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A story of year 1, 2 and 3

[exaggeration:no]
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This is what worked for us - but these strategies are not for everyone.

Learn how we got started and hear about the tactical strategies we used to grow fast and strong. Every part of this story is real and accurate.

Some of you will listen to this story and say fuck no, absolutely not doing that. Some of you will listen to this story and use these strategies the same day. Regardless of who you are, this is an entertaining story.

First few months & the mindset

My original plan for Finsweet was to make some side money as I figured out what I wanted to do. I casually played around with websites in Wordpress for the past year. I made 4 or 5 tiny sites. I knew nothing about html, nothing about css, nothing about javascript. I played around with templates and plugins in Wordpress. It was a hobby, I enjoyed it. I formed a Corporation online for $200 and I was in business. Again, this was something I planned to do in my free time and on the weekends.

I picked up the phone and made my first sale on my first call. 1 call, 1 project. $500. 3 page wedding planner website. I got a rage of confidence and at that moment and I thought that Finsweet was going to be easy. It was too easy to get that first project. Now a disclaimer: I’m very good at sales. I had a ton of experience selling on the phone.

Selling stuff is in my blood.

I wasn’t good enough because my next 100 calls were failures. Seriously, 100. I made about 15 calls per day for about 2 weeks. All types of businesses, all sizes of projects. I left messages, had hour long phone calls. I went all in on trying to grow Finsweet.

I still had that first project, so I was good. The project turned out to be a huge success. The client loved it and it was my first real portfolio piece. Almost 5 years later this website is still live and I service it personally free of charge - as a thank you for being my first client.

How I got that very first sale...

I put my reputation and work quality on the line. I told her that she didn’t have to pay me anything until she was 100% satisfied. If I built the whole website and she didn’t like it, she didn’t have to pay. 0% upfront, 100% after launch, no contract. She sounded like an honest genuine person on the phone, I needed the experience, so why not?

When you're starting out, sometimes you have to agree to terms you don’t want to. Sometimes you have to offer terms that sound ridiculous. You’re starting out, you don’t have a portfolio. You don’t have the power to make the rules. If you want to grow fast, you don’t have a choice. How do you expect people to trust you without a solid work history? Making 1 or 2 websites is not enough for someone to know you’re legitimate.

0% upfront, 100% after launch. It sounds ridiculous. But if you do what you’re supposed to do and improve this company’s website in a big way, they’ll want to pay you. If they're terrible people and don’t pay you, you have a portfolio item and new knowledge. You’re never wasting time when you’re learning.

100% return if the client is not satisfied.

Nobody ever walked out on paying me. Not once. I always made sure the client was satisfied. If there was a problem with the project or they weren’t satisfied, I returned their money in full. 100% return if the client is not satisfied. If you don’t do a good job and you don’t make the client happy, you shouldn’t be paid. This drive for quality started from day 1 of Finsweet. It's still in our culture today. If you can’t stand behind your work, stop making websites. You’re in the wrong industry. To be successful in this industry, you must be able to make people happy.

All of these strategies I’m talking about are for fast growth.

  • You don’t have to do 0% upfront, 100% at launch.
  • You can do 50% upfront, 50% at launch, and you can be super successful.
  • However, 0% upfront, 100% at launch, gets more people to say “yes”.
  • So 0% upfront, 100% at launch, will naturally let you grow faster.
  • More people will say yes, you have a bigger portfolio, you have more experience.
  • A big portfolio + a lot of experience is a powerhouse combination for long term success.

Key points

There are key points in your career that you will need this mentality to grow.

Accept anything. Make an awesome website, get a big portfolio item, and make money an afterthought.

When a big name client comes our way, I can always guarantee a sale. I will make any offer or agreement to get the project. Anything. Pick your price, any terms if it will secure a yes. I did this when I first started. I do this actively now in year 5. Every time you get a big project, an important client, a beautiful website - it’s a stepping stone to your next level. Your portfolio improves and higher end clients start coming your way. When you have an opportunity to make a beautiful website, you do anything you can to make that website.

No matter what, get it.

I will make any offer or agreement to get the project.

In that first year, I took this mindset to max 100%. After 100 failed cold calls, I knew I needed to loosen up and stop caring about money and terms. I spent 2 weeks on the phone, and not enough time practicing my new trade. I had nothing real to show these people I was calling. They asked for a portfolio and I had some personal sites and half of a wedding website. This lack of portfolio turned into - I would do any website project for anyone, at any cost, for any reason. I begged people to let me make them a website. A little bit for the money, but mostly for the experience. I got turned down from all of those calls because I had no portfolio to show.

One time I accepted a 2 month project for $300. Ridiculous. It was a huge blog on Wordpress and I had never made a blog before. I learned so much during that project. It was worth it in experience.

The most important thing I learned was how terrible Wordpress is.

