What’s the key ingredient for success in the web development industry as a web creator or web agency? Apart from having the right tools, learning how to build a personal brand, and working on getting recurring income, it's also important to know how to qualify prospects for those that are the right fit for you, to ultimately ensure the best experience for both parties involved.
Today Filip Galetic, the Head of Marketing in Visual Composer sits down with Hans Skillrud, the Vice President of Termageddon, and an established former agency owner, as they discuss how to qualify clients as a web agency and what it takes to be successful while putting your well-being first.
Hans generously shared insights from his real-life experiences of running a successful web agency. Browse the summary of the main points of the interview or watch the full interview below.
- Hans, tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and what you're working on currently?
Thanks for having me on. I'm honored to be one of the first people that are being looked at as potential guides on how best to run website agencies. Let me get it straight, I had my challenges. The web agency life is a very up and down type experience. You have great days, and then you have terrible days.
There are a lot of mistakes I made in the first few years, that I would've never done again. What I'm hoping to teach you is just how to get to building a more scalable agency while trying to avoid some of the pitfalls I experienced.
That's excellent. We want to help people who have just started out or who are having trouble. These are things you are not born with, knowing how to run an efficient business in general, let alone an agency, right?
Exactly. And I got to also note, that I used Visual Composer with every single website project I did, so I'm honored to be here.
- What was your primary method of acquiring clients?
When I started working, I had just left Groupon. Groupon is a website that offers discounts on local businesses. I liked Groupon at first, but after a while, it felt like we were discounting small businesses just to get them online. It felt like small business owners needed someone who could help them create an online presence, and I thought I could be that person.
I started by saying: “I'll do everything - social media, ads, SEO, websites, copies, emails..”. That's mistake number one: when you spread yourself out too thin, you're going to find yourself being average at best with every single service that you offer.
As time went on, we realized that we could focus on just a few things and work with other companies to do the other things. The key to being successful is being strategic. Then all of a sudden we became a lot more profitable and our operating procedures became a lot easier.
It started with opening our doors and reaching out to some family and friends. I'm not shy, so I walked into some stores and say, "Hey, I noticed this is what you currently have. This is what I'd like to build you, what do you think?"
My rates were too low, and I charged way too little at first. A position that most people have probably found themselves in at some point. Get paid for what you're worth and charge the right price.
I just wanted to help them with their online presence. And from there, that's how it all started. We got a few cold deals done where we built a website. And then all of a sudden they start referring their friends to you.
Always encourage your clients, "Hey, if you had a good experience, the best compliment we can get is another referral."
We'd get referrals from our past clients, which is great. Ultimately, what we did was offer services such as digital marketing for social platforms, off-page search engine optimization, and on-page optimization. And what we decided about year four was, "Let's just build awesome websites, and support those with some ongoing maintenance plans."
And the moment we condensed our services, just to one thing we were so afraid that, "Oh, we're going to lose all this business," but the exact opposite happened because what we did was we found partners that we could send business to and from each other.
When we partnered with companies, we started receiving warm leads with larger budgets. And they needed us to help them build websites so that they could run their digital marketing campaigns more effectively. We had a network of people recommending us to their clients, and this was very fruitful for us.
The interesting thing is how all of these levers for growth are interconnected. To grow your business, you'll need to qualify your clients better. And to grow, it is helpful to align yourself with others. By knowing where can you provide value for a business versus trying to put your own hands in every hole. In terms of growth, there's nothing better than happy customers who bring you more customers.
- How did you approach qualifying clients once you had grown and you knew maybe who you serve best?
Yeah. As time went on, we realized that most web agency owners just want to help people out.
I have a fundamental belief that that is the case and that agencies because they just want to help people, tend to not value their own time and their wellbeing.
This can be very tiring and lead to burnout by doing everything for your clients. If they don't appreciate it, it's a burden to you mentally. What can help solve that, is that you need to realize you need to get paid for your time. And that's a lot easier said than done.
The best way to ensure quality work is to have a filtering process when selecting a client to work with. Don't get carried away when agreeing to work on a new project, just because of the money. If you say yes to the wrong project, it can mentally drain you.
It's not just about the money, it is about, "Do I see this potential client being a positive impact on my business, my staff's mental health, or my mental health? Do I find myself wanting to work with this person?"
You need to understand and agree that the client will be involved in the web design process. They need to provide feedback on what they do, how it differs from their competitors and all that.
You need to vet out the clients that are going to drag you down, expect the world of you and not want to pay you for it. To do that, create a red flag list that filters out the people that are at high risk of becoming nightmare clients.
Discover Hans Skillrud's Digital Guide To “How To Say 'No' To Clients And Prospects"
First, you need to determine what the customer needs. Clients will always come to me and say, “I want the prettiest website in the world” and that's all they talk about. And then right before the launch, they're like, "Oh, what about SEO?” Like it's just clicking a button, and then there's SEO. That's not reality.
