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How Carly quickly went from new designer to successful agency owner

Imagine starting your web design business and immediately booking yourself out with a whole bunch of clients months in advance and then within just two years bringing on a team of seven. Yes. Seven to help you with all the work that you have.

This is exactly what my past Square Secrets Business™ student Carly did. 🎉🎉

Q: What were you doing before you became a web designer?

So, I got started with my business in September – October of 2020. I started after I got laid off from my full-time job due to Covid. My boss at the time told me that she wanted to set up a call and I thought she was setting up a call with me to give me a promotion because I’d been promised a promotion for six months but she was like, you’re laid off, and I was like “WHAT??” 🤯

It was in the middle of the pandemic and the job market was just a total dumpster fire. And so I was applying for like 40 jobs a day. I was writing all these crazy custom cover letters and it was really exhausting. And then I didn’t hear anything back, like nothing. I would see these jobs on LinkedIn that said that it had been posted two hours ago and it already got like 312 applicants. And I’m like “How in the world am I ever gonna get my resume even seen by anybody?”

After roughly a month of this nightmare of applying for jobs, I said to myself if nobody is going to hire me, then I will hire me. And I started a business and I started just offering virtual assistant services because I knew I could do that. I had a marketing background, I have a degree in marketing and I’ve been working in marketing.

What I was mostly offering was social media management. I made a website for myself on Squarespace just by looking at a bunch of YouTube videos. After I had started this sort of virtual assistant social media stuff, one of my clients asked me if I could make her a website. She was like, yours look so good. Could you make one for me? And I was like, I don’t see why I couldn’t do that. And so I made her a website and I was not very good. So I started researching courses that I could take because I didn’t know anything about website design.

I stumbled across your course and loved it. 😍 Implemented that for the next website design client that I had and it sort of just took off from there. I took your course at the beginning of 2021 and it’s been going great ever since.

Q: Why did you decide to start offering web design services on top of your VA services?

When I started my business I think I was charging around 20 or $30 an hour. I started the business because I needed to make money. I always thought, at least at the beginning, that I was going to go back into the corporate world.

I wasn’t one of those people that was like, day one, I’m gonna do it, screw corporate. I needed to make money. Unfortunately at the time that I got laid off was right at the time when in the US they dropped the unemployment package from around $800 a week to $200 a week.

So this is not enough money for me to do anything. I was offering virtual assistant services for $20 to $30 an hour. And then when I was researching websites and website packages I was seeing people charging thousands of dollars to do websites.

I did not start at thousands of dollars. I think I did my first six-page website for like 600 bucks and I had no idea what I was doing. I was probably making less than $20 an hour by the time the website was launched. That is very much changed now, but I really liked the creative process of doing the websites.

I also liked my first client’s reaction to their website. They were so happy with how it looked. They were excited to be able to have this web presence that they felt proud of. They were excited to tell their friends and family and clients and all these people to come to their website because it looked so pretty.

I didn’t think the first one looked that pretty, but they were so happy. And so I really liked that feeling. I liked being able to complete a project and then be done and move on to the next one. But also the cost of it – knowing that as I grew I was going to be able to earn way more money even than I was in my corporate job.

Q: So you had no intentions to go be your own boss. I feel like a lot of women can identify with that because it can sound kind of scary to be responsible for your paycheck and everything.

There is significant potential when you’re working for yourself versus in corporate. Can you talk about the pricing that you’re charging your clients now and how that compares to what you were making before in corporate?

Right now we’re charging about $3,500 for a six-page website. It will likely go up in the very near future as you should always continue to raise your rates as we get better and as we have better designs and better processes.

So right now we’re charging $3,500 for a roughly six-page website. 💰

I run an agency, so it’s me, and then I’m sending out an offer letter for my seventh hire today. So things have grown really fast. But I’m super excited about that. So we’re definitely like a full-service agency.

So in terms of what the agency brings in, it’s probably like 8x or 9x my corporate salary. So it’s much higher.

I am not making eight or nine times my corporate salary as I have people to employ, as I am reinvesting in the business. I just paid a fat chunk of change to a lawyer to trademark my business name, give me custom contracts, and all sorts of stuff. So I’m always reinvesting in the business.

