Small Business Success Q&A #11: 4Web Inc.

Jen Kramer of 4Web, Inc.

My only criteria for these profiles is that the business owner has to have been in business for at least five years. Jen Kramer’s current business, 4Web, Inc., is only two years old, but she operated in the same market (Web design) since 2000, so I agreed she could participate. And I am so glad I did! Her answers are absolutely terrific. I know you’ll get great value out of reading her Q&A. Lots of good advice for others starting a business as well as for those of us who have been around. Enjoy!

Name: Jen Kramer

Company: 4Web, Inc.

Location: Keene, NH

Year founded: 2008

No. of employees: 2

Website: www.4webinc.com

Twitter: jen4web

Blog: www.joomla4web.com

Business description: 4Web Inc. creates highly customized websites using Joomla!, an extremely flexible and robust open source content management system, to meet our clients’ online strategy and marketing goals.

Keys to your business success: My first business was Focused Consulting LLC, a freelance Web design and development firm, which I ran from 2000-2008 (and officially closed in 2009). I opened it just before I started at Marlboro College Graduate School, working on my master’s in Internet Strategy Management. I started at the end of the dot-com era, just as all of the money was draining away from the startups.

However, grad school was an excellent start of this career. It gave me the opportunity to meet intelligent people from a variety of backgrounds. The networking was tremendous. My classmates went on to become marketing specialists, project managers, Internet strategists, Web designers, and entrepreneurs.  This really launched my business, as my fellow classmates sent me leads (and I did the same for them).

Grad school, therefore, gave me some very important basics for starting a business: formal training, a network of friends and colleagues who believed in me and my talents, and several pieces for my portfolio. As an alum, I am also able to use the space for meeting clients, which means I don’t have to spend money on a “real” office.

I have continued to teach at Marlboro since I graduated. This keeps up my network. The Grad School has also become a central location for networking via the New England Adobe User Group and Joomla User Group New England, as well as with returning alumni. Living nearby has been a tremendous asset.

I started 4Web Inc in 2008 under a different business model, hoping to bring in larger clients and have employees and partners to support those clients. We’ve been growing quickly, particularly in the last year. I just added Heidi Stanclift as a partner in the business.

The keys to business success are all about your network and who you know. Networking is the primary way we get clients and how we’ve grown the business. It has provided us a robust network of freelancers for outsourcing work that needs specialized skills as well. This includes in-person networking via conferences and user groups, as well as online networking via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blogging, Skype, discussion boards, and more.

The other big key is that we return all phone calls and emails. Sad I have to list that, isn’t it? However, all too often in my field, people do not respond to emails for information. Some Web developers abandon their clients once a website is built, and they won’t provide training or maintenance. We make sure we’re always there for our clients, whatever their needs are. This turns into more business later, and our clients recommend us to other clients. Recommendations make your business grow!

I’ve also made it a point to be visible and vocal within the Joomla community. I run our user group, answer online Joomla questions, mentor students, and blog about Joomla. That’s lead to commercial interest, so I’ve recorded training videos for Lynda.com, written one book (and writing a second) for Wrox Press (a division of Wiley), and I’ve done some commercial training through osTraining.com. All of these outlets raise my visibility and send work my way.

Most people think that teaching someone means you’re giving away your secrets and your skills, and you’re just training your competitors. I’ve always taken an opposite view. I’d much rather have collaborators than competitors. I don’t mind teaching and mentoring, because it’s always led to more work. Either a former student gets a job that they feel is over their head at the moment, so they send it to me, or they need someone to help with an aspect of the job. Likewise, I get small leads, which I like to pass on to talented students to mentor them. I foster collaborators all along the way, which is so much more satisfying than seeing everyone as a competitor.

Best business advice you’ve ever been given: Network, network, network. It’s the hardest thing in the world for a geek to do. We like spending the day with our computer, writing code, not talking to any humans. But if you live in a bubble like that, you never get any work.

What was the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do as a business owner? We’re probably working on that now. Heidi and I are at a point where we think we have enough business to grow, but we don’t have enough money in hand to make it happen. We’re pondering a loan of some kind to grow the business. It’s very scary to think about because we think about everything that could go wrong.

Beyond that, writing our own content for the website and defining who we are has always been very hard. We are too close to our own business, so I like to hire people to help me do this.

What advice would you give to someone just starting a business? First, don’t be cheap when it comes to protecting yourself and your personal assets. Incorporate. Get some business insurance. Hire a lawyer to put the company together, and hire an accountant to do your taxes.

Yes, that’s a lot of money, but I consider all of it insurance. If anything goes wrong on your taxes, you have someone to help. The company is well-structured and it will stand up in court. If you’re sued, you have a much better chance of keeping your personal assets if you’ve spent the money up front to get everything set up correctly.

Many people start as sole proprietors — I did. But remember that means you are your business; if you get sued for some reason, and you lose, you could lose your house, your car, your retirement funds, everything. You can pay a few hundred dollars to incorporate online, but I’d prefer to pay for a local lawyer who really knows local business laws to set everything up correctly, for certain. And if anything ever goes wrong, I have someone to represent me who already knows me.

Second, don’t spend money on things you don’t have to have. Plenty of people want to run out and get a pretty office and a sign on the street. However, the truth of the matter is that in a service-based business like this, a physical presence isn’t as important if you’re just starting out. You can meet at a client’s location or a professional setting elsewhere (like the Grad School). You can work out of your house if you keep your work area free of distractions. I believe that at a point, a physical location becomes important as you take on larger clients, but if you’re just starting off in the Web development business, I wouldn’t spend money on it.

Third, you don’t need to take every job that comes your way. Sometimes I am on the phone talking with a potential client, and I just feel all kinds of red flags going up based on things they’re saying. I’m a real sucker for someone telling me that they had a website built, but their developer “abandoned” them, and now they don’t know how to keep their site maintained. I’ve found that sometimes there are reasons for this!

In one notable case lately, I had a client who had “hair-on-fire-the-world-will-stop-spinning-if-we-don’t-do-this-now” moments just about every week. Everyone has an issue every once in a while, but this client made a habit of it. They really needed to hire someone on their staff, who they could direct to work on anything at any time, rather than a consultant who may or may not be available to take their call at that moment.

I fired the client, because they were causing me so much stress, plus they had an expectation that I was available on a 24/7 basis. I also found out that’s why their last developer “abandoned” them!

Favorite all-time business book: Getting Things Done When You Are Not In Charge by Geoffrey M. Bellman. As a consultant, you may be in charge of your own business, but you are never in charge of your clients! It’s very important to learn to work with them and lead them where you want them to go.

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