A couple of weeks ago I got a great deal on SitePoint's Web Design Business Kit by Brendon Sinclair, and it has been without a doubt the best purchase I've made in 2009, as well as worth its weight in diamonds. I highly recommend it to any web designer going freelance, or in particular anyone starting up their own web design company. Want to know why? Keep reading.

*Note - I've got quite a few personal opinions on certain parts of the kit, but they aren't 100% relevant to the review, so I've put them in block-quotes. Feel free to read them, or not read them as you see fit.

Getting Started

The kit comes beautifully packaged in two folders. One folder contains the Business Kit Manual, and the other contains all the relevant documents and contracts, which are also included on a CD. You notice the quality of all the materials as soon as you take it out of the box - this isn't just another book that's been printed off en mass and sold, it's been meticulously put together from a variety of different materials.

Before you start reading it, you're going to want to have a notebook and a pen handy, otherwise you're going to read a whole lot of fantastic ideas to help your business, and then you'll forget them before you have time to implement them! Trust me on this one.

The Manual

The main part of the kit is the manual, which is effectively a really really big book in folder format. The folder is divided into 7 tabs to help you easily navigate throughout all the content within, and they are as follows:

  • Contents
  • First Steps Freelancing
  • Establishing Your Business
  • Running Your Business
  • Expanding Your Business
  • Looking To The Future
  • Index

A pretty logically divided set of sections, but a word of warning: do not try and read each section and then "do" what it says. For example, very early on Brendon talks about his method for pitching to clients and winning new jobs - he outlines the whole process in a 2 page list of bullet points, after reading this you will want to immediately start putting together your own version of his method - but hold back!

The reason is that the whole book constantly expands on what came before it, so if Brendon talks about surveys in some detail in chapter 3, then the chances are that when you get to chapter 5 there's going to be another whole big section on surveys and other important bits of information that you should take note of before doing your own. My advice would be to read the whole thing once over before you start "actioning" anything.

Brendon's writing style is really one of the best I've come across in tech/marketing books for a long time, he provides detailed relevant case studies without being boring, he talks about his own success and conquests without being arrogant, he gives enough detail to make all the information really worthwhile - without going over the top. Reading through the kit you feel like everything that he writes about is relevant to what you're doing, and better than that - you could do it too.

It's hard for me to give detail on what's actually in the kit because I don't want to cause any problems with SitePoint by giving away information that they're charging money for - but I will try to give you a basic overview.

The First Steps in Freelancing Tab

This is essentially starts out in chapter 1 as a light version of SitePoint's or Rockable Press's freelancing book, talks about the usual things like the benefits, drawbacks, and what you should prepare yourself for. It's really more of an introduction to the whole kit, so I read through this chapter relatively quickly. The rest of this tab goes into a couple of case studies, how to use surveys to analyse your customer base, writing a business plan, presenting a professional image, and an introduction to pitching. It was a great start, and I turned to my partner Nikki that very evening and said "If the rest of the kit is like the first few chapters, then this is the best money I've ever spent on a book".

Sidenote on Presenting a Professional Image Brendon talks quite extensively about presenting a professional image to your clients, from the pen you use to the car you drive, to your haircut and the clothes which you wear. I know that what he says is true for the most part (in summary: dress smart, look sharp), but I don't think that it applies all the time. I have tattoos - I have a LOT of tattoos, I worked as a tattoo artist and a professional piercer for several years. Does that mean I'm dirty and grungy and have bad attitude? No. In fact the last job I worked at, one of the reasons the MD gave me for hiring me as the lead designer & front end developer of the company was tattoos. He said "If you're confident enough in your ability to make a permanent mark on someone else's body and have them like it, then that gives me a lot of confidence in your abilities too." - how's that for an opposite stereotype to the supposed "norm" ?
On another note, take the March issue 147 of .NET Magazine - page 40 where there is a feature article talking about winning clients. In the excerpt on the bottom left of the page, Richard Rutter from ClearLeft talks about how he lost a pitch to a client because he and his team went in wearing suits, and the clients could see that it wasn't who they really were.
So to summarise my personal opinion on presenting a professional image - yes, do what Brendon says and look sharp, but don't let that get in the way of who you are. Did you really become self employed so you could not be yourself? Didn't think so!

Regardless of anything else, this was a brilliant first section of the kit crammed full of useful information and tips.

The Establishing You Business Tab

This section starts off with Marketing, which was categorically my least favourite part of the whole kit. I'm a big follower and reader of people like Seth Godin, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Chip/Dan Heath - and to me this chapter just got it pretty wrong. Brendon talks about flyers, and the yellow pages, and newspapers, and radio ads, and classifieds, and printed newsletters. All the things which make me want to curl up into a corner and die, having read Seth Godin's "Purple Cow". I basically disregarded this chapter completely because to my mind - the information is dated, but that is a bit of a personal opinion I suppose.

