“If only I had known what I know now.” That is what I tell people. I quit my job knowing I wanted to do web development, and that was about it. I did not have a client list, nor any potential clients. I knew I wanted to be challenged and to make more money. I have since successfully done both, but it wasn’t overnight. I didn’t even know I was interested in starting a web design agency, but that is what I did.
8 tips for starting a web design agency
Over the past few years, I’ve learned invaluable lessons about what it takes to successfully run a web design agency. Here are my top takeaways:
Starting an agency requires a mindshift.
Find a partner.
Find a good life/work balance.
Find a mentor.
Establish recurring revenue.
Find office space, virtual or not.
Define your processes.
Let’s explore some of the lessons it’s taken me years of experience to learn.
1. Starting an agency requires a mindshift
I started off of a lifestyle business, and it took probably too long for me to realize that we could grow this bigger than I ever thought it could be. It might take this kind of mindshift to get you on a path of growth when starting a web design agency.
2. Find a partner
I think it is hard to be all things to all people. Partnerships are the key. I started off thinking that I could do sales, development, design, deployment, etc., but I quickly partnered with Adam Walker and I no longer had to worry about design and sales. He couldn’t do development as well as I could, so it was a natural fit. It isn’t required to partner 50/50 with someone, but finding a person who has similar goals as you do, and defining their role quickly will save you headaches.
By partnering with Adam, he was able to spend more time shaking hands and making people smile. I’m pretty technical and like to write code, so it’s obviously hard for me to communicate with clients (just kidding!). As we’ve grown, Adam hasn’t designed anything in years, and that has allowed him to be out selling and bringing in the business.
If no one is out selling, when the projects you are working on are finished, you’re going to scramble.
Keep the flow going, even if it might slow down current projects.
3. Find a good work/life balance
I knew I didn’t want to work 80 hours a week. Or more specifically, because I had a family, I couldn’t work an insane amount of hours. I’ve realized that after 10 hours of work in one day my productivity goes down dramatically. I could continue to work and slowly write worse code, or I could sleep and start being more productive the next day. Pace yourself.
4. Find a mentor
There will never be a shortage of people who have made a living doing what you are trying to do. We worked with a mentor for a year or so and he was able to convince us that what we are doing is worth three times what we were charging. It was clear that we were not charging enough for the type of custom WordPress development we were doing.
You might be building the same type of functionality for a mom-and-pop shop as you would for a multimillion-dollar company, but it is worth a lot more for a big corporation. Charge them what it is worth.
5. Establish recurring revenue
Always focus on that pipeline of work; even if you have too much work today, have stuff lined up for the future. Recurring revenue growth is good for you, and good for your client. Think simple at first, maybe offer care plans for your clients’ websites.
6. Find office space, virtual or not
At Sideways8, we work remotely. We don’t see the point in the overhead of an office. I think it only works if your contractors or your employees can work remotely. Some people need micromanagement; if so, I would say you need an office and to meet regularly. If you have a team of self-starters, you won’t need the overhead of the office. Saving money is important when you’re starting your agency.
7. Write contracts
A smile and a handshake works great, until it doesn’t. Our contract started off very generic, for example, “Website with a calendar.” But what does that mean? What does it look like? Does it need recurring events? Does it need to sell tickets? How are you going to accept payment for the tickets? Who is the credit card processor? Where should we get the SSL certificate? You get the point. Spell everything out — especially timeline and content.
We once waited two years and two months to get content from a client. We had everything built quickly and we waited for content. Because we didn’t have things spelled out in the contract, we did all of the work for 50 percent up front and couldn’t get the other 50 percent until the site went live. Always get the content up front before you build the site. Feel free to offer to write the content as a line item in the contract. Upselling in the contract doesn’t hurt.
8. Define your processes
I think this is the most important part, but it also might be the hardest to perfect. Have a plan for each project and don’t deviate from it. If it doesn’t end up with both you and the client happy, adjust it for the next project. Trying to hit a moving target is hard, but if everything is spelled out and written, the goal is obtainable.
1. Time tracking
Track your time on everything. Things add up, a phone call here, and email there, that needs to be billable to be profitable. Time is one of the only things you can’t get more of.
2. Project management
Find an online tool that makes it easy to keep track of communication. Managing projects through email is impossible once you get bigger. When you bring someone in, or the client brings in a new employee to handle the project, you will need a way to go through what has been done.
3. Change requests
You will always want to keep a client happy, but if you start off making simple unplanned changes to the project you will be opening the door for you client to expect big free changes. Have a way to document a change request and make sure they know that it costs something.
Going on your own is hard, and growing and starting a web design agency is harder in some ways. In some, easier. It is always going to be easier if you surround yourself with great people. Always be willing to hire people that are smarter and better than you.