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Tracy Schloss on Why Word of Mouth, Networking, and Meetups Grow Her Web Design Business

I always enjoy sitting down with other web design entrepreneurs. My latest interview at the uGurus HQ is with another local virtual agency owner, Tracy Schloss, of Schloss Web Services.

Brent: I’m Brent Weaver, and you’re watching uGurus, the must-see show to become a more profitable and in-demand web professional.

I’m really excited to welcome a guest today that’s been in the Web the game for over 18 years. She actually got her start pre-IPO at Priceline.com, and helped do a ton of development while at Priceline. For the last eight years she’s been running her own Web business here in Denver, bringing on mostly small and medium- sized business clients.

I’m happy to welcome Tracy Malone from Schloss Web Services. Welcome to the program, Tracy.

Tracy: Thank you.

Brent: So Tracy, tell us a little bit about Schloss.

Tracy: Schloss Web Services has been around for about 18 years. I’ve been building websites for small to medium-sized businesses. Started in Connecticut on the East Coast and moved to Colorado about eight years ago.

Brent: Okay. So where did you get your start in Web.

Tracy: It’s a funny story. I actually started by planning my high school reunion. We decided to have a webpage, and I went and got an HTML book from the library, went and made a webpage. And then at the next reunion meeting everyone was excited, but then they were like, what about a form? So we learned a little more, did a form. We ended up with a dead people page, which some people found scary, but it was amazing how many people had died.

So the local newspaper did a story on the reunions of the future, and since we were so close in Connecticut to New York, The New York Times picked it up. They came in and did a photo shoot and a reporter. I was featured on the front page of the Connecticut section of The New York Times.

Brent: So The New York Times featured a story about a high school reunion website. Can you give us a little bit of bearing on what year this was? I don’t think that that would be a front-page story quite anymore.

Tracy: No, it wouldn’t be. It was probably around 1995. And we were told [inaudible 01:58] reunions of the future. There was no Google, there was no, really AOL was like, big, because it said, you’ve got mail! That was really at the stage Prodigy was big. There was no Google, there’s there was no classmates.com. Everything was just in the forefront, so it was kind of cool that we had done that.

Brent: So you started with a high school reunion website. Where did you go from there?

Tracy: I actually got a job because of my big New York Times story, and went to Priceline.com. They were just a start-up company. We were in the basement of a building, and there was probably about 40 of us. I was hired as the button girl.

Brent: The button girl?

Tracy: The button.

Brent: You might have to explain that that one a little bit.

Tracy: Well, IT. I was hired into IT, and they were having difficulties getting things from the marketing department. IT wanted their own person who knew Photoshop and HTML. I could do both. I would always be their secret, let’s get this! I would make the graphics on the slide around marketing, so that was a little, you know, how it all began with Priceline. But I was there for about eight years, and I really learned everything I needed to know from them.

Brent: Then you went from Priceline, and then you basically decided to start your own business from there?

Tracy: I had always been doing clients on the side. I specialized in again, small doctors and small businesses around town. I found joy in that, versus when you’re at Priceline and you’re one of 400 developers, and you’re in charge of this postage stamp of the responsibility. And every six months that would change, sometimes you’re in charge of that postage stamp. But it wasn’t creative, so I have always done people’s websites.

And then when I moved to Colorado, just took that on full-time. That’s how we’ve grown.

Brent: What kind of services do you guys typically offer at Schloss?

Tracy: Well, website design is our core. We did HTML and CSS websites, and now primarily we work in WordPress. I will do additional e- commerce solutions for customers based on what their needs are. We can pretty much adapt to any of the platforms that are out there, but WordPress came around and it’s been in my life for about four years. It’s a little bit like cheating because we’re used to coding and making things by scratch. And so now we’re doing WordPress. It’s a lot easier for people to have the keys to their own car. I always use that in my sales pitch to tell them, hey, you don’t have to call me if you have to have a new testimonial.

Frankly, it’s kind of hard for me to jump back into somebody’s site after years of not doing anything, to put up a testimonial. I don’t have time and I don’t make enough money to really do that. I’d rather them have control of their own thing. Not that they do, but they have the control and they like that. It’s a good sales pitch.

And I think that people are frustrated having to go back to a web developer to get that testimonial put on, and they stop doing it, and then the sites gets stale. They have a copyright date of 2008, and they wonder why nobody is coming.

Brent: I’ve seen some that are older than that.

Tracy: Really? That’s kind of scary.

Brent: I’m always interested to talk to other web pros about how they get their business. What’s your primary source of new customers?

Tracy: My business has been built primarily on referrals. I do a good job for all of the people, and it just keeps blowing. I belong to several networking groups; one is a leads group that’s in Boulder. It’s 40 professional business people that refer me out and just share what their experience is with me. I’ve done many of their sites, and then they share me with businesses that they come in contact with.

