How I Learned to Run a Successful Web Business
Freelancing as a web professional can be an emotional and financial roller coaster, especially when you’re first starting out. Just about everyone:
- works too much
- charges too little
- says yes to everything
- ends up with one or more nightmare clients of the kind found on Clients from Hell.
At some point, you either figure out how to run a business or you start looking for a job.
Occasionally I’ll get a coffee date request from someone who wants to know how I’ve been able to make it this far.
First, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about business, it’s that most of us are winging it and making it up as we go along to some degree. That’s what keeps things exciting. But it’s also smart to learn from other people who have more experience than you and have figured some things out. That is what I’ve been doing for the past two years, and it’s made a huge difference in my business.
It’s possible to get off the feast or famine roller coaster: one month you’re buried in work, the next month, no one’s answering your emails.
These are some of the people I have been following who have made a drastic difference in my business and a summary of what I’ve learned.
Troy Dean, Founder of Video User Manuals, WP Elevation & Rockstar Empires
In December of 2013, I came across Troy Dean’s company, Video User Manuals. VUM is a plugin for WordPress that puts dozens of short tutorials on how to use WordPress right inside the Admin page. It saves me time answering the same basic questions over and over again, and has more than paid for itself in time saved. I grabbed it ridiculously cheap during a holiday sale, and it was the best Christmas present ever.
It wasn’t long before I learned about Troy’s other company, WP Elevation: a community dedicated to helping people build exceptional WordPress businesses. Because I was a plugin customer, I got occasional invites to some of the WP Elevation webinars and content. I’ve also gotten access to some of the content through cross marketing efforts with companies like Bidsketch.
I spent the early part of 2014 revamping many parts of my business based on what I learned from Troy in a couple of webinars.
- I began positioning myself as an authority through my writing, teaching and speaking engagements.
- I raised my rates.
- I created a streamlined system for writing effective proposals.
Ruben Gamez, Founder of Bidsketch
I started using Bidsketch for proposals. It took some time to setup, but it was totally worth it. In addition to the service, Bidsktetch has a fantastic blog about marketing that gave me a lot of insight into how to write effective proposals.
Brennan Dunn, Founder of Double Your Freelancing
Thanks again to a lot of cross marketing within their group, I learned about Brennan Dunn. He’s on a mission to help freelancers get paid what they’re worth. In the company he built, he charged clients up to $20,000 a week (yes, weekly), for his services, so he knows a thing or two about high-value work. You can be sure no one would pay those prices if they weren’t getting a return on their investment.
I bought Brennan’s course Double Your Freelance Rate. Two weeks later, I sent out the most outrageous proposal of my career. I didn’t get that job, but the important part was the shift in my thinking from a commodities mindset to a value-based mindset.
The moment you stop talking to potential clients about technology and begin talking to them about their actual problems and how technology can solve them you instantly elevate yourself above 90% of web professionals.
For me, this made me much more excited about selling because it was no longer ‘selling,’ it was talking to people about their problems and trying to help solve them. (For money). I like helping people, and I LOVE when something I’ve built for someone makes a positive difference in their business.
In working with certain types of clients, I see the same problems come up over and over again. I’ve written about some of them here. The problem is that business owners know their core business, but they don’t always know anything about technology or how to manage it. Even if they’re hiring professionals to manage it for them, they still need a baseline of knowledge to know that they’re hiring the right person to do the right job.
I decided to write a book*, so I can educate more people at once. Nathan Barry has made himself the authority on how to write and publish a successful book. I didn’t hesitate to buy and read his book, and now I have a blueprint for taking on this new challenge.[Related: Learn how to get your website to work for your business.]
Running a business requires a much higher level of risk, uncertainty, discipline and self-determination than simply showing up to work for someone else.
James Clear writes about transforming your habits and explains the science behind making habits stick. When you think about it, your habits are what make up your life. So if you’re trying to change your life, you’re going to have to create new habits to support your new goals.
Brent Weaver, Founder of uGurus
When I first encountered uGurus, it was from an email from Troy Dean, announcing Brent’s free 10k Summit webinar to teach web professionals to sell 10k projects. Troy was a guest on the summit, as well as Brennan Dunn (do you see a trend here?).
It was free, so of course I signed up and watched.
The webinar was broadcast from a slick set at Brent’s Denver office and honestly, struck me as kind of cheesy. I couldn’t help thinking, Is this guy for real?
But the content was solid, and the things Brent said made sense. It was a lot of the same things I’d been hearing from Troy, Brennan, and others for the past eighteen months. I joined Brent’s email list.
