SitePoint Podcast #101: Web Design Business with Peter Williams

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Episode 101 of The SitePoint Podcast is now available! This week Louis Simoneau (@rssaddict) chats with Peter Williams (@rexster) about his new SitePoint release, The Web Design Business Kit, 3rd edition, which is all about starting, running, and growing a web design business.

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  • SitePoint Podcast #101: Web Design Business with Peter Williams (MP3, 1:00:56, 58.5MB)

Interview Transcript

Louis: Alright, so here we are. Today on the Podcast we have a special guest, Peter Williams, who is the author of SitePoint’s latest release, the third edition of the Web Design Business Kit.  So what we’ve got today is a bunch of questions that have been submitted by the community both on Facebook and Twitter and we’ll talk a bit about the kit and about other things as we go in. But to start maybe just tell us a bit who you are and what got you into this project and what your background is in web design industry.

Peter: Yes, I’m actually a chartered accountant by training, but I started working in the Web space in about 1993, I set up an e-business consulting group at Deloitte in 1996 and we bought an interest in a web development business in 2000, we then bought the whole thing in 2002 and I ran that for five years, so I’ve got a lot of experience both on the business side but also in actually running a web development company that grew very rapidly.

Louis: Right. One of the things that a lot of people ask us when we launched the kit and that came in by email and on Facebook and Twitter is just to explain a bit how it differs from the previous editions. Now, I’m pretty familiar with this because I worked on the kit, but whenever I try and explain to people what the change was in outlook I guess rather than specific advice, can you maybe just give us a quick summary of when you came to the project you had this existing material, but what was your view on how it should be updated and how did you go about doing that?

Peter: Yeah, well, I think there were a couple of things, one, things have changed dramatically in the Web industry, and what the book was sort of a lot about was probably focused a lot on sort of starting up and building a client base and how to communicate and all that sort of stuff, but a lot of it was sort of written at a time when social media didn’t exist, when Cloud Computing wasn’t around, software as a service Open Source, particularly in the Web industry in terms of Open Source projects for content management systems, etcetera, hadn’t really hit their straps, so moving on the world we live in is much different now, so the ability to set up a web business, the way you go about marketing, things like social media, etcetera, were brought in, but I’ve also brought in I suppose from perhaps it was more marketing focused, now I think it’s more holistically business focused, so we’ve got things about building a culture, building a team, how to do costing in a more detailed granular level. So, also about what sort of things are critical to underpin your business, decisions as to why you should or shouldn’t start up a web design business, so I think I would say it’s got much more of a broader business flavor then the previous one, and I’d also say that it’s been updated to reflect the changes that have gone on in the external environment.

Louis: Yeah, I think that’s definitely true from my reading of it. The other thing I noticed is that even when it comes to marketing, your approach to marketing a web business is very different from what was in the kit previously. Do you want to talk a bit about that, about how you see marketing in this day and age in the web design business?

Peter: Yeah, I think the way I look at is that to build a long term successful web design business is it’s as much about relationships as the work you deliver, so it’s perhaps moved away from how do you sort of make a lot of noise in a mass market to how do you build long term client relationships that will underpin the growth of your business. So I think much more around conversations with clients, I think much more about incorporating not just building websites or mobile apps but also really understanding what does the client want to achieve at a strategic level, so really upping it from I’ve got a project and here web designers go and build it, to the web design firm being able to come in actually be able to go out and drive and operate at that strategy level as opposed to we are just somebody who takes a handball of a project and build a nice website. So, really bringing together those things of strategy, creativity and robust technology designer build is the way I sort of look at the business, and I’m always interested in saying how do we target and find those sort of clients or customers that are going to be with us for the long term and that have also got sort of allowing us to deliver and stretch the organization as well as stretch ourselves into the world of the out of the possible which is always changing.

Louis: Yeah, right. It was really interesting working with you on it and reading through the material regarding all those things about how marketing has changed. So I suppose I’ll just jump in and ask some of the questions that came from our community. So obviously there’s a big variety of different questions, so from Facebook Mike Tomshay asked, when starting a new business obviously both things are important but what should be your main focus, have a unique idea or how to execute it?

Peter: Well, I always say about ideas is that you’re gonna have a heap of them but ideas only live and die with execution, so the key thing is your idea also doesn’t necessarily need to be unique in the web design world because you may say, look, we want to just have a web design business that delivers outstanding results for our clients through outstanding execution. So, if you’re going to go into a startup and it’s more product focused, yeah, uniqueness of the idea is important; if you’re going into sort of more general web design service business it always will live in terms of how you execute. So, we sort of just expand on that a bit; if you’re going in with a product sort of model, say you’re going to invent the next Twitter or whatever, it’s important not just to say well I can take what’s done and make a better one, so in the last 15 years or however long it is I must’ve seen 200 “better eBays,” so sort of just copying and trying to make an idea better is in my mind not a great idea. But if you’re looking to start a web design business my sense is that being able to actually find clients and deliver in a really good way and take the client forward as opposed to just doing what everybody else does is important. So, yeah, uniqueness of the idea, you know, a great idea that’s badly executed is worthless, an okay idea that’s executed brilliantly is great.

Louis: Yeah, right. And I guess also with everyday web design work it’s a services industry, so as you were saying regardless of what your sort of founding principle is if you can go out there and find your clients and deliver what you —

Peter: And, but again it could be if we looked at another service industry, say law, so if you look at law sometimes people have a generalist legal practice, sometimes they might just focus on property, sometimes they might focus on intellectual property, sometimes they might focus on family dispute, so you may decide when you start that you want to focus on a specific niche that you feel is underserviced or that you can add great value to, so yeah, but the key thing is it’s not so much the idea it’s, again, how you execute and you know as I always say as with anything start somewhere, learn by doing and continually evolve any of that around what you’re doing is the way to do it.

Louis: Next question we had from Facebook is from Paul Van Biljon, he says is it worthwhile using a lot of resources as a new company to establish big corporate clients or is it better to find lots of smaller clients?

