A couple of weeks ago I was very honoured to have Tony Chester of OnWired agree to do an interview with me for this blog. You may have noticed that for the first time since launch there was no new post this last Monday, and whilst I doubt you're angry enough to come after me with a butcher's knife - the reason was that I've been busy preparing this one, and believe me it's worth it! Tony has gone into a LOT of detail in his answers and I personally found the whole thing very very helpful, but read on, and see for yourself.
I've scattered some of the OnWired work throughout the interview so that you can see some of the work they've done!
Hi Tony, first of all could you tell us a little about yourself and your current work for any readers who are unfamiliar?
I'm the owner of OnWired, a full service graphic design, web development, and online marketing firm located in Cary, NC. Our goal is to create beautiful, powerful websites that promote strong brand messages and attract the right kinds of visitors for our clients.
How did you get started in web design, and at what point did you decide to make a self-employed career out of it?
I got into web design back in 1995. I purchased my first Mac -- a Power Performa 6100 with a whopping 250MB hard drive and 32MB RAM. At the time, Adobe had a product called PageMill that let you design a site and it spit out the code without you needing to know any HTML. It worked, but needless to say, you did not want to view the source code. That was just a hobby at the time. I really began web design professionally while working at The Dialog Corporation as a tech support rep. Our boss wanted to do a little rogue project under cover from the corporate powers-that-be. As our little group knew HTML, CSS, and design, we quickly got to work and cranked out what became a great new product offering for the company. Once we were out of the closet, our entire group was moved from Tech Support to Product Development. Eventually, the company began laying off due to the post-9/11 economic situation. I saw the writing on the wall and began OnWired on the side to create a safety net for myself. As I began to land some work, I had a feeling OnWired could become a full-time gig, but I didn't quite have the guts to make the leap. Luckily for me, I was given my walking papers in early 2004. That was the push I needed, and I haven't looked back since.
You now run a very successful studio and employ about 7 other people, how did you grow the company from a small beginning into a strong team of individuals?
We actually have 9 folks now, two of which are part-time. I went through two business partnerships back in 2005 and 2006, both of which failed for the same reason: a difference in philosophy. In late 2006, I hooked up with an old acquaintance from Dialog -- Jon Norris. He was an exceptional designer, we shared a similar philosophy regarding business and the web, and we'd been trying to work together off and on for a few years. The timing was right and Jon was a good fit, so I brought him over as the lead designer. Shortly after that, we were approached by our previous employer to bid on a project. Knowing that we couldn't bid my freelance rates because they would laugh and walk away, we decided to step things up, raise our rates, and give it a shot. It worked -- we landed the gig -- and that one event totally changed the direction and focus of our company. Since then, we've continued to land bigger corporate clients and have been busier than ever. One of the things we learned very early on is that you have to be smart in your hiring. Don't jump at the first person who can do the job. Only hire people that are truly exceptional. Also, don't cave in to every request your client has. You're a professional and (hopefully) you've got standards, so speak up and let your clients know if they are trying to cram too much into their site. Reinforce what their business goals are and point out the fact that what they want does nothing to meet those goals. Pushing back a bit ultimately helps your clients to trust in you more as you've proven your expertise.
What 3 things do you wish you'd known prior to setting up your company, and is there anything specific you would have done differently given another chance?
First, I wish I had understood better how taxes work on Sole Proprietorships vs. LLCs vs. S-Corps. That is one of the most confusing things to wrap your head around. I suggest getting a great accountant and attorney up front because it will save you a lot of headaches in the long run. Next, I wish I had known that clients will try to work every angle they can to get their way, whether that includes getting some free work, scope creep, paying invoices late, etc. They may not even do it on purpose, but they will do so if you let them. The more you can educate your client up front on how you work and your business processes, the better you will all be. Finally, I would have been more selective in my business partners. Really sit down and discuss your visions and goals, especially how you expect to get there. I was a little naive and jumped in bed a bit too soon with people I didn't really mesh with.
You guys seem to be very good at PR, I remember there being a huge buzz around your latest redesign and you seemed to get a lot of publicity by stealing a certain Mail Chimp as well. How has this affected your position within the industry in terms of how many people know about OnWired? Has it produced any other unexpected benefits?