So I think the first thing you need to do is understand the true scope of the project. It's all about reducing the risk of scope creep because that's really what can get very costly with the business.
What functionalities are needed? Will customers have to log in anywhere? Will training and support be needed? Does the prospect have staff members that need to be trained on the back end of the website and how to operate it? Those little things could be hours, days, or even weeks of work.
Do they have any subdomains? This one sounds so stupid, but I'll tell you, I had a 10K project. The website was going great, they were so happy. We were about to launch it and then they were like, "Well, what about our subdomain?". Turns out they had a full-blown eCommerce platform that they never mentioned in the entire scope of the project. They were just assuming we were going to launch a subdomain that we had no idea even existed. That one little question can massively prevent you from misquoting a project.
Who's writing the copy? This one is huge because if they're expecting you to write the copy, you better be prepared to either write it yourself or get a contractor involved. Or if you're relying on them, are they prepared to spend the time needed to update the copy as you work through designs with your client?
What we're getting to with this is just a message of, "You're a professional agency. You need to know how to ask the right questions to quote your project correctly." Because if you underquote, you're going to be frustrated. And all you're going to want to do is just be done with the project and move on in life. If you quote someone too much, it can be taken as an unfair advantage in negotiations. You should be paid for your time, and you should be well paid for your time. Nothing more, nothing less. And it's questions like this that can help you uncover if their needs match up with what you offer.
What you need to do is understand, step one, it's your responsibility to understand this project scope and it's questions like this that will help you uncover the true scope of the project.
And then the next step is to understand, is this client going to drag you down or make you happy? And that is what I call scope creep client or a red flag client. Call it whatever you want, add whatever factors you want in here. I like these.
It's really about risk management, right?
It is, yes. I would still accept people that are not established businesses if I give them the green light instead of the red light for all the rest. These are just risks you need to understand. You need to collect an understanding of, "Do I trust this person to pay their bills on time, be communicative, be helpful?" Do they have a website in place already? If they have a website in place already that tells me that they've been through this web design experience before, and they know what goes into it.
If they've never experienced a website design process, it's just too high a risk for us.
Same concept. We're trying to get to the root of, "Can I see myself working with this person? And can they demonstrate that they've worked with other people productively?"
One of the biggest conclusions I have for today is that you need to learn how to say no. I cannot express that enough. If you aren't getting paid for your time, you will eventually become mentally exhausted. I've been there before, and I know what it's like to feel that way. I have had employees who have experienced the same thing.
If you can learn how to say no sooner and be firm about it, chances are you'll have a long-running, very successful scaling agency because you won't let people who will take advantage and get through your system and pass the red flag list.
- Do you have a go-to phrase, email, or template with a prepared answer for clients you want to say no to?
Yes. And I guess what I'd say is it needs to just be simple, three sentences.
"Hi, John. I'm sorry, but I've reviewed this project and can't say with confidence that this would be a good fit for us. I'm sorry for that. With that being said, I don't want to leave you hanging. Here's a link to a website where I think you may be able to find a better fit for your business. Upon posting your job there, you should see dozens of people to work with."
And just send it that way. That way, they get the decline, they're bummed out, but then you give them something to move on with their life and hopefully never talk to you again.
And also you still preserve or you maintain your good reputation. Maybe they have referred clients and they walk away saying, "Okay, I got something out of this." That's super wise.
- Do you have certain stages of the sales process? How many, what are they?
Yes, absolutely. The sales process is followed by the discovery phase, design, development, deployment, and documentation if needed.
The goal of the sales process was to get the client to agree to just the discovery phase. [At first, we thought] why wouldn't you just quote out everything right then and there? But we realized that we were giving away our discovery phase for free when we were trying to learn about all the pages, functionalities, and features they need.
And instead, we would pitch them on, "Let me give you a quote on creating a quote for your project," which sounds crazy.
What is the value of this? I would tell them that our discovery process is very thorough. It's several calls and understanding truly what they need.
At the end of the discovery phase, which we charged $2,000 to $5,000 depending on how big it was, they will have a document with our quotes that they can give to other developers, to quote it out for them, so they're not held to us.
Most people would sign up with us, but we would sell the idea of just going through the discovery phase so that you have a blueprint of exactly what you need for your website.
And that will save you more time, more money, and more energy because your design phase, your development phase, and your deployment phase are already figured out.
We already know what we need to do for every single thing. That's why we create blueprints.
And, you're automatically filtering out the bad customers by putting up little things like this, and it already helps you with your project in the first place. It's just a win-win across the board.
