Productizing Your Web Design Business

 
How to productize your web design business, a guest blog post by Andy Cabasso of Offsprout

When I first started my web design agency years ago, my partner and I realized that if we wanted to be able to build a brand and a company that could scale its growth, we would have to specialize.

When we started working together, my partner had been doing freelance web design for several years. And he ended up doing a lot of varied hourly and project work. From project-to-project, though, things could vary wildly. One problem with that is, all the knowledge and work he had done on his previous project could not be reused on dissimilar new projects.

Also, his business was just him working alone and could not scale easily, since his service ended up being his billable time to a client rather than a finished product.

He realized that if he had the same kinds of projects, serving a particular industry that he could market to, with a similar scope and structure on each project, he could more easily and efficiently deliver great-quality work to his clients.

But, this need to productize was not just an opportunity for our business, it was an opportunity for our clients too.

Our clients wanted to know what they were getting for their money, for a fixed price. And we wanted to be able to deliver consistent high-quality work with a certain time and labor investment.

From this problem, we developed a solution in our productized service.

We created a “product” that had a fixed price and fixed scope, with no surprises, where we could consistently deliver a high-quality finished product that exactly met our clients expectations. 

It ended up being a huge success. 

Three years after starting our productized web design business, it was acquired by a larger company that served our same target market. Without having our service productized and serving this particular market, that acquisition would not have been possible.

In this post, I’m going to break down everything you will need to do to build a productized service to help you build a scalable business.

Here is what we are going to tackle:

  • “Where You At?”

  • Finding Your Niche

  • Developing the Right “Product”

  • Delivering

  • Tools You’ll Need

  • Marketing

  • Next Steps


Where You At?

Step 1: Get a big picture look at where you’re at.

What are you doing today?

Before we jump into building your product, it’s best to assess where you’re at so you can make the best decisions moving forward.

If you’re doing web design work freelance, take a look at your work product.

What kind of projects do you like working on?

What type of clients are you enjoying working with?

What do your typical clients want from you?

The reason I want you to ask these questions is because they will be instructive of figuring out your niche and exact product.

Here’s an exercise, that should help you out.


Finding Your Niche

In creating a productized web design business, one aspect that I have found to be critically important is finding a niche - a particular industry or segment of clients to serve.

Now, you may be aghast at that revelation - “If I choose a particular industry, doesn’t that mean I will be turning away a ton of business from clients in other industries?”

Likely yes, that is true. When you choose a niche, you are going to be rejecting potential clients coming that are coming to your door.

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But, if you niche down the right way, you will be able to make your web design business stand out as a brand for your target industry. And from this, you will be able to get more clients than ever before. You will be able to grow and scale your business, form industry partnerships, and more easily market and sell your services.

In finding your niche, potential clients will come to you because of your industry-specific expertise and marketing.

I’ve found it’s much easier to sell services to a client in a specific industry, where they can see relevant website examples from our portfolio, and be confident that we can deliver a great finished product for them.

And beyond that, by finding expertise within a specific niche and having a product for that industry, you will eventually be able to command higher rates than a freelance web designer who takes on any type of project.

If you try and search for “web designer” online, there are so many companies out there; it’s hard to stand out.

For businesses in a particular market, when looking for a web design company, they are much more likely to search for “[industry] web designer.”

In that search query, there will be fewer web designers that show up, but they will be highly relevant to the client’s business, and that client will be much more likely to hire one of the companies from those searches.

Finding your niche and being able to market that niche will help your business stand out and get you the type of clients that you are looking for.

But, before you can develop the right “product” to offer, you need to have an addressable market to sell that product to.

Don’t just create a product and hope you can find the right product-market fit. You’ll save yourself time and money if you already know right off the bat that there are people who want what you’re going to sell.

Case in point - when trying to productize, we made a mistake at first…

We had guessed wrong.

We had built a mostly-do-it-yourself productized business for our potential customers, yet none of the potential customers in our target niche seemed to want it.

In hindsight, if we would have done some market research and gotten to know the customers and their pain points better, we could have avoided this problem entirely, and saved ourselves a lot of time, effort, and lost potential revenue.

So, how can you avoid this costly mistake?

With productizing, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, think of productizing as making that wheel with an assembly line rather than a hand-crafted process.

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First, look at what you are doing already and the services you are providing to existing customers. You should be able to answer these questions:

What services am I currently providing?

What types of clients do I like working with best?

What type of clients do I want to serve? (the “ideal” clients)

What services do my ideal clients want that I can provide?

What industry are my ideal clients in? Or, what do these ideal clients share in common?

