On this week’s episode, we’re joined by Brian and Jennifer Bourn of Bourn Creative. They are a vibrant, creative studio that delivers purpose-driven design and engaging experiences for businesses who want to stand out and step into the spotlight.
This episode is brought to you by StudioPress Sites.
Brian and Jennifer love challenges and deadlines, and are brand building, WordPress wielding, Lego playing nerds dedicated to creating beautiful, flexible, and powerful platforms for rapidly growing businesses.
In this 38-minute episode Brian Gardner, Jennifer Bourn, and Brian Bourn discuss:
- The founding of Bourn Creative
- Using Genesis within a Creative Agency
- Choosing a business size that fits your lifestyle
- Tips for maintaining a consistent workflow from home
- Creating a work/life balance that revolves around family
- The importance of scheduling and client communication
- Building a profit margin into your client services
- Creating partnerships to create recurring revenue streams
- Evaluating expenses on a consistent basis
Listen to StudioPress FM below ...
The Show Notes
- This episode is brought to you by Digital Commerce Summit
- Follow Bourn Creative on Twitter
- Follow Brian on Twitter
- Follow Jennifer on Twitter
- Visit Bourn Creative on Facebook
- Inspired Imperfection
- Visit Inspired Imperfection on Facebook
How to Sustain a Profitable Creative Agency
Jerod Morris: Hey, Jerod Morris here. If you know anything about Rainmaker Digital and Copyblogger, you may know that we produce incredible live events. Some would say that we produce incredible live events as an excuse to throw great parties, but that’s another story. We’ve got another one coming up this October in Denver. It’s called Digital Commerce Summit, and it is entirely focused on giving you the smartest ways to create and sell digital products and services. You can find out more at Rainmaker.FM/Summit. That’s Rainmaker.FM/Summit. We’ll be talking about Digital Commerce Summit in more detail as it gets closer, but for now I’d like to let a few attendees from our past events speak for us.
Attendee 1: For me, it’s hearing from the experts. This is my first industry event, so it’s awesome to learn new stuff and also get confirmation that we’re not doing it completely wrong where I work.
Attendee 2: The best part of the conference, for me, is being able to mingle with people and realize that you have connections with everyone here. It feels like LinkedIn live. I also love the parties after each day, being able to talk to the speakers, talk to other people who are here for the first time, people who have been here before.
Attendee 3: I think the best part of the conference, for me, is understanding how I can service my customers a little more easily. Seeing all the different facets and components of various enterprises then helps me pick the best tools.
Jerod Morris: Hey, we agree. One of the biggest reasons we host a conference every year is so that we can learn how to service our customers — people like you — more easily. Here are a few more words from folks who have come to our past live events.
Attendee 4: It’s really fun. I think it’s a great mix of beginner information and advanced information. I’m learning a lot and having a lot of fun.
Attendee 5: The conference is great, especially because it’s a single-track conference where you don’t get distracted by, “Which session should I go to? Am I missing something?”
Attendee 6: The training and everything — the speakers have been awesome, but I think the coolest aspect for me has been connected with both people who are putting it on and then the other attendees.
Jerod Morris: That’s it for now. There’s a lot more to come on Digital Commerce Summit. I really hope to see you there in October. Again, to get all the details and the very best deal on tickets, head over to Rainmaker.FM/summit. That’s Rainmaker.FM/summit.
Voicevoer: StudioPress FM is designed to help creative entrepreneurs build the foundation of a powerful digital business. Tune in weekly as StudioPress founder Brian Gardner and VP of StudioPress Lauren Mancke share their expertise on web design, strategy and building an online platform.
Lauren Mancke: On this week’s episode, Brian talks with Jennifer and Brian Bourn of Bourn Creative on how to sustain a profitable creative agency.
Brian Gardner: Hey, everyone, welcome to StudioPress FM. I am your host, Brian Gardner. Unfortunately, I’m on my own today because Lauren is out. It worked out well because today we have two guests: husband and wife, Brian and Jennifer Bourn. Very excited to talk to them as we continue the series with the members of our Genesis community.
