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13 Business Lessons from Expanding 1stWebDesigner in 2014

I have always found that I enjoy biographies, case studies and stories from people who have been there and done that. What can be more credible than content written from personal experience?

In this article, I will look back at 2014 and analyze what happened and discover the biggest business lessons learned from running 1WD business. This will be a massive post. I thought about splitting it in two parts, but decided to just give it all away.

Those who will want to pick all the massive value from the post will set 20 minutes aside. 13 business lessons will be hidden within the content as I tell you the whole story and put these lessons in the context, so you understand where I am coming from. Oh and in the end of article, you’ll learn more about what we plan to do with 1WD in 2015! Your participation and feedback is required! 🙂

Almost year ago, on March 9th,  I wrote this post – Lessons I Learned Growing a 6-Figure Online Business in 2013. You can take a peek there as this article will be an update of our progress, challenges and lessons learned from this year.

This year was a very rocky ride for me as well as for company. As my friend said: “Education costs money, and you got one hell of education this year”.

This time, I won’t amaze you with impressive growth, numbers, success stories, instead, talk about failure and entrepreneur’s path which you all experience as you are running your business. There is a lot of failure and tough times, especially when you are full-time freelancer working with clients and trying to create a bold project idea you had in mind for years.

In this article, you will get a secret sneak peek on what has happened on 1stWebDesigner behind the scenes this year. You will learn about our challenges and lessons from which you can learn to make you smarter and more successful for the next year. That’s what I promise.

Are you interested and ready to dive in? Let’s go!

Before I start, let me put some context about 1stWebDesigner. Two years ago, I made a decision to move to the Philippines and establish company headquarters there so everybody is in the same location. We could work agilely towards bigger dreams of changing existing educational system for designers and freelancers. We have always wanted to give you real-life education which will help you to work right now, not what worked 5 years ago.

Before this move to the Philippines, I have always worked remotely with our team – be it for full-time team members or  freelancers who either  guest-posted or worked part-time on 1stWebDesigner. During this time, I even established a remote partnership with Spencer Forman to create an online video freelancer training site.

When I moved to the Philippines, everything didn’t go as planned. In the first six months, we only managed to bring the team together by living, eating, sleeping and working together in one house. It was fun, but our goal was to expand our team and create our dream office; the, house was too small for such bold goals. We also spent quite a bit of time arguing about the perfect location for the office.

Angeles City, Philippines have a lot of schools, but the location was very urban. I wanted a more laid-back environment with options to enjoy nature. We found such location in Iloilo, where we also met Grace, who had great experience with human resources.

We opted for that location because of nature. It also provided the chance of getting a chance to work with Grace, who helped great deal with managing finances, running the office, interviewing the new team members and being my adviser as well.

It took several months to find a spacious office with natural lighting but, eventually, we found perfect place! In the photo below, you can see me and Algene working in the office, sitting on beanbags, enjoying the beautiful scenery outside with natural lighting coming in.

At one time, we had 15 team members working in the office (several still remote); we had weekly Ted Talk gatherings, full-day brainstorming sessions as well as team building activities outside the office. This lasted for only six months, however.

But now, since October, we don’t have any office anymore.  I returned back to Latvia; our team consists now of 6 people, including myself, and we are back to an agile, remote environment. I stopped my partnership with Spencer and got new partner, James.

What happened? I am about to tell you 13 business lessons we learned…

office-philippines

1stWebDesigner Growth Strategy in 2014

It’s nostalgic for me to write about 1WD as it has been my project of focus for last six and a half years. During this time, we did many things right and also made a fair amount of mistakes. Before 1WD, I never imagined I will even become an entrepreneur. I lack the education running business, but where I lacked knowledge, I made it up with hard work and learning as I go.

I need to admit, I wasn’t much hands-on with 1WD this year; I let our ex-editor to take the lead with his team. In the meantime, I was learning how to take the business to the next level of creating culture. I was learning about bookkeeping, leadership, hiring, creating systems in business to make work more effective. We established three departments:

  • Human Resources Department – responsible for hiring, firing, running the office, finances and planning team events
  • Editorial Department – responsible for 1WD article writing, proofreading, editing and publishing
  • Design & Development Department – our designer and programmer helped with graphics, and whatever we needed to be coded
  • Marketing Department – included social media communication, email marketing, SEO, replying to business requests and moderating comments

I worked with department leaders to help them get work done smoothly. It wasn’t easy; I am more like a manager, not a leader. That’s actually a big reason why I wanted to work so much with James. While I am number and systems guy, James is an excellent leader. He has excellent people skills. I am introvert; he’s extrovert – perfect duo.

accountability-chart-1stwebdesigner

Looking back, I understood that we wanted to step up to the next level too fast. While expanding, we got an ineffective team that didn’t get the tasks done on time. We had managers and department leaders who didn’t know how to manage or lead effectively. I didn’t even know how to lead bigger team effectively.

