How one design agency tripled their business by giving away free web sites

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Last January, our website development team was struggling for a way to break out of our old market and into a new, more profitable niche. How we did it could work for your business too. Let me explain:

Whether your development team is a one-man band or a full orchestra, your goal is probably to grow.

Growing leads to more connections, more resources, and most importantly more profit; but when you’ve hit a dead-end with marketing, where do you go? Our development team at Metal Potato (my web design agency) faced that issue at the beginning of last year.

We were really stuck in a rut.

The company was profitable, but we weren’t serving much of the audience we were looking for—high end web design clients.

Traditional advertising was okay, but we knew word-of-mouth was our most effective strategy and we needed to find a way to spread it like wild fire.

Perhaps more critically, we had to spread that fire in the right communities. So how did we light it?

We took a risk.

We gave away websites for free.

And it wasn’t easy at first.

Most of our development team thought we were bonkers. People talk about giving away service all of the time, but to actually do it; to actually put money on the line and risk it all for nothing was a big leap of faith.

With a development team of over a dozen people, we still had overhead to pay.

As we sent the first forays out into our target audience, we were unsure of what to expect. We thought people would be interested in a new, free website, but these were not all local customers near our home base in Plymouth—we were reaching out to PR firms in London. We were going after celebrities and national brands.Those were the companies with the contacts we needed to meet.

Initially, we were rewarded with skepticism, turned away before our foot was even in the door.

Then, slowly but surely those doors began to open.

Our very first giveaway was to an iPhone repair shop, Shiny Apples. We redesigned their eCommerce site; and their owner hooked us up with referrals to several more small businesses.

That first victory proved that our model could work!

But the big winner for us came when persistence paid off and we finally landed the perfect platform, a burgeoning PR firm in London.

We were in.

For the next several weeks, we worked feverishly on Emerge, Ltd’s website. The result was a perfect example of the kind of work our team loves to do—innovative, attractive, fun.

The referrals from Emerge sent us into the stratosphere. Our most successful spin-off from them generated over 100,000 unique visits in one day: that’s a far cry from anything our old marketing strategy was doing.

And it’s a strategy that you too can use to leverage your own business into a new position.

Landing our first big firm was a coupe for the Metal Potato team.

Yes, it was a gamble, but the gamble paid off big when our work was put on the right stage. Since then, we’ve gone on to land paying jobs from other high-profile businesses and celebrities who are promoting our brand all on their own.

And that’s a lesson as well— we could have required written recommendations as a stipulation to the giveaway, but we didn’t.

Here’s why: our goal was always to connect with our clients’ networks organically. That meant we had to earn their trust and recommendations through old-fashioned hard work. Why? Because recommendations that are earned—not bartered—turn into word of mouth marketing, and there’s nothing more valuable than that.

Need proof that it’s worth trying?

Our giveaway to Emerge directly resulted in a dozen more clients and thousands in new revenue.

Now, we’ve come to the crossroads of another January. Here, just 12 months removed from a brainstorming session that started some major moves, our business is doing what businesses should— growing.

In fact, our sales have grown by 300%.

And it’s all because we took a gamble to light a fire for free.

***

What do you think of this strategy? Will it work for your design business? Have you tried something similar? Share with us in the comments.

PS: Don’t forget, our new business-building design community, Stoked, launches in less than three weeks! You can still enter to win 500 business cards from one of our partners and get on the list to be notified when Stoked officially launches!

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About Conor Ashcroft

Conor Ashcroft started Metal Potato with the goal of building cutting-edge websites that make their clients stand out. Follow his daily design links on twitter, or you can drop him an email today.

Comments

  1. I’ve found that you have to pick and choose who you offer to design free websites for.

    I get at least 1 email a day from students telling me that even though they’re doing free design work for people, it’s just not paying off.

    It definitely pays off to do your research before you start contacting businesses for free design work.

    • Thanks for the reply Rahat,

      You are indeed correct, you have to pick your freebies very carefully. We made a conscious decision to target companies such as talent management agencies, marketing agencies etc, because we knew they were in contact with a lot of people on a daily basis who might need a website. It’s a strategy that worked very well for us.

  2. Quite an inspiring post Conor,

    But I can’t help but feel that these kind of strategies are easy applicable to big companies, where there are many people doing the actual work.

    As far as I am concerned I am a one woman show freelancer with a full time job :)

    So I find it difficult sometimes to put as much love as I would like to in my paid projects. So gathering free projects would be a bit impractical for me.

    Maybe I need to wait a bit to be in that position to be able to do offer freebies!

    • Hi, thanks for your reply.

      You are correct that it’s difficult to do this when you are a small company, however it’s worth noting that when we first started doing this as a strategy, we were a two-person company. We have only significantly expanded since doing such giveaways due to the massive amounts of work they have provided for us. And the quality of the work – i.e. the revenue they have brought – have been so much larger than for other such clients, due to the fact that the people being referred to us are high-net-worth individuals who wanted full service packages, for example full ecommerce website design, monthly maintenance contracts and ongoing SEO support.

      Best
      Conor

  3. Hi Conor,

    As Rahat said, I think you have to be careful with the client you choose to do this for. Would you mind sharing with us how many actual replies did you get and if you had to turn down any of these companies and why?

    • Hi Karoll,

      Thanks for the reply. I’ve just replied to Rahat’s comment, but i’ll mention it briefly here. We made a concious effort to target management and marketing companies of celebrities and brands, as we knew that they were in constant contact with high profile celebrities and companies who might need our services. As a result, it’s paid off very well, and brought tens of thousands of pounds of revenue to our company in the last six months.

