Most agencies offer some level of web development – whether you do it in house or outsource it. Unfortunately, most agencies are still having to ask ‘what is a reasonable profit margin?’ when it comes to website development. Scope creep, unexpected technical snags and constant client changes make it tough to build a profitable web department. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
My podcast guest Brent Weaver from uGurus is dedicated to helping agencies and web dev shops actually build a sustainable and profitable business focused on creating websites for clients.
Brent and I will help you learn what it takes to make money in web development by explaining:
- Why agencies have a hard time making money creating websites for clients
- How to make a profit doing website development and design
- Why bad discovery leads to scope creep
- Why you should spread discovery over multiple meetings rather than one long meeting
- Why you need to niche down to find the quality and quantity of clients that you need
- Why you need to treat your website (and your clients’ websites) like a kid
- Working with your clients to develop a web strategy that fits their budget
- Establishing a communication pattern with your clients
- Not letting clients delay because a website isn’t perfect
- How to focus on the right platforms
- How to know whether to bring web-dev in-house or use a partnership
- What agencies need to know about the web to capitalize on the opportunities out there
Brent Weaver became obsessed with creating websites when he was 15 years old. He realized he could create and share information with anyone in the world with the click of a button. His first business was a web design agency turned marketing firm. That business was named in the top-five fastest growing businesses in Denver, Colorado two years running leading to a successful exit/sale to another Denver-based agency. In 2012, he formed uGurus, a business dedicated to helping other web professionals succeed at building profitable businesses without needing to go through twelve years of roller-coaster pains. uGurus has now graduated over 600 web professionals from their Bootcamp. Graduates consistently use words like “transformative” and “life changing” to describe the results they achieve from the program. When not focused on the business, Brent loves hanging out with his wife and two year old son. Other favorite activities: writing, swimming, and snowboarding.
To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (https://www.agencymanagementinstitute.com/brent-weaver/) and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.
If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:
Table of Contents (Jump Straight to It!)
- Why Agencies Have a Hard Time Making Web Development Profitable
- What a Good Discovery Process Looks Like
- How to Structure the Discovery Process
- Common Mistakes Agencies are Making in the Web Business
- How to Keep Clients Engaged Throughout the Web Development Process
- What You Should Look for in a Content Management System
- Best Practices for Making Web Development Profitable in Your Agency
If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits, too? Welcome to Build A Better Agency, where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.
Drew McLellan: Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. One of the challenges for many agencies, whether you do it inside your shop or you have a strategic partner, is figuring out how to make a profit doing website development for clients. That’s why I’ve invited Brent Weaver to join us today, because he’s going to talk all about better ways to do that.
Let me tell you a little bit about him. Brent grew up creating websites when he was 15 years old. He realized that he could create and share information with anyone with the click of a button and he loved that. His first business was a web design agency, which turned into a marketing firm, as many of them do. That business was named in the top five fastest growing businesses in Denver, Colorado for two years running, which led him to sell it to another Denver-based agency. Then in 2012, he formed a company called uGurus. It’s the letter U and then the word gurus. A business dedicated to helping other web professionals succeed at building profitable businesses without having to go through all of the headaches and hurdles that he went through when he built his first business. He has now graduated over 600 web professionals through his boot camp, which he’s going to tell us a little more about. His graduates talk about the program and they use words like transformative and life-changing.
When he’s not focused on business, Brent loves to hang out with his wife and his son and because, of course, he lives in Denver, he snowboards, but he also likes to write and swim. Stick around with us through the podcast today and at the end of the podcast, Brent also has a special offer where you can get a free course and a free call from his folks, so stick around for that. But for now, Brent welcome to the podcast.
Brent Weaver: It’s really great to be here, Drew, and thank you for that wonderful introduction.
Why Agencies Have a Hard Time Making Web Development Profitable
Drew McLellan: You bet. You and I were talking before I hit record button that one of the places where agencies really bang their head against the wall, and it’s not that they don’t understand the importance of the web or web strategy, but man they have a hard time making money building websites for clients. What do you think that’s all about and what does it take to know how to make a profit doing website development?
Brent Weaver: It could be a lot of things. I think a lot of how web fits into the picture for a lot of digital agencies is kind of a requirement to doing business, not kind of the main show. But when you really think about what a website is for a business, it’s their online business. In my perspective, it is the business. When someone is sitting there two o’clock in the morning and they decide to google a company because they saw it on TV or they heard it on the radio or they’re listening to a podcast and they go see that business online, that website pretty much is the representation of their entire brand, of their product line. It’s going to figure out whether that customer’s going to be able to move to the next step in the interactions with that business. To me, I feel like that’s a really, really important asset for that business. It’s not just like a, “Oh, by the way, we should throw up five pages and throw … “
Drew McLellan: Yeah, it’s the workhorse, right?
