Running a web design company

On 1st August 2021, I will reach my ten year anniversary running a web design company.

It has been an interesting journey, one that begs as many questions as it privides answers, and is not always what I dreamt it might be. However, there’s so many benefits from being the master of your own destiny.

Origins

Back in 2011, I was working for a media agency as a Flash Developer. Do you remember Flash? An Adobe product that allowed you to create complex animations and interactivity, controlled through code and timelines. It was a brilliant piece of software and my favourite to work with. But, along with the rise of HTML5 and Javascript, Apple made moves that put the breaks on. Flash jobs started to dry up and I was left wondering where my career path going.

As well as working full time, I was also creating Flash resources in my spare time. The work-life balance wasn’t upto much but it was making way for the dream of self-employment. My media job was a stressful one, so together with the extra work at home, there tended to be a lot of time staring at a screen in a darkened room. Not good for the soul.

But that August, everything changed. I was made redundant from role at the agency on a strange Monday in summer 2011. My wife was worried about how we were going to pay the mortgage and cope with life etc. We had just bought a bigger house and moved to a different town miles from our friends and family. But I was excited by the freedom ahead.

To cross all the t’s, I went through the motions of re-writing my CV/resume, creating a portfolio and applying for jobs. This resulted in an interview for another agency with a good salary and prospects.

I completed the interview and it seemed to go smoothly, but the feedback was: ‘You didn’t seem to want the job’. It took me by surprise. I tried my best.

Reflecting on it, their feedback was completely true, and I knew from that moment full-time employment was no longer my way of life.

New beginnings

Luckily, our efforts at creating a revenue stream from home were showing signs of progress. When I say ‘our’, I mean I was joined by my brother Chris in forming a new business. He was working for the council finance department and desperately wanted a change of direction.

I was now able to put all my efforts into forming a full-time busines. We already had a website that was climing up the Google charts with various SEO tactics we had trialled and I had quite a few contacts from my previous jobs who were able to give us some early work.

Part of our marketing efforts involved business cards and flyers. I posted a flyer through every door in my neighbourhood, home addresses and businesss alike. I also worked on our social presence, particulary LinkedIn, which was fruitful to begin with, mainly with existing contacts.

Work started coming in faster once we created a Google Adwords campaign. This was easily the most successful way for us to get new leads. It is expensive though, especially with so many competitors in our field. But with only two of us, we soon became busy.

The flyers we posted proved a waste of time, with only one person making contact, and that went nowhere. Except, it’s worth doing, if just to cross off the list.

Earlier in our journey, whilst still in full-time employment, I crossed another thing off the marketing list. I had the rather unenjoyable task of cold calling businesses and asking them if they required a new website. This was a seriously deflating and embarrasing way to drum up business and not one I would recommment.

I’m not a natural salesperson so I prefer the gentler approach. Adwords was our friend.

Over the next two years, we worked with lots of different businesses and organisations, developing long-term relationships and being paid generally quite well.

By this time, we were number one for ‘Web Design’ organic search in our area so things were looking good.

Arcimedia stage one was complete. We had left our normal jobs and were now fully immersed in our own self-employment journey.

Day-to-day decisions

When you are growing a business, lots of questions present themselves. Some are operational decisions like your pricing strategy or how to present yourself to a client. Some are more about the bigger picture, where to go next etc.

First, I’ll deal with the day-to-day.

Web design comes in all shapes and sizes. Some companies charge a couple of hundred pounds to knock out a quick and simple website from a template, whilst others will charge tens of thousands for a fully immersive journey of web discovery, branding, alignment and strategy. We find ourselves competing with both sides so positioning yourself in this crowded marketplace is difficult to judge and hard to stand out.

The good thing is, there is plenty of work to go around. We have found a mixture of revenue streams a good way forward and keeps cash-flow at a consistent rate. For example:

  • Websites for new businesses
  • Ad-hoc development for web agencies
  • Site maintenance for regular clients
  • Newsletters and marketing for any of the above

The above list seems simple, but didn’t happen quickly. Cash-flow has been a source of problems at various times. It’s worth paying yourself a regular salary rather than everything you earn. What I mean is, keep money in the company account, ready for a rainy day. There will be plenty.

In terms of pricing, for us it comes down to the feeling you get when working on a project. If you feel you’re being fairly paid, then the work is enjoyable and you do a good job.

However, If you feel underpaid, then you will quickly get stressed and agitated about the lack of fairness. This invariably leads to worse outcomes for everyone.

We have been underpaid on many occasions and when first starting out, you expect to earn less, but as you move forward, it’s important to get it right. As we have done more and more projects, the right prices emerge that we and the client are happy with.

The bigger picture

The larger questions tend to align with your dreams and ambitions. Are you looking to make a fortune or are you looking for a certain lifestyle, or is it both? And what does that fortune or lifestyle look like?

We have asked ourselves these questions numerous times.

Many web design companies decide to take on more and more clients in order to bring in greater revenue. This means employing people to take on some of the work. It could be full-time employees, freelancers or contractors. You are responsible for their salary or payments and you’ll have various other legal aspects to deal with. By having specialist account managers, content creators, designers, developers and marketeers, you’re able to offer a fuller agency experience to clients, which in turn, allows you to charge a lot more.

Other companies prefer to develop their own internet-based products and applications, bringing in money from customers rather than businesses. You don’t necessarily need to employ anyone to do this and over the course of time, you can build up a business that goes well beyond your area and web design for local clients.

After hearing a couple of negative stories from other web design companies that decided to build an agency, we’ve always tended to focus on the second option.

That said, it’s not easy at all and requires building a business from scratch again, with very little income to begin with.

The most successful project we have created is Verse-Chorus, a website we began in 2014 for aspiring songwriters and music collaborations. It bring lyricists and musicians together to form lasting songwriting partnerships. Read more about it here.

Ticking over and taking stock

The lifestyle of running a web design company is a very much a home-based experience, with regular trips to work in coffee shops, libraries and co-working spaces. There are client meetings to attend but much of the communication happens through email and the odd phone call.

As regular work comes in, it’s easy to put your own projects aside and concentrate on the paid work, as you know this is the core of your business and there will always be bills to pay.

We’ve had times when the work has dried up and the projects are ticking over without generating much income. That’s when we go back to the drawing board and take stock of where we are and how to generate new work.

Over the years, I’ve tried business breakfast clubs and other networking events. They are a great way to meet new people and potentially get new leads. It’s a long term process as you nuture relationships and pass on contacts. After attending them for a while, I decided it wasn’t for me or right for our kind of business.

In tougher times, we normally revamp our own website, look at SEO strategies and turn up the Adwords campaign another notch. This normally does the trick and before long, things pick up again.

Final thoughts

There’s lots of freedom in running a web design business. There’s no boss to answer to, you can work any hours you like and there’s no annoying commute to waste your time and money.

It can be lonely at times and running a web design business tends to be a neverending process of aquiring work and churning it out. That’s why you look for new horizons which give you a greater sense of achievement.

Overall, I would recommend it, but not forever.

andyjones Written by:

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