Today we’re joined by Brian and Jennifer Bourn of Bourn Creative. They are a vibrant creative studio that delivers purpose-driven design and engaging experiences for businesses who want to stand out and step into the spotlight. Brian and Jennifer love challenges and deadlines, and are brand-building, WordPress-wielding, Lego-playing nerds dedicated to creating beautiful, flexible, powerful platforms for rapidly growing businesses. They are also very good with words, because that was a mouthful and well said. There you go. It’s a huge pleasure to have you guys on the show. Welcome and thank you for being here.
Brian Bourn: Thanks for inviting us.
Jennifer Bourn: Thanks for having us.
Brian Gardner: This will be a fun challenge because I’ve got two of you. Hopefully what I’ll do is address questions to either/or and then we’ll have things open. There’s no process here, so we’ll just do our thing.
Brian Bourn: Sounds great.
Jennifer Bourn: Sounds great.
Using Genesis Within a Creative Agency
Brian Gardner: There we go. Let’s talk about WordPress and Genesis, in that very order. Brian, why don’t you talk about how you guys got involved with WordPress? Then, Jen, maybe you can talk about the Genesis side.
Brian Bourn: Perfect. Yeah, they’re all intermingled. We’ve been in business now for 11 years. In July we passed our 11th year. Just think, 11 years ago when we first were into web — when Jen was on her own, which she’ll talk about later, the roots of some of our agency — everything was done in static HTML. Then we transferred over to a private label content management system and designed and built custom templates for that. We quickly reached the limitations and then were looking for something more, something better, something more capability-focused. We then made that switch to WordPress. I don’t know the exact year of that, but I do know it was around version 2.7, 2.8, somewhere right in there. It was the upper 2-point-whatever version.
Jennifer Bourn: It was the end of 2008, the beginning of 2009.
Brian Bourn: Yeah, and as far as WordPress, we started out designing and building completely one-offs, custom themes. I know for a fact that Jennifer bought some [revolution themes inaudible 00:05:16], some of your very early origins, and then migrated. She also bought some themes from StudioPress before Genesis was ever a thing, when the themes used to be standalone. Then when Genesis came out, and the whole child theming concept, and WordPress sites were getting more complex, we were looking for a good starting point that would aid our development and make our product better for our clients. Once we tried Genesis a few times we haven’t looked back and we’ve built every single site on Genesis since.
Jennifer Bourn: That pretty much covers that.
Brian Gardner: Okay. In that case then, Jen, you get the next question. How about that?
Jennifer Bourn: Sure.
Brian Gardner: You guys are obviously a husband and wife team. You have your own agency. You’ve managed to do very well for yourselves and probably could grow way bigger than you are now. I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this question, but why the decision to … I know you work with a few people outside of yourselves, but why the decision to keep it smaller scale than growing into a huge agency?
Choosing a Business Size That Fits Your Lifestyle
Jennifer Bourn: We’ve gone back and forth about growth. Do we grow? Do we not grow? I think it’s something that a lot of people wrestle with. We grew and expanded for a while and found that the structure of our business at the time didn’t support that and our freedom at the same time.
Our kids are now 10 and 13 and they’re not going to be at home for much longer. Natalie is in eighth grade now. In five years she’s going to be gone. Carter not that much longer after her. We really looked at what we wanted for our life, and we want to do really great work for great clients that we enjoy working with, but at the same time we want to really live life and enjoy the kids while they want to hang out with us, while they want to spend time with us — and they’re fun. We want to be able to have the flexibility and the freedom in our schedule to be able to structure our client work around travel and vacations and family adventures and all of those things.
Also, looking at the way that we’ve structured our business, duplicating ourselves is really difficult. The market is highly competitive, and finding the right people to fill in the gaps that you need is tough. We have some subcontractors that we work with who are amazing. They allow us to keep the train moving when we’re traveling and help fill in some of the holes of where we might not be the strongest. For right now, we’re really happy with the size that we’re at, the projects that we’re doing, the clients that we’ve got, and the flexibility to be able to do tons of fun things with the kids all the time. I don’t think I know anybody that takes more vacations than we do.
Brian Gardner: I was going to bring that up later. We’ll get to that later, because it’s true.
Jennifer Bourn: That’s not to say that we aren’t taking away conversations in the background about growth and looking at what that looks like for us.
