Advice for Starting a Business That Lasts

7 years ago, a student asked how to start his own business. Here's what I told him and how he responded last week.

Until earlier this month, I had forgotten about receiving this email more than seven years ago:

From: Kemari
Sent: Sunday, February 01, 2009 5:10 PM
Subject: Advice

I'm Kemari. I'm in high school and i'm looking to start a web design business focused on beautiful, standards-driven websites. I wanted to ask if you had any advice on how I could do that, or any resources that helped you get started. I recently saw your site on a gallery and it's amazing. I love the work you're doing. Thank you so much. =)

At that point, Viget was nine years old with a staff of 38 people -- reasonably successful.  I wasn’t in high school when we started, but I was in college when I started doing the freelance work that laid the foundation for Viget.  In the mid-90s, it was difficult to find and contact people for advice, and that made many things more challenging.  So, Kemari’s email resonated with me.

By the time we incorporated Viget Labs, LLC in 1999, I was 2 years out of college and just 24 years old.  We struggled through our first few years in large part because of my lack of experience.

Early days of Viget in Cindy’s basement trying to figure it out.

As much as I could, I tried to glean insights from others -- friends, clients, and peers with more wisdom and know-how than me.  While I occasionally received great advice, and I’ll always appreciate the mentorship others provided, looking back, I mostly learned by doing.  Trial and error, then studying the error and avoiding it the next time.  Practice and progress.

This was my quick response to Kemari seven years ago:

On Sun, Feb 1, 2009 at 5:49 PM, Brian Williams wrote:

Hi Kemari.

Thanks for your email.  My advice is pretty simple: do whatever you can to do work.  The key to starting out is having people who will vouch for you as being dependable for producing high-quality work on time and within whatever budget is agreed upon.  You won't get those references unless you start doing work, and there's no way to fake them -- that's why they're so valuable.

So, I would look for projects you can do for people at no cost to start, just to show what you can do.  Use those to build up a portfolio of work on your own web site.  They'll also provide practice so you can get better over time.  You can learn everything about web design on the web (using blogs like viget/inspire) -- but growing as a designer takes talent and practice.

Then keep an eye out for project opportunities on sites like Craig's List, and just pitch your services.  Use LinkedIn to grow a network of contacts and don't be afraid to ask happy clients to recommend you on there.

As you do more work, raise your rates, go after higher-end clients, and build up a reputation.  Don't hire people until you absolutely have to.  Don't get office space or buy any assets other than the minimum that you need to do your work (i.e., a computer) until you really have to.  Go to college and have a backup plan.

Whatever you do, just do great work and work harder than everyone else -- that's it!

Good luck!

Brian

I wrote this in the context of starting out, but I remember 2009 -- it was a bad time for our business, one of several down cycles we had to endure.  The global financial crisis was catching up with us, and I’m sure I was questioning whether we’d survive the year, much less be worthy of providing advice to the next generation of entrepreneurs.  

In some ways, my response was a reminder to myself of how we’d survived as long as we had, and what was needed to continue on.  Do work.  Earn and cherish happy clients.  Get better every time.  Be frugal.  Be strategic.  Execute.  Hustle.  Give back.

These ideals were as relevant nine years into our business as they were when we started, and they still ring true today, more than sixteen years since we began.  We don’t have this advice plastered on a wall or listed in a handbook for how to run a company -- it’s just baked into our culture.

Earlier this month, Kemari reconnected.

On Sat, Oct 8, 2016 at 1:34 PM, Kemari wrote:

Hi Brian,

Not sure if this is still your email, but I thought you might appreciate an update several years later......I emailed you over seven years ago asking for advice about starting a web design business. Not long after I got your email, I did in fact my own web design company. After high school, I ended up going to Stanford University which is where I'm finishing from now. I realized there that I enjoyed web design because I was able to use my creativity to help clients realize their vision. It wasn't as enjoyable when I was being graded through a curriculum that didn't align with how I understood web design, when things such as web standards, etc were absent. I eventually realized it's not really for me anymore, and I'm now interested in medicine. Even though it's a much different field, the problem solving skills I learned designing websites at a young age will stick with me forever. Regardless, I want to thank you so much for taking the time back then to share your experience with me (a random stranger from the internet). It's the one thing I love and appreciate about the web design community.....great people like you always eager to help, and collaborate. Thank you again. and I hope your business is still going strong. You're a pioneer in our new digital frontier, and I'm grateful for your help in helping me stake out my own trail.

Best,

Kemari

Hearing back from him after all these years meant a lot, and his perspective is inspiring.  Work ethic, creative problem solving, valuing human connections -- these are important in every industry, every career, every project you’ll ever be on.  They helped us build Viget into a strong business that will last for many more decades, and it’s great to see Kemari reflect on how they can apply in an entirely different career direction as well.

Thank you, Kemari, for being a part of this journey with me.

Brian is Viget's co-founder and CEO. He does everything from advising our clients to building our conference tables with his bare hands in our Falls Church, VA, HQ.

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