For those that don’t know, I am a W2 employee from my company, so I get a paycheck every month. I can take out more money if I want to, but that paycheck I get is probably close to about double what my paycheck was as a corporate employee.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m only making double. It’s what the business has made. What’s in the business savings account is probably equal to what my corporate salary was. So I’ve saved in about a year, an equal amount to what my corporate salary was. I’m making way more and I have the potential to continue to see that as the business grows and scales.

Q: How long did it take you to book yourself or how far out in advance were you booked? And when did you start realizing you need to bring on more people and become an agency instead of an individual designer?

I was offering part website design, part social media, and then I was doing a little bit of like email marketing and stuff like that for some of our clients. I took your course at the beginning of 2021. And for a while I considered myself booked out in terms of the number of hours that I was working.

But then as I just got faster at things, I could take on more clients now. And so, the middle of 2021 is when I had a little bit of a pivot in my business. After I took the website design course and I was getting all this great feedback on my websites, I just told everybody that I was doing websites. And so a lot of my clients for website design came from just people that I knew. I was posting on LinkedIn, and on my personal Facebook page. One of my clients was the guy I was paired with to walk down the aisle at a friend’s wedding. We were like chatting right before walking down and he said, I just started a bartending business, I need a website. I’m like, well, we’ll chat after we get down the aisle. 😄

So a lot of my clients came from people that I knew or people started referring me out to other places. So the website design business grew really fast and the social media side of the business really started growing alongside that. I hired someone in the middle to end of 2021. I felt very burnt out in terms of the number of hours that I was working. I first outsourced the engagement side of social media management, because that was something that I felt like I could give up control over because I’m like a major control freak.

And I found someone that in terms of what I was charging is an hourly rate I could pay someone less of an hourly rate to do this and then that opened up time for me to take on more clients at the hourly rate that I was charging. So I brought on that person. She was with me until the end of 2021. And then in 2022 has been when things for me have just exploded in growth.

So I brought on content and social media manager at the very, very beginning of 2022. Then I brought on another content and social media manager. I have the engagement specialist, a social media specialist who does a lot of admin type work for us. I have a digital strategist who does a lot of our paid ads and analytics.

And then I just hired a digital designer that I found from your beautiful Facebook group. And the next person I’m going to be hiring is a content social media manager. Because as an agency, we have a lot of social media retainers so that is always the position that will continue as we gain more clients that will continue to need to hire. So we have a pretty good, well-rounded team.

Q: That is insane to have to go from like starting a business because you got laid off, taking the courses at the beginning of 2021 and then not even two years later you literally have seven people on your team.

Would you ever have imagined that this current situation would be a reality? Did you ever think you could run a business, let alone manage a team?

I have management experience in the past managing teams and that’s something that I always really liked doing. When I first started my business, I just needed to make money. Let me just make some money until the job market cools down and then I can go back into the workforce.

As things grew, I was like, maybe I could get back into the management thing at some point. Maybe in five years, I could hire somebody. Even though it was a thought that I had, I never thought it would actually become a reality.

My mom always told me that I should start a business. She’s said, you and your siblings should start a business together, you guys would be so great at owning a business. I’m like, whatever, mom. But here we are. One of my digital strategists is in fact, my brother. So I guess my mom always was right.

Q: Did you know anything about web design or running a business before taking Square Secrets™️ & Square Secrets Business™️?

I had no idea what I was doing. I have a marketing degree, but I don’t know anything about design best practices. I knew the basics because I watched some free videos, but I didn’t know the strategy behind website design, writing copy or anything else I’ve learned in Square Secrets Business™.

So when I was looking for courses to take, I wanted yours because it was exactly what I needed. It was the understanding of how to use Squarespace, understanding how to see different websites and different elements of websites that you liked, and how to be able to create those in Squarespace.

Because when I first started deciding that I wanted to do website design and deciding what platform I wanted to design on everyone was like, Squarespace sucks. You can’t create these beautiful designs, and you should use WordPress. I attempted to use WordPress and I don’t think I ever even like started anything. I was on their dashboard and I was like, what to do? Uh, this is horrible. I’m going back to Squarespace.