Peter: Yeah, my view would be that if you’re starting obviously the worst thing that can happen sometimes to a small web company is to get The Big Job because when you’re starting you don’t necessarily have that experience, your team hasn’t formed, you haven’t got your processes and procedures in place and sometimes big companies or big jobs, particularly large organizations, have a lot of governance and overhead which you may not have been exposed to in the past, so my sense is sort of start at the small to mid area, build your business, build your skills, build your processes and then evolve your way in to the bigger jobs. I think starting off, and I’ve often seen business fail where they’ve had a nice little business and suddenly the big job comes in and they’re in a different ballgame and they find it very difficult to adapt, and sometimes you’ll find that the bigger clients can be much more demanding, have a lot more governance, documentation processes that you may not have realized, but then you’re suddenly doing a whole heap of project status reports all the time and presentations and contracts and all that stuff which you haven’t charged for which can burn you as you go.

Louis: Yeah, right. You talk a lot in the kit about sort of underpinning clients and developing these long term relationships.

Peter: And I think what you generally find is it’s unlikely when you start with say a larger client that you’re going to get the massive job, so I always like to find a way with say a larger client of can we get a taste test type job, it might be a microsite, it might be doing some social media integration with the site that they’ve got, but there’s something that allows both parties to learn about how to work together; the first job you do for a client is always gonna require what I call a level of over-communication to sort of get the way you collaborate to be optimized and then work your way up, as I say, if you start with a — if you’re a small business and you’re not used to doing sort of 10 to 20 thousand dollar jobs and you suddenly land a million dollar job you’re in a very different ballgame, and also you have to change the way that you actually charge, you bill, because for example if you do it in a way where you’re not getting progress payments and it’s a massive job and all your resources are on it how do you pay the sort of wages and the rent if you’re not getting paid for the job until the end. So, there’s a lot of things, and I think we cover it pretty well in the kit about how to go about dealing with the big job, but my sense is always rather than try and sort of hit the homerun, make it a series of base hits with a client, and then over time you’ll be able to sort of migrate and growing with your clients is one of the best things you can do in a business.

Louis: Alright, we have another question from Facebook from Dawid Nawrot, he says, “I’d like to ask about growing the business. Along with a friend we have a nice established graphics studio with web development, and since 2007 it’s been constantly growing, the problem is it’s only a second job and we still need to have other full time jobs. Our fear is the transformation; we’d like to quit our jobs and get into partnership as we have more and more clients and bigger clients that we can’t give proper service when we work a few hours a day in the afternoon. So what should we do before taking that risk, how can make the business successful,” do you have any advice in that situation?

Peter: Yes, and I faced this scenario not so much myself but with a lot of web design businesses that I’ve advised over the years, and what I say is that at some point you’re going to have make that leap. And the question really being asked is, well, how do we go about making that leap without sort of saying well we thought we had it all going but it’s all sort of not come in as we expect it to. And one of the things you’ll find is what I call porpoising in a service business where you sort of it’s either feast or famine; if the works up you do it, and suddenly oh geez we’ve got nothing on. So really what I would do is I’d start with creating a pipeline and say what clients have we got, and then going out to those clients and sort of saying well, look, we’re looking at going into this full on, if we did that can we sort of get at least a view over the next 12 months of what sort of work might come through. Turn that into a cash flow being able to say well if we do give up our day jobs will we have the income coming through in I suppose a regular periodic way that we can still pay our rent, still pay our wages and all that stuff, and make the leap. So, first thing is try and just do a forward forecast for the next 12 months; if you’ve got enough work and you say well actually we may initially take a bit of a pay cut because that might be the price of making that transition, but try to really get out there and see if you can lock in some clients for a longer period of time. I think the other thing you’ve also got to think of, and it goes back to anybody in a business, at some point you’ve got to back yourself, you’ve got to say you know what, if I did this for, I was gonna say eight hours a day but very few people work eight hours a day in the web business, but if I sort of devoted myself full time to this would I be able to expand that footprint of clients I’ve got. And I think if you’re doing good work, if you’ve got good references, if you’ve got some clients that are willing if you make the leap that they’re going to back you, go for it, but again just do a little bit of that ground work and planning and just say let’s look at it over 12 months, where do we want to be and do we have the work or opportunity to actually make that happen.

Louis: Yeah, that brings to mind something else from the kit that you talk about is so if you can establish okay we have the potential for all this work that might come in over the next 12 months and that’s enough money for us, but I think one of the things you mentioned is you’d also have to allot some time to continue to developing work while you’re doing that work. So say if I’ve got enough contracts to keep my fed and housed for the next 12 months, but it’s gonna take all of my time and then I don’t have enough time to go out and find other work, so that always has to be —

Peter: And the other thing is I talk about it in the kit, the difference between being a freelancer and doing this maybe for lifestyle reasons, I can sort of pick up this work when I want and go and travel for three months and come back and I’ve got a group of contacts that really if I ever need work I can find it, to saying I’m actually going to turn this into a business. And really this question talks about that inflection point where I’ve got a little graphics studio, we’re working a few hours a day, things are going well, it’s growing but we’re still in that sort of ultimate insecurity process of “can I make the leap.” And at some point if you want to run a business you’ve got to do it, but the other thing is you actually are running a business, so there will be things you need to do such as setting up insurances, getting a billing system, doing your accounting, making sure that you’ve got all the processes and ways your working all set up, so you’ve got to work in the business as well as on the business and, again, allowing some time for that, so the problem I call it the “chase your tail” model where work, work, work, work, work, finish job, oh hang on, quick, where’s another job? So, but you need to be able to sort of say well I’ve got a pipeline of work coming down, I’ve made time within my schedule to do a number of business development meetings during the week as well as get the work out the door.

Louis: Alright. So another question I have from Facebook from Wilmet Rypkema says, “I have a graphic and web design business but have no employees yet, and I want to know where to find people and resources that can help with things that I can’t do (or don’t want to do). I’ve looked online but not found where you can interact with a person to help or even better sources that are in your local area,” do you have any suggestions for that?