Brent Weaver: Right. It’s an essential part of the online strategy. I think one of the reasons that people have a hard time making money with that asset is because they don’t really think of it as that central part of the online business and they’re not having that conversation with their client about how important that is and the potential there is in that asset for their business. I think a lot of that comes down to how they’re positioning their agency and then the sales process that they take their clients through. That’s going to determine a lot about how much value is in that website portion.
Drew McLellan: Where do agencies or web professionals, digital design firms, whatever, where do they get sideways with a web project? What are they not doing or what are they not doing well that would help them, not only build a better site for their client, but more to their goals, to do that in a profitable way so that they’re not bleeding by the time they’re done building this site?
Brent Weaver: I think the most important thing to do is to figure out why your client or prospect is even thinking about their website. A lot of people would call our agency and say, “Hey, can you guys build me a website?” For years I’d say, “Oh yeah, of course. What do you need in your site?” They would start rattling off like, “Oh, I think we need this and this and about this many pages.” It was very much about the artifact. About what we were going to be delivering to their company. I really never spent much time asking them like, “Why are you doing this? Why do you need a website?” I think a lot of people just assumed that everybody knew why everybody else needed websites. It turns out after being in this industry for almost 20 years, there’s a lot of reasons to need a website and there’s also a lot of nuance to need a website.
I think what happens is a lot of people rush into the project. Their client says, “Hey, I need our website … We need a new website for our business.” Web agency says, “Great. It’s going to be X amount of dollars.” They get into the project. They kind of get married and then it turns out that there’s maybe some unexpected requirements that weren’t really communicated upfront, because of course in the client’s head they’re trying to build a website for a very, very specific reason. In their head, the web agency should have kind of read their mind and just known that they needed the website for a specific reason. Of course, all of these unexpected requirements come out during the project and then your scope kind of explodes or wasn’t defined well enough. That’s where that slippery slope happens where the client’s not happy with their design or they’re not happy with the functionality because they didn’t disclose something or you didn’t dig it out.
I always tell people, scope creep and unprofitable projects are pretty much 99% of the time the result of bad discovery. The issue happened in the sales process. People were just rushing. They were all agreeing with each other, “Oh yes, of course we can do whatever you need. We’ll figure that stuff out later.” Then they sign on the dotted line and they commit to a project for $5,000 or $10,000 or whatever it is, some number, and it ends up costing …
Drew McLellan: Five times that.
Brent Weaver: Right. Five times if you’re lucky. I was just talking to an agency owner yesterday for actually for our podcast and he had a project that he signed with a client, $400,000 project. Sounds like, “Wow, that’s an amazing contract.” Well, it ended up costing him about $700,000 to deliver it. We kind of joked, we’re like, “Well, it would have been better off to write that client a $100,000 check the day of contract signing and just never do any work for them, then to actually take that project on.
I think a lot of people get caught in that situation where we just look at this contract, amount of this big opportunity, and we just get really excited about that and we just want to get to the deal. Maybe we cut some corners in the process or we ignore some red flags that we should have been paying more attention to.
What a Good Discovery Process Looks Like
Drew McLellan: Let’s talk about this discovery process, because I feel like that’s a place where agencies and clients, they’re so anxious to get going that they often don’t do that well or very deeply. A lot of times, I think, while I think the client may have an idea of why they need a website, a lot of times they don’t really think it through. They don’t really know all of the things the website could or should be doing for them in the discovery process and then you’re knee-deep into the project and all of a sudden they go, “Oh, you know what? Now that I see it, I would also like it to be able to do X or Y.” Walk us through what a good discovery process looks like and are there some tools or tricks that you have or that you teach that make that a more complete discussion, so that there aren’t as many surprises down the road?
Brent Weaver: Yeah. We spend hours and hours with people teaching them how to do discovery well. I’ll try to take potentially hours or weeks of learning and condense that down into a really, really short high potency way for you here today.
One of the things that comes to mind that’s really important to uncover in the discovery process is to actually get into your prospect or client’s customer. One of the steps that we have in our discovery process, which is a multi-interaction process, and I recommend never to do the super discovery, the epic discovery meeting, where you have this two hour, three hour session where you just dive into all this depth in a business, because there’s something magical that happens when you spread discovery out over multiple interactions. That magic comes in the form of research and going to bed. You go to sleep at night and your brain processes stuff. Your subconscious chews through things and while that’s really important for you as the agency owner or the salesperson, it’s also super important for your prospect or for your client, because they might have told you something today in your discovery meeting and then when they went to bed that night, the last thing through their mind was, “Oh my god, I forgot to tell them about this.”
