On this week’s episode, we’re joined by Bill Erickson. Bill is a WordPress Developer, an entrepreneur, a husband, a father, a skier, an avid reader, a gardener, and a winemaker living in Georgetown, TX. He’s been developing with WordPress and contributing to the community since 2006.
Bill has written 20 WordPress plugins, which have been downloaded 668,661 times and has spoken at 13 conferences regarding WordPress. Last, but certainly not least, Bill is a core contributor to our very own Genesis Framework project.
In this 40-minute episode Brian Gardner, Lauren Mancke, and Bill Erickson discuss:
- Bill’s decision to become a freelancer
- Transitioning from Thesis to the Genesis Framework
- Building your brand and your business with shareable content
- Using your website to prequalify potential clients
- Scaling your business through efficiency
- The importance of contracts
- Building a work/life balance that works for you
Listen to StudioPress FM below ...
The Show Notes
- This episode is brought to you by Digital Commerce Summit
- Follow Bill on Twitter
- Visit BillErickson.net
- Bill’s WordPress Plugins
- Bill’s Code Snippets
- Matt Report: Systemizing Your Way to More Revenue
- Freelance WordPress Developer Bill Erickson
Jerod Morris: Hey, Jerod Morris here. If you know anything about Rainmaker Digital and Copyblogger, you may know that we produce incredible live events. Well, 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. For now, I’d like to let a few attendees from our past events speak for us:
Attendee 1: For me, it’s just 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 them pick the best tools.
Jerod Morris: Hey, we agree. One of the biggest reasons we host the conference every year is so that we can learn how to service our customers — people like you — more easily. Here are just 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 really 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?” and, “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 connecting with both people who are putting it on and 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.
Voiceover: 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 and I are joined by Bill Erickson to discuss how freelancers can scale their businesses.
Brian Gardner: Hey everyone, welcome back to StudioPress FM. I am your host Brian Gardner, and I am joined as usual with my cohost, vice president of StudioPress Lauren Mancke. Today we are, as always, very excited about the show, because we get to continue our series with members of the Genesis community, and that’s always been fun so far.
Today we are joined by Bill Erickson. Bill is a WordPress developer, an entrepreneur, a husband, a father, a skier, an avid reader, a gardener, and a winemaker, living in Georgetown, Texas, which I think is just north of Austin. He’s been developing with WordPress and contributing to the community since 2006. Bill has written 20 plugins, which has been downloaded almost 700,000 times, and has spoken at 13 conferences regarding WordPress. Last but certainly not least, Bill is a core contributor to our very own Genesis Framework project.
Bill, it is a huge pleasure to have you on StudioPress FM. Welcome to the show.
Bill Erickson: It’s great to be here, thanks for having me.
Beginnings in the Development World
Brian Gardner: When I decided to have this series Lauren and I spoke about who we wanted to have on the show, and without a doubt you were on the top of that list, and so I’m thankful you took that invitation to heart and you’re here. I want to start here with a very obvious question, one that helps set the foundation of what the rest of the stuff that we’ll be talking about will be. Tell us how you got into development, and have you always been a nerd?
Bill Erickson: Well yes, I’ve always been a nerd, but my past in development’s been a bit of a roundabout approach. In high school I got a summer job working at a print shop where we made brochures, business cards, basically all the print materials for a business. Then some of the businesses will come in wanting websites too, and they didn’t do that. I figured, “It can’t be that much more difficult than designing a brochure,” so I decided to do it on the side and partner with a friend who knew how to code HTML and CSS. Then a little later on I decided I wanted to figure out the HTML and CSS part myself and realized I’m a much better coder than I am a designer, so I made the switch.
Brian Gardner: A lot of people can do one really well. Lauren happens to be one of those people. I knew she was a great designer when she first came around, and as I realized that she was also capable of coding, that’s when the light bulb went off. I was like, “I can let her take over a lot of the stuff I’ve been doing, because she can do it all!” Like the Renaissance woman, you know?
Lauren Mancke: Sometimes you just want to design, your brain is on fire, and you’re creative. Sometimes development is a good switch, for me, anyway. I like to just, A to B, do exactly what I need to do.
Bill, why did you start building your business around WordPress? What is it about CMS that you find so appealing?
Bill Erickson: I had been building sites, like I said, with just static HTML and CSS, and then I got into the business of having to do text changes for clients. It was very boring for me, and I’m sure my clients didn’t appreciate paying me to make small text changes. This is about 2006, and I started looking around for what CMS tool I can use. WordPress, at that time, and it still is, one of the easiest tools to use for end user, for the client, but it’s also really easy for a beginner developer to learn.
