Winners quit: How giving up web design trebled our business in a year

A year ago I killed over half of our business that had taken 10 years to build. It was probably the best thing I’ve ever done.

Here’s what happened since:

For a decade Silktide were a successful web design company – 15 staff, hundreds of high profile customers, and profitable to boot.

But I wasn’t happy, and believed we could be more. A year ago we gave half our business up to follow a dream of making our own products.

Within a year we’ve trebled our customers and income; we’re happier, independent and in the healthiest financial state we’ve known in 10 years. Here’s what happened.

What the hell I was thinking

Web design was an industry we’d had a lot of success with, but it wasn’t one I felt passionate about anymore. The market is seriously crowded: when we started there were 4 web design companies in our city – now there are over 50. It’s also largely limited to small players targeting their local niches, and we’d already become the largest in ours.

But ultimately, I wanted us to amount to more. If you were a musician – would you want to write jingles all your life, or record your own album?

How we did it

“I have come up with a plan so cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel.” – Blackadder

I’m not quite as reckless as you might think.

Before we quit we had a software product that was doing fairly well – but not spectacularly so. It accounted for about 40% of our income, but about 5% of our time.

Most of our web design clients paid us for hosting and licensing our CMS, and I believed that most would continue to do so even after we gave up building new sites. That gave us a medium term financial cushion.

We also didn’t announce we were stopping overnight. We stopped selling new websites, which reduced our costs and still left 6 months of projects for us to chew over.

All this meant our income would go down gradually, instead of evaporating overnight. That bought us time to rebuild.

What happened

The initial results weren’t encouraging: our new business actually shrank.

One of the first things we did was build a free demo of our product. We’d got this far without one, and now we had more time we knew we needed something to drastically grow. Unfortunately, the initial side effect was some of our paying customers used that instead.

We started updating our product every month, sometimes every week. Things would break, but we improved rapidly.

Persistence won over. Here are our demo signups since we started last year:

Sitebeam demo signups since launch

What I learned

  • Following your own passion is unmatchable.
    My old job looked pretty awesome before now – but people mistake success for happiness. Doing what you love, with no compromises, is unmatched. And it gives you more energy than you can imagine.
  • You must do this alone.
    Making a big change like this scares or pisses off a lot of people. Two of my financial advisors told me I was stupid (they’ve since changed their minds). Follow your own heart, and don’t expect anyone to support you until you’re proven right.
  • Choose rapid small refinements over big new features.
    I made the mistake of going early for ‘big win’ changes – adding features which could double or treble our income if they worked out. The biggest improvements came from gradually and rapidly refining what we had.
  • Your best marketing is giving stuff away
    We’ve tried exhibitions, ads, public speaking, PPC and more. By far the biggest successes we had were from Nibbler (a free tool based on our product), Cookie Consent (a free solution we made to the cookie law), our blog and free videos, e-books and articles we’ve given away. They’re cheaper too.
  • Cover your ass.
    I made damn sure we’d paid off all our debts and had some cash before we did this. Spreadsheets had been pored over; scenarios considered, midnight oil burned. When it happens it may look reckless, but you’re a fool to put your faith in a miracle.

We often hear that winners never quit, but really that’s oversimplification. Winners never quit the right things. Knowing when to quit the wrong things is indispensable.

If you want the power to follow your dreams, you have to say no to all the alternatives.

If you enjoyed this, stalk us on Twitter or Facebook.

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  • Simon

    Well, I ‘discovered’ Silktide through your Cookie Consent plugin. It’s excellent, and now in use on many of our clients’ websites. So your point about giving stuff away is definitely true.

    Now if only you did a pay-as-you-go option on Sitebeam, we’d be able to pay you back. I don’t need a month-to-month subscription, but I could easily sell a one-off site audit to almost all of my clients.

    • oliveremberton

      Don’t worry Simon, we’re way ahead of you! A PAYG model is already on it’s way.

      Thanks for the kind words!

      • Simon

        Excellent news on PAYG Sitebeam!

        And I really cannot tell you how much I love Cookie Consent and your ongoing development of it – especially the new implied consent options, the ability to hide the settings tab and define a custom cc-privacy-link. You’re making me look very good to my clients. So thanks for that.

