Over the last few months we've been interviewing developers who have worked on widely popular Joomla sites. However, not every successful Joomla developer has sites with a shelf full of awards or 5 million visitors per month.
We're now going to turn our attention to other types of successful web design firms. We're particularly interested in how people make a living with Joomla. In a new series of interviews we're going to investigate how people like you are able to leverage Joomla, start their own businesses, become independent or work to achieve other goals.
First we interviewed Allie Whitney from Global Nomad. She works with unemployed locals on the Tibetan Plateau in western China, providing free training and hiring them to become Joomla web developers.
This week we're talking about a similar topic, interviewing Jen Kramer from 4Web, Inc about how she succeeds with her Joomla business despite living in a small, rural town.
Tell us about 4Web and where you’re located.
We are located in Keene, New Hampshire in the United States. It is a small town of 20,000 people located in the southwestern corner of New Hampshire. Keene is the “big city” in this region. You have to drive 50-60 miles to reach New Hampshire’s largest cities (Concord, Manchester, and Nashua) and roughly 100 miles to Boston. Keene State College is one of our major employers.
4Web is run by Jen has been working with Joomla since the Mambo days. Prior to owning 4Web, Jen worked as a freelancer from 2000-2008 under her previous business, Focused Consulting LLC. Initially she built a lot of Dreamweaver sites but made the switch to Mambo in 2005. Heidi was one of Jen’s star students at Marlboro College Graduate School, where she graduated in 2008. Heidi has worked part-time for 4Web for the past year.
How does your location affect the business?
Doing business in a rural environment is indeed challenging. In order to do well, we are always reaching beyond our geographic area to pull in new clients. We also reach out to freelance talent in a number of areas to help us complete projects. This means that many of our clients we never meet in person. For our freelancers, we have met them all in person at one point or another, but we may not see them in person over the course of a project.
What advice do you have for rural web design firms needing clients?
Every area of the world is different, but we’ve found that a number of things help bring in new business. We have found that by taking a leadership position in our local and global Joomla community, the work will follow. We’ve accomplished this in a number of ways.
First, run a user group. We founded a Joomla user group (Joomla User Group New England) back in March 2008. We wanted to network with other Joomla developers. Most people may find this counter-intuitive -- you want to know your competition, and in such a sparsely populated region? You want to teach the competition new skills? However, we’ve consistently found that the more we act like collaborators rather than competitors, the more work we get. It’s working for many of our friends as well. We’re having a hard time finding subs these days for some of our projects because everyone is so busy!
Second, teach. Jen has been teaching at the Marlboro College Graduate School since she graduated in 2001. She continues to teach to network with the students and the alumni there. The Grad School is the foundation of the Joomla community in our area.
Third, get your name known. Jen’s Lynda.com training videos and her recent book generate a lot of interest. She also speaks at as many conferences as she can each year, mainly to network with speakers and attendees.
Fourth, get listed. We’re in the Joomla Resources Directory, which generates a lot of leads for us. We recommend everyone get a listing there.
Finally, use social networks. Jen does a lot of social networking, mainly on Twitter and Skype, but also on LinkedIn and Facebook. We also blog as often as we can at www.joomla4web.com. This is more about finding freelancers and keeping up with what’s happening in the Joomla community than finding clients, but it’s a very important part of our strategy for establishing expertise and leadership in the Joomla community.
The above can help you land new clients, but the best way to find new work is to leverage the clients you already have. That’s not to say you should tell your clients they need work done if they really don’t. However, websites can go stale in as little as 6 months, and certainly within a year or two, if nothing is done to actively refresh and update them. Joomla is great for doing a quick “face lift” by installing a new template for a site or a new extension. You can also remove functionality that’s not being used. Checking in with your clients every 6 months or so can generate more work than you anticipate, plus the clients love the customer support. It’s a quick 15 minute phone call to see how they’re doing, and it might translate to a substantial project, so just do it! With Joomla 1.6 being released soon, you should be working on a list of all of the reasons your clients should upgrade. That will generate a lot of work for you as well.
You should also ask your clients to recommend you to their friends and colleagues. This is how Jen got started at the very beginning. By going to grad school, she established a great network of friends and colleagues, some of which she is working with to this day. Those friends recommended her to friends, who recommended her to other friends. Word of mouth is still the #1 way we get clients to this day.
We’ve also approached a number of advertising agencies to work with them. Since we don’t have a graphic designer on staff, advertising agencies like to work with us as a partner. They devise the overall strategy and branding for their clients, as well as a graphic design for the website. We help with strategic planning for the website as well as aligning the business strategy and marketing strategy with the website strategy, and we can also build the site. We’ve had several of these relationships through the years and they’ve always worked out well for both sides.
Why do you hire freelancers?
Heidi and Jen specialize in the same areas, including project management, HTML/CSS, custom template development, and configuring Joomla. We frequently need help in the areas of custom extension development, database work, and graphic design. Very occasionally we’ll need a Flash calculator built. We handle as much as we can in house, but in these areas, we subcontract with freelancers. What works well is that we can always bring in top talent as required, and at the end of the project, we don’t need to worry about continuing to find work for those people. This keeps our overhead to a minimum, maximizing revenue for us.
What is your biggest challenge in running a rural web design shop?
First are the technological barriers. Those in big cities take for granted that they can get a cell phone signal regardless of where they live. We really mean “get a cell phone signal.” In much of our area, there is literally no cell signal, not just little spots where the signal drops, or that we get three bars instead of five. Most days we’d be happy with three bars! Jen didn’t get a 3G signal for her phone until she traveled out of the area.
The same is true for broadband internet. Again, those in big cities assume you’ll have at least a choice of DSL vs. cable internet, and perhaps a variety of other options as well. Even in 2010, large portions of Vermont and New Hampshire are served only by dialup internet. Some may have the right clearance to get satellite, which is often not much better than dialup (there’s a long latency period before a quick download). So when looking for an apartment or house in our area, your second question, just after price, is whether broadband internet is available, and if it’s not, how much it will cost to run it to that location.
When you don’t work with local clients, you can’t have in-person meetings. Some people insist on an in-person meeting before doing business. Others are OK with a conference call or two while we work on a proposal. Generally we find with regular emails and phone calls, the clients are comfortable working remotely.
Finally, there are always perception issues. A web design firm in Keene is perceived by many to be “not as good” as a firm based in Boston, for example. If you want the absolute top tier clients, you probably have to be based out of a major city with a nice office and charge accordingly.
However, we feel the tradeoff in quality of life makes sense. Heidi’s kids are growing up in a great environment, and her family is in the area as well. Jen has lots of really good friends here and enjoys teaching at Marlboro, so she is not planning on leaving anytime soon.