Five Ways to Guarantee Your Failure as a Web Professional

Jan 18 2010 by Fred Bliss | 48 Comments

This article is geared towards anyone looking to implode under the crushing weight of unsustainable business practices, unreasonable client expectations, long hours for little pay, and a general sense of bewilderment as you ponder what went wrong. While that may not be you today, you may identify with one or more of these afflictions. Are you already recalling your worst client and the headaches they have caused? Here are some of the ways that you can hurt yourself as a web professional.

Five Ways to Guarantee Your Failure as a Web Professional

1. Be a Jack of all trades

It seems the conventional wisdom lies in how much you know rather than how well you know it. I see people who have skill sets that take up a lot of space on a resume. Admirable? I suppose so. Does it make you more valuable to a potential client? Absolutely not.

Think about it: has a client ever hired you just because you knew 8 programming languages and 10 web development frameworks? They hired you to work on a specific project that requires a specific skill set, and chances are you have represented yourself as an expert that is the best fit for that project.

If you can’t settle on a particular tool set, you won’t be able to gain that competitive edge we all desperately need to be successful. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but if you really think about it, no successful development company becomes so merely based on the size of their tool set. They become experts in a particular skill set, and they have value because they leverage their knowledge and find their competitive edge in that context. You can specialize in so many things; find a niche that works for you, and focus on that.

2. Take on every project that comes along

Getting work is great, isn’t it? As young, nubile professionals, there is a tendency to covet every job we get; billable time is billable time, right?

Inevitably, though, what happens as the workload increases? We gravitate towards certain types of clients that fit our skill set better, or people that we can tell understand our role as the experts versus "order-takers".

The point is this that you should be selective of who you work with. Don’t think of it as losing revenue as much as adding value for those you do choose to work with. Spread too thin, you lose the ability to be responsive to your client base; those people who are already sold on what you do, how you do it, and are willing to compensate you for the value you offer them.

3. Don’t have a business strategy

If business is good for you right now, then I would like to congratulate you on that. Often when business is good, it is easy to forge ahead and spend 8 hours in a day on billable work. You owe every moment in the office–and many of your moments out of it–to your clients first and foremost, right? It sounds harmless, but think of it like this: if you never sharpen your machete, how will you be able to cut a path through the forest?

It’s simply too easy to lose your competitive edge without knowing it, and then realizing as your clients move on one by one that the money didn’t come from manual labor, it came from your ability to continually improve upon the solutions you gave them in the first place, which in turn improves their ability to make money through the web channel.

On top of that, these are the people that are easiest to sell to. In sales, it’s called the low-hanging fruit.

4. Neglect your existing clients

Once you land a client and finish a project, be sure to put them on a nice ride that circles the park and walk away. They are happy and therefore they need nothing else from you. Time to hurry up and wait for the next word-of-mouth customer, right? Sounds like a safe plan. Occasionally you might need to call or email and see if they are doing okay, but that’s about it.

Now back to reality. When was the last time you reviewed your current client base looking at ways to improve upon their existing solution? Or talk to them for ten minutes and find out how things are going? If you are doing this, great, but all too often clients are left to grow old and hairy and slowly fade into the sunset.

Now imagine that there is a potential dollar figure that floats above each client and this represents lost potential revenue. You just can’t ignore your clients for long after that first project is completed. If they are happy with you, the first thing you have to do is think of another way to make them happy. You may want to give them some time to settle into their new digs, but at that point, you have a customer who understands the value you add to their company and will listen willingly to you for the next recommendation you can make to help increase their bottom lines. It really doesn’t get any easier than that to generate additional income.

It is good to talk to existing clients at least seasonally, but ideally to check in once per month and call it a value-added service because that is how attentive you are (to the money they are holding in their hand and ready to give to you for more awesomeness). Sounds exciting to me!

5. Don’t invest your revenue into your growth

Take the revenue, put it in the bank, and retire it from the business. "It’s been great working with you, but you can relax now and pursue whatever it is you like to pursue – maybe vacation in someone’s mortgage somewhere or take a ride in a 401K. Have fun".

