How Brad Scaled WebDevStudios To A World-Leading Agency

Brad Williams

Brad Williams

Read the transcript

Jan Koch  00:08

Welcome, everybody. Thanks for joining me at the WP Agency Summit. I’m here with Brad Williams, the co-founder, and CEO of Web Dev Studios, which is an agency I consider a role model myself and many of my friends do as well. So welcome, and thanks for taking the time, Brad. 

Brad Williams  00:24

Yeah. Thanks for having me. Excited to be here. 

Jan Koch  00:31 

Absolutely. For those living under a rock. Can you give us a little intro of who you are what you’re doing with WordPress space? 

Brad Williams 00: 39 

Sure. Yeah. So I’m Brad Williams, like you said, I founded a company called Web Dev Studios back in 2008. So we’re in our 12th year of business now. And essentially, we’re a WordPress focused Design and Development Agency. So we build WordPress sites design and build sites for from small businesses all the way up to you know, large enterprises like Microsoft among, amongst others. So yeah, I mean, we pretty much do anything and everything but our focus is WordPress. 

Jan Koch  01:02

That is pretty cool. And you’ve also co-authored some exciting books that taught me how to develop WordPress plugins in the beginning. So thanks for that work. 

Brad Williams  01:12

Yeah, I know glad to hear that. I wrote a couple of books in the professional WordPress series, the most recent professional WordPress plugin developments second edition, which just came out in June. So it’s just a few months old. 

Jan Koch  01:23

Yeah, quick plug, highly recommend that book. So go and check that out. But back to the Web Dev Studios, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk to you about how you started your agency and how you position it in a way that you can work with companies like Microsoft, Viacom, or all the other amazing names on the website. So can you dive a little bit into the first year of Web Dev Studios where the idea came from and how it all started? 

Brad Williams  01:52

Yeah, absolutely. So web dev studio is kind of unofficially started back in around 2001 ish. It was myself and my friend, Brian, we were both in the United States Marine Corps together. And we in the Marines, we actually built websites for the Marines, right. So some were public-facing some were internal on secure networks, but that’s essentially how I learned how we both learn how to build dynamic websites, right, like database-driven websites, which you know, back in 2000 2001 was it was around it was pretty prevalent, but it was, you know, newer for me to dig into I was really just familiar with like static HTML, things like that at that point. So kind of fast forward. Did the Marine Corps thing get out in 2003? We both kinds of went our separate way, started our own careers wanted to get a little more seasoned. We’re still pretty young, you know, I was 23 when I got out of the Marine Corps. So went got a job at a big e-commerce company in Indianapolis and over the course of a few years kind of rose up through the ranks. And again, just kept learning. Supporting a large e-commerce website, classic ASP SQL Server, you know, the good old school Microsoft stack, which I really enjoyed working on. And in around 2007 2008 is when we decided, hey, let’s circle back to the Web Dev Studios idea what we did back in the Marines is, it wasn’t even an official company, right? It was just a domain that we had we launched and we were doing kind of side projects for like, some local businesses to make a little bit extra money, but nothing really serious. So in 2007 2008, right, well, in 2007, we, you know, became an LLC, so we were like, alright, let’s make this official, right, let’s do this legit. But then 2008, when I left my job and dove in to do this full time, which, in hindsight was, is crazy, because, you know, you know, here in the States, we had a massive recession and yeah, you know, the markets were crashing, of course, at the time, you know, you’re as that’s just starting. Right when we were starting the business, you know, you don’t realize what’s happening. But it was scary, you know, especially for the first six months because not only did I, you know, leave a very cushy job to do this, which was a huge risk, but also, you know, I had a house, I was living in Indiana, I sold my house, I moved to New Jersey, to live with my friend. So I went from kind of having my own place my own space to like living in a loft, like a real kind of life reset, I guess. So I was all in, you know what I mean? And I think that is what helped. Because when you’re not all in, you know, you have a fallback you have, you know, you have a plan B, I didn’t have a plan B, you know, so this had to work, you know, and you hear stories like this on Shark Tank and stuff, and I think it holds true because when you don’t have that safety net, you’re going to do anything you have to do to make sure it works. So you know, we started out very slow coffee table startup. We didn’t have any funding I had. I literally had a couple of thousand dollars a month when I moved out there, that was it. And I still had a mortgage. I was trying to sell my house in the middle of a recession.  So yeah, so it was a great time. I really thought this out, you know, but um, you know, we just started, you know, getting into the open source at that time, you were kind of like trying to figure out, you know what direction to go cuz obviously, in web development, as you know, and I’m sure the listeners know, there’s just a lot of different things, a lot of different directions. You could go, right. We’re familiar with the Microsoft stack, ASP, and had evolved into Dotnet. You know, but the open-source was interesting to us. And it started we start hearing more about things like WordPress and Drupal, and other platforms. So we started kind of digging into it and playing with it a little bit and really enjoyed it. So we started just building sites using, you know, primarily WordPress and Drupal. But initially, our focus was really just around open source, right. So we kind of market ourselves as an open-source agency, like if you had an open-source, website, running, whatever, you know, we’ll figure it out right away. Which is kind of crazy too, because then we’re working on like Zen cart and, you know, Magento and like all sorts of different things that we just have to figure out as we go. So around, so that started working, you know, Jobs start coming in. We started blogging a lot with content getting out there on social media. So I got some leads coming in some people that were, you know, interested in working with us. We got a couple of clients early on that was great kind of long-term partners. And then in 2010, we really started to hone in on WordPress. At that point, I would say we were probably like 40%, WordPress, 40%, Drupal, and 10% like whatever other random thing people walk in the door with. But what we found is we really enjoyed working with WordPress more. And our clients really enjoyed WordPress more. It just was more intuitive and you have to remember, you know, back in 2009 2010, WordPress was not the WordPress that it is today. You know, not even close. No, yeah, no, it’s very much a blogging platform still, right. There weren’t custom post types. You know, many of the advanced features that we have today didn’t exist. It worked great for, you know, blogs for some basic content, but you had to get creative. You know, and that’s what we did. So we started really, we started building a few complex sites with WordPress and realize this actually works. We can do this, right? Like if it’s, we’d built a car website, you know, and so if today, you would have like a CPT a custom post type for your cars or inventory, maybe some taxonomies. Well, back then you couldn’t do that. So we had like blog posts, but if you had them in the car category, different things would happen, right? So that’s how we kind of got around that which is a little hacky, but it worked back then. So yeah, we started focusing on WordPress in 2010. Which anyone will tell you in business if you can find a niche find it right because it just makes you can get you can become the expert within that. That niche you can laser focus your marketing and your content on that. And that’s exactly what we did. Like we just started writing blog posts like every day about WordPress about what we were learning what we were finding and there weren’t many companies dedicated to WordPress at the time, the one agency that stands out was Crowd Favorite. That was one that I looked up to Alex King, you know, founded it and was running it at the time. So they were kind of the company I kind of looked at as I would like to be like them. You know. They were fully WordPress, the first one that I know of, at that size. So, so there wasn’t a ton of competition, right? So we were, you know, so then things really started coming especially when WordPress really took off around that, let’s say around the 3.0 release, or somewhere around there when custom post types came to be so it would just be kept growing, you know, like very organically didn’t have funding didn’t have like marketing budgets, you know, everything we did, we did things like this, like podcasts we did, you know, we would speak at events, we would write a lot of content we would, we ran the local meetup groups, you know, we started organizing local WordCamps just to get one because we were passionate about it. And we love the open-source but the secondary benefit is just its advertising. And it’s marketing, right? It’s getting our face our name out there. And that ultimately just helped us grow. And then you know, over time we start landing bigger and bigger clients. And then the first real big notable brand we landed was time. Time.com. We did a section on their website and that once you get kind of one big brand under your belt, it really helps open the door for other big brands. It kind of validates who you are and what you can do. So we’re very fortunate with that. And that kind of kicked the door open in terms of working with some of these larger companies. 