That, “I forgot to tell them about this,” sometimes turns out to be a completely different market that the business serves that they just forgot to tell you about. It could be that the product that they told you they wanted to feature with their business actually isn’t a very profitable product and they have something completely else that drives the major revenue for the business. That, “Oh, I forgot about this,” sometimes turns out to be a really, really big gotcha later on in the project. One of the things we always teach people is that discovery should be spread out over multiple interactions. Sometimes it might feel like you got through everything today, but it just never fails, that second discovery meeting, they always bring … They’re more comfortable. They’re more willing to share with you more information. They had time to digest what you told them and maybe educated on a little bit in your previous meeting.
All that stuff’s really, really important, so we say, “Look, have multiple interactions.” Getting into what those interactions look like takes a little bit of time, but one example is looking at their customer avatars. I always like to use this example, but a client that we worked with years ago was a nanny placement company. In her mind, her website had basic brochureware, five pages. My company, my services, my about page, contact me. Well, we get into discovery and we realize that she serves actually two very, very different markets. She served nannies, so actually recruiting nannies and getting them to sign a letter of intent that they wanted to be placed with a family. She also served her revenue-generating side, which was her families looking for nannies.
Once we uncovered that, you have to realize now there’s basically two websites. Now, it’s our job to organize that information, to create the appropriate funnels, but there’s basically two websites. Because if I just click on services as a nanny, it’s not going to make any sense to me. I’m not going to have any idea what that page is for me. Also, if I’m a parent looking for a nanny and I click on the nannies page or whatever, I might think I’m reading for information about nannies, but really I’m actually filling out an application to be a nanny.
Drew McLellan: Right.
Brent Weaver: That thing that we uncovered during discovery becomes this major a-ha that actually informs scope of work, because instead of five pages we now basically have two different websites, two different funnels, two different sets of email series, two different sets of opt-ins. The site goes from a five page basic brochure-ware site to probably a 25 page site if you count all the email, the automation and the things that we had to set up for essentially two different sales funnels, two different lead generation funnels for that business.
How to Structure the Discovery Process
Drew McLellan: Okay, and so in terms of it going on and being more than a one conversation process, do you have a structure around that? Is that two meetings? Three meetings? How far apart do they happen? Because as you know, by the time the client is ready to pull the trigger, they’re chomping at the bit.
Brent Weaver: They are, but in a way discovery is part of the process.
Drew McLellan: It’s critical. Yeah, right.
Brent Weaver: Yeah, you can rush it, but what are you skipping over and what kind of pain and anguish is that going to cause you later? Everybody always asks me, it’s kind of like the client that wants to get to price. People always say, “Well, how many meetings do I have to have? I have to have all these meetings? How many meetings do I have to have?” The answer is always like, “As many discovery meetings as it takes.”
One of our graduates recently was telling me about a project that she won for her agency. It was a $115,000 project and she actually got paid for discovery, which is something that we advocate as you get into these bigger interactions.
Drew McLellan: Absolutely.
Brent Weaver: She got paid $8,000 or $9,000 to go through discovery. Now, what did that process entail? There was six kind of deep-dive discovery meetings. Those were an hour to two hours long with the client, with enough time in between meetings to digest that information and to do additional research. She also did eight customer interviews, so actually going and interviewing customers of that organization and doing some research on that side to kind of figure out where are they at. What do they need? What are they looking for on the website? Then from there, she did a solution presentation, which was a couple hours. The client loved it so much that they actually asked her to come back and give the same presentation with a couple of additional stakeholders in the room. Then she had a proposal presentation after that, so once she walked them through everything that they learned in the discovery process in their proposed solution. At that point she then went into the proposal presentation process. The client ended up signing a deal for $115,000 with probably a five figure monthly retainer expected to start after that project was complete.
If you’re doing a website for $5,000 for the coffee-shop up the street, you’re probably not going to engage in a six meeting discovery process with eight meetings of customer interaction. Coffee business, pretty simple, you probably know overall what they’re looking for, but what you should try to avoid is still just simplifying that into a single meeting. You might want to have two different meetings. Give your potential client or existing client enough time to digest what you’re going through with them, give you time to digest who are they really serving. What’s their unique advantage? What is our solution supposed to be? In that situation, maybe it’s two 45 minutes to an hour long meetings in discovery. You have enough information. You’ve given your customer enough time to catch up with you, to get up to speed. That might be enough to get you to that proposal place, but if you end that second discovery meeting and right before the meeting ends, they drop a bomb on you and that bomb could be, “Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, we actually have 12 locations.”