Doesn’t that sound crazy? As crazy as that might sound, if you aren’t investing some portion back into growing your business (provided that is one of your directives), that is essentially what you are doing! You are sending perfectly good capital on a permanent vacation, perhaps eventually to be traded for a lifetime supply of unicorn glitter or a data plan for your cell phone.

It’s easy to be shy about using some of the capital you may have saved up to take a calculated risk on your business future, but then again, you took a risk going into business in the first place, didn’t you?

One entrepreneur thinks of his dollars as soldiers: they go out and they come back every day with hostages – more dollars. You can guarantee those dollars went out with a mission in mind though, not to wander aimlessly around waiting to be snatched up by someone else.

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About the Author

Fred Bliss is a slightly over-seasoned bleeding edge web-evangelist. He is a married father of 3 boys. He has been working for the past year on Isotope eCommerce (a hybrid solution built in with TYPOlight CMS/ Framework) as lead developer, and one third of Winans Creative.  Connect with him via Twitter: @fbliss and LinkedIn.

48 Comments

emil

January 18th, 2010

completely agree with all of these points.

though in my country, people will be getting more opportunity if they know all the software available, it’s been like that ever since i can remember.

Janko

January 18th, 2010

Nice read, although I have to disagree with you on #1. I elaborated on this subject a few days ago: http://bit.ly/4pxiHy

Itransition

January 18th, 2010

Why not use any CRM system to avoid the problems of dealing with clients? I mean CRM makes this process is more convenient and fast.

Konstantin

January 18th, 2010

Great post Fred, I believe I were unable to match all 5 points as a freelancer, but it totally applies to a web professional as a business. Especially #4, I mean if you really did do a great job of course, more dollars for dollars heh ;) Thanks!

~ K.

Dave Van den Eynde

January 18th, 2010

I hate to tell ya, but I strongly disagree with your first point. If you have a bit of experience, you’ll have experience with a number of different languages and frameworks. The technology changes so fast, that you can’t have more than a number of years of experience without having used more than one framework or language.

Also, there’s no point in settling for a particular toolset, because in a few years, that toolset is obsolete. Having experience in a number of languages and frameworks demonstrates that you have the capability to adapt to a changing environment. And if there’s one changing environment, it’s the Web.

Sarah Lynn

January 18th, 2010

I agree it is important to have a focus rather than being a jack-of-all trades, sure @emil you’ll get more work the more programming languages you know, but that doesn’t mean it is quality work. Do you enjoy working on every single one of those languages? I’m sure you have a favorite. And I think that is the point that Fred is making. You’ll enjoy work more if your an expert in the area that you offer. Your clients will show more confidence in you and you’ll be doing what you love to do, rather than just doing it to say you do it.

Nick Parsons

January 18th, 2010

Excellent article – sometimes it’s refreshing to see ‘negative’ articles like this one that focus on what you shouldn’t do.

Personally I think the first two are the hardest to fight. They feel like the ‘right’ thing to do, even when we all know they aren’t.

Thanks again for sharing this great post!

Fred

January 18th, 2010

Thanks guys for commenting, and regarding point #1, I understand why you disagree, this certainly doesn’t address techcnology turnover – I should have mentioned that it is inevitable, but it is equitable to focus on a particular toolset over all others. Thanks for reading!

Jordan Walker

January 18th, 2010

I think you hit the nail on the head with this one.

Jack Sparrow

January 18th, 2010

You forgot “Getting a girlfriend” … thats a sure fire way of destroying any freelance career.

Keith Higginbotham

January 18th, 2010

I don’t think it is bad to be a jack of all trades, I just don’t think it is a great idea to tell that story when applying for a job. Instead, show that you have the skill set they require first and maybe show a couple other skill sets to show that you are interested in growing your skills.

Other than that, great article.

Keith

Keith

January 18th, 2010

Great article, though I have to disagree, to an extent, at least, with you first point.

