In November 2022, I’ll have reached a milestone many people do not reach, a decade of being in business.
Most small businesses don’t make it to the five-year mark, and web design, digital marketing, and SEO is particularly competitive.
It is good for the soul to reflect on the highs and lows of running a business, and working for yourself. It is not for the faint of heart.
I acknowledge that I received a lot of help along the way, from family, friends, colleagues, and peers. But do not doubt that the work that it took to get here has been paid in full. I know that I am also fortunate, and lucky. Never do I take my successes for granted.
Below is a rough timeline of my journey, and the hopefully, the first of many decades working with the web and online visibility. Enjoy.
While working in the Wonder Bread factory, I decide that I want to be a web designer in the next phase of my professional life. In my off hours, I start studying web design, web development, and online marketing.
I complete an long-term educational program for web design. At home, I am building my first websites in HTML5 and CSS3 on my computer.
The first public facing website I create is on the web (Note: It no longer exists, it was 1000 Pixels Web Design at https://1000-pixels.com, built in flat HTML files.) Subsequently, I build build my first site in WordPress. Next, I build sites for many of my friends and family in WordPress for practice. None of these early sites exist live today.
I sell the domain to my original web design site. In July, I build the first version of https://lockedowndesign.com. I get my first paying client from UpWork. Putting fliers up downtown, I get another client for a restaurant website. In November, I am doing web design full-time. Some early web design clients are a tractor dealership, and a web designer in New York State for whom I do subcontract work. The first blog post on this website is published. I am active on the TeamTreehouse forums, which leads to some subcontract work over the next year or two.
Business is okay, but I am learning that web design is more competitive than I first thought. I apply to some local web design shops, but none of them want to hire a 40-year old junior web designer. I vow to put everything I have into making Lockedown Design successful (that was the name of the business then), no more half trying to get a job, and half trying to make the business work. The first YouTube video goes up on my channel. I also attend my first tech conference in San Francisco, Launch 2013, having been gifted a ticket by the foks at TeamTreehouse.
At the Sacramento WordPress Meetup, I give a Lightning Talk for the first time. I appear on a WordPress podcast for the first time in 2014. At this time, I am doing a mix of subcontract development work for agencies in New York State and North Carolina, and some local clients.
I attend the WordCamp SF 2014, which is still the last time a WordCamp was held in San Francisco.
I publish on my blog about every two or three days. This helps people find the site.
Some momentum is building in the business. I pick up another subcontract client, an agency in New Jersey, who I begin building WordPress sites for, the provide the designs, and I complete all the development. Some of these are local businesses and non-profit sites, some are enterprise sites.
I also become a co-host for a WordPress podcast for over a year. Many people discover me during this period.
Sacramento holds it’s first WordCamp, William Mead is the first lead organizer. I am chosen to speak, giving a Lightning Talk on a security plugin at the end of day two.
I continue to post tutorials and other web development content on my blog.
The business is doing okay. My New Jersey client is about half my revenue in 2016, which I welcome at this point, but leads to a decision I make in about a year. Looking backwards, I don’t have nearly enough business from local clients, but this is a live and learn situation.
Sacramento holds it’s second WordCamp, I am on the organizing team, I do submit a talk, to avoid conflict of interest.
I do not publish a single video on my YouTube channel during 2016, though I continue blogging.
This year is the first time I make more money doing web development than my most successful year in my pre-web-development life. (Note: In my previous career, I had a couple of years where I worked two jobs: as a bakery manager in a large grocery store, and as a barista/shift supervisor at Starbucks on top of that.)
Though my site is ranking at number one in Google for “WordPress web design Sacramento” in 2018, my gut feeling is that is time to change what the main focus of the business. At the time, I am getting many WordPress leads for “rescue” projects – people who aren’t happy with the job their current developers are doing. Almost none of these prospects have any real budget. Mostly, I am being leveraged against the incumbent web development teams, so they make requested changes without complaints.
I have helped some friends with SEO, and been fairly successful, so I slowly start changing the positioning of the website from web design to SEO. Also, I change the domain name to https://www.lockedownseo.com . I am very fortunate, as right away, I land a SEO client who I am able to help immensely.
I am selected to speak at WordCamp Sacramento 2017. After putting in three possible talks, the organizers select my talk on cusotm WordPress theme development. Though this talk was not recorded for WordPress.tv, the talk is very well received by the audience.
I begin publishing videos on YouTube again. This practice is something I vow to not let slide again.