That’s one thing a lot of the professional developers discount, is they say WordPress is messy in its procedural code, but I think it’s one of the keys to its success. It has a low barrier to entry, so if you want to just get started you can find a filter to change Read More text, and then once you accomplish that it’s very easy to work your way up to something more complex, rather than having to grasp a deep knowledge of something. I got into it both because it was something that I could grasp when I was first learning, but also because it was really easy for my customers to use, and it has only become more so.
Brian Gardner: The good thing about WordPress, and even Genesis now as a whole, is that there’s so many people who have understood how to do it hands-on by themselves, and then have written about it, that there’s so much documentation. You can go to Google and figure out anything, pretty much, how to do this in WordPress, or how to do that in Genesis. People like yourself who’ve written tutorials, and Jerod and I and other people who’ve done code snippets, it’s very easy for someone who’s new to go in and, kind of behind the scenes because no one knows they’re doing it, they Google, they learn … There’s not just a book you have to read, or a class or a course you have to take, you can Google your way into the community from the development side. That’s one thing I like about it.
Bill Erickson: Yeah, and a lot of us got started that way. I know I got started by Googling and searching for code snippets, and that’s how I learned. As I progressed I was developing these code snippets, so I put them out to help others, but also to help myself so I’d be able to find those later. It’s sort of a community where we’re all sort of learning together, and just the knowledge gets documented, so everyone can jump in at any point.
Transitioning from Thesis to the Genesis Framework
Brian Gardner: We spoke last week with Carrie Dils about just the open source community, and just how that sort of pay it forward mentality really helps grow the product, grow the software and the communities around it. Typically what we do is ask our guests how they got started in Genesis specifically, but your story’s a good one, and something I want to tell, because I was directly involved with that.
Before Genesis, or before you knew better for that matter, Bill was working on Thesis, and he was a Thesis developer and had done a lot of client work around Thesis. About six years ago … I can’t believe it’s been that long, Chris Pearson, the developer of Thesis, had a falling out with my current business partner, Brian Clarke. The too-long-don’t-read version of that whole story is that their partnership fell apart. Brian reached out to me and a couple others, and we formed the company that we have now, which is Rainmaker Digital.
Bill, you saw the writing on the wall as this was all going down back then, and reached out to me. I think it was on Twitter DM, and asked about Genesis. I knew you as a Thesis developer, so as the opportunist in me, I jumped on that right away. I think we got on a Skype call within five minutes of when you sent that. Is that, how I remember, how you got into the Genesis community? Am I missing anything here?
Bill Erickson: No, that pretty much covers it. I just want to say thanks again for all the help you provided in that transition. I’d been building with Thesis for years at that point I think, like two or three years, and every single one of my leads was coming from them. We had this symbiotic relationship where I’d build a really cool site, you get featured on their website, which would then generate more leads coming to me, which worked well, but as Thesis was going one direction and the rest of WordPress was going a different, it was sort of getting stuck in an area where I wasn’t having the freedom to move where I wanted.
That’s what I was talking to you about, is I wanted to make the transition to something that was more WordPress based, where it followed more of the WordPress standards. My problem was, all of my work was coming from Thesis, and you really helped me through that transition by sending me a lot of great leads. I think it was about a six-month period from when I was 100% Thesis-based work to 100% Genesis-based work. I never could have bridged that gap if it wasn’t for you sending me all those great leads.
Brian Gardner: That’s good to hear.
Bill’s Decision to Become a Freelancer
Lauren Mancke: Okay, so let’s talk freelancing. I think you and I, our paths crossed when you did make the switch to Genesis, so go back a little bit before that and tell us about at what point you decided to branch out on your own and start freelancing.
Bill Erickson: It was all about timing for me. I was actually in college getting a finance degree, and building WordPress websites on the side. I was a student worker making about $10 an hour on university websites, but it was something I enjoyed doing. Then the 2008 financial crisis happened, and all the finance internships disappeared, and I figured it’d be a good time to focus on my other passion, WordPress.
Right as I graduated college, my goal was just, I was going to experiment for a year and see if I could cover my living costs for a year. Luckily I was a poor college student so those costs were fairly low, and I was able to just make it. Then it worked out, and I just kept going, and got a little better and a little better, and now we’re about 10 years into me being a freelancer, so that worked out pretty well. Or, seven years I think now, full time.
Brian Gardner: A few years ago you did an interview with our friends over at iThemes about freelancing. I love how they open up the post. They say, “Bill Erickson is a freelance WordPress developer who gives back.” We just talked about that, and we’ll talk to it a little bit later also in the show.
