Episode 83 of The SitePoint Podcast is now available! This week Kevin Yank (@sentience) chats with Adobe’s Adam Broadway (@abroadway), who has some thoughts about how freelance web designers should be running their businesses, and building ongoing relationships with their clients from the very beginning.
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Kevin: October 15th, 2010, how freelance web designers can overcome the grind of design, build, launch and forge ongoing partnerships with their clients instead. I’m Kevin Yank, and this is the SitePoint Podcast #83, Rethink Your Job with Adam Broadway.
And welcome to another episode of the SitePoint Podcast. We’re trying something a little different this week, I’m joined by Adam Broadway from Adobe, hi there, Adam.
Adam: Hello, Kevin, thanks for having me.
Kevin: You’re welcome. And I say this is something a little special because this is a sponsored podcast from Adobe, I want to get that out of the way up front here, Adobe’s an advertiser with SitePoint at the moment, and the product that they’re advertising is linked in with a presentation that you’ve been doing the conference circuit with Adam.
Adam: That’s correct.
Kevin: This presentation is titled Rethink Your Job, and just the arguments, the points you make in that presentation I think were really interesting and I think they’ll make an engaging podcast all by themselves. So we’ll get around to the sales pitch at the end, but really the focus here is on some of the ways in which you think freelance web designers could be better running their businesses, better offering services, and setting themselves up for a more successful business. Have I summed that up pretty well?
Adam: Very well, yeah, absolutely. Freelancers, those who maybe work in an agency, a design agency, and for some of those who might even be in a larger corporate environment where they’re doing design in amongst a team, I think the principles could apply to any one of those.
Kevin: The first thing that jumped out at me in this presentation was suggesting that you need to be pitching your services not as “We will build a website for your business,” but rather, “We will help you build an online business.” And I would suspect that there’s a lot of potential clients out there who are thinking of their websites really as an add-on, a complement or an online version of their existing business. So how do you get them over the line, what is the big distinction there?
Adam: Well, I think a lot of businesses have this idea that they’ll approach the web designer and they’ll say “I need my business online,” as opposed to an online business in our terminology. But the thought is that alright if I put my logo up, if I have a nice design and I put my phone number and some pricing that that would be enough. And the whole idea is that as a designer we know that that mindset with things like TemplateMonster and other sort of quick and easy throw a design up on a site, on the Web, and you’re done, the business owner often thinks incorrectly that that’s all there is to it. And so our proposition is that as a web professional, as a web designer, we go to the business owner and re-educate their thinking, that it’s not just a matter of great design and you’re going to be successful but what is the ending goal, the end in mind; what’s the primary goal of your site, and to start thinking more strategically around the projects that they’re working with their clients to not just focus in on the design and standards compliance, but what does the business owner want to achieve and what are the tools that are going to be required to help them do that. As the designer starts talking more business talk, gets the — framing the conversation around what’s the main primary objectives for that business owner, they take them down more of a journey, a longer term journey, and they’re not just focusing in on this individual project—quickly let’s get the design, let’s get them happy, signed off, a couple of amendments and there you go, your business is now online—they need to think that it’s so much more, how are they going to generate leads, how are they going to convert leads. If they’re a non for profit organization, what’s the primary goal there? Is it to get donations? Are we engaging in a conversation with our customers, because we’re all aware that when we go to a website if we don’t get our information needs met in the first microseconds we’re moving on. And business owners often think that it’s just a matter of getting online and that’s enough, but when people walk into a physical shop it’s almost — you’ve engaged with that business, so as I walk into a shop there’s physical four walls, there’s a roof, there’s stock on the shelves and I can engage at least with some eye contact and body language with the store owner or somebody in the showroom floor, online we don’t get that.
Kevin: It’s probably fair to say that you’re not going to convince every potential client that they need to be thinking about their web presence this way. So as a freelancer, as a web designer out there, are you going to have to choose to work with clients that are willing to think this way about an online business, and if so what’s the benefit; is it a good thing to be turning away people who aren’t prepared to work that way?
