A decade ago I started a web design company. We grew and grew, and after ten years of hard work, I’ve finally been able to get rid of it.
Don’t get me wrong – we were successful, had fun and did good work. At our peak we had over 200 clients and 15 full time staff, making us the largest such company in our city. We’ve worked on great projects for some big name clients and we even made some money too.
Little by little however, the years ate away at my soul. This year we finally left it all behind and moved onto our own products, and I’ve never been happier.
So this is why.
Web design isn’t all bad
Web design is not without its benefits. Client work is endlessly varied, and you’re always learning new things.
It’s a ludicrously easy industry to enter too – all you need is a computer, Internet access and time. There’s plenty of demand for cheap work to get you started, and fair rates for good work if you can do it.
I started Silktide fresh out of University with no computer and £14,000 (about $22,000) of debt. And though it was hard from the start, we were able to double in size every year, and all our work led to better work. Our efforts were continually rewarded as we grew.
Unfortunately, not forever.
Your fate is sealed
When you take on creative work for a client, they own a share of your time.
I used to think I was an entrepreneur running a web design company, but the reality was far from entrepreneurial. Clients were my bosses, and we were at the mercy of their whim.
We worked with some amazing and wonderful clients, but we had our share of the misguided, tyrannical and flat-out bonkers too. It’s not like you can always see them coming.
Most web designers work constantly just to keep their clients happy, because unhappy clients don’t pay their bills. Regardless of how good their legal contracts are, a web design company that pisses off their clients won’t stay in business for long, and to keep clients happy sometimes means compromising your work to do what you’re told.
I fired a number of clients in our time, but you can’t fire everyone you disagree with. At times, to pay the bills, you’ll probably take on work you suspect you shouldn’t, and deal with people you wish you wouldn’t. Bit by bit, you sacrifice your ideals for expediency, because the alternative is worse.
But eventually, your conscience grows thin.
Not a great business
It’s not easy to make a lot of money in web design. It’s decent sustenance, but a poor investment.
You can’t really differentiate yourself for starters – I mean, you’ll think you can – but in reality you’ll always be one of a gazillion companies in a global marketplace. It’s not like software, where one company can literally own a market; no one web design company owns 0.01% of their market.
Like everyone else, we charged clients fixed rates. If our projects were a storming success, our reward remained the same. At best, you’ll earn yourself more work. Well done! You just won yourself more work.
Understand how this is different from many other businesses. If you make a best-selling solar powered torch your reward is your own, and so is your destiny. You can choose to change your product, your brand, your strategy as you see fit. If you’re the best, the rewards are immense. But with web design, you essentially earned yourself more, slightly better work.
There’s a reason most web designers never have time to work on their own websites, nevermind their own businesses.
The limits of size and location
Companies in all industries have natural sizes that have evolved to be stable and successful. For example, there aren’t that many car companies worldwide, and they typically have to make billions of dollars just to exist. Yet most plumbers and electricians are one-man bands.
Web design companies tend to range from 1 to 10 people, with the vast majority having a couple of staff and a handful exceeding 100 or more. Like plumbers, they tend to focus on one geographic area: as far out as they can comfortably meet people face to face.
The most successful companies tend to be in the biggest cities. If you’re a magnificent designer but you’re based in a remote mountain cabin, you’ll have a harder time than a mediocre designer in NYC.
After about 7 years our location began to limit us – although we had customers from Cornwall to Cumbria, it became progressively harder to service them all. More distant customers are more expensive to tend to, so your returns diminish. You’re paying a premium to compete against the local companies who already work there.
We could have moved or expanded, but this didn’t make economic sense for us. We’d spend a fortune to lose all the advantages we’d worked to earn: our staff, our network of referrers, our name. It can be done, but like plumbers there are few web design companies that can scale and prosper.
Sacrifice your own destiny
For me, the greatest cost was what we could be doing instead. The opportunity cost.
The thing I love most about businesses is their ability to transform the world for the better. We live in a world where two guys can found Google in a garage, creating an incalculable benefit to the world, and profit for their efforts. That – to me – is one of the greatest wonders of civilisation.
I’ve always wanted to make the biggest difference I can with my life, and I couldn’t see me achieving this with a web design company. For no matter how much great work you do, it’s not the work you choose to do. You’re always working for someone else.
And if you feel like I do, that’s the kind of passion you can’t surrender quietly.
So what did we do?
For at least 5 years I knew I’d need to leave web design behind eventually. 4 years ago we started to split Silktide into a web design division and a software division – and gave them separate brands. We had our first product – originally called SiteScore – and our first clients.
The mistake I made was continuing to feed the web design monster, whilst trying to get our product side up and running in my spare time. In reality, despite ultimately delegating command of the agency to others, the web design business always consumed 90% of my attention.
When the 2008 recession came our web design sales were severely hit, and it took all our efforts just to dig ourselves out of the financial hole that put us in. Ironically our products were keeping us afloat, but our web design was consuming all of our time.
A year ago I set a 12 month deadline to get us out of web design; in the end it took us 9 months. It cost us a fair slice of income, but we gained a monstrous amount of our time. And finally our products are starting to get the attention they deserve.
It’s too early yet to know if this decision will pay off – right now, we feel like a startup all over again. But whatever happens, we only have ourselves to answer for. And that feels pretty damn great.