freelancing and loyalty

Jack of all tradesA couple of items today gave me pause for thought, both related to the business of running a business.

The first was a passing comment made by a person I admire greatly, Miles Burke, who has graduated from being a web design freelancer to a full-on entrepreneur, businessman and model of success in the web industry in remarkably few years.

Miles was a guest on the 100th podcast by the SitePoint panel, an aural magazine that canvasses what’s interesting and important in web development. The 100th podcast was live, with vision, and featured Australian and international guests who have been pivotal in the web world over the past few years. That comfortably includes Miles, who I also consider a personal friend.

Asked whether it was still possible for someone to find success as a web freelancer, Miles said it was probably not – or at least it was much harder – because the indsutry had grown to support specialisation to such a degree that being a jack-of-all-trades freelancer might now be untenable. As a comment, it was off the cuff and on the spot, but I suspect it is a commonly held belief.

I have to disagree.

In my opinion, the market has grown with the industry – in fact the industry of web professionals has hardly kept up with the expansion of the market for web services – creating market segments that include one of customers who prefer and seek out a single point of contact who can meet all their web needs. This could be a project manager for a small or large web agency of some sort, but it could also be the sole trader who specialises only in understanding and meeting his or her clients’ every possible need.

Personalised service and customised products based on an intimate understanding of the client’s business needs and aspirations is actually easier to deliver when you don’t have to explain it to several staff members or send it through a process of departmental approvals.

As I built my business, I made two conscious decisions. The first was that when my web design clients asked me about domain name registration, web hosting, print design, logo design, copy writing, email newsletters or implementing the right ecommerce options, I chose to say “Yes, I can do that for you”. Sometimes I had to buy in a product or some expertise, most times I had to knuckle down and learn something new. Each time, I made sure I delivered at least what my client wanted and often just that little bit more than they were expecting.

The second decision I made was to build every web site so that my client could run it themselves, either using an HTML editing suite like Dreamweaver or a dynamic content management system like WordPress. You know what’s coming next. Sure enough, as soon as I delivered the site, two out three clients would say, “Great! Can you run it for me?” So they pay me a fee, a retainer of sorts, to manage their content, tweak a page here and there and deal with any issues that may come up.

Not only does this, over time and with a growing stable of clients, add up to a tidy, steady income, but when the time comes for a complete redesign because my client’s business has grown or just becuase they want a new look, I’m there in the box seat. They know they can trust me, they know I understand their business and they know I deliver good product. And, because of my first decision, I’m the one hosting the website and renewing their domain names for them, so there’s no pain for my clients.

This approach also ties in to the second item that made me think about my business today.

Ross Honeywill is an extremely astute observer and analyst of business practices. He has come up with ways of understanding how cosumers behave that have radically changed the way his clients have operated, to their great benefit. He published an article today on his personal website about how Mark Rubbo, owner of Readings Books and Music, fought off an incursion into his Melbourne market by the multinational corporate giant Borders.

Readings is no minnow, of course. Rubbo has, as Ross puts it, “built Australia’s biggest independent book and music group one small step at a time by honouring the local preferences and diverse character of each new neighbourhood.”

In the end, it was Rubbo’s commitment to his Carlton community that engendered a commitment in return from his customers, a willingness to pay full price at Readings rather than half price at the new store across the road. Borders made a few bad public calls about why they had opened directly opposite an independent bookseller, Rubbo invested in an even more personalised, intimate approach than before and a resolve emerged in the book-loving, music-loving, independence-loving local community to support Rubbo.

The bit where a customer hands Rubbo a crumpled note saying “Livres sans Frontieres” (Books without Borders) made me think of nothing so much as Arlo Guthrie’s words in Alice’s Restaurant: “And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singin’ a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out? And friends they may think it’s a movement. And that’s what it is.”