Hopefully, you can see some patterns from answering these questions.

For us, in starting our productized web design business, we chose to target law firms. Since I came to the business with a legal background, we knew that I would be able to do a good job marketing to them. And my partner had some experience designing law firm websites and knew how to do them well.

One thing to ask yourself when choosing your niche is, “Is there enough demand for my services, at my price point, in this niche?”

It might be that you’ve found a great niche, but there are not enough potential customers that are able and willing to pay for your service at your price point. For example, you might love doing websites for weddings, but there may not be many wedding customers willing to pay for your services (as these customers typically go the do-it-yourself route). Or, you may love doing websites for local restaurants, but there may not be enough clients and they cannot afford you (typically, small restaurants do not invest in their websites). 

So, all that being said - find an industry with a large enough potential customer base that can afford your services.


Developing the Right “Product”

Let’s talk about your productized service. 

For website design, the “product” is one that is going to be completely fixed-scope with given deliverables. 

The product may be something like:

  • WordPress-based Website

  • Mobile-Responsive Design

  • Homepage

  • Contact Page

  • About Page

  • Blog Page

  • Design Consultation

  • 2 Revision Rounds

The full-scope of what the client gets should be laid out, with no surprises. 

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Ideally, your website should have a pricing page that lists your products and pricing that customers can get. 

I know that I get some pushback on this - some web designers don’t like publishing their prices - but I think it helps you avoid wasting time with potential customers that aren’t willing to pay what you charge for your services. 

In the web design space, a lot of designers don’t post their pricing. From a customer perspective, I’m always hesitant when I can’t see pricing before speaking with a company. It makes me think that they’re making up the pricing on the fly to charge me as much as they think they can get away with. If you are transparent with customers from the beginning, it builds trust and makes them more likely to want to work with you.

And many customers have spoken with me, expressing the same concern. 

“I called you because you’re the only ones who post their pricing and it made me trust you more.”

One other thing - you get better-qualified leads by posting your pricing. 

We tried removing our pricing from our website, twice

And each time we did, we ended up with worse-quality leads. 

People would call. We would talk to them. And then when we got to price, they would balk and hang up the phone. It ended up with a lot of wasted effort and bad-fit potential clients. Having your pricing posted ensures that you only get leads who are willing to pay your rate.

When it comes to the product and what people get, it is important that at least in your agreement your customer knows exactly what they are entitled to.

This is important not only for the customer, but also for you, because your pricing will be based on this work you are doing. If you end up exceeding the scope of this product without charging for it, you are giving things away for free and your profit margin is decreasing.

You should know how much time and money it takes you to go from start-to-finish on a project with your product’s scope, and you should price accordingly. 

Create a spreadsheet. Assign a dollar-value to your time. Figure out how much time it takes you to get the client from onboarding to mock-up, and mock-up stage to revision stage, and from revision stage to launch. 

Build in some time cushion, as things can tend to pop up. Now, if you were to assign an hourly rate to that time, what would you charge? I would suggest at least $200 per hour. Now, you may not be thinking that high, but you should be. Especially with a productized business. Eventually, due to your productized processes, you should be able to crank out a full website in just a few hours. It doesn’t mean you should charge clients less though. Far from it.

You will want to be charging for your products on “value”, not for time spent. Becoming more efficient and better at what you do should not mean you end up charging less.

There’s a saying attributed to the artist, Picasso:

A woman approaches Picasso in a restaurant and asks him to scribble something on a napkin, and she would be happy to pay whatever he felt it was worth. He complied, and then said, “That will be $10,000.” Aghast, she replied, “But you did that in thirty seconds!” To which, Picasso replied, “No, it has taken me forty years to do that.”

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That being said, I did ask you to assign an hourly rate to your time. The reason is because I want to make sure that you know your cost to produce a website, so you can see what your profit margins will be.

And with all of that, factor in other direct expenses like your project-specific plugins or website hosting.

Once you have a sense of your costs, you can set your price.

With all of this, you should be able to get a sense of what would be your gross margin for each project. And keep in mind that this is not your “net” margin - you are still going to need to factor in other expenses like rent, other employees, software, equipment, insurance, and taxes. So, you will need to make sure that you have a healthy gross margin to ensure these projects are worthwhile for your business. The last thing you want is to be completely overwhelmed with clients to realize that you are barely making any money.

One thing to also be mindful is that when you are creating your product, you should not just be creating a product that’s easy for you to execute on, it also has to be what your client wants. 

Otherwise, you won’t get any customers.

Over the years, we had different iterations of productized services that we pitched to customers. Some were incredibly successful; others had zero demand. You’ll find that just because you create a product at a price point you are happy with, the potential client may not want it.

