21 rules for web design agencies and freelancers in 2021

Over 15 years I’ve developed several rules for working on projects and deciding what’s likely to be successful or not. Below are those roles in no particular order.

Money is often a deciding factor in whether a rule should be broken or not.

  1. When working on a site, ask yourself if the site offers some kind of “sticky” feature that makes you and it invaluable.
  2. Does the client prefer a sale over a like? If there’s lot of talks of likes and followers, pass.
  3. Make sure the client is a large enough and profitable enough enterprise already. Despite what people would like to think, no one can take a bad business into a good business simply by making a change on a website.
  4. For every page you design, write, or develop, make it the best page on the internet for that subject.
  5. Think very hard about working with friends or family. It usually ends in heartbreak for someone.
  6. Always ask a client for an emergency contact. If they die, what should you do with their digital estate?
  7. Make every effort to develop a personal relationship with every client and their staff.
  8. Never ask what a client’s goals are. The goal is always the same: “Sell more stuff”.
  9. Consider avoiding working with organizations that have in-house marketing staff. Their salaries and close access to internal politics usually supersedes efforts of outside agencies.
  10. Likewise, think carefully about working with organizations that have in-house IT staff. The needs of IT are often wildly contradictory to yours and even their customers.
  11. Most businesses need more than just a website. Remember that.
  12. Remember that people respect good products. This works for the client’s business, too. You ultimately can’t get people to “engage” with a business if that business simply doesn’t make a good product or service.
  13. Clients should never have to think about hosting, DNS, or domain name registration hassles. And make sure the client’s name appears on the domain name record as either the Owner or Admin in case you get hit by a bus.
  14. Be empathetic about why a client may be behind or unable to afford a bill. But don’t allow it to become an ongoing problem.
  15. The customer is not always right. Just because a customer can’t get a website to load on a 15-year old version of WebTV does not make them right. Set technology support limits in your contracts, and don’t be so unreasonable you say “This will only work in Chrome.”
  16. After you plan out a website, ask yourself what you would change if you couldn’t see, use a mouse, a trackpad, or hear well. Imagine you have a temporary injury. Now imagine it’s permanent.
  17. Email and social media is shallow work. Improving sites, analyzing data, writing new material, and producing valuable insights is work.
  18. From time to time, ask clients how they’re doing and what their biggest problem is. Also, see #9.
  19. Pay your taxes early.
  20. Save at least $500 a month between a rainy day fund and retirement.
  21. Ask yourself today if you can see yourself doing what you’re about to do in another thirty years. If the answer is “no”, ask yourself again.

I’ll be dead soon and once the memory is gone, what is there?

You might not know this about me, but I’m generally conservative about what I say and do. You might call this a character flaw.

I don’t like driving cars because the per-mile cost in sheer dollars seems too high to me. I don’t care to travel because eating out so often seems needlessly expensive. I don’t design aggressive and flashy websites for clients because it doesn’t seem helpful or necessary. I’m averse to paying for the most expensive dishes at a restaurant because I know I’ll be hungry again tomorrow. I don’t value those things.

It also informs how I feel about myself, and the value-less nature I take to my self.

I try to form opinions slowly. I tell people all the time I’m a “slow thinker” about a lot of things related to my life and work. Often I’m waiting for something to “feel right”, but I’ve never “felt right” about hardly anything. Some people say they have a “gut feeling” about things and I can’t remember a time I’ve ever felt a gut feeling about anything.

This is probably why I have a hard time getting along with people who move wildly from one trend or phase to another in hopes of increasing sales, getting more out of something, or chasing some improvement. My interest in history shaped my long-tail view that most things are fads or likely to be nothing burgers and everything requires more work and time than you think. “Settle down, no one cares about that right now” is repeated in my head half a dozen times a week.

This post is rambling, but my purpose here is to clarify thoughts about what it is I value.