Jan Koch  09:31

It’s pretty impressive. So it’s kind of like that old hustle and grit mentality where you just have to put in the hours in the beginning to create all that content that you can then piggyback on. That’s a coffee machine. I apologize that disturbs. I think I leave this in though because it’s kind of like just two people hanging out which is kind of the vibe that I want to convey on the summit. It’s not like I want to put any of us on a pedestal. Just people who figured something out and then share the experiences. 

Brad Williams  10:04

Yeah. Absolutely. That’s it. That’s one of the great things about, certainly about the WordPress community. And I think just open source, in general, is this sense of the kind of giving back sharing knowledge? 

Jan Koch  10:15

Yeah. 

Brad Williams  10:16

And that’s honestly one of the reasons I think I was drawn to open source initiatives, because I learned a lot of the ways that I learned development was online, like through forums really, like I was a big meme, a really active member of the Sitepoint forums if you remember those. And that’s where I learned, like my classic ASP skills, because even in the military, I mean, at the time, and I’m assuming still today, they’re about five or 10 years behind technology, right? Like, you know, it’s 2000 2001 and we’re running like Windows NT, which you know, is like midnight, whatever, OS and like we’re just behind, right, so the things they taught us, or like Visual Basic six, which is, you know, doesn’t really help and Ada which most people have never even heard of Ada, ADA. Which is what is the technology, they used to actually program rockets back then, right. But they’re just teaching you concepts of programming like conditional statements and arrays and things like that. So I had to like self-train myself. And that’s I think, again, one of the reasons I joined open source because it’s just a very embracing community, people are very open to sharing their knowledge, to helping each other. And I just didn’t see that on the, you know, the Microsoft.net site, it didn’t seem as open or as embracing it. I don’t know if that was because of the proprietary nature of it or what but that was a big reason why we were drawn to WordPress as well.

Jan Koch  11:32

Yeah. And that’s also something that comes through with this event is all the speakers that are coming together here. Like, I never thought I would be able to pull this line of off but I just kept messaging people and I just am surprised by how many really busy CEOs and agency owners are taking time off their schedule to spend an hour here and do a quick interview with me. 

Brad Williams  11:56

So that’s the very approachable point. Yeah, very approachable, you know, there are people that, you know, I’ve early on that I kind of looked up to were like, you know, a little bit starstruck when I saw them in person. And there are still people like that today. And it’s, but it’s, it’s extremely approachable. You know, I like I know now like, I would have no problems walking up to someone, I don’t know, introducing myself and just saying, like, I’m a fan of their work or are talking, you know, shop or whatever. And, you know, I think it’s just, it’s just that open-source mentality, I think across the board, it really carries in a lot of different areas other than just writing software and releasing it right under the GPL or whatever. So,

Jan Koch  12:32

yeah, I agree. And I think that approach of just talking to people and trying to connect with people is also something that came through when I did my research about web studios is you put such a big emphasis on communication and on aligning with your client, understanding what they want in the project and also making sure that you are over-communicating and avoiding like misunderstandings and stuff like that. is that something that came naturally to you that you did from the very beginning? Or is that something that came as you got bigger and bigger clients?