I also belong to a lot of meet-up groups. I think that getting yourself out there, not only to learn, because when you go to these meet-up groups you learn about different things like affiliate marketing. You learn about the benefits of blogging, you learn about the different SEO things that you need to know, and stay on the cutting edge. We try to read it all, it doesn’t always get there. So if you have one meeting a month where you know you’re just going to focus on SEO, and get it from the experts, you’re going to make the time for it. Usually from all those things I get jobs as well.

Brent: We’re going to focus a little bit on the leads groups in particular. I know there’s a lot of leads groups out there. Some of them work, some of them don’t. How did you go about choosing the leads group that you participate in?

Tracy: It came to me through a friend. It’s a one-kind-of-profession leads group. It’s been around for about 10 years and very successful. The people are very dedicated to each other. I think we just hit 50 people this month, so it’s been not too big that people still don’t come. So you’ve got the people there, and most of them are a little bit technophobe, and they don’t really understand the value of social media. They don’t understand how their website works, so I’m constantly educating them, and they appreciate that. The more I give for free, the more they refer me. They’ll have a conversation with somebody that has a pain. Like, their site never gets found, or no one ever calls from our website! And oh, I’ve got the girl for you, is kind of how it’s really worked out for me.

Brent: Very nice. The other thing you mentioned was meet-up groups. I know MeetUp.com is a great source of places to find some local groups to expand your knowledge, find new customers. What’s worked for you for meet-ups?

Tracy: I lead the Boulder WordPress Meet-up Group. We now have 500 members, which is big.

Brent: Wow.

Tracy: I also attend the Denver WordPress Meet-up, and I’m friends with the leaders of that, so that we can co-community, kind of work together. Being a part of that community, and being a tech leader, there’s actually a meet-up tonight for tech leaders in the Boulder and Denver area. So, another one’s forming for just us, that’s going to allow us hopefully to work out some of the pains that we incur as leaders.

As a 500-member WordPress meet-up group, we have people that would like to learn WordPress, and people that write plug-ins and make their own feeds. So you’ve got such a gamut there that we’ve got to be able to service it. By communicating with the other groups in the area, there’s a Fort Collins group as well, we are able to help each other with the pains of how to service all the different levels.

But going to the different groups, I love the groups that I’m a member of. And you become friends with them, and you learn form them, so it’s really beneficial. I strongly recommend it to all web designers. Because it is, like a leads group, you can only have one web designer in the group, but if you’re in a group that services WordPress or SEO, people are going to have a need, or know of someone who does. If you’ve created friendships, you’re going to be able to network.

Brent: Very cool. So with most of your business coming through referrals, and I think referrals are very common way that a lot of web pros get business, what does your typical sales process look like?

Tracy: Well obviously, I get the call, and I talk with them either on the phone or initially we meet. There are two different types of clients. You’ve got the client that’s had no site, ever, or you’ve got a site that’s built in Flash, or really so old that it’s no purpose to them. We’ll review what they’ve got or what they need. I’ll review what their competition is. So if they have no site whatsoever, what is your competition doing? How are they building their site? What is it mandatory for you to have?

And then I’ll do all that before we actually meet, so that I’m not going in there going, okay, you have a jewelry business, but I know nothing about what your competition is doing. I know what their competition is doing, and I go in there, and I’m a little bit more educated than perhaps they expect me to be.

We meet, we talk about what their site might be lacking, how it can be repaired, and how WordPress and another solution would make it easier for their life. And we generally get the job.

Brent: And then just money appears, right?

Tracy: It’s just like that!

Brent: Very nice. So how do you approach price in your projects?

Tracy: I’ve been doing this for so long that based on our conversation and based on my proposal, I can understand how many hours it should take. And then I bid it out on an hourly basis, and warn them that if we scope-creep and get into something that is not part of what we originally talked about, we’ll have a conversation. And they’ll approve any further work that needs to be done.

Brent: You said a word there that I’m going to call out, scope-creep. Maybe tell us a little bit about what that means for you.

Tracy: Scope-creep is, I think, pretty well known in the industry. It’s basically, you said you were going to build this, and they start asking for more. It happens. It happens every single time. People will agree that they’re just going to put 10 products on their site, and you can teach them how to upload the others, and then they hand you 400. It’s very common that they’ll assume that you’ll just do that.

There’s a lot of people who also then say, well, what about a Facebook page? And can you add this, or could you do something else for me? And those weren’t part of the original agreement. Although we’ll do it, it’s got to be pointed out that, hey, let’s backup the money part and explain that this takes this many more hours, and we’ll do it.