I’m tired of my work. I don’t enjoy being on the Internet as much as I used to. I’ve tried to increase the distance between myself and Facebook, Reddit, or Twitter comments. I often post something here and think, “I’m sure a bunch of people will fall all over themselves to tap away some comment, but I’ll never bother to come back and read it.” If you’ve ever wondered why I don’t reply to something, it’s because I don’t have the energy to fuss over it.

But I increasingly don’t have the energy for a lot of things. I’m exhausted by constant conversations in my work about whatever the hell “Make it pop more” means. “It needs to be fresh and simple,” followed by a laundry list of features and what-if scenarios is another oft-repeated refrain in my inbox. There are four emails in my inbox right now about passwords people have forgotten they could just reset themselves. How this ended up how my day goes is beyond me.

When I think about what I ever wanted out of work and life is what anyone wants: the recognition that comes from excellent, world-leading work that is respected, successful, and functional. You might separate your work from your life, but I don’t. What you do is who you are, and you spend a lot of time doing your work.

Increasingly, the thing I’ve avoided for fear of being a “business failure” is the ability to quietly sit for long periods and think deeply about a client’s problem among a small team or by myself. Then produce a solution that is a home-run. It’s a struggle to do that when my phone dings constantly and emails pile in. Or when others don’t share the same gumption. I get up at 4:30 to get a head start on the day before everyone else, but increasingly people are just working around the clock in ways I can’t keep up. That stresses me out. I feel over-extended and unsupported.

I’ve privately and sometimes publicly alluded to my greatest fear: that I’ll be dead in the next five or ten years. My mom was 38 when her life was basically ended by a brain tumor. She died at 40. And from that stems my fear I’ll die with no significant work to prove my worth. I’ve even been reconsidering my wish to be cremated because the lack of a gravestone seems unsettling to me. I want to be remembered because once the last person with a memory of me dies, there’s no coming back from that. At least the gravestone marks my name.

I can’t get to a point where I can produce amazing, long-lasting work if every day is punctuated with people who need short term problems fixed like a printer making a funny noise or some customer on a five-year-old phone walked into an elevator and called to complain the website they were looking at didn’t finish loading (that legitimately happened). I don’t have time to care because I’ll be dead soon. I need to be more like Don Draper in Mad Men and treat these small problems like I do Twitter replies: “I don’t think about you at all.”

Winston Churchill

Hitting the Mark

Before he was Sir Winston Churchill, a young Winston was a writer for the The Daily Graphic. Working as a war correspondent for much of his reporting career, he became one of Britain’s most admired and sought-after writers. His reporting would lead the Boers to capture him in Africa in 1893. The daring late-night escape he undertook by himself from a Boer POW camp would catapult Churchill as a hero of the Empire.

That experience gave Churchill a lot to write about, too. It also shaped his views on war, duty, and what it was like to be a prisoner. That would come in handy later in life when he would be a prison warden adamant that prisoners deserved fresh air and books.

But it was his writing that made the man. Without it he never would have found himself in the situations that made him who he was. That was true in 1893, during WWI, and later in WWII.

46 years after the Boer war, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stared down Nazis. In desperate need of help, he reached for his pen. Late one evening by candlelight, Churchill wrote a letter to the new President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Churchill wrote what he thought was a great letter. He congratulated the new president on his campaign victory. He told him Britons stood alongside him and the Americans. And more to the point asked for Roosevelt to send Britain as many decommissioned, old, and otherwise serviceable but unused planes, tanks, and other equipment America had lying around. He knew America had 50 destroyers we weren’t using and Churchill needed them.

Churchill sealed his letter and sent it to Washington. Then he waited.

Weeks passed with no reply from Roosevelt. Not even a telegram.

Publicly Churchill demurred that Roosevelt “must be busy” and that his letter “got lost amongst all the new mail and shuffling around in the White House”. FDR, after all, was battling a depression domestically and more mail was coming into the White House at a rate never seen. The White House hired the first significant and modern mail staff to just handle all the letters.

But quietly, aides said the lack of response hurt Churchill. Not because he needed to know he had a new friend, but because as Churchill mused, “A writer always wants to know his writing hit the mark. And this did not.”

