Why Small Web Design Firms Should Think Big

Andrew Neitlich

If you are a freelance or small Web design firm, I have an uncomfortable question to ask you: are you thinking too small?

Are You a Small Thinker?

Here’s a 10-second quiz to tell if you think small when it comes to your business:

  • You’ve set puny, easy-to-achieve goals for your Web design business and finances. Or, worse, you haven’t set any goals at all and are taking a passive, "wait and see" approach.
  • You say you want to take your business to the next level, but never develop a plan to do it. You live in "someday."
  • You keep doing the same things, hoping to get different results. You aren’t willing to learn about and try new approaches.
  • You complain about outsourcing, or the economy, or whatever, instead of taking 100% responsibility for the results you’re getting.
  • You don’t think you can find 30-60 minutes more per day for additional marketing.
  • You won’t invest money to learn more about marketing and sales, or test a new marketing tactic. You think and act as if marketing were an expense that follows sales, and not an investment that generates sales.
  • You are building a business that is dependent on you, instead of a business that you can build and sell.

I know there are lots of small thinkers in the Web design world. Every day, on average, I get an email from a Web designer that says (in essence):

"Please help me. I want to get more business, but I’d prefer not to try anything new and different. I won’t spend much more time on business development, and I’m not willing to pay for expert help. I want a solution that takes very little time, money, and work…"

I chuckle when I correspond with these people, because I can’t help them. They are thinking too small.

Either you’re serious about growing your business, or you’re not. Either you choose to approach marketing with 100% commitment and intensity, or you choose to approach it with a half-baked effort.

It doesn’t matter to me, or to anyone else, which approach you choose. I hope it matters to you. Life is short. Why do things by halves? Why not create a business that you enjoy and that also helps you achieve your most ambitious financial goals?

How Big Thinkers Approach Their Business

Not everyone in the industry thinks small. For instance, in the United States, a count with a national list company shows that about 6,200 out of 12,500 Web design firms make more than US$1 million in revenues. This data ignores unregistered freelancers, so it is skewed towards the upper range. However, it shows that many Web design shops have learned how to generate at least seven figures in sales.

Wouldn’t you like to be among them? If you want to think on a bigger scale with your Web design business, you need to follow five steps:

  1. Set ambitious goals.
  2. Set the right priorities.
  3. Develop a strong strategic foundation.
  4. Build business assets you can leverage.
  5. Take enormous, focused action.

Let’s consider each of these steps in turn.

Step One: Set Ambitious Goals

What are your revenue goals for this year and next? What are your goals for this quarter?
If you don’t have specific goals, you’re unlikely to achieve impressive results.

According to the book Good to Great by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, the world’s best companies are famous for setting BHAGs, or "Big Hairy Audacious Goals." What is your BHAG?

I know some readers might be rolling their eyes at this point, but, despite what they may say, goal setting is not just a cliché or a technique used in tacky motivational speeches. If you want to achieve great things, you really do need to have a specific vision about where you want to end up.

True entrepreneurs set ambitious goals without worrying about their current resources to achieve those goals. In fact, that’s the definition of an entrepreneur as taught at Harvard Business School. Entrepreneurs figure out what they want to achieve first, and then set out to make it happen, even if current reality seems to be in the way.

So, what are your most ambitious goals? Where do you want your business to be next year? In five years?

Step Two: Get Your Priorities Straight

There are four priorities that owners of successful Web design firms treat as almost sacred:

First, they make business development their top priority.

The most creative Web designer in the world will make less money than a mediocre Web designer who invests faithfully in business development. That’s because good marketers reach more prospects, identify solutions that matter to them, and develop compelling marketing messages that influence prospects to respond. Often, they end up hiring better Web designers (those who can’t market) as employees.

Meanwhile, less successful Web designers almost always wait for the phone to ring. They know they have a solid product to offer, and are frustrated that prospects can’t figure that out. They would rather be self-righteous than successful.

Second, they view their business as a professional practice, like a doctor, accountant, or lawyer does.

