I’m writing this to reflect on the year 2020 which was a challenging but interesting year for business.
Sometimes you don’t know how far you have come or how hard you have worked until you reflect. Despite the challenges 2020 brought our way the business has made some progress and I’m proud of the efforts invested in 2020. In 2021 I intend to work as hard and show up consistently but also be smarter and leverage on the business lessons I’ve learnt in the previous years.
At the end of 2019 I had been running my first web design agency for a year and some months, I did the numbers and realized I was not earning enough for my services and the long hours I worked. I constantly struggled with finding a balance between working on projects and finding new clients which caused periods of famine between projects in 2019. The agency catered for small businesses and some corporate clients (all local, based in my country).
I decided to change things and thought I could earn more if I didn’t limit my client base to my country. I pivoted the business model and started a new agency (AscendWP) that offers whitelabel web design for digital agencies mostly in other countries. AscendWP was created to provide website outsourcing services for digital agencies who need affordable and reliable help with their WordPress development.
In this review I will share some details of the journey since launching the business; the challenges I’ve had, the successes and the lessons I learnt in 2020.
Top lessons I learnt
- For every stage or level of business there is a challenge waiting for you. I’ve learnt to accept challenges as a norm because our job as entrepreneurs is to overcome them. Ability to do so repeatedly is what determines if an entrepreneur will be successful or fail with a business. The major challenge I had in 2019 was the periods of feast and famine, in 2020 I was able to overcome it and was busy for most of the year. But I had new challenges such as scaling web design as a service, dealing with cashflow issues as a result of some projects that took long periods of time to complete (mainly due to delay from clients in providing content or feedback). One of my goals this year is to grow the monthly subscription income line of the business and boost cashflow.
- One-off projects and income are good, repeat one-off projects are better, but subscription and recurring income is the best.
- The key to scaling a service business is to niche down and productize the service. I niched down by providing my services to digital agencies, this enabled me to nail my messaging; understand the pain points of the target audience and be effective with client prospecting and marketing. Productizing involves making your services simple, creating systems to fulfil the services repeatedly as fast as possible. The business took an upward turn when I narrowed down to building only brochure websites, simple e-commerce sites and using one page builder. I focused on my core competency and it paid off.
- The easier way to win trust and generate new leads for the business is to provide value upfront. I built my previous agency based on cold calls, now I’ve not had to make cold calls or send cold emails to get clients. I instead push out useful and relevant content, hang out where my target market is and make friends. Not having to rely on cold outreach has proved to me that there is more than one way to skin a ….. never mind 🙂 I’m looking forward to experimenting and trying new methods of client acquisition in 2021. It would be a major win if I can create systems to generate leads on autopilot.
- Less downtime. The aim of pivoting my agency from B2C (working with direct clients) to B2B (working with agencies) was to take advantage of repeat business as digital agencies tend to hire WordPress development help for multiple projects over time compared to the end client. Pivoting my business led to having clients with higher lifetime value. In 2020 I had less downtime and did not struggle with the feast and famine cycle compared to the year before.
- Increased revenue. My business revenue grew by more than 310% compared to 2019 when I was running my local web design agency. This is impressive considering that Covid-19 and the resultant lockdown had an impact on business.
- Better portfolio. I now have a better portfolio of websites (these are websites that my clients gave me permission to share, a lot of websites we built still cannot be included in the portfolio since they are whitelabeled). The year 2020 ended with me landing a website project build for an Hollywood actor/DJ. It is exciting because I’m working on a different kind of project and it is the first time I’ll create a website for a celeb. A better portfolio of projects completed for happy clients means a price increase for our services in 2021 is inevitable.
- Building a team: I had a health scare sometimes in the middle of 2020 which forced me to devise ways of getting a better work life balance. Recently I started building a team. I wanted to have people on board who share the same ideals such as designing good looking and highly converting websites and making clients happy. Now I have help from 2 full time developers, together we make a good team and I’m proud of what we are building. It’s taking some time to create systems and processes and give up control of running things but we have grown and made a lot of progress. I’m excited for the future as my goal is to build a business that can run without me in the long term.
