What we talked about:
- Working in a partnership
- Serving a niche audience
- Vetting clients
- Maintenance plans
- Design inspiration
Carrie: Welcome to officehours.fm Episode 119. I am your host, Carrie Dils. As always I’m thrilled that you enjoy tuning into the show, that you’re even interested enough to download it and take a listen. I hope that you enjoy today’s episode with Emily White of Emily White Designs. We’ve got some good stuff on tap for you. Before we dive into it I would like to thank today’s sponsor SEO Bootcamp. SEO Bootcamp is an in-person live training event hosted by myself and taught by Rebecca Gill. In this workshop you will be actually doing some hands-on SEO not going away with fluff. You actually will be leaving having done your homework and making progress on your site’s SEO. This training is ideal for marketers, website owners, web developers and bloggers. If you’re paying for pay per click ads right now, we’ll teach you how to stop that, save that money and put it back in your pocket and maybe do some organic SEO techniques that work. If you want to check out more information on that you can do so at SEO Bootcamp.com. Without further adieu, here is my interview with Emily. Enjoy!
Hey welcome everybody! I have got Emily White on the show today. Emily how are you doing?
Emily: I’m good. How are you?
Carrie: Good. It’s really great to have you back on officehours. I was looking back through the archives and it was actually episode 15. Just 1 – 5 when I had you on the show last. So clearly I’m long overdue. Thanks for coming on again. I am looking forward to chatting with you about your business, how things have changed in probably a year and a half since I’ve talked to you here on the show and what you’re seeing going forward. For folks who have not met you can you give the quick rundown of who you are and what you do with your business.
Emily: Sure. I run Emily White designs. We are a small studio. It’s made up of myself as well as Greg Young who works as a developer for me. I have been working with WordPress for probably about seven years or so. I started out in blogger a little bit and then quickly learned that WordPress was where I needed to be. I hopped over there. Initially I just got started out doing some sort of theme modifications and light customization, that sort of thing. My interest as well as my skill set really lied more in design rather than development. After I had been going at it alone for a couple years I found that I sort of hit a wall as far as was what I was able to deliver for clients. I wanted to push it to next level. I was introduced to Greg through a mutual friend and hired him on for a job to subcontract out the development of that job. I was a super impressed by what he was able to do and what we were able to deliver for the client. I just had sort of an “aha” moment. This is what I need to do. We actually have partnered up since that time and we do strictly Genesis development, kind of narrowing our focus there. We are trying to be really good at what were doing in that space. We have been able to sort of build up a name for ourselves in that community and to take on bigger and better jobs as time has gone on. I’ve been able to kind of work on my craft as far as design. Greg’s worked on his craft in development. Bringing the two together has allowed us to really grow in ways that I don’t think we could’ve done alone. It’s been a good partnership and it continues to work out well for us.
Carrie: You know I think a lot of people start the same way. That’s how I tiptoed into the waters of WordPress. You start with theme mods. Eventually you do get to that point where you’re like “oh my gosh”. If I want to deliver something bigger, I’ve got to partner up with someone in some way. You said that a friend introduced you to Greg. Had you let that friend know you were looking for a development partner or was it just serendipity?
Emily: Yeah. She was also sort of a designer, quasi developer like myself. She said that she was going to try this thing out. I think she found him on oDesk or something. She said I found this guy. I am going to try him out on a job and see how it works. Initially it sounds a little scary. You’re thinking well there goes a portion of my profits on this job because I am going to have to pay him to do development. But in the long run I’m able to take on bigger jobs, larger jobs, charge more and deliver better products. It really has paid for itself over and over again as far as you taking that initial jump. I know other people have tried partnering with developers. I really feel like I have seriously lucked out in this way. I haven’t had to jump around from developer to developer. It was sort of a match made in heaven from the start. It’s just worked out well.
Carrie: Well for those of you who are tuning in and curious to learn more about partnerships and working with each other, when I had Emily and Greg on episode 15 we had a lot of great discussions about that. Be sure to go back and listen to that if you want to dig deeper into that. So Emily your passion lies on the design side. Clearly as the agency owner you’re driving business development, working all the administrative angles when it comes to just all the overhead that comes along with managing clients, projects, and in your case to a subcontractor partner. Have there been any surprises there that you didn’t anticipate that have just kind of thrown you for a loop?
