business grows, start things on the right foot.
Get a project management tool and work it (take a look at the tool we use and how we use it in this article). The small investment will pay dividends down the line when compared with the negative effects of forgetting to do things.
Your goal for the first 2 years of your business should be to grow the bank account substantially so that you have enough of a balance to survive comfortably for the next two years if you didn’t make any more sales in that period. The reality is that this will never happen, but it sets the cashflow of your business up nicely and puts you in a strong position financially.
Once you’ve built a balance, take on a member of staff that’s skilled and that you can assign work to with minimal training. Make sure they’re a good fit for your business and they will become an asset that can train new staff and ensure that you’re keeping up to speed with emerging technology.
Tip #4 – Get feedback and build a reputation
Don’t be scared to find out what your customers think of you. This is the biggest mistake that agency owners make, they avoid feedback in case they find out about things their customers don’t like and the world comes tumbling down around them. Snap out of it!
You should want your agency to be the very best and, without feedback, the harsh truth is that it never will be.
At the end of every project, schedule a call with your client to find out about how the project has gone from their perspective. Explain the situation, that you’re looking to continuously improve, so even negative feedback is welcomed so that you can improve it. The likelihood is that they will have mostly positive things to say, but make sure you ask them if there are any areas they think you can improve on.
This is a good ongoing habit for you, it means that your standards and quality of service never slip and, if they do, you find out before it’s too late.
Once you’ve had the feedback, get the customer to leave a review for you somewhere — preferably on Google. Whitespark have an excellent review link generator which you can send to clients.
Tip #5 – Have an ongoing element of your business
It’s definitely true that you can build a web design agency that works project to project, but you’ll struggle with the peaks and troughs of business mentality that plagues most project based companies.
I’d wholeheartedly recommend that you build some kind of ongoing revenue into your business which will form a ‘cash in the bank’ sub-business for you. This will help you grow and allow you to hire.
Some ideas for ongoing revenue include:
- Hosting — the revenue from this is likely to be small, but still worth having
- Maintenance contracts — have different tiers for different needs. This can be a good revenue stream for your company.
- Marketing — SEO, PPC, Social, the list goes on and on. One thing I would say here though is that you should only be selling these services if you’re an expert in that field. Selling them without being an expert is simply ripping people off, don’t be that person.
Tip #6 – Don’t work with idiots
It’s very hard to stick to this, especially in the early stages, but don’t work with negative clients who are abusive. That doesn’t just come in the form of them shouting at you and making you feel like you’re not providing value, it’s also in taking liberties with your time, expecting freebies and making life difficult for you.
Cut them out as soon as they show red flags (you’ll get a gut feeling, don’t worry!) and you’ll build a business based on people that like you and appreciate your service.
Negativity can really drag you down, so don’t allow it to enter something you have control over.
We’ve been known to refund clients on deposits when they’ve started acting up, they’ll spit and shout about it and call you names, but I simply won’t work with bad clients and I would never expose my staff to them. Move on from it.
That’s all, folks! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the article and, more importantly, I hope it’s helpful for you and that you can use it to build a strong business for yourself. It’s a lot of hard work but very rewarding.
Feel free to head over to our website and contact me if you’d like to ask any questions and I’ll be happy to help.