How to grow your web design business from freelancer to full agency

Web ProCategory
8 min read
Adam Walker

I took my first website project in college. It was a simple site with some basic HTML and animated GIFs that I immediately broke forever.

The client was a sewing machine store. They were my client for the next 19 years as I went from that first screw up to building a thriving agency.

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My web design business was a company of one

I was the designer, developer, writer, strategist, and project manager. I loved it.

Only, I wasn't great at all the things I was doing, and that limited my growth.

Coding was the area where I was continually in over my head, so, fortunately, when I met a developer named Aaron, I had the good sense to start working with him.

In those early days, I did sales and design, and Aaron did the coding. We hadn't officially started a company yet, but I brought all my development work to him, and he brought all his design work to me.

We complemented one another's skills, and more importantly, we no longer had to work in a vacuum alone.

At this point, we were both still freelancers, but worked on all our projects together. As our businesses continued to grow, it looked to me like joining forces made the most sense.

It would make money easier to manage and would reduce our admin costs.

For example, instead of both of us doing invoicing and paying for software, only one of us would have to do it.

So, I tried to talk Aaron into starting a company.

He summarily turned me down.

Three or four tries later, Aaron finally came around, and we started Sideways8. It was still just the two of us, but we had a brand, and we were ready to grow!

Once Aaron joined, we grew quickly. Our average year over year growth was 27.2%.

As we grew, we added people using the same model that naturally happened when Aaron and I teamed up.

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Replace yourself if you want to grow

When Aaron and I met, he took on development, and I took on design. We did that because he was better at development, and I was better at design.

This is the model we used as we continued to grow: identify a critical area of the business you are running, but are weak at, and replace yourself.

This is beautiful for so many reasons:

  • You can hire someone stronger than you, improving the quality of your work.
  • You can focus on the things you are best at, improving the quality of your work.
  • You'll be happier as you let go of things that you aren't great at, improving the quality of your work!

We started this process by hiring a contractor to handle project management. When he took that work off my plate, I could focus on producing good design.

It was like a dream. I was able to focus on sales and design, and it helped us grow.

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You have to work on the business

At some point along the way, working in the business (producing things like design) and working on the business (sales and admin) became a lot to manage.

They were in constant conflict.

If I spent too much time working in the business, sales would suffer, and growth would stagnate.

If I spent too much time working on the business, we wouldn't get paid because we couldn't produce websites without design.

I still remember the day we tried out another web designer. Aaron had worked with him on a project before. We took a look at his work, and honestly weren't that impressed, but I knew how badly I needed help, so we gave him a try.

As soon as I saw the designs he came back with, I knew I would never design for Sideways8 again. They were terrific, and that designer worked with us for years to come.

Learn to let go

Letting go of design was hard. It had been my identity for a long time. It was the primary way I contributed to my company. It was what I was known for and highlighted on LinkedIn. But, it wasn't what I was best at doing.

If we were to rate designers on a scale from one to ten, I knew I was a five. The designer that we started working with was a ten and is still one of the best designers I have ever worked with to this day.

Any day you can take your business from a five to a 10 by replacing yourself in a discipline is a great day.

We continued to follow this model and build our team. Eventually, Aaron also replaced himself, hiring developers that were specialists and becoming our CTO to guide high-level strategy.

By the time we were at our peak, we had brought in:

  • Developers
  • Designers
  • Project managers
  • Strategists
  • Content writers
  • SEO professionals
  • Administrative support
  • Salespeople

That allowed Aaron to work on high-level technology and operations while I worked on growth and culture.

We were able to continue our growth rate with this model, and were acquired by another agency in the Fall of 2019.

Try this method for replacing yourself

Replacing yourself within your own company isn't easy. It's scary to let go of details and control.

When you are the one doing the work, you know it's quality, but when you let go, who knows what will happen, right?

If you go about it the right way, the quality will go up! Here is the method we used:

1. Identify the area where you will replace yourself

As I mentioned before, this is likely a task or responsibility that you are good at, but not specialized. So, in replacing yourself, you will be able to go from having a generalist do the job to a specialist.

2. Find a contractor that specializes in this area

We always started looking for contractors with friends and family. Then, we would look to friends in our industry. Last, we would create a job posting on our website and ask around on social media.

One of the best hires we ever made was when one of our team struck up a conversation with an employee at a pet shop. She started talking about how she was working on building some websites on the side, and he kept asking her questions about it.

Eventually, he looked at her work, loved it, and she became our designer and front-end builder. She is still with the company that acquired us and is thriving in her work!

3. Hire that contractor for a test project

Now that you have a contractor you want to try out, it's time to try them out.

We always started them with a small client project that had a little margin in it, just in case we needed to do the work again.

Note: We always paid the contractor for their work, we never did spec work as an agency, and we never asked contractors for spec work either. People are valuable, and their work is valuable.

Run the contractor through the test project and evaluate their work, responsiveness, and fit within the culture of your team; if they meet all three, great! If not, move on.

4. Ramp up the contractor

Now that you have someone you can work with, you can slowly ramp up their work.

Ramping slowly allows you to continue to test them out with less risk to you, and will enable you to make sure your cash flow will sustain the new person.

It also allows you to dial down working inside the business more slowly, so you can shift your focus intentionally without a sudden shift for your clients.

5. Bring them on as an employee

Once a contractor is working almost full time, it may be time to bring them in as a full-time employee. That's what we did at Sideways8, and it worked great.

This approach worked for us every time.

Growing from a freelancer to running a full agency requires change, and change is hard

When you are a freelancer, you do it all, and likely love it. But to grow, you can't do it all. You will have to let go of some of the things you love for the good of the company.

Working on the company, not in it, is the best thing you can do to grow. It won't be easy at first, but if your goal is to build a company, it's the best thing you can do.

When possible, build your team slowly, starting a contractor with a test project and then ramping up work. This allows you to avoid sudden shifts to work and clients and helps you financially.

Remember, growing a company is a marathon, not a sprint. It's best to make small, incremental moves to grow. This will give you less risk and sustainable, long-term growth.

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