Emily: It’s really just been a long series of (I think we all made mistakes and learned from our mistakes) and then kind of roll that into our process. I’ve done a lot of that over the past 7 or 8 years since I’ve been doing this. It seems like every new job sort of introduces a new learning moment or teaching moment for myself. I really feel like that we’re in a good place now though, where we’re seeing less and less of that. I’m making less of the mistakes that I made initially. I am able to anticipate things. The work that we do is all custom work. With custom work comes a lot of project management or client management. I am dealing with clients a lot. That’s my primary responsibility. I’ve been able to put certain processes in place, different things for vetting clients and figuring out who will be good clients work with. I think all of that just really comes through experience. I’m not sure. I try to read and learn stuff but so much of it just comes from sort of being in the mix and making some of those mistakes and adjusting. Whether you add that to your contract the next time around or it’s something you can add to your process to possibly eliminate confusion or whatever. That sort of has been how it’s worked out.
Carrie: I can relate. Each new project seems to bring about one little tweak to my contract. I wish there was a way to short-circuit the process but really experience is the ultimate teacher. So you guys have found a niche working with the Genesis framework. Beyond that which is still a fairly broad segment have you niched down to a specific type of client or a specific type of project?
Emily: We really haven’t. It’s sort of has come a little but by accident I would say. We have worked a lot in the blogger space. So for bloggers who are very successful making good money having products or books that type of thing. It’s people whose primary income is their blog. Most of those have been in either the food space or natural living is another big area for us. It’s not necessarily because that is a passion of mine or anything. It just seems that once you kind of do a big site in that genre or niche, the people that follow them or their colleagues tend to hit you up. We’ve sort of been in that circle for quite a while a little accidentally but it’s the type of client that I work well with. My preferred client is someone who’s main business is their website. Their website is primary. This is not your brick-and-mortar type thing. That is their business. I also prefer to work generally with solo entrepreneurs or maybe a partnership or smaller group. We have branched out and tried different things. We’re working on a project right now that’s really different for us. It’s a University site so there’s many more people involved and just different layers of things. I think it’s important to sort a branch out from time to time. I think we can get stuck in what’s comfortable. That can be limiting from the creativity standpoint. You can get kind of sick of doing the same types of sites and doing the same things over and over again. I think it’s good to sometimes step out, try some new things and see if maybe there’s other areas that you might want to pursue or go down.
Carrie: Do you have a feel for how much of your business is referral based versus coming in off your website?
Emily: It would be probably 75% referral. We do no advertising. Unfortunately, I don’t even write a blog or really do too much on my website other than having my contact up there and my portfolio. We do get some inquiries through StudioPress and some direct Google traffic, but those don’t tend to be as good a leads as what I’m getting from referrals. Because we work in the blogging space that’s just like built in. These people talk. They’re in their own networks, they have masterminds or groups that they’re working with and so many of our clients are good friends with other people that we’ve worked for. That’s the best client kind of you’re going to get. You’re going to get some really solid referrals where your client will tell the good bad and the ugly of working with you. If those people are still excited to come and work with you, I think you’re doing something right.
Carrie: That’s terrific! One thing I really like that you do on your website on your contact page (I guess the project inquiry), you sort of set the tone by asking some business questions. Making websites, as you know especially in the Genesis space has just become commoditized. Everybody’s doing something very similar. I like what you’re doing with asking these specific questions like what are what your biggest challenges and frustrations with your site? What are the actual goals that you’ve got and how will we measure that these goals of been achieved? You’re asking about budget, but you’re business questions. That’s a differentiator right there. If somebody’s like “Oh Wow!” That’s not my starting budget then they can bounce and you haven’t had to waste your time.
Emily: Exactly. That’s a huge part of my vetting process or making sure I’m getting the right kinds of leads that I want. There’s so much you can do with a good inquiry form or how you present yourself on your website. To allow people who aren’t going to be a good match for you, to self select. There are so many practitioners in the Genesis space and there are people who do theme customizations and full custom development. There’s such a wide range. If somebody Googles Genesis developer they may find us. I want them to know what it is that we offer. If they’re not at a place where they are ready to answer these tough questions about their business then we’re not a good fit for them. I don’t recommend that you invest a hefty amount of money in a custom website if you’re not even clear on what your goals are and why you’re doing this. How are we going to measure success? It’s important that I’m attracting the right kind of clients and that I’m able to qualify them in that way.
