June 19, 2022

How I Got Started in Web Design - John D. Saunders Personal Story

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In today’s video, I’m telling how I got into web design. Let’s go!

So it started simple enough, I worked at Publix–which is a supermarket here in South Florida–from age 14 to about 20. Then I finally secured a job at the bank, where I wanted to work, so I could start to develop some financial literacy skills.

So when I got this job, I started out as a teller–you know, people come in, I would cash their checks. It was great, I would learn a lot of the fundamentals and financial literacy, and you actually had to take training just to get the job. I got it, secured it, and I was really happy there.

How I Started Out

But I had read this book called Ogilvy on Advertising–I actually got it right here. It was about this guy named David Ogilvy, he was an ad man from the 50s and 60s, worked on really huge ads for Volkswagen, Marlboro–I mean, the guy was just super dope.

He had an ad, which was probably one of my favorite ads of all time, which was added on like an 8 ½ x 11 paper, and it had a Volkswagen in the corner, and it said, “Think small.” The way that this minimalist design aesthetic just took me by storm, I fell in love with the industry. And so back then I wanted to be a copywriter.

Now, I’m 36 now, so this was probably like 16 years ago and I wanted to be a copywriter so bad. So I used to cut out little printouts, write my own ads and I created my own little kind of sketchbook, with different ads that I was interested in.

Branching Out

Now I was at the bank then and I tried to get into the marketing department, so I drove my 95 Tercel with no AC. I used to have to take my shirt off–my dress shirt off–put it on the back because if you didn’t know, summer in Florida is brutal. So I take my shirt off and hang it up in the back then when I get to my destination, I put my shirt on and go to work.

So actually I ended up going to corporate at the bank and said, “Hey, I have these ideas for advertising.” I was able to get into the marketing department, talked to them. I was really excited, super dope to show them my work and they were like, “Uh nuh, this ain’t gonna work bro.”

So I headed back to the office near my house and I just kept working as a teller.

Now while I’m working there, I’m also in school trying to get my bachelor’s degree in Public Communications. I figured if I can get this degree, my mom will be happy. Maybe this will afford me some additional opportunities, so I kept it moving.

The Next Step

Now at the same time, since I didn’t get that marketing job, I was like, “You know what, let me see if I can get an internship.” So I ended up getting an internship here, locally, at this place called Allied Advertising.

I was there for about nine months and it was dope. They partnered with movie companies. So basically a movie would come out, they would get all these like swag posters, toys, and then we would go and we would host these, like, private screenings.

I’ll never forget: American Gangster came out–don’t know if you all heard that movie starring Denzel [Washington] and Russell Crowe. And so this movie is about Frank Lucas, OG gangster that’s dealing drugs in New York, but the movie is really great.

We got a whole bunch of stuff for the movie, so what we would do is we would set up these screenings. People would come to the screens and then as they’re leaving, we would just ask them for their review. Usually this was before the movie came out.

Now, me being a huge movie fan, movie buff–like, I would watch all the movies, they’d give us like the free stuff to take home. It was long hours, right, but the job was super cool and I learned a lot.

I’m taking this internship and I’m working probably 25-30 hours at the bank. Now when that internship ended, I was like, “Well damn, man. I still want to get into advertising, I still want to get into marketing.”

So I ended up getting another internship–keep in mind: I’m going to school, working at the bank while this is going on. I still live at home with my mom and my sister, and I’m helping them out too so, you know, I don’t have a ton of responsibilities outside of that.

Now while I’m doing this, I get this internship at a place called Mad for Marketing, which was an actual advertising agency. There I was, an intern, so I would print papers, review websites, that type of thing.

Taking a Big Leap

Around that time, I was still trying to get into the copywriting space, but I didn’t have any luck. No one would hire me–and if you don’t have any experience, you’re not getting hired.

Now at that agency, I met this guy named Brad, who was like an account executive and was teaching me this really cool stuff.

I also met another mentor, his name is Rolly–he actually has an agency called The Pink Collective–and he was there as the creative director. So I would go into his office and just pick his brain about the industry, see what he has going on, look at the projects he had–it was just really exciting to be a part of that experience.

