I’m Jason Pelker. Like most people, I hate to write about myself.
Last week, I joined Brennan Dunn’s Freelance Guild, though. The Guild was built to help a small group of hand-picked consultants and freelancers hold each other accountable in their business practices.
One of our first assignments was to write an introduction for ourselves. I’ve never written a full account of how Item-9 came to be, so I’ve decided to republish that introduction here on the blog.
Note that I’ve tried to be as transparent as possible and some of this history isn’t exactly flattering.
It is the truth, though.
And I think the mistakes I’ve made are the biggest determinants of where this business is today and where it’s going in the future. Hopefully, you, too, find inspiration in this account. Enjoy!
Ancient History (my education)
- Born March 21, 1982
- Grew up in St. Louis, MO with zero business or financial education
- Determined to go to college on the beach
- Studied International Business at Eckerd College (St. Petersburg, Florida). Dream job: manage a hotel abroad
- Shortly before graduation, I realized that idea was silly
- Traveled to Europe for a few months
- Graduated with $36,000 in student loan debt and a 500 credit rating
- With no job, I moved back to St. Louis shortly after graduation
- Unable to get a job there, either. Ran out of money.
The Middle Ages (me sucking at web design)
- Moved to Chicago (2005). Last time I needed to borrow money from mom.
- Immediately found an entry-level position at Big Brothers Big Sisters
- Paid mom back after one month
- Volunteered to redesign BBBS website
- Had no idea how to do that
- Realized no one else (even professional web designers) did, either
- Figured that might make a good career
- Quit and then took a communications job at United Way (2006)
- Doubled my salary
- Refused to do any of the email creating responsibilities and instead, focused on rebuilding websites in this new software call WordPress and creating promo videos
- Quit and took a job as web developer at another nonprofit. Increased salary by 50% (2008)
- Hated the new job. Quit again at the beginning of the recession (2009)
The Renaissance/Inquisition (me freelancing)
- Traveled to Costa Rica. Read The Four Hour Workweek.
- Returned three weeks later and started a WordPress site building/rebranding company
- Ran that poorly for three years
- Acquiescing to numerous client demands and whims
- Got better at web design, development and WordPress
- Needing a mental break, moved to Austin, TX for eight months (2011)
- Lived in a co-op near the University of Texas. Learned management skills.
- Studied personal finance. Began raising my credit score.
- Got really into improv and acting. Learned communication skills.
- Running out of money, I moved back to Chicago to do the exactly same work I had been doing, only for a lame web design/SEO company (2012).
- Used the Find Your Dream Job course by Ramit Sethi to land this job.
- Couldn’t handle the increased workload (for the same amount of pay as freelancing), so quit after six weeks
- Continued building WordPress sites for clients who had no business plan or profits
- Tried partnering with a design company. Hated converting PSDs. Quit/fired/not paid after two months (2013)
- Got held hostage for final payment by one last client. Decided to retool business after speaking with another, smarter WordPress consultant
Industrial Revolution (now: consulting & traveling)
- Began selling services in advance for 10 hour blocks.
- Found the writing of @brennandunn, Patrick McKenzie, Ben Hunt, et al.
- Started studying conversion optimization, A/B testing and direct marketing
- Moved away from selling WordPress build-outs
- Raised rates ($125=>$150) for the first time in four years.
- Raised rates again ($150=>$200). Even sold a daily rate a few times
- Studied frequent flyer program hacking. Earned 300,000 miles in two years.
- Raised my credit score to 770
- Worked down to $29,000 in student loan debt, plus saving $11,000 for retirement and $6,000 cash in the bank
- Decided to travel around the world. Currently, I’m in Guanajuato, Mexico
Space Age (the future!)
- Dissolve all flexible retainer agreements
- Instead, promote fixed, recurring revenue through new conversion optimization subscription service
- Launch easy-to-edit website subscription service
- Create a course
- Automate lead gen/sales pipeline for above services
- Start advertising again
- Kickstart Top Secret retail product I created
- Eliminate all student loan debt
- Finance a yacht of the coast of Greece (just kidding)
And…I think that’s about everything. If you have any thoughts or ideas, let me know in the comments below.
If your law firm’s web designer can’t provide robust answers to the following ten simple questions, fire them. Today.
- “How much is the right amount to spend on my website, and why?”
- “How much traffic will I get, and what’s the average earning per visitor?”
- “When will I see a return on my investment?”
- “What will you do to maximize my ROI and minimize my risk?”
- “How do you know the new site will do better than the old one?”