      • Welly_eh

        I’d second the PAYG model as like Simon just said, we don’t always need to generate reports that often for our clients. What would also be superb would be the option of a white-label product for reselling the service. For that, we’d certainly take on a monthly subscription.

        Cheers,

        Alastair

  • Pingback: Why we gave up web design after 10 successful years | Silktide blog

  • http://8gramgorilla.com Gordon McLachlan

    Very inspiring article, Oliver. I particularly liked your point about doing these things alone. As a web agency ourselves, we’re in the process of building our own product with the intent of it becoming a major part of our business. Although slow going, it’s always been our intention (and dream) since day one and the service side of the company has allowed us to sustain ourselves without the need for loans and investment. Its really nice to read a positive article about how rewarding this how experience can be… and how tough too.

    Out of curiosity, what made you decide to give up taking on new clients altogether? Did you not feel it was possible to do both product development and service work at the same time (we’re finding it a challenge, for sure) or was it just time for you guys to make that leap? 

    • oliveremberton

      Yes we gave up on all web design entirely. We found good homes for our clients.

      For years we’d tried to run both our own products and web design services at the same time; it was the biggest mistake I made. Even if – in theory – you delegate the web design entirely to someone else, unless that business runs flawlessly by itself, you’re forever dividing your attention. And in the recession of 2008, it definitely demanded a lot of attention.

      Web design is also not the greatest investment. You won’t see any savvy investors pouring money into web design companies – they have terrible return on equity: http://blog.silktide.com/2011/07/why-we-gave-up-web-design-after-10-successful-years/

      Giving it up may seem dramatic but ultimately had we not done so we wouldn’t have had the focus to work on what really mattered.

      Coudal did much the same thing, and is worth reading about too: http://37signals.com/svn/posts/2833-bootstrapped-profitable-proud-coudal-

  • Bainn

    Well done. I’m a budding website developer and discovered Nibbler about a month ago. Looking into Silktide and will likely purchase services in the future as I transition into a new career. If it wasn’t for the free demo, there’s no way I would have explored the paid option or known it existed.

  • Wackyomo

    I am a web designer, but lost the passion doing it.  Getting more into marketing and fashion now. Wonderful article!!!  It cheered me up!  You made a great decision!  Bravo!

  • Dr H

    My MD needs to take a leaf out of your book. We’re busy developing pahse 2 of a new app called JABANG! (see the website) which already contributes 35% of our revenue and takes significantly less management time to tick over…but we’re still servicing legacy clients, web, emails ..and a host of faddy, ill conceived miniproducts that he becomes obsessed with, take an inordinate amount of time to delivery and then dont return any revenue…ive told him if he focussed 90% of his attention on the core platform we’d be several times more profitable (and my life as head of development would be that much easier)

  • http://resourceguruapp.com/ Andrew Rogoff

    Great story – I’m in a similar position. I quit my day job in digital agencies to start a web app called Resource Guru with a friend of mine (http://resourceguruapp.com). It’s only been 3 months since we launched and we’re getting some incredible companies signing up. Best move I ever made – I’ve never looked back.

  • Farid Mostaani

    Great article, and thank you for your great job. As another user mentioned below if you can add a PAYG system, I can assure you a lot of small web design companies will use your great service. Thanks Oliver

  • Sean

    Interesting article….I am throwing around the idea of attending a Portfolio Center type school for web design as being a musician and working soul sucking low pay jobs has lost its luster. I wish I could say I would learn web design on my own, but i need the structure of an education. Anyways, if you were to give advice to a younger creative individual…(me :) ), would you recommend pursuing a career in web design or try and find something else? I am also considering graduate school for something irrelevant, but i just want to find something that is sustainable and I wouldn’t get bored of easily.

  • http://www.facebook.com/meehoo.jones Meehoo Jones

    Just finished the whole read, and you had me at the edge of my seat. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I have the professional background and wisdom that is evident in your article. Still, though I can clearly see after reading your article there are areas I have compromised my passion for art and music. I fired my boss yesterday. I was making WordPress sites for an Insurance company, totally compromised. He bit at me for a word processing issue, and that was the last straw.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sjkitson Sam Kitson

    Great article Oliver. I discovered it on a Google search of ‘why I quit web design’.