He actually went off and started his own award-winning agency, which he still has to this day. But man, I learned so much during that internship and it was probably–I’m gonna guess 9 or 10 months. Now while all of this was still going on, I was still working and still going to school.

Things were starting to improve at the bank, I’m moving to the personal banker role, so now I’m on the other side of the bank, now I’m opening accounts–CD’s, savings accounts–and now I’m really starting to understand how to build financial wealth and freedom.

It was at that time that I started my 401(k) at the bank, they matched up to 3 percent, that little, incremental increase–and trust me: I was not making a lot at the bank–would help me to purchase my own first town home with my wife.

That ultimately became the catalyst for a lot of things in my life to this day. So one tip to get out of this part of my life is: make sure that any job that you’re doing, do it to the best of your ability. You can grow in that business, work on your side-hustle, and really start to grow and leverage your skills, so that way you can do well in the long run.

The Road to Digital Marketing

So now, this is what’s going on: I’m at the bank, I’m finishing up this internship, and I’m still at home doing my thing.

Now at this point, I’m applying everywhere. I would probably apply to 75 different agencies in South Florida, from bigger ones to smaller ones. And then, I finally got this opportunity.

This little agency–it’s probably 6 people in Fort Lauderdale, the office was, like, super dark, no windows. I walk in with my suit from JCPenney for 80 bucks: I was lit, I was ready, I was like, “This is gonna be the one.”

So I walk in, there’s this guy, Chris Herman–still one of my mentors to this day–I sit down with him then tell him, “Listen, I’ve done this, I’ve done this, I’ve only done a couple of internships. I don’t have experience, but man, I’m hungry, I want to learn, I want to adapt, I want to develop my skills.” So he said, “All right man, we’ll see what we can do. I’ll let you know.”

Starting My Side-Hustle

So in the interim, as that’s going on, I’ll never forget my mom–being a teacher–wanted to do tutoring on the side. So she was like, “How can I start to tutor and really build up this side business while I’m working full time?”

So I said, “Well, I don’t know, but I’ve heard about websites, maybe we can make you a website.” And she was like, “Okay, let’s see what happens.”

So I went online–Youtube University–and I find out about this thing called Wordpress, where you can build websites without code, and I was like, “Okay, cool. Let me try this.”

Now this was back before they really had, like, really dope templates, back before Elementor, Oxygen–all those really cool WYSIWYG’s that Wordpress has. You basically could make really simple templates with some html, some css, and really get to work making a really dope website.

So man, I spent weeks learning website design, learning web development, and I ended up building her a website, did a logo, and the site went live. Then she started getting inquiries, and people were filling up the contact form. And I was blown away: I couldn’t believe that I could have an idea, put it on the Internet, and people would want to buy from me.

That’s when a switch went off, and I was like, “You know what, I could use my creativity and the copy skills that I had been acquiring and building myself to build out websites.”

Hermann Advertising

So when that happened, right after a few weeks, Hermann Advertising–which is the name of the agency that I went to and interviewed at–ended up hiring me. I was so ecstatic, I was like, “Say what?!” I took anything that I could, I was like, “Let’s go, I’m ready, let’s get it done!”

I go in–they’ve already moved to a slightly bigger office with about 7 or eight individuals. And just a side note: Ellen, the actual receptionist, was the one that convinced Chris Hermann–the founder–to hire me. She said she believed in me, and thought I had the abilities to help.

Once I got locked into that job, I was in it: I was learning html, I was learning css, I was building websites, I was doing digital marketing, I was just in there, ingrained. Now this agency specifically focused on automotive advertising. So we would do a lot of automotive ads for Ford, Toyota, all these different local dealerships.

Working with the dealerships was really cool and I got to learn just a lot of acquired skills. Now a lot of you see those cheesy ads like, “99 down! Get your new car!” Those were the types of content that we were creating, and I just resonated and I learned so much.

I learned how to run Facebook Ads, how to do SEO, how to create titles and meta descriptions on websites, how to run a digital marketing campaign, how to create landing pages–like when it was so small, I was basically doing everything. Now we had a digital marketing director–his name was Mark, and I was under him as part of his team in the digital department–and we started to build this thing up.

