How my Squarespace website design business started, in a Mississippi swamp
My web design business started in a rather odd place. It all began in a swamp in Mississippi.
Unusual place for a tech business to start? Indeed.
While completing my Masters at Ole Miss (in something that was completely unrelated to web design and online business) I went on a class trip.
We visited a local non-profit camp that educated the youth of Mississippi on environmental education. Having spent plenty of time in class speaking about the challenges organizations face, it was our goal to learn about their organization, and their real-world challenges of running a non-profit.
We started our trip by meeting the non-profits Director. A true outdoorsmen, he sported a full beard, long hair to the shoulders, along with a plain t-shirt, bathing suit shorts and a pair of Chacos.
He set off fearlessly into the forest and down to the swamp with our class trotting behind. He spoke with confidence of the trees and animals in the forest, and knew his way perfectly through the forked paths down to the swamp. He spoke about the challenges facing the environment and stories of the children who would enter the camp having never gone fishing before, or seen a turtle up close.
First, we were to participate in some activities the camp director would normally take kids through to get an idea of what they did, and then we would chat about the challenges facing the non-profit.
Down at the swamp, off came the Chacos and the long hair was tucked behind his ears. He waded into the murky water, and pulled out a massive net.
‘Got one!’ He exclaimed.
He pulled a large turtle out of the net, freeing each wiggling limb out one at a time. The turtles legs squirmed in slow-motion, and he held the turtle up for us all to see with a great sense of satisfaction. His eyes were wide with excitement over his catch.
The Director had a clear passion for his work, a broad knowledge of the outdoors, nature, and a thorough education on the environment. He lit up speaking about the camp, and the low-income kids that would come visit, and experience being surrounded by nature for the first time. He showed us the cabins, and buildings, all authentic summer-camp style with lopsided hand painted signs, nestled between the bushes.
After sitting down at a picnic table with a thorough knowledge of what the organization did, we had to get to our assignment. What were the challenges facing the organization? What were their goals? What plans did they have to move their organization forward?
Their biggest problem?
'It’s a bit embarrassing, we just have one page, and it looks terrible. But we have no idea how to fix it or update it. We put a lot of money into our nature-bus-on-wheels so we can go visit schools, and bring nature to the lower-income students who don’t have the few dollars to come visit us at the camp. We can’t afford a professional website designer, but we also run into problems when we go to market ourselves. We visit the school events to meet teachers and tell them about our program, but when it comes for them to find out more about us later, we’d rather people don’t visit out website, so we try to just give our phone number. Of course, we’re often out here in the forest, not at the camp office desk. We have a lot of stuff we’d like on our website; photos of our cabins and the camp, canoes, a calendar of events, and price details. But we just haven’t been able to figure out how to do it.'
My ears perked up at this.
I had designed websites before, and just for fun had redesigned my (then) travel blog a zillion times.
I enjoyed creating sites, and knew I wanted to get into web design, but I didn’t know where to start, and if anyone would take me seriously in a field I had basically no background in.
I had no portfolio, how was I supposed to get someone to buy from me, when I had hardly any past work to show them?
My degree was completely unrelated. I took a few tech classes in high school and a grand total of one tech class in 6 years of university.
I knew I had skill in web design, but how would I prove that to anyone else with no credentials, no portfolio and no related education?
I had legitimately toyed with the idea of starting my own design studio, researched other studio’s that would be competitors and putting together an excel sheet of all of their offerings to help me determine what might go in my future design packages. But I didn’t have the confidence and pull the trigger up until that moment.
“I can help you with that!” I said.
It was a perfect opportunity. I believed in their cause, I could see their passion for what they did and what an amazing organization they had.
I needed to build a portfolio, and test out my web design process. I wanted feedback from a client about how good the quality of my work was, as well as if my process and customer experience was satisfactory before actually taking on a paying client.
I wanted to test out doing a project to see if I could actually make it happen, or if I really was in over my head in some field I had no professional experience in.
Together over the next couple weeks we created a website they could truly be proud of, and they now show off with complete confidence.
And that’s how my web design studio started, in the swamp of Mississippi.
Over the years having worked with clients all over North America and Europe, from different fields and backgrounds, I’ve found that the challenges the non-profit faced are the same for a lot of organizations and entrepreneurs.
The non-profit dreamed of a site that properly represented their organization and showed it in the best light. They were overwhelmed and confused on how to make a modern website. They wished to be able to understand and update their website over time, and have someone to walk them through the process, in non-tech terms.
Each of my clients have been wonderfully talented in their field. From teaching kids about the environment while knee-deep in the swamp in Mississippi, to taking exceptional natural light wedding photos that perfectly capture a moment, to lifting up peoples spirits in the hardest of times with life-coaching services.
But just because someone is exceptional in their field, doesn’t mean they have the knowledge or desire to create a website for themselves. And I get that.
It’s a pleasure for me to to see my clients passion for what they do, and I consider myself fortunate to get to be a part of their business, by helping them with the tech side of stuff that is a necessity for every successful business today.
I’m so thankful for that field trip to the Mississippi swamp, because it presented the opportunity I needed.
After seeing the confidence I built in those environmental non-profit staff, and joy they felt with a website that truly allowed them to spread their message, I knew that even with 0 traditional IT education background, I needed to start my business. I had a skill, and other people needed it.
I learned that I can serve my clients in a way that those with IT degrees can't. I’m able to relay information without confusing tech-talk. I can help the small business owners or entrepreneurs or non-profits in a way a large agency or developer can’t. These organizations don’t need or want a $20,000 custom developed online space, but they do need a modern website that they’re able to take over and be confident themselves.