“People, in general,” he said, “only ask advice not to follow it; or if they do follow it, it is for the sake of having someone to blame for having given it.”
– Athos in The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Web development agencies no longer function in the best interests of the clients they claim to serve
It’s a bold statement but one I will back up with a little story. And don’t take the sentiment to be all doom and gloom – I’ll go on to tell you how I think acceptance of this new situation can enable you to become an indispensable linchpin of an organisation in which you already work, or enable you to steal a march on your competitors if you are starting your own business online.
Once upon a time…
There lived an idealistic young graphic designer and web developer. He cut his teeth in the marketing department of a drinks manufacturing company. Over the years he built a number of the company’s websites and hired and worked with outside contractors on their other websites.
At the same time, he was building up a freelance business providing web development and online consultancy to other companies. In this guise, he was the outside contractor.
When operating as an employee of the manufacturing company he:
- was an expert in the products the sites were designed to sell – he knew those products inside out
- felt he had to produce the best work he could to maintain status amongst a peer group he was in contact with everyday (his fellow employees)
- had a full 8 hours per day dedicated to those sites
- was on-site with all the other decision makers involved with the business and its related websites
- knew intimately the decision makers and how to influence them
- had authority to make decisions autonomously
When operating as an outside contractor for other companies he:
- knew little about the products the sites were designed to sell – time had to be budgeted to understand the products
- had to consider the financial budget and only provide a commensurate amount of effort before moving onto the next paid job
- would move from job to job as time and money dictated (suffering the mental disruption that ensued)
- worked off-site with reduced access to decision makers
- had to take time to get to know the decision makers and learn what made them tick
- had to take time to earn the authority to make decisions autonomously
That swashbuckling young web dev was, of course, me.
Since those days I’ve built websites for businesses ranging from small solicitors firms to multi-million pound turnover companies selling helicopters. The same issues occur again and again. In fact, the problems have gotten worse in recent years.
And no. Retainers don’t work either
Many freelancers and web development agencies will work towards a goal of a retained position with their clients. In this situation, the agency receives a fixed monthly retainer in return for a set number of hours of work. If in any given month the agency does a few extra hours the retainer stays the same, on the basis that there will be other months in which they do a few hours less. If the agency does much more than the retained number of hours there is an overage fee.
When I left full-time employment with the manufacturing company, I carried on working with them in exactly this capacity.
Retainers sound like a win-win situation for the agency and the client. The agency is obligated to put in a given number of hours every month and the client gets a better rate because of the guaranteed turnover of work.
And yet the agency model still fails.
Let me explain, using a real life example:
I was contacted by a supplier to my old employer who had left his previous position and taken up a new role with a video production company. He was offering a great rate to produce a series of videos of the company’s products, format them for various online video platforms and get them ranking well in the search engines.
It was a good opportunity for my old employer, who didn’t have any product videos at that point. But I knew taking up the offer would result in extra effort on my part overseeing the production. It would take up a much greater amount of time over the next couple of months than was budgeted for that client.
Now I could have charged an overage fee, but in those same months I had the chance to build a website for a new client. This would be far more profitable than a little bit of overage. Suffice to say my old employer never heard about the deal – but they still paid me my retainer.
This was just one of many decisions I had to make as a retained contractor.
The problem has been a while coming. But it’s here to stay
Now based on the points above you could argue that the agency model of work has never worked in the best interests of the businesses who employ their services. But of course, in reality no business can do everything. There will always be a certain amount of expertise that has to be outsourced.
It’s always been the case that a business is defined by it’s in-house core competencies (eg. manufacturing drinks). As a business grows, more of the skills essential to the day-to-day running of any business get brought in-house (for example accounts or sales). The skills that are less essential to the day-to-day running of a particular business can carry on being performed by outside agencies. A company’s website has historically fallen into this category.
There are two things that have changed over the course of the last few years:
- The importance of any company’s website to its overall business success has increased dramatically
- The authority of the content on a website has become the primary indicator of that website’s worth – and hence determines it’s position in search engine rankings
The first fact means that web development must move closer to being a core competency of any business if that business wishes to see continued success.
The second fact means that the people producing content for the website must be experts in what they’re talking about. And nobody understands a company’s product or service better than the employees of that company.
These facts in combination mean that businesses large and small are best served by bringing web development and web content production in-house. The writing is on the wall for web development agencies.
So who is going to build my online business?
I know what you’re thinking… it’s one thing for a large, well funded company to hire a team of top-flight web development hot shots and talented copywriters but it’s quite another for a small company or bootstrapped startup. Well WP Musketeer is all about a process, a philosophy and a set of connected technologies that enables small businesses or brand new startups to build their own online business platform.
