4 Years of Star Mountain Design — The Highs, The Lows, and The Sh*tshows
It seems almost a little bit gratuitous to do a post celebrating 4 years since our Star Mountain Design website launched — and therefore, officially threw us out into the madness that is London business. However, these past four years have been a wild ride, especially with a worldwide pandemic thrown into the mix.
At the time when I opened our (metaphorical) doors, I had very little entrepreneurial experience aside from growing up in my family’s home improvement business. Having come off ten years of being a teacher in the New York City Public Schools system and then fresh out of a Master’s Degree programme for web design, you could say I was walking into the whole thing somewhat blindly.
The extent of my business experience prior to Star Mountain
And, in a lot of ways, I felt like I had little choice at the time but to pursue this route. I wanted to stay in the UK post-graduation, and I was lucky that for two years, I could count on my London-based university to provide me with two years of visa sponsorship to start a business. I was well-aware that my options for finding a job that would not only sponsor a work visa but also be cool with hiring someone fresh out of school in her late 30s (dinosaur age in the tech world) were limited.
Those beginning years were hard. Not only was I trying to establish a business with about zero business experience, I was doing it in a country that wasn’t my native one.
Looking back on our first 4 years, I have learned a lot. I have so much more to learn, and I often think that what I still don’t know could fill a library. But I would love to give you a brutally honest rundown of what 4 years of being a small business owner of a web design agency has taught me so far:
Manage your (financial) expectations.
I know this seems beyond obvious, but it needs to be said. If I had any dreams of pulling major profits in my first couple of years, reality crushed that like a cockroach on a New York City street. It takes time to establish a business, a brand and trust — as well as a loyal clientele.
In the beginning, I kept our prices super-low for the industry standard, because I needed to build a portfolio for the business. Most new businesses do things like that. But there comes a point where you have to know when you’re established enough to push your rates up to, at least, the going rate. You also have to consider the area your business is based in. London is expensive as all hell, and getting more pricey with every big company and artisan bakery that sets up a headquarters in your neighbourhood. Though in web design you’ll take on clients from everywhere, you still need to consider your company’s home base.
Focus on what your business does well.
Your menu of offerings does not have to be extensive and over-the-top (we ain’t the Cheesecake Factory, here). In the early days, we thought we needed to offer every single aspect of a website project and it was overwhelming. We worked on finding people who are highly-skilled at things like SEO, security and copywriting to work with us and our clients so we can focus on what we do best — building websites.
CONTRACTS ARE THE REAL MVP.
I didn’t understand how valuable these would be until I was stiffed by a client in my first few months of operation- and worse yet, a client who was a friend of one of my very close pals, which made things extremely awkward. I believed we had an agreement on cost and our mutual friend had said the client understood this. But then when it came time for paying at the first milestone, the client was like “I thought this was free; you’re going to get great exposure when this project launches.” Sorry hun, if I wanted “exposure,” I’d stand on a street corner naked.
Needless to say, I took the work I had already done off the server (contract or no contract, that was within my right), the project never launched, and the client has become a serial entrepreneur who has disappointed many an investor. I definitely dodged a bullet in the end.
We have stood firmly by contracts ever since, and they’ve been invaluable reference points in difficult situations. ALWAYS HAVE A CONTRACT.
Hire people who share your values.
Aisha and I at the Render web conference in Oxford, pre-Star Mountain, in 2016
In the beginning days of Star Mountain, I felt a sense of desperation to find freelancers who possessed certain skills that I didn’t, instead of someone who had those skills, plus had the same beliefs about how websites should be constructed. The latter is more important than I can possibly emphasise.
A year in, I took on one of my close friends from my Master’s programme, full-time, who was looking to leave her job. I knew she and I had been trained the same way, with the same values about writing solid, sustainable code and designing user-friendly websites. Some people told me not to hire a friend, because we wouldn’t stay friends. But it’s been more than two years, and not only do we work well together, we’re still close. I won’t say there haven’t been moments when we didn’t see eye to eye, but we always find solutions and compromises together and I know we wouldn’t have grown as we have without her skill, insight, and quite frankly — brilliant — ideas.
Which brings me to my next point…
Listen to advice, from people inside, as well as outside, your industry.
I wanted to call my ice cream shop “Star Spangled Scoops.” No, really.
When I was first starting to feel disillusioned with my teaching career, I told my grandfather (who started our family business in 1964) that I wanted to open an ice cream shop. Yes, I really had ice cream dreams (I still do, shhh!). My first job at age 16 had been at Friendly’s scooping ice cream, and a few years later I worked at another ice cream shop (then-called “Snow White and the Seven Flavors”- no, I am not joking here!)