Brad Williams  13:08

It came as we got bigger certainly. And it’s funny because like, if you’re a coder or really anything you do in your life, whatever your skill is, or whatever you’re good at, like, if you look back to how you were doing that a year ago or five years ago, it’s like embarrassing, right? Like, if you write code, you look at your code from a year ago, you’re just like, oh, like what? And I think the same can be a safer business, right? You look back and like how did we actually make this work? When we were like, literally at the beginning we were when we had hired our first employee and it was part-time we would send them a spreadsheet of tasks. Do the tasks and send the spreadsheet back and I’m like, how did that work? Like, you know, it’s hard to process now but you know, we are a fully remote company. We have been for about 10 years really around 2010 we didn’t you know, we started hiring outside of our area. So the fact that we’re remote, I think we’ve had to overemphasis communication, you know, internally for our company and with our clients just because we’re not in the same office, so there’s that immediately puts us in a challenging position of sorts, because we can’t just all huddled around a whiteboard real quick and kind of hash out a problem or, you know, or stand up and look over the cubicle and see if you know, Tom or whoever’s down there, and I can go talk to him about a question real quick. You know, like we have to be we have to communicate very clearly and very often. And it’s something we continue always working on improving and always getting better at you can always, there’s always areas for improvement, right. So, but it really just got I think the remote aspect of our business kind of really put a highlight on how important communication is. And especially for the clients, right, as you said, you want to make sure expectations are aligned. They’re clear in what they’re getting. You’re clear on what you’re doing. They know where you’re at every step in the process, and it just makes it, it makes it a much smoother process. So communication is absolutely key to our business.

Jan Koch  15:03

Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more. I would love if you could take a minute and walk us through how the projects with the bigger clients were compared to with your average small business client, if you were kind of like, outline one or two differences that agency owners striving to work with bigger customers need to be aware of.

Brad Williams  15:25

Yeah, so um, you know, we kind of classify our clients in a couple of different buckets, obviously, SMB is a small business, that’s going to be the smaller mom and pop shops and we have kind of the medium-sized clients. And then we have the enterprise side. Whenever you’re working with medium and especially enterprise, like there’s, there’s definitely a lot more things you need to consider. Every project we do even on the small business side, even though it’s usually a quicker process, we always start off with strategy, or discovery, or consulting, whatever you want to call it. But basically, we’re sitting down with the client and really mapping out not just what we’re building but how we’re going to build it, right? I always like to compare everything we’re doing to like to home renovations because I feel like we’re building a house because I feel like it lines up so well with that process. Like if you have a house built, like you’re making some decisions early on, but they’re generally very high-level decisions to get to the point where you’re signing an agreement that you want to proceed, right. So probably the style of the house, number of bedrooms, number of baths, maybe a generic layout of sorts, like you’re making these high-level decisions, then you sign that agreement, and then you move into a more specific stage of alright, like, what color door do you want? What type of doors do you want? What type of windows what type of blinds what type of carpet? You know, they’re really specific stuff and that’s what our strategy phase is sitting down and saying, okay, we know we’re building a house we know we’re building a website, but let’s talk about how we’re going to build it right? are we you know, we have this different types of content, are they going to be CPTs or not? Is there some other reason you know, some reason they shouldn’t be like, you have a contact form? Great. What are we using? What plugin are we using? Do you just want a contact form to email you or is there like a CRM and he has to push that data into you know? It’s Salesforce or some other system HubSpot, that we need to push that data into like making these really specific decisions. And we build out what we call a project plan, which is the blueprint. And that is the detailed plan that we give the development team. Implementing that, that step in the process has been huge, because it gets everybody on the same page. And it makes some really important decisions at the beginning of the project. Before that, we used to just take the proposal and say, here, build it, and it towards the end of the project. At the end of the project, the client gets in there and starts really kicking the tires, and there’s always something misaligned. They’re expecting something that they didn’t get something doesn’t work the way they wanted. There was always something because we weren’t getting those details upfront. We’re just making assumptions in certain areas and running with it and then those assumptions sometimes were wrong. So that’s been a biggie, especially on the larger side, especially the just the more complex the project, the more important it is to have those discussions upfront make those decisions and make sure clients part of that, like, it’s a very conversational process for us, we tell them, we’re your partner, we’re sitting at the table, we’re gonna work through this together. We want their input, we’ll bring our expertise, and we’ll figure out a good plan. Yeah,

Jan Koch  18:12

Sometimes these conversations actually go into business consulting from experience, because sometimes you bring up questions that the clients didn’t even think about. And then it’s almost like you explaining how the business works that the client is in.