Drew McLellan: Or also has to be in another language or whatever.
Brent Weaver: Right. In that case, you might say, “Well, okay, it’s not going to be in anybody’s service to just throw that in at the last minute. Let’s make sure we accommodate for that. Let’s have another session.” These don’t have to be in-person meetings. Let’s talk on the phone for 30 or 45 minutes in a couple of days and I’m going to have some questions about that. I got to think about that and I’m going to come back to you and we’ll be able to build that into our proposal after that, but let’s not rush to the proposal, because again all it’s going to do is get you into a contract that you’re not willing to or not excited about delivering.
I always tell people, your proposal, your price, should be the right amount that when you’ve been working on this project for six weeks, eight weeks, ten weeks, that you’re still excited about getting up in the morning, getting out of bed and working for this client. If the price is not going to get you there to keep your excitement for three months, then that’s a problem.
Drew McLellan: Yeah, absolutely. It sounds like you recommend what we recommend, which is that you have a discovery phase price and then after the discovery phase you price out the actual build of the site, yes?
Brent Weaver: Yeah, I think in general if you can get yourself into a practice of paid discovery, you’re going to end up with much better overall projects, much happier clients. You’re going to be happier. I haven’t always practiced that. I think there was some industries that we served where we knew the industry really, really well and we knew how to identify great clients and we had a really tight sales process, because the projects were very homogenous. We were still doing a lot of discovery, but we knew with some certainty of somebody engaged in discovery, there was a really high chance they were going to sign on as customer. We wouldn’t necessarily always engage in paid discovery, but I think that we definitely preferred that approach. I see that approach successful these days, because it’s giving you a smaller transaction with a customer upfront, helping them to lower their risk, giving them more certainty about what they’re ultimately going to get. Plus it gives you plenty of time to find all of the right problems and not really rush that part of the process.
Common Mistakes Agencies are Making in the Web Business
Drew McLellan: Absolutely. When you watch agencies out there in the web business, what are the most common mistakes you see them making?
Brent Weaver: Well, I guess the big one we just talked about is not having a good discovery process or short-cutting discovery. Probably the other one I would say is, and I see tons of people really struggle with this, is really about how they’re positioned as a company. They like to just serve small business. They like to serve the giant ocean of potential prospects out there and they don’t really stake a flag in the ground and say, “This is the market, this is the problem, this is the vertical, this is the horizontal, this is the thing that we do better than anybody else.” Too many folks are just out there saying, “Hey, I build websites. We’re a web agency and we serve … We help small business grow.” It’s like, “Oh, congratulations, your market is 28 million different companies.
Drew McLellan: Right, right.
Brent Weaver: That’s something that I see a lot and which I think tightly correlates to the number one problem that we hear at uGurus that web agencies struggle with, which is, “I don’t have enough clients. I don’t have clients that are consistently coming to my doorstep that are the right types of budgets.” That problem is a market in business positioning problem and how they’re approaching their marketing, whether the activities that they’re investing energy are actually building momentum for themselves or if they’re just completely disconnected, fragmented. They’re going to a business meet-up locally one day. They’re commenting on some random industry forum the next day. They’re speaking at a completely unrelated event the next day. They’re just kind of surfing through all of this randomness versus having a really clear and coherent and tight strategy for their business and going after a market that could bring them really great projects consistently.
Drew McLellan: Yeah, yeah. You mentioned when you were talking about the client you were talking to, about the backend contract. She was telling you about a successful project that she had just sold, including a five figure backend sort of retained ongoing contract. Is one of the things you teach … One of the things I watch agencies do sometimes is they will offer the client, “Look, we’ll do the discovery for X and then we’ll build the website for X,” but that’s where they stop the conversation, as opposed to once the site is up, that’s not the end. It’s actually the beginning. Then here are all the things we’re going to do for you on an ongoing basis, to actually make sure that that workhorse stays well-fed and well-exercised and is doing its job. Talk to us a little bit about how you teach that part of the web business to your students.
Brent Weaver: There’s two sides to that conversation. One is, just as your business, as the agency, it is so much harder to go out there and win new business every single day. This is just a fundamental business tenet, that it’s easier to continue working with an existing customer. It’s easier to generate revenue with them over time, because there’s established trust and credibility. There’s some work history, assuming that through the web project they don’t end up hating you, because projects can sometimes be frustrating. Assuming that you’ve got a really tight and well-oiled process for actually delivering and delighting, working with existing customers is always going to be an easier thing.
