How I Made Web Design Profitable by Not Doing Web Design

Dec 3 2013 by Brent Weaver | 7 Comments

The first website I ever created for money was back in 1999. I earned $900. It was a flat-file database for an import/export business. After that, I made a $500 website for a Michigan-based cookie company. I was just in the last year of my high school career, so that kind of money was pretty sweet.

I formed a partnership with a high school classmate, and a web agency was born.

This business was a side gig throughout college, and wasn’t really amounting to much considering our focus on studies (and everything not related to studies).

Eventually, I turned this business into a very profitable venture that I sold last year.

Back to the story: When it was time to get real jobs after college, we decided that it would be a better idea to just skip the whole job application thing, and see if we could make it on our own. This was in 2005.  By this time, both of us were rather adept at design, development, and building a project from start to finish.

Over the next two years, our focus was on our projects. I loved the technical aspects. New innovations, design techniques, and tools.

Huge Problem

Except there was one big problem.

Our business was always redlining. Never enough clients. Never a big enough paycheck.

I received a brutal awakening in 2007.

I only had $3 in my checking account with a $5,000 credit card balance.

Oh yeah, and I was late two months on rent. And hadn’t paid my employees in a month.

It gets worse.

I had also accumulated $135,000 in debt with the IRS.

So what the #$&% did I do so wrong?

I focused too much on the technical aspects, and not enough time on the business side of things.

I loved web design. I loved creating websites. I loved indulging on big, fat technical books with titles made of acronyms. But this love was killing me like a barrel of fried chicken kills a man struggling with obesity.

My $3 checking account and huge debt was an awakening. It was the official letter from the universe saying I had enough.

Turning Point

Eventually, I was able to overcome this business crisis.

And now, in my work helping web professionals build successful businesses at uGurus, I ask a simple question: What is your greatest pain?

The answers I get can be summed up in these two problems:

  • I need more clients.
  • I don’t get paid enough.

The solution to these two problems is rarely a lack of technical prowess. Making the assumption that you are able to build a website, or that you can find someone that can, the answer to solving these two problems is learning how to do everything in a business except web design. These things are:

  1. Sales
  2. Marketing
  3. Operations
  4. People
  5. Money

I learned to prioritize these soft skills of building a company and to value them over the raw technical abilities required to execute a project.

The results were consecutive double-digit revenue growth, profits, and the start of a wealth-building future.

But when I look at what our industry prioritizes, it’s the technical porn all the way at the top.

When looking at the leading web design blogs, for example, you’ll find evidence that they are playing to our desires, and not what’s really going to move the needle in terms of our goals and aspirations.

Recently, I looked at the latest 50 blog posts from 5 design blogs. I counted the number of posts related to business. Here’s what I saw:

The number and percent of business-related posts out of 50 posts
Designmodo 0 0%
Sitepoint 3 6%
Speckyboy 3* 6%*
Six Revisions 4 8%
Smashing Magazine 6 12%

*The posts I counted were "freelance" or "career" oriented, and strictly business-related.

It seems as an industry, we all overeat at the technical buffet.

Our desire tells us that if we just get one more font library, look at design inspiration galleries, or learn a new web programming language, we will be able to finally achieve that next level in our lives.

But there is one problem with that desire: There is not a single technical article on any of these blogs that is going to change your life. None of it will provide the deep nutritious value that will solve your greatest pains of prosperity: getting more clients and more value for your services.

Seeking Out Help

My first move at the depths of business failure was to reach out to a couple of mentors and ask for help.

The improvements started slowly, but getting a steady supply of nutritious advice brought life back into our operation.

Just like any positive change we undertake, after it starts to gain momentum, you can feel worlds better than you did before.

Eventually, I joined a business incubator called Accelerator to help fast-track my trajectory.

And this is when my life significantly changed. I found a nutritious regimen of business education and a valued network.

One of the first concepts I learned in Accelerator was Covey’s Time Management Matrix, or the basic four quadrants of prioritization.

Covey Time Management MatrixSource: sidsavara.com

The graphic is somewhat self-explanatory, but the key area that Accelerator taught me to carve out time for is Quadrant 2. This is the space that I had never spent much time in. I was always at 1, 3, and 4. I was always solving the problem at hand, studying what interested me most, and allowing distractions to become priorities throughout the day.

Quadrant 2 requires that you stop doing busywork and stop moving from task to task. It requires you to create an empty void of space to focus on things that have no pressing value to your day, but rather, to your life.

I started to think about these priorities regularly:

  • Vision: Where am I headed? What is my why?
  • Mission: How am I executing on my vision? Is it a mission others are interested in?
  • Core values: What am I not willing to compromise?

Crafting a vision for one’s life is a very important exercise.

