I’m really passionate about design. Luckily, it’s also a big part of what I do from day to day. Just like anyone trying to make a living though, I can’t just design for me — I design for others and give them the tools they need to build their business.
No matter what kind of business you run, whether it's a small business or your full-time freelance gig, you can get so busy with clients, meetings, phone calls and deadlines that updating your own website seems like a far-fetched dream. It’s something you only do when you have to or when it’s just gone on way too long that it’s become completely embarrassing. This is common in nearly every industry, hence the countless versions of the saying “A Cobbler’s children go unshod.”
In the digital industry, an equivalent might be “The studio’s site is always under construction” or “This site is optimized for Internet Explorer 5.”
Being in the business of websites and design, my online web design portfolio is the most important tool I have for advertising and selling my wares. Inevitably, there have been times when I get way too busy and my site will get old. Like, really old. Suddenly my work looks out of date, I look like I’m neglecting my business, my company looks ‘behind the times,’ and subsequently I’ve found that it’s even damaged the people's perception of my brand. All because what I’m presenting as ‘my best work’ is over a year old or I’ve had an ‘under construction’ page sitting there for too long. Sound familiar?
I’ve been running my own business for over 10 years now and I’ve cycled round to this situation many times. I’ve also had my fair share of rebuilds and rebrands. You could say I’ve danced to this tune in a bunch of different ways and, subsequently, I’ve learnt a few things.
I’d love to share the three main things I’ve learnt about the importance of investing in your own business's website and why you should never underestimate the power of a brilliant ‘window display.’
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Always dress to impress
The homepage of my website is the ‘window display’ to the digital world — so, I’m going to dress to impress. I want to make that site look so good that it feels the need to thank me.
Just like a physical store, potential customers may come past and if the ‘window display’ is appealing, they’ll look around.
I like to compare it to a fruit shop. Fruiterers always put their best produce out front. It’s colourful, it’s enticing, and it’s hard to walk past without noticing it.
Imagine the scenario where the fruiterer got too busy out the back with all the fresh fruit and left last week’s produce on the display out front. Imagine he didn’t have time to replace it — the flies circled, the apples rotted, a smell started to harvest. Would he be surprised if no one came into his shop enquiring about the fresh fruit?
“Oh I see you’ve got a rancid banana out front — I figure that’s because you’re back here with all the fresh fruit, too busy to care for your shop. Can I get some of that?”
It’d never happen. People would be repelled. They would think he didn’t have a clue what he was doing. They might even assume that the stuff out the front IS his good produce.
I try and use this unlikely story as motivation: “Don’t let your fruit rot, Paul!”
Since I design and build websites, I want to put my best work in front of people to show them what I do. My website needs to show what I’m capable of and how I approach my business. It speaks not only of my standard of work, but of my brand. It’s my first impression and sometimes my only chance to capture attention.
Have you ever thought, “What I'm doing now is so good! I'd love other people to see this”? Me too! Show it off. Don't rely on your best from last year, show them your best now.
Potential customers can only judge you on the information you give them. Make sure your website reflects who you are and what you are capable of right now.
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Be true to who you are right now
One thing I learnt the hard way: Make sure your website reflects who you are right now, at this point in your journey.
Each year I’m in business, I’m aiming to further my education, master my skills, expand my services and generally be a better version of the company I was last year. This doesn't always mean growth in numbers or physical size, but a more proficient and skilled company. Sometimes that also means a shift in the clientele I’m looking for.
There have been numerous times in the last 10 years that my website has been so out of date that the brand I’m advertising is different from the company I am. And this has created problems. Allow me to explain.
The most common thing I’ve found is that when I advertise, for example, the latest ‘Fashion E-Commerce Site’ I’ve completed, then the next 7 out of 10 enquiries are fashion labels. Kind comes after kind.
Similarly, if my ‘out of date website’ is advertising, for example, ‘quick logos for small businesses’ (which was my aim when I first started out in business) then, as you guessed it, most of the enquiries I get will be about that.