It's amazing how everything is connected. Once you start doing it that different way where you value yourself, everything shifts.
It's a remarkable thing.
You learn how to say no, you respect yourself and you understand, "Yes, I do want to fundamentally help people, but I can only do that for the long term if I'm living a life of comfortableness at the very least, financially and mentally."
- Did you also qualify or disqualify businesses based on what type of payment they expected, like hourly versus fixed?
We were a project-based organization, but there are pros and cons to being both project-based and billing by the hour. We went the project route, but there are many ways to do this and be hourly-based. The way that we managed that whenever a client wants to add an additional page, features, or functionality. We say will be able to do it, but we need to quote that cost after we have completed the original project.
And maybe you do have to get it quoted out originally, but I would always aim to have the customer understand, "This is the project we all agree to. All additional things we are happy to do, but we have to do it after we get your first project done." And then they'd be like, "Oh yeah, that makes sense."
It can be hard to limit yourself in a small team because it might seem like you're limiting yourself or going to drive people away. But then again, it can help you qualify the right customers long-term and do yourself a favor in a way.
Yeah. The reality is that you do want to help your clients with little things here or there. But those little things can start to snowball and get more demanding of you. Always do what you can to make your clients' experiences positive, but know when to draw the line. You can give them wins, but don't give them so many that you are compromising your own success.
- You mentioned project-based work, so did you use any specific models in terms of work, like milestones?
Yes. As time went on, we became more restrictive with each phase. We do not begin the design phase until we are absolutely certain about what they need for the discovery phase. We won't start developing until the designs are signed off. And we won't deploy until you have approved the entire website.
We have checkmarks where you can't pass until you have the previous stuff done. And those little check marks are kind of annoying. But they're there for a reason.
They ensure that three weeks don't go by, you're about to launch the site and this one thing from the discovery phase was holding you back from launching.
By splitting the project into smaller phases, we were able to motivate the client. This approach is based on our past experience where if we don't go this route, it leads to a higher risk. That's a higher risk for you, the client, as it increases the chances of something going wrong. The same goes for us, the people performing the hours. If we stick to the plan, we will deliver on time and within budget, and it will be great. You always want to just bring them back to understanding those blocks that you go into.
Yeah, otherwise there is a higher risk of burnout for everybody. That's what we want to avoid here.
- What do you think is the biggest factor to get more long-term clients and keeping them coming to you?
I think a lot of clients come to people who design websites and they have this glorious vision for what they want to launch and then they're good to go. I always like to share the example of when Uber launched their mobile app, they didn't just launch it back then, "Okay, we're done. We successfully launched our app and are happy with the results.” No. The company has a large development team that is constantly improving its application. And I'm giving this example to say that a website isn't something you just launch then it's good to go.
And if you're not focused on constantly improving it and your competitors are, you're going to lose the online presence game. Having plans in place to help your clients succeed ongoingly is extremely important.
Keep their website up to date with new stuff and constantly focus on improvements and optimization. There are a million ways to do that. It's really about just defining what you want to do, sticking to that, and offering it to your clients so that they understand a website is a living, breathing thing that's ever-improving and changing constantly.
It sounds like you're suggesting to have a strategic plan so that your customer doesn't see a website as a one-time thing, which it isn't. They see you as an authority figure because you come along and as an expert, you changed their mind.
Exactly. I'll give you another great example I think I mentioned earlier, which is: that people will always come to me and submit an inquiry, saying, "I want the prettiest website in the world."
But once you start asking those qualifier questions, you realize, "No, they want more leads.”
“You think the way to get more leads is to create the prettiest website in the world, but you have no other strategy, other than have a pretty website.” Rather than us spending all of your money on building a pretty website, spend a portion of your money, making sure it can be found on search engines, or run some ads to drive traffic to your website, for example.
As an agency owner or freelancer, I think it is our responsibility to help clients uncover what they really need and help them communicate that. Rewire their brain so they realize, "Oh wait, pretty websites don't equal more leads necessarily. I need to understand my goal is I want more leads and how we get there is what my agency's proposing to me."
I'm a big fan of the 'five whys' technique. And it sounds like what you're doing there, peeling away the onion, always asking, "Why do you want a prettier website?" "Because I want people to know that they can trust me." "But why? Why are you trying to achieve that?" And that's also how you get to the right clients, I think, if the 'why' doesn't fit your 'how'.
- Have any kind of tools for project or time management stuck out for you in your agency life?
Yeah. I use Function Point. I love it, but it's very expensive, for the record. It's probably outside of the scope for a typical freelancer. They're behind the scenes like building management. As my agency grew, I realized the importance of understanding how profitable is any particular project? How profitable is any one of my employees? Where are the problems arriving in my five-stage process? And billing management programs can help you do that.
