Just Keep Swimming Upstream
If you work within the web industry, you probably chose that path because you’re naturally creative in other aspects of your life. Whether you’re a musician, artist, or writer when you step away from the screen, that creative energy isn’t limited to one facet of your world.
You may have also chosen the path of being a designer or developer because you value your independence. You value having a degree of freedom. The older you are, the more you’ve seen how the digital world has seeped into all the parts of our lives, as if it was always there. Today, it’s hard to imagine a world before the web existed.
But let’s come back to that idea of independence for a minute. If you’re skilled in technology, you have a better chance of surviving today’s economy, true enough. But a lot of you may be yearning for more independence than you currently have. You’re beginning to realize that your open office is more similar to a factory floor from the Industrial Age than you care to admit. You still don’t get to call the shots. You take have to do things you don’t always agree with and you have less input in your day to day dealings than you would care to have.
While there is no good or bad when it comes to what path you choose, some people cannot be be happy forever if they stay in the same spot, year after year. Growth is something you may crave, and you’re just not experiencing it.
I have no idea what it’s like to work in a product based company, where the project never changes, but I do know what it’s like to work in client services, where you know the people you’re solving problems for by name.
My advice to web professionals who feel small right now, but want to grow, is to just keep swimming upstream.
Contractors and Consultants
If you’ve been inside the web industry in the past five years, you’ve noticed many web agencies are using contractors as opposed to hiring full-time employees. Many people predict that soon, most of us in client web design services will be considered contractors or independent consultants.
This isn’t a bad thing for agencies or web professionals. Hiring full-time employees incurs a greater cost tan hiring contractors, even at a higher rate than the base pay of an employee, the employer comes out ahead. There are significant hidden costs associated with employees (taxes, benefits) that raise their actual cost to the agency. Independent contractors usually charge more in base pay, but must do so to cover their own self-employment tax and benefits. Still, when many large generalist agencies (and even smaller agencies) have had to downsize over the past few years, this seems less risky.
Many smaller agencies may be comprised of one to three people, and the remaining knowledge gaps they have are filled in by their network of consultants. While the forecast for the client services part of the web industry is still stable overall, much has been unpredictable in the last few years.
This leads me to believe that many web professionals reading this now may also be acting as independent contractors.
Here’s Where It Gets Relevant
Many independent consultants (and even several agencies I know) subcontract to even larger agencies. There are a lot of projects these web professionals have worked on that would offer a ton of social proof — provided they can claim it as their own work.
There are thousands of stories like this. The actual client is separated from the group or person doing a good chunk of the work, and it’s not authorized for the people doing some of that work to claim it, because they aren’t the agency of record.
I have seen the following scenario happen with agencies and subcontractors locally and not-so-locally. The actual hierarchy of the project looks like this:
Client > Large agency > small agency > independent developer or micro-agency
The largest agency is the one that owns the client relationship. They are the ones that speak directly to the client. They are the ones that have diagnosed the problem and prescribed a course of action. They are the ones who the client trusts. Everyone else in the chain is being vouched for by the large agency, in exchange for the opportunity to do the work at hand. Conversely, they are isolated from the actual client relationship.
Now, there is nothing wrong with this at all, but you should take something away from it.
Why Client Relationships Are Valuable
In his book, The Win Without Pitching Manifesto, Blair Enns reveals that the majority of value that a consultancy delivers is in the strategy stage. The farther a digital consultancy goes down the execution stage, the more the value contributed has a diminishing return. This is why for very large clients, these parts may be subcontracted to others.
These tasks still require skill, but they are the execution of decisions made further up the chain. They are not the formation of direction or the discussion of strategy.
(Similarly, the execution of design and development in the absence of strategy is devalued. Without a clear objective, a long-term strategy, and a course of action, these may be little more than sound and fury signifying nothing.)
Summed up: the contractors and agencies on the bottom of the equation may do significant work for high-profile clients, but they cannot put the logo at the bottom of their homepage to prove it to prospective clients, because either the client or lead agency will object.
And they are correct to take that stance.
The client relationship is where trust is established, and decisions get made. It is where bonds are formed, and partnerships are made. You have to travel UP the chain, and win your OWN clients of this caliber. You have to establish your own aura of TRUST.
Can You Get There From Here?
Being an employee is fine, and being a subcontractor is fine, but it’s not where you (or I) want to stay forever.
Every consultancy earns their own spotlight. Their client relationships are valuable, and they know it. So how do you make that climb to earning more responsibility and trust for your own small consultancy?
One way you can do this is to do good work for the larger entities you are currently manufacturing goods for. Let people always speak highly of you and have good things to say about your reliability.
Let some of the larger firms in your circle know that you want to grow. They may be able to help you by providing referrals or connecting you to other people. But you’ll never get help unless you ask for it.
If you subcontract out directly to a smaller agency, you should be able to have direct interactions with the actual client. If you’re an subcontracting agency one layer removed from the actual client, you may be able to get access, or you may not. It depends, as the stakes get a lot higher the more you level up.
You’re never there to poach anyone’s clients, spotlight, or glory. Never mess with someone else’s money. But what you can learn by listening to what clients are truly concerned with at the next level above you is the real gold. This will help you identify common problems in specific industry verticals, as you see those patterns over and over again. These are the problems that you want to get good at solving, as they are signposts on the way to your goals.
Identify who your ideal clients are, and pursue their attention by tailoring your content towards their needs.
Dream big. Map out ten clients you can work with today, ten you want to work with two years from now, and your ten “pinch me, I’m dreaming” clients. Think about how you would get to work with the clients on your dream list. Backwards engineer how many steps it would take to get on their radar.
Always be leveling up. You don’t want to be serving the exact same clients ten years from now that you are today. That may sound harsh, but it’s not meant to be. The projects you are doing today should be stepping stones to projects you want to do in the future. Be sure to be scouting colleagues, so you can eventually put your clients in capable hands when you do make that next leap forward in your own consultancy.
This may mean you have to do projects within a certain vertical, leveling up to get to your goal. It may mean that you decide to do a favor for someone who can open a door for you. If you don’t visualize and plan for where you want to go, you won’t get there, you#&8217;ll just drift.
Most of all, keep swimming upstream towards client relationships that you can own. Like a salmon fighting it’s way against the river to spawn, you need to be aiming towards establishing client relationships where you can provide the most value possible.