Lesson #6 – Building A Web Development Business: The Path Ahead

Building a business is hard work. I think you know that by now, yet it’s worth saying again. It’s hard. There’s a reason that most businesses fail. It can be fun in the beginning, then the fun wears off and you’re left with work – and lots of it. Hard work. Sometimes clients don’t pay on time. Sometimes projects take a lot longer than they were supposed to.

Is it worth it? Yes. If you’re willing to do the work and stick to it, even when the going is tough, and if you’ve made wise and careful decisions along the way, you’ll make it.

In this lesson, as we’re bringing the series to an end, I want to give you a realistic picture of what you can expect in the weeks, months, and years to come. There is certainly a chance that you make all the right choices, that you’re in the right place at the right time, and that your business explodes. I want you to succeed whether or not you have that chance, though, so we’re going to focus on the more difficult path. If you’re prepared for the difficulty, then you’ll be prepared for any big breaks that come your way as well.

The Views From The Top

Let’s start by talking about some of the positive aspects of building a successful web development business.

  • Income Potential – As a web developer, and especially as a web development business owner, you have the potential to earn a high income. According to Indeed.com, the average hired web designer/developer will make between $66,000 and $87,000 in 2016. Building that kind of an income when you’re first starting out on your own is a lot of hard work. Over time, though, as your business grows and your reputation grows with it, you can meet and exceed that potential. In my own business, as I’ve stayed focused on it, I’ve been able to watch my freelance revenue more than double nearly every year for the past few years.
  • Flexibility – When my family and I want to travel, we pack up the vehicle and hit the road. If I need to do work, I can do it as we travel. Otherwise, I am free to enjoy the time with my family and the flexibility that owning my own business allows. For those of you who decide to offer your talents to an employer, it’s good to know that the web development industry as a whole (there are always exceptions) tends to be more flexible than not. At Sabramedia (a larger web development business I’m a part-owner/investor in) we give team members weeks off at a time, without a problem.
  • Adventure – The web development industry is like the wild west all over again. Things are constantly changing. What was a best practice several years ago (or sometimes months) isn’t anymore and the folks who stay ahead are the folks who are able to adapt quickly and continue learning. If that type of adventure is less appealing to you, the web development industry offers many others. You might choose to specialize in an area that serves the industry but is less subject to change. Or, you might leap out to the very edges and ride the tidal waves of change yourself. What is certain, though, is that the adventure is there to be had.

The Valleys Below

Now that we’ve covered a few of the positives, let’s look at the negatives.

  • Taxes – A high income means high taxes and, if you are building your own business, you are responsible for all of them. For a married couple, making a combined gross income of $80,000 in 2012 (and an adjusted gross around $65,000 after expenses and deductions) you’re going to pay just over $16,000 in taxes. That’s a hefty amount! (For those of you not in the U.S., you’re probably laughing – our taxes are relatively low here). If you plan carefully and set aside the money as you go, you’ll be just fine. If you don’t, though, you could find yourself in a lot of trouble. The government is good about getting what you owe – with interest.
  • Slow Times – One of the big challenges of building a business is dealing with the slow times. They happen to nearly all of us. You’ll be busier than you’d imagined possible for several months in a row, then, the work is done. Your client’s projects are wrapped up and the next project is either not ready to start or doesn’t even exist. If you’re prepared, you can ride through the slow times and use them to your advantage. If you’re not, though, you’ve got a serious problem, especially for those of you providing for a family.
  • Stress – Building your own business is stressful, on you and your family. You are carrying a heavy weight on your shoulders and if you don’t know how to bear it it can crush you. I’ve had more than a few days of high stress and they were days that wore down on me and my family.

How To Climb

Now that we’ve looked at some of the ups and downs of building a business, let’s talk about how to climb the path.

  • Move Slowly – One of the decisions that made building a business difficult for me was jumping in completely, without any other source of income, no savings, and several thousand dollars in personal debt. I would have been better off doing manual labor for the first year to support myself and building the web development business on the side until it was big enough to support me full-time. On top of all that, I got married, bringing my wife, and our son two years later, into the mess with me. Avoid that if at all possible. If you have a day job – keep it. Excel at it. Support yourself there and start the web development business on the side. Work hard, but move slowly. Once the business has grown enough and the path ahead is clear then you can pick up speed.
  • Be Prepared – My wife and I went through nearly two years of hardship with only a few bright spots in between. It got so bad that we were picking up food from our church’s food bank and getting help from family members just to pay rent and utilities. While it seems like a strange distant memory now, my wife and I both recognize that being prepared is the only way to make sure that doesn’t happen again. We got ourselves out of debt and we’ve put a major priority on saving money and being prepared for any slow times that may come. If you’re in debt and have a hard time saving money, now is a good time to start solving those issues. If you’re married, make sure that you get on the same page with your spouse. If you’d like help, I recommend Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. My wife and I went through and it helped us tremendously.
  • Put Your Heart In It – Building a successful business requires heart. Put your very best into each project you take on. Treat each client as if they were the best client you’d ever had. If you’re moving slowly and prepared for the slow times, you are free to invest your heart and I recommend you do so without holding back. Your clients will see it and recognize the value and when you go to bed at night, tired and worn out, but with a smile on your face, you’ll know it was worth it.