First off, it’s true, as I’ve witnessed first hand just how much you help, both in the Genesis and the WordPress community. You have code snippets on your site, and you publish tutorials and stuff like that, but you also, I see you in Slack, and on our Genesis GitHub repository, and just within the general community, just helping where you can. I know you’re busy, and I know you realize that it’s important, even still, to give back, and I appreciate that.
You’re also a busy guy, which of course means you’ve got a pretty long lead time in case somebody wants to hire you as a freelancer, and you’re pretty selective now at this point, which is a good place to be, right?
Bill Erickson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Building Your Brand and Your Business with Shareable Content
Brian Gardner: It seems like a lot of freelancers these days are kind of in that starving artist mode, where everyone’s starting up and there’s saturated markets and so forth. I guess they’re trying to fight for their food. What’s your secret at this point, to being so busy as a freelancer?
Bill Erickson: At this point a lot of it came down to luck and timing. I got started in WordPress, like I said, about 10 years ago, and in that time the freelance WordPress development space was nowhere near as competitive as it is now. There just weren’t that many of them, so I was able to make a name for myself a lot easier. Now that I’ve been doing it for so long, I have a long client list and a lot of those clients really enjoyed working with me, so they keep coming back. About 50% of my work right now is either past clients or people who have directly recommended from past clients.
A lot of it is establishing your business, establishing your name, and building that reputation. And I built my reputation by giving back, by writing blog posts and code snippets, and contributing to Genesis and writing plugins. I don’t want to stop what was working, so I do make a point of, even when I’m busy, doing what I can to give back. I find that finding where your … Look at what you produce, and see what you can easily turn into a shareable thing.
For me a lot of it revolves around plugins and code snippets, so as I’m building out a project, they need some specific feature, I’ll put in a little bit more time really cleaning up and extending this feature a bit more than a client actually needs so that I can turn it into a plugin that I can then share. I’m going to put in 20 hours building this feature, maybe I could put in 30 and make it something that I can release, and will help others, and will also promote myself, because then people will find it and want to hire me. Right now a lot of my work is based on my past reputation and my past experience with clients, because a lot of past clients are coming back, but I got to that point by giving back, and that’s why I still do it.
Brian Gardner: That’s pretty funny. The last couple weeks I have published two different blog posts on my blog, tutorials on how to do something in Genesis, and I was literally in the process of developing a theme and adding that feature. As soon as I would add that and had the code ready, instead of just finishing the theme and so on and going back to it, I stopped right then and there, that evening, one night, and just wrote the tutorial. Because I had just implemented it, it was fresh on my mind, it was something that I knew somebody was going to want.
I hear what you’re saying there, which is, it’s kind of cool to document the stuff that you’re doing for something else, and then use that to benefit, a) the community, but also yourself, in that now you have shareable content, yet another thing that could get your name out there. For anyone out there freelancing, that’s kind of unsolicited advice there, how to help build your brand and how to move forward your business by doing things in that kind of way.
Bill Erickson: It’s not purely a marketing tool or a self-promotion tool. It’s actually really useful in your business, because I spend a lot of time thinking about a problem and what’s the best way to solve it, so I create that solution. Six months down the line I might need that again. Instead of spending the hours trying to figure out what it is and finding the right hooks and filters, if I’m in that mindset right after I solve the problem, if I document it, I can look back at that so that I know that’s how I do it. I don’t have to keep it in my mind, I just have to remember, yeah, I wrote about it on my blog, so I can scroll through and find it. That’s how it all started for me. It was just documenting what I was doing so that I could find that information later on. The side effect was, other people started using that information and it helped my SEO.
Brian Gardner: So you’re your own reader, blogger.
Bill Erickson: Yes.
Brian Gardner: You bookmark your own pages, how narcissistic. No I’m kidding, I do the same thing with my code snippets too. I put them on my site just so I have a place for me to go back to and say, “Hey, check out this greatly designed site. Oh look, it’s mine.” Stuff like that. Definitely wise there.
Using Your Website to Prequalify Potential Clients
Lauren Mancke: I want to follow up on Brian’s question from before. We have a page dedicated on StudioPress where we recommend Genesis developers and designers to the community. You’re on that page and you have been for a while. What impact, if any, has that source been for you in terms of acquiring leads and getting new business?
Bill Erickson: I still get a ton of great leads from StudioPress. Even though there’s a ton of people on there, it used to be only two or three other developers on the recommended list. Even now that you have such a larger community, and a lot of other great resources, I still get a lot of excellent clients from there. The StudioPress recommended developers page, it’s like a fire hose of leads, and it’s up to you to qualify them.
