Dec 11 / Matt Saunders

5 Lessons from Building a Web Design Agency

These are the steps I took to move from a fragile freelancer to the owner of a thriving creative web design agency.
Recently a client asked me what five things I did to grow my web development agency to six figures.

I thought this was a great question. It prompted me to reflect on my mindsets and actions around that time, and I'm going to share those insights with you in this article. 

But please note: not everything here is a hard n' fast rule. I encourage you to only apply what resonates and forget the rest.

5 moves to build a successful creative business

Here's what took me from struggling freelancer to thriving agency owner in the space of two years.

1. Daily exercise

Man lifting weights off a rack
For me, mental energy and physical activity go hand in hand.

I've found that when I spend too many consecutive days hunched over my laptop without much movement, I begin to feel low in my mood and stiff in my body.

Recalling what I did when building my web business, cardio factored heavily in the mix. I'd go into the back garden in the morning and skip for several minutes at 30 second intervals. This got my heart hammering and I felt ready to take on the world. The perfect energy needed for building a business!

I also invested in a treadmill and some weights so I could keep up my healthy routines when the weather was bad, and crucially, when all the gyms shut down due to Covid.

In short, regular exercise kept my mood high and my mind sharp. I translated this into energy and motivation for growing my business.

2. Niching down

Matt sitting at laptop with charity website on screen
Without doubt one of the most powerful decisions that moved me from ~30k/year to £100k+ was honing in on a particular niche. For me, this was small charities.

I had spent the first 10 years of my career as a web developer working for pretty much anyone who would pay me. Whilst this isn't a bad way to go as a startup service provider, gaining clarity on your ideal client can really help with all areas of your business.

Marketing became much easier, because I knew specifically who I was talking to. Scope and delivery was clearer, because I was selling a more productised service.

In fact when I look back, making this decision was key to opening up everything else. So if you're stuck not knowing who your ideal client is, I encourage you to simply make a decision and go with it. You can always change your mind and course-correct as time goes on. But do not let it block you from moving forward right now.

3. Personal growth

Collage of speaking, interviewing and writing a book
When I took the decision to niche down and build an agency, I quickly realised something: I was very, very afraid.

I just didn't see myself as the guy who could do what was necessary to achieve goals at this level. Something had to change.

So I got very uncomfortable. Spurred on by some excellent books, I decided to run a workshop for local charities at a coffee shop. I was terrified, but did it anyway. I planned and rehearsed the session, and guess what? It went well!

After that I got "the bug". I talked at events, ran webinars and even wrote a book. Committing to my own personal growth in order to meet business challenges was another important factor to my success.

4. Optimising for SEO

Notepad with website wireframes
This is a more tactical point, but one that I hope you will find useful. In order for me to ensure a steady flow of leads into my business, I decided to invest in SEO. 

I created a targeted landing page, showed up in the right communities, and got coverage on relevant websites.

This activity meant that Google began to see my website as an authority. It started ranking me highly for relevant search terms, which delivered leads on a weekly basis.

SEO might not be the right approach for you, but my recommendation is to pick one or two core channels and invest your time/money there. Done consistently and with the right messaging, it will drive leads and sales into your business. 

5. Learning coaching skills

Presenting to a group with flip chart paper in front of a purple background
As a service provider in the creative space it can be difficult to communicate the value, benefits and technicalities of what we do. I realised that sometimes, my advice to clients simply didn't land. Occasionally they would push back on what I knew to be industry best practice. There had to be a way, I thought, of getting through.

Some how I ended up on a webinar about becoming a coach. I quickly realised that coaching is all about strong and clear communication, and I knew that doing some training here would help me work better with my clients. So I enrolled onto a £700 online course with The Coaching Academy. What I learned here started a transformation in how I approach client relationships, and ultimately took me to where I am now, working as a business coach to freelancers.

I encourage everyone to study coaching skills. Not to become a coach, but to improve your ability to think and communicate clearly. This has been the single biggest needle mover for my professional life.

What 5 things can you change?

Here's the interesting part: I could only plan for 3 of the things above.

I knew that exercise, niching and SEO would be my key drivers for success. But I had no idea that personal development and coaching would prove so pivotal as well.

The point is: you already know some of what needs to change. You know which areas you need to work on to improve.

I encourage you to write these down immediately so you can see them. The next questions to ask are:

  • How can I action this quickly?
  • What support do I need?
  • What do I need to stop doing?

You do not need to have it all figured out to get going. Had I not taken action to build my web business, I would likely never have discovered coaching. Simply go with what you already know, and trust that the following steps will reveal themselves to you.

This mentality has served me well for years, and I hope it does the same for you.
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