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Location Rebel Case Study: How to Build a Web Development Business

by Sean Ogle | Last Updated: August 14, 2013

This is a guest post by Tristan King, Location Rebel Graduate and Founder of Shopify Ninjas, a small web development business which specializes in Shopify and building Bilingual Ecommerce Stores.

I’ve known Tristan for a little over a year and a half.  He’s been a part of Location Rebel and even helped me out with the launch of a product last year.  His transformation has been amazing.  In the time since he joined he’s left his job, built a business that routinely does 5 figures a month, and traveled throughout South America for a few months with his wife.

He’s a perfect example of how to build skills and build a business on your own in a year or less.

With that, take it away Tristan!

“Why is no one talking to each other? Are they asleep?”

I thought deeply as I printed another corporate presentation, looking around the 11th-floor office space where I worked. A hundred people, all seemingly awake, but not a word. Blank, drained faces stared at their screens.

“I’m over this.”

I felt drained of energy and of motivation. I needed a change.

***

Fast forward 18 months, and I now have my own business which I can run from anywhere. I genuinely like doing my work every day. I probably work harder than I did in my corporate jobs, but I have so much more flexibility that it’s 100% worth it. After 4 months, I was able to replace my corporate income from my previous life as a usability consultant / web globalisation lead, and I now choose which projects I work on.

My goals: To be able to travel more, spend time doing things I enjoy, and spend more time studying foreign languages.

It’s not all unicorns and glitter, and I hustle every single day, but it’s worth it for me. A recent 3-month trip around South America to visit my wife’s family proved the concept. This post is a detailed look at five real-life steps you can take action on, towards becoming a Location Rebel.

Note: I’m far from finished yet, and am still learning every single day. I have a long way to go before I’m qualified to give ‘real’ business strategic advice, but I do feel I’m able to offer some suggestions – and hopefully, help you avoid some mistakes I made in my 3-year journey to build a business.

STEP 1: Find people you aspire to be like. Take ACTION to start becoming like them. Get your hands dirty and try things out.

No-one builds a business by daydreaming all day, or reading their Facebook feed endlessly. People who take action get stuff done.

Just like Sean found a mentor in Chris Guillebeau, I recognised Sean as someone I could look up to. He’d done some great things, had a positive attitude, and had worked hard to build a life on his own terms. I’d been reading his blog for months, inspired by the message and the journey.

While brainstorming and looking for opportunities to break away from the corporate lifestyle and start on my own path, I spied a job advertisement for an unpaid internship with Sean.

“YouTube Video Required”. This sentence intimidated me – no-one likes seeing themselves on film – but it was a great chance to learn and be involved in fun projects, via the Location 180 Internship. I grabbed the video camera, wrote a short script, and immediately and went down to the park to record a 2-minute snippet. After 13 takes, I was happy with it and sent it off with my application.

I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Internship, and worked with Sean on his Facebook Profile, Twitter Profile, and the launch of Hacking The High Life. I started learning from day one, and Sean was a fantastic mentor in helping me build my own business while I helped on some of his exciting projects. He also made fantastic suggestions on how I could build up my skills.

I also joined Location Rebel and started devouring the blueprints immediately. I studied the SEO blueprint, and the skills I learnt there helped in my current business, to rank above almost all developers for the term “Shopify” (I’m on page 2), and #1 for “Shopify bilingual” and “Shopify multilingual“. I also studied in-depth on Web Development, gradually improving my skills to the point where I was more knowledgeable than my clients – building Relative Expertise.

STEP 2: Find an idea that gains traction with REAL people, build up your knowledge, and work hard at getting your first 3 clients.

I tried over 10 online business ideas before I started seeing some traction with Shopify Ninjas. (Some of these failures are listed at the end of this post). Shortly after building a website for a hard-goods product, a friend asked me how I built one of my websites for a side project:

“That’s cool.. can you build me one?”. Sure.

“Oh, I need a website too”. Can do.

On came the light bulb. I’d been involved in the web for 10+ years, but had never taken on my own business. I’d built several websites for 5+ side projects, all of which had failed, but each one led me on to the next step or a new skill somehow.

I applied for development gigs on eLance, oDesk, and in forums. I created Google Alerts for key terms, and set up an RSS feed for job openings in my area (Shopify Development). There were more opportunities than I thought, and I applied to several.

I spent several Friday nights coding and researching and learning (nerd alert). I read tons of business books to devour as much as I possibly could.

Gradually, more clients started saying yes. My rate went from $55 to $60 to $80 and beyond, due to higher and higher demand and more items in my portfolio. Once I became qualified as an Official Shopify Expert, lots more work started coming in.

Specific suggestions:

STEP 3: Build Testimonials, Your Body Of Work & Be Memorable

Get Testimonials: After each contract – no matter how small – ask for a testimonial. Just sending a link isn’t good enough. Call them up, or ask them very politely via email.

Here’s a template you can use:

Hi [X],

I was just wondering, would you mind helping me out with a quick review if you have a moment? This is completely optional, but the reviews really help us as they go onto our public profile.

If you have 30 seconds, you can write a quick one here > [LINK]

In any case, I really appreciate you working with us – have a great one and chat to you later.

Thanks,

Tristan.

Post the testimonials on your website: NOT just in a page called “testimonials” where very few people will actively look – post them in and around your other content. This provides social proof. Stick them in your proposal documents too, so potential clients know you’re the real deal.

Showcase your work: A portfolio (writing, photography, websites, whatever you do) is essential. People want to see what you’ve done before they hire you. It also makes it easier for you to quote, because clients will reference work you’ve done and want to replicate it.