Brad Williams  18:28

Yeah, exactly. You know, they come to us, or you know, anyone hires an agency because they’re looking for someone that is an expert in a certain field, right for us we’re looking for someone that’s an expert in WordPress. They need help either a redesign of their website, a brand new website, maybe a migration of a, you know, a different platform over to WordPress. So they’re coming to us because they want to hire the experts, and we bring that expertise to the table. So they may not they may know what they want, but they don’t know how to get there. Right. And that’s fine because we always like to focus on goals like what are the goals of the website? Are you trying to sell a product? Are you trying to share information about your products, and you know, it’s purely informational, is it for them to contact you like the goal for our website, our conversion is somebody filling out a contact form, and reaching out to start a conversation. That’s a conversion for us. So we’d like to talk about conversions. Start with those goals. And then okay, now we understand the goal of the site. Let’s work backward from there. How do we hit that goal? How do we get to that goal? How do we measure that goal? And that definitely helps the conversation flow too, because you can always every time there’s a question and you’re not necessarily sure the right direction to go, can always bring it back to those goals. Like, okay, if the goal is to get someone to convert and fill out a contact form, and you’re asking for this feature that has nothing to do with that, but it’s gonna take a significant amount of your budget. Let’s talk about if that’s the right way to prioritize that feature. Yeah, that feature is not helping people convert and fill out that contact form. Maybe we shouldn’t focus on it, at least for the first phase of the project. Maybe it’s a phase two, maybe they’re really passionate about it, and they want and there are unknown reasons why and we can talk about why and that makes sense, you know, Yeah, it’s really important and something that we’re, you know, we’ve gotten really good at it over the years. And again, it’s something we’re always improving, but it’s just made such a huge difference. One other little tip I’ll give to, and this is one that it sounds obvious when you hear it, but I think a lot of people don’t realize it is when you’re working with a larger company, right? You’re, there’s usually a single stakeholder that’s in charge on the client-side, right? There might be a lot of different people you’re working with, but there’s generally going to be one person that’s kind of on point. It’s good to understand, as their goals with the project too, because a lot of times, you know, maybe a director of marketing or a CMO or maybe a director or brand or something has been tasked with building a redesign this website has been tasked with hitting these goals of hitting these certain marks, and they’re going to be judged by the success or failure of that project. Meaning it could be a career-maker or career breaker for them right so if you know, knocking it out of the park and make a beautiful website and launch it and SEO traffic’s up and conversions are up and everybody’s happy. Like, like they that could be like a promotion for them. You know, it’s like it could be a career-maker. And on the flip side, if it’s an absolute disaster and traffic is, you know, cut in half and people can’t contact them or fill out the form. They could, they could quite literally lose their job over it. Right. So I think it’s important that you understand the stakeholder the point of contact, whoever that key personnel is, what is their goal with the project? What are they trying to accomplish? How did you know how does this fit in with kind of their career and the things that they’re because they’re, they have someone they have to answer to as well. Right. So that’s something early on we never thought about, wasn’t even in our mind. And then someday, somehow, it was brought up as probably a webinar or something like this. Somebody mentioned it, and it was just like a light bulb went off like oh, yeah, of course. Of course. That makes sense. Right?

Jan Koch  21:51

I have the same light bulb right now. 

Brad Williams  21:53

Yeah, and it was just like, of course, so just even understanding that and having that conversation with that client. They immediately feel wow, they actually they care more than just about the project, they actually care about me. And they want to make sure I, I’m doing good and that, you know, this is good for my career in my job. And that right there makes an immediate connection with that client as well though, look, this isn’t just a paycheck for us. We’re like your partner, we want to help you succeed, because ultimately if they succeed and do really well, why would they ever go anywhere else? Why would they ever work with anybody else, they’ll always come back to us. And it might be a couple of years down the road before we hear from them again, in terms of another bigger project, but they’ll always think about us always come back to us. They’ll tell people about us, which is the majority of the way we get, you know, really good leads and projects is referrals, you know, so it’s something to consider because it’s we’ve seen a lot of benefits. It’s just it’s the right thing to do. We want to help people, right? Yeah,

Jan Koch  22:48

yeah. I love that you’re bringing this up and especially with putting yourself into your customer’s shoes. That’s something that you hear all the time but digging so deep that you actually know, the underlying motivation of why the project even started in the first place and what it is not just the website or the redesign itself, but what the internal goals are for the company with this project. That’s something that’s super valuable. Thanks for sharing that.

Brad Williams  23:17

Yeah. 

Jan Koch  23:19

You mentioned that referrals are a big source of your leads, is that kind of how you got Time as your first bigger client as well, like had somebody introduced you to them? Or did you pitch them?

Brad Williams  23:29

No or so early on? You know we didn’t, most people didn’t really know who we were. So we weren’t getting like direct referrals. It was primarily through either search engines or Times specifically was from we met them at Wordcamp San Francisco at the time, which was a precursor to Wordcamp Us. So it was at you know, at the time WordCamp San Fran was like, I think the biggest WordCamp in the states which ultimately turned into Wordcamp US and that’s you know, still the biggest word camp in the states clearly, but you know, met them at a word camp again, like so a lot of these companies were sending their, their people to find, you know agencies or find developers or designers or whatever they are looking for, they would send them to word camps to scout them out, right. So, again, another reason why we wanted to, you know, attend word camps you want to speak at word camps you want to get involved with help desks like because you never know who you might run into who you might interact with. You might just be having a conversation with at the after-party and realize oh, like like and you’re not even talking business right? You’re just having a conversation like I like to, you know when I’m at after-parties or even at events like it’s not all business for me either. I like to just get to know people. But you might end up talking to somebody that you know, is out there shopping around and they remember that great conversation you had and you didn’t hard sell your product and then the next thing you know they’re reaching out to you. You know. The Tuesday after the event. Want to chat about a big project. So a lot of that was just getting out there, which, you know, right now, obviously, people can’t do that if a coach is unfortunate and you know, but necessary given the situation everybody’s in. But so that’s a little bit harder now, but it doesn’t mean it won’t come back. And I think just getting that personal, you know, that time and FaceTime and actually being at events and meeting a lot of different people can have a real impact on your business.