And then the entire business side of everything, like how you can get content from your client. All the content planners. And the ideal client avatar exercise really changed my business because we use something very similar in onboarding all of our clients. Everything that I learned in the entire course was exactly what I needed, and I liked your course versus anybody else’s that I was looking at taking because you started from an area that I felt was like a beginner stage when you started your business. And that’s where I was at. Like, Paige has built this business. She knows all these things. She’s done it. You have the trial and error side of it done. Plus, with the bundle of the two courses, I was like, yeah, sold.

Q: Had you done any client website builds before you’ve taken Square Secrets Business™ and then after? How did that process with your clients compare?

I did one and it was so bad. I mean, it was fine because it was my very first ever client who I actually still work with to this day. They had been wanting a website for a while. They had someone build out the wireframes and mockups for a website, but they had never actually done anything.

So they sent me those. And that was helpful in knowing what they wanted, what different pages they wanted, what was going to go on the different pages. And theirs was an easier sort of website to build. They run a very successful YouTube business. By very successful, I mean they have 3 million subscribers. So what they needed from a website was more just to have an online presence. Not necessarily to learn about them, but to buy merch, share their YouTube feed, etc. And the website would primarily be found through a fan or a subscriber that would already know him, who would then come to the website.

So I relied on them a lot, for the copy, their wireframes. If I had to do all that on my own, it would have been rough. Things are just way smoother now.

Q: What’s your client design process like after taking the courses? How do you find managing projects now?

It sort of runs itself now. The things that you taught us how to do in the course, I broke them out into these four pre-designed phases. So it’s like phase one, you complete this. Phase two, you complete this. Phase three, phase four. When they sign on, they’re told exactly how you explained in your course that you have to complete all of the phases prior to the design date, otherwise you lose your deposit and then you have to rebook.

And then in the back end of our process, they get an email with all of the pre-designed phases. It has way more information on what they can expect in each phase and a suggested deadline for when they should complete that phase.

I check in with them every deadline that I give them. And we have a template of emails that get sent out. So it’s really simple to be able to do that.

So the process is really streamlined and it makes it really simple for us. We have a couple of checks here and there before their design date, but it’s pretty minor, especially with all the extra information we give them in our kickoff call and all that sort of stuff. So it runs itself so smoothly now. We’ve never ever had a client that needed to rebook. We’ve never ever had a project that has gone late, ever. And my clients find this process so beneficial as well!

Q: Do you do one client at a time or now you have a team or are you doing multiple projects at the same time?

So, right now we’re still doing one at a time. The digital designer that I hired is handling those websites for us. It used to be me doing all the websites, managing a team of six, handling all our social media clients, and it was just like way too much for me. So we’re still only doing one at a time. That process worked really well for us to be able to keep track of everybody. And I liked the one at a time process when I was doing the websites because my brain only needed one thing to focus on. Like I couldn’t have a fitness coach and then a software business because these are so different. I can’t compartmentalise these two things. I just need to have all of my time and energy focused on one.

And my clients, when I tell them that on consultation calls, they love that. They love to hear that there’s one at a time. They love to hear that they have our undivided attention. We will reply to their emails pretty much immediately if they have a question to come through. We’ll maybe hire on another designer in the future and start doing multiple sites, but I think that having one designer work on one at a time just makes the most sense for us.

Q: Can you talk about how far in advance you’ve been booked and do you just keep booking out in the future or do you start a waitlist?

Right now I have two proposals out that will get us booked through the end of the year (and this interview is from September). We’re usually booked about three months in advance. We had a pause on accepting new retainers, social media, email, marketing, paid ads clients for a while because I just couldn’t keep up with it. And so I put on our website that we’re not accepting new clients but we’re still booking websites because a lot of work is for our retainer clients.