When I passed around the link to Honeywill’s article a friend responded, “Nice read, but I find it hard to believe so many people will pay full price for Harry Potter when it is half price across the street.” And that’s true, it is hard to believe.

Then again, it’s hard for me to believe that people will seek me out to design their web sites, not get put off by the rates I charge, pay me more to look after their sites and then pay me still more to redesign them over time.

It’s hard for them to believe the difference a well thought out, well constructed and well designed web site can make to their business.

Frankly, even I find it hard to believe how interested I get in what people do and how enthused I become at the prospect of building a web presence that will help them do it.

Ross Honeywill is right. “Loyalty does not come in the shape of a discount card or coupon. Loyalty … comes from believing in something wonderful and being thought wonderful in return.”

And Miles Burke is wrong. There is ample room in the web industry for freelancers who lovingly and painstakingly craft unique web sites that meet their clients’ needs, further their ambitions and exceed their expectations.

2 thoughts on “freelancing and loyalty”

  1. Thanks for the disagreement, Ricky, most appreciated.

    Firstly, my defence lies in the fact it was Monday morning before 8am, and I hadn’t had a coffee. 🙂

    It’s now Wednesday and slightly after 8am, and I have had a coffee, so here goes with being more considered in my reply.

    I do honestly believe it’s harder to become an web freelancer with expertise in everything that the web presents nowadays, than when I started first in 1995. Back then, life was simpler; there wasn’t much talk of SEO, there was no social media, even accessibility and information architecture weren’t really around.

    Heck, we built sites in tables, we rarely used a CMS, and websites were judged on the amount of animated gifs and spacer gifs used. 🙂

    Nowadays, there is a breadth to the industry never before seen; we have specialists in so many distinct and niche areas, it would be difficult for me to start again and say with confidence I’m an expert with everything.

    Ricky, your points are all valid, and I agree with them. I believe the whole discussion was down to me hearing or believing the question revolved around ‘expert’, as opposed to ‘good all-rounder’.

    I’m sincere when I say thanks for disagreeing – the best thoughts come after they’ve been kicked around for a while, and we need the points argued to really stand the test of time.

  2. Thank you, Miles, for letting me position you as the straw man for my arguments.

    I totally concede that there is so much more for a web freelancer to learn these days that it is just about impossible to be an expert jack-of-every-single-trade-at-all-times.

    However, I don’t think you need to be an expert in everything at all times – just the things required to meet your clients’ needs and expectations. For a while there, I was a dab hand at Flash (applying every accessibility technique to it that I could, of course), but I don’t get a lot of call for it right now. If I did, I’m confident I could immerse myself in that world again.

    Right now, jQuery gets a lot of my attention. I find it complicated, bit it’s also a good example of how libraries of other people’s expertise supplements my own.

    Understanding how search engines work and optimising sites has always been critical, but it’s is also far less complicated than many people think (and many other people want people to think).

    I agree about the increased breadth of the industry, and the width, and the depth, but you still only have to be expert at the things you need to do great work at any one time.

    I do concede that I’m lucky on the one hand to have acquired a very broad general knowledge that makes me fearless when it comes to learning new stuff, and on the other hand to be genuinely interested in almost every topic I come across. Medical refrigeration products! Yes!!!

    I’m also very comfortable in talking to people about the possibilities for their web presence. I’m sure I’ve talked some clients into work just through sheer enthusiam.

    I don’t think I’m the only one like that, though, and I think the web industry – which essentially works in a format designed to make content available to a huge audience – is an ideal playground and workplace for that kind of person.

    The fact that the web is characterised by rapidly changing technologies then becomes an advantage to those who do not specialise, but who can adapt and adopt.

    Like the mediaeval soldiers-for-hire from which the name is drawn, the key for the freelancer is to not be bogged down in ideology or a “way of doing things” but to be equipped with the capacity to acquire and apply skills as needed, drawing on the latest advances to meet client need.

    OK, it’s a romantic notion. But it can be done.

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