Wouldn’t it have been grand if when we were first starting our business, a wiser and older version of ourselves told us the REAL secrets to success? These are the three secrets I would have revealed.
Looking back on the first few years of my web design business, it felt a bit like stumbling through a dark room knowing I was searching for something but not knowing exactly what. I’d try anything I could think of to see if it moved me in the right direction. If it did, I’d keep doing it. If it didn’t (as was SO often the case), I’d stop and try something else. These years felt like a messy abyss of trial and error, small successes and big screw-ups, and most of all, again and again trying my best to return to that guiding light of why I started in the first place so I wouldn’t lose all motivation and give up entirely.
And it’s only now, 11 years later, that I can finally look back and say with some sense of certainty that I’ve figured out a thing or two. Of course, the learning is never over – our world is one that constantly shifts and evolves, and as such, our need to pivot from time to time will never end. But with experience comes some modest shred of wisdom, and if I could turn back the hands of time and sit down for a coffee with that wide-eyed 26-year-old young woman excited as ever to start a web design business, these are the things I would tell her.
Tip #1: Less (Offerings) = More
When I was first starting out, it seemed obvious to me: offer more services, get more clients.
More = more … right?
So I told people I could help them with pretty much anything related to marketing their business. Websites of course, but also anything in the realm of print design, logo design, copywriting, social media – you name it!
It took me a few years to catch on to the vast harm this was causing: people were downright confused about what the heck I did. They often couldn’t quite remember – was it logo design? Or social media management? Or help with Squarespace websites? It was only when my frustration reached its ultimate peak that I decided it was time to make a change.
So I picked my very favorite thing – designing and building custom WordPress websites – and focused on that. ONLY that.
And then? A miraculous thing happened. People started not only remembering what I did but also referring clients to me!
“You’re the WordPress queen, right?” they’d say.
“My friend needs a new website for her business – you can help, right?” they’d say.
Why, yes I am and yes I can.
But as miraculous as it all felt, it was actually anything BUT a miracle.
It was human tendency, plain and simple: give people one single thing to remember, and they will remember it.
(Also, when you offer just one thing it allows you to do it really, really, really well)
Tip #2: Don’t Let Other People’s Vision For Your Business Cloud Your Own
It wasn’t long after I started my business that people started asking me what my goals were. What was most interesting, however, was how many of them seemed to think I should grow my new business into a full-blown agency someday.
It was, apparently, just the thing to do.
Have you considered hiring your first employee?
Do you want to have an office space downtown at some point?
What is your grand vision?
Do you want to sell your business someday?
For a long time, I opened the door wide and let all of this unsolicited advice come right on into my mind. I assumed they were right, and that of course, I should follow their advice. After all, they were veterans with a lot more experience than I had.
But the thing was, it just didn’t feel right.
As I contemplated how I would grow my business into something bigger, there was a small but undeniable voice inside me saying: “But I like working solo. I like my business the way it is. I like not having any employees to manage. I like the simplicity of what I have.”
And years later, I’ve come to the conclusion that running a small, boutique web design studio that works with a select number of clients at any given time allows me to offer a supremely high-touch level of service. It allows me to make my clients really happy. And it’s exactly what I want.
Plus, let’s face it: I would have hated being an agency CEO! 🙂
So if I could go back in time, I would tell that younger version of me that the whole point of starting a business is that you get to create something JUST as you want it, something that supports and takes care of you in all the ways you need it to.
It doesn’t matter what other people think your business should be because you’re the one living it.
Tip #3: Dependability Is Worth Its Weight in Gold
I always figured that if and when I raised my website prices, it would be because I’d have learned how to create fancier, flashier websites that did all sorts of lavish things worth paying lots of money for.
Because bells and whistles are what people consider valuable … right?
Ha. If only.
The big surprise, and the thing that I never could have foreseen, is that people will pay handsomely for reliability, for trustworthiness, for a rock-solid reputation, and for a beyond glowing review from someone they know and trust.
Now I’m not saying I haven’t learned more and more about how to better design and build compelling websites over the years because I definitely have.
But more importantly, all my knowledge of branding and design and WordPress wouldn’t amount to a darn thing if I hadn’t also become an expert in working with people, in developing airtight processes and organization, in showing up on time to every meeting, in responding to all emails in a timely and friendly manner, and most of all in always, always, always having my clients’ backs.
These “soft skills” mean everything to our clients, and if I’d better understood this from the very beginning, I could have realized my innate value a whole lot sooner.
Building a business is hard work. There’s no blueprint, there’s no map, and there’s no one telling us which way to turn each time we reach a fork in the road.
But now that I think about it, would I have wanted it any other way? I don’t think so.
In the end, it’s the journey, the discovery, and the evolution that make being an entrepreneur so meaningful and so deeply gratifying. It’s walking through the fire and coming out on the other side.
If you could go back and tell your younger self three things, what would they be? Please tell us in the comments below <3
Susan Cybulski says
Bravo, Janelle! I agree heartily with all three of these kernels of wisdom! Your success is a tribute to your following your inner voice and prioritizing what’s important. Thank you for sharing this!
Thank you so much, Susan! That means a lot coming from you 🙂
Kevin Suboski says
Brilliant lessons. It’s amazing how long it takes to figure these things out in retrospect isn’t it. Seems so obvious now, but only after eliminating every other option. Congratulations on building a beautiful business!
Thank you, Kevin! Yes indeed 🙂 I appreciate your reading and THANK YOU for all your help over the years!
Maya Lynn says
I loved everything about this post — the content and the creative use of images.
Thank you for reading Maya!
katherine mcgarry says
Wonderful tips Janelle! And I’m so happy to attest to the incredible way you ‘have your client’s backs’ . You went the many, arduous extra miles for us when our website got hacked and I’ll never forget this.
Dear Kate, and I’ll never forget how patient and understanding you were through that tough situation. You handled it with grace! <3
Mary Seelhorst says
You and I seem to have followed the same self-employment path! I also learned those same lessons long ago in my 25 years. If anyone doubts your advice, I can tell a few stories about how I learned them! The best endorsement is when a client wants to work with you again. I get a lot of repeat clients, and would also work with you any time! (Or play music with you, or get a beer with you… etc).