      In terms of the replies I got from my initial emails to companies, there weren’t many if I’m being honest. A lot of them were probably suspicious of a company cold-emailing them offering full website design for free. I would be suspicious of “what’s the catch” if I’d received such an email, so I can understand it in some respects.

      But out of about 30 agencies we contacted, we made deals with three of them, with each sending more than enough additional work to cover the initial freebie cost several times over. One agency in particular though has been responsible for about 60% of our revenue in the last 6 months. But all three continue to send clients on a monthly basis. We intend on doing some more giveaways in the next few months to try and further replicate the results.

      Best,
      Conor

  4. I agree with the comments above. Did you offer your free services to specific clients? I would think advertising free websites online can attract a lot of clients that you wouldn’t want to work with in future. I know quite a few people that simply go after free services (extreme couponing) but actually don’t help with referrals after they get what they want.

    Thanks for sharing what your company did. I definitely agree free services are affective for growing a business, but we do need to be careful on how it’s executed.

    • Hey Samantha,

      Thanks for the reply, check out my replies to comments just above yours – we had a very clear strategy of only targeting customers that we wanted to work with – companies such as PR and celebrity management agencies. These were companies we knew that were in contact with the type of customers who would need a website. We would never give a free website away to anyone who just asked for one, so it was completely on our terms and to customers we actively wanted to work with.

      Conor

  5. Awesome article! I think it’s a genius strategy when you do it right. The one thing you mentioned was being able to get into the industry you’ve always wanted to be in. By targeting them with freebies, you are more likely to get recommendations for similar companies.
    When you think about it to, it’s not just giving websites away for free. The money you loose on those free website are actually just considered part of your marketing budget!

    Thanks for sharing!
    Megan

    • Hi Megan,

      Thanks for the comment, and the compliments on our strategy. I can’t overstate just how great the plan has affected our company and the type of clients we work with. Before this strategy, we were competing on price at the low end of the market.

      Sometime around six months ago we made a very clear strategic change in the way we marketed ourselves and our product, and wanted to instead target the higher end of the market, and thus, increase the amount of revenue and profit we earned per job. With the giveaway plan to the type of clients we knew we wanted to work with (high net-worth individuals, and companies with a decent budget for a website), we have managed to increase the average profit per job by 140%. As you can imagine, that has been huge for our company, and it’s a plan we intend to use again soon (just as soon as we’ve caught up with all the work we already have).

      Conor

  6. We are a start-up and I find the idea very interesting. Would like to try it for sure. Will let you know if it worked for us.

    • Hi Tina,

      Thanks for the comment. We were initially a very small company when we decided to use this as a marketing strategy (2 employees), and we’ve grown to 10 employees in the last six months as a direct result of this plan.

      And it’s the ONLY form of ‘marketing’ we have actually done to increase our revenue, so the amount of business we have received has been a direct result of these giveaways.

      Conor

  7. Big applause to you! Being an entrepreneur is taking risks and thats exactly what you did.

  8. I LOVE this article! :) Thank you so much! Loved that you thought outside the box! I have approached 15 wedding professionals (as I would like to work with them) last year but either no response or they say they are already doing re-branding with someone else, even though they say yes to an initial email!?!

    I am wondering how you pitched it to them. Was there a few emails back and forth or just the pitch of a free website?

    Not sure where I am going wrong…

    Thank you!

    Shirley

    • Hi Shirley,

      Thanks for the comment.

      To be honest, I had a lot of knockbacks to my emails before I got a yes.

      I think people can naturally be suspicious of someone willing to give them for free, what is essentially quite an expensive service or product. So you have that challenge to overcome before they even consider your email.

      I was cold-emailing these people, so I never had any previous contact with them. But I basically said, I was interested in working with some of their clients by building a website for the client for free. A lot of the companies either didn’t reply or said no.

      But I began to see a pattern in the companies that said yes to me. Whenever I e-mailed a management company that didn’t themselves have a website, I offered to build THEM a website for free, on the condition that they also agreed to getting one of their celebrities to have a website through us. So I was essentially giving two sites away.

      Initially, my eyes were still on the celebrity clients. That was the prize for me. As it would turn out, although they did the odd retweet, it was the management companies that proved to be the massive winner for us, because of the people they were in contact with. So after this happened, we switched up our plan and started offering websites to management companies, instead of the celebrities.

      So the lesson I took away from this was: Unless there is something in it for the management company, they weren’t going to go out of there way to hook me up with their clients. And I’m so glad I got that lesson, because it paid off big time. We never could have expected the amount of paid work those companies sent in our direction.

      I wish you the best of luck in replicating this with your wedding professionals. And sorry for the long reply.

      Conor

  9. It’s great to hear of a creative way to market that worked well for you…my brain is working figuring out how to take this idea and tweak it to work for my business. Thanks so much!

  10. Shirley says:

    Hi Coner,

    I took your comments to heart and have done a couple of design items (for free) to wedding prfessionals, it took me about 30 emails but was able to give away 2 design projects out of it and have 3 referrals and 1 paying client so far! It’s not much but I wanted to keep you in the loop and thank you again for your encouraging words!!

    • Hey Shirley,

      That is great. I hope it can do for your business what it has done for mine. I have far more work than I can reasonably cope with right now. It’s a great problem to have. I wish you the very best.

      Conor

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