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Ryan Burney from 3 Roads Media on Making the Jump From Freelance to Agency

Owner and Lead Developer of Denver-based 3 Roads Media, Ryan Burney, sits down with me to discuss his newly launched virtual agency model, growth, WordPress, talent, and how to get recurring revenue.

Ryan Burney started 3 Roads Media in 2007, organically and as a side project. He was pleasantly surprised when the business became successful. I sat down to talk about what brought 3 Roads Media to where they are today, and where their new virtual agency model is taking them.

You can find more information about Ryan Burney and 3 Roads Media by visiting their blog, and following them on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Video Transcript

Brent: I’m Brent Weaver and your watching uGurus; the must watch web series to become a more profitable and in demand web professional. Today I’m here with Ryan Burney of 3 Roads Media. Welcome to the program.

Ryan: Thanks Brent. Good to be here.

Brent: So Ryan, tell me about 3 Roads?

Ryan: Well 3 Roads is a company I started back in 2007 with a business partner of mine and it was actually an accidental start up. We were trying to go after a little side project of ours and said “Well how are we going to make money?” So we just kind of started this company. I knew web, she knew design, and so we combine our talents and decided to just kind of get our feet we. Trial by fire if you will. It just kind of grew very organically and kind of off the cuff. We didn’t know what we were doing and that was kind of the fun.

Brent: Did you eventually figure out what you were doing?

Ryan: Well, I don’t know if you could say that. It was a constant learning process. We did actually at one point kind of hit our stride and that was the fun of it is not know what we were doing and just kind of starting a business. It was like everyday was a new challenge so yeah. I guess eventually we did figure it out.

Brent: Very cool. So that’s kind of where you guys started and has 3 Roads transitioned over the last six years?

Ryan: For sure. We started off literally in our apartment and full disclosure. My business partner and I were dating. Whether or not that’s advisable we can get into that later.

Brent: Were you dating and then start a business or did you start a business and then start dating?

Ryan: That’s a fair question. We were dating and then started a business. I don’t know if that’s worse or better than the other way around.

Brent: Is that like third or fourth date material? Your like we had done dinner, we’re going to movies, and now we’re going to start a business.

Ryan: It’s like having a baby so I feel like you should probably wait until 27 dates or something like that. Just wait awhile then do it. So we started it as a side thing and we were actually surprised at how well it grew. From the excitement of getting the first phone call to signing up clients we were like “Hey, this is actually really fun” and we moved into an office. We realized okay, clients actually want to meet with us we should probably get a respectable place to meet them. Not Starbucks, not our apartment. So it ended up growing into an actual agency. When we moved into an office we figured “Hey, maybe we should actually make this our full time thing and it’s clearly no longer a side thing” and so it transitioned from, well, I way to make side money to the way to make money.

We made a logo, and business cards, and all that so it transitioned into more of an agency. We expanding our offering from just doing websites to logos, and business cards, and the standard designing stuff you do as an agency. Then we decided you know what? We could use some help and so we hired some people and it grew from there and we found ourselves doing all kinds of things including SEO. My business partner took on some SEO and it actually reached the point where I thought, ‘You know this is too much. We’re not really focused on anything. We’re not doing really well at anything, well I should say we’re not experts at anything, so we decided to focus it more and just do development. And then we focused it a bit more and just focused on certain aspects of web development and so that’s where we are today.

Brent: So what specifically does 3 Roads do today that’s unique?

Ryan: Well what we do today is offer WordPress specific websites. So if you’re looking for a website at all you can come to us and we’ll get you set up very quickly and very inexpensively. So I guess our unique service offering would be you’re a small business owner just getting started. You don’t have a huge budget but you want to look good. You want to get out there and look good and traditionally that would cost a lot of money. If you needed to get started and have a nice looking website that did a lot for you and what we found is that you can get someone up and running very quickly and very inexpensively on the WordPress platform very quickly and inexpensively for lack of a better word.

Brent: So you guys went from having pretty much anybody could be your customer to focusing on the web development and then focusing even further on kind of a specific approach to doing web development.

Ryan: That’s right.

Brent: How is that working for you guys right now?

Ryan: Well it definitely helped in my opinion focus and it helped sell I think the product for us instead of being all over the place and being like we’re a turn key solution which I think is actually attractive to some customers. You could say well we really know ExpressionEngine or we really know WordPress and I think that gave prospects a lot of confidence. And we found that we actually, specifically for expression engine which is another content management system, that we increases the amount of leads we got dramatically for that particular offering.

So at one point we focused on ExpressionEngine and WordPress content management systems. WordPress is a really big universe and so I think it’s a lot harder to break into that space but for ExpressionEngine which is a relatively small universe our decision to focus on saying “Hey, we’re good at this” really helped us in the number of prospects that reached out to us.

