Where do I even start? Let’s start with the setting. It was April 2005. I was working full-time as an in-house designer for the nicest and most boring people in the world. The pay was pretty good, but it wasn’t enough to support my Toronto-sized mortgage and family. So like most of you, I was doing a little something on the side.
The thing on the side was called The Blog Studio. I’d been thinking about blogging an awful lot, due in large part to the huge benefits this blog had brought me. It also seemed like a smart idea to hop on the Long Tail and go after a really narrow niche. Blogging was a lot smaller back then. Most companies were just starting to hear about blogs. There were only a handful of people working in blogging at the time – competition was thin.
So I set up a website, and started writing about blogging. It was an easy subject to write about. I was passionate. Really into it: I drank the kool-aid. To make a long story short, I made some great friends online. One asked me to do fill in on his blog with another couple of folks while he was away. That’s where I met another new friend. Together we redesigned her well known blog and shared the process. That led to a lot of exposure, and a lot of new business.
Before I knew it, I was too busy to go to my day job. To be honest, I had to leave. My back was in really rough shape, and the long commute was killing me. It was tough to walk away from full benefits. Together as a family we’d been through some really difficult times. The reserves were tapped. So we were really forced into making the jump to full time self-employment: the lure of being able to pay our bills was in the air.
Six months earlier I’d sworn I wouldn’t own a business again. It was too much stress. It wasn’t worth it. There have been a couple of times during the past 18 months where I’d have agreed.
Trouble started almost right away. I didn’t know how to say no. I was terrified, you understand. I *had* to make a certain, relatively large sum of money. So when someone offered me work, I said yes. Learn from my mistake: do not do this.
I had no idea what I’d gotten into. I have a retail and marketing background. I’d never owned a web design studio. I knew how to manage projects, in general terms. But the specifics – forget it. All I knew was that I was in the right place, at the right time, and that I had to catch the wave.
That’s a pretty great analogy actually. I had three choices: paddle like crazy to catch the wave of growing interest in blogging, let it pass me by, or get crushed by it. I don’t think I could have lived with myself if I let this one go, so I paddled like my life depended on it.
I worked every minute I possible (and then some). I hired a guy full time. Then another. I took on a partner, then hired another guy, all in less than a year. The growth was amazing. So were the growing pains. The work wasn’t getting done on time. I hated to hear the sound of the phone ringing. I cringed when I checked my email. But we were up front and honest with our clients, something I know saved a couple of important relationships. We lost a couple that way as well. We took our knocks and kept our heads up. We were learning as fast as we could.
A guy can only pound his head against the wall so many times before he realizes it’s not improving the situation. Having staff in-house wasn’t working. I was convinced that having a team under one roof was the way to go. And hey! I was wrong. Paying everyone except yourself isn’t a lot of fun. There are a couple of reasons the in-house experiment went the way it did. First and foremost, we weren’t charging enough. Secondly, I was distracted and being pulled in too many directions. Thirdly I’m a crappy project manager.
Of those three points, the first is the most important. If you charge enough, you can cover up an awful lot of mistakes. Don’t charge enough though, and your billings become a magnifying glass for every single inefficiency and hiccup in your business.
I credit the fact that The Blog Studio is a viable business today to a willingness to let our egos take a pounding, and to learn. A couple of years ago, I was forcibly taught that it’s ok to make mistakes, that it’s part of business, part of life. Because of this, instead of trying to sweep our gaffs under the carpet, we examined them. We’re a moderately smart group of people, so we avoided a lot of the really big mistakes. Still, we were taken for a couple of grand a couple of times. If you’re starting out, be prepared for that: it will happen.
Today we’ve got a business structure that makes sense. My partner Lucia manages clients and projects, I manage design and technology. We work with a close team of contractors (including the above-mentioned former full timers). Our processes have matured to the point where we know what we’re doing; our clients keep calling us to do more work for them, so something’s gotta be right! Most months I can even pay my bills.
The past 18 months have been one hell of a ride. But then, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Safety is all fine and good, but unless you taste danger, you’ll never know how good you’ve got it.