Written by Hirsch Fishman on January 14th, 2009
When I first started Addicott Web, it was tempting to take any work that came along. Even though I might not have specialized in what the client was looking for, work is work, right?
Wrong! Unfortunately, if that’s your business plan, then you’re not going to be very successful long-term. Taking any and all business that comes your way can – and inevitably, will – only take you so far.
Which is why I’ve decided that as I begin my second year in business, it’s long overdue to create a business plan around how I answer questions such as:
Why do I think that won’t you be successful in the long-run if you do a little bit of everything?
Because if your business plan is to “specialize” in doing a little bit of everything, then what is it that you’re specializing in? Why should someone hire you over another business that actually specializes in what they’re looking for?
There are so many areas of expertise within the web industry. You have web designers, web developers, usability experts, web marketers, web developers, social media experts, SEO specialists, content developers – the list goes on and on. So how can you possibly specialize in doing everything that all of those people do? You can’t – and you won’t, even if you try to.
Don’t get me wrong though – I’m not saying that you should have such a small focus that you don’t have at least a working knowledge of these others areas. In fact, you’ll often hear complaints along the lines of, “I wish the marketing people were on the same page as the web developers” – so having at least a basic understanding of other areas within the web-world is important when working with a larger web team.
When I started out, I knew that in order to be successful as a web designer, I needed to be very knowledgeable about web design and its components (colors, typography, etc.). What I’ve come to realize over the last year is that I also need to be knowledgeable about many other areas of expertise that make a big impact on my designs – areas such as usability, SEO, accessibility, etc.
Do I need to be an expert practitioner in each of those areas? No. But I do need to know enough about each of them to:
Once you know what your areas of expertise are, it becomes slightly easier to start defining the services that you can offer clients – or in simpler terms, what you can make money on.
If you’re in business for yourself, then this is also a matter of recognizing your strengths and playing to them. Are you really good at integrating databases into a website? Then become a web developer. Are you good at creating catchphrases and techniques to grab people’s attention on a website? Then perhaps web marketing is for you. You begin to see the picture.
An important question that you’ll also want to ask yourself at this point is, where is there a need for these skills? What you’re doing here is trying to understand what your market is and who your potential customers are. If you can find a niche market, even better, but that can be very difficult to do.
Knowing who your clients are can also help you know what services you should offer, or if you don’t already, then what skills you should learn to do. If you get a lot of questions about e-mail marketing campaigns from your existing clients but don’t already offer that as a service, perhaps it’s worth learning about so that you can offer it. When you’re able to offer the services that your clients (or those in your market) need, you’re giving them even more of an incentive to work with you.
People who aren’t web-savvy often don’t know the difference between the various disciplines that web professionals work in. Within the last year I’ve had a lot of friends or family say to me, “you work in websites – so-and-so needs a website, you should talk to them”. While I definitely appreciate the referrals, just because someone is looking for a website doesn’t mean they’re looking for one that I’m able to give them give my skill-set.
What I’m getting at is that you need to know when you should turn down a project. I know it’s not easy to do, and I say that from personal experience. But if after talking to your clients and getting a real sense of what they want and need (and there’s a difference), if you can’t give that to them, then you’re wasting both their time and yours.
I worked on two projects this year that didn’t end up coming to fruition, and it wasn’t until afterward that I realized that what I was able to offer them and am good at wasn’t what they really wanted. I couldn’t say no. Instead of telling them I could do what they wanted, what I should have said to them was:
“Thank you for talking to me about your project. Based on our conversation, what you’re looking as I understand it is something that I don’t specialize in and am not able to give you. Because of that, I’ll have to turn down this project.”
Being honest with a potential client never hurt anyone – and in fact, they might really appreciate it. Even if they might be annoyed at first that you met with them for an hour but can’t help them, they’ll be less annoyed than if you start working on the project and end up having to scrap it because you’re giving them what they want.
Of course, part of my job is to help people understand their needs vis-a-vis a website – that’s why they’re asking me to talk to them about it in the first place. As a professional, I can make recommendations differently if what they describe their needs are doesn’t match up with what they want. (For example, they might “want” a sleek Flash website when they really “need” something more basic.)
People don’t always have an appreciation for the intricacies of websites, such as what might really meet their needs. So just because someone is talking to you about work you might not specialize in, it might not be worth abandoning before you really know why they want what they’re asking for.
This is especially the case if someone comes to you and says something like, “I really like that website – I want mine to be like that”. Then they clearly need some guidance, and it’s your job to help them clearly understand what really meets their needs and why. It might be that the website they like would do exactly that, which is fine – but if it isn’t, then you need to tell them that. You’re the professional, after all, and if they want a professional opinion, they’ll listen to what you’re saying.
Along the same lines, you have to determine what kinds of project you’re willing to take on. For example, I only want to work on website designs/redesigns, consulting projects, or maintenance. Within those specific areas, I want to do work such as:
By starting to focus in on the type of work you want to do, if someone asks you “do you do this?”, you’ll be able to tell them right away if you do or don’t. For example, I know that I don’t want to do “busy work”, even if it does help pay the bills. It’s just not something that interests me, and I don’t feel that it will help me grow as a designer.
One thing to note: don’t be too quick to turn down work. Even if you know what you want to do and are being asked about something you don’t do, sometimes it can be a smart move to do something outside your comfort zone. You never know where it might lead to.
So before you make such decisions, think carefully about what you might get out of that work, and if the pros outweigh the cons, then it might be worth considering.
Everything that I mentioned are things that people and businesses are constantly thinking about, refining, and changing. For someone first starting out in business, the answers to the questions I posed aren’t going to come to you right away. But have patience – if you’re successful, then they will.
This can be a lot to think about, but these decisions are essential to the long-term growth and success of your business. Think about them before it’s too late, because otherwise, you won’t get very far at all.
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