They are not vendors, jumping from gig to gig. Rather, they seek to develop long-term relationships with their clients. They position themselves as strategic advisors who help their clients succeed, not as mercenaries who bid on one job and then the next. And they focus on getting specific business results to help their clients succeed, not on completing a set of tasks in a work plan. Who would you rather hire — a Web designer with a professional practice, or a vendor who completes projects?

Third, they focus on comprehensive solutions, not tasks or piecemeal jobs.

Most small Web design shops don’t think in terms of solutions. Instead, they scope out a set of tasks, do the job, and expect to get paid. That’s fine if you want to be a vendor, and you might make a decent living this way.

However, the most successful Web design firms provide complete solutions to their clients’ problems. They design Web sites, but also connect them to ecommerce and customer relationship management applications. If they don’t have a specific expertise, they form partnerships with other experts who do. They stay with their clients to ensure that specific increases in awareness and conversion actually happen. That’s a solution!

Finally, owners of the top Web design firms have a positive, proactive attitude.

They know that building a firm takes patience and resilience, and are ready to weather setbacks along the way. Their philosophy is to move forward, keep learning and improving, have fun, and never look back.

In contrast, owners of less successful Web shops give up during trials and tribulation. They don’t persist. They seem unable or unwilling to learn and try new approaches and ideas.

So, are your priorities straight? Is business development your top priority? Do you view your work as a professional practice? Do you offer deep, comprehensive solutions that get results? And how would you rate your attitude?

Step Three: Develop a Strong Strategic Foundation

The next step in thinking big is to develop a strong strategic foundation. Your strategy answers key questions about your business and how you will grow and compete. These questions include:

  1. Who is your target market? It seems like a paradox, but it’s not: The more you focus, the fewer prospects you will have, but the more clients you will get. That’s because prospects respond to IT professionals who understand their specific business issues, speak their language, and have worked with similar businesses before. See the article, "World Domination for Small Web Businesses" for more content on this subject.
  2. What problem do you solve for this market? No one hires a Web designer unless they have a problem to solve — a problem that is causing them significant business and emotional pain. Maybe they want to generate more revenue, allow their customers to order online, capture customer information, or improve the image they convey to the public. You need to know the specific problem you solve for your target market, framed in their language.
  3. What is your solution? Your solution should solve your target market’s complete problem, from A to Z. Many Web firms fail because they only offer a partial answer to their clients’ problems. Clients rarely want an award-winning Website. They do want to make more money, so they need a solution that addresses all the processes that go into attracting, converting, and retaining customers.
  4. What are the benefits of your solution? Prospects don’t buy features. They buy benefits. You need to show prospects two types of benefits. First, show them the business results you can achieve for them: more money, improved productivity, more satisfied customers. Second, show them how they, personally, will benefit by feeling better, eliminating hassles, and enjoying newfound security and success. You have to be able to tie your solutions to specific, compelling benefits.
  5. Why are you unique? The most successful Web design firms can fill in the following sentence, in a way that matters to their target market: "Unlike other Web designers, we…"
  6. Examples include:

    • having a proprietary methodology that gets results fast
    • deep experience with a specific industry
    • specific and impressive results with similar businesses
    • a more comprehensive solution than anyone else
    • unique knowledge of a particular platform or technology

    You can also offer ironclad service guarantees that take the risk away from the client and on to you (e.g. "You don’t pay if you are not satisfied with the results you get.").

  7. What’s the proof? Finally, most prospects are skeptical. You have to be able to provide evidence that your solution provides the benefits you claim it does. You should be disciplined about collecting testimonials and case studies, and about asking clients for referrals. That way, you can show your prospects that you can and do deliver. Even if you are starting out, you can get testimonials from former colleagues, friends who know your work, and teachers.

Step Four: Build Business Assets You Can Leverage

It is difficult to build a booming Web design business on your own. If you don’t want to be a freelancer for the rest of your life, you need to find sources of leverage that help you earn more money while using less of your own time.

Here are a few ways to do that. The more of these strategies you choose, the more successful you will be:

  1. Develop a marketing system. With a consistent investment in marketing activities, you can ensure that prospects contact you in good and bad times. Your marketing system should be based on educating prospects, not on pitching to them. In other words, instead of offering a brochure about your services, write an executive brief called, "Five Steps to Double Sales With Your Web Presence — Guaranteed."