The problem is that as my business progresses, if my website doesn’t change or grow with me, the stream of enquiries I get directly correlates to my ‘out of date website’. It’s work that I wanted 1 or 2 years ago, but not now. I’ve progressed or changed or pivoted. New customers aren’t seeing that (because I’m not showing them) and so my enquiries follow the same line of work to the same level and I take the jobs because they are there and it’s work and I remain busy … repeat cycle.
It’s a knee jerk reaction to business. It isn’t calculated or planned. It’s just what is ‘there’ in front of me. I’m busy again, but not the ‘busy’ that I want.
So, the two problems I’ve encountered from not being true to who I am right now are:
- I’ve hamstrung myself from progressing as a business and
- I’m letting my work control me instead of me controlling my work
Be the boss
“Be the boss of your brand. Take control of your website and make it work for you instead of it working you.” That’s what I tell myself.
No one else is responsible for how my brand is perceived online — just me. No one is out there actively trying to discredit me — most of the time I’ve done that myself! Accidentally, usually.
Here’s a little story that might illustrate what I mean. It’s a true story and no names have been changed to protect me for my innocence.
Two years ago I decided that I wasn’t being true to my ‘business self’ and I just wasn’t happy in the company I’d (accidentally) created. So, I went about changing it.
I wrote a list of clients I wanted to work for. I listed them in order from ‘realistic’ to 'I just bought a unicorn at a really good price' (that’d never happen. Unicorns are never discounted — they’re like Apple products).
After that, I made space for these clients in my week (even if I didn’t have them yet) and I started to develop a brand that I was really happy with. Something that felt like ‘me’ and something I could grow with. I didn’t try and create something huge, and I didn’t try and undersell myself. I tried to excite and inspire the part of me that started the business in the first place.
I then actively chased those clients — sending them emails and offering my services. I bartered, I networked, I pitched and I designed my fingers to the bone (figuratively — my workspace is very ergonomic).
When I got those clients, I made each job count. I knew that if I completed one job for ‘this type’ of client, that the next 7 out of 10 enquiries would be similar. So, when I had something to show for myself I put aside time in my week to share it. I put it on social media, I emailed it round, I updated my website. I really let people know about it.
Sure enough, I started to get more jobs of a similar ilk. When those jobs were done, same thing.
I started, and continue to this day, to dedicate a day of my week to furthering my business, whether it’s updating the blog, my web design portfolio, or social media posts. Whatever is needed to keep my brand up to date, I try and do it the best I can manage. It’s never perfect, but it’s the best it’s ever been.
One day a week is 20% of my working year. That’s a solid investment. I could potentially cut my revenue by 20% in doing that. Right? Well, the return I’ve seen in the last year has been incredible.
Since I’m strategic about the perception I am seeking to shape, I notice a direct correlation between what I broadcast and the enquiries I receive. Potential customers can see the level of work that I’m currently completing and therefore, come looking for that work.
It’s meant that each referral is a much easier conversion too because they can see what they want and are practically sold before we talk. I regularly hear “I’m already convinced you’re the company for the job — I’ve seen your website!” which is a great feeling. I’m trying to make sure that our ‘window display’ matches our ‘stock.’
I feel like I’m setting the trajectory for my own business rather than just reacting to the work that comes in. I’m being the boss of my own company at last! Woohoo! Take that ‘accidental business!’
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For me, the big fear in taking time to focus on not only updating my website but my brand as a whole (portfolio, social media, email list, client care) was that I was already too busy and this was just going to make things harder for me; that I’d spend all this time only to lose money.
Sure, there have been a few weeks where things have been so busy I’ve only dedicated a half day (or a no day) to maintaining everything, or it’s meant I’ve had to contract out work in order to make space. However, in the bigger picture, it’s really transformed my business.
I’ve found that by putting my best work in front of people, intentionally and strategically, I’ve been able to point my business in the direction I want it to go. In doing that, I’ve found the work and the clients that I want, and I’m building a business that I’m excited about.