Because the StudioPress community and your customers, they have such a wide range of needs. Some just need tiny minor tweaks like changing some colors, or adding a small feature. Some hear about the benefits of the SEO of Genesis and don’t want to do anything themselves, and they want a custom theme and everything built for them. There’s a wide range of what someone might want, so you need to make sure you’re not just getting a ton of emails and having to filter that. You want to use your website to describe what it is you do, what your expertise is, so that the incoming leads can self-select, and select a person who is best fitted for that job.
What I’ve found is, there is a need to qualify your leads, and that’s something you can do with your website. Just review your emails, and if you see that you’re doing a lot of responses saying, “I’m not a good fit for this,” whether it’s for the type of work, or your timeline, or your budget, just make a note to include that information on your site. Because if you’re getting emails about that, that means you haven’t educated the prospect.
Lauren Mancke: We had a form on our Northbound site that led people, basically them thinking about their project. A lot of people contact you that haven’t really thought through what they need, so our contact form had different areas that they needed to figure out before they even contacted us, or have answers to. That way we could review those before we got back in touch with the person.
Bill Erickson: Yeah, definitely, like a client onboarding process. Because the average person who needs a website, they’ve never done this before, or if they did it was five or six years ago. You do it all the time. They don’t know what the process is. They don’t even know what questions they should be asking or what information to provide, so whatever you can do to help their job of finding someone to help them will definitely help.
Brian Gardner: We’ve been asked probably a number of times if there’s a way that we can assist in that process by somehow categorizing people on the developers list, especially since the list has gotten longer and the skills that are on that page vary from technical programming to straight up graphic design. Yes, to some degree that’s our responsibility, to see if we can try to tag that a little bit better.
But I like what you said, though, with prequalifying the leads. A lot of people just have a contact form on their website, which is basically, in my opinion, an advertisement to just copy and paste a request for a job, or a submittal or something like that. Then it’s not a great fit. With all the forms out there these days, gravity forms and ninja forms, you have the ability to build a complex form that prequalifies these inquiries, and saves A, you a lot of time, and B, them time too.
Bill Erickson: Yeah, it would be nice if StudioPress had some sort of layers of filters to help qualify them, but at the end of the day, every service provider on that page has different requirements, different services they offer, different budgets and timelines. There’s not a one size fits all categorical system that could apply. The easiest thing to do is just give all their information, and then allow those providers to do their own qualifications on their website.
Brian Gardner: Aside from the fact that it would take us a little bit of time to do that, that’s kind of what I come down to. Because I realize there’s also a vibe thing, that when you land on someone’s site you get a vibe whether or not, “Hey, this is a person I could do work with. They’re my style or they’re not.” I don’t want to qualify anybody out of that by some sort of check system that, “Oh, well, I’m looking for a project under $5,000,” so immediately Bill Erickson doesn’t show up. Whereas maybe it would have been a good fit, and maybe you’re slow a little bit, and you would pick up a job that might be less than $5,000. I don’t want to take that away from you either.
Lauren Mancke: I also, when I was redesigning that page, I wanted to include on the actual page the screen captures of some of the recent projects that they’ve done. Because I think visually that tells someone the types of projects that that developer has experience with, that they can visually scan that and see what might be a good fit in that way as well.
Bill Erickson: That’s a great idea. That’s what a lot of people, when they’re shopping, looking for a developer to build their website, they’re just going straight to portfolios. To be able to have that in one spot so they don’t have to open all the sites would be a useful tool.
Brian Gardner: I didn’t like that decision at the very beginning, Lauren, because when I first saw the page it was really, really long. Then as I thought through it I’m like, “Okay, this is not above the fold mentality from 10 years ago.” This is more about doing what you said, providing little snapshots. Even if it’s just the most recent four or whatever. At least you can just scroll up and down the page and get that vibe sort of thing that I was talking about.
Now speaking of people on the page and whatnot, Bill, I know that part of your strategy at this point, because you are so busy, are somewhat selective on the stuff that you take on, you have kind of a … sort of like a little referral system. Not necessarily in exchange for money, but just people who you pass referrals on to that are, a) that you know and respect and feel comfortable passing those along to. Jared Atchison is a good friend of yours and ours. He’s the first person that comes to mind there as an example of a developer you might send client inquiry to.
Scaling Your Business Through Efficiency
This leads to a bigger question in situations within the freelance world. How do you scale your business? I know you take your projects and pass them on to other people, but how do you scale your business specifically to make more money? Because there’s only so many hours in a day. What have you done over the last couple years, or what have you learned as a more efficient way to do business, so that you can become more profitable?
