Pelago just celebrated it’s ninth birthday, a milestone marked by a history of having worked on 300-plus projects for over 100 clients. The one component of our business model that made us the most successful was our commitment to web design and development mediums, to the nuts and bolts of designing and building web sites, while saying “no” to other potential revenue streams.
However, we learned this lesson the hard way. We weren’t always a niche web design and development agency. When we first started out, and a few times after that, we tried a few other potential revenue streams. They didn’t work. Each time we would lick our wounds and then increase our focus on the web as a medium. Here are some things we tried and some great reasons why you should not.
Why not? We have backgrounds in graphic design and logo design can bring in good money, right? If only it were that easy. Print design is its own beast. For example, the amount of time, effort, and research a good logo designer will put into a brand simply dwarfs what we were willing to spare for such a project. Trying to design a logo, or any other type of printed material spread us too thin. We found ourselves needing a new suite of desktop applications and waking up at 3am for press checks. We weren’t able to focus on the web, which is where we really wanted to be. In the end, we opted to be the best we could be at web design and development, instead of just being mediocre across all of our creative endeavors.
When the dotcom was at the end of its boom, just before the bomb dropped, we were offered equity trades several times. It sounded easy enough. We would get X number of shares and they would get our services free-of-charge. With the news bloated with IPO deals every hour of the day it sounded irresistible. Fortunately, we had the foresight to say no to each of these deals. Our short-term cash flow was our most important factor to consider, as it should be with any small business in the creative services space. Not a single one of the companies offering those deals is still around. In fact, several of the startups that did pay us aren’t around anymore, either. Focus on your business and getting paid, not on the success or failure of someone else’s business.
Offering web site hosting on your own servers is a bad idea. It’s also a bad idea to resell hosting. Just don’t do it. First of all, web hosting is cheap and you won’t be able to compete with the big companies. Second, it will consume all of your time and you will get phone calls at the earliest, darkest times of the morning because a server is down. Some hosting companies offer reseller programs which may seem like a good idea, but aren’t. When you are in the business of designing and building web sites, your clients will automatically assume that you are in charge of the hosting. If you offer hosting, whether as a provider or a reseller, they are going to be expecting you to be available whenever the site experiences a hiccup. Yes, even as a reseller they will expect this of you. Don’t offer hosting as a service, but do offer recommendations for web hosting companies to your clients. This will help clarify the distinction between your web design and development services and a third party’s hosting services, sparing you those dreaded phone calls.
If you design and build web sites thoroughly, according to web standards and basic SEO guidelines, you’ve already done 90% of the SEO work for your client. Your web sites will perform well on search engines and your customers will be happy. However, the last 10% is what separates the page one sites from the page two sites on Google. There are companies out there who specialize in tweaking and tuning the last 10% of a web site to make it perform well on search engines. Frankly, what they do is voodoo to me, but it works. If you offer SEO services to your clients there will come they day where they want to know why they aren’t showing up as high as their competitor, who’ve likely hired an SEO firm. It’s better to be up front with the client and let them know you can lay the groundwork for good search engine rankings and let them know they’ll need the pros to get them further.
Creatives are usually capable of epxressing themselves in more than just one medium. And often times a good web designer will have creative writing skills. However, there is a big difference between writing humorous blog posts and writing copy for an entire web site. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed creative writing right up until the point where the editor steps in. Web site copy should be more structured than the loosely slung words on a blog and must go through a vigorous editing process. In other words (no pun intended), it’s a lot of work. Think twice before leveraging designers and other creatives as copywriters. It will distract them from their core talents.
Build your own web-based project management application
We built and use Intervals for our project management needs because, four years ago, nothing like it existed. And we needed something to manage our creative workflow. But it wasn’t just a spur-of-the-moment decision. We researched for months, running numbers, predicting budgets, analyzing the marketplace. The timing could not have been better and now Intervals has become a very successful hosted tool for managing creative agencies.
So why don’t I recommend it? Because there is a big difference between building an online app and supporting one once it’s been built. What we see today are a lot of agencies taking advantage of lightweight frameworks to create their own interpretation of Basecamp™ and putting it online for others to use. However, marketing it and supporting the customers who use it is a job easily ten times bigger than the initial build. Don’t be surprised when the customers don’t sign up in droves. Make sure you have the resources to see it through and you’ll end up with a successful product. The worst you’ll end up with is blip on twitter and a tailor-made application for your small business.
There are plenty of great options out there for small business project management. Intervals is only one of them. Before you build your own, do your homework and see if any of the offerings available will fit your needs.