My grandfather, looking beyond me just thinking out loud, started saying things about overheads, numbers, seasonal demand, etc. I started laughing and said jokingly, “Why are you crushing my dreams, Pop?” but the man made good points.
He didn’t live long enough to see me launch Star Mountain Design, but I know he would have had valuable input. Luckily, my dad, who runs the family business now, is always on hand to talk me through the highs, the lows, and everything in between when it comes to running a business. From the outside, you would say wood flooring and website design have nothing in common, but when it comes to the business values of customer satisfaction, honesty, integrity, fair pricing and budgeting, you can learn loads from someone who has had decades more experience than you.
Likewise, I give my dad suggestions that he uses too! We both learn from each other.
Also, and I would say crucially, I have stayed in touch with my teachers from my web design programme at University of Greenwich, who continually provide advice and support when I need it, even years after I graduated. I have never stopped thanking my lucky stars that I had two teachers in my life who cared so much about me not only as a future web designer, but also as a person. When you find these people in your life, never let them go.
Stay on top of the goings-on of your industry.
Go to conferences, read articles and know what’s changing in your industry. It’s invaluable. Don’t be the person who is never going to give up on Internet Explorer.
I used to be embarrassed about handing my business cards out or saying, “Look me up, I’m a web designer!” and now I give zero f*cks about doing so. I once gave my business card to an employee in the Apple Store who expressed interest in web design when I was with my mother — who, for what it was worth, was shocked to see me do this since I used to dread meeting and connecting with new people. I also told the examiner who passed me when I took my UK driver’s test that he can always look me up if he ever needs a website and I’ll sort it out (I was feeling verrrry grateful that day!).
I would say I have a much higher tolerance for my own cringeworthy behaviour now — but that’s undoubtedly helped my business grow.
Cut out as many extra expenses as you can.
Our former office at 160 Fleet Street, London
One of the things I wasted too much money on in the past was an office. I was of the mindset that you had to work with others in person to make the magic happen. I also had completely convinced myself that I just could not work from home without being utterly distracted.
The pandemic changed all that. All of a sudden working from home was the norm, and I was locked into an unforgiving two-year lease with an office space that we only got 6 good months out of before the world went into COVID lockdown. During that time, I discovered the money we were spending on an office could be better spent on having premium accounts on Zoom (so many of our clients are not in London anyway, so it made sense), really good project management software, and equipment upgrades. Getting rid of the commute also saved us time and money. The modern office has changed, and it was the right time to go with the flow.
But realise when an expense is fully worth its cost.
I’ve always had a difficult relationship with numbers, whether it be regarding my age or balancing a budget. One way I dealt with the latter was to hire an accountant to handle all of our “money stuff.” It’s hard enough trying to understand the US tax system that I left behind (which I’m still connected via ball and chain to being an American citizen) but navigating the tax system here in the UK is a whole ‘nother bag of chips. Us American kids grow up with a healthy fear of monsters, strangers and the IRS, so it was no surprise that my panic level with encountering another country’s tax system was exponential. I know my limits though, and also know anything involving math is going to ask me to call upon skills I don’t possess. My accountant here walks me through literally everything, answers all of my dumb questions (she says they’re not dumb, but I know she’s just being British-ly polite) and makes sure I have everything in order in time for deadlines here and in the US. Honestly, I would pay twice what she charges for such peace of mind. I mean, don’t tell her that. But I would.
Be prepared for crazy sh*t. Aside from the ‘rona.
During my first two years of business, I unexpectedly needed two shoulder surgeries, which as one can imagine, greatly limited my ability to type on a computer. The first surgery came after Star Mountain had been incorporated but before I had officially launched, so it was easier to disappear for some time. The second time, we were already a working business with clients but no full-time staff, and I didn’t have any real backup for needing to be out of commission while recovering. I worked down to the morning of my surgery to complete all client projects that were still in the works, and even still was forced to try doing some work — with one hand — that came up in my recovery. Recovering in an immobilisation sling for two months was an absolute financial headache for the business, but we survived. Now though, I would absolutely plan that better.
Realise that the clients who “nickel and dime” you are probably going to be your most difficult.
