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Reflecting on Year One

Thursday, November 17th 2011

Well we did it. We made it past our first year. It goes without saying that there are a plethora of people to thank. We are grateful for everyone who has helped make this possible and thankful for all the great clients we have gotten the chance to work with.

The first year went well in almost every way possible, but thats not to say there were not a few hiccups along the way. We wanted to write an article about some of the challenges we faced the first year, and also highlight some wisdom we have acquired. This advice, we’re hoping, is helpful to those of you who also may be getting close to starting your first year, or even those of you who have already accomplished this, but are curious on how your successes/challenges were similar to ours.

Save more than you think before your first day.

We are lucky to be in an industry that is in fairly high demand, however thats not to say its easy to find work. We generally have our next project lined up while we are still working on our current project, but just to be safe, we like to have a solid amount of cash in the bank to cover our “living expenses” for at least 3-4 months. Worrying about money sucks, and the best way to avoid this worry is to stash away as much as possible. We definitely had a few dry spells throughout the year, but it was always comforting that we had some money saved away in the event that the dry spell turned into a drought.

Hire an accountant

Being anal about finances is great, but its even better if you can have someone take on that burden for you. Getting the company started, we went through the interview process with a few different accountants. At first we could not find an accountant that we really clicked with so we started the incorporation process on our own. A thousand or so dollars later we were incorporated but after deciding on an accountant, he informed us that we would have should actually incorporate as a different type of business entity. Long story short, find an accountant early and have them help you from day one. The cost of an accountant definitely pays for itself with the amount of time you save by not filling out forms and other tax related documents.

Try and establish a technology niche

Although any development shop should be comfortable using many different technologies, it really helps to find a specific development niche you can call your bread and butter . For us it was ExpressionEngine, for others it could be Ruby on Rails, Javascript Development, or any other language under the sun. It doesn’t really matter what your niche is, but having a niche lets you focus your sales efforts around a specific type of project and makes it easier for you to carry what you learn on one project and apply it to the next.

When taking on new work, make sure the project aligns with your company’s goals and core values

Before I started the company, I sent out a few emails to some developers, designers and other agency owners who I admired. One of the emails I sent was to Collin Schaafsma, who co-founded QuickLeft out of Boulder, CO. In one of his answers, Collin reinforced this point to me. I am paraphrasing, but Collin basically said that whenever you are looking to take on a new project, make sure it aligns with the future goals of the business, and to not take on projects with out giving them hard look on how they will push your company forward. Obviously, everyone needs to take on work to pay the bills, but the general point was to have a keen eye for the projects you are going to be learning from and dedicating your energy to.

Always be working on turning acquaintances into leads and leads into projects.

This is one that we are definitely still learning. By nature developers tend to be somewhat introverted (or at least more so than some of our peers) and the task of getting out to shake a few hands, in order to generate some business is sometimes hard. Starting a business is half creating and half selling, and you can’t do the former without the latter. Make sure you are setting aside time to meet new people, generate leads, and nurture the leads into projects. Even when you are most busy, try and find sometime to at least keep up communication.

Write everything down, and do it often.

Before the company even existed a lot spent of time was spent brainstorming and writing down ideas of how the company should be run. Things like branding, ways to interact with clients, ways to manage projects, design styles. Looking back at some of these notes, they are very disorganized and scatter-brained, but you can see in each of them, thoughts that manifested themselves into parts of the company.

When you do finally start the company, there are a handful of documents you need to create:

  • Project Introduction Documents
  • Website Content
  • Contracts
  • Agency Information / Capabilities Document
  • Formal Estimate and Project Specifications

All of these documents need to be professional looking, and should all be written with a similar tone and voice. When we got to the point of creating some of these documents, going back to the notes and thoughts that were already written down made the process of creating these documents much easier.

On top of just using these notes to help build actual documents, its also good to just write and articulate your thoughts into ideas. Hopefully those ideas can turn into actionable items which you can start using to help build your business.

Start small and put out good work.

Just like we all tell clients during the inception phase of a project, its better to start small with realistic expectations then to load on a bunch of crap that may or may not be executed well. In much the same way, set realistic expectations for your and don’t try to do too much. If you are a designer, focus on design projects, don’t market yourself as a SEO expert and take on SEO projects just because you think thats what any self-employed web professional needs to do. Start small, set realistic expectations, reach your goals, move forward.

Take on free work

I know some people have a real hard time digesting those words, but I think its very important. No matter who you are or how much you charge, there is always going to be someone who is putting out better work than you are, and for less money. Thats an inevitably every company faces. If you are new to anything, you need to differentiate yourself and show the quality work you put out, and in some cases it means landing a client that might be somewhat out of your league and doing the work at a discounted rate or for free. We have done this a few times this year, and on most of the occasions the free work helps build relationships with those clients which turned into more, paid, work. The one thing I will say is, be honest with your clients. Don’t let them think they are going to get work for free for the entire span of your relationship with them, but extending yourself and putting your services out there is a great way to show your loyalty to them and their projects.

Find dream clients (but don’t put all your eggs in one basket)

Before we started the company, we created a list of 10 -15 clients we were dying to work with. Clients who we would be willing to drop everything to accommodate. So far this year we have worked with 2 clients off this list, and one of them has turned into a great working relationship. The other not so great, and we did get pushed around a little. Nonetheless, reaching out to these clients is one of the reasons we got into the business in the first place. Working with some of these people keeps us inspired and motivated to keep putting out better work, and sometimes its as simple as sending them an email and saying you would love to collaborate with them. Again, its always important to understand your value, and don’t let them take advantage of your fan-boy attitude. If it ever gets to the point where your value is being undermined, thank them for the work you guys have done together and think about ending the relationship.

Lastly, we wanted to thank a number of people and organizations who have helped make this first year great, you are all amazing!

Kathy Grumstrup's gravatar
Kathy Grumstrup 11.17.11

Congratulations on an amazing year of learning, hard work and values driven results. TMB

Sam Rosen's gravatar
Sam Rosen 11.17.11

We look forward to another successful year partnering with The Good Lab.

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