Brian Gardner: It’s refreshing. We recently spoke with Bill Ericson and he also talked about work-life balance and how important that is for him. I see in my little community and ecosystem — which includes people like you and Bill, and even Rafal and Jason Shuler, who is another one we talked about — people who have probably the chops and the capability of growing bigger than they are, but they refuse to because they want to put so much emphasis on family and spending time.
As I mentioned on Bill’s show, it’s so refreshing to be around people who share that sentiment. It is huge, I know. My son is 12 and in seventh grade, and we also have only a few years left. There’s time to go crazy and work harder and grow and get bigger when they’re gone. As they say, the days go by slow, the years go by fast. I don’t want to look back and be like, “I built a great business, but not a great relationship with him or with Shelly” or whatever. It’s so great to hear that from you guys.
Jennifer Bourn: That’s the thing. You’re never going to look back and be like, “I’m glad I took that extra meeting,” but you’re going to say, “I’m glad we took that trip.”
Brian Gardner: Yeah.
Jennifer Bourn: You’re never going to look back and wish that you answered more email or you sat in front of your desk any longer that you did. I think one of the things that’s unique about the WordPress ecosystem is that so many people share what’s going on in their business — challenges and struggles — and you get these sneak peeks into other people’s businesses. From some of the people that we’re friends with we’ve been able to see what happens behind the scenes at some of these larger agencies. Brian and I have both said, “I don’t want that life.” Unless we can do it the way that will fulfill our personal life just as much as our professional life, then we don’t need to go there.
I think it’s different for everybody, and I think, too, personal experiences and personal stories drive that too. Brian had gallbladder cancer a few years ago, and facing the mortality of somebody that you love or yourself really puts things in perspective. We didn’t always do this much fun stuff. We worked a lot more and did a lot less fun things. Life experiences put things in perspective for us too.
The Founding of Bourn Creative
Brian Gardner: Yeah, they always seem to do that. In some fashion we all, I think, have that to some degree. Brian, walk us through the process you guys went through when you started the agency years ago. I know a lot of things have changed on the web — tools, software, trends, that kind of thing. What are some of the early challenges you guys faced when making the decision to go out on your own and to start this as your thing?
Brian Bourn: In the early days in the very beginning, Jennifer was on her own. She was an in-house designer at a PR agency and we had our daughter, which was two-years-old. Jennifer found out she was pregnant with my son — I had a different career at the time. It was one of those … It was not working for us family-wise. We made the scariest choice that we’ve ever done, but at the same time one of the best decisions we’ve ever made looking back. At the time it was terrifying to do that. We knew that for our own sanity and raising a family that it was the best thing to do for us, and Jen went out on her own. That early challenge was: how do you pay the bills that come due in 30 days the day after your last day?
Jennifer Bourn: We had just bought a ridiculously ginormous house and I was pregnant.
Brian Bourn: Based on the salary of two full-time employees with benefit packages and all that sort of thing. Then one them decides to … We decide to start the company.
Jennifer Bourn: Yeah, when I started my business it was, “If you’re not working you’re not getting paid.” I worked all the way up until the day that I had Carter and then was back at work two weeks later. Those first years were tough.
Brian Bourn: That was an extreme challenge, having a newborn and a toddler in the very early years of the business. In the very early days, all I did with Jennifer was the admin side of the business. None of the client-facing work that was being output, just the admin while I had my day job. Until I left that job and joined her full-time, the first few years of the company Jennifer was on her own.
That was very difficult too, when one person is a freelancer and then the other person has a salaried position with paid vacation and sick leave. It creates very different demands and dynamics in our personal relationships and professional relationships. It was navigating not just that, but navigating us on a personal level. Figuring out, “How do we make this work around raising kids? Around getting client work done? Around trying to take vacations and do things? The human side of it was very challenging in the early days.
Brian Gardner: Yeah, I bet.
Jennifer Bourn: 2008, 2009, and in 2010 we took almost no vacations and did almost … If you look at our stock of all the digital photos by year, there’s the tiniest amount because I worked from 4:00 in the morning to 1:00 at night, seven days a week. It was ridiculous. Now I’m reaping the rewards of that.
Brian Gardner: I was going to say, it’s a far cry from what you guys are doing now.
