Brief background on my first agency

I started my first agency, Brevity, in 2013 - with a focus on building attractive Squarespace websites that were easy for clients to update.

It took me a while to get momentum, but I eventually found some traction, focusing mostly on B2B professional services businesses, as they were more likely to have a decent budget and be easy to work with.

I was doing decently-well as a one-person show (with a few contract designers as needed) and clients were pleased.

In the back of my mind, especially as time went on, I knew I wanted a second offering.

While recurring revenue is the dream, that requires a lot of moving parts: subject matter expertise from me in those areas, finding a capable team to deliver on the services, a project manager and system to regularly monitor the execution, and regular client reports/communication. It just seemed like a stretch for me in particular.

And I definitely didn’t want to be in the website maintenance business - especially when one of the advantages of choosing me is that clients would be able to make simple changes on their own (which is the vast majority of maintenance they’d need anyway).

It took me quite a while to finally figure out what that second offering should be.

How a typical agency works

I operated in a pretty similar way to most agencies:

  • Lead comes in and we have a qualifying call

  • We’ll exchange a few emails to clarify some points

  • I’d send over a customized proposal for a price that generates a solid profit for me, is fair, and I think the client is decently likely to accept

  • The client will sign the proposal + submit 50% payment + schedule an onboarding call

  • The work gets done; sometimes smoothly, sometimes not-so-smoothly

  • The project is done, with client paying final 50% and being off-boarded

The problem: you’re re-inventing the wheel every time

There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking a custom approach to client engagements.

But it does get exhausting to continue to do this every time as the main way your business functions.

Some relatively common issues:

  • The sales + proposal process can take a decent amount of time and energy.

    Many agency owners struggle with sales. And hiring + training + retaining good salespeople is no easy task. The more complex the deal is, the more strategizing and energy is usually needed to move it forward.

  • Pricing (and scope) can be kind of an ambiguous weird dance.

    Most agencies have figured out that they should get away from hours-based pricing onto project-based pricing, which is good. But that opens the door for throwing out seemingly arbitrary pricing figures. Many clients won’t reveal an up-front budget, just in case they were to overshoot what it would actually cost. It can sometimes feel like a Western stand-off when sending prospects a proposed budget.

  • There’s often some lack of process standardization, causing extra effort.

    When you do custom projects, you’re usually not forced to follow a very strict process; the focus is simply in doing a good job - with just some process along the way. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be a challenge to consistently deliver the highest quality of work that you’re capable of, as there are many unknowns.

The turning point in my agency

A few years ago, a friend of mine reached out to me on Facebook and said “I need a web designer for my solo practice, and I remember you do websites, let’s talk!”

In the agency space - especially something like web design - this is very common, and usually super dreaded. If you’re in this business, you know that not all creative work (e.g. websites) is created equal.

We feel an obligation to help our friends though:

  • They’re not our target market

  • They don’t have the budget of our typical projects

  • We have to deviate from our usual process (because their lack of budget) - which is both tiring and jeopardizes the quality of the work

  • We personally might feel a sense of pride in being “too good” to do this project

I knew that he needed a super simple “brochure” website with a few pages and a contact form.

Therefore he did not need the extra polish, consultative approach, or regular meetings like a standard client would expect.

Squarespace websites (my focus) are simple by nature, and I could build a decently simplified one for him that would work well for his solo practice in a few hours. Worst case scenario, I do my friend this favor and maybe he refers me down the road.

I thought about it a bit and came up with a plan: the client would do a bunch of the legwork by answering some ‘project brief’ questions and adding his content to a GoogleDoc I set up for him (basically a less-consultative version of my normal client intake process).

Then I would just come to his home and we would quickly build out the website.

While he seemed motivated, I had no idea if he’d actually complete the prep work for us to do the website.

But he did, in fact, complete it rather quickly.

We then built & launched the very simple site in a few hours. I thought it was no big deal, but he was ecstatic and singing my praises (which is still going on years later and he has since referred me numerous deals that have closed). 

I thought about this further. Maybe I’m onto something.

Then I realized that I had been turning away numerous motivated solo practitioners like him for years - despite these being warm (serious / ready-to-buy) prospects that knew what they wanted.

I turned them away because their budgets were smaller and they didn’t fit in with my usual client personas (B2B professional services businesses, or sometimes tech firms or nonprofits).

Not to mention the sites were simpler in nature, so they didn’t really excite me as much.

The work seemed too easy for me to consider it.