Note: You don’t have to have the perfect product-market fit on day 1 - it will likely evolve over time as you hear from your potential clients.

Your first product may be different than what you end up with years from now, but you need to start somewhere. Don’t be afraid to evolve your product offerings over time. Maybe your clients get more higher-end over time and want different things from you, and your current product is not the right fit for them.

For example, when we started out, our lowest tier offering was a $1,000 website. Over three years, we tripled the price and changed the deliverables as we went more upmarket. 

Last thing - you don’t need just one product. You don’t just have to have a web design product with different tiers. 

You could also offer add-ins like logo design, business card design, or social media profile setup - things that are complementary services to your main offering that your client might be interested in purchasing around the same time they are looking for someone to build them a new website.


Tools You’ll Need

To run a productized service business, there are a few specific tools you will need to be using to be able to manage your client projects and service delivery. Here’s what you’ll need…

Creating Proposals

In our agency, we mostly did proposals via emailed PDFs of template Microsoft Word docs we customized for different clients. And for many productized agencies, that’s perfectly fine. Since your pricing and service delivery are going to be standardized, you should not have to be doing a lot of customization from proposal to proposal. 

If you are looking for a more fully-web-based customer experience, Proposify is a tool to look at. Proposify lets you create a more interactive, visually-appealing proposal that your client can view. Aside from having great-looking proposals for your clients, it also has the ability to be your contract with e-signature, as well as your payment processing via integrating with apps like Xero, Stripe, and Freshbooks.

Process Management and Checklists

With productized services, you are going to be doing a lot of the same processes over and over again for your clients. 

With web design, you will need your team members to be able to execute all of these processes perfectly to ensure you turn out quality work and that there are no issues (for example: forgetting to check the URLs from the client’s old website and not adding the necessary 301s…)

Checklists are your friend here. They ensure no items get skipped (which they will otherwise) and keep your team members accountable. 

Having checklists that function as guides for team members will walk them through how to do different tasks in the web design process. This system also makes it easier to onboard and work with new team members.

Process.st is an amazing tool for coming up with visual checklists that you can replicate for each new client project.

But, one issue with Process Street is that it is a fairly standalone product. Your checklists in Process Street will live separately from your project management tool. If you could have everything all in one place, that would be ideal.

So, that’s why I’d recommend some of these project management tools…

Project Management

Project management tools help you manage your work. Some project management tools are fairly simple in that they can show you your projects and what “stage” they are in (e.g. Trello, Asana). Others are a bit more robust, and can also function as a CRM and help desk (e.g. Podio).

For project management tools, I would much rather have one tool that could do it all as opposed to having multiple tools and trying to integrate them.

That’s why my favorite project management tool is Podio.

Podio is an extremely versatile project management tool. Think of it more like the Salesforce of project management tools - it is extremely customizable to your needs, but you may need to spend some time tweaking it to get it to do exactly what you want.

With Podio, you have different “workspaces” for different functions. For example, you might have a workspace that functions as your client CRM, one for help desk, and one for web design projects. Within each workspace, you can have multiple projects and layouts. You can also build into Podio automations, so that if a project enters a new stage, for example, new checklists and tasks pop up and are assigned to different people. It can remove a lot of manual administrative work and save you a ton of time.

Some other great project management tools are Trello and Ora. 

Trello is pretty well-known at this point. It’s a very easy-to-use app with a kanban-style layout, letting you drag and drop your individual project cards into status columns, and keeping all your relevant project information on your project card. Trello’s biggest strength, its simplicity, is also a weakness. If you want it to do more than it does out-of-the-box, then you are kinda stuck. One major benefit of Trello though is that its free tier is very full-featured. I have used Trello since 2013 and not needed to use a paid tier.

Ora is a bit more advanced than Trello. You can do some more things with it in terms of customization, layouts, automations, and workspace types. I also find it better for collaborating with others, as you can create stages such as “Requires approval” so that you get other team members to sign off on projects.

For project management tools, Podio would be my go-to pick; then I would probably use Ora. If I didn’t have the money to pay for project management software, I would be happy with Trello.

E-Signature

Before we used e-signature software to get proposals and agreements signed by clients, we would email them a PDF. The client would then have to print out the PDF, sign it, scan it, and email it back to us. This created a really unnecessary hurdle to onboarding new clients. Along the way, we definitely lost a few clients to this process. Some clients definitely just gave up on us or found inertia more appealing than having to jump through these hoops to work with us.

E-signature software gets your new clients signed without any friction. 