I thought we were talking about websites? What do you mean by “online business platform”?
Up until now, I’ve carelessly used the term “website”. It’s the cavalier Musketeer attitude don’t you know!
Let’s return to the two major points above – your website is critical to your business’s continued success and the “authority” of your website determines its worth in comparison to your competitors. But what is website “authority”?
Authority is the esoteric value of your content to those who consume it, but the authority I’m specifically talking about here is a quantitive reckoning of your online presence (a score) as determined by the search engines.
Your online presence encompasses your activity on social media, in related forums, on other peoples’ blogs, in email campaigns and of course the content on your own website. It is a function of the discussion in the community you are aiming to build around your content (Seth Godin calls these communities Tribes). Your online community or tribe is central to your business’s success online. Your engaged community is your breeding ground for brand ambassadors and eventually, paying customers.
For the search engines to attribute all this community activity to the right author it needs to link back to a central point that represents you and your company and that is under your control.
That central point is, of course, your website. (Hint: We’re going to use WordPress.)
So your “online business platform” is composed of:
- Your WordPress website and its content (including blog)
- Your social media accounts
- Activity on other people’s sites, forums or social media accounts
- Your email campaign activity
…All tightly integrated.
It also includes the more traditional components of a business which benefit from being integrated with the website in one form or another:
- Order management
- Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
Who is WP Musketeer for?
If you’ve got this far you are most likely one of two types of person:
- An entrepreneur with a startup product or service ready to start building your business online
- A forward thinking employee of a small to medium sized business with the drive to improve your company’s online presence from within
You’re probably also thinking things like:
I’m an accountant, I don’t do design, how do I make a website that looks as good as my competitor’s?
I want to sell awesome looking socks but I can’t be doing with entering them into a database AND updating my Twitter account at the same time!
You might also be thinking:
This sounds like it requires a huge team of employees, I’m not ready to bring in that much talent just yet
WP Musketeer is for you…
WP Musketeer is about a set of integrated technologies and a process for building your online business platform that can be put into action by a single, dedicated person who is willing to work outside their normal skill set.
- It doesn’t remove the need for hard work – but it will help you choose the right areas in which to focus your efforts
- It isn’t about cutting corners for the sake of a quick win – but it will help you prioritise your time and be more productive
- It doesn’t compromise quality for free or cheap – but it will help you get the most bang for your buck
Specialisation is for insects
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
– Lazarus Long in Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein
I believe it’s a fallacy that we have to pursue a specialisation to be successful in our careers. On the contrary, being a “Jack of all trades, master of many” is not only possible, I believe it’s essential for attaining the over-arching view required to connect the dots and implement the master plan of a tightly integrated business – to be the “CEO” of your online business platform.
I won’t repeat what Tim says, but I’m suggesting you can and should be the one to “own” every aspect of your online business platform. Or if you’re an employee trying to boost your company’s success online you need to “own” what elements you can to surreptitiously get the platform off the ground (once you demonstrate success, you’ll be given ownership of more – I guarantee it).
To start with, owning every element means deciding on a course of action and then being the person to action it. When your business experiences the success we’re all aiming for, you can invest that success in staff who take on the work whilst you concentrate more on planning and networking with your expanding online community.
Once you reach this stage, your understanding of the integrated elements of your online platform gained from being a “polymath” will help you steer a course into an even more successful future.
Are you ready to join me on this journey?
I want to take you on a course through the choppy waters of a web-based business. Together we can negotiate the changing landscape of online success in the same way the three musketeers (and d’Artagnan!) negotiated the tricky politics of France under King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu (stop me when the Musketeer references get too much).
I’ll show you, step-by-step, the technologies and techniques I’ve discovered over the years to drive this online growth. But I also want to learn from you.
Every business is different and you will encounter struggles in your online growth that are different to my own experiences. Together we can build a community around self-powered online business – and together we can learn to leap the hurdles we come across.
This article has been a long one, but hopefully it gives you a little background on where I’ve come from, why I’ve come to the conclusions I have and why I recommend the process I’m going to describe in following articles. These articles will include:
- The Components of an Online Business Platform – A more detailed look at the components outlined above
- Your Product or Service – None of this will work if you’re trying to sell a mediocre product or run-of-the-mill service
- Branding 1: Know Your Customer
- Branding 2: What’s In a Name?
- Building Your Hub – Installing WordPress
- Content Marketing (including Search Engine Optimisation)
- Email Marketing
- Social Media Marketing
- Back-office Systems – Yes, even these systems can be integrated nowadays
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If you think I’m nuts, that web development agencies are in fact a panacea for all sizes of business or that specialising in a particular role is the only way to progress to the top of your game let me know on Google+.