"During the gold rush, who made more money? The miners? Or Levi Strauss?"
Those people who have spent a significant amount of their lives working for someone else may find the prospect of owning and operating their own business both terrifying and thrilling at the same time. Having done it, I can easily say that the feeling doesn't necessarily go away, although I do get to sleep more than I used to.
The Web is opening up all sorts of entrepreneurial opportunities for people who may not have ever considered themselves potential entrepreneurs. Like many of my contemporaries, I planned on settling in with a nice corporate engineering job and seeing it through. However, when two babies came into my husband's and my life, I wanted to spend some time at home with them. I dreamed of a career that would allow me to adopt the parenting style that I was comfortable with while challenging my intellect. In a sense, it started out as a way to bring in a modest second income while giving me the time to tote my boys to softball practice. Now, I could work twenty-four hours a day, and I'm always grateful to have these opportunities, although I can't explore them all. Many of you have individual reasons for wanting to explore this territory. Maybe you're unhappy in your present job. Maybe you've always dreamed of running your own business. Perhaps you've fallen in love with creating Web sites, and you see an excellent business opportunity.
My Web company started with an online class through the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. My class project was a four-page Web site that I built for my husband's hardware store. I never intended for it to go any further than that, but I began to dream about the name of the firm that I would have and the people I would like to work with. Soon, I had some very nice people who were interested in sharing this dream with me, but we had no idea about how to get the word out. All of us had worked for other companies, and we had no idea how to market ourselves and get work. Plus, straight HTML does not make a Web firm. I needed to find one or two talented graphic artists and come up to speed very quickly on some hardcore interactive programming. There was a nice period in which I could expand my knowledge by taking yet more courses in Web development while I picked up a job or two. Had I planned it that way, I would have thought it was a conservative and prudent approach. However, the truth was that I couldn't wait until I had some serious business coming through the door. If that did not happen, I felt like my whole endeavor and all the hard work would be for naught, and I was anxious to make the dream fly.
Of course, impatience is always an enemy. For someone who is growing a Web firm organically, it can be frustrating to wait for calls to come in. After all, the day you turn on a business line doesn't mean there is an automatic listing in the yellow pages. And even so, the business of Web site design is very similar to that of carpentry or even dentistry. Most potential clients would prefer to be referred to someone who is good. Web development is truly a "Don't tell me . . . show me" type of business. If a new firm doesn't have many Web sites to show, it can be difficult to gain credibility.
I vividly remember agonizing over every new tool that I bought. After all, if the Web biz didn't take, what was the point of having so many books and software programs? However, as the old adage goes, "You have to spend money to make money." Unfortunately, there wasn't a whole lot of money to spend. Surf's Up literally started from nothing. In the winter of 1995, I spent $200 to pull apart an old 486 computer and add a sound card, video card, and modem. You could say Surf's Up was built organically from the microchip level.
Another hurdle many new Web freelancers or firms face is that while they may be excellent technicians, they may not have been trained to do technical sales. Most of us hate going for job interviews, let alone having to sell ourselves every day. This was one of the biggest nerve-wracking activities for me. As I would get ready to go into a potential client's office, my palms would sweat and my mind would be more focused on how to get the job than truly evaluating the project at hand. During this period, I was asked to get up and give a ten-minute presentation about my company. Not having done this before, I don't think I was a very engaging speaker.
However, after representing myself for six months or so, I began to relax. Now I rarely think about whether I'll want the job and not get it. Rather, when I go to see a new potential client, I'm in screening mode. I want to evaluate the project, the client, and what my firm can bring to the table. This isn't because I need the work any less than I did back then. I probably need it more. I have overhead now. Rather, this attitude is just a result of building up a little self-confidence and knowing that it's much better to walk away from a job that isn't a good fit than to struggle through it and lose money. If the potential client would rather have someone else do the job, I know that it rarely has anything to do with me. The other firm may have an incentive that the client feels more comfortable with. The project must be a good fit for both sides.
What I do try to do is limit my exposure to taking too many meetings, which may not pan out. Before I take the time to meet with a client, I want to know that the client wants a Web site now, not six months from now, so there's urgency. I want to hear that there's been some research and preparation done ahead of time, so I know there's some commitment. And I want to know if the client is aware of what Web development can cost. Any other scenario makes for a waste of time and energy.
Like other people in creative occupations, Web developers have to watch the expectation on the part of a client that work can be done on "spec." So often I ran into clients who showed me a Web site that some well-meaning Web developer had begun for free, to give the client a view of how the Web might increase their business, only to have them ask me for a bid. The free work was not respected. It never is. Many potential clients who aren't serious about paying a professional firm to do a good job on a Web site are very quick to ask for "spec" work. The only thing a Web developer has to sell is his or her time. Don't give it away for free. You might as well throw money into the street, no matter how much a potential client assures you that they just need to see "something" before committing. Web developers can point clients to other sites that they have built, if the business owner needs assurance of their skills. If you need to build a few free sites to broaden a portfolio, build them for nonprofit or charitable organizations that might not be able to afford a Web site ordinarily. Your work will be appreciated, and it will do some good.