Peter: Yeah, interestingly for me I find Twitter is perhaps the best place, but what I’d actually do to start with is to look at what is the network of contacts that I’ve got that I’ve worked with before. When you’re starting out what you’ll find is you may require, a job might require some animation and you may not have those skills. You probably won’t have a full time job for an animator, so finding a network of freelancers, turn up to any of the sort of meet-ups or get togethers that people have, it’s always in any city there’s always some social media meetup, go there, find out who’s on the market, who’s doing contracting work, who’s doing freelancing, and see if you can build a network of resources and skills, but also you can advertise through job boards and all those sort of things. But what I’ve tended to find is as I’ve built up a Twitter following being able to just ping out and say hey I need a Blackberry developer or I need somebody with some specific animation skills because I’ve got a following I’ve been actually able to get a lot of response, but yeah, so you may get the old way of advertising on job boards and stuff, but my sense would be if you can build a network of people that either you’ve worked with before or Uni mates, all those sort of things are a great way of finding talented people. And I also like to use the networks that I’ve got of trusted people because it makes it a lot easier because whenever you hire somebody or bring on a new resource there’s always a risk of making a mistake, so the more credentialed they are or the more references that you’ve got for them from people that you know and trust, I see that immediate circle of friends and contacts in the industry that you work in as probably the best way of going about it.

Louis: Absolutely. How do you feel, for example, if someone was just starting out and they don’t necessarily have that big a following on Twitter and maybe they know a few people but they don’t know anyone in the specific field, how do you feel about freelancing or outsourcing websites like Elance or oDesk, what is your opinion of that kind of thing?

Peter: Yeah, I mean personally I haven’t done it a whole lot, and I have done a little bit of let’s call it that sort of crowdsource type model, but in certain specifics, like we use for voiceover people, and basically with that you set up, chuck up a script and say when the right people read a couple of paragraphs for you and then they put a bid in there and do that for some of that more niche-y specific stuff, absolutely it works really well, even if it was an actual job, again, it could work but I prefer to build sort of value in the team and build a sort of sustainable thing because sometimes you may not be able to get that person or you may not be able to get reuse from what they do. So, and the other thing is if you don’t have a big Twitter following find somebody who does, and I’m sure that within your network of people that you probably know somebody who’s got the two or three thousand or whatever, and that’s probably as much as you need, and ask some of your friends, hey, could you Tweet this out for me is another way if you don’t have the following to leverage others.

Louis: Right, okay, that’s a good idea. Alright, so I have another question, some of this is a bit of overlap but I’ll go into it anyway, so from Tracy Lea on Facebook maybe a bit of a specific question here, but do you consider there should be a difference in price for modifying designs within a CMS like Drupal or Joomla or WordPress as opposed to creating a design from scratch? So that’s her question, I’d kind of be interested to hear what you have to say about the use of these kind of CMS resources as opposed to the people who go out and build something entirely from scratch I think.

Peter: Yeah, well, I’m not a big believer in reinventing wheels, and when I look at say for example I’m building the Deloitte Digital website, the businesses I run now, we’re rebuilding and we’re using Drupal, why, mainly because I don’t have to pay for it, two, I have a lot of faith in the development community that’s built around this, I can access people who’ve got skills on that platform, so I look at it in terms of what’s the path or the pathway or the dev pipeline of this thing and is it keeping up, how much does it cost me, not much, and can I contribute back and is it easy for me if I do want to create a new component to be able to add that in. So, I’m a big believer instead of, because you know if somebody used to say to me back in say 2000 “have you got a CMS system?”, and I say yeah I’ve got about 30, because what I used to find back in those days when it wasn’t as established was that anytime I’d give my engineers a job which required a CMS they’d be saying actually “all the CMS’ are crap, we must build a new one.”

Louis: So “all the CMS’ are crap, including the one we built last time.”

Peter: Yeah, yeah, and if we did it again we’d do it this way. So, avoiding the blank sheet of paper is something because the other thing is when you look at really being profitable, if you don’t have to rework and the more reuse you can get the more you can do and the easier it is to deploy with confidence, because as we know if you go and build something out from scratch you can get to the period where you know that last sort of half a percent of getting it to work can be almost as much as the 99% of getting it up and running. So, my advice would be if somebody’s got something that’s working for them keep working on that platform, great. If they’re looking to say you know what, we’ve outgrown this thing, we need to do something new, my sense is building it on top of a robust Open Source sort of model makes a lot more sense. I’m building another website at the moment for a community, a bushfire community called Flowerdale, so what we’re doing there is, again, we’re using Drupal, it’s going to be hosted on Drupal Gardens because now we can not only, in the old days we used to have to put the CMS in and then set up an infrastructure of hardware infrastructure and maintain it, now we can just rent that. And the capacity to do and spend the time and money in terms of the functionality and making it look great and getting it to work is where we focus as opposed to worrying about the backend. One of the things that I’ve always said is that over time the technologies which seem hard today will become plumbing. So, back when I started doing stuff in the tech industry people used to get us to do selection for word processing software, now it would be like use Google Docs or if you want to buy something go buy Word, you know; this stuff becomes almost commoditized or infrastructure or plumbing, so don’t sweat too much on the plumbing, think much more about the architecture and the interior decoration as opposed to having to worry about all these other different moving parts because you think you can do it better.

Louis: Yeah, right. So coming back to the way Tracy asked her question, she was considering charging different prices, but I guess what you’re saying is even if it might cost you a little more to build the skills required to customize Drupal as opposed to just building a site from scratch, that the potential for reuse with other clients and the skills that you’ll develop will just really pay off in the long term.

Peter: Right. And I think when you think of charging what you need to be thinking of is am I doing something that’s a commodity service or am I doing something that’s hard to do, or am I extending the capacity of this organization because I’m not actually — I don’t want to, let’s say the budget for the job is 50 grand, if I was spending all that money trying to build something from scratch or start new, the actual output that the end user sees is probably going to be less than if I could leverage something that already exists and spend that money much more in terms of the outcome my customer’s trying to get. So, in terms of charging, if its commodity based stuff you’re likely to get a commodity based price. If you’re doing outstanding design work or bringing in new concepts and ideas you can charge more for that.