- “How will you make my site perform better over time?”
- “How will you research my competition and my prospective market?”
- “How viable is my proposition against other firms?”
- “How will we prove the viability of this project?”
- “Should I invest in content marketing, social media, video, mobile, pay-per-click, local SEO? Why?”
You see, there are two kinds of web designers:
- Those whose goal it is to make your website make YOU money.
- And the rest, whose goal it is to make money for themselves.
The latter represents the vast majority of web designers out there.
They don’t understand that web design is marketing, and – to be honest – they don’t understand marketing either.
They’ll charge you as much as they think you’ll pay for a new website, without considering how valuable the website will be to you. Perhaps they think that a sexy design is valuable in itself. It’s not.
At Item-9, we believe web design shouldn’t work like that.
A Better Way: Strategic Web Design
We practice “Strategic Web Design”.
That means we’ll only take on any project when we are confident that it will generate profit for our client.
Phase One: Internal and Competitor Research
How do we know? We do our research. We’ll consider all sources of traffic, and the cost of that traffic. Then we’ll estimate the likely earning per visitor, which helps us assess the potential viability of the project.
What does this cost? Just $999.
$999 is a small price to pay to know whether your web marketing project is likely to make you money (and how to go about it), or whether you’ll be better off investing your marketing budget elsewhere.
After reviewing the results of the research, if we agree to proceed, we’ll continue to watch over your budget very carefully. In fact, we tell our clients that we treat your money as if it were our own. So we’ll only invest in any exercise that we’re confident will generate a positive return.
Phase Two: Proof of Concept
Before a producer invests big money in a stage show, they’ll test it on audiences in smaller theaters.
Before a car maker invests in plant to build a new model, they’ll build prototypes to make sure it works as intended, in every way.
So, if you’re going to invest in your online marketing, why not insist on similar proof of concept? We think you should.
The second phase of Strategic Law Firm Web Design is just that – the proof of concept phase.
We’ll create a rapid prototype website, applying all the best practice we’ve accumulated. Here’s what’s radically different between the Strategic approach and the old-fashioned web design model…
A Strategic designer knows that, whilst sexy graphics can help a website to convert visitors, the core success factors are all down to content.
What’s your law firm’s position, who’s your market, what urgent problem do you promise to solve, why should people trust you?
These questions make the difference between success and failure.
So, if you want to know exactly how viable your project is, you need to prove it, by investing some time in creating marketing messages that include great content. Sexy design can often come later, but to invest days in graphics and production early on is a high-risk approach. (And we don’t like high risk.)
We’ll put a heap more effort into what matters: researching your competition, crafting your position, your unique point of difference, your offerings, your guarantee, your proof, etc., and much less effort into decoration.
That means you’ll get a bare-bones prototype solution. Now, that will often be a WordPress-based website, but it could be an e-commerce site, a Facebook page, or an email campaign… Whatever it takes to prove the concept!
The goal of the POC phase is to generate a baseline profit forecast. Put simply, that means, “Even with just the bare bones in place, we know we can generate $x per visitor.”
Remember, at this point, you have still committed less investment than you would have done by engaging an old-world web designer, who’ll charge you thousands up-front for a website, with NO IDEA when you’ll see your money back.
Why is the baseline profit forecast important?
Well, it will tell you how viable your project is right now. And with minimal investment required. That means you know (no guessing – you know) how much money you’ll make if we can increase traffic or conversion rates by 10%, 20%, 1000%…
Phase Three: Growth
Here’s another distinct difference between the old approach and the new, marketing-led Strategic approach.
If you work with a Strategic design team, you’ll enter into what will hopefully be a long-term relationship. Every month, it would be your design team’s goal to grow your profits, consistently and reliably.
There are really two ways we do this: by driving more qualified traffic, and by converting more of those visitors to customers.
That’s what we do at Item-9. We have a whole tool kit of tried-and-tested methods that we can confidently predict will generate more business and more profits for you. Every month, we’ll apply those methods that we think will generate the most growth.
Of course, as responsible marketers, we’ll test every change we make. Nobody knows for sure what will work for any particular market sector. So you have to test. Always.
You may have heard of the Japanese principle of kaizen. This means continual improvement. And it’s the approach we’ll use for your website.
Every month, we’ll try various techniques to attract more visitors, and to get more conversions. We’ll keep every change that works, and we’ll ditch any that don’t. Then we’ll try again.
What Does Strategic Web Design Cost?