Two Destinations

As we’ve talked about the path to building a web development business, I want to make one thing clear. Building a business is not for everyone and you can do perfectly well in life and be perfectly successful without traveling the typical business owner’s path. While I highly recommend that you adopt the mindset of a business owner, the reality is that being a part of a team and drawing a regular, consistent salary in exchange for your talents and abilities may be the perfect choice.

In my own businesses, I’ve brought on other team members. They have varied in their entrepreneurial spirits and, even for the more entrepreneurially inclined (those that have their own projects on the side) they’ve been perfectly happy to be a part of a team. I myself have considered that route on multiple occasions.

As you gain experience in this industry and begin taking on your first clients, keep both destinations in mind. Whether you continue building your own client base and grow into a full-time business or you decide to take the experience you’ve gained and join another team, the path, and the work it takes along the path, is very similar.

Possible Futures

Experience in the Web design and development field gives you many extremely portable skills. This means that the number of possible futures is incredible. Just to give you an idea, here are some possible paths you can tread if you so choose.

Grow a full agency – There is a limit to the kind of project one can take on as an individual, this limit may be either time or skills, but as you grow you will certainly find it, one option is to employ staff in order to grow your capacity and build a conventional full service agency.

Stay a solopreneur/Micro agency – If you love working solo, without the responsibilities of employing staff, you can do that, and when you reach the ceiling of your own capacity you can bring on contractors for specific projects. This is the path I (Luke) have chosen for my own business.

Consulting/Coaching – Once you have a big enough network and have considerable experience behind you you can look at moving into a consultant role for other developers or teams.

Specialise in an area – In order to limit your competition you can specialise in certain areas which will make it easier to rise to the top of your industry.

  • Ecommerce – Ecommerce is booming and due to the greater complexity the average project cost is much higher than a standard website, so specialising in this niche (as these guys have done) may be perfect if it is your passion.
  • Conversion – Once you get to a certain level of client, Conversion optimisation can be a very high demand specialty. (Peep Laja was one of the first and best known specialists in this area.)
  • UX – User Experience is a big deal for larger brands, and they will gladly hire UX Consultants to help them Grow (Nick Fink is a good example of a specialist in this area who has used it to leverage his personal brand).
  • App Development – In todays economy there is an app for everything, and as there is a fair amount of crossover in the market between web and app developers, if you have a flair for it, it can be an excellent path to go down.
  • Social Media – Your understanding of the web can lead you to focus on Social media and community management if that is more your style. Making this your specialty can lead to good things like it has for Social Driver.
  • Online Marketing – Many people have websites, but it is often hard to make them worthwhile if you are not getting enough traffic. If you find that you develop a love for online marketing and have the knack for it, you can follow in the footsteps of people like Neil Patel and start driving traffic for a living.
  • SaaS – Finally, you can take the “software as a service” path, where you build an online tool that solves a real problem then charge a monthly fee to have access to it. While this has higher startup costs, it will give you a more reliable income stream. Some great examples of this would be BasecampGoogle AppsPipedrive (My CRM of choice).

Starting The Climb

In the past few lessons, we’ve gone through the very basics. We worked together to setup your first website. We reviewed strategies for getting new clients and we learned how to get the sale. In the last lesson we explored the phenomenon of ‘value’ and, today, I’ve worked to give you a realistic expectation of what’s ahead.

Now, it’s time to climb. Please, move slowly. I myself tend to move fast and prefer to sprint up the path rather than walk carefully. There is indeed a time to sprint. Make sure it’s the right time, though. Put your best into each project and ask lots of questions along the way. Ask me. Ask others. Learn all you can and put your best into what you do at each step of the way and you’ll make it.

The view at the top is great, but it’s really the climb that makes all the difference because once you’ve climbed you know you can do it again, keep doing it, and climb even bigger mountains.

Thank you for the privilege of sharing the time with you through this series. And, as always, I look forward to hearing from you! Use the feedback form below or write to luke@creatingclients.io.

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