Louis: Right. Tracy had another question which is following on from that, how much should the small business web designer do? So that’s like a one or two person operation. She says: “I’ve often had clients who were surprised when I suggested they may need more of a developer for part of a project rather than just the designer who can implement a design”. So I guess that cuts right into how you organize your business and your network of collaborators, which you were talking about earlier.

Peter: So, if we have a look at the way the industry’s evolved, initially the Web was very, and I’m talking back at the start, back in ’93, and in those days it was quite more tech-o than it was design, but if we roll forward these days the technology part has become more commoditized, more like the plumbing, and the value is in the design. So what I say to clients is you actually get your return on investment on the interface; the ability of that interface to be intuitive, easy to use, focused on the objective your business is trying to achieve is where historically we used to spend it all on the backend and frontend was an afterthought, these days the backend is much easier, much more readily available and you can again focus on the design. However, if you’re let’s say using an Open Source platform like Drupal, and you want to do something exotic which there’s no more module for, clients need to understand that sometimes if they want something that’s unique or specific it’s not just a matter of sort of a decoration job, it’s actually you’ve got to do a little bit of the construction work yourself. So, the way I ran say the Eclipse business which is now called Deloitte Online, started off with very strong creative and it had a bit of technical capability, so I felt that I needed to move, keep the creative at a high level but move our tech capacity up there. Then I brought in skills like strategy, business analysis, testing; it amazes me the number of web companies out there that don’t do testing, how do you do your testing, well, the developer does it. Again, building these sort of functions as we go, but my sense would be that when a client comes to you and wants a website built or a mobile app, or whatever, they don’t just want you to be able to do a design, they actually want an outcome or a solution that delivers what they need, and if that solution requires some sort of strategy work, some design work, some development work, well if that’s what the job takes you need to be either able to deliver that yourself or alternatively have a network of people that you can pull in when you need them. So you may have a web business that’s more technically oriented, that’s great, you need a network of designers that you can pull in, or if you’re more of a design firm you need to have some contacts with developers and over time start to bring some of those skills in-house, because the more you just rely on sort of a network of collaborators you’re not necessarily building intellectual property and skill in your business. So, again, maybe what you do is you might hire some contractors to work on a job, but if they’re really good and if you can see that you can continue to sell that sort of work, that’s your next employee.

Louis: Right. That brings to mind another one of the things you talk about in the kit, is the advantage of doing this if someone comes to you for work that maybe you don’t feel like you can do but of taking it on and trying to find a team of people that can do it is that you can get yourself to a point where you are the go-to person for that client like if they have a need, rather than bypassing you and going to a developer, you might’ve said oh we can’t do that, you’re gonna need a developer for that. If you can say alright we can mastermind this project, we’ll need to outsource the development or find someone else to do that, but we can run it and we can orient the strategy and the design and we’ll manage the whole thing for you, then the next time they need work even if it’s not work that you can do in-house they’ll come to you and that gives you the ability to maintain that contact.

Peter: Well, I’ll give you a good example. I had a new kitchen put in, and so the guys come out and they quote me for the kitchen, and I remember the first day where I had a bit of a sinking feeling was where the sort of oven and stovetop and all that stuff had been delivered and put in the garage the week before, so the guys comes in to install the kitchen, I said oh by the way mate the appliances are in the garage, and he looks at me like huh, like what has that got to do with me, and it’s like well you’re building me a kitchen, I thought you put in the appliances, oh no we don’t do that. Then in the end I sort of had a bit of a dispute with these guys when I said guys we’ve got appliances, bench tops, plumbing and cupboards but we do not have a kitchen, because I thought I’d actually bought, they were gonna come in and do the whole lot, but they were oh no you’ve got to your electrician to do that and you’ve got to get your plumber to do that, and it’s like I wanted a solution not a problem.

Louis: Right. Whereas the same company if without even hiring anyone additional if they just had a network of people that they could bring in.

Peter: Yeah, because I didn’t want to sort of be running, which I ended up doing, running around and trying to get things done, oh the tap’s not working, well that’s not our fault, and so again it became a nightmare because I thought I was buying a solution but what I bought was a series of blocks that somehow I was suddenly supposed to become a kitchen integrator. So, when a client comes to you it’s unlikely if they — most clients don’t have the skill sets in-house, it’s unlikely that they just want you to do a design and say there you go, now you go and work out someone to build it, they’re looking for you to deliver them an outcome. So focusing on what’s the outcome a client wants and how do I deliver that whether I do it all myself or whether I build a network of collaborators or whether I partner with somebody else to do it is something you want to be thinking about. Really a sort of fundamental law of the Web is focus on the end user, a fundamental law of web design business is focus on the outcome that your client wants and make sure that they get it, not only from the build but actually from the deployment and how the thing operates is an ongoing platform.

Louis: That’s good. That’s a good answer.

Peter: Thanks for that endorsement Lou (laughter). That’s much better than that question before and you go yeah, that’s like you go, yeah, that must’ve been a crappy answer (laughter).

Louis: Sorry mate. I didn’t mean that, so far it’s all been very informative I think, it’s good to have you in here and be able to talk this stuff out, I mean reading it in the kit is great as well, but just able to get this stuff from the community and see how it all ties together is great. Alright, I have another question from Facebook which is from Ehron Miller, how much do you suggest an entrepreneur budget to have an effective website to be used as an informational sales tool for a new business in the planning stages, and when should the website be launched? I realize that’s kind of a tricky question, and the answer is almost always going to be it depends.