The rest of this section of the kit goes on to talk about developing a unique selling point, which is good but I felt that this should have come a lot earlier in the kit - to my mind it should come even before the business plan.

Sidenote on Developing a USP In addition Brendon's advice is to make your customer service your USP - but if everyone who read the kit did that, then it wouldn't be a USP any more... I totally take on board his advice and love every single one of his ideas for outstanding customer service - and it might be unique amongst your local competition, but to me it isn't a real USP. A real USP should separate you from everyone, not just "most people".

The section then moves on in detail about developing your customer service model and to what lengths you should go to keep your clients happy - and what will keep them coming back to you. This whole chapter was superb and gave me lots and lots of ideas to use for my own business.

Again, this section was full of useful information and case studies of Brendon's experiences and what he has and hasn't found to be successful. Don't think for a moment that because I disagreed with a couple of parts, that it wasn't useful!

The Final Three Main Tabs

Oh noes! Why aren't I going into detail about the rest of them?? - For two reasons, one; because I've read through them relatively quickly and I haven't yet sat down to take any proper notes on them, and two; because they are all about what to do one your business is fully up and running - which for the majority of people reading this review and thinking about buying the kit, is totally irrelevant.

That said, it's one of my favourite things about the whole kit. It isn't a beginner's guide, it isn't an intermediate's guide, and it isn't a convoluted novel on conquering the earth. It's an all encompassing manual for setting up and running a web design business from start to finish. This isn't something that I'm going to read this year and then put away next year when I'm doing well - I can see myself referring back to this kit and re-reading it for years to come. There is so much in there!

The Documents Folder

What can I say about the documents folder? It's brilliant, it's extensive, it's inclusive, it has so so much in there - and the manual references all the relevant documents really well. I can't really think of much else interesting to say about them, they are after all essentially just business documents.

Marketing Tip To SitePoint I love having all the documents in a second folder, I do, but I'm afraid I'm not going to use a single one of them as is - I'm going to pop the CD into my computer, edit them slightly, put my logo on them, and print off as many as I need. I think that you should offer a cheaper version of the kit which is comprised of one folder (the manual) with the CD inside the front cover. This would be cheaper to produce for you guys, and more people would be likely to buy it due to the reduced price. Just a suggestion ;)

The Conclusion

I've got to wrap this up because otherwise I know you impatient internet users will simply stop reading, so I'll summarise the whole review into two bullet point lists.

What I Loved

  • The writing
  • The case studies
  • The quality of the kit
  • The detail of all the documents
  • The fact that I now have 5 pages of things to-do which I never would have thought of otherwise
  • The fact that Brendon seems to selflessly give away a lot of his own trade secrets, something that not a lot of people are willing to do
  • The repetition of key points throughout the manual
  • The brilliant tips such as how to avoid scope creep amongst many others
  • 101 more little details that make this kit so so valuable

What I Didn't Love

  • The documents folder is great for reference, but when it comes down to it, a little unnecessary as it's all on the CD.
  • The lack of reference to modern web applications - this 2nd issue of the kit was produced only 2 years ago I think, yet Brendon talks about using forum software to communicate with his staff with no mention of Basecamp, "Act!" to order his client database with no mention of Highrise, newsletter campaigns with no mention of Campaign Monitor, and running surveys with no mention of PollDaddy - I know that technology is changing all the time, but these services have been around for quite some time now and I would have found it useful to hear Brendon's take on them.
  • The section on Marketing (see above)
  • Some of the bits about SEO are a bit out of date, 'search engine submissions' etc.
  • Not enough references to stats "40% increase on conversion" ..according to which study?

The Final Words

I love this kit, it's supreme in every way - I have every confidence that my business will be a bigger and better success because I've read it. If I ever visit Australia (which I'm planning to do this year) then I will personally look up Brendon and buy him dinner to say thank you for writing such an awsome "bible".

And to finish with - the quote that stuck with me most from Brendon himself.

"Ideas are great, actions are better."

Do NOT buy this kit if you aren't going to read it. Do NOT buy this kit if you're going to read it and then do nothing. BUY this kit if you're really ready to go out there and do something with your business, and you want some great ideas and advice to help you along the way. I highly recommend it - and it is without a doubt the best thing I've bought so far in 2009.


I totally forgot to mention that if you're thinking about buying the kit, but you're still not sure whether to take the plunge and spend the cash - you can download a set of free sample chapters from the SitePoint website - click here - the button is in the middle about a quarter of the way down the page!

Though I should mention that while the sample chapters are great, they're but a shadow of the real thing. I was impressed by the sample chapters, but when I started reading the full actual kit my socks hit the other side of the room!