There is a very important role for the all-rounder, particularly when working in teams, which is often in the management of a project. Having a good (as opposed to cursory) understanding of the various facets of a project can be invaluable. And as a freelance all-rounder, I would get far less work if I was to specialise in one specific area.

However, it is important for someone who is aiming to be an all-rounder to know their limits and when they have to pull in an ‘expert’. It’s failing to do that, that will bring on disaster, rather than actually choosing to be more of an all-rounder.

There’s also probably a difference between an all-rounder and a jack-of-all-trades, but that’s another debate :)

Philip Karpiak

January 18th, 2010

Sorry for adding to the echo chamber, and I’m probably misinterpreting the post. But I disagree with #1.

Both specializing and not specializing can breed weakness. I agree that trying to keep up with 8 languages and 10 frameworks can be problematic (a borderline insane example though). But finding the time to learn others tools-of-the-trade puts you in the right mindset of being able to scrutinize your own work fairly and seeing which language, tools or skillsets best take advantage of your output.

Somebody may be awesome at PHP and Python, and maybe that’s all their current clients ask of them. But if she had branched out and learned a few more languages, or picked up some sysadmin skills, she may find that these other languages increase her output more and that she can now start taking on more richer clients (richer in budgets, networks and attitude).

Having the capabilities of being a designer, programmer and sysadmin might be not be very useful in a freelance setting. But being able to wear many hats can be very valuable in a startup or non-remote company.

Jacob Gube

January 18th, 2010

Let me chime in on being a Jack of all trades.

As a web professional, I probably fit in as a Jack of all trades because I do almost everything that relates to building websites: web design, JavaScript, PHP, server administration (setting up server stacks and optimizing them), database (MySQL/SQL Server), open source template theming (WordPress, Zen Cart, Drupal, OsCommerce), Flash AS2, high proficiency in Photoshop/Illustrator, and a whole lot more.

Even though Fred’s basically saying that what I’m doing is hurting me as a web professional – I understand Fred’s point. Though it’s cool to know all of these things, most of it is for bragging rights, self-fulfillment, and self-education. I don’t think any client would hire me because I can use both jQuery and MooTools. They wouldn’t care if I knew Perl if they’re looking for a PHP developer.

Would I have done things differently when I first started out? Probably not, but not because I think being a Jack of all trades gets you more clients, but because that’s my personality – I’d get too bored being just a [insert technology] developer. However, I have paired down my list of skills to what I think to be my strongest points: JavaScript, front-end development (HTML/CSS), and PHP.

I think the biggest thing to take away from that is: if you’re not interested in learning something, focus on what you do love doing and master it. Be the best at that one thing. Don’t pick up Perl or PHP or Rails just to compete, because trust me, if that’s the attitude, there will be a others more qualified than you who are passionate about those technologies that will probably get those jobs.

Great discussion folks – keep ‘em coming, I love reading comments like these!

Anne

January 18th, 2010

Read AIGA’s Designer of 2015 competencies

http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/designer-of-2015-competencies

With respect, I disagree with #1 of your post. There are good reasons why it is good to diversify one’s skills. One doesn’t necessarily have to be an expert in all, and instead focus only on one or two specialties. But having a working knowledge of other skill sets necessary to one’s field of practice gives one an opportunity to make wiser decisions.

David Burch

January 18th, 2010

I also disagree with #1. The clients I work with need massive action. They need someone they can depend on to get things done and don’t have the time or resources to locate and evaluate experts in individual areas of expertise.

jhoysi

January 18th, 2010

#1 is definitely not cut-and-dry, IMO. I agree that you shouldn’t be a literal Jack-of-all-trades, but at the same time a degree of knowledge in all the facets of a project will make you more valuable.

Narrowing your focus to too tightly-closed of a niche is just as damaging as not having an understanding of all the pieces and parts that go into making the project complete.