Peter: Yeah, whenever I talk to IT people and I say how much is this and they’ll say “it depends” because the only price for IT in the world you ask any IT dude or web design dude how much is this and they say “it depends.” So, let’s step back and think about it. So, if it’s a known quantity and it’s very clear about what the clients want to achieve and they’ve documented it well, and really it’s a bit like taking a brief it would be like you’re a builder and you’ve got a whole series of architectural plans to be able to say I can build that from these plans because they’re well-defined and scoped and all that stuff, quite easy, but what you’ll often find in a web design business, particularly if it’s a new client, is as much of your work is going to be about educating the client, understanding the scope, understanding what they’re trying to achieve and who with, so I always sort of like to do a scoping piece upfront. Now it depends on the size of the business and all that stuff, but if you could sort of say well I could knock out with say a full day strategy workshop and a couple of days to pull together a scope, and you might charge around 1,500 bucks a day or whatever, there’s five grand. If it’s a bit bigger than that, say somewhere between in my view five to fifteen grand may be your scoping piece, but in that what you’ve done is you’ve done some — you’ve really understood what the client’s trying to do, you’ve understood who they’re trying to do it with, you understood their key requirements, you may have done some prototype designs up front, so we get to a point where everybody knows what are we doing, what’s it gonna look like, what software are we gonna use in the background. So say if I look at the Deloitte Digital website that I’m right in the middle of now, we’re doing a scoping piece and basically it’s been about sort of logo redesign, what products have we got, who’s the audience, how do we structure some mockups, and that period’s taken about a week of a bit of back and forthing, all that sort of stuff, at the same time we’re doing some investigation of the technology which is effectively I want to use Drupal, let’s have a look at what our requirements are and can we do all that out of the box. And sometimes what we’ll also do is say look if there’s something really exotic in there that we can’t do out of the box up front, let’s make that stage two, let’s sort of see what we can get out quickly, fast, that’s gonna work, and then worry about getting overly exotic. So my sense would be if you can and if it’s a new client, being able to do some scoping piece to really lock down what you’re gonna deliver, how you’re gonna deliver it, what it’s gonna look like, what’s gonna work, and understanding also a lot of these non-functional requirements like how’s it gonna be managed inside that business or are they gonna need some help to populate content and keep things upgraded or updated and all that stuff. So, understanding both the technical and functional requirements as well as how’s this thing going to operate once it’s launched is worth a bit of investment up front. If a client is sort of saying to you no, no, no, we don’t want to spend money on that we just want you to build something, I’d probably let them go. Sometimes you can define your business best by what you say no to as opposed to saying yes to everything.

Louis: Right. That’s an interesting point I think that comes up a lot, and people talk about what defines a good client and what makes it worthwhile to hold on to a client, and how do you go about telling someone that you don’t want to do the work if it’s poorly defined or it they don’t want to, I guess in this case you’re talking about someone who thinks they know what they want but isn’t thinking about the outcome, they’re just thinking about I need a website.

Peter: Yep.

Louis: And I guess that’s probably pretty common because a lot of people don’t understand this space, so they think oh I need a website because I need a website. So what’s your approach to talking to a client like that and how do you either decide to keep them and educate them or decide to say this isn’t gonna work?

Peter: Yeah, well what I tend to do is in that first meeting with a client I look at it very much as sort of a conversation or a sharing process, let’s listen to the client and what they’re thinking about and how they’re going about it, how sophisticated are they, do they understand the space or are they fairly new to it, and then I look and take them through the way we do it. Now if they said we don’t want you do any of the pre-work to get this right we just want you to go and build something, I’d sort of say look that’s not the way we work because we know that if we just sort of rush off and it’s all ill-defined and then the problem becomes but in the meeting you said this and now it doesn’t do this, what we like to do is make sure that there’s a transparency all the way through the job so there’s no surprises. So if a client isn’t prepared to work with you in the way that you think is both best for them and your business, it’s easy to say we’re probably not the right people to do that. The other thing is I often use a term of saying yes when you’re saying no; look, if you just want to knock something out and belt something out I got a mate who does that work and can knock it out and, bang, refer them to somebody else who can, or suggest to them, well, that’s what you want go on Elance and stick up your brief and see what happens. But the thing is client qualification is a really important thing because your worst, or the clients that you end up with in this sort of never ending battle of you said this, I said this, and they won’t sign stuff off and they change their minds all the time, they suck the life blood out of your business because you’re spending a lot time dealing with that tricky client when you could actually be working with your better client. So, there’s actually a whole chapter in the kit about dealing with tricky clients and being able to spot them and what you should do with them, but my sense is you should be able to get a gut feeling, and what I say to clients when they say to me well how should I select a web design business, it’s like do you understand what they’re talking about, do they seem more focused on your outcomes or how much money they can get, do they explain things well, do you like them, basic stuff like that. And by the same token if you’re a web design business do they listen to what I say, do they act as though they know everything, do they try and chip me away and try and crunch me on price all the time, those sort of things might say you know what maybe it’s better not to deal with this client. As a human being it’s not that hard to sort of know when somebody’s gonna be high maintenance or are gonna be easy to deal with.

Louis: Yeah. I guess it can be one of the things is a lot of the people who are gonna be reading the kit or a lot of our audience are people who sort of taught themselves web design and development, it’s something you can do real easily now with online tutorials and books and you can learn, okay, I know how to build a website, but then making that step into turning it into a business, a lot of people might be afraid of turning away work because this is the only thing I’ve got; if I’ve got two clients if I turn away one of them, you know, but I guess in terms of the long term viability of the business sometimes that can really be the thing that makes it because then you can focus on delivering on websites that are really stellar and those can serve as references and those good clients who’ve had good outcomes from you can serve as references when you have more work down the road.

Peter: Yeah, and it’s interesting, I had a lunch with a CEO on Friday, and a mob developed a retail website for them, and the site’s been put up for an award, and they might win the award, but the CEO is not gonna work with them anymore. The results of the website, it’s growing at 190% per annum, so you’d say, well, award winning website growing 190% per annum, why wouldn’t the CEO want to keep working with them, and his thing was because they don’t sort of listen to us anymore, it seems to be all about them and nothing about us and we have a problem and they have had some technical problems which probably could’ve been avoided but it is what it is, but they’ve lost the sort of trust in terms of how they’ve dealt with the inevitable problems that will occur. So, an interesting scenario about understanding what clients want, want to be heard, they want to be listened to, when they ask you something they don’t just want to be fobbed off or telling them that’s just the way it is, they want solutions, they want people to listen, they want a relationship, and that was interesting because what he said was like they did a brilliant job on the website but they’ve done nothing on the relationship which is why we’re gonna move away. So, you know, a sort of sell your tree lesson there; you’ve got to work the relationships with your clients and when I say work them it’s not about sort of cynically trying to rip more money out of their pockets, it’s starting to get to know them, teaching the way you work, talking regularly about you know one of the things I think as I say in the kit, you know, where we’ve got new clients what we’ll always do is sort of say either monthly or at the end of a release, what were the three things that were the best about working with us, what were the three worst things, and vice versa, so you’re still always trying to sort of get to that ideal scenario of collaborating with your client.