Adam: I think everybody; every smart business owner anyway, wants to talk to smart people who are thinking about the bigger picture. Now it may be that, yes, this particular client doesn’t need an online business, but just by sowing a seed and suggesting thinking about the long term often endears yourself to that particular client or prospective client, so just sowing the seeds can be enough to get them thinking, okay, not right now. The other thing that the freelancer can do is actually talk down the scope, reduce the scope, so in sowing the seeds—look, I’m going to think about your business here long term, how you thought about x, y and zed and, no, no I’m not interested in that—you’ve at least sown the seeds. Well, let’s talk down the scope and that’s another way of endearing yourself to the client because by reducing the scope and cost that can ensure that you’ve got your name on the board for the next project that comes along. I think that’s the whole idea in rethinking your job; how can you embed yourself in the mind of that prospect, in the mind of that client so that the next project that comes along or phase II, phase III, phase IV, you’re a part of that longevity and cash flow for your bank account as a freelancer.
Kevin: So is the point here that you would rather be moving from one small project to the next with the same client than moving from client to client.
Kevin: That’s the core goal here I suppose.
Adam: I think you’ve nailed that one on the head, yes; if you can establish a long-term relationship that’s key.
Kevin: Okay. Another of the points you make in your prezo is that you as the web designer as much as possible you want to be able to make the technology choices, why is that?
Adam: Well, I think you’re the expert. As somebody who is in the web space you would have far more knowledge across the board of what things can work and don’t work, the things that are going to assist in the process of managing the business, whether that’s a content management tool or an email marketing tool or ecommerce or whatever it might be. I think one of the problems, though, the business owners face is that whole fear uncertainty and doubt around ”Oh, I hand over control I don’t control my business,” which is a little bit flawed, of course, you can always take your design and your customer database and move, but there’s the other things like “I’ve already invested in product X, so I’ve learned how to use product X so therefore I’m tied to it and I’d want to get a return on my investment for that product I’ve already bought,” when in fact actually just to cut it off, amputate that particular product if it’s not working for you is actually a better way of looking at it because you may never get a return on investment for the training you’ve put in on a particular system. That’s another thing that the business owners sometimes trip over.
Kevin: Do you find business owners are uneasy about giving up control over technology choices?
Adam: I think some are; some that are technologically advanced in their minds they do. It really comes down to making sure that the technology choice isn’t on the table up front, it really should be out of the discussion. Okay, let’s look at what the objectives are of this project, is it a rebranding exercise, is it a whole redesign of the site with an existing brand that’s in place, what is the objectives of it? And now do you need to manage your content, do you need to do these other things; identifying the key points of the project and then looking at the best fit of technology later. Don’t let the technology drive the business, let the business and that conversation with the web pro, the freelancer and their experience across lots of platforms determine the best choice.
Kevin: Trying to put myself in the shoes of the business owner I think the technology choice is one of the things that will require the most trust because I feel like if I have no control over that, I risk finding myself locked into a solution that I hadn’t necessarily planned on, do you know what I mean?
Adam: Yes, absolutely, and I think that from a design perspective that’s where you want to make sure that there’s a choice where you have full creative control, there’s full flexibility and you’ve got the ability to maintain your own HTML, your markup; you can do the things that you normally do. Then at the backend when it comes to the tools that are required to manage the site, can we get my data out, am I able to access that, and I think those are valid points that need to be addressed because, yeah, you’re 100% correct, I would be nervous if I was locked into a platform that— Can I get my data out, are there APIs that are available that allow me to connect into my internal systems? That gives me a level of comfort.
Kevin: So I suppose then as the freelancer if you can be advertising those portability features up front you can say, look, leave the technology choices to me, I’m the expert in this stuff, but here are the promises I can make to you, you know, if six months down the line the relationship isn’t working out it’s okay, I promise the technologies I use mean that you can take your content and go elsewhere with it.
Adam: Absolutely. And often even if the business owner thinks— they think they own the technology choice, chances are it’s most likely been developed in-house and/or by a freelance developer who’s now on a backpacking holiday around Scotland for 12 months and holds the keys to the kingdom anyway, so what they thought was something that they paid for to be custom developed that they own they’ve actually got no clue over because it’s a Frankenstein’s bride of backend spaghetti code that they’ve got not chance of actually being able to build upon.
Kevin: So, tell me a bit about how you’ve seen this sort of stuff applied because this all sounds good in theory; can you tell me a bit about whether case studies you’re aware of or businesses you’ve actually worked with or freelancers you’ve worked with who have been implementing these ideas?
Adam: Absolutely. We’ve over the last almost seven years now been working with so many designers and developers in the Web space and we’ve got lots of case studies, there’s some in particular that come to mind is a site called Cellar Thief, cellarthief.com who was put together by one of our partners.