From my experience, in the businesses I work with, most people that want a website are these small businesses, usually a team of one, two, maybe three people. And I feel like they always want things much quicker. And so we’ve never been booked more than three months in advance because I think that if we were, these types of small businesses would go find somebody else because they wouldn’t be interested in waiting three months to have an online presence. So I think that that three month timeframe has been really good for us. It gives all of our clients plenty of time to be able to complete all of these pre-design phases. And this has helped us to keep things on track. But we’ve never had a waitlist because we’ve also never really like needed one, I guess.

Q: Tell me about what is it like to be your boss? If you were talking to old Carly who’s in corporate life, how would you describe that to her? What is it like to work for yourself?

I love it. I do think that it’s not for everybody. I personally love working for myself. I’m very self-motivated and so that makes it really easy for me too. Set an alarm and get up at 8:00 AM every day, you know, and not sleep until noon because there’s no one to hold me accountable if I’m doing things.

I’m excited to get up. I love all the clients that we work with. It also feels really good to get praise from clients. Most times we’ll do website draft presentation through Zoom calls, so we’ll show them the website as we scroll through it to talk about certain design elements that we want and I’ve had several clients cry on those calls because they’re so happy with how their website looks and cannot wait for this to be launched and live. This is what makes me feel so good about what I’m doing.

I feel very fulfilled in helping small business owners sort of reach their dreams too.❤️ 

I also like being able to set my own schedule. I like being able to take my dog on a walk in the middle of the day. I like being able to go to doctor’s appointments whenever I need them. For me, it feels like exactly where I’m supposed to be in my corporate career.

I was a job hopper, as everyone told me on my resume. I worked in marketing, then in operations, then back to marketing, then in sales, then customer service, then training, then HR. I’ve worked for four companies, and I was always promoted in all those companies and a lot of times I was promoted in a different department.

So everyone was like, you’re a job hopper, or you’ve never done the same job. But everything that I have learned from all of those jobs is what has made me so successful in the business. I have the sales side, which is how you get new clients. I have the marketing side, which is what we do as a business.

I have the customer service side which is so important in retaining clients and even just in finding new clients. I have the training side, in which we do a lot of training with the new websites because we do a one hour training call as well as training the team. I have HR experience, which has been very helpful in building a team.

So I feel I had this weird sort of like epiphany moment of feeling like exactly where I am supposed to be in my life. So I love being my own boss. It’s been such a blessing. I never thought that getting laid off and having to live with my mom at the age of 30 would ever be a blessing.

Q: That’s amazing. And I think that’s so nice that you say that. “I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be!” Because I do know that there’s a lot of people who are our age and then they’re just like, this is not what I wanted for my life.

It’s definitely been challenging. I think that people always see stuff on social media, like we grew this great business, but there’s another side too – the imposter syndrome.

And whenever I lose a client, I usually like take the rest of the day off and cry because it’s really hard and there are a lot of really, really hard parts of the business too, but the positives way outweigh the negatives.

I have this chronic digestive disease and when I was working at this corporate job, they were not very understanding of it. It’s like an invisible disease. I look totally healthy but I was hospitalized for five days last month.

So while working at this corporate job I would have to go and get an infusion once a month. So you go to the hospital, they stick an IV in your arm and they pump you full of medicine. And I had to do that once a month to keep my disease at bay. And this company made me take PTO for it every time I had to go. I would try and schedule them as early in the morning as I could so that I would get there on time. They also make me feel like super sluggish, but I would only be gone for like maximum of two hours, half an hour to the doctor’s appointment hour there, and half an hour back. And they would make me take two hours of PTO or of sick time. And then I was like, could I just stay later? And they were like, no, because the perception is that you were gone for two hours. Nobody knows that you’re staying two hours later because everybody has left.

So the perception is just that you’re not working for two hours. And so it was just such a toxic environment to be in. And so now it’s nice that I have not only the understanding of myself and being able to give myself the time off and not feeling bad about when I can schedule these doctor’s appointments or these medications.

And even being in the hospital for five days I knew everything was still gonna run fine. Things are gonna be fine. And all the clients that I talked to about it were so unbelievably understanding. And so from that side of it as well my like mental health has gotten a lot better just by being able to feel like I can really take care of my physical health in the way that I need to.

