Where does a small web design/development company find work?
March 29, 2008 2:25 PM   Subscribe

Where does a small web design/development company find work?

We've been in business for a little over a year, and 100% of our clients up until now have been through word of mouth. Most of our work has been designing and integrating into a CMS like Wordpress or Joomla, with a few eCommerce sites as well. Lately though, it seems that our network has dried up, and we've been short on work.

We've tried looking at craigslist, with no success. ("$20 AND EQUITY TO CREATE FACEBOOK CLONE!!1")

We're currently looking at eLance as an option, but we're not sure if we'll be able to compete with all of the off-shore companies. (We're three guys from the U.S.)

I've seen a lot of those job boards that have been pretty popular on all the web design blogs, but they seem to be directed towards full-time hires or freelancers.

So I guess my question is, how do you guys find work as web designers/developers? Are any of you guys in a similar situation?

Thanks in advance for any tips/advice.
posted by petah to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I think it comes down to classic marketing:

1) Who do you want to sell to? Where do they shop? Do they read a particular magazine or a particular blog? Can you afford to advertise in those places?

2) Who else provides the services that you provide? Where do they advertise? How are your competitors reaching clients?

3) Where are you losing business? Is it in finding prospects, or is it in completing RFPs? If you aren't getting RFP's, are you able to get on the track for people in your domain?

4) Your described niche is pretty general; can you identify a common vertical industry from your customers? It's a lot easier to be "the go-to guys for airport websites" instead of "the go-to guys for joomla or wordpress implementations and a few ecommerce sites". If there is a vertical, is there a trade show or other industry meeting that you could attend with your best customers?

5) I've found that many of my customers are repeat business after they change jobs and work somewhere else- can you solicit old customers that have moved elsewhere?

Finally, I've identified a set of prospective customers; companies that I want to sell to. Since everybody googles themselves, I've bought google keyword ads for all of my prospective employer's names. I found that taking advantage of corporate vanity was a pretty good way to get some initial leads going. If you have a small set of potential prospects, this may be a good strategy- and the keywords themselves are pretty cheap.

Good luck!
posted by jenkinsEar at 2:40 PM on March 29, 2008

I've been freelancing for 3 years, and most of my work comes via word-of-mouth as well. Two years ago, however, I did some of my own direct marketing. I designed a 4"x6" postcard, had it printed up, created a mailing list (targeting a niche industry) and sent out many hundreds. It was effective! I think my response rate was somewhere around 1%, which is pretty OK. (That is, 1% became actual clients. Another 1% contacted me, but the deal never went through.) Good luck!
posted by iguanapolitico at 3:49 PM on March 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree that if you can target a well-defined niche, it will be easier to stand out. To get better results from Google, you could use something like the Overture keyword selection tool (site appears to be down at the moment) to identify the most commonly used search terms in that niche, then optimize your site for those terms.

If you haven't already, you might also submit some designs to the showcase sites. That's how I found my logo designer.
posted by PatoPata at 3:52 PM on March 29, 2008

You said you looked at craigslist, but have you created an ad? Post in the Computer Services section as often as you're allowed. Emphasize that you're local. It works!
posted by deepscene at 4:29 PM on March 29, 2008

Have you tried Guru? It's like Elance, but different. They charge a 5-10% project fee to the web developer which you figure into the overall cost of your service.

Here's an explanation of how their payment service works.
posted by mynameismandab at 7:19 PM on March 29, 2008

I'm coming from a biased standpoint here (I work with the Movable Type team), but we regularly refer work to our community of developers and web designers. So, for some number of shops, one good way to get leads and referrals is by talking to the team that makes your technology platform.

And obviously we're far from the only example of a platform where you can do that -- everyone from Microsoft to Red Hat to Google does that; I know of folks who make a good living consulting around (for example) Google's Enterprise Search tools. And some friends of mine who work with us on MT-powered sitse have grown from two-guys-making-blogs for a couple of clients into a 10+ person web shop that does tons of business for some of the biggest websites in the world. So if you find a good technology partner that's willing to work to help you grow your business in exchange for you using their tools, you can end up in good shape.
posted by anildash at 9:22 PM on March 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Look into RFPs (requests for proposals, usually from government or larger organizations). It's a numbers game. If you do good work, eventually you will be given an RFP and at that point you will be able use that as a springboard onto other projects. You also want to continue turning to your former customers for your leads. If you did good work for them, they will want you to do well, and will help you out. The nice thing about doing for government and certain organizations is that many of them will prefer to work with US firms. Sometimes they are even obligated to do so, I think.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:33 PM on March 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Have you tried cold-calling?