    Elements of your marketing system should include a variety of ways to gain visibility and to follow up with interested prospects: newsletters, articles, white papers, systems to drive people to your Website (where you offer valuable information and reports, not just a portfolio), speeches at local organizations, publicity, proactive referral strategies, community service and leadership, and many other tactics. Most of these approaches don’t cost much to implement, but will improve your visibility in ways that your prospects appreciate.

    Please don’t claim that you lack the time, money, and expertise to do more marketing. If you wanted to find 30-60 minutes a day to do more marketing, you could. Money is not a factor because many marketing tactics cost little or nothing. And there is plenty of material out there about how to market — all of which cost a fraction of what a new client is worth.

  2. Leverage other people. Long term, it is not sustainable to continue to exchange your time for money. It is much more powerful to find ways to make money by working with other people. For instance, develop a strong network of people who can refer business to you (and refer business back to them, too). Build a network of complementary IT professionals you can use on large engagements, and start to market more complex solutions to your clients. When the time is right, hire contractors that you pay only when they work. Working with other people, in the right way, is an important way to build your business.
  3. Develop a more comprehensive solution. Want a million dollar business? Develop a million-dollar solution. Stop doing only design, and start finding ways to help clients use the Internet to solve their overarching problems. The more you understand the specific strategic problems your clients face, the better your chances of coming up with a comprehensive solution. If you combine a million-dollar solution with a network of people who can help you implement it, you will succeed beyond your wildest dreams. A great resource to help you learn more about this strategy is Million Dollar Consulting, by Alan Weiss.
  4. Develop repeatable solutions. Some of the most successful IT firms I know got that way by developing solutions that they could use over and over again. For instance, one firm developed a Web portal for mortgage brokers that they sell over and over again to tens of thousands of firms. Similarly, other design shops have created portals for all sorts of industries: used car dealerships, fitness clubs, realtors, and online commerce firms. Why keep reinventing the wheel when you can develop a repeatable solution, then customize it to specific clients? That way, you can charge more money for less time.
  5. Build a "franchise." Michael Gerber’s E-Myth book series goes into depth about how you can turn your company into a franchise by working on the business instead of in it. His advice can help you gain leverage through a variety of strategies, including many of those listed above. In fact, some Web design firms have even created actual franchises, such as WSI, Inc.

Step Five: Take Enormous, Focused Action

I’m always surprised at how many Web designers tell me that they "know" what to do, but can’t seem to take action to do it. Would you rather be smart, or successful? If you choose the latter, knowing isn’t enough. You have to take action.

For instance, here’s a plan to get started right away using a marketing system:

  1. Design a marketing message that clearly explains the problem you solve, your solution, its benefits, and why you are unique. Include proof in the form of a few testimonials.
  2. Write one educational piece that establishes you as an expert in your field. The piece should inform prospects and show them how to solve a top problem that they face (and that you happen to solve).
  3. Set a goal to reach your entire target market in six to twelve months, in the following ways:


    • A letter/postcard campaign asking for their advice about the educational piece, and offering a free assessment that is not a hidden sales pitch.

    • Writing a couple of articles in publications targeted to your market.

    • Speaking at venues where your target market goes for information.

    • Driving traffic to a Website filled with information that your prospects will find valuable and useful.

    • Going to all of your current clients and asking permission to brainstorm with them about referrals.

    • Going to everyone else in your network and developing ways to exchange referrals and leads — including jointly marketing each other’s services.

    • Conducting research in your target market about their Web presences, top concerns about the Web, and other information that they would like to benchmark. This tactic is a great way to get in front of prospects so that they don’t feel like you’re subjecting them to a sales pitch.
  4. Test what works and doesn’t, and keep moving forward.
Conclusion: Stop Thinking Small, Once and For All

I sincerely hope that you are serious about achieving inspiring, amazing results with your Web design business — and that you are taking action to make those results happen.

We only have one life here on earth (as far as we know), so why not go all out?