Jan Koch  25:25

Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. Is that something that if COVID wouldn’t happen would still be a part of your sales strategy or marketing strategy?

Brad Williams  25:36

Yeah, it is. It’s not as big as it was. Certainly early on. We were much younger, scrappier, I mean, we would go to a WordCamp and, you know, go like there would be like, you know, a couple of us from WDS, and we would like split a hotel room with just another three or four or five random people like I remember one time there’s like five or six of us in one hotel room like Jeffro from the WP Tavern and just a bunch of us like it because it was in New York and it was expensive, you know, and we didn’t have a lot of extra money back then we’re very young. And, you know, just had a few clients, I think there’s maybe three or four of us at web dev at the time. So we didn’t have a lot of money for like travel or anything like that. So like, we really just buddy up with people to save money, you know, and so with other people because we’re all kind of starting businesses or doing our own thing, so but, you know, going to events is important. Speaking of events is important. You know, the thing is, there’s so many now, yeah, there weren’t as many back then, right. There were some key ones in bigger cities, but it wasn’t every city like it is now. So now we generally stay a little more closer to home like I always hit the local WordCamp Philly meetup. I’ve gone to every WordCamp US and I intend to do so as well because that’s just you know, who’s who of people in the WordPress community. You can literally meet anybody you need to there. So it is still part of it. It’s not as big of a part as it was. We also have a much bigger name now, like back then nobody knew who we were, of course, now, most people have probably heard of us in some context when it comes around to WordPress. Most people not saying everybody knows us out there, but you know, we do have a name out there, we have a lot of content and presentations and, you know, code libraries and stuff we’ve shared. So most people are familiar in some sense. So it is a part of it, maybe not quite as big as it used to be, though.

Jan Koch  27:23

Interesting, um, what types of channels did you use to make your name? is it really just the sheer mass of high-quality content and talks that you’ve given that kind of brings you onto the radar of the bigger companies and puts you more in this authoritative position?

Brad Williams  27:40

Yeah, I mean, that’s it’s helped if you speaking is helpful. Because it just sets you as somewhat of an authority on a topic, right? It doesn’t mean you’re the smartest person on that topic in the world. But, you know, clearly, if you’re speaking about it on stage, there’s been some kind of vetting, you know, you’re hoping the right person to be talking about that topic at the event. So it can kind of validate you a little bit. Right. And that’s not only just to the in-person audience, but the recording that you have after of you speaking, right. And being at that event, and people tweeting about you and, you know, talking about you on Facebook or other social networks, you know, things like that. So, yeah, I mean, there’s definitely, there’s definitely that benefit to it. But, yeah.

Jan Koch  28:31

Is that something that the bigger audience or the bigger companies are looking for, like when they vet the agencies that they want to work with and they want to reach out to is that kind of their vetting process? the requirement that the agency they want to work with has to have a certain authority in the field shown by talks given or being featured on certain platforms? 

Brad Williams  28:54

I wouldn’t say it’s a requirement, but I think any little kind of list of accolades like that is our two-year benefit, right? So, again, kind of going back to on the larger side, if you’re working with the director of marketing, and they’re kind of like, hey, I’m looking at this company, I’m talking to five different companies. But this company kind of stands out because, you know, they’ve spoken on this topic, this specific topic that we’re trying to accomplish at a number of events, they shared examples of websites they’ve built that are very, very similar, you know, like, every one of these things is a good check is a check right in your corner. So I don’t think it’s it’s like, you know, the silver bullet, so to speak of like, Oh, yeah, if you’ve spoken, you’re definitely gonna land the job because that’s what they’re looking for. But I think every little thing you can add to that, that just shows we know what we’re talking about. You know, and here’s proof that that is going to work well in your favor. You mentioned the books earlier on obviously, that’s had an impact too. You know, I did you know I wrote the books. One I enjoyed, I wanted to do it as a challenge to myself because I’ve never written a book before, and a technical book at that. But I also knew it would be marketing, right? Like, I’m not naive to the fact that having books out there with my name on it, and my partner Lisa saving Wilson is even as, like way more books than me because she does all the WordPress for dummies books. But having our names on books, I mean that right there instantly validates who we are, and what we do and what our company does. And I know that’s not something just anyone can go out there and do but those types of things that can help you even potentially stand apart could be the deciding factor when they’re comparing you to another agency or another business out there that they’re talking to.

Jan Koch  30:42

Yeah, that certainly is the point kind of like proving your authority and more than one way and more than just having a showcase of your previous projects on the website. Definitely. 

Brad Williams  30:54

Yeah. 

Jan Koch  30:56

One thing I also wanted to chat with you about is kind of the way you grew the team of the Web Dev Studios. And that’s you mentioned already and started as a company of two. And then I think I read online that you hired the first people already in the first year of the agencies. So can you talk a little bit about how that hiring process work?