    I’ve been in the world of web design for a good few years now, and have been running my own web design business for around 2 years. Increasingly, I get the feeling that it’s time for change. Relentless client demands, working very long hours, and a marketplace where there is a soul destroying ‘race to the bottom’ are the main reasons for this.

    I love design, and I love technology and these are the reasons I’m in the web design business. I strongly believe that I can achieve so much more if I made a change to my business model. I have some ideas that I will be trying out over the next few months, while continuing to run my web business.

    Thank you for helping re-enforce my gut feeling that something has to change. Congratulations on making a great decision.

  • http://twitter.com/inorganik Jamie

    I can’t help but wonder…. why you used the word “treble” – more commonly used to describe a high frequency sound range instead of “triple”??

    • http://twitter.com/johnjphilip John J Philip

      I believe that both words are synonymous. Treble is more British though, which makes sense as Silktide is in the UK.

      • pridisc

        No, Treble does not mean 3x in UK English. We use UK English in India and treble means what inorganik says. But our English is a 1947 fork of UK English. Things might have changed there after that.

        • http://www.ongoingworlds.com/ David Ball

          Have a look at #6 here: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/treble that’s the definition used. It’s very common in UK English, I didn’t realise it was different internationally tbh

  • Louis Mingüey

    I cannot begin to express how much I want to quit this miserable business. Since this was posted it has gotten worst….and worst….and worst.

    Remeber that seen from Office Space when the main characters get fired and they go out and destroyed the stupid fax machine that never worked with baseball bats? That is my dream. They very moment I am able to walk away from this.

  • http://reidwalley.com Reid Walley

    Awesome, Oliver! Your comments of “Following your own passion is unmatchable” and “Choose rapid small refinements” really hit home.

    I just finished reading The Lean Startup (Eric Eies) and just started reading The Element (Ken Robinson). Both of which apply to how & why you switched from Web design to products.

    Thanks for sharing your journey and insights!

  • http://twitter.com/badfunpro Ken Dirschl

    Very inspirational article(s). I have been freelancing for many years and really want to move into product development. This helps frame the argument nicely.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gly.marvellou Gly Marvellou

    Quora brought me here.

  • http://glennfriesen.com/ Glenn Friesen

    inspirational

  • Lulu

    As a web designer who started out enjoying it, and isn’t really quite sure if I still do or not; this article made me feel so emotional – inspired, dumbfounded, scared, and excited for what the future may hold! Nibbles is awesome, by the way!!!

    • http://www.ongoingworlds.com/ David Ball

      Thanks! Glad you enjoy Nibbler :-)

      -David, Silktide

  • Phil

    So…. you had 3 customers, now you have 9 customers?

    • http://www.ongoingworlds.com/ David Ball

      Haha good maths! :-P

  • Fancy Pants Art

    LOVE your story. Did a search on the internet to see if any other creative folks out there have gone through what I’m currently experiencing with my customers and VOILA!, you people showed up. I’m a designer with actual, real “artistic talent” and am finding myself experiencing the same woes that you did before you fired your customers. I’m lacking the confidence to break free, though, as I’m unsure as to where this road will take me. Good for you and Silktide.

  • Chrjy

    I found this thread after following the link from your first article and have to say this is incredibly interesting and certainly resonates with my own thoughts. You’ve managed to coherently express in words what is often a bunch of babble in my head that only I can decipher. Good luck to you and thanks for the articles, both were a great read.

  • laurenlund

    I really loved this! Just goes to show that blog posts still hold their value over time. Thanks for the article.

  • moabi

    Thanks for this great article, very interesting point of view for the dozen of us struggling here…so I guess, focus on a smaller thing is the point…to specialize..

  • robin

    Hello,I am currently a freelance web designer and I am earning 3 times more than an office job could offer but I am not happy as much as I should be.I was thinking of starting a company so that I could work less and increase revenue but your post made me thinking again and now I am little lost