But new projects are exciting and it’s easier to lose track of that. I know for myself, when we had our agency, one day I looked at our revenue for the entire year and we were making about 85% or so of our revenue from new projects. Those were clients we had met that year and we were doing our first project with them. Only 15% of our revenue was coming from past clients or existing clients. Out of all that revenue, out of our total revenue, only 3% of our revenue was coming from a recurring basis, like hosting, maintenance, management, marketing, 3% of our revenue was coming from recurring.
You can imagine at this time, I had pretty much no peace of mind in our business. Everything depended on always going out and finding new business and new customers and convincing them, spending all of that time and energy convincing them to sign on the dotted line. Of course, those upfront projects were sometimes break even or in some cases unprofitable, because we just weren’t charging enough for that work. Then we had no opportunity to make it up on the backend, so if we lost money on the upfront project, we’re already putting our business in a crunch because we had no nurturing system. No system to go and continuously manage that account and bring new ideas, improvements and strategies to the table.
From the agency owner’s side of the table, you need to figure out how to build that end to your business model. It took us several years to work on that, but eventually we moved to more of a 40/60 model, where 40% of our revenue was coming from new projects and 60% of our revenue was coming from existing accounts. We were able to more or less farm over 200 accounts that were under our management, which was either through better positioned hosting and maintenance fees, improvements, small projects, support and then ultimately we started getting into more marketing, inbound, SEO, email marketing management, that kind of stuff, was really where we started getting some really juicy retainers.
Now, for the client, a website is kind of like having a kid. For most people they don’t view their website like that. They almost view it as if you were to have a kid and then just abandon it and just be like, “Okay, great, you’re here, so let’s just leave you over there in the corner.” Of course, that’s not how that works. You have this kid, which is a ton of work, conception, which is maybe a lot of fun, nine months of carrying this thing around, going to doctors appointments, lamaze, all that kind of stuff. A ton of work, then you have it and that’s when the real work begins. I think any parent knows, anybody that’s pregnant or thinking about having kids is so far from the actual real work.
A website is the exact same. It’s like, “Great, it arrived. It’s here.” Now, the really interesting work begins, because now you have access to the over three billion people that are connected to the internet. Over 1.7 billion active monthly users on Facebook. You have this website, you have this online presence. Now you get to play the fun game of trying to attract customers, week in, week out, 24/7 on the internet. You get the opportunity to scale your business, to become one of those success stories that read about in Inc. Magazine, where these companies go from tens of thousands of dollars to tens of millions of dollars in a very, very short period of time. Why is that possible today? It’s possible because you’ve got over three billion connected to the internet.
Back in the dot-com boom, this huge peak of the stock market, there was only 300 million people connected to the web. I think it was like 280 million. That has more than 10x-ed today.
Drew McLellan: It’s crazy.
Brent Weaver: The amount of value that these businesses and organizations have access to is literally limitless. I think as a web agency or any kind of digital agency owner, you spend all this time building this project and you have to always be positioning this as, “We’re going to do a lot of exciting work together. It’s going to take us months to get there. When we’re done with it, we’re going to have this really, really nice thing that is now an asset, but it’s at that moment we have to start putting this thing to work. That takes constant nourishment.
We need to be blogging. We need to be guest-blogging on other sites. We need to be publishing all sorts of different types of content. We need to be getting people to link to us. We need to be getting other major publishers to do joint ventures or joint launches with us. We need to be building our email list. We need to be constantly nurturing that email list over time. We need to be building landing pages to grow that email list. All of those things, you just can’t set it and forget. You can’t just put the kid in the corner and be like, “Okay, I want you to go to Harvard and I’m not going to do anything between now and the next 20 years to get you there.” That journey starts once the website arrives.
Drew McLellan: Do you propose that people build their proposals … If I am chatting with you and you’re considering hiring my agency to do a web project for you, am I saying to you the proposal’s going to come in three phases? It’s going to be the discovery phase, the building the site phase and then the maintaining the site phase? Or do you wait and talk to them about the maintaining the site phase once you’re in build mode?
Brent Weaver: I definitely would recommend painting the broad strokes in your earliest conversations with somebody. The worst thing that you could do for company is January you sign a contract with a budget for an upfront build that is the company’s marketing, advertising budget for the entire year and you finish their website in March and then you’re like, “Okay, it’s time to start marketing and advertising.” They go, “I thought that’s what the website was supposed to do for us. You’re like, “Oh no, we don’t just build it and they will come.” The company’s going, “Well, yeah, it’s great. We had 50 grand set aside for this for our entire year and this was our entire nut for the year, right?