I hoped we’ll just throw ourselves in deep waters and learn to swim as we go.

From the book “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t”, two biggest takeaways about what makes companies great are:

  • Leadership
  • Getting the right people on the boat and wrong people off the boat and only then figuring out where to go.

My leadership skills weren’t good, and I wasn’t decisive about people we hire, fire or keep in the team. I’ve read many times how great leaders like Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Larry Page & Sergey Brin (Google), and Tony Hsieh (Zappos) were always personally interviewing new hires, and considered hiring their most important task to do in the company. They gave up hiring people only when they grew past 100 people in the team and then only were involved in key hires.

I learned this lesson only later. For example, I allowed team leaders to hire and pick their own team members because I thought they would be the ones working with them, not me. Oh, and did I say I misjudged many people and actually wasted lots of energy, people who didn’t get things done, but just promised the world.

As I said, it’s been one hell of education and learning this year.

What were the lessons learned when trying to expand?:

1. Find the key partner with complementing skills.

If you are not a people person, find somebody who is great with people and actually loves to be around them. I am introvert and constantly being around people drains me. I don’t feel productive either. Lessons – know your strengths as well as your weaknesses and find partner who complements you.

2. Grow slowly.

If you have never run bigger company, expand slowly. Our experience would be far less painful if we grew our team slowly, being very careful about who we let into our company. Leading a team takes a completely different skill set and thinking as opposed to being just one-man band.

3. Be agile.

It’s amazing how a small team can do amazing things online. Staying small and moving quickly is one hell of advantage. I tried to assume I was great leader and understood that growing our team to 20 people, was my EGO. Funny thing was that we got much more done when being just 5 people in the team, than having 20 people.

What happened with 1WD this year?

Let me explain what happened with our content behind the scenes..

We had several good writers in the team and our ex-editor was taking the lead with the Editorial Department. He was pushing a different strategy, unlike what I had in mind when I was still hands-on with 1WD. His goal was to make every article interesting to read – educational and fun. He preferred shorter articles. I had my doubts about how easy it is to generate engagement and shares when creating such articles, but I wanted him to take ownership so I tried his approach.

When I was writing articles myself, my goal was to always aim to write the best researched article about the specific topic.  Every article we published needed to be better than any other article previously published on the Web. I knew this was doable when you do proper research, and take your time. This was what I always tried to translate to the writers but it was hard to find good writers who didn’t compromise on quality.

We had our different opinions with our ex-editor about content but I was optimistic that we could get best of both worlds. The dream was to have great full-time writers team, with which we could publish brilliant articles daily without loosing quality.

We never made it to work, however.

As our ex-editor’s lead articles became shorter and more fun, articles usually didn’t get us much attention and engagement in comments. We  had trouble with effective communication with writers because some of writers who still worked remotely didn’t reply on time. Mistakes were made and content quality suffered more often than we wanted to admit.

We were getting fewer shares and lesser engagement in comments. Our Facebook fans were posting how a few years ago 1WD was so personal and warm – but now, it seems to be so impersonal and cold.

We tried to scale our editorial team, but couldn’t make it without loosing quality.

It was a tough time. We needed to part ways with five team members. There was so much clutter and inefficiencies in the team that it was easier to start from scratch than to try fixing things . Again, it was my own lack of experience in running a bigger team, communicating expectations clearly and hiring the wrong people.

And this brings us where we are right now – we have only one person in editorial team – Ruby, who is both the proofreader and writer.

What were the lessons learned,when trying to expand our editorial team?:

4. Find somebody with your own qualities for leadership roles.

If you want somebody to replace you, make sure you are on the same page about the direction where you want to go. It doesn’t mean that you always need to agree with each other, but whenever decision is made, it needs to be followed 100% without any further questioning.

The leader needs to take responsibility for his own actions, not point fingers to others when something goes wrong.

5. Hire slowly, fire quickly.

When growing your business, it is very important to keep the culture you built.

When you hire somebody who doesn’t have your team values, he is like a rotten apple among good apples. It doesn’t mean that person is bad;, it’s just that he’s not the right fit for the company.

