I've been speaking to Tristan for the last week or so about doing some exciting things together with WPress'd and in the mean time he's very kindly agreed to do an interview for this blog talking about how he started up his own web design business.
Hi Tristan, first of all could you tell us a little about yourself and your current work for any readers who are unfamiliar?
I own Able Net Design. A full server web design / development and online marketing firm in Perth, Western Australia. We like to build a long term relationship with our clients and help them grow their online presence.
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 originally wanted to be an architect. I remember having to do a school project where we had to build a website for some fictitious company. I had dabbled with web design before at home but nothingto the extent of the school project. Anyway it turned out I loved it and was hooked, I ended up winning an award for the website! :) Anyway from there I studied a few programming courses and eventually started Able Net Design. Within about 2-3 months I was able to support myself and since then Able Net Design has been going from strength to strength.
You now run a successful studio and employ about 2 other people as well as a network of freelancers, how did you grow the company from its roots to where you are today?
I am a believer in "slow and steady wins the race". In my time (gee that sounds old) over the years I have seen many web design firms flood the market with marketing materials, win lots of awards and then go bankrupt within a few years. Early on I had to develop a website with a Content Management System. Back then there really wasn't a great range of adaptable CMS's so we decided to build our own basic CMS which would suite the clients requirements, with out all the other 'stuff' that you just don't seem to use. It was at that point that I realised that time was a precious commodity and I would be stretched to get the project complete and still be able to service my other clients. I decided to use a freelancer for the front end work, while I built and developed the CMS. All in all the client was very happy with the result but I learnt that you need to keep a tight rein on freelancers to make sure code is valid / design is right etc... That was my first experience with freelancers and hiring, and I learnt a lot from them. Throughout the years I have also tried dedicated sales people which has had mixed results, but nothing that has been worth the time, effort and cost of managing a sales team. Along with my two staff I have managed to grow a list of talented freelancers that we use to get that fresh edge.
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?
I originally thought I could do it all myself. Turns out I can't. I know you read about it and everyone tells you but, surround yourself with people that have the right knowledge. You can't be a TAX expert, law expert etc... Learn how to educate your clients. Those that just want a website because everyone else has one is missing the point. You have to try and give them a real life example of how the web can help them, and remember you are the professional so just because they want a glittering unicorn (if you don't know what I mean, have a look at myspace you'll get the idea) doesn't mean you have to put one in. Just try and find a nice way of steering the client in the right direction. There are always people out there to cheat you, it can be clients, business partners, basically anyone you come in contact with. You can't avoid it and you have to learn not to blame yourself.
What are your main sources of business now, and how does that differ these days from when you first started out?
When I first started I didn't want hand outs from my parents for a major marketing campaign. I started with word of mouth and that still is the major source of new clients. Along with an ad in the Yellow Pages and of course our website. Of course now we have a lot of work from existing clients where we are constantly working on their websites so they can get the maximum value out of them.
What are your current office arrangements and at what point did you decide to take on the additional financial overheads to pay for it? Has it made a big difference to the business?
Like when I first started I still work from home. A good friend and very successful business man told me when I first started that if possible don't waste money on an office. Although I have thought about it many times, I have even thought about getting a larger office and renting space out to other designers I can't seem to justify the expense. It is very rare that a client ever needs or requests to come and see me. I have a custom built intranet which allows my staff to login and view client information, project status etc... With the use of smartphones and mobile internet we can be in contact quite easily.
What parts of running your own business have been exactly as you expected them to be, and what parts have been completely opposite to what you had envisioned?
This is a good question. I suppose I started Able Net Design because I love snowboarding. So my initial expectation was that I could hop on a plane whenever I liked and be able to just take of to the snow and work from there whenever it suited. To an extent this has turned out about right. 9 to 5, they were the hours I wanted to work. In the beginning it was all going to plan but then circumstances change. I have a fiance now a wedding planned for later this year along with a honeymoon and hopefully the start of a family. Which means that I need to work more. I know start around 7am and finish around 6 or 7pm and that doesn't include the extras on the weekend. I am lucky that I love my job. The fact is that there is so much involved in running a business that to think of being able to do it from 9 to 5 was a joke.
Are there any particular applications (web based or otherwise) that have made a big difference in the running of your business that you would recommend?
Apple. It just amazes me how great the iMac is for developing. Smart Phones. I have had a touch screen smart phone since they came out. Last year I changed to a BlackBerry and recently changed to the Nokia E71. The BlackBerry was good but the constant downloading of emails can get to you after awhile. You need some downtime. You are probably asking why not the iPhone well, I am over the whole touch thing. No offense it seems to be a great phone, just not for me. Mobile Internet You can keep in contact where ever you are.
Any other advice you'd like to share?
Get an accountant first up. Build a relationship with him/her. When you get bigger you will start to see the benefits of having someone there for advice.
Thanks for taking the time to answer all of these Tristan! If anyone has any questions for him please feel free to leave them in the comments and I'm sure he'll stop by and respond.