Drew McLellan: Right, right.
Brent Weaver: That would put your customer in a very unhappy situation and you might get a client who ends up kind of hating you at the end of the project, because their website of course, by itself with no nourishment, is not going to deliver the 10x results for the business.
That just doesn’t work like that. I think having that conversation early, so if the client says, “We have 50 grand to spend all year on advertising and marketing,” you can do the responsible thing and say, “Okay, let’s launch a limited online presence, maybe through a few landing pages and let’s really focus a lot of your marketing spend on driving traffic to really figure out who is the audience on the internet.” Because there’s the audience your business serves and then there’s the audience on the internet. We found this a lot of times with restaurants, where a lot of restaurants business is the folks that are driving by or in the neighborhood, so it’s very different than the audience that’s on the internet.
We used to do a lot of work with Yelp and got a lot of the die-hard Yelpers to come to restaurants to write reviews and all that kind of stuff, because the audience on the internet is ultimately different than the audience that is in the neighborhood, for instance. You have to be willing to run tests and experiments to learn about how to leverage the internet the best for the business that you can. Maybe in that case, you’re running a lot of experiments for that business, you’re not blowing their entire $50,000 budget on some mega-website. You’re spreading that over a 12 month period of time, which is going to be better for the business. Maybe you’re not getting that huge project all upfront, but ultimately I think you’re going to build a better relationship with that client.
That conversation should happen from the very, very first interaction you have with that customer in a very bite-sized shape and size. You’re not laying out your 12 month strategy in the first 15 minutes, but you should be planting the seeds that this is not a one and done type operation.
How to Keep Clients Engaged Throughout the Web Development Process
Drew McLellan: Yeah. One of the places where agencies struggle is, get a client, let’s say the discovery process goes well and they start building the website and couple things happen. One, it takes longer than anybody thinks it’s going to. Two, there are bumps in the road. All of sudden the love affair is getting a little bit shaky. The client is antsy and frustrated.
Do you have some tricks or tips for agencies to continue to nurture the relationship and help the client? Because again, a lot of times clients don’t really understand that, yes, you absolutely know what you’re doing, but that still doesn’t mean that things don’t go wrong or that there aren’t bits of code here or there that don’t play nice together or whatever it is. Or it just takes longer to do some testing or some building. How do you keep a client engaged in the process and feeling good about the process, when odds are it’s going to take longer than they thought it was going to and it’s not going to be as smooth as they want it to be?
Brent Weaver: This gets into some basic human nature things. I think everybody, humans by nature are optimistic when we take on projects. I think the Great Pyramids are probably a great example of this. If anybody really knew how many people would die and how many hours and how many people it would take to build these massive pyramids, would they have actually embarked on that type of a project? I don’t know, maybe they would have, maybe they wouldn’t have, but I think humans by nature are very optimistic.
I think the average kitchen remodel project ends up being 30% more in cost and time than they thought it was going to be. That’s the average. A friend of mine was redoing his kitchen. He thought it was going to take three months, it took them over twelve months. That’s crazy. It affects any kind of industry that is building something. We are optimistic by nature. Things come up that we didn’t expect them to. I think the worst thing that you can do with a customer is withhold information. That’s one really, really bad thing you can do. Another one is to go dark. To not have a regular pattern of communication that you establish very, very early on in the project lifecycle.
Let’s say you’re working on a project for 12 weeks and you’re like, “Great, we’re going to get all the information we need upfront and we’re just going to go dark for 12 weeks and then we’re going to deliver them this wonderful reveal.
Drew McLellan: Ta dah.
Brent Weaver: Right, ta dah. Which is kind of like a waterfall style of project management and that’s actually something that you definitely should not do. Your client, let’s say you’re meeting with them every single week. You have a standing weekly meeting. You can identify very early on if, for instance, you’re in an early project planning stage or discovery and the CEO, a key stakeholder of the business, says, “Oh, hey, I forgot. I’m going on vacation this week. I have to delay our standing meeting for a week.” Okay, great. That’s going to put an extra week on our project right off the bat and actually we have some other work going on, which means that this resource I thought I was going to have available for today’s meeting is not available, so actually this is going to push two weeks on the project, giving you that heads-up right now. We’re already two weeks late.
You’re not withholding information from them. You’re not trying to paint some rosy picture and you have a habit from the very, very start of the project of a standing weekly meeting to go over project deliverables, things the customer needs to give to you, updates on the project, obstacles, victories, all that kind of stuff. You’re building into that framework that you’re meeting with them every single week and you’re communicating with them along the way. I definitely would recommend to try to not say things like, “Oh, I know this because it’s going to put a delay in this right now, but I think we’ll be good long-term.” It’s better to go ahead and give yourself more buffer every time something comes up early on in the project.