Ha -- you've been reading up on us. I think we really hit the map with the redesign of our existing site back in November of 2007. It was an instant hit and was picked up by a lot of design galleries, which gave us a bit more clout in the industry. Of course, the design has also been ripped off more times than we can count, so maybe being in galleries isn't always such a good thing. Aside from the design, we've gotten a lot of kudos on the content of our site, both from clients and industry peers. In redoing the site, we didn't want to go with the same old boring corporate mumbo-jumbo that so many other people use. We wanted to be more real, ultimately creating a site that reflected our personalities, and I think the site achieves that. It was a bit risky, and I'm sure we've had a few potential clients go a different direction because we were a bit too "edgy", but it's been a big success overall. The MailChimp theft was definitely fun and did open a few more eyes to us, but I don't think it really helped our bottom line. However, I believe Twitter has been critical in our success. I've been fortunate enough to be listed on a few "Top Twitterers To Follow" lists, and we've built up a pretty strong network of industry peers who we've partnered with on other projects (like PleaseCritiqueMe.com).
The OnWired team work with Expression Engine, would you recommend this to someone setting up a web design company as a good platform to work with? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of EE for a small business?
We've tried a myriad of CMSs and we're quite happy with ExpressionEngine. We're definitely looking forward to the release of version 2.0. Some key advantages and disadvantages are listed below: Advantages
- Rapid deployment
- There are usually a few independent paths to one solution. WIth more choices of implementation (some good and some not so good), you will have a better chance of solving your problems
- Strong forum community
- Lots of plugins available. However, most of the good ones will cost you money.
EllisLab is currently rewriting the core of EE using a framework they've developed called CodeIgniter. This will make extensions much more manageable and easier to code. My suggestion would be to definitely check out ExpressionEngine, but don't let it be the only tool in your belt. It works well, but it certainly isn't the right solution for every problem.
- We typically run into a problem where implementing a solution in EE using default constructs will produce a product that is hard for the client to use
- Some hacking of the core of EE is almost always necessary
- EE is a product of a company and not a community, so this can slow the growth and progress of the application
- Bad 404 handling. Depending on the implementation of certain pages, there may be an infinite number of ways of accessing the same page, so you end up with duplicate content in Google's eyes. This is terrible for indexing by search engines, although canonical URLs will help. There are ways to minimize these issues, but in the end, they make your code difficult to extend down the road.
- The barrier that limits the possible complexity of solutions is low. To put it another way, the platform is aging. Some of the cool stuff that is cropping up on the web today (things related to usability and data architecture) are too much for a clean and optimized EE implementation.
- The extension system in EE is a pain to work with (there are global variables everywhere) and it almost always produces spaghetti code.
I understand that you also have some interest in SEO/SEM - how have you used this to help OnWired, and how significant has it been in growing your business from where you started to where you are today?
When I started off, I understood the basics of SEO and did a bit to enhance our search engine rankings. Over the past two years, we've done a good bit more, and we now rank at or near the top of the results for any local search related to design or development. Honestly, ranking well on Google has been very instrumental in our success. We hear time and time again that people find us by searching, so we'll continue to do all we can to rank well. We've considered doing a bit of SEM as well to enhance our rankings outside of our local area. We also want to start marketing some of the more specialized services we've started providing to our clients. We'll most likely be turning to Google AdWords to help out in those areas, especially as the economy continues to change.
What books or publications would recommend to someone going freelance with the intention of expanding into a company in the future?
There are a ton of useful books out there on the subject of growing your business. In fact, we have a book of our own in the works that will speak in much more detail about many of the topics you've covered in this interview. Jon has been working on it for a few weeks now, and we're hoping to release it within the next few months. A few business books I recommend that aren't necessarily related to the web are Made To Stick and The Knack --How Street Smart Entrepreneurs Learn To Handle Whatever Comes Up. I just wrapped up You Don't Need A Title To Be A Leader as well.
Any other advice you would give myself / our readers?
If you partner up with someone, be totally sure it's a rock solid fit. Find the yin to your yang; someone that is the opposite of how you work and think is very beneficial. That will help keep the checks and balances in place. I act more on instinct, and that can sometimes get me in trouble. It has really helped having someone around like Jon, who is level headed and always thinks things through. Also, as you grow, do not try to handle everything yourself. You'll only get burned out. Hire competent people you can trust, and then let go so they can do their jobs.
If you have any other questions for Tony on this subject, please leave them in the comments and I'll ask him to stop by and take a look.