True Compass Designs: Navigating web design by honoring his true north

Q&A with Mick Bird

True Compass Designs is a digital development company that’s been in business for more than 15 years. Certified in 11 different Adobe programs, Mick Bird of Camas, Wash., builds websites for clients while working from the comfort of his home.

True Compass Designs

What’s the elevator pitch for your business? Describe what you do.

True Compass Designs Mick
Mick Bird before he started True Compass Designs.

I am a web developer, owning my own business for the past 17 years. Building websites from scratch. I do graphics and video editing, but primarily website building in WordPress.

What inspired you to start your business?

I wanted to work from home after our twin girls were born in 1996.

What first steps did you take to get the business off the ground?

I had a couple of buddies who needed some websites done. I asked them to let me try to get it going for them. I wasn’t daunted by the computer, but I really didn’t know what I was doing. I remember how happy I was when I got my first webpage live on the internet.

What challenges did you face early on?

Trying not to overthink things too much.

What big wins have you had so far?

With the support of GoDaddy’s services, I have been able to build out my company on all levels and work from home (or from anywhere, for that matter). Have laptop, will travel.

Where do you see your business in five years? Ten years?

I currently bill out to 211 clients. All different levels. Over the next five to 10 years, I think I will narrow it down to maybe 10 of my long-running clients with the highest needs.

Dealing with clients

Who’s your ideal client?

Communicates/responds regularly. Proper budget. Shares vision pretty well, but allows me to do my thing. Accepts changes as needed. Pays on time.

How do you find new clients?

True Compass Designs Homepage
Mick relies on word-of-mouth to drive clients to his business.

I don’t find any. It’s all word of mouth. I do good work for someone, and they say, “I got a guy.” I remember a buddy of mine who told me once, “You never know who they play golf with.”

How do you retain your clients and encourage repeat business?

Same as above. I’ve got a lot of clients that I’ve had for more than 10 years. I think I’ve been easy to talk to and do good, steady work.

Building a website is just the beginning.

 

The updates, edits, new thoughts, my own continual education, growth on both parts. It’s important to keep talking to each other. I also don’t charge any extra on the charges from GoDaddy. If hosting is $8.29/month, that’s all I bill them for. Some smarter business folks might not agree with me on that, but the clients know it and I think that goes a long way.

Have you ever had to fire a client? What was that experience like?

Yep. A couple of times. Not a problem, really. It was always usually my issue. One was just too demanding every day and night. One wanted me to do things I just didn’t agree with. There was nothing wrong with what he wanted, it just wasn’t the kind of design style I wanted to do.

I just wasn’t the match for them — not because they were bad folk, we just didn’t connect.

 

And don’t get me wrong — I’m not trying to stay in my own direction too much. Once, I had a standup comedian who wanted fart sounds when you clicked on the menu tabs. I was all in. When I was working on it, my daughters heard the sounds coming from my office and thought it was me.

What’s your approach to contracts and project agreements?

I do that for about two percent of my clients. Most of the time, it’s something they need from me for business reasons. I do a fair amount of entertainment business, and they have attorneys needing contracts. My business attorney wrote up a seven-page contract for me to use. After a bit, I dropped it to one page. Then, just agreeing to terms in an email. I’ve never had any issues.

Your working environment

What’s your office/studio setup?

I’ve been working from home for 17 years. I’ve got a great space, great views. My dog Kona (a goofy chocolate lab) sleeps all day in there with me. I have actually left my office with my phone because I don’t have the heart to wake her up when she’s snoring so loudly.

How do you work? What’s your day-to-day routine?

True Compass Designs Wife
Mick with his wife before the beginnings of True Compass Designs.

I’m at my desk around 7 a.m., and I take a fair amount of breaks through the day. I will always leave my house on a walk (walking my dog), get out on the deck, or get in my car and head somewhere, just to get out of my office for a few. I stop around 4 p.m. to workout. Afterward, I work a little more, but finish by 6 p.m.

I used to work so much more, but that resulted in stress. So I started reading books to cope, and I came across Yvon Chouinard’s (Founder/CEO of Patagonia) Let My People Go Surfing and it changed my life.

He helped me create a philosophy/mission kind of deal. I never had one. I just said yes, and ran faster. After reading his book, it took me three weeks to come up with mine. It was a question. “Can I stir pasta at 6 o’clock?” I know, kind of dorky. But it answered the things that were important to me. It helped me qualify my clients and keep an eye on my over-achieving DNA.

What tools do you rely on?

I currently have 162 domains at GoDaddy. If a client isn’t there, I try to move them there. If they have nothing, I create everything there. All my sites are on Managed WordPress. I am even a member of the Discount Domain Club. The saving is passed onto my clients. All other features for the site are there — email, SSL certificates, website security. Eric, a GoDaddy rep, is my go-to tech, along with all the other great support offered 24/7.

How do you use each of these tools? Why are they important?

I use the tools to provide a full-scale service and protection for my clients. It isn’t just getting a website up, but providing easy admin edits for them as needed, protecting their data, and providing long-term savings.

I recommend everything for my clients.

 

Most of the time, the client doesn’t really know what these tools do to support their needs. But because the functions are critical, and the prices are low, it’s an easy sell.

What impact have these tools made on your business?

They have helped me grow and keep me in business. I can get from Point A to Point B a lot quicker than I used to years back, thus keeping the client’s budget in place and delivering on time or sooner. The client smiles. Everybody wins.

Growth and learning

How do you unwind outside of work?

I pretty much take it outside. It’s an old life of mine. I did solo boat trips across the oceans, bicycled across the U.S. twice, marathons and then several triathlons.

True Compass Designs KayakI kayak a lot now on the Columbia River that separates Oregon and Washington. Our family has always been very close. We always had dinners together as the girls were growing up, and we still do — even when they get home from college. We love to catch up, share, everything — it all puts a smile on my face and keeps things in perspective.

What’s your guiding philosophy in life?

Wow. That’s a big question. OK. The first thing that came to mind was, “You don’t have to live your life by default.” Be proactive about it.

Where do you turn for inspiration?

My wife. Sounds corny, I know, but there’s a reason why I’ve been with her for almost 27 years. Not only has she helped me get to Point B for some things, just thinking of her — and our daughters — helps to keep my head and heart clear about what I need to do in the world.

What’s on your bucket list for personal goals or experiences?

Learn the cello. I know nothing about it and don’t read music. But, for some reason, the sound of it, and the idea of letting it lean against you while you are wrapping your legs and arms around it, has always had my attention.

So, I rented one and I’m teaching myself just one song. One of my favorite songs. When I’m ready, I’ll hold a small concert in my living room and invite family and friends. The concert will last 4 minutes and 47 seconds. That’s it. Next goal.

What books, websites or other resources would you like to recommend?

The book Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard. I mentioned it above. It’s not only great for business, but great for life. Then there’s also the documentary called Standing In The Shadows of Motown. It’s primarily about the unknown studio musicians they called the Funk Brothers who played in the 1960s on so many hit records for the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and more. They were humble, talented and got the job done.

What advice do you have for aspiring freelancers and entrepreneurs?

True Compass Designs AdviceGet some clients. Anybody. Do it for cheap or even free. You’ll learn a lot along the way, and you’ll build up a network. If you have another job, keep it until you can afford to stop it. That way, you won’t come off desperate or like the hustling type to potential clients.

Thanks to Mick for working with us on this story! You can check out True Compass Designs to learn more about his work and his “true compass” approach to web design.


Also published on Medium.