10 things I have learnt in 10 years of business

Paul Boag

Headscape is 10 years old today. It therefore feels like an appropriate time to look back and ask myself what I have learnt over the last 10 years.

We knew it was coming but that did not make the prospect any less scary. The dot-com company myself, Marcus Lillington and Chris Scott worked for finally folded just after Christmas 2002. It had been a roller coaster ride that had included promises of untold riches and at times a jet setting lifestyle. However it ended with an endless series of painful redundancies that left the 3 of us drained.

By the time the end finally came the 3 of us were ready for something new. We were ready to form Headscape.

Not that running Headscape has been any less of a roller coaster. There have been some incredibly exciting times, but some tough decisions too. We founded Headscape in an economic downturn and 10 years on we once again find ourselves in the same position.

Yet so much is changed over the intervening time. In those early days we still built websites using tables and had little in the way of methodology or design process.

So what exactly have I learnt from running Headscape over the last 10 years? It seemed only appropriate that I share with you 10 of the most poignant lessons, beginning with the realisation we are not just hired to build websites.

Customer service is vital

I once read a tweet written by a prominent web designer that complained about a client who wanted constant updating. He argued that it was more important to build the website than communicate with the client.

10 years of running my own web design company has taught me that this could not be further from the truth. As web designers we do not run manufacturing companies churning out websites. We are a service-based business and customer service is a core component.

Too many of us resent clients and wish we could design websites without them. However, successful web designers works with rather than against the client.

Work with clients, not against them

As I look back over 10 years worth of projects there is a single factor more than any other that dictates the success or otherwise of a project. That is the working relationship between ourselves and our clients.

The client is a fundamental part of the web design process. I hear many web designers claim they could produce better sites if the client didn’t keep interfering. That is absolute bollocks!

Successful websites are those where the client and web designer work together, respecting each others expertise and opinions.

By excluding the client from the process you lose their knowledge of business, objectives and target audience. They will understand their business, target audience and products better than you ever will.

Communicating with clients may sometimes seem an effort but it is crucial to the success of their website. This is just one of the reasons why project management is such a crucial component of web development.

Project management matters

When you work for a web design agency, rather than run one, it is easy to be critical of project managers. What do they actually produce and what value do they bring? However, as soon as you start running your own business, you suddenly realise how valuable they are.

We are web designers and not artists. We work within certain constraints. These constraints are both budgetary and time related. In the world of business, if a website does not launch on time and within budget it has failed. Project management ensures this does not happen.

People are surprised at how many project managers we have at Headscape considering the size of our team. However these guys ensure our reputation for delivering complex websites on time and within budget, remains in-tacked.

As you may have gathered by now the last 10 years has convinced me that web design is not primarily about HTML, CSS and Photoshop designs. It is about solving business problems.

Web design is about solving business problems

Building a website is relatively easy. HTML and CSS were always designed to be accessible languages. If you have a good eye for design and basic computer skills is easy to set yourself up as a web designer.

What then distinguishes these enthusiastic amateurs from professional web designers? Put another way, how has Headscape been able to justify charging reasonably high rates that have progressively increased over 10 years in business?

How can you increase the amount you charge for your services?

The answer is to stop building websites and start solving business problems. Increasingly I’ve come to realise that if you just look at the website in isolation you will only have a minor impact on the business.

This is especially true when working with larger clients. For the website to be truly effective it often requires changes in organisational thinking to make it happen. Too often such organisations are not adequately equipped to effectively run their website. This is not just in regards to staffing but also in mentality. They think in terms of departments rather than looking at the organisation holistically.

It is only once you have become experienced in Web governance that he can start charging higher rates. This is because the work you do brings a higher return.

Of course to prove that the work brings a higher return you need to be able to measure the site successes.

Success has to be measurable

The belief that effective web design is about careful measurement and testing is probably the biggest shift in my perception over the last 10 years.

I used to rely heavily on my own expertise and previous experience to inform my approach to website design. Interestingly, as I have accumulated more experience over the years I have come to rely less on my personal intuition and more on rigourous testing.

There are 4 reasons for this:

  • Careful testing and measurement of key performance indicators helps to establish whether the work you are doing is proving successful or not.
  • This analytical approach avoids conflict born out of different personal opinions. This is particularly important in large organisations where there are many stakeholders.
  • It prevents you from making assumptions about user behaviour. After 16 years as a web designer I’m still amazed at how users interact with websites. The longer I work as a web designer the more I realise that the only way to be sure about user behaviour is to test and measure it.
  • A process of continual measurement and testing encourages ongoing development of a website.

This last point is particularly important.

Websites are an ongoing commitment

When we started Headscape in 2002 most websites were seen as little more than brochures which only required occasional updating.