- Happiness: The Path to Profit. We did lots of fulfilling work in 2020. I’m a huge believer in finding happiness in work. We worked on exciting projects and had lots of satisfied clients in 2020. We had lots of good comments and ratings from our clients. “You’re a breath of fresh air”, “You have been an asset to this project”, “You should be proud. I like the way you work”. These are some of the comments from our clients. I remind myself of these comments when things get tough. It shows I’m doing something right and I’m encouraged to continue to work hard, add value to clients and also enjoy my work. As with running a business there were times when things got tough or I got tired, but overall I’m glad to be on this journey and to be building a business that provides value and makes profits 🙂 . I’m motivated to get up everyday and show up at work. There is a lot to look forward to because we are just getting started.
- Making new friends: My job affords me the opportunity to make new friends and meet amazing people from all parts of the world, even without travelling.
- I contributed some articles to the Admin Bar blog. The Admin Bar is a Facebook Community made up of some amazing group of people who are agency owners and WordPress enthusiasts. Thanks to Kyle Van Deusen and Matt Sebert for the opportunity.
Receiving payments for my services has been quite fragmented. I incorporated AscendWP in Delaware via Stripe Atlas to enable us to use Stripe to receive payments, but 7 months after I have not gotten the Employee Identification Number and can’t use Stripe. It’s one of the most frustrating experiences I had in 2021.
Impact of Covid-19
I launched AscendWP in February and the month after (March) was my best month ever in business (at the time), the business gained some momentum, got new clients, then Covid-19 hit towards the end for March. Several countries including our major target market; the UK and USA went into lockdown and business was severely affected. The growth of the business stalled in April and revenue nosedived, things didn’t really pick up until July/August.
It was a tough period and I made a terrible mistake of taking on some projects outside of my core competency which ended up being time consuming and unprofitable. I learnt my lessons and stopped taking projects outside of our core competency.
5: number of countries where our clients came from. USA, UK, Portugal, Netherlands, Romania.
37 projects: number of new websites we built
45 tasks: number of tasks we completed
P.s: Our services range from building new websites to editing existing websites; uploading content, adding new features, new plugins or pages. Building a website is categorized as project, while editing existing websites is referred to as a task.
90% of clients we worked with in 2020 gave us more than one website project or task. The lesson is that when you deliver a good service and provide value most clients will come back again. #lowchurn
3 weeks after launching AscendWP someone reached out to me offering to buy the company. It was a bit surprising because at the stage I just got my first clients and was not thinking of selling the business. It was a pointer that maybe there is potential in the business model.
The Funny Bit
Just before I launched the new agency, the business name was Arscend which is a play on the word Ascend (climb), it sounded good until the launch when I posted about the new service in a Facebook group for feedback and some people commented that it sounds and looks like “Arse end” a slang in the UK; which has a less palatable meaning.
Nobody wants a company name with such meaning, so several sleepless nights later, more than 25 new name suggestions, asking loads of people for their opinions, I came up with AscendWP and launched the business. I had not invested in building the Arscend brand so changing to a business name which is universally acceptable was a simple decision.
Lesson: if possible check the meaning of your business name in other languages if it’s not a local brand. Lol.
Goals for 2021
- Grow the income line and service in which agencies hire a developer for a monthly subscription. I’d like the business to be more cashflow positive and would put a lot more efforts into selling our ‘hire a developer’ offer.
- Scale the business by getting more clients, working on more projects and expanding the team.
- Create video content consistently and start a podcast.
Thanks to everyone who hired us, people who gave us advice and supported us, it means a lot.
In 2020 we learnt to crawl and walk despite the challenges, in 2021 it’s time to fly. I look forward to having fun with growing the business in 2021, adding lots of value and helping agency owners with their WordPress development needs so they can have more freedom and focus on growing their business.
Here’s to an awesome and healthy 2021.