Carrie: Yeah. When you’re talking about how you like to do business with people whose primary income source is their website, that automatically puts them in a position of having a giant stake in the outcome versus a hobbyist site or something where there’s not a whole lot at stake if the website succeeds or fails.
Emily: Those are the people too that are going to be quick to answer your Emails. They’re going to be engaged in the project. This is their bread and butter. If you’re working for someone that has a busy brick-and-mortar shop or they’re a busy lawyer unless they have someone that they can dedicate to this project I find those projects sometimes to be frustrating. I like someone who’s ready to jump in with me. I really want to partner with them. I can be an expert in the design and development of a website and how we can translate their goals into in a visual representation but they are the expert on their business. I am going to need them to be committed, involved and share that expertise with me so that I can make sure I’m delivering the best product for them.
Carrie: So after you deliver the project you offer website maintenance plans which is a great way to get some recurring revenue and a little bit of stability in that freelancer or small business owner budget. Have you had much success with those in terms of converting your clients over into maintenance paying customers?
Emily: That’s something that we only introduced maybe a year ago, which was kind of dumb. We should have done it earlier. I don’t know why. I don’t know if I was just afraid to take that on and know what would be involved. It’s been such a good move for us. Not only does it create some steady regular income but it really creates a loyalty between these customers. When we wrap a project it’s not we’ll see you later. It’s the start of something together. We really do become partners in their success. It’s such an easy sell. I would say again, maybe 75% of our clients when they finish up with as they do opt in for that. It has also helped me in a few ways that I didn’t even anticipate. If you don’t offer some sort of an ongoing maintenance or retainer agreement or something with someone they’re going to need things in the future and they’re going to come back to you. There was always that awkward Email where maybe they had a question. Do I just answer their question or charge them for this time? How much do I charge them and they want this…you know? I hated that. I found myself a lot of times giving my time away for free. That’s not a good business move either. Because we have these systems in place now I can just answer and say okay. Because you’re one of our maintenance subscribers, I’d be happy to help you with this plug-in or answer these questions for you. If they’re not in one of our plans, I actually have a form set up where they can pay for a one-hour service call. It just takes the awkwardness out of the call. I can send them to this form, they can pay their money and submit their support question. It automates the whole thing. Even on that form I say “if you don’t want to be doing it this way, we do offer these plans where this stuff is all included”. I feel that it’s eliminated a lot of those awkward conversations about what you’re going to charge for and what you are not for people as they need things in the future.
Carrie: I love that! Have you ever had any kickback when you send someone to that one-hour conversation or consult? Have they ever fussed or do 100% of them fill it out?
Emily: Most of them will fill it our or they’ll go and Google the answer themselves. They’ll get resourceful and figure it out, which is fine. I think it sets a tone. It says we’re helpful, we’re here for you but we are a business and we do charge for our time. It’s not to say that I am heartless and I won’t answer a simple question. But you know the times when it’s going to be something that’s going to require that you need to do some research and spend 30 minutes. I’d say most of the time they have no problem going over to the form and filling out. Or they will Email me back and say that they actually looked into it and I was able to figure it out my own. I think that’s great you know?
Carrie: I have this personal policy, which now I’m going to share out loud. But it’s not to respond to any client Email immediately. Give it minimum 30 minutes, or better an hour or two. The reason why is, I’ll get an Email hey business does it work? Or I have a question about this. When I put some space in between that response, a ton times sure enough I’ll get back an Email that says never mind. I figured out. Ok great. You just helped yourself and I haven’t spent time troubleshooting something that you’re fully capable of troubleshooting. It’ s empowering for them.
Emily: Yeah. I think that’s part of our responsibility, to educate and help them be self-sufficient and train them how to do those things on their own. If you do give them a little space they can be very resourceful in that way.
Carrie: So the first iteration (I guess not the first iteration) for your business was to partner up with Greg so that you could offer these larger scale projects. Do you have any burning desire to go like full on agency with employees or is this like a sweet spot for you?
Emily: I really feel like this is a sweet spot. I’ve thought about that a lot you know. My waiting list will get long even despite trying to raise prices. Everyone says, “ Why don’t you hire more people?” I don’t think I really have a desire to manage other people. That’s not my end goal. My goal is to love what I do, to work with great clients and to obviously make good money to help my family. But one of my main goals is to still have a life and be able to spend time with my kids and my husband and do the things that we love to do. I’m just not driven in that way to want to create something big and huge like that. If we can do well enough to meet my goals and help Greg meet his goals then I am happy with that. You know we played around with the idea of doing a theme shop as well. That was something we looked into a year or two ago. We actually did it a bit of work on it. It was something we were excited about. I don’t know. I think I sort of come to the conclusion that if you’re a small service provider like myself it’s hard to be in both spaces and do it well. So we sort of tabled that idea for now. I kind of feel like my strength is really in this sort of one-on-one client driven custom work. That’s kind of where I feel like I’m doing my best work.