Louis: Right. Alright, that’s great. Another question from Twitter this time from someone who goes by @serenedestiny on Twitter, how do you come up with a marketing plan for a website design business? So she says she’s looking to amp up marketing strategies.

Peter: Okay, seeing the question comes from Twitter, a good way (laughter) Twitter’s a good way, Twitter’s a great way to amplify; what we always look to do is get case studies of what we’ve done, and the case studies aren’t just we’ve built websites like this and you push all these buttons and how wonderful it is, it’s actually talking to the people within the clients and the capacity to use little video and little flip cams or your iPhone 4 or whatever to get client testimony, but actually talk through the process. And also, when you’re building a website you always want to think of at the end of it I need a case study, I need it to be referenceable, so capturing things along the way so you can actually take people on the journey, the problem we had was X, the way we thought about doing it was Y, and then this is the journey we took the client on and here was the result, so building these sort of case studies and what you’ll find is that say the tech media, for example the newspapers, etcetera, are still a great way of getting your voice out, so sending out details of these case studies to various IT publications or newspapers and then, sorry to any journalist listening to this, journalists sort of love to have the ability to have a pre-plotted story that they can take and write up, so what we tend to do will always build that case study at the end, we see that as part of the project, coming up with a case study saying the objectives we sought at the start were X, here’s what we did, here’s how we did it, here’s the people we dealt with and here’s the result, then saying well how do I amplify that message, putting it on your blog, amplifying it through Twitter, sending it out to newspapers in forms of press releases, etcetera, submitting sites for awards, all those sort of things give you a base of amplifying your message. The other thing is also getting out into industry forums, if you’ve done something in an industry getting out to where that industry congregates or getting public speaking opportunities if you’ve done something in the health industry or see if you can get a gig to be able to present that case study at an industry conference is another great way of leveraging what you’ve done. So, it takes a bit of leg work but it’s a lot easier these days because their ability to become their own media and publish stuff, etcetera, is important but it’s beyond just our clients ‘here’s the website’. If you can build a story around it so people understand how you went about it, and you can also demonstrate that your client experience through the process was good, as well as the result you delivered, I think that sort of becomes and speaks for itself.

Louis: Right. So on the one hand building the marketing into your everyday work so that you’re always thinking as you’re working on things how am I going to use this down the track, so not have marketing sort of as a separate 20% at the end of the month.

Peter: And one of the things that I did when I started in the Web business I realized that really for me to build a presence and a profile for my business I had to get really good at public speaking, so I went out and sought a lot of public speaking gigs. The other thing that we also did is that we run a lot of events ourselves, so inviting clients, amplifying on Twitter to be able to say to people, hey, we’re gonna run a presentation on this project, I mean the one I’ve been doing a lot lately is some rapid prototyping, teaching people how to do rapid prototyping, and that has just created this sort of storm of interest around Australia but also starting to get some global interest on it, but we’ve managed that through we’ve set up an event on Eventbrite, publicized it through Twitter, got lots of people interested, they came along and then because we had it at Hashtag for an event I think we had 80 people at the event but 15,000 people actually came via Twitter to see what we were doing and back into our blogs, so, with the obligatory YouTube videos and all that stuff, so this notion of if you started in thinking we are our own media, we can create our media, but we can also leverage traditional media and we can also amplify our message through tools like Twitter or Facebook, a really great way of getting rich.

Louis: Alright. Thanks for that. And I guess this sort of relates somewhat to what you were just talking about, another question from Twitter from @ken_vsky, how would a web design business use realtime media to capture clients? I’m not 100% sure I understand that question but maybe you do.

Peter: Yeah, I think, well, realtime media if we look at it I suppose the number one realtime media is Twitter because if you think about whenever you’re looking at a breaking news story or people are searching on Twitter within a niche, they sort of look to see what’s the latest that’s coming out on here. So, a couple of ways, one, I always will — we have a blog that we sort of religiously put stuff on so our capacity to publish our own realtime stuff is real good and real easy, so what we do is we blog, we Tweet and that sort of gets the message out there, we also look for opportunities for our stuff to be guest blogged, so for example we’ve done a lot of work with Yema, so Yema the sort of internal Twitter type thing. We started out there as we sort of got out of the Yema network within Deloitte to explode, we were doing regular videos with flip cams and case studies and doing some interesting regression analysis around things like staff engagement and turnover, it came to Yema’s attention, they then started taking a lot of the material we were publishing and publishing it in their blog; if you’re lucky enough like some guys I work with at Adioso, a sort of natural language search site, they’ve had their stuff covered in tech crunch, so making sure that you push out to these prominent blogs, prominent Twitterers, running your own events and live streaming them is another good way where you can actually create, as I say, this notion of we can create our own media, getting to know journalists as well is another great way because journalists will often be looking for stories about breaking technology or stuff in the new realm, so there’s many ways of doing it, but again the capacity to do your own stuff realtime is something that we weren’t’ really able to do when the first kit was written, but these days it’s really not that hard because there’s a whole raft of things that you can do.

Louis: Yeah, that’s definitely a changed landscape and it’s a lot easier to draw the kind of attention to yourself that —

Peter: The other thing is you can get sophisticated with tools like Twitter about sort of saying, well, again I’m a big believer that if you can build a decent Twitter following, the other thing I’ll also do I’ll hire staff that’s got big Twitter followings.

Louis: So you make that as part of your considerations when you’re looking to hire someone.