A vision allows you to climb atop a mountain and look into the distance to decide what peak you intend to summit next. When you begin to craft a vision for your life and business, others will take notice.

People started hiring us because they understood we were forward-looking. We weren’t focused on building websites for bottom dollar, we were about helping our clients find their way to success; online businesses just happened to be the medium.

Five Areas of the Business to Focus On

Sales

If you can’t make money doing something, you aren’t going to be doing it very long. Figuring out your sales problem is priority numero uno.

If, when talking to a prospect, you can’t navigate from A to Z in order to structure a deal, then this is a big problem.

Marketing

A lot of people think that they have a sales problem, when in reality, they aren’t having enough conversations with enough people.

Getting in front of more prospects is a critical part of growing your business.

Operations

What happens once you have business will decide whether you get future business. If you want to expand through word-of-mouth marketing, then making sure your projects flow through a stress-free process is critical. Your clients (and your sanity) will appreciate refined processes.

People

If you ever plan to grow past a single freelance operation, then you must learn how to hire, fire, and contract. The people conversation goes beyond those basics, into things like culture, learning, growth, and career path, but just delegating that first task to someone besides yourself is a huge leap for most.

Money

This is one topic I rarely see early stage web professionals spend any time on. Getting an understanding of your basic cash flow situation is imperative.

Then, if you want to grow, you need to line up some capital. Either by socking away your profits, establishing a line of credit, or getting some investment. Rarely have I seen businesses able to grow without being able to first spend money.

A Process for Business Growth

It’s hard to sit down and spend a week sorting out your business in terms of sales, marketing, operations, people, and money, but if you spread these activities out, you’ll find sustained long-term results.

I suggest you try what I did:

  1. Spend a quarter of the year (3 months) focused on one of the areas above (sales, marketing, operations, people or money).
  2. Dedicate 1 day every 3 months to tackle that aspect of your business. In your early days, this process might be something as simple as reading a book on the subject and taking notes on how these new ideas could affect your business.
  3. Each month, spend about half a day refining what you implemented from your daylong session.
  4. Every quarter (3 months), rotate to another area of your business.

A Healthy Business Forthcoming

When I consult with web professionals, we almost never talk about the technical issues with building sites. It’s always about the big picture.

I find that most of us aren’t spending enough time on the big picture. So that is why I’m a strong advocate for all of the above. I want to help web professionals build a great business.

Just like working on your personal health and fitness, the improvements in your business will take time. You’ll need to stick to this regimen for years to come. But, just like eating healthy, you’ll notice benefits right away, like having more energy.

Getting out of the business — to focus on the business — is important.

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Brent Weaver is the CEO of uGurus, a knowledge-hub helping web professionals become more profitable. For the last sixteen years he has dedicated himself to selling websites and online marketing solutions. Follow him on Twitter: @brentweaver.

7 Comments

chris

December 3rd, 2013

this is a great article! Thank you very much. I am in a perfect position to try these new tactics and really get my business where I want it to be.

Jeroen

December 3rd, 2013

First of all: my great respects for asking for help and turing this failure is a success. And thank you for sharing your experiences. Would be very helpful.

I’m already very conscious about many things you point out. Being a great programmer or designer doesn’t mean you a great salesman and you need to be all of them. My main question now are “but how?” What can i do to train all these other aspect? I started to learn more about myself and how to do things outside of my “comfort zone”.

John Tabita

December 4th, 2013

Hi Brent,

I’m the Lead Business Writer at SitePoint, and I agree with your assessment. While I seem to have a small, yet dedicated following of freelancers determined to develop business and sales skills, I’ve noticed that the technical articles get the most comments.

What you describe is the all-too-common paradigm that affects many who are self-employed. They have a technical skill (auto repair, construction, web design) and when they realize they’re doing all the work but the boss is making all the money, they have an “entrepreneurial seizure” and go into business for themselves.

Unfortunately, they go from having a job to owning a job, by continuing to focus on what they’re comfortable with—improving their technical expertise.

Very poignant article. Nice job!

Sydney Miles

December 5th, 2013

Very inspiring and helpful insights. Very succint! Thank you for sharing your first hand experience and knowledge. I like that part where you said one has to stop – to go forward…Cheers!

John Locke

December 8th, 2013

Hi Brent,

This article is speaking to my biggest pain points right now: Sales, marketing, and money/time. I am aware that before I was not positioning myself as a person who can help clients increase sales and conversion as much as I should. My analogy is that I’ve been a mechanic, and what I should be is a consultant. I’m going to continue working on improving my marketing and visibility.

Abel Ligas

December 9th, 2013

this is a great article! Thank you very much. I am in a perfect position to try these new tactics and really get my business where I want it to be.

Viki Kabakov

December 25th, 2013

This is a great article! Thank you.

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