You need to have right people with same values in the team. When you hire somebody you need to be very careful during the trial period. If something doesn’t feel right – fire quickly. If you fail to do so, sometimes you’ll lose years, when battling with this person, trying to work things out. But you will never be happy about the results.

6. People are replaceable – even you.

I’m always worried about how hard it will be to find another person to do the job if I fire somebody who has been with company for years. If the person is the right person for company, you’ll always know it deep down.

If he’s not, you’ll always find yourself making excuses and trying to blame yourself when things don’t work out. People are replaceable and you can always find somebody else to do the job.

This advice would have helped a lot to me earlier when I had to make tough decisions. Turn it around and you also will understand that you can always replace yourself as well. You can find somebody who loves to do the things you don’t enjoy.

Simple example –  If you love programming, but don’t enjoy designing, you can always find a designer who appreciates your programmer skills and loves to design every day.

Moving To Philippines – Pros and Cons

iloilo-riga

I spent in total 1.5 years in the Philippines and this place definitely wasn’t what I expected. People there have completely different mentality from the one I was used to (European) .

Originally, I wanted to setup headquarters in Philippines because many of our existing team members were there and I enjoyed working with them. Since living expenses are much lower in the Philippines, salary expectations were also much lower as well compared to Europe, UK or USA. Great competitive advantage.

I really enjoyed living in Philippines, as it is luxury living for far less monetary value than any other country. But let me drop it down to you in pros and cons.

Pros:

  • People are very friendly, happy and positive – Filipinos might not have much, but they are always ready to help out. They are always smiling, being happy about life. They don’t get angry about traffic jams, for example.
  • Everything is cheaper – It’s twice cheaper than living in Latvia (4x cheaper than living in UK or USA), which might be the reason why so many expats move to the Philippines. From a business perspective, it’s far cheaper to setup office as rental and office supply costs are much lower.
  • You can meet influential people very easily – Filipinos are very friendly towards foreigners and it is very easy to meet, for example, the town’s mayor and local influential business people. I guess it is because not many foreigners go there and Filipinos are just very friendly and open people.
  • It is always sunny and warm – In Latvia, we have cold winters and living in sunny place really lifts you up mentally. Nature in the Philippines is very beautiful, which is amazing if you just want to get out from your work and relax. Even traveling doesn’t seem expensive there!
  • Everybody speaks English fluently – This was another big factor why I liked Philippines.
  • You can outsource everything – You can easily outsource the basic time consuming tasks that fill your day and take your energy – like shopping, office/house cleaning, cooking, etc. This allows you to put all wake-time in productive actions. Many local households have helpers who live with them, act as their personal drivers and help to do all the day-to-day activities. This allows many heads of the family to focus on their work being sure everything at home is in order.

Cons:

  • The Internet is very slow and unreliable – For 6 months, we had challenges with Internet connection.We couldn’t get stable Internet even after having three separate Internet providers at office. I may be biased because, in Latvia, we have 2nd fastest Internet in the world. In hindsight, we had many challenges with Internet connection in Philippines.
  • Average education is not very good there –  Many students receive outdated education in schools, which means it is harder to find high-level people to hire. People are very religious but there are very few cultural events or high-level conferences going on, hurting the chances of getting good education (compared to Europe, USA or UK).
  • People, in general, aren’t hungry to grow – I noticed this difference to be very important. I guess because of the bad weather in Europe, for example, people are much hungrier to grow and succeed in their careers. In the Philippines, most people are laid back; they enjoy their time with families, friends and usually don’t have this big urge to  fight and do big things even if theInternet provides them with this chance. Or maybe many people just don’t know about this opportunity yet, I cannot be sure. The smartest people usually move to USA and live there.
So these were the trade-offs I experienced. I don’t want to offend anybody in the Philippines. I am just sharing what I went through myself from a business perspective. The Philippines may be beautiful place to live due to its cheap living and beautiful nature but that weren’t something that mattered much to me – I was looking to grow my business there. And I met my challenges.
living-in-philippines-pros-cons-700
I am not saying you cannot find smart and motivated people in Philippines. It’s just much harder to do so than in other countries…at least in my experience. That being said, we still have five AMAZING people we work with in Philippines, and I feel very blessed they are with us. My partner, James, is still in the country working remotely and meeting with the team regularly.I am sharing these experiences so if you ever consider hiring Filipino or moving to Philippines you know what to expect. If your business needs basic outsourcing like SEO link building, low quality article writing, niche site building, call center support, the Philippines is a superb place to have such business. It is far more difficult if you are looking to create high level online company from there.I also need to point out that I didn’t live in capital of Philippines; I lived in Iloilo, which is laid-back town. In Manila, you can definitely find smart and ambitious people, but I didn’t want to live there. There is no nature, and it is an overpopulated place with much crime and poverty.We are slowly looking to become international again as it is far easier to find great people all over the world than just in one country.

