It was 2007 and business was booming. I was getting 2-3 requests for web development work a day and could barely keep up.
To cope with the growth, I brought my brother and a friend into the business with me.
Neither had much experience, but I figured I could train them quickly.
Then, I met the client. I’ll call him Bob.
He was a nice guy and it looked like it would be a great project. He was designing his own website and just needed someone to help him code it and put it on WordPress.
I wrote out a simple outline, breaking the project into three “phases” (Design, Coding, and WordPress Integration), with a set amount of time estimated for each phase. I gave him a firm price. We agreed, and I scheduled the work to begin.
Then, I started making mistakes, painful ones. There were 3 major mistakes that stand out from the rest:
- Turning The Work Over– I gave the project to my brother, a brand new developer at the time (he’s now a great designer).I was so busy with client communication and work on other projects that I just forwarded the emails from Bob over to him, with little or no explanation.I figured I would help out where necessary and there’s nothing quite like learning as you go, right?
- Ignoring The Red Flags - After we agreed on the project price, Bob sent over another email. He gave his thoughts on the initial design, and then proceeded to include a list of 14 things that he would like the site to include.That would have been a perfect time to stop everything and work out an actual scope that spelled out what would and wouldn’t be included. I was so “busy”, though, that I ignored the email and just forwarded it on to my brother.That would come back to bite me (keep reading).
- Continuing When I Should Have Stopped - Suddenly, my brother had to leave. He went off for about a month to work on another venture. I quickly brought in another young man to help with the work, who was also very inexperienced.I wrote to Bob and offered him to either get a full refund or, give me some extra time to get the new guy up and running and carry the project on. Bob agreed to wait. I should have stopped then, given Bob his money, and done all I could at that point to make it right.Instead, I kept going. Big mistake.
Then, the young man had to leave. I paid him for his time and took over where he left off. I figured I could wrap things up quickly and keep my losses to a minimum. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of the project. It continued on for more than three months and over 60 additional hours of work on my part, with several months of follow-up after the project was complete.
I learned a lot, though, and there are 6 painful lessons that I hope you don’t repeat as a new (or experienced) web designer:
1. Don’t Rush The Sale
With business growing fast and what I thought was success all around me, I was eager to rush through the formalities and get the project started.
I ignored the warning signs in favor of doing everything I could to just please the client and close the sale.
In hindsight, I should have charged him a small fee to evaluate the project and create a clear scope.
If I had asked more questions and really gotten to the heart of the project, his list of 14 extras would have come up sooner and I could have planned for them in the beginning.
Take time to work through the details. If you’re feeling a rush to get through the sale, you’re probably going to fast.
2. Grow Slowly
As the amount of work I was taking on began to overwhelm me it seemed that the obvious answer was to take on more team members.
The problem was that I spent more time on training than if I had done the work myself (not to mention paying them) and, at that point in the business, I wasn’t ready.
I should have said “No” to the projects that weren’t a complete match and focused instead of refining my own processes and capabilities.
If the demand for your services is high, raise your prices and start saying no.
Save money to get you through the time it will take to thoroughly train someone new while ensuring that your current clientele don’t suffer for your absence.
3. Create a Clear Scope
My scope for that project was nothing more than a list of phases with an estimate of the amount of time I thought each phase would take.
Each phase was completely open to interpretation and included the assurance that a phase wouldn’t be complete until he was “happy”.
While my heart was in the right place (I wanted to over-deliver) I had set myself up for months of extra work outside of what I had planned, because I didn’t have a scope.
As you talk through a project with a potential client, work diligently through each part of the project and write down exactly what you’re going to do.
If you can’t detail the work before you begin you’re either moving too fast or you’re about to enter into an unknown, in which case you need to think very carefully about how you price the project.
4. Don’t Stretch Too Far
Even with a growing number of projects behind me I was still a rookie.
More than half of the extras that Bob brought to my attention were beyond my current capabilities.
Always the optimist, I figured that I could quickly learn.
I didn’t (and couldn’t) anticipate the types of problems that I would run into by stretching as far as I did. The good news is that I had chosen to work with WordPress.
I was able to find plugins to accomplish most of what he wanted.
The bad news is that I had waited unto after the project began and I wound up stretching myself far more than I should have.
It’s good to stretch yourself beyond your current comfort levels and it’s even OK to make less money on projects because of the experience you gain.
Don’t stretch too far, though.
Carefully evaluate your current experience level against the complete scope and identify the parts that would stretch you. Be willing to say “No” or “Maybe later” to the pieces that you feel would be too much.
5. Don’t Avoid Conflict
I have a personality type that, by default, prefers to avoid all conflict.
Unfortunately, conflict in business is inevitable.
I tried to avoid conflict by being as agreeable as possible and saying “Yes” to Bob’s additional requests when I should have said no.
As the project carried on, I wrestled inside as I felt my boundaries crossed.
The problem is I didn’t let Bob know! Setting up boundaries and limits felt like conflict to me, so I left things open.
If you struggle with conflict, challenge your perspective and decide to embrace it inside. As painful as it is, conflict is the door to growth and maturity. Find books on dealing with conflict. Read Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud.
There were more than a few times when I wanted to give up.
I felt completely worn down and stretched.
The rest of my business was struggling under the time and effort I was dedicating to this project. I had made an agreement, though. As painful as the lesson and experience was I knew that a man is only as good as his word and I was going to honor the commitment, regardless of the cost.
I did it.
The project was far later than either of us had anticipated and it had grown far beyond the original expectations.
But I finished the work and Bob was pleased.
I also learned lessons that I won’t ever forget.
If you’re tempted to throw in the towel on a project and your commitment is on the line, don’t give up. Pressing through those difficult projects teaches you to make better commitments and think twice before jumping in to the next project.
In the end, I am thankful for the experience. I much prefer to learn from success than failure. If I’m faced with failure, though, it’s not all a loss if I’ve learned lessons and keep on going.
How about you? What painful lessons have you learned from past (or current) projects? What would you tell yourself if you were starting over again? Leave a comment and let me know…Written by Jonathan Wold a full-time web developer with more than 13 years of experience building websites. He is passionate about sharing what he’s learned with others and is writing a guide to teach beginners how to build a web development business.
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