Q: I feel like I probably know the answer to this, but I’ll ask it anyways. Would you ever go back to corporate?

I would never say never. I think if an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up presented itself, I would say yes. I have no idea what an opportunity would look like for me to give up what I have right now. I can’t even think of what it would look like, but I never want to say never. But for what I’m doing right now, I’m super happy with how things have been going.

And I feel this is like super cheesy but I am so proud of myself and of what I’m doing than any time that I was like a top performer, MVP on the team, whatever. I feel so much more proud of where I am and I feel so proud of how far I’ve come in my professional career.

At the beginning when people were asking me what do you do for work, I told them I work online. But now I tell them I own a digital marketing agency. And they’re like, you’re a freelancer. But don’t get it twisted.

I am proud to tell people what I do and who I do it for. I never felt excited to talk about work but I feel really excited to do that now!

Q: Is it too late for other web designers just getting started? Is the market oversaturated?

I don’t think it’s oversaturated. I think that there are so many new businesses that are popping up. Like so many people are leaving their corporate jobs. You see it on TikTok and Instagram all the time, like people quitting the nine to five, which is definitely not for everybody. And even if someone wanted to do this alongside nine to five and have this be a sort of side hustle, there’s still a ton of opportunity. There are so many new businesses that are continuing to come to light such as the virtual assistant, social media manager, website designer.

As that business grows, there are more business coaches that become available or that need to sort of like come out of the woods to offer those types of services. I work with a couple of CPG clients and there are always new brands there. People are moving so much more into the online space now than ever before, a lot of which is due to Covid.

So there are just businesses popping up all the time similar to these website designer businesses. When there’s a new website designer, there’s probably gonna be a new virtual assistant that’s needed for the website designer. So I don’t think it’s oversaturated at all. I think there’s more competition, but I don’t think that it’s oversaturated.

I think that you have to find your niche, what makes you different, and why people want to work with you versus anybody else. And sort of sell that, but I think that there is a ton of opportunity.

Q: What would you say to someone on the fence about investing in an online course?

I think that your course paid for itself in like two websites and that was a year and a half ago. Since then, we’ve done like 30 or almost 40 websites. And so we’ve well recouped the investment and that was the hardest part for me with starting my business. If anything was over $10 it seemed like “how am I gonna pay for this because I don’t have any clients and I don’t have any money”.

So I had built up enough to be able to invest in the course and like I said, it was the best decision that I made for the business. There’s no way my website design business would’ve grown even a fraction of how it has, if I hadn’t taken that course. It would have taken way, way, way longer and then I would’ve been missing out on all this great business growth that I’ve seen since. So it really kickstarted the website design.

And like I said, the biggest thing was the investment of being able to make it and it has paid for itself 15 times over and it will continue to, as we continue to grow and as I hire on more designers to the team who are going to be following the same process. It helped us so much and it made it really easy now to be able to hire on people to be able to follow that because it’s so crystal clear as to what that process is. And then once the website design actually starts it makes it really easy for me and for the designer and for the client.

So for anyone that is on the fence about it – if it’s a monetary thing, don’t be worried about it. If it’s a “what you’re gonna learn thing”, I mean, I didn’t know anything before I started, so I learned all of the things. It’s not like I was a complete newbie to Squarespace, but I learned so much. I still have my notebook that is just packed with Square Secrets™ notes that I still refer back to, or I’ll still watch little sections of the modules if I am looking to design a certain thing a certain way or to just refresh something.

So from what I learned to what the investment was, it was one of the best decisions I’ve made for my business.

If you want to take the same path which Carly took then join us in the Profitable & Productive Web Designer Bootcamp.

The bootcamp is completely free and it is happening live so be sure to check the dates so you don’t miss out on this LIVE event as I am only hosting this once or twice a year!!

No matter if you have no web design experience, no coding experience, this bootcamp is going to show you the first steps to getting started.

And if you’re wondering, once you book all those projects how you really increase the value of them and get them to maybe like $11,500 a project, then definitely check out my past student Lindsay’s interview where she shares exactly how she’s doing just that!

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How Carly quickly went from new designer to successful agency owner