First partnership experience with Spencer and 1WD.TV

For the last three years, I was partnered with Spencer to create 1WD.TV – a place where you could learn how to become a successful freelance web designer. It was a wild ride and Spencer helped many freelancers to get more and higher paying clients. However, as project grew, we had our own challenges. 1stwebdesigner and 1WD.TV were run as separate companies and this proved to become increasingly difficult as we grew.

Eventually, we agreed to try merging 1WD.TV with 1stWebDesigner by sharing all the resources. This didn’t go well as Spencer was mainly focused on 1WD.TV, and I was trying to juggle between projects. 1stWebDesigner was suffering.

We had our differences with Spencer and we couldn’t find a good way to make this partnership work so we decided to part ways. I and 1stWebDesigner are no longer associated with 1WD.TV.

This was my first experience of partnership and as everything you do for the first time, you try your best, but you screw up royally sometimes.

Lessons to takeaway:

7. Everything happens for the best.

When we parted our ways, a friend of mine suggested to spend time and write all the things I learned from this partnership. It was healthy exercise to look back and understand how many things I’ve learned because of this partnership and stop looking for negatives.

The world around you changes as you look at it – if you look at it as an evil, negative place, everything around you will be negative. If you look at world as this beautiful place with remarkable things happening all around you, with great lessons, you will be able to learn and live a positive life.

8. The same core values

I do repeat myself now. When looking for a partner, make sure your core values are the same. You need to have complementing strengths and weaknesses, but your core values, the way you see and operate in the world should be the same.

9. Constant communication

Talk about issues as they arise. Talk often. If you don’t, you will quickly start having negative thoughts in your mind, when it is only a simple misunderstanding. Don’t talk regularly and you’ll quickly run into problems.

10. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

We parted our ways with Spencer on good terms, and it was great experience for both of us. It’s scary to partner up, but it is so much easier to survive entrepreneurial life with a partner than going in there alone. Having partnerships is very similar to relationships – you are in it together and you become very close. While it’s scary to go in there and there are many times when these don’t work, a partnership still equates to 1+1 = 3.

James coming in the picture, taking over as CEO and my trusted partner.

I have known James for several years, but last year we stopped working together when we couldn’t find a way on how we can best work together. However, we stayed friends. We learned from our previous challenges. We learned about each other’s natural strengths, weaknesses and so on. The Wealth Dynamics personality profile test was a huge help to understand how each of us operate.

I cannot say enough how important it is to understand your own natural strengths and weaknesses as well as to know the fact that there are people who are naturally good at things you are terrible at. For example, I am naturally good with finances, and systems but I am terrible with people.

James, on other side, is excellent when working with people. H can meet new people easily- and loves doing so, but he isn’t as good with finances. Finding a partner with opposite strengths has been truly a blessing.

Now I can focus more on polishing my own, knowing that James has got my back on things I am weak at and don’t enjoy doing.

Four months ago, James flew in from the UK to the Philippines and we started working together with this newly gained confidence in each other. James has impressive experience working as freelancer himself. He has worked with very high-level clients.  Also, he has super high standards, always aiming for perfection from himself and the team.

1WD is in good hands now and if you haven’t felt it yet, you will very soon.

AwesomeWeb launch and lessons learned launching new project

awesomeweb freelance marketplace

At the beginning of 2014, we joined forces to create AwesomeWeb. We partnered up with Michael Dunlop from IncomeDiary and Nicholas Tart to create the best freelance marketplace online. 1stWebDesigner attracts freelancers, who are looking for better clients.

On the flip-side, IncomeDiary attracts entrepreneurs who are looking for designers who can complete their bold projects. It was a natural fit to connect the pieces and solve the natural challenges for both 1WD and IncomeDiary.

It took us 9 months to get to the working version as we opted out to build our site on Ruby on Rails, but last September, we finally launched it. We already have more than 400 designers and developers on AwesomeWeb who are getting hired right now. If you are freelancer, you definitely should check out AwesomeWeb.

We are working hard to making AwesomeWeb better and better with each day and we really appreciate the kind feedback we receive from happy users!