I better explain what I mean here: http://wevegotideas.com/2009/12/04/know-design-and-development/

Stewart McCoy

January 18th, 2010

As an aspiring web professional, I feel a lot of pressure to know about all aspects of the design and development process (visual design, front-end, back-end, user experience documentation, analytics, project management, etc.).

#1 is reassuring and provides me some peace of mind that I can focus on a couple aspects of the design/dev process and really hone my skill set.

Whether I will do that is another matter. I love having my hands in so many different pots. I’d rather work to become extremely proficient at all aspects of the process; along the way I might become an expert in one or two areas that lend value to future employers.

Melody

January 18th, 2010

Good tips…being a jack of all trades is like when new companies say that they want to market to “everyone” without any prior marketing experiences…don’t take up too much because your real audience gets lost in the jumble..

Jay

January 18th, 2010

Absolutely agree with all points, except #1. Of course being a jack of all trades will not generated more revenues or customers. It simply shows you a variety of solutions to your customers requirements.

Example: Being a Typo3 Genius is nice but for most of our customers oversized.

Fred

January 18th, 2010

I’d like to add some further thoughts regarding #1 – those who disagree, I also agree with you, what I should have done is made a less broad statement – focusing in more specifically on what I meant – its more about specializing in your business – *developing your services with specific toolsets* without forsaking others. You see, I have never sold people on what development tools I use – I have sold myself as being an expert in a particular CMS and as a result i spend almost all of my time with PHP, Mootools and the TYPOlight framework. That is what I mean by specializing, because it allows me to quantify and better control the project cycle and its related costs, something that is harder to do if you are not set on a particular CMS and the related tools that support it.

If any of you have read “Good To Great” by Jim Collins you might remember the “Hedgehog Concept”. This is really what I am trying to get at- and I missed the mark a bit in #1. I’ll save that for another article! :D

Dan Bowen

January 18th, 2010

Couldn’t agree more, these are great tips. I especially like #2, I definitely need to pay more attention to this one.

Al Newkirk

January 18th, 2010

Yeah, you’re way off with #1, in my experiece Jacob Gube is sorta right, knowing alot about alot is definitely alway more beneficial. Think about it from the perspective of a employer or client (or person hiring) but instead of using extremes of two technologies that are too closely related, think about it in terms of technologies that compliment each other.

E.g., I’m a client looking for a Perl programmer and a UI person that knows ExtJs, and you are a web professional that knows both. Obviously given that scenario, I could kill two birds with one stone by hiring you. Other scenarios add to that and make sense as well.

The End.

Black Sand

January 18th, 2010

I agree with you. That is a good topic.Thanks

Anthony

January 18th, 2010

Really agree on the jack of all trades point. I know a lot of people who want to know everything.

Julianne

January 18th, 2010

when I read the heading, I thought “what a know-it-all wanker, here we go, some idiot with some patsy ‘business’ advice” yet I was compelled to read it on the off chance there was something useful. But actually as it happens, these are all valid points. Well done.

SahanZ

January 18th, 2010

I agree, even though I’m not a professional I have good clients not many, less than 10 :P. But they like to work with me.

However I think every designer/developer(freelancer) shows good performance when the come to the freelance field.

Rachel

January 19th, 2010

Great points. It’s difficult not to take every project that comes along, especially in this economy, but, like in everything else… to keep our sanity we must say ‘no’.

Eko Setiawan

January 19th, 2010

Your tips is very useful for me, be simple and focus
Great … I’ll try to improve myself.
Thanks …

Keith

January 19th, 2010

Interesting thoughts coming out from others on #1…

It’s absolutely vital, I think, that you understand the skills that compliment your own. As a graphic designer (for the web) you need to understand the constraints of coding a front end, and a developer, you need, to have some understanding of aesthetics, or how can you write the code for it?