Be memorable: Why should your clients remember you and come back for more?

One way I (try to) do this is by sending hand-written, personalised thank you cards to every client at the end of every engagement. Whether it’s a $200 gig or a $5,000 website build, all clients get a thank you card in the snail mail.

This is cheap and it’s kind of fun too. People remember. Last year I sent postcards from Peru. Lots of clients commented on that. It’s not every day you get a Postcard of a Llama – people love it.

Postcards from Peru1Llama postcards are fun. (The grey bits are just blocking out addresses.)

STEP 4: Scale & Grow Sustainably, Without Killing Yourself

I wanted to grow my business sustainably, without sacrificing on the quality of our work or going insane from impossible workloads.

Even if you have lots of inquiries coming in, establish which kinds of clients are a good fit, and politely decline those that are not. This helps you set boundaries, establish a great base of clients, and keep your integrity & quality up.

For example: I like diving, so our company donates a small amount each month to an organisation that protects ocean wildlife. I once receive an inquiry to build a website selling hunting tags (e.g. “This deer was killed by John Smith on 01/01/2014”). I declined it, even though it could have been lucrative, because it didn’t suit my values – I couldn’t be supporting wildlife on one hand, and promoting hunting on the other.

I now have two fantastic developers – one in Sweden, one in the US – with whom I work very closely. They help me with development work. I manage the bulk of business development, marketing, and a lot of web development as well.

I hired both of these very smart, flexible gentlemen from within the ranks of Location Rebel.

I’ve just hired my first Virtual Assistant, which is a work in progress.

My suggestion is not to scale too quickly, or you’ll end up burning yourself out. Identify profitable, repeatable elements of your business, and gradually hire others to take care of them.

STEP 5: Combine business with passion.

As a Shopify Developer and bigtime foreign-language geek, I was frustrated with the lack of a way to build a bilingual website (i.e. a website in two languages). There were some options out there, but in my opinion they either didn’t work well, were too expensive to be widely scaled, or too complicated to set up.

To solve this problem for store owners – and to combine my passion of foreign languages with Shopify development – we created the first ever Bilingual Shopify Theme. This allows store owners to manage two langauges on their website (like this one, our demo store).

This was launched less than a month ago so it’s still quite new, and it’s been really fun so far seeing stores created in Russian, Spanish, French and Chinese – and the list grows every week

What’s next? I’m still working on all these points, especially 4 (scale) and combining passion and business (5). Shortly I’ll be taking a trip to Vietnam for part-business and part-holiday, continuing to learn French, and moving to South East Asia in January to enjoy the sunshine, beach, diving, food, and continue building the business.

For Fun: Some Failed Examples

For fun, here are some side projects I started (and failed at) before Shopify Ninjas started gaining traction and became my full time business. Each is accompanied by a skill I learned from the failure in parenthesis.

Wrap-Up & Key Takeaways

If you’ve come this far, here are the key points I’d love for you to take away from this article, and consider looking into for your business – real or future.

  1. You don’t need to be the expert in order to get started. You just need to be a relative expert.

    Do you know more than your clients? Can you help them get where they want to go, at a reasonable price that is also profitable for you?

    If so, you probably have enough to get started. You can build your ultimate expertise over time, but if you can help someone less knowledgeable than you, you can start. If you don’t feel like a relative expert yet, consider joining Location Rebel to build up on skills like Project Management, SEO Writing, WEb Development, Pay Per Click and a lot of othe real-life skills that are proven to have a market.

    Another great option for technical skills is Lynda.com – this has specific video courses you can take to learn almost any computer-related skill. I recently took a course on Lynda.com to learn how to use Twitter Bootstrap, which helped me build our Bilingual Shopify Theme.

  2. There are probably ways to reach your customers that you haven’t considered yet. How can you target where people are actually looking for your service or product?

    In my business, I know there’s still a lot of untapped resources and platforms I can continue building on. I’ve barely done any work on my social media presence up until now, and there are countless design-related blogs and website I could target.

    Where else can you find customers in your niche or business area? Are there job forums, gigs, eLance or oDesk categories, official expert portals or other website where people looking for your services hang out?

  3. How can you build real-life testimonials (not just from your mom) and showcase them to achieve a snowball effect of promotion?

    The more testimonials you have, and the more powerful they are, the more impact they’ll have on customers. They’ll help convince new clients that they should hire you.

  4. How can you build a passion area into your business?
    This can be easier said than done, and it might take some time. It took me a year to introduce my passion for languages into my web development business – but it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve done since I started Shopify Ninjas.

    Think hard about how your passion could relate to your business, and ask for feedback from real customers as to whether they think it’d be worthwhile.

***

Lastly – if there’s anything I (Tristan) or Sean can do to help, give suggestions or answer questions, feel free to post in the comments section below.

***

If you’re interested in the Bilingual Shopify Theme or have a question about Shopify, you can find Tristan at www.shopifyninjas.com.

Sean Ogle is the Founder of Location Rebel where he has spent the last 12+ years teaching people how to build online businesses that give them the freedom to do more of the things they like to do in life. When he's not in the coffee shops of Portland, or the beaches of Bali, he's probably sneaking into some other high-class establishment where he most certainly doesn't belong.
Build a Lifestyle Business Giving You Freedom You've Always Wanted

Our 6-part course gives you a strategy to start right now. Put control of your life back in your hands. Sign up below and let’s do this together.

By entering your email address you agree to receive emails from Location Rebel. We'll respect your privacy and you can unsubscribe at any time.