Kevin: So cellar like a wine cellar.
Adam: Like wine cellar, that’s right, so the idea behind that business is to sell three wines in limited quantities, and only three wines, every two days so that you’ve got a limited ability for the consumer to come in and buy those wines before they run out at a very, very good price, and it’s high quality wines. The brief that our partner originally got, SimpleFlame, was to put together a pretty comprehensive solution, and there was talk about what the technology might be and what they ended up doing was sitting down with the client and actually talking down the scope. “Look, will this business possibly even work?” You know, ask some hard questions because you’re not doing your client any favors by looking at the brief, working out they’ve got a fairly decent budget and just going in with the mindset, well, I’m going to consume all that budget. Simple Flame decided, no, we’re going to go in and do the right thing by the client; let’s not worry about the technology, they started to focus in on what the business objectives were and they wanted to do a whole heap of things; they cut it down to the basics. Let’s display the wine, let’s make it easy for you to update the wines because that’s something that you’re wanting to do every two days, let’s also make sure that there’s great, clear calls to action, and that’s the primary goal—call to action is to sell the product. But if they’re not ready what about some social media interaction getting people to follow on Twitter and email newsletter, so just let’s cover the basics. And so that’s what they did, they cut down the scope, they cut down the budget, they did a great job of the design, they implemented and they were able to do it really quickly because they were using obviously the Business Catalyst platform, which incorporated all that functionality, but they were able to do it with the design that was in mind by the client very fast to market, so rapid turn around, and test it. So they actually went to market faster than they expected because of the reduced scope, and immediately they were able to fine-tune it, tweak it, and the business owner was blown away; they’ve got now phase II and phase III coming through.
Kevin: This change of approach is really interesting to me. I’m trying to figure out where the traditional approach comes from—the traditional approach meaning the way these relationships usually go, like you say, there’s a budget out there and the business owner goes, look, we’ve managed to justify, we’ve managed to convince ourselves that we do need a web presence, and so we’re going to put together this spec document that describes everything and the kitchen sink, all of the stuff that we could possibly imagine going into our website and then we’re going to put a budget next to that. And it’s almost as if there’s a fear that if they don’t get it all done at once it’s never going to get done.
Or maybe is that pressure coming from the freelancer’s side where they feel like if they don’t get the contract for the whole job all at once they’re going to miss out on work or they might get a small contract and it might be a waste of time; where is that tension to try and bundle these jobs into the biggest possible packages, because what you’re saying makes sense, the smaller the package is, the quicker the time to market the happier the customer is going to be and the more chance you’ll get flow-on work.
Adam: Yeah, look, I think it comes down to probably a few reasons, but just one that comes to mind is that many medium-sized businesses that have budgets that have a decision by committee and they’re putting together a pretty detailed spec, a lot of the time those projects are taking up internal resources and justifying an IT person’s existence and few other people’s existence, and therefore we’ve got a lot of time to put the spec together. I need to justify my role in the organization so therefore we need to have all these things taken care of, and it’s got to be hosted internally, potentially. And I think the IT people have driven a lot of that, especially consultants that have come in and dictated the terms; now the longer the project the more they make money, and I think mostly it’s the businesses that have driven that whole way of looking at it.
The freelancer is often somebody who has to— they’re working on multiple projects simultaneously and often they haven’t been able to raise their profile above just being a designer, when in fact they’re much more than that, they’re often a web strategist, they’re a technologist, they’re a user experience expert, they’re a marketer, they’re human anxiety specialists (laughter). They’ve got lots of skills that they bring to the table but they don’t explicitly mention them in the conversations with the client. I think as designers have started to do that you see little breakaways, you’ll see designers that have got huge respect and they start to choose the projects that they want to work on based on the reputation they’ve built out because they’ve been honest enough to say red mark through this page, this page, and this page, and when they go back with that proposal and they’ve filled out the details they say I think you’re wrong here, here, and here because we need to cut the scope down, we need to address the primary goals of this project which isn’t all this other stuff, and, wow, suddenly they’re standing up and they’re the ones that are forcing the change. So I think it’s been the freelancers that have begun to flip this over and stop being dictated to by the internal IT departments.