Having read this article for a second (or even third) time, what Fred says in point #1 could be entirely valid, if you are aiming to work in a large agency of the corporate world, where you are likely to have teams of specialists working together, but definitely misses the mark relating to freelancers, we need to be more versatile. IMHO

Stephen

January 19th, 2010

@Fred, great article. Thanks for elaborating on your first point in the comments section. I think you’re right: clients are less concerned with the anatomy of your skills as they are with the result of your labors. It’s more important to simply market what you can accomplish for your client.

Not to beat a dead horse, but I do have to make an additional comment on #1. I think it all depends on your region. If you live in an urban area with a glut of people in your professional field, specialization can give you an edge over your competition. But if you’re like me, and you live in a more suburban-rural area, specialization hurts you. In my circumstance, you have to develop multiple art, design and programming skills, particularly if you want to work as a full-time freelancer.

By the way, #2-5 are solid gold, lest all this talk of #1 cast a shadow on your article. :)

Jared White

January 19th, 2010

I’ve tended to be a jack of all trades simply because the work I’ve received from various projects or contracts. But lately, I’ve been really focusing on (a) being a solid, competent Ruby on Rails programmer, and (b) cleaning up my act in regards to quality typography, color, and CSS work. I think focus is good. If you know where you want to go and you’re not there yet, you’ve got to focus.

I thought #4 was an excellent point as well. Existing clients can be a huge source of new work. It’s amazing to me how much work I’ve gotten from contacts I’ve already had as opposed to always searching for new leads. Treat your clients right, and you’ll see the rewards.

Justin Moore-Brown

January 19th, 2010

Great post.

Definitely agree about the Jack of All Trades post. “Good at everything, great at nothing”

@Jack Sparrow: hahahah classic. “You forgot “Getting a girlfriend” … thats a sure fire way of destroying any freelance career.”

estevan

January 19th, 2010

god damn it. it’s like the world has no place for factotum, jacks of all trades. we’re people too, you know.

Imokon

January 19th, 2010

My only disagreement about the first point is that it is NOT a guaranteed way to fail.

I myself am a jack-of-all-trades in and out of the design industry – but this sometimes can be a good thing. My opportunity to delve behind the marketing and advertising perspectives where I work at is currently gaining me ground as well as value to the work I contribute back to them.

I agree with Jacob that most of what I know is for self-fulfillment and enlightenment, and not necessarily the right thing for everyone. However take Leonardo DaVinci for example, the point here is if you tackle something else and pursue it simultaneously, do it with passion and leave no loose strings.

Simon Carr

January 20th, 2010

I’m another one of the jack-of-all-trades type… A lot of people claim that this is a negative, but this is the first article I’ve seen where someone say it would lead to career failure… Not sure I agree with that.

Anyone who is a true ‘web’ professional, needs to be able to grow and adapt to new technologies. To me, that is what can make someone a very successful web professional. Failure to adapt, and to stick to one skill set will mean that 2 or 3 years from now – your skills won’t be highly valued any more.

I would also say that one of the most exciting things about my job is that I am constantly learning and am able to take on new challenges. I wouldn’t want to give up that freedom, even if it did mean a more stable career… Just my 2 cents.

Arcnerva

January 20th, 2010

But I like unicorn glitter. :(

michael

January 20th, 2010

I totally agree with #1. right now I’m starting to work with my cousin on a (bigger) project – he’s doing the visual design, I’m doing PHP and other technical stuff … And for me it’s really great that I can focus on one thing and try to be good at it instead of trying to do everything, which I feel would give me a much harder time as my cousin is the more artistical inclined and I just love programming. i feel that focusing on what I’m good at is the better way

Fred

January 20th, 2010

@Simon Carr – if you read some of my previous comments you will notice that I clarify #1, I’d love to know if you have any additional thoughts based on my clarifications…

Thanks!

Dave Harrison

January 20th, 2010

Gotta disagree strongly with points 1 and maybe to a lesser degree 5 , but on a more upbeat note I strongly agree with 2,3 and 4. Of course this is all opinion and based on personal experience and world-views and should not detract from Freds article. I just like alternate views to be in the mix, surely that is the point of the internet

So why do I agree with Jacob and Simon regarding Specialisation versus generalisation and not Fred. Well I am a JOAT hybrid designer/developer with 12 years experience. It is this wide reaching expertise that I think gives me an edge over many of my peers. How can being an expert in or at least extremely competent, in many areas rather than just one, be determental to my career?