Bill Erickson: There’s a lot of ways you can scale your business. One that I’m particularly fond of is through efficiency. You can build websites a lot faster using Genesis because it does a lot of it for you, and then you can focus only on the custom features. Then the code you build can be reused on future projects, so when I build a great events calendar I can then, six months later, reapply that to a new project and then change the styling. There’s some code efficiencies you can do, and Genesis really helps with that.
Another one is moving yourself up the value chain. When I got started I was basically doing just markup. I was doing PSD to Genesis websites. Most of them were $500 to $1,000, and I’d turn them around in a week. As I got more experienced I did work on more complex websites, and built more custom features, and charge more. Now I’m no longer doing just the development aspect. When someone comes to me we offer sort of a full package, so we have a $12,000 project minimum. It’s a team of three: a content strategist, a designer, and a developer, and we typically spend at least 12 weeks on a project.
We’re really just working with the client to understand their needs, and design and implement it all in one house. Rather than, a lot of times when I was working with, saying I was just doing development, clients would go off to 99designs and get a design that doesn’t really serve their needs very well. I’d build it for them, but it’s not the best use of my time and the resources they have, so I’ve actually gone out and partnered with designers that I know do a great job of turning that around. Combining our services together we provide a much more valuable service.
Brian Gardner: Is that why you took down the PSD to Genesis page?
Bill Erickson: Yes and no. PSD to Genesis, it was a fun business to problem. Like I said, it’s the value. As I start charging more for my time, there’s less value that can be got out of that. There was a lot of people who do PSD to Genesis, and if I’m charging three or four times not many people are going to want to come to me, because at the end of the day I’m just converting a design into a website. I’m not providing as much value there. I saw that we could do better in a different direction. I found a designer that I really like working with, and a content strategist that I really like working with.
I still do some sites where a design is provided for me, but I’m a bit more selective on that, because I really do enjoy being able to start from the beginning and identify what problems need solving. The change from that start to finish is so much larger than, they hand me a design and then the only measure of quality at that time is, “Did you do what we told you to do? Does the design match? Is the site loading fast?” It’s a lot more fun to do that problem solving stuff.
Lauren Mancke: It’s probably a lot more fun to work with a good design too, than something that might not look very good.
Bill Erickson: That’s the other thing, yeah, when you don’t know the design. Especially when you’re trying to provide a quote and the design hasn’t been done yet, and you don’t know who the designer is. You really leave yourself open to some uncomfortable weeks where you’re just plowing through a design that’s horrible. That’s another reason why I stick with one designer for the most part.
Brian Gardner: I wasn’t setting you up for anything there, I just noticed. As I was preparing for the show I was actually going to link to that page, and then I kept Googling and I’m like, “Where is it?” I went to your site, I tried searching, and then I figured that at some point you kind of outgrew that. It is sort of like an entry into a community type of play, and I think there’s a need for it to some degree. What that basically does at this point, it frees that up for a few other people in the community to offer that service, which I know they’ve done. Yeah, I wasn’t mad or anything like that.
Bill Erickson: No, and I took it down, I think, with the most recent redesign, where I was focusing more on this integration with my current designer. I took it down mostly because I’m no longer focusing on it, but also because I was getting very few projects that actually utilize that. Because like you said, there’s a lot of great people in the community who are providing it, I was charging a bit more for that than anyone else was, and so yeah, I was getting maybe one every two or three months. It didn’t seem like a good reason to focus my sight on that.
Tools that Allow You to be More Efficient with Your Time
Lauren Mancke: Bill, let’s talk about workflow. This is obviously something that really goes along with scaling your business, you kind of touched on, and it’s something in particular that you have spent a lot of time perfecting, and you’ve taken time to share your processes with others. I know we’ve had a few conversations about it. Can you give our listeners some insight to some of the tools that you use, and some that you’ve built yourself, which allow you to be more efficient with your time?
Bill Erickson: Yeah, so like I was talking about growing your business with efficiency. There’s code efficiency, technical efficiency, but then there’s also business efficiency. A lot of your time is spent actually just running your business. Whether that’s responding to emails, or trying to manage projects, if you can find ways to optimize that process you’ll just open more time up for profitable activities.
My website is really focused on qualifying leads so I don’t have to spend a lot of time responding to emails that aren’t a good fit. I’m always iterating it, adding or changing features. One that I added in the past year or two that’s been really helpful is the, “When I can start,” because I’ve found that most of the emails where I just immediately say “Sorry, I’m not a good fit” are the ones where they say, “We need a site live in the next three weeks,” and I wouldn’t be able to start for two months. Things like that, where you can give them the information they need to know you’re not a good fit.
