5 Mistakes I Made as a Web Design Agency Founder and What YOU Can Learn From Them
May 31, 2021

In today’s video, I’m talking about mistakes, y’all. I’m talking about five mistakes I made as a web design agency owner, the things that I learned from them, and the ways that you can execute to avoid the mistakes that I made. So let’s go ahead and dive in, let’s jump in and get this party started.

1. Not Prioritizing a Few Core Services

So the first mistake I made as a web design agency owner was not prioritizing a few specific services. Now, when I started 5four Digital, I was a digital marketing strategist. This was about 7 years ago.

So we were doing SEO, SEM, Facebook Ads, web design, web development—essentially every service you can think of. And what happened was, because we were doing so many services, we didn’t have a defined process—we couldn’t have a defined process. Because any client that came to us, we were like, “Y’all, let’s do it, let’s get the project, let’s get the money through the door, and let’s get it done.”

And so, what happened was, I ended up hiring a lot of individual people to help facilitate the process and align these agency offerings. And we were all over the place, because we were doing SEO, we were doing SEM, we were doing Facebook Ads. We didn’t have a defined process and we weren’t big enough to scale the efforts that we needed to get the job done.

So about 4 ½ years ago, I decided that web design, branding, and web development were the core of our business. Those were the projects we always had the most fun on, the projects we always executed at a high level, and we always saw a return on investment for clients, where we leverage those skills.

So that’s when I decided to scrap everything else that we did in the agency and just focus on those core services—essentially: UI/UX, web design, web development, and branding. And when we made that switch, at first it was difficult: because we had clients, prospects, and people coming back and saying, “Hey, we’d love to collaborate, we’d love to work with you on X, Y, Z.” But we had to turn all that work away, ‘cause that’s not what we were focused on at the time.

Now doing that, we said “No” a lot upfront. But as we established ourselves as a thought leader in this space, we provided—essentially—these services and focused our core effort on just doing those items, it changed the whole game for us. We had clients coming out of the woodwork looking to collaborate and work with us, because we had a primary focus.

And a lot of times, when you have a primary focus, you can charge a premium, because you’re an expert at what you do. So I implore you: if you’re an agency owner, if you’re a freelancer, hone in on a few specific skills and leverage those skills to maximize your agency. When you can specialize and niche down, you can charge a premium and you can become a premiere agency in your space.

2. Lacking Systems and Processes

All right, the second mistake I made as a web design agency owner was not having a process, not having systems in place. And I’ll tell you why: not having systems and not having these processes in your agency is going to make you have a downfall. Even if you’re a freelancer, even if you’re a 1-3 person team, you need to have your systems and processes in place so that you can scale your efforts.

And you can scale to whatever you want, you don’t have to be this 5, 10, 15 million dollar agency. You can do great doing 50-70-100K a month with a small team. But you have to have systems.

So let me break down my mistakes. When I started the business, we were kinda winging it, right? We kinda had our jobs on Asana (we’re using a task manager) and we kinda had some checklists, but I was doing a lot of things myself. And even though I was hiring team members, I kept having to go back, backtrack, double check their work, make sure they were doing the right things—and I take fault in that, and that’s 100% on me.

Because I wasn’t giving them what they needed to do their job at an amazing level. So you can have a dope staff, right? But if you’re not giving them systems and you’re not providing them a guide or a process to work from, you’re just gonna be winging it for your entire agency.

Our biggest advice, in terms of that, would be to start to systematize your business.

Think about everything that you do in your business and start to literally write down, step-by-step, everything you do. If you need more info on that, check this video right here. I’ll teach you how to set up standard operating procedures in your agency.

So, one, let’s say you do web design: a part of that process is doing a low fidelity wireframe, right? Which is the wireframe that showcases what the site could potentially look like.

Now, you should have a process for that, right? You should have a process for: 

  1. Collecting info from client via a form.
  2. Now I’m going to leverage this information and send it to our designer.
  3. The designer will use a sitemap and XYZ to execute and create a low fidelity wireframe.

Then what you want to do is record yourself walking through that process. Now the main reason you’re setting up these systems—even if you’re a small agency—is because you’re gonna be able to scale yourself out of the process. And that’s the biggest thing.

As a founder, yes: you’re a web designer, yes: you’re a developer, and it’s amazing doing the work. But if you want to scale your efforts, you need to be able to take what you know and literally clone yourself, clone your process, and be able to delegate it or give it to someone else.

So you maintain that quality and you mitigate mistakes, because when they’re following the step-by-step directions, it’s gonna be easy for them to walk through those steps and get the job done. Now you’re not worrying about mistakes or issues happening, because you have a systematized process.

For me, I was literally winging it every day—I’m working 14, 15, 18 hours a day—because I’m trying to get the job done and I’m not creating any system that can help me really build this thing. So, the second mistake is not creating a system—I implore you: please make a system, create standard operating procedures for your agency so you can scale your efforts.

3. Scope Creep

All right, y’all, this mistake is a hard one: scope creep. So, as many of you know, scope creep is when you have a proposal, you’ve sent the proposal to a client, they paid, and now you’re working on their project, but they slowly ask for more and more items.

And, at first, it’s only one or two items here and there. And then it just snowballs into this HUGE monolith or avalanche—where it’s like, “Mistake, mistake, issues, issues,” and they’re coming in and it’s like, “Damn, what do I do?”

You know, my team is working on this project, they’ve been working on it for so long, and we’re doing all these things and going out of our way for the client. How can I avoid these issues—and trust me: this has happened to me more times than I can count, and it’s 100% my fault. And all that comes down to having definitive contracts and deliverables.