I was there for about 4 years, so I spent a considerable amount of time there. I was able to travel to different cities: we did Vegas, we did Boston to see clients. I just acquired so many skills while working there–and that’s just another tip that I wanted to provide: make sure that in the jobs you’re acquiring, you’re essentially getting paid to learn and acquire new skills.

Never take that for granted, try to acquire new skills, try to learn as much as possible, and leverage that job to increase your skill set. Ultimately, you’ll become a leader in your position–you might leave, but you might be able to grow that business as well, before you dip out. So just another word of advice for y’all.

So I spent four years there and I really wanted to branch out of the automotive space. I wanted to help different types of businesses, local businesses–and man, I was working tons of hours at this agency, I was burnt out, I even fell asleep on the wheel, woke up on the side of the road one day because I was so tired from exhaustion from this job.

I was doing that, and then I was also helping friends and family launch their side projects. So while I’m working this full time job, I would come home, and then I would work until 1:00-2:00 in the morning working on websites and just learning and acquiring new skills. I eventually got burnt out.

A New Chapter

Now, at this point–I was probably 26, maybe 27 when I started to branch out and do my own thing. I’m working full time at the agency, and then I’m working part time on my own stuff–just moonlighting, working with local clients and family members, just to help them build their businesses.

At that point, I was doing digital marketing. It wasn’t just web design, it was social media, it was SEO, it was SEM, I was just acquiring a lot of skills–which I’m actually happy to have. Now that I’m focused on more of a niche–which I’ll get into later–I’m really happy that I was able to branch out and do these different things.

So on the tail end of working at the agency, I’m at the point where I’m like, “Listen, I gotta move out of here, I gotta figure something out.” And so I saw this Craigslist ad for this place called MPH Club, which was an exotic car rental company.

Now I wanted to branch out of cars but, I mean, exotics–Ferraris, Lambos–I couldn’t say no to that. And the job was part time: I would only have to work from about 9 to 2, Monday through Friday.

So I figured, I could segue out of this full time job, go to more of a part time position, and then leverage this position to work on my other projects on the side. So I said, “All right,” went to my boss there–Hermann–man, he sat me down for, like, four hours, and we just discussed a lot.

But ultimately, I told him, “I’m gonna go, I’m gonna start my own thing, I’m gonna work part time at another position,” and he gave me his blessings, and I left.

Now, I’m working at this exotic car rental company. I basically helped them build their entire infrastructure. They started out with about 3 exotic vehicles.

By the time I left–maybe two years, after they had close to 30 vehicles under their moniker–we’d done a huge SEO campaign and optimized the hell out of their website. The website did really, really well, performed well, and was number one for thousands of keywords here in South Florida.

While I’m working there, my personal business is blowing up. At that time, this is a digital marketing agency, so we’re doing SEO, SEM, and Facebook–and by “we,” I mean “me.” It’s pretty much me, by myself.

Again, I started getting to the point where I was getting burnt out once more. So I had to make a difficult decision. I approached my wife and said, “Hey listen, what do you think we can do?”

Building My Business

You know, right at that point, we had our townhouse–you know, our mortgage was really low, we didn’t have any kids yet, our lifestyle was pretty affordable, and she was working full time, as well.

What I thought about was, what if I just left this exotic car company–they actually became a client, which is great–and then, I could work on other projects. So I started to sort of wean myself off of that side where I was working Monday through Friday, then it was like Monday through Wednesday, then it was a couple of days a week.

And then it got to the point where they became one of my clients, and I just ran their campaigns, and I’d just go into the office once a month, just to review what was going on. Still, at that point, it’s a digital marketing agency.

So now, I’m at a point where, like, “All right,” I approached my wife and I said, “Listen, what do you think about me leaving? I think I have enough to cover the bills, we might have to eat some ramen for a while, but I think we can make it work.”

And it was at that moment–I felt it was opportune, because we didn’t have any kids, we didn’t have a lot of expenses, it was pretty much just me and her, and we were doing okay. So I figured, maybe this would be the time. I won’t be able to get this opportunity later on, once we really start to build a life together.