Not only did I turn away these prospects, but I really had no idea where to refer them.

These clients were in a strange spot of knowing what they wanted and being ready to buy - two key elements of what makes a good client - but most good designers/agencies were declining their business

In his book Zero to One, Peter Thiel, one of the most successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists of our time, offers up the question: “What valuable company is nobody building?”

I had accidentally stumbled across both a unique market and a simple yet unique solution to provide them.

What valuable agency is nobody building?

Piloting my new “lite” offering

Over the next few months, my leads would continue to come in as they usually do.

And that meant more solo practitioners like my friend; smaller budgets with those same simpler needs - but ready to buy and motivated to do the prep work at the start.

Instead of turning these leads away like I had been for years, I would schedule intro calls with them.

I would politely tell them that they were not a fit for my usual offering with their budget, but they were in luck - and that I was piloting this new service where they do some of the leg-work up-front, and then we build the website over screenshare in a few hours - for a low, flat rate.

They knew it was the offering for them.

These clients ended up:

  • Deciding + paying quickly

  • Being easy to work with

  • Loving the outcome + telling their network

The work was easy to deliver on and was a great revenue supplement to the more complex projects I did, which helped even out the frequent “feast or famine” cycles that agencies face.

While Brevity clients were certainly pleased with the outcome of the projects, the clients of these simpler website projects had even more enthusiasm - and ultimately relief - that this ongoing and extremely annoying problem for them was finally solved.

I also figured out that my offering had additional value I never thought of - speed and efficiency.

While my Brevity clients valued a bit more of a thorough process, this simpler client valued just getting it launched easily so that they can move on to other things.

The more thorough “white-glove” process of my first web design agency was not of interest to this new type of clients. 

Therefore, an agency’s processes should align with not just what the final outcome should be, but also the client’s preferences/priorities - further cementing their strategic advantage versus their competition.

Customer segmentation is the key

“Customer segmentation is the process of dividing customers into groups based on common characteristics so companies can market to each group effectively and appropriately.”

[source]

These solo practitioners all happened to fit into a clear bucket of wanting a simple & professional website, done quickly & efficiently, and without the bells & whistles (and thus a less bloated price).

And this group of people was continuing to knock at my door, wanting to give me money to solve this particular problem for them.

If I didn’t like working with them, that’s one thing.

But these people were overwhelming easy to work with and nice.

Furthermore, I wasn’t robbing Peter to pay Paul, so to speak - a Brevity client would probably never choose the far less-expensive option of WebsiteByTonight.

Again, WebsiteByTonight was just a secondary offering and a secondary revenue stream that was easy to sell and easy to deliver on. There was only upside in continuing with this.

The launch of WebsiteByTonight.com

One day the name came to me - WebsiteByTonight. I tiny bit gimmicky, but it was memorable. And the domain was available - fate!

I finally decided to mock up a logo and launch WebsiteByTonight.com - a completely standalone offering (not linked to my initial agency) with a new email account.

On many agency websites, there’s examples of work and perhaps some testimonials, but there’s a lot of information behind the curtain - such as process, price, etc.

In this case, because my offering is so straightforward and standard, the website could be simplified and have all key details up-front.

Which made the website serve as an excellent sales tool; for over a year, it was simply a one-pager of exactly how the service worked, what to expect, and who it was a fit for.

I was initially worried that this would cannibalize my original agency. After all, now people could pay less for a website that they’d be happy with.

Again, segmentation - my original agency (Brevity) and WebsiteByTonight had entirely different customers.

Brevity was targeting clients that wanted to pay a premium for a more consultative experience and valued extra design polish. These were usually more established organizations.

WebsiteByTonight was targeting clients that prioritized speed/efficiency and cost - with still a quality outcome, but delivered via a far simplified experience.

You should never sell a client on something that they don’t need. Very often, these clients accurately self-selected themselves into the right buckets anyway.

How WebsiteByTonight is set up as a Productized Service

The client fills out a project brief + content doc [client / agency] and send it to us for approval (with payment), and then we connect them to their designer to build the website live and in real-time via screenshare in a matter of hours for $899 or $1299/flat (including basic maintenance training) - with email allowed during the process.

 
 
WebsiteByTonight Process Map

WebsiteByTonight Process Map

The business is set up as a “productized service”, defined by Brian Casel as “a specialized ‘done for you’ solution with a compelling value proposition, packaged at a set price and scope… it runs systematically, and continues to produce and grow with or without your direct involvement.”