Then in December, I came to a fork in the road. Brent had been sending out lots of emails about an upcoming cyber Monday deal for his new 10k Mastermind program; a year long accountability program which also included the ten week 10k Bootcamp for free. It was still a lot of money to commit to though. But a little voice in my head was telling me it might be the on-ramp I was looking for to really get my business off the ground.
In the first year of my business, I was plagued by health problems and had four surgeries over the course of the year. Last year was a year of transition, selling our house, moving to a new one, losing a pet, and traveling a ridiculous amount to attend and speak at conferences. I felt like 2015 was finally going to be my year. And I was willing to bet on myself, so I made the leap.
Here are a few things that made the 10k program so valuable:
We meet with mentor every week in our small group of up to ten people and hold each other accountable for the goals we set for ourselves.
The 10k forums allow everyone in the program to ask questions, share knowledge, get referrals and support each other.
There are many hours of video content, recorded by Brent that introduce the program, the mindset required to succeed, the steps to take and why he recommends everything he does.
10k Bootcamp is not cheap, and that’s a good thing. I have come to understand what I’ve heard from other entrepreneurs for years: people don’t value what they get for free. That’s why I don’t accept coffee dates with strangers who want to ‘pick my brain.’ When you are forced to step out of your comfort zone, you’re motivated to take action on what you learn because you have to make it work.
Update October 9, 2016: People who are considering joining 10k will often email me to ask advice. I recently left the 10k community and feel it's only responsible to update this article accordingly. After officially joining the WP Elevation program in fall of 2015, I realized what a better fit Troy's program is for me. 10k's high level concepts allowed me to sell large projects before I was ready. I think it's a much better fit for established agencies or people who are aiming for that goal.
WP Elevation puts the steps for growth in the right order, and gives a clear, step by step process for creating systems to handle the growth that results from following the program. Troy has grown the program and put together a top notch team that continue to add amazing new courses to the program.
Creating My Own Network
I have a running joke, that if I get stuck on some aspect of running a successful business, I just ask myself WWWD: What would a white guy do? The truth is, no one makes more money than white guys. They have the privilege, power, connections and entitlement to succeed on a wildly successful level, and they often do.
There are many reasons why it might be more difficult for the rest of us to achieve the same things, but not impossible. I spend a lot of time writing, speaking, and encouraging people to normalize the tech industry. Part of my drive to succeed is to prove that not only can anyone join the tech industry, but that you can do so on your own terms.
When Nathan or Brennan or Brent profile the successful people who have used their methods, it’s most often people like them because that’s who they know. And not that it isn’t still helpful and inspiring, but for people on the margins, it’s easy to look at those and think, yeah, maybe that could be me, but…
I knew I wanted a network of entrepreneurs that also reflect, understand, and mesh with my identity and worldview as a Black lesbian living in an overwhelmingly white city and working in a white, male-dominated industry.
So I reached out to all the most awesome women business owners I could think of, and for a year, I ran a local mastermind group that met once a month. We did many of the same things I did in my 10k small group, and we had a Slack channel to keep in touch between meetings.
One thing we didn't talk about was being women business owners. We talked about all the same business challenges as my 10k group. However, we had the ease of knowing that no one would offer well-intentioned, but insulting suggestions to ‘use a photo of a pretty woman’ to get more clicks on your website. There’s a level of relaxation and trust that comes with not having to be on guard.
Guidance and Support
Being a freelancer or business owner can be a lonely road. If you’re going to succeed long term, it’s important to find people on the same path. The ones ahead of you can help you avoid a lot of unnecessary mistakes. You can share what you learn with the ones behind you.
As I meet more and more people on this path, I feel like I’ve joined an exclusive club, and I’m just beginning to unlock all the perks and secrets that go along with membership.
If you’re trying to figure this thing out, I hope this has given you a few possible roadmaps to follow.
My goal is for the next version of this post to be normalized and feature the the women, people of color, trans and LGBT folks who are kicking ass and taking names in their business and paving the way for others. If you know someone I should be following, please share in the comments.
Want more? Check out my AMA with the Apprenticeship Community from April 28th, 2015.
- That is a gross metaphor by the way, and you should stop using it. ↩
- Yes, I’m generalizing. Insert whatever #notall___ you need to get to the next paragraph. This post is already too long. ↩
- At this weekend’s ACT-W conference, all the shirts and materials talked about ‘disrupting’ tech with diversity. I prefer the way Shonda Rhimes, successful owner of Thursday night television on ABC frames her diverse casting as normalizing, by creating environments that reflect the actual population so that everyone has a chance to see themselves. ↩