Then once I do get a quality lead, a lead that would fit well with me, they fill out the form, it comes to me, and I provide a nice detailed response. The email also shows up in a custom CRM that me and Jared Atchison developed, and we use it for all sorts of things. We use it for tracking lead data, so, “Where are we getting sources of leads? Where are we getting sources of projects?” You might find that 90% of your leads are coming from Google, but those aren’t really good leads, and that 80% of your work is coming from past clients.
Having that knowledge can help you decide where to direct your marketing efforts. We also use the CRM to manage the projects, our active projects, and to track data on completed projects, like overall profitability. Put in the amount we build, what we estimate it would take us to build it out, how much time we actually spent on initial development and changes. Come up with the effective hourly rate, just so we could track how well our estimates are doing.
Then on the design side, my team, we use Sketch exclusively, which works out really well. My content strategist uses it for the sitemaps and wireframes, then when we get to the design stage, the designer uses those same files and converts the wireframes into finalized designs, and then I take the finalized designs and turn them into a website. We save quite a bit of time by using the same tool throughout the entire process. We used to use Sketch for wire frames and then rebuild everything in Photoshop, but switching to Sketch has really helped out.
Then finally, from a code perspective, I have a base child theme that I’ve developed. It’s very similar to the starter theme from StudioPress, but it just has some of my own style and code tweaks that I like in there. Then I have my code snippets where I keep useful bits and some plugins that I’ve developed. I try my best to, when I build something, build it once really well, and then put it somewhere where I know so that I can access it later.
Brian Gardner: That speaks back to the efficiency thing, to have your own starter theme. Because when I start with stuff I pull something down, do all the Brian-isms in it, which takes anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes to knock things out and do things and rearrange things a different way. At some point, I don’t even have my own starter theme, believe it or not, at this point, because we iterate so much through StudioPress, and things get tested and added and whatever, and I’m like, okay, usually I just grab the latest theme that we’ve done, because I know that it’s probably the most currently coded well and tested, and go from there.
Lauren Mancke: You start it with the one that I made. I made a starter theme for us to use.
Brian Gardner: Like I said, I don’t have my own starter theme. But yes, I did … I’m working on two themes right now. One is a free theme that I’ll probably be releasing within the next week or so called 27 Pro, and that was based off of the Genesis sample’s child theme. Then the other one, which will be on StudioPress for sale, and I haven’t named it yet because I’m pondering that, but that one was based off of the base theme that you have developed internally for us in house.
The Importance of Contracts
Brian Gardner: Bill, you talked a little bit about the data there in your last segment, and you also did another interview with Matt Medeiros over at Matt Report. This was a little bit more on the technical side of business and being a freelancer, talking about systems and data and contracts and stuff like that. Let’s talk about contracts, because you mentioned in the interview that you live and die by them. I thought I would ask you to speak to that, because I think a lot of people get themselves into trouble and become inefficient because contracts aren’t clear and things like that. Is there anything that you want to elaborate on what you mean by that, and why that’s so important?
Bill Erickson: Yeah, a good contract is incredibly important. The goal is it lays out what each party is expected to do. You should have a lawyer look it over because it is a legal document, but I also highly recommend you make it not overly complex, because your client needs to be able to read and understand it. It really should be a distillation of all your communication expectations. When there are questions throughout the project you’ll both refer to that document. Refer back to all the phone calls, and your notes, and the emails, take all that information that’s been provided, and come up with a single document that describes exactly what you’re going to do, when you’re going to do it, how much you’re going to charge, and then have the client agree to it. That’s basically what the contract is.
The key sections that I include are the scope of work, which is where I say what it is I’m going to do, payment schedule, timeline, licensing of code. I like to be able to reuse my code, and so I make sure I note it that I’m never going to sell their site in whole to someone else, but unique pieces of functionality that I might develop I might reuse. The governing law, which is a legal thing, so that you could say, “If we do get in a legal fight, this is where we’re going to do it.” And then, any other aspects that you think are important to clarify. I include notes about migrations and phone calls and acceptable file types for designs, because those have all been areas of issues and past projects and I don’t want to repeat them.
That’s why I use a contract. I use it as a way to guide the client through what we’re going to do, what he’s responsible for, what I’m responsible for, what we’re building together, so that throughout this three-month process or however long it is, we can all go back to that document and know what we’re talking about.