Brad Williams  31:17

Yeah, absolutely. So initially, myself and Brian, we started the company, we’re both, you know, what I would consider as a back end developer now, right? Like we were in the zeros and ones we write code, but we didn’t, couldn’t necessarily make it look nice. We weren’t designers. I could hack CSS, but I certainly wasn’t following the rules using a lot of important tags and things that would make people cringe, and certainly not cross-browser compatible, I’m sure. But it looked good in the browser I was in. So the first thing we knew like and this wasn’t on day one, but we knew like our immediate need was someone that had some design capabilities because we didn’t. So again, having really limited funds, we weren’t able to just go out and hire somebody. So what we did is we actually worked with a local community college and had interns. So we had a small little office when we first started. And we had some various interns come, you know, semester at a time and work with us, and they would get credit. And, you know, they would obviously help us with the design work. We had a couple different, you know, we’re looking for interns that were good at design. I want to say we had maybe four or five different interns. And then our last intern’s name was Chris Cochran. And he was great. He was really really good, really talented, just really like, like young and hungry to learn, you know what I mean? Like those people that you can just tell like a really just, they want to absorb everything and learn everything about web development, design, and design principles and all that good stuff. And he really had that passion. So as soon as he graduated, we hired him part-time, but he was our first hire. And you know, he filled that, that need that we had. So was purely just an hourly, part-time position, you know, because that’s all we could do at the time. And it worked great for him because it gave him some flexibility. He was fresh out of college, he could get, you know, some real-world experience at a company even though we’re very young, it’s still experienced, it’s still something to put on your resume. Right? So. So he was really happy with the opportunity as well. And then we just, you know, kind of grew from there. We hired our second hire and Chris now actually, it’s cool to see people that were with us early on, and kind of where they’ve gone in their career path. like Chris now works at the NBA and he’s been there for years now helping with all their WordPress initiatives at the NBA, which is super cool. And we work with the NBA so we’re still kind of working together but now he’s like the client, which is interesting. And then our second hire was Scott Bassguard, which again is he’s pretty well known in the WordPress community as well. And he’s he has moved to Norway since but, you know, runs a lot of Wordcamps and meetups and stuff and has over the years. So a back end developer, but really again, Just grew organically like as the work was there like early on there was enough to do like I said, I would send spreadsheets to these guys right and say, this is what I need, that’s what I need. Just knock out these easier tasks for today, and then they would submit them back with hours, and that’s what we would pay. So, you know, we just kind of kept growing as the work crew, you know, was more projects are coming in the door, we would, we would hire more people, but it was very kind of slow organic growth, you know, we grew as the work required it. And we grew really smartly with intention. And, you know, it’s, it helped us scale up to, you know, 40 plus people, you know, over the years and maintain a really nice stable size and a great, great team. So, we just started slow and small and made sure that we were really filling those gaps that we identified that we knew we needed to fill to be a really good agency.

Jan Koch  34:55

I think that’s a really, really important really solid approach is to not rush into it and hire like five people at a time, not knowing how to keep them busy. I’ve certainly been there in the past that I had too many VAs at that time. So freelancers overseas, but still more than I could keep busy, but is it more like, you know, the projects are coming in so you’re hiring or is it like, I have the project right now and I don’t have the manpower to deliver it properly.

Brad Williams  35:25

I mean, it’s the classic chicken in the egg scenario all the time, like do you hire on the hopes that you end a big project? Or do you hire after so you’re either reacting to, you know, you’re either being proactive or reactive, and there is no perfect answer to that question. The nice thing is when you’re bigger when you’re you know, you have 20, 30, 40 people, it’s not as severe of a concern, because now if we’re gonna bring on a product that needed like, 10 full-time resources, and we’re pretty booked up, that would be a problem, right? But Yeah, more people you can juggle some things around you can you know, squeeze a project in or, or you can have some clear indicators like, hey, we’re pretty, you know, we’re 80% and 90% of capacity, we should start looking. And maybe you just get the interview process going and get ready to make an offer contingent on maybe landing that big deal. It’s very hard. It’s very hard to juggle and get it exactly right, there’s more than likely either you’re gonna hire a little bit too late, you’re gonna hire a little bit too early, but you kind of have to know that going into i. If you have funding and stuff then maybe it’s not a big deal to get people and get them on board to get them really familiar with the systems and have them you know, work on internal stuff for a month or two but when you’re small and scrappy like you don’t have the money to do that. So there’s no perfect answer. I Oh, it’s the chicken in the egg-like what do you do first? You know, do you hire and hope you get the project but what if you don’t know what are you gonna do? So it’s a tough one to answer but that’s kind of, you know, how we approach

Jan Koch  36:55

I think that just part of the lessons you learn when building an agency is that sometimes you fall flat on your face, but with the ideas that you have and the actions that you take in terms of building a team, maybe or pitching a project that doesn’t work out in the end, and sometimes you just have the golden touch and it works out just fine. Is there a kind of like one or two very important lessons you learned along the way that you would say stand out in terms of growing Web Dev Studios?