Jennifer Bourn: It was tough, but it was one of those things that we looked at as short-term sacrifice, long-term gain. “It’s only going to be a few years to build a brand, build a reputation in the market, and get a solid base of clients. The kids are going to get older.” When we first started the business it was, “Let’s hang on until the kids hit kindergarten. Then we can start looking at growth. Then we can start looking at where do we want to take the business. Then we can really start looking at more than ‘let’s do enough client work to pay all our bills and make sure everything’s good and get the kids to kindergarten.'”
Then it was, “Once Carter’s in first grade and they’re both in school full-time, then let’s look at what can we do with the business and where we can go.” Then it was, “When Brian’s parents are both retired and we have tons of babysitting then we can travel and go to WordCamps and we can do stuff together. That’s the next phase.” Now we’ve gone through phases of life, our business has mirrored the phases of life as we’ve grown.
Tips for Managing a Consistent Workflow from Home
Brian Gardner: It’s definitely something I can see from the outside. Good stuff. Brian, you manage the business. We talked about the team, day-to-day operations, and so forth. What’s a typical day look like for you now that you’re at home and working as part of the business?
Brian Bourn: This is something that I definitely have room for improvement, my own personal time management. I found the best thing for me to manage my day, to keep a typical day, is to keep a very regimented regular schedule. I keep certain rules, no calls on Mondays. I never schedule calls on Mondays. If I do have calls, I only ever do no more than two in a single day. Things that interrupt that work flow, I’ve found — especially anyone who does design or development work or anything like that — you can’t get anything done in 30-minute blocks, you need good solid hours of uninterrupted time.
I have switched my day-to-day schedule around to where I am ruthless with my schedule and maintain some very large chunks of time, especially in the morning, those early hours from when I … This time of year, when I drop the kids off at school until I take my lunch break I don’t open my email, I stay off social media, and I use those key hours in the day to get my work done. Then, as the after lunch time, you start getting distracted. I’ll use that time to do email or work on short tasks. Things like — maybe I’m working on a proposal or clearing out my inbox, back and forth with sales leads, looking at GitHub, seeing what’s going on with the partners that we work with, looking at commits, and reviewing code. Using those small tasks that it’s okay to get interrupted and saving those for the afternoon.
Because I am managing the primary sales funnel and a lot of this other business aspects, I’ll go days at a time where I don’t write a single line of code because I’m doing business operations. By keeping a regimented schedule of “these certain days of the week are reserved for these certain things,” it allows those chunks of time which keeps me overall within a semi-normal working schedule, day to day.
Brian Gardner: Semi-normal, is that a thing?
Brian Bourn: Normal is as defined by the person.
Brian Gardner: Yes, for sure. Jen, what about you? You consult on brand, website, and digital strategy. You lead all the design projects — specifically within WordPress, that’s your specialty. Same question I have for you here, what does your typical day look like? I’m sure it’s somewhat similar but also somewhat different than Brian’s.
Jennifer Bourn: My typical day is so much better now that Brian does all the business admin. Brian came in and now does all the things I don’t like doing, and it’s amazing. Typically I am the same, I keep email closed, keep social media closed, keep all the distractions — mainly because we want our evenings and weekends free. The more we can cram in that 9:00 to 5:00, the better everything is. We stay highly focused there.
I, right now, am lead organizer for WordCamp Sacramento, which is happening in October. I’m really busy with that. We’ve got regular client work and then I’ve got my new blog that I started, Inspired Imperfection, where I’m sharing recipes and our family adventures and things like that. I’m juggling all of it right now.
The great thing is we’ve shifted our agency over the last probably 2 years to 18 months from being very heavy in design work to being very heavy in development work. If I get to my desk before 9:00, it’s my own personal stuff. At 9:00 I start client work and I look at, “What’s the big project I have to get done during the day?” I try to only have one big time suck, energy suck comprehensive project per day. A theme design, something that’s going to take a bunch of time. I do that first to get it done and get it out of the way and get that client deadline met. Then I’ll knock out any other small client projects we’ve got, then I’ll pop over and I’ll work on WordCamp stuff or I’ll work on stuff for Inspired Imperfection, things like that.
Brian Gardner: Man, you guys have a lot going on. All good stuff, because you’re doing it well. You’re profiting, you’re living the dream with your kids and all that. We talked about the question I was going to ask next which is, aside from running the business you guys are parents and love to travel, that’s very obvious. Anyone who follows you on Facebook or social media clearly can see the things that are important to you. It’s funny how social media works.
