Lately there has been a lot of talk about the extremely difficult year many of us in the Digital World have had. This past week, Carl Smith (@carlsmith) of nGen Works and Gene Crawford (@genecrawford) of UnmatchedStyle released a podcast I was hoping someone would record (found here). It was a very somber podcast in which Carl went into great detail about the issues many web shops have been feeling lately. I know of at least a dozen folks that have been negatively impacted this year and Blue Fish was one of them.
Last year (2013), Blue Fish grew at an extraordinary pace. We were more profitable than previous years. This momentum allowed Tad and Keaton to came on board as employees in early 2014 and we hit the ground running. About mid-summer something happened that in about a decade of running Blue Fish I'd never experienced. About mid-summer we had $150k in our sales pipeline, including several projects that were in the range of $40-70k. Some of these were deals I was certain we were going to get. They had budget. We were a fit. They liked our proposed solution. But then all of the sudden the prospective clients just went radio silent. It was a weird feeling. Fortunately, we had some previously scheduled work to finish up and some maintenance contracts that would bring in some revenue. But we were far from our normal project load by a looooong shot and it stressed me out. It got worse before it got better. There was about a month long period where we had no work and no real prospects. I would lay on my bed at night and stare at the ceiling. We had some savings, but I feared I was going to have to let someone go during the holidays. But then, just like it all the work went away quickly, we had an influx of incoming requests. And we've since closed on a handful of contracts that are going to keep us busy till after the first of the year.
Coming out the other side of the desert (knock on wood), I have a few thoughts. The first is this: our industry is going through some changes. I loved it when Carl said, in the aforementioned podcast, that we are an arrogant industry (21 mins in). We like to take stands on technology and process. Our way is the best! We do this partly to separate ourselves from the thousands of other shops out there offering similar services. The truth is, change is happening and to the extent that you can foresee it and adapt the better off you will be. Entrenching yourself on dogmatic ideology is going to sink you fast.
Second, I have noticed that for smaller shops like ours there is a “Good Enough” mentality that we are working against. In the business world, when it comes to marketing sites, prospects see little difference between a freelancer offering to install Wordpress and a theme for $1000 vs our niche of creating a custom site using ExpressionEngine for much more than that amount. In their eyes, the Wordpress theme is “Good Enough”. In that same vein, companies like Squarespace are also chipping away at the pool of likely clients.
Third, there are also many many more people offering web services than ever before. I used to go to local chamber events and have the business audience to myself. Now when I go I usually see 3-4 other shops represented. Creating websites is a popular business now and we are training people every day that will be our competition in less than a year. That shouldn't disuade us from training them but it is something we need to be cognizant of.
But enough of the negativity. If you are like us, we've conciously chosen this field. We love the craft. We enjoy the late nights and the almost musical way that we can riff off of another creative developer or designer. So what can we do to make those sleepless nights less of an occurence?
Plan for the rough times. Seriously. Take a step back and figure out what it would take for you to carry the business for 3 months or more with little to no receivables. This means setting aside enough money to carry the business for a minimum of 3 months. If you are the business owner I would say you should have personal savings equal to no less than 6 months of your salary. Figure out what non-essential tools, subscriptions, or expenses your business carries and eliminate them immediately when going through a hard time. It may only be $100 here or $50 there but it adds up. And if it is not money that absolutely needs to be spent then you shouldn’t be spending it anyway.
Next, when you find yourself in this situation, take action. Make a concerted effort to actively find new work. Sitting around depressed that no one is contacting you is not the right attitude. You may find yourself depressed. If so, then please reach out to someone to talk about it. Send some emails to former clients. Try and see if contracts that you didn't follow up on are still available. Reach out to other business owners in the industry and see if they have any work. Double down on your content generation and write some articles. Fix any issues with your site that may be keeping you from getting the exposure you want.
But most of all, just breathe... Hard times fall on everyone. Try and remember that you are not your business. To the extent that you can separate your identity from the business and try to remember that even if whatever you are doing dries up and goes away, that there are still plenty of people that love you and want to see you succeed. If you need to talk… email me.