Lisa Stambaugh: Expert guidance, website design and a lot more

13 min read
Art Martori

Lisa Stambaugh provides WordPress support through her agency Collective Discovery, and helps clients tell their story through her Much Ado About You content service. Lisa is also the author of Web Diva Wisdom, a book that helps business owners learn how to work with web designers.

Tell us about yourself. Who are you? Where are you based?

I tend to describe myself as a long list of short topics, many of which don’t seem connected at all, but I like to think it rolls into an interesting package.

Educationally, I’m a geek: BSEE/CS (UCSD ‘80), MSCS (Stanford, ‘85). Work-wise, I’m a Web Diva, a freelance writer, an informal business coach, a story teller, and a problem-solver.

Outside of work, I’m a knitting enthusiast, curly girl, cookie artiste, musical theatre devotee, costume designer, and a voracious consumer of historical fiction.

I live in Fremont, California, which is at the very northernmost edge of Silicon Valley, between San Jose and San Francisco. I grew up about 20 miles from here, attended college in southern California, and never wanted to leave the West Coast.

I fell in love with a dorm neighbor, just a few weeks into the school year, and several years later we married, just two weeks after graduation. We just celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary. He’s a retired software engineer, so ours has always been a geeky household.

We have two adult children (one engineer, one veterinarian), one grandchild, and what I generally describe as a menagerie of grand-pets.

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

I design and manage websites. But I like to think that I’m helping my clients look like the pros they are, and guiding them to craft their own unique story in a way that sells what they have to offer.

Technically, of course, I’m designing, I’m programming, I’m writing, I’m maintaining websites. But the goal is facilitating business success through the sharing of their compelling story.

What inspired you to start your business? How did you get started?

In my early-70s high school days, I was quite interested in both writing and art as careers. As the lone girl in the programming club, I was also told I was “pretty good at math for a girl” and encouraged to go into technology.

With a BSEE and MSCS — and the end of a recession — I had no problem finding work, and enjoyed many years in Engineering, Quality, and IT positions at several great Silicon Valley companies, both legendary establishments, and renegade start-ups.

I was managing an IT department at a high-tech company in the mid-90s, when the concept of a website was thrust upon us as the new and latest marketing tool. In addition to learning the basics and supervising staff managing the site, I got into web design as a hobby, developing sites for my children’s school, a nonprofit whose board I was on, and a few friends’ businesses.

A couple of years later, after close to 20 years in Corporate America, I was ready to leave that high-paced environment, for work I could do at home, and be available after school for my young children.

Miraculously, 20+ years after high school, I found work incorporating programming, writing, and art! It was work that could be done on my schedule, and with flexibility. My son was a serious figure skater, and my laptop accompanied us to practice at the ice rink every day.

I’ve come a long way from those days of using Front Page 95, as now I focus on WordPress development. I have designed and built almost 700 websites. The current count is 694!

Who’s your ideal client?

There was a time in my career where “ideal client” meant any client who could pay me. Over the years, I’ve definitely refined my requirements, and strive to work only with clients who are the right fit for me.

“Right fit” is usually defined by a set of parameters including location, size, the type of engagement, and whether I believe the potential client is providing products or services I feel to be of value, and ethically offered.

I have a number of “red flags” that will cause me not to take a client, including giveaway phrases showing that they may not appreciate the value of my service, or demonstrating what I’d consider inappropriate political or social commentary.

I would also say I prefer working with clients in longer-term, ongoing engagements. I like to build relationships with clients, really becoming a business partner, not just a contractor.

Over time, productivity is improved as we both understand how to work together, and I spend less time on marketing to bring in new clients. Short-term projects can be fun and lucrative, but they are not the key to building a sustainable, profitable business in this field.

What kind of projects do you like working on?

I really enjoy working with local nonprofit organizations, and it’s a luxury to be in a secure position such that offering them a discount -- or even doing the occasional pro bono project — will not negatively impact my business or lifestyle.

I’m involved in a number of community groups where there may not even be a formal budget, but we still need a website and social media accounts to get the word out about our activities.

For example, one is a group that is sponsoring Zoom-based forums or debates for local offices (Mayor, City Council, County Supervisor...). It’s a relatively short-term project over the last few (and next few) months, but it’s been exciting to be part of getting the word out in new ways, given the current environment.

This past summer I’ve been lucky to have several long-term clients who were able to completely pivot their business models to account for the pandemic environment. This required outside-the-box thinking in a number of ways, and it was exciting to partner with them to make rapid business model changes, and have those reflected in their websites.

I actually really enjoy projects that require doing research for the writing. I once designed a site for a criminal defense attorney, who wanted a page per crime type, for about 25 crime types (forgery, theft, DUI, and so on). Each page included definitions, potential consequences of conviction, possible defenses, and more. I did the research and writing, which he then edited for clarity of mistakes.

While I hope never to need his services, I certainly enjoyed learning the details and crafting it into a logical package.

What kind of projects do you not like working on?

Honestly, I try not to take projects that I think I won’t like working on. So that means turning down the type of projects that don’t thrill me, such as large ecommerce sites.