Reasons for a change

Webflow was a huge turning point for me.

Within days of using it, I was 100% sold.

I would never take another Wordpress site again and I was only going to work in Webflow

Everything was faster and more simple. I had more creative control and I was able to visually see how html works with css on a webpage.

All of the things I did to grow a -based company

1. Remade all WordPress client sites

I remade all of my Wordpress client sites on Webflow. I remade each one without asking the client. I sent each client an email saying I rebuilt their website on a better platform free of charge. It’s faster and functions better and has animations. Within a few months of Webflow use, I had 10 full, clean, real client websites built in Webflow. This is important when trying to grow a Webflow-based web company.

2. Remade local business websites

I picked local businesses in town and remade their website for them. Didn’t tell them, didn’t contact them, just redesigned and developed their website based on what I thought they needed. Huge upgrades. I was taking 2005 sites and turning them into something usable and above their industry standard quality. I would present it to them and tell them that they didn’t have to pay for it. I just want them to use it. Believe it or not, this worked 0% of the time. I surprise-built around 5 full size websites, offered them for free, and was rejected every time.

3. Told leads to choose any price

I told leads to pick any price they wanted for the project. Choose any price. I’m in. In Webflow it was no more than 2 weeks of work.

At the very least I had experience.

4. Created sample & experimental sites

I created test sample brand websites and sample brand websites. I must have had 30 or more of them. It was a great way to experiment with styles, interactions, and presenting a fresh brand online. I learned so much and I had a list of links I could send to clients to show them what I was able to do for their brand. I would send them 2 lists of links: Here are live client sites - and here are sample company websites that I created.

New website every day

I tried to make a new website every day. I worked long hours. I was working unpaid for 80% of the day, just building and learning. Client websites, test websites, imaginary brand websites, nice websites, terrible websites. I did not stop. I worked a lot and I learned at a very fast rate. I honestly did not care how much I got paid. I knew that experience was needed to truly be successful in this industry. I was never going to be ultra successful with my current level of experience.

By the end of the first year, I had 2 things - no money and a lot of experience.

I made less than a part time minimum wage worker in the first year of business. Doing the numbers at the end of that first year was disappointing. I could have made more money doing almost anything else. However, I knew this wouldn’t have to go on forever. My portfolio was growing and I was getting referrals. Paid site prices were starting to rise. With all of that time in my room building websites, I didn’t have much time to do anything else. So I saved a lot of money - and racked up a reasonable, safe amount of credit card debt.

I’ll never be really good at design.

I’m really good at some things, ok at some things, and terrible at some things. I’m really good at development in Webflow. I’m really good at sales. I’m ok at design. I’m not terrible at design, but I’m not really good.

I’ll never be really good at design.

I know that from the bottom of my soul. I am not a designer, I never was, I never will be. I can put together a solid website, but I am not a digital artist. I’ve accepted this. As bigger leads came in, design demands were higher. I felt my design skills being maxed out.

In the first year, every client was a small local business. My design skill was always good enough to improve their previous website. Now the leads coming in have nice websites already. Every other lead that came in said, “I want a website like HelloSign.” I know that I will never be good enough to design a website like HelloSign. I accepted that as a fact. If the projects I want are asking for a level of design I can’t deliver, that means one thing - hire someone.

Hiring a designer.

I hired a designer that only knew design. He didn’t know a thing about development or Webflow. It was a perfect match - I project managed, he designed, I developed.

Poof - just like that my biggest weakness was fixed.

I was able to spend more time doing what I wanted to do - developing websites in Webflow and selling. This was a great relationship.

I was charging so much more money for these bigger clients. The design quality was high and people wanted to pay for it. The portfolio was growing with high quality sites. The small local business sites were coming off the Finsweet website. The professional designed websites were being added. I needed help in my weakest skill for Finsweet to grow.

A better portfolio brings you better leads, which gives you bigger projects, which improves your portfolio, which brings you better leads. This is an endless cycle of progress on loop. This is a loop that can continue for as long as you want it to. Finsweet has been pushing this loop since day 1. We push this loop actively now. We will always push this loop.

As the portfolio grew, more projects came in. More projects than I could handle myself. That year 1 mentality of ‘get any project no matter what’ was now becoming very selective. I only needed to offer this to the biggest and best projects. There was enough business coming in on a regular basis and people honestly wanted to pay Finsweet. Leads were coming in with zero marketing. Just a big sexy portfolio.

I was chosen.

I poured my heart into that sale. I spent hours typing up emails to them. Careful with every word and every explanation. I think one time I spent over 2 hours on one single email. I analyzed their current site, analyzed the new designs, suggested best structure, suggested global spacing classes, giving them honest answers to all questions Webflow. I was communicating with them as if I already had the project and they were amazed by that. They were amazed at how much valuable information I was giving them before they agreed to anything. And out of those 100 messages from the forum, I was chosen.

