What I Wish I Knew When I Started Studio FJ
The photo above isn’t stock. It’s a Google street view looking at my first office complex (the brick building). It was a very humble space in a primarily residential area off 23rd Street in Oklahoma City. It was early 2008, Studio FJ had been in business for almost a year and I had been fortunate enough to build up a client base that would sustain me through a lease. I had one employee at the time, but was planning to hire another. Like any other young professional, I wanted so badly to escape working from my living room. There’s a lot of nostalgia when I look at the photo, but holy moly, I don’t think I’d go back in time even if I could.
Flash forward to today — Studio FJ has been in business almost 7 years, we have an active client base and, although we could hire more folks, we stay strategically small. 7 years isn’t that long for a company, I know. But it’s an eternity for a tech company who’s staff is still in their mid-twenties. I have learned so much since that first office. I’ve made some huge mistakes and huge successes. The longer I’m in business, the more my suck to success ratio tilts towards success. Here is a graphic to illustrate my point:
Experience is the primary factor in the change. It was my first time owning a business, I grew up in the country so I was the only web designer I knew and I was 20 years old so my professional network was about as nonexistent as clothes in a Miley Cyrus music video.
Here is a list of important things from my experience over the past 7 years that I wish I knew upfront. I plan to write a full post about each of these topics so watch for future updates.
Define your competitive edge.
Defining your competitive edge is about match making, not overshadowing or outdoing your competitors. Figure out what you do best and what you can offer your clients. Yes, there are other competitors in the market, but you don’t have to view them as enemies. Each shop has it’s strengths and weaknesses. Figure our what your strengths are and why a client should or shouldn’t work with your company or should or shouldn’t work with a competitor. I’ve sent folks to other shops in the area if their project wasn’t a match. For example, I sent a highly prestigious arts center downtown to another shop because their project was too large for us. And I often help companies write RFPs (requests for proposals) if the project is too large or too small for Studio FJ.
You can’t work with everyone. You shouldn’t work with everyone.
This was the hardest lesson to learn. We used to be a take-all type of company, meaning that we would work with almost any client who had a decent budget, but that’s not always an easy route. These days, we are much more selective about who we work with. Not in a pretentious way, but in a way that ensures we mesh well with our client’s technical requirement, as well as their personalities and organization level. For example, if a client doesn’t have a quality product or personally connect with there customers, we likely won’t work with them. Or if we provide a bid and it they don’t respond for three months, we likely will not move forward with the project. The purpose of this is to keep our projects on time and to develop GREAT long-term relationships with each of our clients.
No business is perfect. No person is perfect.
So you don’t have to be perfect in all areas. Focus on two things: 1) the quality of your product 2) your customer service. If you do those two things, everything else will follow suit.
Online presence and PR is great, but watch your return on investment.
Finances are more important than appearance. We used to do way more social media than we do now. Sure it looked great that we were out and about in the community, but the amount of time we spent managing our online presence was very low in return. We do very little social media or PR these days yet we see more and more inquiries. I’m not saying that social media or PR is bad, but make sure it’s bringing in clients or positively impacting the company in some way. Otherwise it’s just a waste of time.
Learn to say no.
It’s super hard to turn a client down if they aren’t a match, but you have to learn to be honest and upfront with folks. I struggled with this when I first started Studio FJ and ended up working with a few folks I probably shouldn’t have. Learn to how to professionally turn someone down.
Don’t overbook yourself.
Time management for you and your staff is crucial. Everyone is going to work a late night or weekend here and there, but setup some type of job tracker to ensure that you aren’t wasting your life away at work. I probably averaged 60-70 hour work weeks my first couple of years in business. I was still young so I was able to manage it okay, but it definitely wasn’t healthy. It’s an easy trap to fall into when you love your job, but make sure you strike a balance in your work life and your real life.
Don’t be afraid to talk about money.
This was probably my biggest fear when I started the company. Since I was not building $200 websites anymore, I had to learn to talk real numbers with clients. When you’re working on a bid for a client, remember that businesses get estimates all the time. Estimates for construction, printing, office supplies, etc. And even small companies spend thousands of dollars a year on expenses. So don’t be afraid to tell someone what it’s really going to cost to do the project.
If/when you can afford to, set standards for your clients.
If you have enough clients and a steady income, make sure you have standards for you clients. I can’t tell you the amount of folks I could have worked with who had plenty of money, but their business models weren’t exactly what I’d consider moral. Set standards for the type of folks you will and won’t work with and don’t be afraid to turn someone down if they are not a match.
Hire for skills, not personality.
At the end of the day, the quality of the design and code (AKA your product) is what’s important. If you own your company or are in charge of staffing, make sure you higher the best talent, not the best dressed with the nicest smile. Some of the best folks in our industry would be turned down from a normal job interview because of the way they look or their interesting social skills.
I’d like to close by saying that some things you just have to go through to learn, so this list isn’t everything you need to know, but hopefully it will get you thinking about some of these topics early in your career.
If this article helped you out, you’d like us to add something to the list or you have a question, please let us know!