With e-signature software: you upload your contract, the client can read it and sign it electronically (and potentially pay for their services), and then you can get started on your project right away.

Implementing e-signature software was one of those “duh” moments for us, making us wonder why we hadn’t done it sooner.

As far as the apps go, they’re all good. DocuSign is great. So is RightSignature, Adobe EchoSign, and HelloSign. They all do the same thing and I would recommend any of them.

Invoicing and Payment Processing

You’ll need a way to invoice, take payments from clients, and set up automatic recurring charges.

Like I said earlier - recurring revenue is key for a scalable productized service business. Part of the recurring revenue logistics is going to be setting up automatic recurring payments for your clients.

A few of the services that do invoicing and payment processing unfortunately do not have the ability to automatically charge the client; instead, they send the client an invoice and the client has to manually go into the invoice and enter their credit card information every single time.

This creates another hurdle to an efficient workflow for both you and your clients. It also will significantly increase your late payment and churn rate. 

When you are choosing a payment processing provider, make sure that you can set up automatic recurring charges for your clients.

My go-to recommended payment processor is Stripe. Stripe does great payment processing at a reasonable rate (2.9% + 30 cents per transaction with no monthly fee), and it can also integrate very easily with other apps that you might use. As far as payment processing services go Stripe is the least-expensive that I’ve found.

Stripe doesn’t create and manage invoices amazingly well on its own though, so you might need  to integrate it with an accounting app like Quickbooks or Xero. Speaking of…

Accounting

You have to know your numbers, and accounting software helps you get a good grasp of your numbers to tell you where you’ve been, where you’re at, and where you are going.

With a productized service business, you’re not just freelancing, you are running a business that’s looking to grow and scale. Keeping track of your revenue, expenses, and cash flow are important.

The two main apps I would recommend for managing your accounting are Xero and Quickbooks Online. Both integrate with your online banking accounts and credit cards to tell you how you’re doing financially. Both can also invoice your clients. It doesn’t matter too much which you choose, so long as you are managing your books.

As your business grows, you may decide that you want to outsource bookkeeping. From my experience, outsourced bookkeepers tend to prefer Quickbooks, though there are plenty out there that do like Xero.


Client Onboarding

With onboarding a new productized service client, you will need to: A) Get assets from the client, like text copy and photos; and B) Get design direction. 

For getting design direction, you can use a web-based questionnaire, like Gravity Forms. Or, you can use a more comprehensive piece of software, like a full-featured client portal app, like Client-Portal.io. Client-Portal.io helps you manage getting assets from clients, and also solicits feedback, and manages the entire client experience side of the web design process.


Website Design

For us, a key to a streamlined web design process is using the right web design tools. We use Offsprout, a white-label website builder that lets you easily create websites with drag-and-drop tools, and templates so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel with each new project (Disclaimer: I co-founded Offsprout, which we built originally for our own agency to more easily build websites for clients, but have made available for any web designer to use).

Without Offsprout, there’s no way we would have been able to scale our productized web design business like we did.

Offsprout lets us spin up new fully-built-out websites in no time. Offsprout’s Site Grower lets us build the framework of a site, while having the site’s basic information, page layouts, and color schemes all set up, in just five minutes. 


Delivering

Let’s talk about how you’re actually going to build websites for your client. This is the assembly line part of productizing.

Every website design project you do is going to follow the same process, with the same checklists and reviews along the way. Because of this, there should be no problems or surprises in launching a new website.

You’ll need your workflow mapped out from start to finish, with notes for what gets done at each step, and who on your team does quality control and review before moving to the next step. You may have one person wearing multiple hats, especially if you’re just starting out. Eventually, roles and responsibilities may be divided among more people. Your workflow should look, vaguely, something like:

  1. Proposal

    • Salesperson sends proposal and contract to Client

    • Salesperson follows-up every two days until Client either signs on or rejects proposal

    • Client e-signs contract and provides payment information

    • Salesperson forwards to Billing

    • Billing department runs payment, sets up recurring payment plan, and confirms when successful

    • Billing gives OK to move Client into onboarding

  2. Onboarding

    • Salesperson introduces Client to Project Manager (and Salesperson gives their notes to Project Manager)

    • Project Manager/Designer creates portal for Client to provide assets and fill out onboarding questionnaire

    • Client provides info and assets

    • Project Manager has onboarding call with Client to talk about the design, get any remaining needed information or assets

    • Project Manager confirms all assets and information and project is moved to design stage

  3. Design

    • Project Manager/Designer reviews Client order to ensure website is built to their order

    • Project Manager/Designer builds website according to Client order and Client-supplied information and assets