10 years on things are radically different. The vast majority of our work is for existing clients with whom we have an ongoing relationship. This is good for our business and also leads to far more effective websites.

We now live in a world where websites are continually evolving and require an ongoing commitment from both the web design agency and the website owner. Making it clear to the client that they will need to dedicate time and resources to their website on an ongoing basis has become the linchpin of our approach.

Not that every client wants to hear that message. However, another lesson I’ve learned is that radical honesty is always the best approach.

Radical honesty pays

There is nothing wrong with wanting to make clients happy. This is certainly a somewhat obsessive characteristic that I have. If my client is unhappy (even if for completely unjustified reasons) then I am devastated.

However, I have learnt that this desire to please can lead down a dangerous road. We can end up telling a client what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear.

I have learnt that it is more important to be honest with a client than it is to make them happy. If a client suggests an idea that will damage their site, I will tell them. If they need to do something that they will not like, it would be a disservice to keep quiet.

This is particularly important in the sales process. This is the time when we feel the most need to make our clients happy and yet this is when radical honesty is required. If we cannot meet a deadline imposed by the client, we must say so. If their budget is inadequate we must be honest. Most importantly if we disagree with their approach, we must tell them.

Yes, this has led to Headscape losing work. However, the consequences of not being honest with the client is worse. These projects inevitably lead to poor websites and lose money both for you and the client.

For us, radical honesty is apart of our ongoing desire to educate our clients.

Always educate

I started Boagworld.com as a personal site to document the things I learnt as a web designer. Over time it turned into a marketing tool for Headscape. However, it also plays a role that I rarely talk about. It is an educational tool.

If the client is going to be a partner in the web design process and be responsible for the ongoing direction of the site, they need to be well informed.

It falls to us as their web designer to bring them up to speed. This is done throughout your ongoing relationship with the client. At each stage of the build we are educating our clients about the web design process. We are also preparing them for what will happen after launch, where the day to day running will fall to them. I do this through conversations with the client but also through posts on Boagworld.

Where boagworld really becomes important is educating clients before we work with them. We have found that those who have read Boagworld before coming to us are considerably better prepared. This has been a valuable lesson and led to much easier projects.

Of course it can sound patronising to talk of educating our clients. Its important to remember that we need to keep learning too.

You must always keep learning

My 10 years in Headscape have taught me that you need an insatiable appetite for learning to be a successful web designer. Before my time at Headscape the web changed at a phenomenal rate and it has continued to do so over the last 10 years.

As time passes new technologies emerge, new techniques develop and we become ever more refined in our processes. This means that we need to deliver evermore sophisticated solutions in order to compete in a fast-moving market.

However, it is not just a matter of learning about new web design techniques and technologies. With each new client we need to learn about their business, sector, products and target audience.

Over the last 10 years I have learnt about such diverse sectors as higher education, law, food and nutrition, pharmaceuticals and even sex toys! To suggest that we have nothing to learn from our clients is incredibly arrogant and naive. We need to approach each new project with a hunger and excitement to learn.

Not everybody has that desire and so it is important to surround yourself with the right people.

The right team matters

If one thing has made Headscape successful over the last 10 years it is the people. This extends from the 3 founders all the way to my wife who does 12 hours a week office admin. Every person in a company the size of Headscape is crucial.

If one thing has made Headscape successful over the last 10 years it is the people.

I was incredibly lucky to form Headscape with two amazing cofounders. Both Marcus and Chris beautifully balance my own strengths.

Marcus has an incredible intuitive understanding of people which proves invaluable both in sales but also when it comes to running stakeholder interviews and user testing.

Chris has an amazingly analytical brain that enables him to work with complex business and technical problems. His astute management of the company and his attention to detail in client work has proved a key differentiator from our competition.

We have also been incredibly privileged to have worked with some of the brightest minds on the UK web design scene. We have designers who can not only produce engaging and beautiful interfaces, but also have an intuitive understanding of user interaction.

We have developers unlike any I have met elsewhere. As well as having the analytical and technical skills you would expect, they are also amazing creative thinkers able to solve even the most complex problem in an innovative an elegant way.

Finally, we have project managers that are totally unflappable. Yes, they are amazingly organised and yes they deliver projects on time and within budget. However, for me their standout feature is the total confidence they exude, which proves massively reassuring to our clients.

Looking forward

I’m aware that this post could give the impression that Headscape is some kind of Utopia. It is not. We make mistakes and at times things have been very tough for our business. I have learnt some amazing lessons but many of those have been learnt through making gargantuan mistakes.

As I look forward to the next 10 years I have no doubt that we will continue to make mistakes and probably even repeat some we have already made. Running a web design agency is not always easy, but as Winston Churchill put it:

Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.