Churchill penned what he thought was a perfect piece. And it never accomplished its goal. It never hit the mark.

Later when Churchill and FDR would meet and form one of the best bromances in western civilization, Churchill learned FDR had read that inaugural letter but did nothing with it. Politically, involvement in the “European war” was still too touchy. FDR had too many other things to do. So, his response was to not respond at all.

I think about this a lot when I write emails. I think about it more when I write blog posts because while I see posts do well in Google search results, few get more than several dozen readers when first published.

I write and design and build things for clients and know thousands and hundreds of thousands of people will see it. Meanwhile, I can only hope it hits the mark.

And frequently I do not. In fact, 99% of the time I do not. I do not entice people to buy, or share, or read, or watch, or take a survey, or even click a link.

I’m working on a book, which is nearly finished and will release later this year. I can only hope it hits the mark, too, but realize it probably will not.

This is the creator’s ultimate demon. For people who don’t fancy themselves “creators”, but do sometimes produce a presentation or document, or stand by while someone like me does so for them, they aren’t accustomed to the sting of not hitting the mark. And it hurts.

The best we can do is trudge on, try to get better, and remember that even lions like Churchill missed the mark.

Creating more than you consume

I’ve hammered on financial radio host Dave Ramsey before, but I’m impressed with his mastery of his show. I don’t listen to it, but I have in the past, and I know a lot of people who do listen to it. The gist is:

  1. Don’t ever go into debt.
  2. Pay off any debts you do have.
  3. Invest in mutual funds.

There’s more detail to it, like the percentage of money you should invest and so forth. But the simplicity of his message distills to “Don’t spend money you don’t have and earn more money”. It makes for entertaining radio.

I was thinking about his format this weekend because the “earn more” bit is grating. A person with $150,000 in debt and a $35,000 a year income will call in and he’ll tell them they have an income problem. They do, but the way to get into a better job never comes up much. That’s for the caller to just figure out.

It’s always about finding a better job though. Ramsey rarely encourages people to go into business themselves. That could be self-selecting because callers looking to go into business often have a bunch of other financial or personal problems.

Here’s the funny thing about all this, though: his advice to grow wealth is tied to the stock market. “Invest in good growth-stock mutual funds” …and wait 60 years. I get that for a lot of people that’s the safe, tried-and-true way. But did Dave Ramsey make his millions investing entirely in the stock market?

No, he did not.

Dave Ramsey made a business out of selling other people advice he wouldn’t settle for. If he called his own show 20 or 30 years ago he would have told himself to “Find a better job, chip away at debt, and invest.”

That’s not bad advice. But what did Ramsey actually do?

  • He wrote a book that simplifies a complex problem on an issue that impacts millions of people.
  • Started a series of talks and classes in churches (soft targets for people to speak about anything to a captive audience) to push that book and his name.
  • Published that book and worked into the syndicated radio show business to finally expand his reach to millions of people.

That’s all very impressive. I’m genuinely impressed at his ability to grow that and keep reinventing the wheel to expand into all kinds of different markets. He’s in the business of lecturing at middle and high schools, writing children’s books and faith-based books, plus podcasts, web series, and designing financial planning services that compete against Mint.

You have to do something else

If I hosted a competing radio show, I’d be telling callers another hard truth on how to achieve wealth: you must create more than you consume.

What you create must be able to scale up and reach millions of people (this is the fundamental flaw with my business).

My three steps would be:

  1. Turn off the TV and video games and spend that time building, writing, drawing, cooking, or creating something.
  2. Ensure what you’re creating can be reproduced or consumed by 10 people or 10,000 people.
  3. What you do consume should be related to your craft (like books on the subject).

This is somewhat antithetical to the notion of getting a job. People who grind at a job all day don’t have much mojo left at the end of the day to work on a book or a wood lathe. It can be done, but realistically most people just don’t have that ability. There’s also something to be said for “all work and no play” making people into dullards or worse.