I love watching you guys go on vacations. You talk about it ahead of time and then I get to follow along day after day. “They’re going here now. Now they’ve gone here.” Whether it’s Instagram or Facebook, it’s fun to watch — not just you guys, but others in the community when they go on vacations. It’s that, “Vicariously live through them and get to experience other places.” Aside from when you guys travel to conferences, your trips are generally what seem to be, a) outdoors, and always with the kids, minus a Grateful Dead concert here or there. I swear, just recently you took them to a concert too, didn’t you?
Jennifer Bourn: We took them to three in a row. We did a road trip. We did Portland, then one in Washington at the Gorge, and then the shoreline on the way to San Diego.
Creating a Work-Life Balance That Revolves Around Family
Brian Gardner: I got you. This all leads to a bigger question I have, which is what we talked about a little bit earlier about work-life balance. How do you guys manage to do it all? Not just do it all, you do it well. Do you work a lot while you travel, or do you not and shut it off and then work a lot before and after you travel? It seems like that would be a slippery slope in some fashion.
Jennifer Bourn: Most people don’t believe me when I tell them this. When we first started traveling together there would be this big ramp up before we left of tons of work that had to get done. We’d work like maniacs. We’d go and be exhausted when we’d go on vacation, and then we’d come home to this massive amount of work that was waiting for us. We slowly learned how to manage that to the point now that we don’t have a big ramp up before we go on a trip, we usually can take the day before we go on a trip off so we can pack and we’re not stressed out. When we come home there isn’t a giant stack of work waiting for us, there’s a normal workload waiting for us. We don’t have that stress anymore.
The biggest thing that allows us to manage work and travel and balance all of this is a ginormous three-foot by four-foot wall calendar that hangs in my office. A lot of people talk about wanting to do fun things but they never end up doing the fun things because family obligations and life and errands and all of these other things get in the way. It was true for us too for a long time.
Brian Bourn: A very long time.
Jennifer Bourn: When we started putting this giant wall calendar in my office, what it allowed us to do — part of it was Brian’s previous career where he had to pick every vacation day and holiday in December for the following year. Every day that he got off was picked a year in advance. When he left that career we kept the same tradition going.
This year in December we’ll print out our 2017 calendar and at the beginning of December we’ll line out all the days that the kids have no school and then we’ll look at, “Okay, spring break is here, where do we want to go?” We put it on the calendar in a sharpie. It doesn’t come off, and it’s marked on the calendar. Then we’ll look at what business conferences or WordCamps do we already know the dates for that we want to go to and we can work into our schedule. We can say, “Put it all on the calendar,” because then it’s a commitment to get it done.
When a concert comes we do the same thing. When a concert pops up on Facebook — this weekend there’s a Saints of Circumstance, they’re a local band that we love, there’s a concert in Mountain Ranch. We said, “We want to go to that.” We put it on the calendar in sharpie, and it’s a commitment and we go. What that allows us to do is when other things come up — even family stuff — we can say, “We’ve already committed that day.”
Brian Gardner: Yeah, that sounds a lot like our baseball schedule where we know in advance which weekends we have tournaments. We put them all out on the calendar and when other people or family or travel comes up and they want to … “Hey, can we hang out and do something this weekend?” We’ll say, “Nope, that weekend in July we have planned. We’re going to a tournament and we’re playing.” Those types of things take precedence. I think it’s good to keep track of that type of thing, especially when it comes to travel, because you guys travel a lot.
Jennifer Bourn: You can’t feel bad about telling people, “Nope, I’m busy.” Even if it’s for fun stuff. At the beginning of the summer we looked at our schedule and we laughed and said, “My god, we’re booked every weekend until October with fun stuff and no obligatory crap stuff. This is amazing.” Then family is like, “Can you do this?” Nope, we’re gone. Can you do this? Nope, we’re gone. You have to be okay with not feeling guilty about that.
The Importance of Scheduling and Client Communication
Jennifer Bourn: The other thing that that big calendar allows us to do is communicate clearly with clients about our schedule. People are also like, “How are your clients okay with this?” We’ve never ever had an issue with a client that’s not been okay with our travel schedule. A lot of clients we are in Basecamp with, so we put our travel schedule, when we’re going to be out of the office, in the Basecamp calendar, in a shared calendar. We communicate with them up front in advance, “Here’s when we’re going to be gone. Here’s when we’re going to be back. Here’s the status of your projects. Here’s where we’re going to get the project to before we go.”