Just like traditional old-fashioned design, it depends. over time, you could invest a few thousand dollars. Our newest service, Benchmark, costs $9,000/year.
But there are two key differences.
Firstly, with Strategic Web Design, you’ll commit to spending less than you would with a comparable traditional designer. Why? Because our methods are more efficient. We know where to invest time and energy.
Secondly, you should expect to see profits sooner from a Strategic web project, so further monthly investments are just that – investment, not cost.
Every dollar spent should generate more than one dollar for your law firm.
If it isn’t, you’re doing web design wrong.
Fire your web designer, and let’s treat your law firm with the respect it deserves.
From a customer:
After reading Convert! by Ben Hunt, I was wondering about the site and would it be beneficial to start over with WordPress or get a program like Dreamweaver and reformat on the website we have now? Thanks!
Answer #1: Dreamweaver Sucks
Great question! Although not really related to WordPress, Dreamweaver is not a fun or really, a useful tool to use for building websites. Never use it.
I do recommend starting over with WordPress or WordPress.com, though. In doing so, try to focus solely on keyword/awareness ladder marketing and sales writing. Your writing doesn’t have to be boring, but it does need to be strategic.
Answer #2: Invest in Strategic Landing Pages
You’ll likely want to create landing pages (these can even be blog posts) for every topic you can successfully pitch to (decent search volume and low competition), making sure each landing page either leads to the next step in the awareness ladder or collects user info in exchange for something of value.
Here are a few additonal landing page resources:
Note that the reason you’re starting over is to get rid of everything on your site that doesn’t lead to a sale–basically replacing YOU information with CUSTOMER information. Really, everything on your site must be geared toward your ideal customer. Talking about the business by itself will turn your customers away immediately.
Always ask yourself: Is this page solving my customer’s need? If not, what can I do to help them? Also, the bonus element of investing in strategic landing pages is that you now a highly-testable target to send your advertising traffic.
You can see that this is not your typical web design advice. Instead of focusing on the business biography or something superficial–such as the look of the website–I suggest that Jen invest in sales marketing and advertising to increase her business’s traffic and conversions.
If this sounds like something your business could use or if you have any questions about these tactics, please let me know. I’d also be happy to refer other professional marketers and writers. Thanks!
If you were a plumber, would you let your customers dictate how to install piping? No? Then, why should a web marketing allow an advertising novice to dictate how a website looks and behaves? That sounds like a disservice to both parties.
Damn You, Mr. Right.
I read an article in Freelance Advisor today that mentioned a freelancer type called, “Mr. Right”. I admit that I fall into this category more often than not. Do I need to listen to my clients more? Absolutely–and that’s a quality I will continue to improve. That doesn’t mean that I’m beholden to my clients’ opinions once the project begins, though.
Although it’s rarely acknowledged, the test of a web project’s success (or that of any advertising endeavor) is whether the new medium attracts and converts into revenue at a better rate than its predecessor (that’s why advertising has a cost to begin; it is supposed to have inherent value). Every other aspect of the project must lead to this end–including functionality, usability and especially design (or lack thereof).
I’m sorry if conversion rate is a lot harder to sell than “fun and attractive”, but it doesn’t make the above statement any less true. If you understand this idea, then guess what? You are the one responsible for leading the marketing project!
Everyone Has an Opinion
Too many client vs. developers arguments center around bike shed color arguments. No, the color of the site’s background probably doesn’t matter. Even if it did, how do we know which one converts best without first testing? Assumptions and best guesses have no place in a high-quality marketing campaign. Forcing opinions down your marketer’s throat is also a great way to strain your delicate relationship and tank your project.
Web developers and other marketers owe it to themselves and the client to explain this fact up front. If you start with a quantitative goal, nine times out of ten, the client will gladly get out of your way. You’ll both know the project’s objectives (and be able to measure them analytically) and best of all, you won’t have so many bike shed arguments, either.
You Are a Professional. Act Like It.
Quantitative revenue goals might be a tougher road (they actually require results, after all). They’ll probably also cause you to take on less clients; you’ll be less likely to take money to advertise a product or service that is unlikely to succeed.
In the end, though, you’ll undoubtedly land repeat business and you’ll actually have a portfolio that you can sell to future clients. You’ll also be able to charge for the value of your work (which is only limited by the amount of money you can make for your client), rather than a static hourly rate (which is highly limited by your peers and the marketplace).
Of course, therein lies the fundamental difference between an advertising professional and an outsource (and the difference between a rich developer and a poor one). At the end of the day, which one would you rather be?