Brian Gardner: Do you have any examples of, authenticity moment here, of an instance or a circumstance, one of the reasons why it became so important to you?
Bill Erickson: Yeah, that’s the key of what the scope of work is. A lot of times I’ll get a design, I’ll provide a quote on it. Let’s say someone emails you a PSD file and you’re like, “Yeah, I think it’ll take me X many hours to build it, I’ll charge you $3,000 for this.” Then you’re like, “Great,” and so you start building it, and then when you send the site for review, the client comes back and was like, “Well, this isn’t working at all as I expected, because I thought this was going to do this, and that’s going to do that.” You might have seen the picture, but you didn’t really fully understand the functionality, or both of your understandings were different.
The scope of work really just describes every key piece of functionality in the site, so then when a client comes back and says, “This is missing,” or, “This isn’t working right,” we look at that document and say, “Yeah, it doesn’t match what we describe here? Yes? Then it’s done right. If not, then let’s fix it.” That’s the most common area, is just not describing the functionality as well. The design is usually not a question. We’re both looking at the same designs, and if they don’t look the same then there’s something wrong. But functionality-wise, that’s a key area of issues.
Then also just little things, like the acceptable file type. I don’t like working with Illustrator. I just don’t enjoy it at all. So when I get … Someone who’ll send me JPEG files of a design and I’m like, “Oh, it looks great,” and then I quote on it, and then they send me the final assets as Illustrator files, and I’m like, “Oh, this is going to take me so much longer.” Stuff like that. Specifying what you need. I’ve gotten design files in PowerPoint before, which is not an acceptable format for me. So yeah, it’s stuff like that.
It’s just, every time you finish a product, do a quick post-mortem of it, see how things went well, what didn’t go well, what could you have done to prevent it, and a lot of that is stuff that should’ve been communicated earlier on, like what is the migration process? How are you going to deal with, it takes four months to build the site, and our content is now out of date because the live site’s been updated, what’s going to happen? You should clarify these things ahead of time.
Lauren Mancke: I think from my personal experience, any time a project doesn’t go smoothly it comes down to communication, like you said. It’s usually related to expectations, either from you as the developer expecting the client to do certain things, or the client expecting you to do certain things. Having that on the forefront of the project of communication, and defining the project’s scope before you begin, is really, really key.
Bill Erickson: Yeah, I completely agree. Basically, I like contracts because it’s a communication tool. It forces you to verbalize all the things you’re assuming and the client’s assuming.
Bill’s Favorite Types of Projects
Lauren Mancke: I also know from personal experience that you probably have too much work coming in, and so with that I know you have the luxury of being selective in choosing clients that you think would be enjoyable, or you can wait on larger projects like you’ve discussed that might have a bigger budget. What are some of your favorite clients, and what are some of the favorite types of projects you like to work on?
Bill Erickson: My favorite projects are the ones where the clients trust our expertise. We have this whole process that works really well, and you’re hiring a great developer, a great designer. Trust them to do their work. Don’t redesign it. My designer will give you a great initial mockup, and then you go through and change up the design in a ton of different ways, which affects the usability, especially on mobile. The ones where they really just sit back and say, “I’m hiring the experts, I trust what you’re doing here, I’ll give you all the information, but let’s see where you can take it.” Those always come out the best.
Some examples of that, The Kerouac Project. It’s a nonprofit for writers. It’s basically a place where writers can go for a few months and hone their craft. They gave us, basically, freedom to do what we thought would be best, and we came up with a beautiful design on that one that really emphasizes what they do. It’s like a design based around typography. Another one is Down Home Ranch. It’s a working ranch for Down syndrome people in the Austin area. That’s another one where we had a lot of fun with, and we were really able to capture the essence of the ranch, and provide them a beautiful design that’s really easy to use.
Building a Work/Life Balance that Works for You
Brian Gardner: You and I met six years ago, as we talked about, and a lot has happened since you and I met. You married Tara, a lovely person who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. You guys have since then had a baby. What impact have both of these milestones had, for better or worse, on your freelance business?
Because when you started out it was just you. Like you said, even a long time ago, it was just you in college, and you had little responsibilities and didn’t require a lot of money and stuff like that. As your career has progressed, and I’m not going to say complicated because that’s completely wrong word, you’ve enlarged the scope of your responsibilities by getting married and having kids. How does that affect things now? Because I’m sure it’s different, your workflow and your responsibilities and the way you do things now, is different than it was maybe five years ago.