We usually start planning a few weeks before we’re going to be gone to get their project to a point where it’s pushed onto their plate. If we’re in design, we give them the design drafts right before we’re going to go on a trip. If we’re doing copywriting, we’re going to get them the drafts before they go on the trip. If it’s a big development push … So that it’s on their plate and it’s their work while we’re gone. They’re moving the project forward while we’re gone. We communicate with them that a subcontractor is going to be working on certain parts of the project so they know exactly where the project’s at, exactly what’s going to be happening while we’re gone, and what we’re going to be tackling when we get back.
The other thing too, is when I’m gone, I’m gone. I don’t work at all. I barely check email. Brian checks email every morning and checks in with Basecamp every morning, mainly because it allows him to be more relaxed when he can check all of those things. And he does manage all the sales funnels. The big calendar and communicating with clients far in advance and that active project management so that they know exactly where it’s at allows us to do it with very little impact to our work and our deadlines.
Brian Gardner: Okay, you guys take a lot of trips with the family and you also take a lot of trips for business, whether it be WordCamps or conferences like the one that we put on at Authority, which is where we had a chance to meet and sit down and talk. How do you guys stay — this is the question I have with you guys. There’s a couple of other people — like for Jeff and Marla Sarris of SPYR, I have the same question, because it seems like they’re always traveling somewhere.
My question is more about how do you guys stay profitable with that much expense? Travel expenses, hotels, flights, driving and stuff like that. How do you get the work done when you’re traveling so much? To deliver that on time and to make sure the clients are satisfied. It seems like every other weekend you guys are going somewhere. How do they afford that? How does that work in their budget? I’m not trying to ask a personal question, more from the business standpoint. How do you justify that? Is there ROI when you go to these conferences such as WordCamps and so forth?
Brian Bourn: Sure. The one thing is, if you were to look at a map on … Follow our Instagram feed. We are very fortunate to live in northern California, which is an amazing spot in the world and we do tons of — we call them Super Saturdays, where we leave at 7:00 in the morning and we don’t get home until late at night. We ice chest a bunch of food and there are national parks, national forests — literally a lifetime of adventure possibilities all within a two-hour radius of our house.
Jennifer Bourn: That are cheap.
Building a Profit Margin Into Your Client Services
Brian Bourn: That are free. You park and you hike and you go do outdoors. That’s one part of that. As far as conference goes — it talks about what the focus of the whole interview is about: running a profitable agency. Oftentimes when we talk to other freelancers or other small agency owners like ourselves, is the failure to build in a profit margin to your projects. Not only when we estimate a project do we cover all of our time and our cost, but we also build in a margin. Every business has margins. Cars, they don’t sell cars at cost, there’s always a profit margin. The same should be done with client services.
We take all of our costs — ongoing software to the hard business costs — add in our salaries that we pay ourselves, and then we add in a profit margin and then divide … It’s a little bit of a math worksheet that I did. I know exactly on a regular basis how much we need to charge to cover all of our time expenses and then have that profit margin. That profit margin we use for reinvestment. Things like traveling to Authority or traveling to a WordCamp. It’s paid for out of that margin that we build into the business.
We don’t believe there is an immediate ROI to this, but there’s definitely a long-term return that we have focused in on. Some of our greatest personal friends now are ones that we’ve met through the WordCamp community events. People that have influenced the way that I have run our company and the decisions I’ve made because we’ve met at WordCamps or Pressnomics, or some of these other non-WordPress focused events and have become friends have been there to ask questions and have some mentorship roles with me as far as, “Hey, what should I do, I’m in this weird situation?” That has been critical. Through a very long-term way, it has eventually led to referrals for clients and even new clients. But it’s definitely a long game, where the ROI is there but it’s going to be into the future, not immediate.
Jennifer Bourn: Let’s also look at the strategic management of travel. The business pays for all of our business travel, but then all of those points and things — it’s leveraging some of those opportunities to make family travel even more affordable and more doable. You can do more of those things if your hotel stays are free or your flights are free.