Brad Williams  37:28

Yeah, I mean, I think the strategy one definitely stands out, because that was kind of a biggie, and we can look back to any project that really went sideways or didn’t end well. And 99.9% of the time, it was because, you know, the client expected one thing and we delivered something else. You know, and strategy would have identified that early on, even if it meant the project wasn’t going to move forward for whatever reason, maybe like they expected something it was gonna cost way more than what they actually invested. At least we would identify that at the beginning versus at the end. Right? So that’s a big I think, you know, the other ones, like, kind of listen to your gut, right? Like, and I know, you know, you probably hear that a lot. But you know, listen to your gut, like when you’re talking to leads, potential new clients, you’re talking about their project and how you might be able to work together, like remember that they’re interviewing you, but you’re also interviewing them, right? Like you’re and I understand sometimes you might not be in a position where you can tell someone no, you might need to take the job on just for whatever financial reasons or something like I get that but, you know, generally speaking, if that’s not the situation, look for red flags. Because, you know, look for how do they treat you on calls, you know, how are they coming to you and want to have a good conversation and help figure out the ways to get to good solutions or are they kind of, you know, telling you what you’re going to do? You know, because ultimately, you know, you can really identify some of these red flags early on and then because you never quite know how someone’s going to act once they give you money, you know, and you see this more on the kind of small to medium scale and less on the enterprise because the enterprise is working with financial departments and budgets and things like that. But when you get like small to medium-sized in and you’re working with the people that are literally pulling the money out of their savings account, to pay you, you know, those people are the ones that gonna be ultra engaged, because it is that important to them that they’re getting their money’s worth. And I get it right like even if it’s a couple of thousand dollar website, that’s a lot of money. Like I would be the same way if I’m giving you $2,000 $5,000 I’m going to make sure I’m getting what I paid for. But look out for those red flags because if the conversations just don’t feel right to you, before you sign a contract, like to think that relationship is going to improve after you sign a contract and they start paying you money and there are deadlines and deliverables. Or deteriorate, it’s more than likely going to get worse. So look out for those red flags. You know, they may not always be super obvious, but sometimes they will be like, very obvious, you know, waving in your face bright red lights flashing like this is not a good idea. And listen to that, because there’s nothing worse than not listening, having those concerns saying, you know what, I’m just overthinking it, then they get into it. And then at some point, you’re like, yeah, I should listen to myself, because this is not good. Do you know? Yeah, you’re in a bad situation that might be tough to get out of. So, yeah, the warning signs, interview them and just make sure you get a good feeling that’s going to be a good partnership. Do you know?

Jan Koch  40:28

Yeah. The biggest red flag for me personally is if somebody does not respect the processes, so for example, when I tell them to send me an email, and they demand going on a call with me, that’s an immediate No because I know it won’t get better over time, just as you said, 

Brad Williams  40:45

Like I text somebody and then they call you it’s like, what are you doing now? Yeah, like respond to my text. Don’t call me What are you doing?

Jan Koch  40:52

Yeah, exactly. So we’re coming into land, unfortunately, what I would love to talk about one last topic. And that is your personal journey as being the CEO of Web Dev Studios and juggling so many projects because you also have plugins and maintain, and all the other projects that you are on. So I would love to know-how from the beginning of Web Dev Studios to now, your personal development process was. Like, what did you have to learn as the agency grew?

Brad Williams  41:26

Yeah, um, yeah, that’s a great question. You know, I think I definitely stumbled along the way like I’m not you know, I didn’t go to I didn’t graduate college. I never got a degree. I did some classes but I never finished you know, I did, I went the military route and which I’m thankful for because it really instilled some values in me that I still hold on this day, you know. And I think that just having that mindset of, you know, being in the Marines kind of always pushing forward always persevering, regardless of how bad it gets. It’ll never get as bad as that was some days. You know, I did a tour in Iraq, you know, for the war. So it kind of just put everything in perspective after I went there because I realized that even the frustrations that, you know, we might run into on a day to day basis, they don’t. It’s all solvable problems, right. It’s all things that, you know, at the end of the day, it’s not the end of the world. You know, we’re building websites for people. So, I think just having that kind of core foundation from the military has always helped guide me. I’ve definitely grown I had to grow over the years into this kind of CEO role because early on, I was a developer, I just, I built websites, you know, and I don’t know exactly when it happened, but it was probably around 2011 or 12. When, you know, I really had to step back and like have a conversation with myself that like you either need to, like be a developer or you need to, you know, be a CEO and run this company. And you can’t be at the front lines writing code for projects, you know. And I had to ask myself if I was okay with that, because I was a developer for you know, 12, however many years at that point, One of the 12 years, so, and I was okay with that because I like working with clients. I like trying to solve complex problems, you know, through conversation strategy, and, you know, talking to clients about what we can do, and just really knock it out of the park and seeing how happy they are when we’re done. And we hit all their goals and you know, and they’re getting a promotion or whatever. So, so I had that conversation said, yep, I will back away from development. I’m going to run this company. You know, it’s something that I’m always continuing to work on because again, I don’t have, you know, the traditional training that you might expect from someone that runs an agency. I didn’t, you know, don’t have an MBA, I didn’t go to business school. I read a lot of stuff online. A lot of articles online. I’ve read some books over the years. more of an article reader than a book reader. So, you know, listen to podcasts and stuff, I’m always trying to improve on how I can, can help guide this company. I mean, one of the things that are really, you know, you mentioned kind of our different brands with maintenance like to support maintenance and plugins are like our product side of the house. But the one thing that’s really helped over time is when we put together a leadership team, so we essentially have a director of each department and, and that is, that is the crew that is really running this thing. That’s the crew that’s making this thing work, right. You know, they’re, they’re the ones in the day to day making sure the teams are getting the work done, making sure clients are giving us what we need, you know, making sure you know, support and update and maintenance and stuff is all working and humming smoothly. So having that team in place and it’s not something we could have ever done on day one we had to grow to get to that size where it made sense. But having that leadership team, the directors have really helped because it gives some hierarchy, you know, to the team to the company. It puts more defined lanes in terms of what people need to focus on, you know, and also helps myself and Lisa just in what we do, because we know who to go to when there are issues or we have questions or we need to resolve a problem, like, we work together as a group. So that’s been super helpful, because it’s allowed me to get out of more of the day to day and focus on the big picture and try, you know, steering the ship, if you will, towards, you know, towards our growth and our goals and things of that nature. So, but yeah, it’s been a fun, it’s been a fun evolution, I guess, if you will, of kind of starting out as just a coder. And working up to where I’m at. Now, I think it’s something that a lot of developers at some point, even if it’s not to, you know, run a company or be the CEO, but a lot of developers at some point have to make the decision of, you know, as I grow in their career, like, do I want to just write code all day? Or do I want to start progressing into more of a manager role? 