Carrie: I agree 100% that it’s hard to split your efforts between products and services. I was just listening to the MattReport podcast today with Robby from the Beaver Builder plug-in He was talking about his company’s transition from being a services outfit to fully making that leap and throwing the eggs in the Beaver Builder basket. He said the exact same thing. There comes a point if you want to do one thing well you need to do the one thing. So you’ve got on your site that you’re scheduling jobs like three months out (or four months out). How has that worked for you? Do people go ahead and hop in your queue or do they pass you by? I guess you wouldn’t know if they passed you by but what’s been the response to having that availability posted right there on your website?
Emily: Yeah. Some definitely like that, where it is a no go. They have some sort of hard deadline or a launch date that they really want to stick to. So we’re just not going to be a good fit for them. But there are quite a few. I just signed two more jobs last week and scheduled them for the end of January. So quite a few and those are going to be the clients I want. Those are the clients that have done their research and talked to my former clients, people that really feel like I am the right choice for them. They’re not making a decision on who can get it done the quickest, or who is going to be the cheapest. Those are the people that I want to work with. I feel like we’re going to be a good match. There are people who are definitely willing to wait. Part of that wait is because we’re a small outfit. There are only so many hours in a day and so much of me. A large portion of our time is also devoted to our existing or ongoing clients. So in addition to the new builds were doing a whole lot of additional features on old sites or maintenance things. I do a lot of graphic design work for clients, whether it be eBook designs or other small projects. I just have to factor all of that in as I’m scheduling and projecting you know for new jobs.
Carrie: Sure. Do you have any sort of on boarding or for lack of a better word homework that you have them do in that interim period? This would sort of help prep them for the project?
Emily: Yeah. So my process is, once we go through the inquiry and they’re good match, we hop on a phone call. It’s usually like an hour long call where we do sort of a scoping session to see what the project’s going to entail. That turns into a proposal. Then if they sign off, they’ll pay 50% and that will save their spot in my queue. I will actually book them in. There’s generally a few months delay between that and our start date, so I will go ahead and start a Basecamp for us. I’ll give them some to do items maybe. There’s a lot that needs to be done on their end before we are going to be ready to go. There could be some content auditing, or there could be some copywriting. It could be “Hey! I need you to go get your photos done for new photos for your site,” if we’re working on branding as part of it. I have a branding questionnaire that they can be working on. They can be putting together a Pinterest board or inspiration board. So many people may seem so anxious when they need to get their website done. I need to get it launched. They don’t maybe understand or realize just how much work is going to be needed on their part on the front. Although we do have sort of a wait before we start, I feel like it can be a valuable block of time for them to get a lot of the stuff done. So that when I’m ready we can jump right in. I’ve got everything I need from them for getting started on the branding of their logo or you know we can jump right into design and I’m not then waiting on that content or that stuff that we need to launch.
Carrie: I love that! I absolutely love that. I think that gets a golden piece of wisdom that anyone listening to the show could take and run with. Is there any kind of back-and-forth communication during that process? If they have questions about some bit of homework that they’ve given you to do. Is the expectation you know if you got questions, post them in Basecamp that kind of thing?
Emily: Yeah. I’ll of course answer questions but I’m not digging into their stuff at this point. I’m not spending a lot of time reading through their questionnaire at that point or offering feedback on that stuff. I will sort of reconvene when we start. I’ll do another big long phone and that’s when we’ll start sort of digging into things. I’ll do my homework prepping for that where I will go through and read everything they’ve shared with me. I would be available during that time for some quick answers. And they know (and I will let them know) that right now I’m committed to these other clients for the most part so I will be working with them. But if you have questions or things you want to share with me, put them in Basecamp we’ll make sure that they get dealt with. I am a huge fan of Basecamp because I love the one stop. This contains everything for our project where they can share files or things, where we can have lists or Emails. I like to keep it all in one place. It helps me really stay organized.
Carrie: I like all the expectation setting that’s happening there. Clearly you have been at this for a while and learned a thing or two.