Brian Gardner: Okay, a little bit personal question here, and this is more specifically regarding the efficiency and the profitability of the company and stuff like that. What is, at this point — not everything’s perfect, we don’t run everything 100% the way it should be run — what is the Achilles heel of your company, Brian? What do you feel like there are areas where you can improve on, whether it’s time or delegation or any of that stuff that gets in the way of that profitability or the ability to scale where you want to go and do the things that you guys want to do?
Brian Bourn: Sure. Some of that is what I consider our … Scaling ourselves and the intrinsic skills that me and Jennifer both bring to the table. As a partnership, we complement each other very well in our skill set. The ability to scale that beyond the amount of hours that we have in a week is our biggest issue to getting bigger. At the same time, we choose not to do that by choice in order to create the personal life that we want right now while the kids are young.
Down the road we know that if we do want to expand and bring on more team members, that it will be a very difficult task to find people to replace some of the things that we do internally for the company. We need to be able to turn those specific tasks over to them, whether it’s print design or front-end development, or whatever it may be — or project management. To find that key person that we can say, “All right, this is your thing now. Go forth and do well.” I find, for me, that’s the hardest issue that I see moving forward.
Jennifer Bourn: I think that one of the things we’ve gotten way better at — and part of it is time — but I think there’s still room for improvement, is core project management. For a while in the early days when things were hairy and we were doing a ridiculous number of projects a year — at one point in time we were doing a custom Genesis site, one per week — our project management was terrible. It was not active, it was passive.
We’ve gotten, over the years, a lot better at being active, borderline aggressive, with our project management. Partly for our own time management and partly so clients are really clear about where we’re at. I always think that, in terms of managing those projects and managing scope change, there’s always room for improvement. I don’t care where you’re at, I think it always could be done better.
Brian Gardner: All right, I’m going to go even deeper, because this is fun. We have never had a husband and wife on the show. I’m going to ask Brian first — this is almost like one of those things you see on The Bachelor or something like that. Brian, tell me what is the one thing about Jennifer — this is not about profitability and all that, but I think it helps in the bigger context to understand how these dynamics work — what is the one thing about Jennifer you wish would change about what she brings to the business? I’m going to give her the shot to then do the same thing. This is not throwing each other under the bus, this is more about room for improvement, let’s say.
Brian Bourn: As you know — I’m not BS’ing here — Jennifer is an extremely talented person, more so than probably anyone I’ve ever met. The one area, as far as related to an agency, is not telling her boss to screw off so often. No, it’s one of those things I’ve never even thought about it. We’ve been firing on all cylinders now for a while.
I definitely would say Jen has a habit of … When we go on a trip or something like that she loves to clear her plate and dish everything off, which then tends to mean that half the time it’s kicking onto my plate before we go somewhere. I wish that it would not wait until … Not do that. That is the one area I wish would improve, is to manage not just her timeline as good as she does, but to look at it as the company as a whole timeline and what that does to everyone.
Brian Gardner: That’s the answer I was trying to get to. Perfectly answered for what I was going for. This would have been a fun question five years ago to ask when things weren’t quite running on all the cylinders that it’s running on now. Jen, your turn to throw Brian under the bus.
Jennifer Bourn: I would say where Brian …
Brian Bourn: There’s not enough time in the show for all this.
Brian Gardner: It’s another episode, a follow-up episode.
Jennifer Bourn: No, I would say where Brian could improve is he drastically underestimates his own skills and abilities and talents. Projects will come in that he will turn down and shoo away because he thinks, “I don’t know if we can do that,” or maybe, “that isn’t something I’ve necessarily tackled before.” There are things that I know that he could do with his hands tied behind his back, but sometimes I think we all doubt ourselves. I think that he tends to do that and doesn’t take some projects because of that.
Then the other — he would totally agree — is Brian has a hard time shutting down at 5:00. Part of it is because he has to do all the development and all the business stuff too, so his work plate is much fuller than mine. But he has a little bit of a harder time shutting off.
Brian Gardner: You guys are brilliant because you ad-libbed answers that were building each other up in the context of talking about … That’s wonderful. I see you guys as totally a type A and B relationship. Shelly and I are the same way. She’s very type A, admin focused, very process-based, and I’m more of the creative. I think you guys are probably a flip flop of that. Do you guys have any final tips and tricks? Things that you would … Nuggets of wisdom to pass along.