The process wasn’t too tough to draft up and tweak along the way. And simpler processes work great with straightforward tools and are much easier to stick to - making it much easier to stay on top of project management and overall feel like you have more control over the execution.

Benefit #1 of productization: sales are easier / cashflow is more predictable

When you’re selling a creative/marketing/consulting service, there’s a lot of ambiguity.

There’s a strange dance of figuring out the scope and the price. And the price can feel arbitrary, along the lines of “What’s this client willing to pay?”

Many people are uncomfortable with sales. Many people are scared to ask for a big engagement.

Selling a productized service addresses all of this through up-front transparency of:

  • The fixed scope

  • The fixed price

  • The outcome

  • The process and expectations

With a productized service, there’s no dance. There’s no sending a customized proposal and crossing your fingers, wondering if it will close. There’s pretty minimal sales effort.

In fact, most of our sales close after a single 20-minute call via verbal confirmation, and me sending a single email with all of the next steps consolidated and a secure payment link (that feels like an eCommerce checkout).

Chances are that the prospect has seen your website, with all of the expectations laid out clearly. So when that prospect wants to talk with you after seeing all of these things, they are much more likely to be qualified (a good fit for what you do) and quite possibly more ready to buy.

Your focus adjusts from “How can I make this deal work” to “Let me understand what the prospect is looking for - and see if it fits into this exact box that I have.”

That simplicity also frees you up to more quickly understand those important next steps questions at the end, such as:

  • “Can you help me understand your decision-making process?”

  • “Did you have a rough timeline in mind on when you would want to move forward by / have this implemented by?”

If you and the prospect mutually-agree it’s a fit, it’s easy to move forward.

If both parties don’t feel that way, you politely and quickly part ways.

This means a sale is a simple yes/no with no real wiggle-room, rather than a complex, time-consuming, and unpredictable dance.

A former sales mentor of mine once told me that there are two ways in sales: to win the deal or lose quickly.

A productized service offering rarely has you chasing down deals (nor should you).

And in many productized services, you can charge in-full up-front for that service, thus drastically minimizing risk and helping you sleep easier.

Whether a one-time deliverable or a monthly service, this transparency and clear set of expectations makes it much easier to charge in-full up-front, which is really the dream scenario for an agency.

At some point, we’ve all felt the terror of feast-or-famine or the frustration from delayed milestones due to client errors that delay us from being paid in a timely manner. 

A productized service brings much-welcomed order and predictability to sales and cashflow.

Benefit #2 of productization: operations + execution are easier

When you’ve clarified your delivery scope and processes, it makes things much easier to manage.

WebsiteByTonight operates on G Suite for email, Streak CRM within Gmail (+ templated responses for different phases), G Suite for Google Docs to gather client information, and Monday.com for project management (with simple project checklists, reporting, etc.).

A productized offering lets you focus more on building the machine that executes the work for you - rather than on keeping you stuck inside the minutiae of delivering the work itself.

Benefit #3 of productization: it’s easier to build your team

With clear processes and a machine designed to deliver the work efficiently, you should have a decent idea of who to hire (and when).

And because every person has a specific role that functions in a certain way - it should be much faster to onboard new team member.

Since every team member has a certain role, s/he should be extra productive in performing, thus allowing you to run in a more lean fashion.

Questions to ask yourself to uncover a possible productized offering for your agency

  • “What valuable agency is nobody building?” Or more specifically - “What customer segment/need is nobody serving?”

  • “What warm leads have I turned away in the past - and why?” or “What prospects could I help - but feel a little beneath me?”

  • “When prospective clients don’t end up buying - did they say the reason, such as cost or time investment?”

  • “Is there a way I can simplify my offerings in a more turnkey ‘done-for-you’ way that I can predictably deliver on?”

  • “Can I create a ‘lite’ offering for clients that still delivers a high-quality result?”

  • “Do I have any current or prospective clients that would value a more ‘done-for-you’ service for reasons like cost, speed, and simplicity rather than the customized services I’ve told them about?”

  • “Is there a related service that customers have been asking me for that I could deliver on - that I just haven’t tried yet?”

  • “How easy would it be for me draft this service and lightly test it alongside my current agency’s services to see what the feedback is?

Helpful Resources

Do you run an agency and need a simple, predictable, and cost-effective way to create simple websites for clients (so your designers + developers can focus on higher-value work)?

Let us tell you how other agencies are saving time and money by leveraging our turnkey service of building websites in hours (not months of email back-and-forth).