Peter: Yeah. The thing is because I look at it and say well if they can amplify the message as part of the overall business that’s a fantastic thing because, again, it extends our reach. So it’s sort of saying well a number of the guys I’ve got have got notable thousands of Twitter followers and if we belt something out and they’re interested in it they’ll belt it out to their network and again it just creates that amplification effect, so there are some smart ways of doing it. I had a question on Twitter myself last week about don’t you think that’s discriminatory just hiring people who are on Twitter, and I said yeah it is, but to me if I’m in a business that lives in the world of online and mobile, connectivity and amplifying through Twitter is as basic a thing as being able to read or write.

Louis: Yeah, and I guess if you look back at even just four or five years ago a lot of advice to people in web design or web technology was to have a blog and publish your thoughts on your blog because that’s something that could really show an employer that you have — and I guess Twitter has taken a lot of that role now where if you can build up a following and you’re interesting in your space and you’re conversing about it, it demonstrates not only your reach and your personability but also your knowlegability with that.

Peter: And I think that goes back to the point we said before that one of the things I found when I started running a web design business was trying to get that bloody case study from the team who then said, oh, we’ve got a new project, let’s run off and — guys, we’re building the value into our business through being able to demonstrate what we do, not only what we do, why we do it and how we do it. And so the other thing is I’ll say to a lot of web design businesses, think about the why or what problem are we trying to solve when we did this thing, because — and in fact that’s one of the ways I’ll interview staff, I’ll say what have you been working on lately, and if they say I’ve been doing something about integrating Objective C through a Ruby on Rails platform and some obscure framework with some weird-ass security model (laughter), what? Yeah, I was trying to help a client achieve this, or the client came to us and said this is what we want to do and this is how we went about it. So, being able to talk in plain English is a great way of getting clients.

Louis: And you talk in the kit about one of the things you do with your businesses is that you try and get every member of team no matter what their role is involved in sales an in communication with clients, so even the developers and the sys admins who are usually —

Peter: Yeah, well it’s interesting, last week I did a deal with my PA to put it on commission for the speaking gigs I do, because I’m always trying to organize them and I’m always running around the place like a madman, well, if you actually take all of that off my hands and you manage and sell the speaking gigs, go get paid for them, which is always a good way of making some ancillary income if you’re a good public speaker, but again sort of saying well my PA’s involved in sales. The other thing with my developers, being able to take them out to a client meeting it might be I have a CEO or a marketing person that I’m meeting with a CIO, I want to be able to take a developer out there and who can talk the tech language and be part of the sale, because whenever you do a proposal if there’s some design work and some development work or testing or whatever, all the people in your organization need to be able to contribute to that proposal and how we do things and how long it’s gonna take and how we cost it, so making sure everybody realizes that the best reference you’ve got is the last job you’ve done, and getting everybody to own that sort of notion of I want to help build this business and create opportunities for myself as part of it, and making — I set targets for the guys but it’s not like you’re the developer you must go kick down a door and force a client to sign a thing, it’s like your involvement in a proposal helps you reach your sales target. So, not making it too onerous but just getting that notion of we’re all involved here in building a business and building a sales culture within the business, but again it’s not just sell, sell, sell, my view has always been it’s about delivering outstanding results to a client and being focused but for everybody to understand they’re part of that.

Louis: And how does that impact your hiring process? I imagine if you’re looking for someone who’s just a PHP gun and who communicated in single word sentences and was great with his headphones on cracking away at some tough code problems, that might look like a really good hire but you might have an effect of the way you run your business where you think well it might be better to have someone who’s got maybe slightly less skill at that one thing but also has a broader range of skills.  Do you find that makes it more difficult or is it more — do you spend more on hiring and more time in interviews than you would if you were just looking for really focused skilled individuals?

Peter: Well, put it this way, if I’ve got something that is like, let’s call it a wicked problem or a really hardcore dev problem, I might sort of, and it’s not unusual for us to hire some elite developer who communicates in — you can tell an extrovert because they’re looking at your shoes instead of their own (laughter), maybe I’ll hire them, but I’m looking to build something long term in the business;  if that person can’t communicate with others, if they can’t help grow my team, so I’ve got a gun, I want them to be able to teach the other people as the business grows. So I look at it in terms of being able to build clients, being able to build people and being able to be really good at your craft is something that’s really important. So, what I say to people is I sort of look at it on almost like a three-pronged or triangular model; you need to have a technical skill, and that’s what brings you in and gives you the sort of license to operate in our business.  You need to have a style, though, where people can approach you, can be part of the team, where you are interested in what others are doing, you’re interested in collaborating because in a web design business, particularly a full service one, no one’s independent, we all depend on each other; the designers depend on the developers to be able to build out the stuff and the concepts they’ve come up with, the BA’s need to be able to talk to the designers and collaborate with those guys to be able to say, well, how can translate your concepts to something that a developer may be able to build or something I can communicate back with a client, the test is I want them involved up front as well to be able to say okay that’s what we’re doing, I can see where the technical risks lay in here, let’s make sure that we’re doing testing some of those on a daily basis as we go through this sort of stuff where we see the stuff that’s gonna be hard. So, if you have people who find it difficult to communicate and collaborate in the game it’s gonna be hard because web design ultimately is a team sport because it brings together a range of capabilities and capacities.

Louis: That’s probably another one of the ways that things have changed in the past several years. It used to be that there were one or two person web design studios because the websites of the day were a lot of them sort of static and traditional sites, it could be a one-man job, it could be a one-person job to put together a website, but that’s really not the case anymore.

Peter: I mean there are what we call the “deviners,” the designers who can do development, and they’re like heaven. But the other thing that’s interesting, I hire a lot of grads out of Uni, etcetera, and I look for those who have sort of perhaps achieved very high grades and stuff, but I’m also interested in their portfolio of work that they’ve done, their commitment to it, you know the guys who are saying I contributed to this open source project or I got involved and built this or I paid my way through Uni because I set up a little business; I like to find a bit of entrepreneurial flair in my staff, so it’s almost like what we call in business the T skills, you might have a very deep T around being a PHP gun, but what about your capacity to understand how a project operates, what about your capacity to understand a little bit of business strategy, what about your capacity to communicate with people and clients, what about your capacity to be part of a team, there your T might be your PHP skills but there’s a broader set of skills and they may not necessarily all be as deep but having a bit of breadth, so it’s sort of depth and breadth is what I look for in an employee.