I was once approached to build a site for a motorcycle replacement parts dealer, and would have had to deal with literally thousands of inventory items. The mere thought of organizing and entering data was enough to decide to turn it down.

It also means turning down prospective clients if I think they don’t really have a good handle on their business plans, or if they’ve given me clues that they will be challenging to work with.

There was a time when I’d take clients in other parts of the country, but I learned long ago that I prefer to work with local folks (meaning the SF Bay Area).

There are several reasons, including the possibility of meeting together in person (Zoom is just not the same, no matter how you spin it), the ability to do some “matchmaking” when clients have complementary offerings or when one can help another, the chance to attend their events or fundraisers, the possibility of using and/or referring others to their services (clients have included my favorite electrician, the guy who tunes my piano, a miracle-worker IT guy, the caterer who did my daughter’s wedding, and more), and the likelihood of sharing other local interests — everything from children having attended the same schools, to local networking groups, to bumping into them at the previously mentioned events!

What are the most common problems you help your clients with?

I think a universal challenge for many small business owners is that they are experts at what they do (whether it’s making pizza, replacing hips, or providing college application counseling). What many are not expert at is communicating the value in what they do, in a way that compels site visitors to engage.

I’ve always helped clients with ghost writing, and in some cases doing research to write the content they needed. At the very least, I edit and polish the content they provide to me, and usually punch it up a bit.

A couple of years ago, I realized that many web professionals don’t provide writing or editing services. They’re web-building geniuses, but rely on clients to provide finished copy, whether they write it on their own or hire a professional writer.

One thing we do know is that writing for the web is not the same as writing for other venues (whether brochures, books, or articles). To address that need, I launched a separate service under the Collective Discovery umbrella, called Much Ado About You.

For those clients, I write all of their web content, and then partner with their web pro to get the site completed. Since I understand exactly what the web pro needs, and the process to get content built into the site, it’s a fairly seamless endeavor.

In a similar manner, folks who go the DIY route may have found a tool they can use to build their website, but that still doesn’t help them generate polished content.

Walk us through your project process from start to finish.

It doesn’t matter what type of project it is, I always want to start with pre-work. Whether it’s a website or written materials, I need to understand everything about what we’re trying to build. That includes objectives, audience, call to action, how success will be measured, how visitors will be attracted to the site, timeline, budget, deliverables, and more.

If it’s a new project for a current client, or a big addition to their current site, I need to really understand how the new work will affect the existing work. That’s accomplished through a combination of conversation, email, completing a questionnaire, and working through homework assignments I assign.

Once we have a good handle on all of that, I’m really a list-maker. I break everything down into sub-projects, starting with setting up hosting, building the site architecture, visual design, and so on. I have checklists for each phase of the project, to make sure nothing is overlooked.

I like to have all of the pages of a new site built out before any content is added, so we can test how viewers will traverse the site. I also like to have all of the architectural work done with simple design, before any embellishing is done. There’s no need to have the final fancy flourishes done before we know how the content will play out.

Once a site has been launched, of course there’s the ongoing maintenance to consider, and that turns out to be a big part of my daily workload, between backups, security, software updates, content changes, debugging issues, and answering questions.

What advice do you have for folks who are trying to take their business online?

I’m a big fan of pre-work, and making conscious decisions, not just leaving things to chance. What I learned from working with many clients just starting their business, is that they had a short-term vision of what they wanted to produce or provide, but then had very little idea about exactly who their audience was, or what messaging they were going to use, or how they were going to get visitors to the site.

In addition, while they knew what they wanted to do or say now, they probably had not thought much about where they’d be in 2-3 years, so they did not have a long-term plan. Maybe they did not understand the difference between a mission, a vision, objectives, and business philosophy. It’s all part of having a long-term business strategy.

It was this realization that led me to publish my book, Web Diva® Wisdom: How to Find, Hire, and Partner with the Right Web Designer for You, in 2014. The book has multiple sections and objectives. First, how do you find the right web designer for your needs? Then, what homework do you need to do before you look for that web designer? What do you need to understand about the process of working with a web designer? What is the design and launch process? What happens after the site is launched?

My goal was to coach all new or prospective clients through enough of that initial pre-work process, that they would then have a better idea of what sort of site they wanted and needed, before talking to any web pros for estimates or proposals. And of course that pre-work helps me write a more accurate proposal.

What advice do you have for folks who are thinking about starting their own business?

In addition to the products and/or services you plan to provide, focus on your USP — your Unique Selling Proposition. In other words, what makes you special, compared to others in your market space? Why is this relevant? Why should customers care?

Unless you are inventing a completely new and never-before-seen product, your potential clients will probably be able to choose between you and someone else. So it’s key to know how you’ll position yourself.

Your USP could relate to cost, quality, time to delivery, personalized treatment, customized items,  improved productivity, reduced frustration, lower stress, and so on. And once you know that differentiating factor, you need to translate it into direct benefits to you customers, so that they understand the value.

Meet the 27-hour day

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