Lessons learned:

11. Launch faster.

It always takes much longer to launch project than you ever planned. We spent months working on making AwesomeWeb.

After a while we understood, we will never be satisfied and ready to launch, unless we just launch it. So we did just that and we gave people minimally working version, even if we saw so many things to improve.

By launching earlier we do get some upset users when something isn’t working, but we get  the so-needed feedback. We are very grateful how understanding our users are and we are grateful for all the support we are receiving.

12. Communicate often.

We are doing it right this time, talking three times a week and constantly supporting each other. If we wouldn’t be committed about this communication, I am sure we would be as far as we are now.

13. Meeting face to face

We met each other before we even started working together and that made all the difference. I trust Michael and Nick much more after spending full week with them. Now we plan to meet again in January, and I am confident it will only bring us closer together.

This is very important for remote teams because you work better with people you like, know and respect. Many remote teams have acknowledged this and are meeting once a year for team retreats.

What kind of content will we be publishing on 1WD?

This was another historical challenge of ours. When I started 1WD I was writing about everything I found interesting – sometimes it was photo-manipulation, photography, marketing, web design, logo design, freelancing or social media. I wasn’t focused at all, but, hey, I never expected 1WD will grow this size.

Right now, we have decided to focus only on WordPress and high-level freelance business because we see that’s what you are most interested in and we are most passionate about these topics. We don’t want to write for beginners anymore. If we write very basic tips and tutorials, we get exactly that kind of audience. This was another mistake I made.

These are beginners who mostly aren’t ready to do what it takes to become successful online. They complain about how unfair this world is but aren’t ready to do something about it. Besides, there are far better places for beginners to learn the first steps, and it’s easy to just play around and learn something on their own.

What we want to create here is community of capable designers and freelancers who are looking to step-up their game. We want to help people to get to the next level – help them find high paying clients, help them understand how to position themselves to stand out from crowds, and help with creating and running their agencies where several team members are involved!

If you need babysitting, this is not a place for you, but if you need motivation to step up your game being around like-minded community – we are definitely here for you!

Well, that’s a big reason why we don’t have a writer’s team we had in the past. For them, this change of focus was hard to take in. We hired them on different expectations and, suddenly, we were expecting something completely different from them. Great people can and will love change while some people want comfort and they don’t want to challenge themselves.

There is this amazing book about growth and change, and book title says it all – “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There”.

Where are we going forward?

going-forward-sunrise

For the next year, we are committed to focus on 1stWebDesigner by writing thought- provoking and high-level articles about growth, business, web design and mindset. We also want to bring our community closer together and share our knowledge. Moving forward, the best conversations do happen in comments section!

We started this movement by changing our outlook a month ago (how do you like our redesign?).

There will also be a lot more personalized video content from James, where he’ll answer your questions and talk about lessons we learned from the past that can really help you. Here is one video, for example:

Another big policy change is that we are no longer willing to accept guest writers, not even in-house writers or journalists. We are working hard to create premium partnerships with hand-picked content curators. Only these people who have a proven track record of being successful, and recognized as thought leaders in the field will be published here.

All of these is in the name of delivering much higher quality, to make sure we can filter out our audience to find out who is serious about web design, development career and who isn’t. It will be fun 2015!

Now, we are going through past content we published before and we are cleaning the house. There is so much outdated content, many articles written by me on 2008, 2009 are being removed. It is crazy to see how rapidly industry changes. For example, I found an article where I was talking about Adobe Flash and its future. Who remembers Flash anymore or even more – who uses it? Crazy, how people argued about this few years ago.

Also we want to be personal again, and this post is the first stepping stone to achieving this goal.

This was a truly rocky year with many lessons learned, but not having much to show for growth. But when I think about 2014 and feel unmotivated to keep going, I remember this Steve Jobs quote: “Stay hungry, stay foolish”. I see so many people who stop growing, learning new things and making mistakes because life has disappointed them so many times. But you need to stay hungry and foolish, and dream about bold goals or you’ll end up depressed, without good goals to live in this life.

But we aren’t one of them. We push boundaries; we challenge ourselves and we grow! Let’s go strong in 2015!

Back to You

What did you go through this year and what was the most important lesson you learned?

Please share your story and let others learn from you as well. I want to hear from you and carry on this conversation in comment section!

If you have more questions about what happened on 1WD, just ask, I will make sure all of our team pitch in and answer each question as best as we can!

P.S. If you managed to make it this far, thank you for reading 🙂 – Dainis

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