Creating Partnerships to Create Recurring Revenue Streams
Brian Bourn: Yeah, the thing that has led to the most growth on effective hourly rate and as far as profitability as a company — which then leads to personal freedoms and the things that we talked about a lot on this call — is, from a client services perspective, looking at your clients not on a per project basis but as a partnership with them. It’s not just thinking, “Okay, I’m going to design and build a WordPress theme and launch it. Here you go, great.” And then going from project to project.
Every client we take on now — they are more of a partnership model where, yes, we are going to build a site for you, but we are going to continue working with you at bare minimum ongoing support and maintenance to create recurring revenue stream in the agency. Most of our clients stick with us either on a monthly basis for a retainer for ongoing consulting support, strategy, additional development, and design work. That means being very selective with your clients. This took us a long time to get here, where we work with fewer clients per year than we ever have, but we work with them not just on one project that’s siloed off and then it’s done. We work with them to create and launch the project and then continue working with them on an ongoing basis.
As anyone will tell you, it’s easier to sell to an existing customer than a new customer by tenfold. When there is none of that discovery and they already trust you and they’ve already paid you, it’s a simple matter of, “Well, let’s get this done.” “No problem, it will be this much.” You do the work and you get paid. By creating that ongoing partnership with your clients and being a critical role in their business success online, it has led to where we are at today.
Brian Gardner: Good stuff. Jen?
Evaluating Expenses on a Consistent Basis
Jennifer Bourn: I think the other thing to note is that a lot of people talk about wanting to make more money or have more income that they can have available to do whatever it is that they might want to do. The focus on that a lot of times is always, “I need to make more money, which means I need to do more work,” or “I need more clients,” or “I need bigger projects.” One of the things that we have really focused on is not just looking at profits coming from more clients or more projects, but looking at how we’re spending, how we’re using, and how we’re putting the money we’re already making to work for us. It’s looking at regular expenses.
For example, we had for years a subscription to Shutterstock, which we used the heck out of because we had certain retainer clients where we were doing print work every single week and we needed access to stock imagery every week. When we were building full custom Genesis sites every week, we used a ridiculous amount of stock photography. Our business has shifted so much that we’re using so much less. It’s looking at where are the expenses that you can trim and what expenses can you scale back? We were able to get rid of that subscription, so we saved $250 a month. We switched from Infusionsoft after we were with them for so many years. We switched from Infusionsoft to Agile CRM and we saved $300 a month.
Evaluating where is your money going, where are you spending it, and do you need to spend it there or is there a better solution? You look at those two things — we cut our monthly expenses down by almost $600. That could be less client work that you are under pressure to sell.
Brian Gardner: That’s a great set of guidelines for us, even outside of the business world, even in our homes. As you were talking, all I could think of was Joshua Becker talking about that type of thing within our own personal lives. The message that he talks over at Becoming Minimalist. It’s not about making more, it’s about saving and spending and having less, and so on.
Jennifer Bourn: Yeah.
Brian Gardner: That’s a great segue into the last thing I want to talk about, which is work and life balance. As you say, they aren’t separated into neat little boxes, they are mixed together, integrated, and part of each other. Jennifer, your new personal blog, Inspired Imperfection, which you talked about and we’ll link to in the show notes, encourages everyone to live an inspired life, embracing imperfection and creating the life that nourishes our soul with our kids in tow. I love that.
For those listening, if you want to follow them you can follow Brian and Jennifer — their business perspective — at Bourn Creative, also in the show notes. To see how they balance their work life with their kids and go on vacations and all that stuff, you can check out Jen’s personal blog at InspiredImperfection.com.
If you like what you heard on today’s show here at Studio Press FM, you can find more episodes of it at, you guessed it, Studiopress.FM. You can also help Lauren and I hit the main stage by subscribing to the show in iTunes, that would be helpful, very much appreciated. It is also a great way to never miss an episode.
Brian, Jen, on behalf of Lauren and I and everyone in our company and the podcast network, we’re very thankful to have you guys on the show.
Brian Bourn: Thanks for having us, it was fun.
Jennifer Bourn: Thanks for having us.
Brian Gardner: All right, we’ll talk soon I’m sure. Everyone who’s listening, we’ll see you next week.