I am drafting an article at the moment arguing that to be sustainable in our industry you will have to move away from specialisation. To save you reading the article, I argue that we must offer an overall web solution/strategy to our clients with real ROI. To provide this we will have to have a far reaching understanding and expertise in many fields. (yes we could outsource but that ha its own implications)

Our industry is so dynamic that in order to stay relevant we must adapt and add to our skillsets. My point being what happens if you choose the wrong thing to specialise in, ooops!

I can’t deny that I champion this point of view because I would prefer to see an industry full of passionate artisans and skilled craftspeople rather than faceless, bottom-line obsessed, sales driven entities using sweatshop production line specialisation.

Same reason I think point 5 is only relevant if your aspirations are to grow and grow and grow until you are bought out by one of the entities I referred to above!

On a more positive ending, the other 3 points I couldn’t agree with you more Fred, especially neglecting existing clients.

P.S hows that e-commerce solution coming along?

Tobar

January 20th, 2010

WOW, I’m going through that right now.. lol.. great post thanks for the inspiration.

Fred

January 21st, 2010

Hi Dave,

Awesome comments, thanks for taking the time to drop your thoughts in. Believe it or not, I have enjoyed reading all of the responses to this article including the critical ones. It underscores for me that I needed to do a better job explaining in what capacity I meant specialization. If you read above I have a couple responses in to clarify what I meant in terms of specialization and what I failed to convey to the readers – that in fact I do not disagree with the comments that largely argue against #1 but that I did not provide adequate context for specialization. I won’t rewrite it in this comment though you may find I clarified some of that particular point. I’m actually looking to address #1 more specifically in another post altogether, so look for that soon.

Isotope e-commerce has come from idea to a working early beta project with only three people conceiving and planning and two people actually coding for it, but that has provided us a tremendous benefit in developing a paradigm-changing approach to e-commerce that in particular is developer and designer-friendly. I would love to spend more time talking about it with you – I’ll send you a message so we can try and have a chat perhaps on skype.

Paula

January 21st, 2010

Kudos! Especially to the strategy part. I see too many companies just taking it day by day, seeing what we can get and how we can react to it. It’s strategy that counts folks! And DO remember that marketing should be an essential part of your plans.

xavier

January 22nd, 2010

points taken… nice read.

Paul Gailey

January 24th, 2010

I tend to agree with the author even on #1, it’s a well thought out article that contrasts with the usual guff out there, however aren’t we forgetting a crucial one, equally applicable to web pros – that of getting paid, how to price yourself, how to cashflow and protect yourself of bad debt. Ok, so it might be stating the obvious but financial mismanagement is the fastest way to failure irrespective if you include/omit the penultimate word of the title of this post.

Jason Hassig

May 27th, 2010

Enjoyed the article, and was intrigued by all the debate over #1. I agree with the author and understand his context. It seems as designers we tend to get defensive about our skill sets and methods as we often have to explain to clients how we know what we’re doing. The web is changing so quickly and it seems as if the ability to do everything is diminishing quickly. For those of you who can produce beautiful html/css, work with design, typography, copy writing, UX, code in umpteen languages, work in every popular CMS, while dealing with clients, billing, marketing, and so on and do it all great then props to you, but I personally can’t. And as the web gets more grows with more complex sites, richer web apps, increased use of video, and so on, I don’t know if anyone will be able to do it ALL. So, I suppose just pick your focus (which will probably encompass several intertwining things), because when you try to do everything something will always suffer.

Apie

January 11th, 2011

You see Fred, point one is what i will somehow not totally agree with you, it depends on how the individual positions himself in the set of skills he/she wants to acquire and the in-dept knowledge the person is actually willing to get on that field.

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