Let’s rewind that:

  1. Specific contracts
  2. Deliverables

These are super crucial and very, very important. So when you sign up a client, make sure you have a contract in place that stipulates, “Hey, this is what I’m including: you get 6 website pages, you get 4 iterative changes on the site,” you know, just be very specific in what you’re providing.

And make sure that that client agrees or signs that document. You can use PandaDoc: it’s probably my favorite for getting contracts and getting those signs. I’ll post a link to one of our contracts down below, so you can check that out as an example.

And then, also, in your proposal, make sure you definitively have your deliverables. Deliverables are items that your client will get when your project is completed. So you can say, “You will receive a full, functioning 5-page website that’s responsive, that has a Home, Resources, About, Contact page, that has X, Y, and Z,” okay?

The client signs that, and now what happens is, essentially, you’re working within the parameters of that project. And you let the client know upfront that, “Hey, by the way, if anything comes out of this project, just know that our hourly fee is X.” And make sure that they know, “Hey, you can make these changes, but once you start making these changes outside of our deliverables and outside of our contract, we need to make sure that we’re on the same page and know that this hourly rate is going to take effect.”

I guarantee you—and I will tell you right now—clients will be very selective on the things that they wanna change. They’re going to be very cautious on the things that they say, and you’re going to be able to set the parameters right there, right now, that, “Hey, if you’re going outside of this, you’re gonna have to pay.”

So that’s a big, big, HUGE thing in the agency already ‘cause scope creep can kill your team, your agency, and it can really cause issues. Because, trust me, I know: I’ve been through it a dozen times—we’re actually going through a project right now where, initially, I didn’t set that up and I didn’t set those parameters in the beginning.

And the project’s coming to a close and we’re finally completing it, but we probably lost money on this project. And what I’ve learned from that is, set it up in the contracts and make sure your deliverables are all on point.

4. Undercharging for Work

Now, I’ve been an agency owner for 7 years, so I’ve been through the wringer in regards to this. If I told you what I charged for my first web design project, you’d probably laugh dead in my face. Seriously.

So my biggest recommendation is, be ambitious and charge your worth. Charge a little bit more than your worth, because, I’ll tell you what happens.

If you want to provide a great product for your client, you’re going to be able to leverage your skills. You put in the work, you spent the time taking courses, taking classes, learning from your experiences, creating websites and projects for clients, and so you have what it takes to charge a premium.

And a lot of times, when you charge a premium for the products:

  1. The client has a higher perceived value for your product.
  2. You can hire the best team members, the best project managers, the best designers and developers, as a part of your staff and your team to build out these projects.

So, when you’re thinking about it, you want your margins to be wider than 30-40%. Because you want to be able to provide a client with a great product, right? You can throw in extras, like the brand guidelines or design systems, you can leverage great tools like Figma and Webflow. And so you have to have cash flow, you have to be charging accordingly to be able to provide those high quality products.

So, whatever you’re thinking or whatever you’re doing, charge more. And create case studies and develop systems in your business. ‘Cause once you do that, you’re becoming a top player in this space.

So please, make sure you’re charging accordingly, look at your last 3-4 projects. Look at the price that you charged and see if that equated to you making margins and being able to compensate your team well and grow your agency.

Also, charging more does a lot for your agency. One, you would be more selective with the projects that you want to take on. If you’re at a lower price point, you’ll get a lot of projects, right? So you’ll get a lot of lead flow—and that’s great, if that’s where you wanna be.

OR, you charge a premium, you charge higher, you create systems, you develop a process in your agency. Now that you have a premium—let’s say your project costs $10K—now instead of doing five $2K projects, you’re doing one project at $10K, you’re able to allocate your team towards that, and now you can focus your efforts.

And as a freelancer, and as a small agency owner, it’s important to be able to work on projects that are important to you. And to do that, you have to charge more.

Now, a lot of times, agency owners might feel like they have imposter syndrome or that they might not be good enough, but go back to your last clients and look at your reputation. Look at the work that you created, and give yourself more credit—and more moolah!

So now you’re getting to the point where you’re working on bigger projects, so you can work less hours—because instead of five projects, you’ve got one. You’re able to allocate and adjust your time better, so essentially it’s a win, win, win.

5. Too Many “Chefs” in the Kitchen

All right y’all, so the fifth mistake—the last one—is working with too many clients on one particular project. So sometimes—and this’ll happen as you’re growing your agency’s scales—you’ll have a client that has a team of maybe 4, 6, or 7 people.

Now what happens is, when you have 4-7 people—talking heads—coming at you with different ideas, different thoughts and processes, it can become insane. And a lot of times, you’re looking to please all these different individuals that have a completely different scope of the project and idea of what they want executed.

So what we recommend with agency owners is having ONE point-of-contact that you talk to at the company or at the client. Now the main reason being is, that person is essentially a liaison: they’re going back, and they’re facilitating everything for you. In most cases, you’ll have that—you’ll have a project manager or a marketing strategist or someone that’s kinda managing the project from the client side.

So try to emphasize, “Hey, we always like to talk to one client. They can delegate and pass everything on to the rest of your team. We wanna make sure we establish that, so that way our team can focus on what we do best.”

And that really helps, because what happened to me is, I had a project where we literally had eight people in there making changes, making tweaks. “Tom” is doing something over here, “Mary’s” doing something over here. And what happens is you’re having all these different clashes and it just prolongs the size of the project.

So what we decided is to say, “Hey, just wanted to let you know: we have one point-of-contact that we like to talk to at the company. This helps us be able to get the job done and you can relay and message everyone at the team that we like to talk to one individual.”

And hopefully they understand that and get the idea because, essentially, what it’s going to do is help you control and mitigate issues in the project.

Conclusion

Fam, that’s what I’ve got. If you like the video, like, comment—actually, comment a website design agency you made. I’ll answer any and all in the comments.

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