Kevin: So a bit of a buzzword check here, you mentioned ‘agile development’ in your presentation and that’s not a buzzword I’m used to seeing in the context of freelance work. Agile development is something I associate with teams of developers operating inside big corporates. What does agile development mean to you in this context?
Adam: I guess in the context of the freelancer, traditionally you would be working in those big teams; you would outsource your backend coding to somebody who’s a database expert, a PHP, ColdFusion, ASP.net, whatever sort of programming language you want to mention, those experts, you’re outsourcing to those. You’re outsourcing to a package that does email marketing, you’re integrating some of the ecommerce solution; you need that to link back to a contact database, then you want to throw content management over the top. So, when the client requires that sort of project, yes, you’re working in those large often disparate teams where you’re pulling the resources together, it’s not really agile. Agile in the context here with Business Catalyst is that the freelancer, the designer, is no longer required to know all of those backend stuff, you don’t need a degree in computer science to start to embed ecommerce or a donation form or a blog or a forum or an email newsletter subscription form, so being able to be agile, quick to move, embedding that functionality and then test it and change without waiting for 100% perfection or waiting on other resources to come back with a code update; that’s what I guess we define as agile development in the context of our platform.
Kevin: So the ability to prototype quickly and having tools that are the 90% solution that you can test an idea before you spend a lot of time customizing them and refining them, that’s what you’re talking about?
Kevin: So, all of this is in service of Adobe Business Catalyst which is a product that Adobe is offering and this is why you’re sponsoring the Podcast this week. Tell us a little bit about Adobe Catalyst and how it relates to all this stuff we’ve been talking about.
Adam: Sure. Well, Business Catalyst it’s been around almost seven years now. It’s software as a service, and it is an all-in-one solution that’s incorporating content management, ecommerce, email marketing, blogs, forums, and a whole lot more features, but it’s also centered around a centralized contact database. So on the one hand the web designer has full creative control and can add and embed functionality without needing to be a backend programmer, but also then on the flip side, the business owner has access to all the features that the web pro, the freelancer, has activated for them in the Business Catalyst Solution so they can manage their content and most importantly manage the interactions that they get through their potential customers whether that’s filling out a — somebody might have opened an email campaign or commented on a blog post or started a forum topic or purchased a product, made a donation, etcetera; all that’s centralized into the contact database associated with the site that the freelancer set up, and the business owner can report on it. So, on one hand full creative control for the web pro, the web designer, and rapid site deployment then being able to offer an online business to the business owner to manage their site ongoing.
Kevin: And if I wanted to check out Business Catalyst where would I go?
Adam:businesscatalyst.com and it’s free to sign up as a partner so you’re able to try it before you start deploying to your clients, and there’s a comprehensive set of videos and training material, knowledge bases and a really active partner network globally where we see a lot of “coopetition.” That’s a word I like to use (laughter) because it’s not that designers are competing as much these days; there’s specialization that people can leverage and we see that amongst our Business Catalyst partners as well, a lot of coopetition; they cooperatively work together on projects where their strengths complement each other.
Kevin: Yeah, businesscatalyst.com. Well, whether or not you choose to give a look to businesscatalyst.com I know Adam Broadway is anxious to continue the discussion on these ideas about the way to change your business as a web professional. Adam Broadway is @abroadway on Twitter; is there any other way you like people to get in touch with you Adam?
Adam: adam at adobe.com will also work if you want to hit me up via email.
Kevin: Alright. And of course there is the comment thread for this podcast, feel free to chime in there and I’ll be sure to pass along any interesting comments Adam’s way so he can come back with his replies. Thanks for being on the show today, Adam.
Adam: Thanks very much for having me, Kevin, and for everybody listening.
Kevin: Adam’s appearance on this episode of the SitePoint Podcast was made possible by the kind support of Adobe. Since this is the first sponsored podcast we’ve done we’re very interested in hearing your feedback here at SitePoint. Was this episode better or worse than a typical SitePoint podcast? Would you be interested in hearing future sponsored podcasts as long as we here at SitePoint think that what they have to say is worthwhile for you to hear? We would love to hear your feedback. Please just leave a comment or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next week on the show we’ll be bringing you the first of the highlights from our live recordings that we made at BlogWorld Expo in Las Vegas, and the week after that we’ll be returning to our regular news and commentary format with our usual panel of experts.
This episode of the SitePoint Podcast is produced by Carl Longnecker and I’m Kevin Yank. Thanks for listening.
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