There is tons of time-tracking software out there. Of course, there's the Asanas, the Basecamp, Trello, everyone knows all those. I would say Estus has some promising features. Also, Atarim seems pretty exciting too. They're very all-encompassing.
What it's all about is just understanding what's working and what's not, and that's the foundation of time management and project management, it's to uncover, "Where are there problems in the business and how do I fix them?"
- How do you keep up to date with web development? Do you have any favorite sources to recommend?
Yeah, I do. I'm not nearly as involved in web development. We have our website that I oversee and stuff. But as a former agency owner, I was always thinking that everyone else is my competitor and therefore I shouldn't talk to anyone else about what's best practices. And that's a mindset that I've completely moved away from and I'm embarrassed that I used to even think that way.
Turns out, there are a lot of people that are technically competitors that are out to help one another.
And that is a very special thing that we have in our industry. I'd love to see the Visual Composer community continue to provide help and stuff like that. In terms of interacting with other agency owners, I really couldn't recommend The Admin Bar [Community] enough. It's a free Facebook group, primarily focused on WordPress. That's a community of over 5,000 agencies that are all trying to help each other with best practices Why not take advantage of people that maybe are further along than where you're at, that are willing to turn around and throw you some help. And because they have people in front of them who are turning around and throwing them help. It's a beautiful thing.
Exactly, beautiful. I don't think every industry has it and having it is special.
You should not ignore it. Get over the fact that [someone is your] competitor. You got to get over that. They are people that want to help others in the same space. You can vent to the same people that understand you.
I don't know about you, but I had to stop talking to my family about my business because they couldn't relate in any capacity to the stresses I would go through.
Communities like that, just get it. And it's just great because of that.
Exactly. There's enough for everybody. And even though we might both be web developers, we each have our strengths and weaknesses. You will help a certain type of business. I will help another certain type of business. And there's space and room for everybody.
And maybe they need your help with one of their clients or vice versa. It's very beneficial. I wish I had joined much earlier.
- Do you have any strong opinions when it comes to the no-code versus low-code versus coded approach to building a website?
Yeah. I know exactly where I fall.
I've had full-stack developers. I've had backend developers, and front-end developers that were very intelligent, very skilled, and very experienced. And very often we would have philosophical debates over a couple of beers on how should websites be built. A lot of people think "Every website must be built from scratch because that's the purest form of development.
I'm like, "Well, isn't HTML a derivative of ultimately ones and zeros?"
We're all building off something that's been built for us. I think that the reality is that clients have budgets, and budgets dictate how one can go about completing a project.
To me, plugins and platforms like Visual Composer help drive down that cost so that your time can be used as optimally as possible to launch websites for clients that don't have $400,000 to build a website from the core scratch that so many developers like.
I guess I'm saying that as much as I would love to be a purist and say, "Yes, all things must be built from scratch," I'm also a business owner. And I know the reality, which is that people have budgets. You can live in the ideological world if you want, or you can enter reality, which is you got to balance more things than just, "It should be this way." Great. Have fun living that life. I would rather try to solve problems with the parameters that have been given to me. And that's why I'm a huge fan of things like Visual Composer, 100%.
- What's the best piece of advice you would give to somebody who is just starting as a web creator in that space?
First and foremost, you need to understand that first and foremost, if you're a one-person shop, do not look at that as a negative. That is your biggest strength and you may want to be saying our about page and say, "We are this awesome company. We, we, we," when it's just you, you, you. Demonstrate that you're a one-person company because the people you're going to want to work with are the people that respect and cherish that. If you're a one-person agency just getting going, use that to your advantage rather than as a weakness. I'm not kidding you, there are so many pros and cons to any way you run an agency. But if you're a one-person shop, the pro is that your clients are going to have a direct relationship with you. There's never going to be a loss of communication between departments. That is your benefit.
So many agencies want to hide the fact that they're small. No. Embrace it. Even If you're a one-person web agency, embrace that rather than hiding from it.
And then point number two, learn how to say no. You got to learn how to say no. And at the beginning, you're going to have to balance that out with the reality of you're probably going to also have to learn new things. The beginning, and that's the great filtering. If you make it through that, then you start to scale your business and get to start making some great money.
Yeah. Termageddon is an auto-updating website policies generator built for agencies and their clients. We have reseller programs. We have affiliate programs, but it all starts with us giving you a free license forever for your website. We just hope you love it. And if you do, awesome. We'll give you the tools to help your clients get protected and make some more recurring revenue.
Great. We hope to have you back, Hans, on our blog and our YouTube channel.
Thanks so much, Filip. I'm very happy and honored to be a part of this. I just am so appreciative that companies like Visual Composer are going out of their way to help this industry grow and experience information that they may have not necessarily initially known to help them be more profitable and happier with their agency.