Brent: So really focusing more from a technology segment than a type of customer segment. I mean, obviously a certain type of customer needs ExpressionEngine or needs WordPress but you guys were focused on technology not necessarily the customer segment. So with those kind of, you say like turnkey right now, so you got the WordPress platform. I saw on your website you have a certain amount of themes you can pick to kind of go through this process, seems like your trying to drive towards a very recurring revenue focused business?

Ryan: That’s right.

Brent: Where was the decision? I guess why did you guys make that decision in terms of revenue models?

Ryan: Well that is a much more easier to replicate success in that way I think. There were actually some frustrations that I had in particular. My partner not so much but I had in particular with the custom agency model invoicing, estimating, sending out estimates and trying to estimate projects because every project was different. We discovered that there was a lot of time spent per project estimating, invoicing, and just coming up with the specs for a project. That was exacerbate when we did all kinds of platforms and we did all kinds of technologies.

So my thought was you know, we need to improve our process here. We need to tighten it up a bit and I think if we don’t have to estimate we don’t have to invoice. What if we can turn this into a recurring revenue stream where there’s a very fixed process. It’s more like a product that you’re offering and not so much like a service. Maybe we can magnify our success by doing it that way.

Brent: Gotcha. So I think the term I was hearing was kind of productized service where you take a service and you turn it into something that can be easily replicated, can be kind of stamped out and then you can attach some kind of recurring retainer on top of that. How has that shift been for you guys in terms of is the new model working or are you guys still figuring that out?

Ryan: Still figuring it out by and large. It actually just happened this past year so up until the end of last June we were doing the custom approach. And then it took about six months to actually redo the website and redo the business model, and go through and kind of fine tune it. This is uncharted territory for us. It’s brand new. We’re replicating what other people have done successfully but for us it was a complete 180 and so it’s still in the beginning phases so I can’t say for sure how it’s working. But I do know the initial feedback and the initial customer acquisition that we’ve gotten is promising.

Brent: Seems like people are happy with the product?

Ryan: Yes. The people that have signed up it seems to work very well for them and I think that it’s just a matter of replicating that.

Brent: So when you guys had a larger team how did you go about finding talent?

Ryan: That’s a really good question. I think that a lot of it can be luck. It’s timing. We had a really good guy come in the door but at the same time I think you can control for that. You can go out there and present yourself in a way that would attract certain people. The guy that we found who is a really great part of our team I want to say, if memory serves me correctly, we put out a resume on the Denver Egotist which turned out to be a site that he checked everyday. So the Denver Egotist tracks a specific type of person and so A) We said what type of person do we want to attract? In this case it was a designer to help us with web and also the graphics and Sue said the Denver Egotist seems to be a place where designers would go looking for jobs.

So we put out a resume or a job posting tailored to you know a quirky type of person that we thought would really enjoy working with us. So I’d say A, where do these people go? And then B, tailor your offering to those people. Write the language in a way that’s going to attract them and then when they come in I would say your agency, your office space, who you are is either going to attract them or it’s not. So I would say don’t change what you have to try and attract a specific person just put yourself out there in places where they’re going to be and then tailor your language accordingly.

Brent: So in terms of projects with the bigger custom projects and now even down to kind of some of your, I don’t want to use the term “cookie cutter”
but kind of feed based, template based projects. What are some of the things that you learned to help you launch and manage projects?

Ryan: Let’s see. Well are you talking about just the process of getting a project from discovery to completion?

Brent: I think, you know, client says “Yes, let’s move forward” to dot com has been launched.

Ryan: Gotcha. Okay. Well one of the big things that we learned was you have to set expectations up front with customers or else what happens is you run into scope creep. Scope creep is to me it’s like gravity. It’s just going to happen. It’s part of the process so you have to control it as well as you can. So I think setting expectations up front is one of the biggest things that we learned to do and if you do it successfully you’re going to have happy clients or at least understanding clients. Things inevitably go wrong or take longer than expected so if you can set their expectations and say “Hey, what you’re asking for is complicated.

We haven’t done it before this way or we’ve done it before and it took longer than expected. It could take longer’ for example. If they’re aware of that going in as opposed to “Yeah, we’ll have this done in a month or two months. No problem.” And then it takes two weeks longer than the two months. I mean, if you at least build in some cushion or an expectation it’ll take longer things will be fine. I don’t know if that answers your question.

Brent: Yeah. So setting really good expectations helps with the management and delivery of the project. Now what about post launch? Right now you guys have this kind of recurring model where they’re just paying a fixed monthly fee all the time.