Drew McLellan: Absolutely.
Brent Weaver: Don’t try to keep coming back to the customer saying, “Oh, we’re going to hit that deadline. We’re going to hit that deadline.” Unless if there is something specific the client needs done by a date, like they have a big conference or event, that might be a time where you have to literally say, “Look, if you need something up by this event, were going to have to pivot or restructure our scope of work to deliver a different asset for you. We thought we were going to have the entire website done by your big conference, but looks like we’re only going to have … We’re going to be three weeks behind, so we need to create a specific landing page for your conference.” That might be something where the project schedule ends up informing a scope change to hit the client’s expectations. That’s a better decision versus just saying, “We’re going to still hit that deadline,” and then end up having to work your team overtime for three weeks in a row and still miss that deadline.
Drew McLellan: Yeah, yeah. Besides not going dark, how do you … Is there a conversation on the front end that helps a client understand … Especially, I think, when your client is somebody who’s been in marketing for a while and they’re used to traditional marketing, which as you know once you look at a proof or a press check on a brochure it’s going to be fine. You know it’s going to be fine. The web work isn’t always that way. It’s not as fluid and smooth, I think, as traditional marketing used to be. How do you help a client understand that really the web is about iterations as opposed to perfect the first time out?
Brent Weaver: We used to say things like, “Done is the new perfect,” or, “Good enough is the new perfect.” I think at certain level with web, that’s okay as long you’re all committed to getting it to perfect eventually. I don’t want to advocate that people are cutting corners or not doing great work just to get it out the door, but I definitely think that talking to a customer … We used to get this thing all the time where a client would not want us to launch their new website because they were still waiting on some small fine tweaks. They would literally delay launching their new site for weeks and months because they wanted it to be perfect. I’m sitting here looking at this thing going, “I think this is launch ready. I know we still have some work to do, but I think it’s launch ready.”
But you compare it to their existing website and you’re like, “Ugh.” They’re literally losing money or losing opportunity because their existing website is so atrocious. We had one client that literally would not let us launch her site, she didn’t have a website. The project, it was supposed to be ten weeks and it end up taking five years.
Drew McLellan: Oh my god.
Brent Weaver: Five years, this company did not have a website. The major choke point was they couldn’t get all their products onto the website. I was like, “Why don’t we just take your 10 or 20 top sellers and just put them on the site and go live?” I remember, this is a store downtown Denver, and I remember being in their business and they had this book at the front that said, “Hey, when we launch our website, put your email address in here and get notified of our new website being online.” She had been collecting email addresses for literally years before we even showed on the scene. I think in her head she thought this was like a little piggy bank that she was just collecting these email addresses and one day she’d make money with it.
She just was not willing to push the green button. She has all those email addresses, just years of emails that are not delivering any value for her business. Then, we come on the scene, start trying to help her build a website. She won’t launch it because she can’t get all of her products perfectly loaded in there. She’s not 100% which ones she wants in there and she’s doing it in her spare time, ultimately launches the website way too late for her business, as a final ditch effort to stay in business, ultimately. The other day I was downtown, and we sold our agency four years ago, but I was downtown and her business was actually doing a going-out-of-business sale.
That ultimately is the story you want to tell every single client you have. You want to tell them the horror story of when you don’t pull the trigger, when you don’t press the launch button and you delay, because you’re scared that it’s not perfect. You want to get that into your client’s head that there’s an opportunity cost of delaying that. Ultimately that could be going out of business. It could cost you a big client, a big partnership. It could cost you something.
There is a huge opportunity cost on the table and educating your customer about that, again, in the sales process, maybe telling them the story. A great time to do that would be when the client looks at the project timelines and says, “Well, this says it’s going to take 12 weeks. Is that really true?” You can talk to them about, “Hey, you know what? We are going to aim for 12 weeks. Here’s the list of stuff that can get in our way. You could go on vacation. You could not give us feedback. You could not give us revisions on time. You could not give us content. You could not give us permission to launch. There’s all of these things that could come in the way of us actually going live with your website, so let’s have that conversation now. Let’s try to mitigate those risks and let’s all agree right now that launching an imperfect website is probably going to be ten times better than the website you have right now.”