    • Project Manager/Designer completes internal design process checklist to ensure no design aspects are overlooked

    • Project Manager/Designer approves design

    • Project Manager sends design to Client for their review and approval

  4. Review

    • Project Manager follows-up with Client 2x per week to get Client’s website approval or any notes for edits

    • Client provides edits or approval

  5. Edits (if needed)

    • Project Manager/Designer makes any needed website edits

    • Project Manager sends design to Client  for their review and approval

  6. Final Review

    • Project Manager gets Client approval for launch

    • Client provides written approval for website launch

    • Project Manager moves website to Launch stage

  7. Launch

    • Project Manager/Designer launches website on back-end

    • Project Manager/Designer makes any necessary DNS changes

    • Project Manager informs Client that website is launched

    • Project Manager informs Billing department that website is launched

  8. Post-Launch

    • Project Manager reaches out to Client for a positive testimonial or referral

    • Project Manager follows-up with Client periodically to pitch upsell services like marketing

As you can see, there’s a lot of steps here, and many of them have tons of sub-items that we haven’t really gotten into. For example, we haven’t even touched the surface of the actual site build process; this covers all the high-level steps in the onboarding, design, review, and launch process. 

So, how can you manage all of this? You are going to need a few things:

  • Checklists - checklists for every step of the process that you can easily follow, from onboarding to design

  • Documentation - internal documentation that new hires and team members can learn and easily follow

  • Project Management Software - Apps that show you each project in their different stages, along with your notes and assigned team members to these projects

With this combination, you can manage a workload of one or a thousand simultaneous projects (at our peak we’ve had up to sixty projects in design at once and we were able to manage all of them). Without each of these elements, you end up likely to have things fall through the cracks.

In my agency, our first iterations of project management weren’t ideal, but we learned over time. We had clients that we were waiting on to provide us with feedback or assets, and we didn’t follow up with them regularly. We could have finished their projects sooner, but instead some of them took over a year in what should have been a two-to-three-month overall process. The problem was, we didn’t have a system to keep everything accountable. We learned, but it took some time.

As the CEO / manager of your productized web design business, you should be able to easily get a high-level view of the situation and know where every client is in the process, when they signed on, and when the last communication with them was. If you don’t have it, build it into your system. Create a spreadsheet if you have to. Anything that can make sure you know where everyone is.


Marketing Productized Services

For us, one of the biggest boons to having a niched-down productized service web design business is that it was especially easy to market.

When your service is “Complete Web Design for [Business Industry]” you can more easily create a brand around it. Our brand focused on the legal industry and we marketed specifically to lawyers. 

Our brand and all of our content resonated specifically with that audience because it was created specifically for them.

If you don’t niche down, then you have to create content that is more widely-appealing. That content can seem less relevant or appealing compared to content that seems tailored towards a specific type of customer.

For lawyer customers, as an example, we knew their specific pain points. We knew that they wanted a website that made them look professional and help them get found online. We knew that their website had ethics requirements to comply with. And because we knew the customer, we could make our website, blog, emails, social media posts, branding, and other marketing materials all tailored to that audience.


Next Steps

So what should you do next?

Here are a few things:

  • Brainstorm your niche

Figure out what clients you like working with and want to be working with more often. Come up with a few candidates if you can think of them. Then, research the space - see if there are competitors who are doing web design for your target client. If so, that’s fine. There’s usually plenty of room for new competitors, so long as there is not just one behemoth company that every business in that industry ends up going with. But, when looking into competitors, see what they’re doing right, and potentially what they could be doing better. Is this a market you think you can go after? Can you create a web design product at a price point they will find attractive?

  • Write out your workflow and processes

Without a repeatable workflow, you don’t have a productized business. You have to be able to point to a workflow that your team members can follow every time and know the full-scope of what the client is going to get with their package.

  • Get the right tools

Demo project management tools. Personally, I’d say go with Podio or Ora. Don’t forget to get e-signature software, accounting, and all the rest that you’ll need to easily onboard new clients.

  • Choose your niche and build your brand

After all the researching, settle on your niche. Build a website that targets that niche, and start selling!

If you have any questions at all about how to productize your service, I’m happy to give advice or recommendations. Find me on Twitter at @andycabasso.

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Andy Cabasso

Andy Cabasso is the co-founder of Offsprout, a white-label website builder that helps you spend less time building websites and more time on your business. He is also the co-founder of Postaga, an automated outreach and blog post promotion tool. Prior to Offsprout and Postaga, he co-founded JurisPage, an online marketing agency for law firms, that was acquired by Uptime Legal.