So she was like, “You know what, I think you can do it.” So I did it, I said, “Okay, let’s make that transition.”

Now keep in mind, I already had a few clients to kind of float me those next few months. And that was when I launched 5Four Digital, the agency I have now. This was eight years ago–which is, wow, I still can’t believe it.

So I was like, 28 or 29, or something like that. I launched 5Four Digital, and we launched it as a full digital marketing agency. So we’re doing SEO, SEM, Facebook Ads, we’re doing web design, web development, branding, logo–I mean, we're doing everything under the sun.

And basically, it’s just me. So I’m doing all this stuff, I’m going to every event that I can, I’m speaking at every event that I can–anywhere that wants me to speak, I’m doing it. I’m creating Youtube video content, creating blogs, I’m just pushing out as much valuable content as I can.

Growing My Agency

Then, I started to get burnt out AGAIN! So now I’m working even more hours than I was before. I’m working 16 hour days, because we’re doing ALL of these services. I have to switch my mind to all these services constantly–SEO, SEM, Facebook, web design, web development–and we start to bring on more and more projects.

Now back then, I was super cheap, I was super affordable, right? Because I’m new in the space, I’m kinda learning as I go, I’m reading and acquiring skills, I’m taking classes–but man, I’m like, super cheap and I’m just starting to get burnt out.

So one day, I take a break and I say, “All right, what are some of the things that I can do to delegate some of these things that I’m doing?”

One, I gotta increase my prices, so first thing: increase prices. I had some case studies, I had some work that I’d done that was doing really well. So I figured, “All right, I can do that.”

Next, I need to look at the list of things that I’m doing every day, and say, “Okay, where am I spending the most time?” It was web development, right? So I’m like, “Okay, let me hire someone part time.”

So I hired a developer to work on a project basis. Essentially, I bring them in when we have a project that we need to work on. I pay them their part, they finish the job, and then we go live. I did this for about 3 or 4 years as a full digital marketing agency.

But I just wasn’t happy. I was burnt out, I was working 80 hours a week–even though we were doing all these services, we were doing them well, we were performing for clients. It was just a lot of overwhelm, and I had to hire so many additional people to help with all these different parts of the business. So I wasn’t making much, either.

Discovering Our Niche

Then I had an epiphany. Web design, web development, and branding were my favorite parts of the process. Our design team, our developers–and back then we had one developer, one designer–the part that they enjoyed most was that design-development process.

So I made the hard decision to say, “You know what? Let’s not be a full service agency, let’s focus on what we do best: branding, web design, web development.”

Now because we had skills at analytics, at SEO, at SEM, we could leverage those skills and bundle them into our core services, but we didn’t necessarily have to do all these services for every type of client.

I’m telling y’all right now, when we niched down and said, “Listen, we’re doing branding, design, development.” We approached our clients and said, “Listen, this is where we’re focusing our efforts, here are some agency partners you can work with, but we’re gonna focus on this specific niche.”

And the agency exploded. Everyone knew that we were doing web design, development, and branding. All the content, everything that I was creating, curating and writing and developing, revolved around web design, web development, and branding.

And that was it: once that happened, it was like our agency went from this, and just skyrocketed. We increased 250% year over year, up until this day, and I started to build and develop a team just around those core skills.

Now what we also did as value adds is we set up clients with Google Analytics, we set them up with title and meta description, we did brief keyword research for them to make sure that the content resonated with their audience. We made sure to create beautiful websites that were also functional.

So I studied user interface design, user experience, and I hired more designers, more developers. But I kept it very small, because I’ve always felt that if I could create systems and develop standard operating procedures around our strategy, we can keep a small core team and be able to blow this thing out.

Conclusion

So now, to this point, we are a branding, design, and development agency. We just redesigned our website about 6 months ago, and that’s where we focus our efforts. And I can’t tell y’all enough: the riches are in the niches.

When you focus on a specific core service, you can charge a premium, you become great at what you do, and that core service can catapult your business.

So that’s my story, y’all. I hope you enjoyed it. If you have questions, you have comments, drop them below, and always, always, always, be transparent. Let’s do this!

A web designer on laptop waving at computer

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