3 Web Projects I Lost – and What I Learned
Prior to selling my web agency last year and starting uGurus, a new venture to help web professionals become more profitable, I pitched a lot of website projects.
With over 950 bids in my proposal folder, I can confidently say, “I’ve hunted my fair share.”
But were all of those hunts honorable?
I’m not alluding to the fact that I cut corners or cheated. When I mention honor it is simply in reference to how I respected myself while seeking deals. Did I maintain personal integrity and self-respect?
Sometimes when going after new business it’s easy to confuse “going the extra mile” with “desperation.”
Acts of desperation are usually noted by the loss of the deal (because otherwise it wouldn’t have felt quite so desperate).
I thought it was time to dig into my past and share with you some of the embarrassing mistakes I made during my sales journey.
Time is the Ocean
A few years ago I was planning a trip to Cabo with my wife. As an entrepreneur, taking a trip is always a little stressful. I don’t have kids (yet), but I imagine having a company is somewhat analogous.
At the time I was doing sales full force for my web agency. I typically had about ten to twenty open deals going at once. To make sure my vacation had minimal impact, I planned my interactions to hug the week I was gone. This allowed me to make sure that all of my open projects weren’t in a closing stage during my trip (leaving room for competitors to move in on the business).
I was working a big opportunity with the Colorado Convention Center and, in our meeting the week prior to my vacation, they had stated they would be making a decision very soon. My contact informed me that they required a follow-up demo meeting of our platform the week I was going to be on vacation.
A little voice in me said, “don’t sacrifice vacation time, it’s not worth it.” But another voice in me said that they would think positively of my work ethic and dedication to their opportunity. I decided to “go the extra mile” and offered to stick with their schedule, I would figure out a way to demo while in Cabo.
Once in Cabo, at our friend’s timeshare, I found that their Internet was less than reliable. Not only that, but I would need to call in using our hotel phone, which had a costly US call rate.
During the days leading up to the meeting, just knowing that I had a work obligation added a little anxiety to my mental state. I wasn’t able to fully let go, knowing I had a calendar block that needed attention.
I made it work. The meeting felt awkward. I was out of my element, the call quality was rusty, and the GotoMeeting screenshare was jagged. My connection dropped twice during the demo. But, they were appreciative of me taking up vacation time.
I left the interaction feeling uneasy. But, I didn’t really care that it didn’t quite feel like I had wanted it to. I was just happy to be able to resume my trip without any additional interruptions.
When I returned from Cabo, I got the bad news: I didn’t get the deal. They chose a firm that was more suited to do some other requirements that had never been mentioned to me.
I was pissed. Not because I lost the deal (losses happen), but because I sacrificed my personal sanctuary for a potential deal. The whole ordeal left a really bad taste in my mouth.
Eventually I was actually thankful that I lost the deal. It was the first step to creating a simple rule for myself:
Absolutely no scheduled client or opportunity commitments while on vacation.
A friend of mine was on the board of an organization that helped rehabilitate and find homes for unwanted horses in Colorado.
They needed a new website, and she loved the work that we had been doing for various nonprofits in Colorado. She asked me to drive up to their headquarters for an in-person meeting with their board. It was a two-hour commitment each way, but she assured me that we were the top runner for the job.
Based on the budget she had discussed with me, a four-hour drive to an in-person meeting with her, should have been out of the question. She assured me that this was the only meeting we needed to have, and then we would move forward.
Instead of leading the way with my typical sales process, I decided to commit to this inconvenient and unnecessary interaction.
I drove up to meet with the prospect in person. The total commitment was around six hours for an individual interaction (two hours driving each way and then two hours in the meeting). The proposal turned out to be only worth around $5,000. If I had gotten this project, more than 10% of my budget had been eaten before the project even started.
As it turned out, one of their other board members had a soft spot for another local company. The board member ended up taking a rather interesting approach, personally committing the funds to have her friend’s company build the site..
This is where I kick myself. My multi-interaction sales process allows me to build a relationship with everyone within an organization that is a stakeholder. Even though this other person on the board had a relationship with another company, if I would have led with my own, proven process, I would have been able to easily build an equivalent relationship in a short period of time.
As I reflected on this interaction, I created a simple rule:
Always use the process, no matter how much the opportunity tries to convince me otherwise.
Just Say No
The final bit of embarrassing web design sales lore I’ll share happened with a big fish in the satellite television industry.
They asked me to come in and bid a project for a specific department. I had done some work with them before and I was psyched to get a bigger opportunity within the company. I don’t get a lot of opportunities to work with billion-dollar companies.
After I had met with them several times, and had a solid proposal on the table for their project, they came back with a curveball request:
“We would like some sample compositions of your ideas for us.”
My sales rule is to never put pen to the paper without a contract or compensation. But alas, I was blinded by the big “B” and consented.
I hate doing spec work because it’s not real work. I don’t get to do discovery, I don’t have access to all of the client stakeholders, and I have a very limited set of information. Even worse, spec work is often what cheap people do to get free work, or what big corporate does to steal ideas.
Creating spec work is unrealistic since it doesn’t allow any room for revisions. A prospective customer might make a purchasing decision based on something that they didn’t like in your spec comp. However, this little design issue might have been easily correctable had there been room for revisions.
Nevertheless I relented. I had two of my designers reschedule their calendars and take a stab at creating some comps.
Two weeks later, I found out that we lost the bid. Not because they didn’t like our comps (quite the contrary actually), but because the platform we built on was a closed system, and their ops security people didn’t sign off on that.
So there I was violating my own personal rule and, in the end, we didn’t get the business because of a stakeholder who had no connection to their marketing team.
I’m not going to suggest that you do, or do not do, comp work on spec, but I know that my final take-away from this lesson was simple:
Don’t break your own rules (unless you are ready to have your prospects remind you why you created them in the first place).
Almost every desperate act I have made while selling websites has related to how I respect my own time. I have often thought if I make my client understand that they are more important than my own time, they will notice and take kindly to it.
But the world works the opposite way.
We pursue what retreats from us, not the other way around.
After I burned my own time, again and again, I eventually learned how much I value it. I create rules to blockade and protect my time. I tell people up front that they either follow my process or take a hike. I let them know that I don’t take calls outside of my normal work times, and that I never do work without being paid for it.
And if they don’t like any of that, then we aren’t a good fit.
But they love being told that I have strict work rules. I have found that my prospective customers take me a lot more seriously when I keep a sense of scarcity to my time, value to my availability, and respect to my schedule. And that ultimately leads to a lot more business.