Emily: That’s all what I talked about earlier…those responses to my earlier mistakes. All of my processes have been born out of that sort of organic pain from going at it and just not knowing. I can’t emphasize enough how much process and automation is. It will just save you and if you can set expectations for your clients they respect it and they love it. They’re just…in some ways it’s like with your kids. Kids thrive on structure and routine. I feel like projects thrive on it as well.
Carrie: That’s a great comparison. Let’s shift attention to design a little bit. Specifically web design…for some reason when I say web design I feel a little bit like I’m in 2002. I don’t what else to call it? Digital Design?
Emily: Digital Design sounds more 2016 right?
Carrie: Hey at least I didn’t say I’m a webmaster.
Emily: There you go. Just don’t call it webpage design.
Carrie: Yes. You can have that to SEO optimize all day long and have your own little corner of the web. So when it comes to design in finding that line between being trendy looking, current and also having a forward-looking eye for what’s coming down the pipeline trend wise…but then also trying to be diverse so that every single website doesn’t look like a cookie cutter…how do you stay inspired and all that good stuff?
Emily: That’s interesting. We just had this question. I was on a panel at WordCamp San Antonio which I know you were there. I think you already ditched us at that point.
Carrie: Laughs. Way to call me out on the air.
Emily: You had a very important prior engagement. They asked this question. You know I don’t have websites I go to. I really even hate looking at portfolios of other designers. I feel like it either it influences me too much or it makes me feel bad about my work in some way. So I really try to just absorb good design in my life. So whether it’s following different Instagram accounts of people that I consider to be style makers or even if it’s not in the web space but just in general…so whether it be an interior design or fashion…anything. I think that you can get inspiration on colors and just that sort of design in general if you just open your life up to that. So whether it’s the things that you’re watching or visiting…contemporary art, museums or whatever. I don’t know. Just opening yourself up to that. I do try to take note of things that I see on the web. I don’t know. I’m not very literal about it. I don’t have Pinterest boards where I pin websites I like, that sort of thing. When I approach design for a client (because our work is custom) I really just try to dive into the style and the heart of whomever it is I’m working for. I just try to make sure that whatever I design is speaking to that. So rather than coming at them with “Hey we should do triangles because they’re super trendy this season”, I never try to force something. I try to come at it maybe a little organically hoping that will come out of the discussions we have or the things that I’m understanding about their brand or about their history or who they are. I want the design to sort of emerge out of that more. Then I hope I just have enough of a good core design sense that whatever I put together is going to look good and something will come out of that. I don’t know. I think there is something to having sort of an eye for design. I think that’s something that can be developed as you work in it over time. I think that’s important, just having an idea of spatial things and color balance, that sort of thing. I don’t know.
Carrie: Well my take away from everything you just said is that triangles are trending.
Emily: I don’t even know if they are. Who knows?
Carrie: I’m running off to go add some triangles to my site right now.
Emily: Yeah. Go put some triangles on your site. They’re super hot.
Carrie: I am going to put some spin on them too. I bet that will really start converting people to do something.
Emily: Just don’t be too deliberate. Try to serve your client or the project you are working. Something will emerge. You’ll have that spark of inspiration. It’ll come together.
Carrie: Good stuff. Emily? We are going to wrap up here soon and I’ll let you get back to your fantastic triangles and other ways of serving your clients. Before we do that though, I just wanted to ask is there anything that you’ve maybe read or maybe a cool new tool you’ve come across or something share worthy?
Emily: Wow. I just used a really cool site-mapping tool for this university site that I’m working on that I really liked. I don’t do a whole of intensive site mapping or content architecture type stuff on my projects. This was sort of a new thing for me. It would be nice if I could remember the name of it for you. Slickplan! That’s it.
Carrie: Ok. I’m just going to say yeah to whatever you have. I pulled it up in Google. Slickplan.com.
Emily: I recommend it if you are working on a site with lots of content and you need to lay it all out. I liked some of the ability to share that with the different people that are going to be on the team. It allowed them to make those edits. There’s version control and the whole thing. That tool was really helpful just as I was tackling something that was a little bit new for my workflow.
Carrie: Cool. I will put a link to that in the show notes. Emily? Thank you so very much for giving me and my listeners your time today. Where can people find you online to say thank you?
Carrie: Awesome! Thanks Emily. See you next time.
Emily: Thanks so much!