Ryan: Yeah. So it’s kind of like you’re launched on day one kind of thing?

Brent: Yeah. So how are you dealing with support after the fact?

Ryan: Well support is actually built in to our plans right now. So it’s ongoing and it’s kind of an open ended thing so if you sign up for one of our ongoing plans you have built in support and depending on the plan you get you have more and more support. Basically the way it works is if you need some help you submit a ticket and we jump on it as soon as possible. And our promise is to get to in within 24 hours, usually a resolution within that period of time.

Brent: So actually to get the ticket in and to have it resolved in 24 hours?

Ryan: Yep. Because the type requests they’re going to be putting in are not going to be as extreme. A, because the themes we’re working with have been vetted, they’re tested; they’re not going to be mysteriously broken. So it’s going to be a lot easier to determine what the problem is if there is one or implement a custom solution that they want you to do like “Hey, I want you to move the sidebar to left” for example.

Brent: So you guys do that work but I imagine some of that custom work isn’t necessarily built into that fixed recurring retainer?

Ryan: That’s true and that’s kind of one of the challenges we faced is how do you say “Okay, we’ve got these premium themes that are great but at what point do you tell the customer no. This is way to custom. It’s outside the scope of our say 99 dollar a month plan” because at some point it’s possible for a customer to say ‘I want you to do this’ and it’s just not going to be worth it for you to do even at 99 a month. It’s an ongoing educational process to say “Okay, we can do x, y, and z within the parameters of this plan.” But if the customer were to come and say “I want you to integrate all the Google apps into my website so when I post a blog post it goes to all of my social networks.” I mean it might be a bit extreme. So our rule of thumb has been if it’s going to take more than two solid hours of custom coding we’ll probably have to go back to them and say we can’t do it and maybe go outside of the plan and say maybe we can work out an hourly thing or a fixed like 500 bucks we’ll do it for you.

Brent: In terms of you as an entrepreneur, what daily practices have gotten you to where you are today?

Ryan: I would say that constantly educating yourself on your discipline is very important. So for me that’s primarily front end work and so just being aware of what’s new and what’s on the horizon for CSS, HTML, jQuery, things like that. So I like to go out and read blogs not necessarily everyday. I should but I at least make it a habit to frequently go out there and say,
“Hey, what’s new?” I do a lot of that anyway because my job is typically everyday I’m solving problems and so I’ll go out there on Stack Overflow or say “What’s a better way to do this?” The client wants a full width image on their thing and now we have view port based image sizing for example. If I wasn’t out there reading, and solving problems, and finding answers, and always finding better ways to do things I wouldn’t know that and I’d be stuck back in 2008 or whatever it is.

Brent: You mentioned Stack Overflow, are there any other resources for folks in the front end world that you would find worthy of sharing with the community?

Ryan: Well stack overflow is great. It’s a good mixture I would say. If you have a question it’s probably going to be answered on Stack Overflow. It’s unbelievable. WordPress Answers is good for WordPress specific answers. I like Smashing Magazine, the jQuery Docs are great. I’m trying to think of specific blogs that I go to for people. Chris Coyier is very good he has very excellent blog called CSS Tricks which has all kinds of CSS related information. Beyond that it really just depends what I’m searching for.

Brent: Maybe we’ll have to get your blog roll.

Ryan: Yeah. I’ll have to think about it and pull up my bookmark list.

Brent: So you mentioned front end design. What are you best at? Is front end design kind of your thing or in your whole arsenal of talent what do you think you’re best at?

Ryan: I would definitely say the CSS/HTML/jQuery. Those three powers united create any website you want.

Brent: Sure.

Ryan: And then I know a little bit of PHP.

Brent: Obviously your launching lot’s of WordPress sites on your platform. Is that something you have other contractors come and fill in the more advanced stuff for you?

Ryan: At this point it’s not necessary but as we go forward for sure it will be necessary to go and find talented WordPress developers who are comfortable with the platform. I think that means you need to know PHP, definitely how WordPress works, because in my opinion if you’re going to do any significant level of customization to a theme you have to know PHP. So yes, going out and finding contractors that know those three technologies as our business grows and as we get beyond the point where we can handle the routine maintenance of our existing customers. It’s going to be essential.

Brent: In terms of you’ve been doing web professionally for over six years, so what have you learned over those six years that you think other web professionals should know?

Ryan: I don’t even know where to start with that. I mean, I started doing web back in the 90’s but professionally it’s been just the last several years. First and foremost I would say you need to know how to run a business first. You can geek out all you want and code websites, and get totally lost and stuck in your code, but at the end of the day what you’re going to find is that you haven’t invoiced your customers and the IRS is sending you notes and you’re not going to be able to survive.