Bill Erickson: Tara and I actually met just months after I started freelancing, so she’s been with me from the very start all the way to where we are here. Yeah, we started with poor college kids who were just having fun and making by, and now we work our own, and we have a family, and we have a house and a baby, and we have a lot of fun. Earlier we were talking about how … different ways to scale your businesses, and I said a focus on efficiency.
That’s one way to grow your business, but you can also use it to maintain a certain level of income and work less. That’s one of the things that I’ve found. As my family’s grown I value my time a lot more, and so I focus on work life balance. I’ve found over the past few years, the amount of time I spend working goes down bit by bit, so I’m working a lot less now than I was a few years ago, because I’m able to spend more time with my family. I have to value my time in that way so I raise my rates, because my time is … if I’m going to spend this time away from my family I’d better be getting compensated for it.
On the negative side, I actually had to move my home office. I was downstairs, and now we have a baby running around, and she’d run, bang on the door yelling “Da-da,” wanting to play, so now I’m upstairs in a small guest room so that they have free range downstairs.
Brian Gardner: Hey Lauren, do you know anything about that? Kids running around? With two buns in the oven and one running around already, your life’s about to get … You may need a separate building.
Lauren Mancke: I have a plan for that. At our old house we built this really cool workshop in the back yard. It’s got skylights, it’s got everything. I want to bring it over to his house, because we’re renting that house out. I want to bring it over to this house and use it as my office, so I will be in a separate building. But it’s still here, so I can come back if needed. But yes, it is very difficult to focus with little people that don’t understand that the door means that you’re working.
Brian Gardner: A great example of that kind of a space is Jason Schuller, a good friend of ours from back in the day. He ran Press75 and sold that, and he’s still doing some stuff online, but he built and refurbished his office on top of his garage. He does have his sort of own space.
Back to the work life balance thing, if there’s anybody who I’m friends with online that I’ve seen so intentional about, not necessarily working more, but charging more to have more time for family, it’s Jason, because he’s put so much emphasis on his daughter. Every time I see an Instagram shot, it’s him, they’re there on a trail, or on a beach.
Bill, you also spoke to that work life balancing, because I think it’s intuitive to want to just work more to make more money, instead of working more to then actually get to, “All I need is X amount,” and then start working back, and it’s freeing up more time to have balance. Because as we know, we can work 24 hours a day if we want online, and sometimes we do, but also, to be respectful enough of your own family and the commitments you have to say, “I don’t need to make more money, I just need to make this money.” Then to become more efficient and charge more and whatnot, so that you can then spend more time with your family, is so refreshing to hear.
Bill Erickson: That’s basically my approach. I don’t work … I enjoy what I do, but the reason I work is so that I can provide for my family and spend time with my family. The more I can make, the less I have to work, and then I can enjoy the fruits of my labor more.
Advice for Aspiring Freelancers
Lauren Mancke: Okay, so last but not least, what advice can you give a person who’s got some training and experience in development, and they’re trying to branch out as a freelancer? Any pro tips that you think they should hear before we go?
Bill Erickson: Network with other freelancers, especially those that compliment your services. As a developer you’re always looking for good designers and copywriters, and on the reverse it’s the same, so just get out there and know people who you might partner with on projects, and who might recommend you.
If you’re a developer, contribute to open source projects. When I’m looking for Genesis developers to recommend, I look to those who contribute to Genesis who have written patches or extensions to my personal Genesis plugins, or who’re writing their own Genesis plugins. I like to see their code, but I also like to see how they interact with other developers and users reporting issues. That gives you a little insight on their communication abilities in addition to their coding abilities.
Brian Gardner: That’s good stuff, good stuff Bill. Normally we do a little call to action here at the end, and because there’s no PSD to Genesis for me to pitch for you, I’m just going to tell anybody who’s listening, if you’re looking to redesign your website, or start a website, or do something of the sort, we have all of Bill’s links, all the things that you would need to access and contact Bill, down in the show notes. BillErickson.net is his domain name.
Bill comes highly recommended by us, all of us here at StudioPress. It’s been a pleasure working with him over the years. If you need anything, Bill is there and he’s the right guy, and if he’s not, he’ll set you up with the right person as well.
I just want to thank you, Bill, for being on the show, taking the time out. I know, as we talked about, you’re busy, but I also know that this is your way of giving back, as well as marketing yourself a little bit, and that’s why we’re having you on the show. Hopefully, we can send you some business through this episode.
For those listening, if you liked what you heard on today’s show, you can find more episodes of StudioPress FM over at, you guessed it, StudioPress.FM. You can also help us hit the main stage by subscribing to the show on iTunes. It’s a great way to never ever miss an episode. Thank you so much for listening, and we’ll see you next week.