Jan Koch  45:52

Yeah. 

Brad Williams  45:53

And it doesn’t mean they won’t write code, but when you start, when you become a manager, you start being in charge of more people, there’s less time for that. doesn’t mean you won’t write it, but there’s less time. So, and some people are great at that. And some people don’t want to do that. And that’s fine. But at some point, you’re gonna have to sit down and kind of, you know, really talk with yourself and just understand where do I want to go from here? Where do I want to be in five or 10 years? Do you want to be writing code? Maybe you do. And that’s great. Or maybe you’re like, you know what, I just want I do want to get promoted, I do want to start running the team. You know, I do want to start going up the ladder, you know, within the company or agency that I’m at. So yeah, maybe a bit of a long answer to your question, but

Jan Koch  46:32

a very important one. And it resonates with me, especially the last part of deciding where you want to go. I had to make that decision around half of a year ago when I knew that I would be dead by now. So I have a 12-week old daughter now with my wife. 

Brad Williams  46:50

Congratulations. Yeah. Nice. 

Jan Koch  46:51

Thank you. That shifted everything. 

Brad Williams  47:03

You know, that’s a great point, too. My son’s four and yeah, when he was born. Obviously, it’s, you know, it’s as you are well aware, because you’re right in it is chaos the first few months, just trying to figure out, especially working from home, like how are we juggling this, you know, this, this tiny human, that’s now our responsibility. But that also, I think that I’m glad you brought that point because that puts a lot of that puts everything in perspective. You know, having a kid changes your entire outlook on life and changes your entire priorities. Like it’s no longer me about me, you know, it’s about him. And I’m sure you’re the same way with your daughter, right? Like it’s, I’m always thinking about him and his future and what am I doing to set him up to be successful and even though he’s four like, you know, it’s you don’t know until you have kids and I didn’t know until I had a kid but it really it does change. It changes you for the better, you know, so it’s a great point. It absolutely affects your business and everything you do in life.

Jan Koch  48:05

Yeah, I agree. And I think one lesson maybe for all those people who don’t have kids are watching this is trying to think about what will happen if you cannot spend more than an hour or two on your business for a foreseeable time, so that I would say at least six months, maybe even more with a newborn, and try to set up the business that it can still operate. That for me was the biggest change. I now can spend way less time doing these agency summits and doing other stuff in my business because I have processes in place and I have a fantastic VA now and that’s in itself is for me the first part of not being in the trenches anymore and delegating work and just as he said, focus on the bigger picture focus on the vision and execute the high-level tasks. Yeah, rather than figuring out every nasty bug on a website. 

Brad Williams  48:45

Yeah, that’s another you know, great point about and you know, for us is that leadership team, right like I’m not in the day to day if I’m away for a day, the goal is nothing at this company should be affected at this point. It really isn’t right like I can go away for you know, I’m going to be on vacation soon and take a week off

Jan Koch  49:04

It’s unheard of for agency owners.

Brad Williams  49:06

Yeah. And again, that’s also to the testament of having a really amazing partner, right? Like, I know, friends that run agencies solo, and I tell them, I think they’re crazy. Like, I don’t know, I don’t know how you could do this without having at least what we do. And the path that I’ve been on without having a really solid partner, like, you know, I have with Lisa, just to be there to support each other, even if it’s to take time off or even if it’s just to like, you know, vent to each other and have really open and honest conversations as owners of a company. You know, that for me has made all the difference. 

Jan Koch  49:39

Yeah, fantastic point. And I think that that’s a great way to wrap up this conversation because I do want to respect the schedule that we set for this time. Um, thank you so much, but I am blown away by what I just learned myself, and I hope the attendees got value out of this. Where do people get in touch with you?

Brad Williams  49:59

Yeah, thanks for having me. This has been a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to seeing all the other presentations as well. So you can find our company at webdevstudios.com or on Twitter or Facebook, all the other social networks. I’m @WilliamsBA on Twitter. I’m pretty active. Hit me up if you ever have questions. Want to chat? Looking for resources more than happy to help out. And yeah, I mean, really, I’m everywhere as WilliamsBA. So I definitely appreciate the opportunity. And yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing some of the other talks. You got a pretty good lineup here.

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