Brent: I think you and I might have similar back stories.

Ryan: Yeah. So you need to pay attention to the business first and foremost. It’s very easy for me especially I like to get in and do the work and then also be high level but there’s this middle ground of you actually have to send invoices out. It’s not as exciting but you have to do it or you’re not going to get paid and you have to have a collections process in place and you have to have a rapport with your customer. You have to talk to your customers believe it or not. You have to go out there and say ‘Hey, how are you doing? How are things going? Why haven’t you paid me?’ in a political way or in a diplomatic way I should say. Be a business man first I would say.

Brent: So it’s keeping on top of those operational stuff, kind of a business 101 thing, so you think our audience can definitely relate pretty well to that?

Ryan: For sure.

Brent: In terms of trends, what are you following right now? I mean it sounds like you like to get into the front end stuff, but in general the web right now. What trends are you following?

Ryan: Well I’m really interested in having been deep into code since ’95 to the early 2000’s. I wasn’t as active but I came back and I was like what is this non-table based nonsense we’re talking about? So to go from being introduced to CSS and then watching CSS, HTML and then what you can do with those technologies since ’06,’07, to today. It’s just been a phenomenal thing to watch and so what I’m interested in is just continuing to watch that grow. What HTML and CSS and Java script combined can do now that was just not possible two or three years ago is just amazing.

So I like to go to the Chrome developer’s library where they are just experimenting with crazy things with Chrome and the latest web technologies is fun. More specifically I love to see what’s new in the spec like CSS shapes and regions that just let you do things with websites that you could never do before. Like wrapping text around things and having more of a newspaper layout which just wasn’t possible before. So I like to keep up on those things.

Brent: Or maybe there were certain things that were possible like heavy graphics based or you were doing things that . . .

Ryan: Yeah, you had to do flash.

Brent: Yeah, increase the page size and stuff like that where as now it’s just super fast.

Ryan: Now it’s just straight semantic stuff which is really exciting.

Brent: Do you guys do a lot of responsive stuff in terms of your themes?

Ryan: Absolutely.

Brent: Like have you guys kind of tackled that whole beast?

Ryan: Yeah. Absolutely it’s funny because that’s another piece that I’ve been amazed to watch. When we started three years ago in ’07 mobile was, well nobody goes to the web on their mobile. Seriously, we weren’t behind or anything. It was just the way it was as I remember it is you didn’t have to worry about mobile in ’07 and then it started to become less and less of a fringe thing.

Now it’s just you have to be responsive. The great majority of our themes are responsive and I think that going forward we’re going to only pick themes that are responsive. I think that theme designers are only going to make themes that are responsive.

Brent: Cool. What’s next for 3 Roads?

Ryan: We’re going to continue to refine our new model. It’s a constant learning experience. I think in order to be really successful you have to figure out what your niche is and just tackled it and be really good at it. Try and be better in that niche than anybody else. I think it’s just going to be a matter of refining what our niche is, understand what it is, and going after it. Perfecting and just constantly trying to get better. I know it’s kind of a generic answer but that’s kind of what I’m going for.

Brent: No. It’s good. I mean we preach a lot of find that niche, find that ideal customer, figuring out how to leverage that one customer group instead of trying to grab everything. It seems that you guys have figured out how to get more and more focused which is very cool.

Ryan: Yeah, and to your point if I may go back to a previous question you had regarding what would I tell people as web developers. I would say it’s very tempting when you start to want to do everything and be everything to everybody because your like if I don’t I’m going to get paid because I need more customers. I’d say that’s okay to do for awhile but you’re going to want to focus as quickly as possible and if you have the luxury I would say focus from the beginning. Try to dominate a niche right from the beginning instead of trying to go everywhere.

Brent: Almost figuring out from doing a whole bunch of services like what you get passionate about and what excites you.

Ryan: Yeah. That’s fine.

Brent: It sounds like that’s a little bit of the 3 Roads story in terms of you guys were seeing customers that didn’t have the big budgets and you still were able to provide them with quality product and you figured out how to make that work.

Ryan: Exactly.

Brent: Very cool. So if you people are interested in you they can find out at 3roadsmedia.com.

Ryan: 3roadsmedia.com.

Brent: Do you guys have a blog? Twitter handle?

Ryan: We have a Twitter handle @3roadsmedia. Admittedly it needs to be more active but we do have a Twitter account and there’s a LinkedIn page as well.

Brent: Cool. We’ll definitely catch you guys and hopefully we’ll be able to check in with you sometime in the future and get an update on your focused 3 Roads project.

Ryan: Absolutely.

Brent: All right.

Ryan: Sounds great Brent thanks.

Brent: Well stayed tuned for more great content from ugurus.com.

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