They asked me for a quote for the project. It was between me and someone else. Guess what I said -

“Tell me what you want to pay and the answer is ‘yes’”.

I also told them that I wanted to put a ridiculous term in the contract. I demanded it. This term allowed them to refuse to pay me if they weren’t happy with the work. If anything was unsatisfactory, I will return the money. It showed confidence and guaranteed my quality. They were surprised but agreed and came back with their number. The project cost number they wanted. Of course, I accepted instantly. I got it. I got my first big project.

Over 4+ years later, HelloSign is still a happy active client.

Looking back on it, I would have paid to do HelloSign’s website. I could have taken out a business loan to pay HelloSign to allow me to build their website. It would have paid for itself many times over by now. I used the HelloSign project in every sales pitch. It was my leading message in my pitch. Do you see this website? I made this, hire me. I used that project as my golden ticket to grow my portfolio - and now get paid for it. More people said “yes” with HelloSign in the Finsweet portfolio.

Aside from the big client, big project, big portfolio item, I learned a lot during that project. It was the first time:

  • I used Webflow CMS
  • I made a website over 10 pages
  • I set up a universal spacing system
  • I used global clases

After that 4 month project I felt like I went through 2 years of training.

The new Finsweet website.

It was time to build an awesome website for us, for Finsweet. We have a designer who can do creative work. We have a developer who knew how to build any layout inside Webflow. This is a formula for an awesome website. These were my directions to the designer: “Design something that you’ve never seen before. Something crazy with a huge color palette.

Our website needed to be different and unique - not just say "we are unique" with text on the website.

I wanted something that caught everybody’s attention visually and showed how good we are with Webflow. The layout needed to be complex. The animations needed to be advanced. It needed to prove our quality as a team. I told the designer to give me his best work during his most creative time - and I would pay a premium for his guaranteed best work. It was important that our website was the best that we could build as a team. I said that to everybody who touched that website. Give me your best work, I will pay a premium.

Wildly Different.

It was bright, it was loud, it was ridiculous.

The designer sent back a hero with a big lion head with a blue purple gradient filter over the lion. It was bright, it was loud, it was ridiculous. He sent the lion as a joke, but I loved it immediately. It was crazy and very visual. I couldn’t stop looking at it and it was surely something that has never been done before. I said “yes” and our designer said, “are you sure?” I saw it and I knew it had to be the direction we needed to go in. We needed to be wildly different.

The site was a huge success. People loved it.

The big investment I made voluntarily overpaying for everything ended up paying off. More leads came in, people wanted to spend more money, and I could feel Finsweet growing. Within 2 or 3 months, the site investment was paid off from completed new projects that came in because of the hot new website projects coming in.

experts

HelloSign became a featured customer of Webflow. Webflow did a case study on HelloSign. As the person that implemented that big powerful site, Finsweet was admitted to the Webflow Experts program. This was awesome. It was a huge honor and I was very happy about it. I also felt like I should be a part of it. At this point, I was a wiz in Webflow. I wasn’t in the forum daily looking for solutions anymore. I knew enough to figure out solutions myself. I was starting to make my own solutions. I had no question about how html and css worked. I knew it.

The Experts program was a new source of leads. We had our new flashy website live. That combination led to higher quality leads that wanted to pay more money. We were continuing to loop. Continuing the loop is so important for fast growth. I was working more and more. But now I was working less on tests and experiments and more on client websites. This transition to spending most of my time on paid projects was very motivating. I continued learning and getting solid experience with clients - all while getting paid, finally. Half way through year 2, I started to feel some financial payback.

JavaScript Developer

Bigger and better projects means bigger and better functionality.

Clients were asking for tasks that required javascript. Up until this point I was only able to implement a javascript library to a site. If the docs were simple and clear, and I was lucky, I could implement a library. I tried to stay 100% native Webflow. Javascript was this thing that I tried to avoid and had trouble understanding. I really wanted to understand it, but it didn’t come natural to me.I tried to connect with a few js devs and none clicked with me. I paid js devs to get scripts made, I paid js devs to check for my errors. $5 to tell me I’m missing a comma. Nobody was the right fit. I wanted fast, live support for javacript work. Everyone I tried to work with was 24 hour+ turnaround. Sometimes more. It was a pain for me to find javascript work. Then I found ‘the guy’. He was everything and more. He was fast, smart, accurate, motivated and had intuition. He was able to understand what the problem was and use javascript to fix it.

All of the previous people needed to be told exactly what to do. That’s hard to do when you don’t know javascript that well. This new guy didn’t need the step by step explanation. He understood what was going on. I still work with him actively now in year 5. I will always work with him as long as he lets me. Our new javascript team member was an important move for Finsweet. I now had someone that I could go to any time to get reliable javascript work. Returned within 24 hours. Sometimes within minutes. I asked question after question after question. Every time he wrote a script, I asked him to explain how it works and why it works like that. After countless questions, I started to understand javascript. I started to understand how the logic works, how the thought process to solve a problem works, and how it works with Webflow.