Brent: Do you find that clients typically are really excited to expand the scope of a project? Or do you sometimes get friction around scope-creep conversations?

Tracy: I don’t think I get friction. It depends on if they really, truly understand the value of it. If they’re the ones that are saying, “Oh, I need a Twitter account set up and I really don’t want to do it myself,” they’ll understand that that’s an additional thing. And if they’re really just so naive about things, they really just don’t understand that that’s going to take this much time. So you run the gamut of people that understand it, and then the ones that just expect it.

So, over the years it’s just gotten to a point where I’m putting it in writing, and I’m making an e-mail, and I’m saying, by the way, this Facebook page is great, we’ll be happy to do it. We’ll brand it with the rest of the site and everything we’re doing, but this is this much more money. And as long as they understand that and approve it, we’ll go ahead and do it. I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes you can be too nice, and I always give too much. And then it comes to a point where they start to take advantage of you.

Brent: So Tracy, could you tell me what a typical project looks like, just from the size? What kind of budget ranges are you typically working within?

Tracy: I do small to medium-sized businesses, so I’ve done sites as low as $500, and as much as $30,000. The average price of a website, five or six pages, is somewhere between $2,600, $3,000. But we do small little projects that are not necessarily the whole ball of wax. We might just do something for them, like, optimize a few of their pages for them. And when they start to work, then they realize, hey, let’s go back and do the rest the right way. So sometimes I’ll be willing to do just a little bit of the project, and then they’ll see the value. Then we’ll get the whole job.

Brent: Very cool. You mentioned WordPress before. Most of your projects involve a WordPress build. How do you approach the different facets of a project with a $2,000 or $3,000 budget? Like design and content, and that kind of stuff.

Tracy: Well, we expect content usually from the client. Sometimes it’s being scraped off their old site. Sometimes we will hire, if their budget allows it, and SEO writer, and bring in that as part of our team to really help them hone in on what they say. When you’re building sites for small businesses, be it a doctor or a dentist or a professional mortgage broker or something, they tend to stand on a soapbox and pound on their chest. And they think, I’m so great, and they just want everybody to hear their story. When in fact, I have to kind of wind them back down and say, it’s not about you. It’s about how you can help the person’s pain.

If it’s a plastic surgeon, and I did a run of those recently, so it’s not about that you went to school, and you were so great, and it’s all of this stuff. It’s about what is it that you can help them with, because that’s what they’re going to search. And I think the average person that we do sites for doesn’t understand hope people search. So it’s an education process. And then, really getting them to serve the needs and give the information to the people that they want.

Because their bounce rate will be crazy if you get there and they’re just pounding on their chest, like, I’m great! People don’t care. They want to see that you can give them a nose job, or you can make their age spots go away. That’s really how people search for things. You’re fixing a need and a pain, and if you don’t gear your content towards that, if you don’t build your architecture of the website towards that, you’re going to fail.

So many websites fail because somebody will just say, “Oh, make an About page, and a this, and a that,” and it’s not really going to help them very much.

Brent: I’m starting to, the more I talk to you I’m starting to understand why you get a lot of referrals. It sounds like you spend a lot of time educating your prospective clients about not just what you do, but kind of about what’s out there on the Web. It sounds like you spend a lot of time talking to them about search, about what kind of content works. Is that a big part of your process?

Tracy: I think so. I think that’s what makes me unique, because I do work with a lot of web designers, and I know them through my, I’m a member of the Boulder Designers Group. We have web and print people in that group. So I will totally understand the perspective of the other designers, and they’re sitting there begging for jobs, and they’re not getting it. Being the one that’s going to help these people understand why they need it, and how it’s going to work, makes a different between me and a normal web designer.

So many times the web designer doesn’t even really get social media, doesn’t really understand SEO. And so they might make a really pretty website, but they’re not helping the person understand what the value is, and why they should be doing this. And why you don’t want one page with all your services on it. I mean that, when I see that I just cringe, and go, all right. Well, you do this, this and this. But the page should be about that. We should have a page that’s uniquely about nose jobs, if that’s what it is.

And so many designers will just take the content and go, “Okay, I’ll make it pretty.” And not say, hey, do you really want to be found for a nose job? Let’s make a nose job page, and then you can SEO it, and you can really tailor it to the person’s needs who’s looking for that. And it will come up as a result, and everyone will be happy.

Brent: I actually have kind of a, my idea of a web professional is something that’s a little bit beyond a web designer or a web developer. I try to teach the web professional to really become that business consultant. To work with a company, find that pain, find that problem that company solves. And then help them acquire new customers by addressing that pain and that problem. It sounds like you understand that really well.