Ramsey’s advice is an indication of another uncomfortable truth: the path to wealth in American is less and less through a job unless you’re in a highly credentialed field (law, medicine, etc.). It’s more through creation of your own business where you own the means of production.

In a capitalist society the whole thing would fall apart if everyone was a company owner. Eventually you require laborers. Creating a business is always a huge risk for people, too.

Just as Ramsey’s advice is to never go into debt and “make more money”, mine would go above that: “consume less and create more world-class stuff.”

Indianapolis landscapers should be considered hellscapers.

The funny thing about Indianapolis is how you can bump into people in ways like you might think of in a small town. I guess it’s not impossible a person in Chicago or New York might randomly see someone around town in the course of a day’s errands. But I think it happens more here.

To give you an example I met a guy for coffee one afternoon. I can’t even remember where or why I extended the invitation, but it was probably Facebook. After seeing this guy’s name in a few circles about some website work I figured it was worth a chat. I make it my business to know people in my business.

We meet for bad coffee and service at Mo Joe’s and we talk about the usual niceties. He’s from El Paso, Texas. Works for a local shop that makes websites for high end service groups. In both cases he’s simultaneously more southern and more webby than me. Which is annoying.

Before we go he mentions his boyfriend was at the table right behind me the whole time. Not coincidentally, of course, but we took a few moments to talk about his work. Turns out he’s interested in freelance architecture design that’s more approachable and affordable for average people.

We part ways and a few weeks later my ash tree in the front lawn dies. Those two facts aren’t related, but I also have no proof they aren’t.

And in the funny way Indianapolis ticks, I saw these two guys a couple more times. Once on my bike on the way home. Then again twice in one weekend at two distinctly different places miles apart from each other.

The whole time my ash tree continued its slow death slide into being a literal stick in the ground.

In pursuit of finding a guy to cut down and replace the tree I discovered that the people who cut down trees aren’t the people who put them in the ground. Those seem like obvious lateral business moves to me, but I’m not a lumberjack or a landscaper.

After finding a bunch of quotes from landscapers and tree removers in the range of $500-$1000, these were all far higher than I valued such a service. So applying a process I call “encouraging people to do it for less”, I managed to get a guy to do it for $375. Henson’s Landscaping did a fine job of chopping down the tree and grinding out the stump. I just wish I could have gotten them to give me ideas on the “landscaping” part of their name. But they never returned my call. Like about a dozen other places in town. It was starting to become a vast hellscape of broken promises. I wasn’t indicating anything other than “I have a house. I’d like some landscaping.”

So I turn to calling all kinds of places for quotes on landscaping. All the ones that showed up in trucks with logos on them were immediately out of the running. Too pricey with too much overhead. I know how much guys like me cost, and someone has to pay that logo designer.

And in step with Indianapolis’ modus operandi, these two guys I met for coffee popped in my head. “I bet they know people who know things about trees.”

Turns out they know things about trees. Joey Ponce and Brian Burtch, both operating under the banner of “City in Green” came out to the house and gave me 100% more than at least a dozen other places around here would: in that they actually came to the house and gave me a quote. No other landscaper seemed to bother giving me the quote or showing up when scheduled. Brian’s a licensed architect with his firm NEON Architecture, so the quote even had schematics of my house and property lot. Which was both helpful and creepy.

I like hiring people who operate at small scale. They care more and are way more affordable, but are the hardest to find. I got lucky bumping into these guys.

Brian and Joey gave me an estimate, they stuck to it, and we were able to split things into phases to meet the seasons and my budget. This weekend they came out and replaced the death hole in my front lawn with three new trees. A red maple, dogwood, and eastern redbud. They’ll grow quickly, look good, and they’re not ash trees, so they stand a solid chance of not being eaten alive by supper.

City in Green's first project

Next spring we’ll throw down phase two: a mulch bed off the front of the house with native grasses and plants. And by “we” I mean them while I stand around remembering how much I don’t like to be dirty and Jeremiah makes dinner.

As it turns out this was their first landscaping project. You should be their second. Because this is how Indianapolis works and and stays looking nice.