Today in year 5, my understanding of javascript is one of my most powerful skills - today I still don’t write it.I was learning so much and making our new websites more custom with javascript. We were meeting the needs of our clients through javascript. Sometimes leads ask for functionality that is not possible natively in Webflow. On a sales call, instead of saying, “We can’t do that because blah blah blah”… I could now say

“Yes, we can do that”.

I knew how javascript worked enough to know what was possible and what was not possible. Maybe I didn’t know how to do what the client was asking myself, but I had a javascript developer that did. I knew what was possible and what was not possible. The most important information I know about javascript is what it’s capable of. I know what it can do, I know what it can’t do. With that knowledge, you can say, “Yes, we can do that” on the phone.

That leads to more sales and more client satisfaction.

Adding a javascript developer to the team was a key move in Finsweet growth. Today we are heavily invested in javascript inside Webflow. We love implementing custom javascript on a client’s website. Now we always say, “Yes”. We can do anything that is technically inside Webflow. We have full control. We have come up with the most ridiculous, fantastic, confusing, simple, amazing solutions inside Webflow. If a client needs something to work a certain way, we will figure out how to do it. As long as it is technically possible, we will do it. This type of mentality started in the beginning of year 3. Learning how javascript works was key.

Time to improve

Up until this point, I was doing most of the work and building all of the websites. I was the only one that knew Webflow. Finsweet was making just enough money to support me. That’s it. No money for advertising, no money for growth, no money for saving. All I had was my time. In the second year, I made around the same as a full time minimum wage worker. At the start of the third year, I decided it was time to start making money. I needed to start growing Finsweet into a business. Add people to the team, take on more projects. This is a natural next step for any business that wants to grow. Every successful business goes through this - the founder has so much work that it can’t be done by one single person. It’s time to delegate. It’s time to improve quality.

Imagine someone who can do it all?

I sell, they project manage, they design, they develop. This sounds so ideal to me. If I was able to have someone working on a project I didn’t have time for, we could grow the portfolio even bigger and make more money. We would have 2x portfolio output and the business could start making some real money. This was a great concept and I was motivated to explore it.Adding to the team is not just about freeing up my time or making more money. Adding to the team is also about improving our quality.

When I hire somebody, there is 1 requirement. They are better than me at the job they are doing.

Not better than me at everything about their job. But better than me in at least 1 core thing. If I’m better than you at everything, then you’re holding us back. We always need to get better, not worse. If I can do every part of your job better than you, then you can’t be on the team. Hiring people who are better than me allows me to step away further and further from processes I didn’t need to do.

The first official Finsweet hire

The first official hire was a project manager, designer, and developer.
He was going to take projects from step 0 to launch. How awesome.

I only needed to watch from afar and give guidance when needed. He was going to do everything. Guess who that first hire was… the famous Duncan Hamra, Co-Founder of Memberstack. I saw a few sites Duncan built on the Webflow clonable page. I was impressed and I reached out. He was very early in his Webflow career and didn’t have client work experience… but I saw great potential in Duncan. I saw his work, saw his ethic and was sold. I knew Duncan was going to be a superstar from day one talking to him. After his first project, I was double sure. He nailed it. And he nailed the next one… and the next one… and the next one. Duncan was churning out sites for Finsweet. The new portfolio items were awesome, the sites were unique and fun, and he did all of the projects by himself. I only helped when client guidance was needed or there was an advanced Webflow question. When Duncan first started with Finsweet he was good with Webflow. After 4 or so sites, he was a pro at Webflow. I needed a cloning machine for Duncan.

Duncan cloned 10 times would be automatic success for Finsweet.


Duncan left Finsweet peacefully to live the SaaS startup life. Good for him. I’ll always support him.


Finsweet takeaways

1.
Don’t care about the money

Try 0% / 100% a few times. Focus on making the client exceptionally happy and you will likely never have a problem. Get the project that is going to significantly improve your portfolio or client list. Do anything to get that project.

2.
Consistently bigger & better

Build nicer sites, improve your portfolio, get better leads. Loop. Learn and get experience. You can always improve. You need experience with clients. You need experience with tests and experimental builds. Keep designing, keep developing.

3.
Work with people who are better than you

Hire or partner with people who are better than you at one core skill. Get someone who's better a designer than you, get someone who's a better developer than you.

4.
Invest time and money into your own website

It’s your most important advertisement for new business.

5.
Grow your team

If you want to continue growing, you need to grow your team. Start with a partnership. Start working with other people to better understand what type of people you need to work with.

6.
Enjoy yourself!

If any of these things don’t make you happy and motivated, don’t do them.

Only do what you want to do.