What You Should Look for in a Content Management System
Drew McLellan: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. A lot of agencies are wrestling with the chassé, in essence, to build their website. Whether it’s WordPress or Drupal or anything like that. Do you have thoughts about, should an agency go all in on a certain kind of website dev or is it better to have a mix and match? Is there one that you believe, because of your expertise, is the one that everybody should bank on? What’s your take on all of that?
Brent Weaver: Is there the holy grail of content management systems out there? Probably not. Every business should make an informed decision on which they go. As an agency, should you go all in or be more of a jack of all trades? I recommend that people should probably stick to one technology, because then they can understand that technology really, really. Then also, when you’re starting to think about management, maintenance, update, support, et cetera, if you’re trying to support five CMS systems as agency and you have like three people that work at your company, you guys are … You’ll not all experts in every system. Maybe you have one person that’s the WordPress dude and one person that’s the Sitefinity or Shopify guy. You have people that are going to be the expert in each system.
What we experienced was what any business over a long enough time period’s going to experience, they’re going to experience turnover. You end up might be in a situation where you have clients on some legacy system and the guy that was the expert at that no longer works for you and you only have a couple of clients that are on that system, so it doesn’t make sense to rehire for that skillset. Now you’re in a bind where you have to support something that is really not economically profitable for you. Quite frankly, if you support five or six systems, you’re never going to become a known entity in whatever platform that you choose.
I think every industry or type of site, there is going to have certain technologies that probably are used often. Now, these days on the internet, there’s so many different tools that you’re probably going to use in a really good integrated strategy, so just to say that you can be an expert at WordPress probably isn’t good. If you’re building a lot of marketing sites, you’re probably going to be an expert in WordPress, but you’re probably going to start to see things like ClickFunnels and Leadpages or Unbalanced or some of these other tools that are going to integrate into that. The chance that you just be WordPress and promise your clients that you’re going to be this amazing marketing agency and only use WordPress is probably short-sighted, but you probably should have one system that’s kind of an overall strength and commit to that.
Granted, WordPress powers something like 20% of the internet, so you could be an agency that just focuses, you only build WordPress. You’re going to want to make a good decision there, if platform is part of your positioning, that you’re the best WordPress company for medium-sized businesses that are selling trinkets that are green, then you probably are going to want to get that out there. Whereas if you’re just focused on a specific industry vertical, maybe the technology platform is less important to you.
Drew McLellan: Yeah, yeah. Okay, so couple of last minute questions as we wrap up. If an agency is really debating, because you have been on both sides of this now, if an agency is debating whether or not to bring the web dev talent in or to partner with someone … Because to your point, if they’re a small shop, that may not have the bodies to have the depth of expertise, if they’re worried about turnover then they’ve got a turn of institutional knowledge that walks out the door every time they lose their web dev person. Is there a rule of thumb or is there a best practice, do you think, around making that decision?
Brent Weaver: I would definitely start with some type of strategic partnership. If you’re not strong in web, I would be very hesitant to try to hire and manage a web person or a web team, just because as you’ve mentioned several times during our interview today, there is a lot of nuance to it. You could under-scope something and get yourself into a bind, like my friend who sold a $400,000 project that cost him $700,000, and he’s in the space. He knows web. I think that if you don’t know web really well, then I would definitely caution you against trying to hire and staff and support that. I think strategic partnerships with great web companies is a fantastic thing. I think our agency, some of our best referral partners, were PR companies, were marketing companies, were ad agencies, ad development companies, SEO companies.
For us, we were able to create a really great footprint of referrals and word-of-mouth business by developing a lot of strong partnerships with companies whose expertise was not web. I think that that’s kind of stick to your knitting. If you’re a marketing or an advertising or whatever, if you’re a PR company and you’re like, “I want to make money with web,” I definitely recommend that part of that process is to educate yourself on what’s out there, but maybe a strategic partnership is the right way to dip your toe in.
Now, if you find yourself in a situation where 90% of your customers are asking for web and they like your overall company’s culture and brand and the value you bring to the table and you see an opportunity for yourself to staff up and capture that revenue for your own business, then I definitely would give you the two thumbs up. If it’s like once every month or two months you get one of your clients that says, “Hey, can you guys build us a website?” You’re like, “Great, let’s hire a web team. Let’s build this up and just do it because one customer asked.” That’s a really, really bad reason to add services to your business.
I would just suggest that you make it strategic, make it something that you’re committed to pursuing, you see an opportunity there with your customer base or you want to expand in that direction of your business, because you want to do that right. If you’re just talking about a couple of clients here and there, then find a good partner and they’ll probably end up sending you business, too, if it’s a good solid two-way strategic relationship.
Best Practices for Making Web Development Profitable in Your Agency
Drew McLellan: Yeah, g