As a Canadian, I find the discussion in this thread regarding Craigslist etc fascinating - I'm assuming that American small businesses like the OP here are more prone to rely on the Internet rather than more traditional rainmaking methods. It's really interesting.

I used to work for an industry association representing tech companies in a medium-sized city on the west coast of Canada. There are about 800 tech companies in this town, with a median size of 25 employees. Most are revenue-generating companies that have commercialized a technology (as they are essentially service companies, web developers like the OP aren't considered "tech companies" by the industry association I used to work with).

Although I was employed as a researcher (I specialize in compensation), I also linked tech companies with service providers - if it was a good fit. I always knew who was looking for what, and who might be able to help provide a solution. Kind of a matchmaker, with a very fine screen.

This cohort of 800 or so smallish tech companies is actually a really excellent market for someone designing custom CRMs. In fact any small business of twenty employees or so would provide a great market.

They're not big enough to hire a full-timer to develop a solution. They're also usually too small to purchase (and customize) an out-of-the-box solution for Microsoft or whatever. But they need a good web presence because their customer base is usually located off-shore (out of province, out of state, etc).

You have to do some market research and identify the companies. A chamber of commerce website is useful. If you are able to focus on the community where you live, it's also good to know about the informal social and professional networks that exist in your community.

Other web developers will focus on a specifc sector: municipalities, shopping malls, the cable manufacturing industry [companies need a web presence to sell stock].

But at the end of the day (for this Canadian), it boils down to market research and developing personal relationships; every relationship is started with a cold call.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:49 PM on March 29, 2008

Make sure your website looks fairly good and explains what you do; nowadays it's what people will usually use to initially check you out, even if it's a word-of-mouth referral.

I wouldn't bother with any of the competitive-bidding freelancing sites unless you're willing to work for wages that'll barely cover your snacks and drinks. It's better to head in the other direction where people are willing to pay more for quality and reassurance.

You can attract a steady stream of potential clients in the long term by getting your name out on the internet more - participate in relevant forums/blogs to share your expertise, and create content (blog posts, articles, code snippets) on your own site. Most people can't be bothered to do this, as it involves a great deal of work over a period of years, but it can add significantly to your traffic and reputation.

You could try a couple of RFPs, but go in realising they can eat up crazy amounts of time and sap your will to live, and if you get the job dealing with the client and getting paid may be similarly painful. It's best to develop a library of good material that lets you churn them out in strictly limited amounts of time.

Try offering services to other web dev firms. They're less picky about location and more focussed on quality, so if you're good at what you do you're a viable option worldwide for anyone looking to outsource CMS work. Obviously they're also more touchy about spamming and cold-calling, so you need to be careful and clever; perhaps try to devise some kind of online marketing campaign targeting small firms who do great design & HTML but don't do much server-side work.

If you're all keen to learn and have some spare time then broaden the company skillset. Judging from the regular "Help! Do you know anyone who does..." emails I get, there's work out there for anyone who knows Flash ActionScript well enough to create medium-sized games and applications.
posted by malevolent at 1:55 AM on March 30, 2008

Three methods that work for me are Networking, Partnerships, and Direct Marketing.

Networking: Go to a few BNI meetings and find one that seems to have people in industries you could help out. Join and participate.

Partnerships: Find Freelancers or other small businesses whose services are complimentary (graphic designers, copywriters, marketing companies) but don't do the web work themselves. Start trading clients back and forth.

Direct Marketing: As others have said, postcards work well. But I've had luck with short letters. Get a good basic template and then swap out a few details to make it seem like a letter you wrote just for them.

For added effectiveness, hand address the envelopes, use your first and last name instead of the business in the return address, and use stamps instead of metered mail.
posted by Mick at 7:50 AM on March 30, 2008

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