My first international SEO client does a project with me in 2017.
We put out a press release to announce the change in our services, reflecting our new focus on SEO. By the end of the year, I decide to focus on industrial and manufacturing SEO. This is still an underserved market, and many Operations Managers are too busy with other responsibilities to focus on the company website. What we’ve found though, is companies that make SEO and website quality a priority tend to get more qualified leads.
In 2018, a local web development company attempts to recruit me to work on their team, but I decline their offer, which is worthy of consideration.
Also, during 2018, I sever ties with a web design company I had been doing subcontract work for in New Jersey. They were at the time, a design-heavy team, with more leads than resources to do them. Their web development is all bespoke, part of their positioning is avoiding templates or child themes, and their clients are mostly higher end. I had done 27 full website builds up to that point, some are still on the web today. I wanted to renegotiate the price I was selling them for, and I was essentially blocked. I had gotten into a position that I vowed I didn’t want to be in around 2013/2014, so I had to change.
The end result of these changes in 2018 was, a slight downturn in business, for a very short period of time, then steady increases from that time until the present. This year was slightly less than 2017, but everything is hitting all cylinders from here.
This ended up being the best year revenue wise I had up to this point. The company hit some milestones, that we have continued to hit every year since. I pick up more SEO clients. The business stabilizes with several retainer clients.
I publish often on YouTube, attempting to put out a video every day. Many of these videos are still very popular on my channel to this very day.
Several new clients sign up from the content marketing I have done through the blog and YouTube channel. Funny story, one long-term client signed up from a YT video that had only 12 views at the time and still has less than 25 views in 2022. There’s a lesson there.
The business is stable. There is a very even balance of retainer clients, with some one-time projects help fill in the rest. I barely publish on my blog in 2020. I continue to publish on YouTube. Moved to Natomas. Things are good with the business.
A good year. The SEO clients are there. Monthly retainer clients are steady. One-time projects are steady. The YouTube channel is gaining momentum. Some cool milestones are achieved. Two clients are acquired by larger organizations, but they remain on the client roster.
In the latter portion of 2021, new team member John Koinange begins working with us. As a digital marketing associate, he helps out with many things that help us accomplish our goals. He is also a regular contributor to our blog.
Another solid year. It feels like our momentum is building again. The blog and YouTube channel picked up a lot of viewers/readers. The future looks bright. I’ve accomplished more than anyone thought I would, and the past three years I have felt like the business has achieved all I originally envisioned.
Before I ever set out to learn web design and internet marketing, I wanted to change my circumstances. Along the way, I had a vision of what I wanted my business to be.
I have achieved every goal I initially set out to accomplish.
I realize now it’s time to think about the next decade, and envision what the business should look like in the coming years.
What I Learned Along the Way
There will always be people who want to see you succeed. There will always be friends, family, colleagues, and clients that want to see you do well, and continue growing. Some people will want to see you fail, but keep going. Gravitate towards the people who support you.
Change is part of the web. Design trends, web development practices, online marketing – it all changes, that is the nature of technology. If you are able to continue to adapt, you will survive and thrive.
Momentum counts for a lot. I have seen many one-person shops and freelancers lose momentum by making the wrong decision, having life events out of their control, or not adapting with the times. Don’t lose your momentum, I can’t stress this enough.
You’ll know when it’s time to make a change. Nothing stays the same. You will feel it in your gut when it is time. Have the courage and fortitude to make those decisions, they almost always end up being the right decisions.
Be a good and decent person. Have integrity, live by a moral standard, and don’t be silent and complicit if shady things are happening. It is vital to maintain your integrity. Clients can tell. Your colleagues can tell. You’ll feel better about yourself, too.
Take care of yourself. You will work hard, especially when you are building your brand from scratch. But remember to get enough sleep, eat healthy as possible, get a shower, hang out with loved ones. Your mental health is important. You can’t do a good job if you are burned out all the time. The work will always be there tomorrow.
I hope this post offers some limited insight into the ups and downs of growing a web design business from zero. It’s not easy.
Your situation will be different from mine, or anyone else’s. Whether you have a year or twenty years in digital marketing, your viewpoint and life experiences are still valid.
You can can launch your own business, if you are willing to take those risks. Some of my clients did exactly that, and most of them are flourishing.
But there is no shame in taking a solid stable job working for someone else either, either. In many cases, that might be the best decision for you.
I’d encourage you to check out some of the suggested posts below to get more personal insights on working in digital marketing. We’re here to help, in whatever way we can.