How I built the business I love

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’m attending an online “Love your Business” seminar hosted by Lindsay Dollinger (lindsaydollinger.com). It’s great content, and it’s got me thinking that “Yes, I am indeed still in love with my business.”

Today I’m going to tell you the story of how I started my business and how I’ve stayed in love with it after 14 years.

How it started

I started Blue Lake Websites in late 2009. From 2002-2009, I was employed with the Dickinson County News in Spirit Lake as their managing editor. I loved that job too. The pay wasn’t great and the hours were pretty awful, but I loved it. I loved my community. I loved writing. I loved making a difference.

I always said that when any job became “just a job,” I would move on. Eight years in, I knew it was time. I was ready for my next career.

Finding the next step

I started wondering what my next career looked like. While driving home from my parents house one summer night, it hit me. (I also hit a deer with my car that evening, so I joke that it didn’t hit me at that exact moment, but two things “hit” me on that drive.)

I knew what I was going to do. I was going to start a website development business.

I looked at my skills. At the newspaper, I’d grown pretty good at graphic design, content management, and communications. I know how to conduct interviews and tell stories. I don’t mind sitting at a computer all day, and I learn new computer skills pretty quickly. I was a business administration major in college. I always knew I was going to start/run my own business someday.

I looked at my connections. I’d been working as a newspaper editor for 8 years and I knew a lot of people. I hoped those people would help spread the word about my new business, and I prayed some of them would take a chance on me and become clients.

I thought about my budget. This one was tricky. I didn’t have much in savings. I was single, with a mortgage, a car loan and some school loans yet. I needed a business that didn’t require much starter capital, and I needed something I could do from home.

I considered my risks. If I was lucky, I had enough money in my savings account to pay my bills for 2 months.  I was leaving a prestigious job and another job in journalism would likely require a location change. I would feel like a failure if my business didn’t succeed. I weighed the risks, and I took the leap. I consider starting this business one of the bravest things I’ve ever done, and I’m so glad I took the risk.

Preparing for a new career

I’d dabbled in website design in college to build one website (for my hometown, the City of Alta). I’d worked a bit on the newspaper’s website updating content. I’d designed page layouts for newspapers long enough to believe I could DESIGN a website, but the design is only part of the project. I had some things to learn.

I found that Iowa Lakes Community College (now a client) offered courses in website development. I enrolled in August 2009 with the intention of taking classes part time for a year and then starting my business summer of 2010. I started cutting down my expenses. I cancelled cable TV. (This was before all the streaming services existed. I was going to cut that expense and focus my time on learning these new skills.) I worked full time and attended classes for a semester.

I built websites for some friends and family. By December, I was ready for clients.  I started meeting with potential clients about their projects.

Things had changed at the newspaper too… I didn’t think I wanted to stick around until summer anymore.

So I decided if I could book 4 clients, I’d quit my job and officially start the business. I booked my fourth new client by mid-December, gave my notice the next day and officially became a full time website developer in January 2010.

Naming my business

This one isn’t really a big story, but I like to share it because it was the first time my husband hinted he wanted to marry me. I was kicking around using my name in the title of the business, when he said “I wouldn’t use your last name, it’s probably going to change.” (Yep, you know the rest of that story. I married him!)

Anyway, I settled on Blue Lake Websites. “Blue Lake” because I lived in Okoboji, home of West Okoboji, rumored to be one of only 3 “blue water lakes” in the world. I also knew I wanted to have the word “websites” in my business name because it was a clear indication of my business focus.

Building my business

As I hoped, many of my Iowa Great Lakes connections took a chance on me to build their websites. For the first year, I focused on learning everything I could and working as hard as I could.

I discovered WordPress about a year into the business, and I knew right away I was in love with that too. You can read more about my love of wordpress on my blog post titled “Why WordPress?”

Since my first day, I’ve made an effort to be great at customer support. Which not only brings clients back for redesigns and new features, but has also grown my business with very little marketing.

I aimed to get four new clients a month and succeeded most months. I exceeded my newspaper salary in year #1. Four is still a magic number for me in sustaining my business. However, the goal has changed to “new projects” instead of new clients, since many of my existing clients add to the project count too.

Staying in love with my business

I’m now over 14 years into owning and loving this website business I’ve built.

How do I stay in love with it? I have a few tips for that:

  • Set boundaries. In the first couple years of business, I worked nights and weekends just like I did at the newspaper. Once established, I decided if I was going to continue to love my business, I needed to set hours that I loved to work. I now work normal office hours – typically 8/9 to 4/5 on weekdays. I don’t work nights or weekends. I take Fridays off whenever I can. I turn off notifications on my phone when I’m not at work. These are hard boundaries to set initially, but they’ve let me stay in love with what I do.
  • Be picky about who you work with. I’m a one person business who can’t easily handle the support needs of larger organizations, so I don’t take on those clients. I hate building shopping carts, so I don’t. When I’m “busy enough”, I only say yes to projects that sound fun. I’m willing to tell a client we’re not a good fit.
  • Embrace variety. If you look through my portfolio/case studies, you’ll see there are many types of websites I build. As much as I love city government websites, I wouldn’t want to do only those. Conservation/nature websites are my absolute favorite, but they might not be if it was all I offered.
  • Know what makes you happy and pursue it in your business. For me, happiness is in having the time to do what I want in life. Day to day at work, that means I keep to the hours I’ve set for my business. Big picture, it means I spend my time mindfully – in both work and life. It makes me happy to empower people, so I focus on building websites that are easy for my clients to manage.  It doesn’t make me happy to manage a staff of people, so I’ve kept my business small enough that I can run it without staff.

This Valentine’s Day, I hope you can write a little love letter to the business you love as much as I love mine. If you don’t love the business you’re in, maybe it’s time to build the business you can love. (If it needs a website, I can help with that part!)