Louis: Alright. So that was almost all of the questions we had from Facebook and Twitter, just want to say it’s been great hashing this stuff out, obviously there’s a lot more of this wisdom in the kit, so for those listeners who are interested in hearing from Pete that’s one way. I’ve got one more question that I’ll save for the end because it’s kind of a general one and it kind of recaps a bit, but how can people find you on Twitter or what do you recommend for people who want to follow you and see what you’re doing?

Peter: On Twitter it’s @rexster, or you can read the Deloitte Digital Blog, and or if you just type Pete Williams + Deloitte in Google there’s a raff of stuff.

Louis: A bunch of things. So you’ve got videos online.

Peter: I’ve got Ted Talks, I’ve got heaps of little videos, I’ve got blogs, I do a lot of guest blogging, so there’s a lot of stuff out there in terms of the way I think and what I do, but follow me on Twitter, you can sort of send me a message, I generally answer most of them, email, I hate email, it’s just killing me, and don’t sign me up and try and join me on Path because I just — it’s killing me this new Path thing, I’m just getting a stream of crap coming through, and I didn’t know so many people could take that many photos of cups of coffee (laughter).

Louis: So the last question I had, again, it probably recaps a little of the things we’ve talked about, but I guess it’s probably the major concern that a lot of our readers will have because we produce educational material for designers and developers, so a lot of these people are teaching themselves these skills. So on Facebook Christian Peters asked how do you transform from a hired employee to an established freelancer. I guess it has something to do with time, obviously when someone’s working nine to five even if it’s on development job, or if they’re working another job, be it whatever, answering phones and teaching themselves how to design on the side, having the time to start building that client base and to start looking to become a freelancer is probably a big leap for a lot of people, so I’m interested to know what you think about that.

Peter: I think the key for me is that you’ve actually got a depth of skill that is in demand, so first of all you need to be good at what you do. What I found for the Web industry in the time I’ve been involved in it, there’s a lot of people who sort of think ooh, isn’t it wonderful and cool, you know, I can code an HTML page so I’m a web design guy; if you want to go out into that sort of freelance market and make some decent money you ought to be good at what you do, and you may have that again in terms of the T, you might be freelancing out on a deep skill, if you’re just a bit of a general roustabout I think you’re going to find it difficult to go out as a full time freelancer. The next thing is building a network that is gonna keep you fed, so a number of my ex-employees have gone out as freelancers and some of them are very successful mainly because when they left they said to me, Pete, if you need any skills in this or that or if there’s a job that you don’t want to take on because it’s a bit small I’d be happy to pick that up. So they’ve actually gone out and created that network of contacts, contacts before they start; you want to make sure that the skill you’ve got is in demand and is not commoditized, which is always a danger in our game that you’ve got to keep pushing the envelope forward and keep doing self-development. So my advice would be find out who’s working in the space, go out and see some of the local web companies, talk, again even if you talk to your existing employer and say I’m gonna go out and freelance so what sort of work can you get me. A couple of my mates are doing stuff for not for profits, etcetera, where they’ve taken perhaps a bit of a pay cut and worked more spasmodically but it’s more of a I suppose vocational or lifestyle type decision, but really at the end of the day your capacity to have networks of people who need your technical skill and like your style, that three-pronged triangle again, is what’s gonna help you be able to get that work. So just jumping out and sort of putting up a shingle and saying I’m a freelancer is maybe not the best idea. Trying to build up, and I think one of the questions that was asked earlier by the guys who were moving really from freelancer to the business, the thing that they’ve done is sort of they’ve kept their day job, they’ve built up an ongoing group of people who are giving them more and more work, and they’re now at the next inflection point of do I stay in this sort of part time freelance type model or do I move to a business, but if you think about what they’ve done is they started it off, they’re doing some jobs on the side, they’re finding they’re starting to build a bit of a client base and they’re getting more and more regular work coming in, that’s the way to do it. So picking up some work here or there, doing it on the side, doing it as a night job, all that stuff is a good way to see if actually the skill that you’ve got is in demand and also allows you to build that network and also cut your teeth in terms of dealing with more of the freelance type job and then making the decision okay I’ve got a broad enough network. And the other thing is just to step back and say well if I was gonna be a contractor, and let’s say I want 100 grand a year, and I say well if I go out at a grand a day I need a hundred days’ work to do that, where would that hundred days come from? And even if you could just list and say well I reckon I can say 50 days for the next year, but if I was out there and started to build my network and publicize it more I think I could get to that 100 easy enough, so at least that way you can say well I’m pretty confident that I can get to the same level of income without too much of a stretch and then see how it goes from there. But ultimately when you do become move into this sort of freelance world or into a web design business this is a commitment and it’s something that you’ve got to work on, it’s not just the sort of stuff being handed to you on a silver platter and you’re sort of just picking off — you’re not necessarily gonna be a kid in a lolly shop.

Louis: Yeah, there’s a lot of people doing it.

Peter: But what I’ve found over time is if we at the moment say in Australia that Deloitte Online have got two of the top iPhone apps in the business category, we went after that niche early, now we’re seen as the elite so we do become like the kid in the lolly shop because you become the number one guy in town to get there. So building that up over takes a bit of time, but once you get there it becomes a lot easier, but again, it’s a commitment, it’s not something that you should do just because on a whim and a fancy you think you can.

Louis: Alright. Well, thanks very much again for talking to us today, it’s always a pleasure, and so again if you want to find Pete Williams online it’s @rexster, and I’m Louis Simoneau, my Twitter handle is @rssaddict. Alright, thanks very much.

Peter: No worries, thanks Louis.

Louis: Bye.

Theme music by Mike Mella.

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Louis SimoneauLouis Simoneau
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Louis joined SitePoint in 2009 as a technical editor, and has since moved over into a web developer role at Flippa. He enjoys hip-hop, spicy food, and all things geeky.

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