Tracy: I do. And I give them advice. I’m working with a recruiting firm here in Denver right now. We were meeting in this beautiful board room, 12 chairs, I mean, just gorgeous. And in our conferences and in our meetings that we’re having, besides building it, and getting them a photographer and getting them professional things that they need, we were talking about social media. I talked about things that they should be doing with this board room. They should be having monthly sessions for job seekers.

Do a thing on how to dress for an interview. I mean, we’re going to do a story on how to dress for an interview, but now, have a live event. Have a professional image consultant come in and talk to them about it. And then bring those people in. Now you’re not only the person who’s going to find them a job, but you’re teaching them. And they know all of that, so why not educate their consumers?

When I told them that, they just sat there with their mouths open and we so happy! We never thought of that, oh my goodness. So, I helped them understand the market sometimes that they don’t even see. Be it through social media and getting those clients, or doing something like their own sessions, and bringing people to them as the resource, and as the icon that they want to be. They have to be that professional, and they don’t sometimes see that.

Brent: Very cool. So now, for you in your business, where is the puck moving? What’s the next big thing for you?

Tracy: I want to continue to grow. And I love and have a passion for the web design, but I think I also love the social media part of it. I love to educate businesses on how they can help. Last night, Foursquare is my new favorite things, and last night I went in for my own personal business, which is out of my home. And I sat there and I set up like, check-in coupons, took screenshots all the way along, through, and set up mayor things. I think every business who you’re checking out on Foursquare should have a Mayor Award. If you’re the mayor of a Starbucks, you should be getting free coffee on Fridays, or something. There should be something that is in it for them.

And small businesses don’t really understand Foursquare. They don’t understand how it can help them. To them, it’s just another big scary monster in the closet, just like Facebook is, or was. Now they’re kind of used to Facebook. Some of them are afraid of Twitter. They don’t understand how you could automate all of it. You could do all of it in a week. But if you’re not getting people to friend you on Facebook, they don’t understand the value.

We make beautiful QR code signs, and have them in, like a doctor’s office, in every little room. While they’re waiting, why not have them friend you on Facebook? Why not have the sign on the door when you’re not in your office, or if it’s a storefront, that says, we’re not here right now, but here’s our QR code, and visit our website.

Those are the kind of marketing tools that I think that small businesses need in addition to their website. And I’d rather them get the full picture. Website and putting it on your card is going to help only a little bit. Doing the other things is going to really build their business.

Brent: Very cool. I kind of look at that as you’ve got this like, online business ecosystem. All these little facets that tie into your website. I think you said it really well, when the website is just one piece of it, you know. I think for any web designer out there that’s just building websites, they’re leaving a lot of opportunity on the table. Not just for them but really for their customers as well.

Tracy: Yeah. Because the customer is going to not get found. Or Yellow Pages is going to come and suck them in, because oh, we’ve got this report! And you’re rating really badly, which happens to them. And then they spend $1,000 a month for something like Yellow Pages, and then they’re bleeding again. And they’re like, oh no, and then they stop that. And all these splash pages that are helping them are gone, and they’re back to square one. If they had had some organic SEO in there in the first place, it would have got them on the playing field.

I say you can’t build a house without the foundation. That’s part of my speech every single time. People really need to understand it, and a lot of designers don’t. So you’re missing a lot of opportunity as a web designer, to not sell them. And be knowledgeable about these other things. Educate yourself, and then you can educate your people, and then they will buy.

Brent: I definitely love what a lot of the things you’re saying. Where can our audience find out more about you?

Tracy: My website is Schloss.com. S-C-H-L-O-S-S. I am on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. I give lessons on LinkedIn. I give lessons to businesses, and I’ll go to groups and Chambers of Commerce, and just sit there and talk about how they should build up their professional portfolio. Because we check it. If you’re a geek and if you’re after a certain age point, you don’t do business with someone unless you’ve checked them out a little bit. So if you don’t have those things, and LinkedIn is something that you just put there and don’t touch it anymore. But if you don’t have it, and someone checks you out, it’s kind of a red strike against you.

So, I just kind of like to educate them all. You can find me all over the Web.

Brent: We will make sure to include lots of links on how people can follow up and contact you for more information.

Tracy: All right, great.

Brent: Well thank you for joining us today, Tracy. Hopefully we will have you back again sometime soon.

Tracy: Great. Thank you very much!

Brent: If you have any questions for Tracy, feel free to leave them in the comments, and she’ll get back to you as soon as she can. If you enjoyed today’s video, feel free to subscribe to our YouTube channel, or share it with your friends on Facebook and Twitter. If you’d like to receive additional resources, feel free to sign up for our email list, where we send special insights and tips just to our email subscribers. And of course, stay tuned for more great content from uGurus.com.

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