Last week, I launched a new website.
At the start of 2014, this project was at the top of our team’s priority list. My website makes a critical first impression, and I was hungry for an upgrade that more accurately represented how my business and product have evolved.
It was a fun project filled with valuable lessons. The lessons I learned are relevant for any small business owner who’s evolving a brand or considering an online upgrade. Is there any small business owner who isn’t in 2014?
Bicycle Theory, the partner we selected to lead the project, shared some good perspective from the agency side on their blog. Now that the site is live, here are a few key lessons I learned:
Do your homework.
I immersed myself in speaking and learning websites. I studied the web presence of every top business keynote speaker. And I didn’t stop there. I think it’s smart to look outside your category for innovation. For us, that meant evaluating other category-leading personal brands. I studied how touring musicians, celebrity chefs and athletes branded themselves online. The more informed you are at the onset of a project, the better your outcome will be.
Listen to your customers and partners.
My business has grown a lot in the past five years. Now, I have a huge advantage: access to customer insight. I started my research by asking a lot of questions: Why did they hire me? How would they describe my brand? What was their experience like on my website? What was missing? How do they use a website when making a decision? What are the must-have features? What features are annoying?
The input shaped my approach to redesigning the website.
Be patient when you hire vendors.
I’ve lived through some less than stellar partnering choices. Those bad choices usually happened when I rushed a decision and didn’t do enough due diligence. This time around, I vowed to be more patient.
My team did our own analysis, comparing several different design shops. We talked to vendors’ current clients. We considered how vendors treated us as a prospect. Moving through a sales cycle as a prospect is a good way to learn about a business and ultimately determine if you align and will work well together. One red flag for me is responsiveness. If it takes a vendor three days to return an initial phone call or e-mail, it’s game over.
In the end, doing more due diligence was definitely worth the investment of time. Instead of making transactional deals to get the work done, I found vendors who are invested in becoming long-term strategic partners, helping guide my business beyond just one project.
Partner with people who will challenge your thinking.
For me, it’s important to surround myself with people who can challenge my thinking and contribute new ideas. It’s easy to find people who can take direction and execute on a project. But, for this website and on future, related projects, I wanted partners who could listen, learn, research and contribute valuable thinking.
My goal is to work with subject matter experts. I want my partners to understand that if you work in marketing, you aren’t in the service business. Marketing author Tim Williams puts it well: “Service is a commodity. Smart thinking is not. Clients can get good service almost anywhere, but proactive marketing leadership is in short supply. The agencies that understand this invest in better people who can produce a better product. Remember, smart clients don’t only hire you for what you do; they hire you for what you know.”
Cross the finish line.
A project like this never ends. In fact, we’re working on upgrades to the new website right now! However, there comes a point when you have to ship. I had to recognize that the much-improved website was good enough to launch even though it certainly wasn’t perfect. Perfectionism can perpetually delay completing a project. It’s better to move the project into the world, and learn and iterate as you go. A website isn’t static (or it certainly shouldn’t be in 2014) and the good news about going live is that I can continue to get more real-time feedback to keep making it better.
My advice for small business owners: The internet is the ultimate leveling of the playing field. It gives you the opportunity to access the marketplace and compete with anyone on the strength of your brand, ideas, reputation and relationships. I don’t have a customer that didn’t evaluate me online before signing the contract. That is a game changer and means, for me, that my website is one of the most important investments I can make.