It’s not a proven fact, but if anyone was to do research on the topic, we’d all welcome it. When you have a potential client who is completely fixated on the cost of a project rather than its outcome, there’s going to be trouble. If you have potential clients saying they can do it cheaper using a commercial website builder, tell them to do so- and you can thank us later, because they were not going to be easy to work with. We’ve done the maths on commercial website builders, and it’s not a cost-effective solution in the long-term. You often don’t end up with the product you want — but for some clients, it’s what’s best-suited for their needs and let’s face it, their temperament.
Unfortunately, with every client who wanted to cut corners wherever possible, we learned that they would be the first to try add things into their project build that weren’t agreed upon in the contract, thinking we’d just do it for free. At first, we really were afraid to say “No problem, but that will cost you extra” and we lost of a lot of income and time just trying to keep the client happy. As we’ve developed, we’ve learned to put a price tag on any additional work that takes substantial time and inform the client of this before proceeding further. It has saved us an enormous amount of sanity and allowed us to acknowledge that our pricing is based on our skill and time, and not on their budget.
It’s okay to break up with clients.
Though we have never broken up with a client in the middle of a project (but we have definitely wanted to with a few!) we have encouraged a couple in other directions for further project development after their contract with us has finished. The money a client can bring in is not worth it if a difficult relationship is causing you stress, distraction from other projects and keeping you up at night. You can’t please everyone. You’re not birthday cake.
Put your best face forward.
Working from home during the pandemic has made the workplace — especially a virtual one — a little more casual and we’re all for it. But even though most days I work in sweats and hoodies, on days where I have Zoom calls, I try and pull myself together — a little bit. You know, brush the hair, throw on some lip gloss, etc. Let your clients know you value them and their project by putting effort into looking halfway decent for a video call.
Recently, I had to put my money where my mouth is for this one. I had been feeling really ill for a few days, and on the morning of a Zoom call that already been rescheduled once, I tested positive for the dreaded coronavirus. I didn’t want to reschedule the call for when I felt better (which ended up being a full 10 days from when my symptoms started) so I took a shower, put some makeup on to hide my deathly-looking pallor and got on with things. Even though I felt like I was knock-knock-knocking on Heaven’s door, I’m sure our client didn’t see it because I just put my best face forward. I’m glad I did, because it would have delayed the end of the contract if I had to reschedule.
Imposter syndrome is real and it’s okay to have it.
Never mind the internet, personal computers were barely a thing when I was born
Use it to your benefit. I’m sure there aren’t too many people out there who feel 100% confident in what they do, every single day. For me, the imposter syndrome of my web design career started creeping in early on when I was in my web design degree programme. How could it not? I was one of the oldest people in class; among the few who remembered life before the internet — and I had been in the working world, in an unrelated career, for over a decade. Learning code did not come naturally to me, and it took a lot of work and studying to get myself to a semi-comfortable place with the necessary programming languages. Even now, I question my own abilities constantly. Those worries drive me to work harder, better and more reflectively. If I mess up, I learn from it and remind myself that everyone makes mistakes.
And lastly (finally), the best thing that I’ve learned on this adventure so far:
The experience you bring to the table is valuable.
When I was on my web design programme, I remember constantly telling my teachers that my previous career as an educator was useless in my new career. “I can teach a kid how to read an analog clock but I have no idea how to use any of the Adobe programmes.” My teachers assured me I would find, in time, that my teaching experience would be an asset to my web design career. It took awhile, but I started to see where that was true — I wasn’t afraid to make presentations because I had years of practice standing in front of a classroom. I was able to think about user experience in a way that felt natural, because I had over a decade working with kids, some of whom had language barriers and special needs. Talking to clients wasn’t scary for me, even when we had a difficult one, because I had dealt with many different kinds of parents in my teaching days. And then, when I started Star Mountain Design, I implemented WordPress dashboard training for our clients, so that we could teach them how to maintain their websites on their own.
I mean look, I’d be lying if I said that I don’t sometimes lament that a graphic design background would have been more useful for web design than being a primary school teacher, but it is what it is, and we work with what we have in our arsenal.
All in all, I think the “big picture” message here is that when you’re running a business, it’s important to realise that this whole shebang never stops being a learning experience. Whether it be industry changes, a global pandemic or day-to-day surprises that crop up in the course of one’s entrepreneurial existence, you’re never going to find a business owner who says it was all smooth sailing from Day 1. If you do find this unicorn, please inform the press, because I am sure this being does not exist.
Still, the more you can reflect on your growth, as well as your mistakes, the more confident you become — and with that, the more ready you feel to tackle the inevitable challenges that will come your way.
So here’s to 4 years, Star Mountain. Not your “normal” milestone anniversary, but why be normal when you can be unique?