What does the average web development project look like to you?
Let me guess: every project you work on is different — different size, different budget, different technology even?
Consequently, your work is unpredictable and often stressful, as you constantly switch gear to meet all these variables. You might struggle to even find clients, let alone work on projects you actually enjoy. Sound familiar?
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When I started out as a freelance web designer back in 2009 I had a very open approach to my work. Basically, I took on anything and everything in order to pay the bills.
It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the productized web development service model. And this, frankly, changed the way I saw not just my role as a web developer, but my business model in general. It has simplified my business and made me love web development again.
In this guide I’m going to explain the idea and benefits of a productized services business and teach you how to get started setting up your own.
What is a “productized service”? A definition.
By definition, a productised service is a set of services that have been turned into a deliverable product. When you sell websites to businesses, you’re selling a service, but what if you could apply the constraints of a product to this service? It would make your job simpler and your life less stressful.
Products have price and scope constraints. When you buy a product, like a new laptop or a car, you’re given a product spec and a price. You pay the money, and you get exactly what is written on the box.
Well, developing a productized services business model uses the same idea. It enables you to sell your service, as a product.
Productizing web development services involves working out a set of repeatable processes that enable you to deliver largely the same service over and over again. It relies on having a well-defined audience and the desire to solve a specific problem for that audience.
Because productized services are audience-focused, a productized web dev service in essence is just good business.
Our goals: a happier life, and a more profitable business
Before I go any further, let’s take a moment to understand why we might want to create a productized service. You have probably identified a deficiency in your business. Perhaps you’re not earning enough money, or you spend too much time at work. Or maybe you’re just not happy with the work you do.
For me, all of these things were true, but crucially I realised that I wanted to move away from offering a generic web design service toward a more customer-focused product offering. Here are the differences between those two approaches:
|Generic web design service||Productized web design service|
|Targets everyone (and pleases no-one)||Targets a specific audience (and specialises in solving their problems)|
|Works with a multitude of software (different CMSs, frameworks and languages)||Works with a small, focused set of tools|
|Writes web proposals from scratch every time||Has 80% of the proposal ready to go|
|Works on projects with hugely varying budgets||Has set pricing, with targeted up-sells to add more value|
|Struggles to market itself||Finds it simple to take the product to market|
Do any of these points resonate with you? If so, selling web design is about to become much simpler!
How to productize your web design service
I went from scratching around, writing project proposals for anyone that would ask (and losing most), to earning a sustainable income doing work that I actually enjoy. Here is the exact process I went through:
- I decided I wanted to productise, and shifted my mindset accordingly
- I selected a niche audience to whom I would deliver my product
- I developed a set of tools and processes with which to deliver my productized service
- I took that offer to market.
A word of caution: I’ve used the word “simple” a few times so far, but at no point have I said this is easy. It took me about 8 months of figuring things out and working hard before I started to see a pay-off, but when I did it was absolutely worth it. There are no shortcuts in life — prepare to dig in. BUT, with the guidance I’m setting out here, I hope that you can reach your goals faster than I did.
The productization strategy — a change in mindset
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of this whole endeavour is to change the way that you see web design. If you’re anything like me, you started this because you’re passionate about design. I came to this industry as a hobbyist who enjoyed tinkering in Dreamweaver (remember that?)
But here’s the thing: you’re not designing websites, you’re solving business problems.
If you’re being totally honest with ourselves, the passion that we feel about choice of colour and typography, layout and tone of voice, is rarely shared by our clients. And that’s fine, that’s why they pay us to do it.
But it also needs to work the other way.
As designers and developers, we need to share our client’s motivations, too. This means involving yourself in their business strategy, understanding their customers and addressing their pain points. It’s a two-way street, and good relationships that produce great work don’t happen without this connection.
What productization allows you to do is focus on a small number of customer problems, forget everything else, and start solving them using your web development skills.
And choosing a market segment is key to productization, because this enables you to identify a finite list of requirements that you can focus on.
To successfully productize, you need a niche
The mindset needed to run a productized services business is very different to that of a “normal” freelance web designer. Core to this model is the idea of the niche.
For me, the niche is non-profits. My web design business focuses squarely on this sector, and even more specifically I target the smaller end (charities with an income of less than £500k/year). That’s still a pretty big market, but your key takeaway here is that most of these clients have the same requirements.
Read that again.
Most of my clients have the same (or similar) requirements. They want to build awareness of their cause, process online donations and nurture their supporters.
Armed with this knowledge, it’s not too difficult now to start mocking up a plan of action to address these core needs.
Related: how to find a niche.
Productisation requires a set of repeatable processes
Remember: one of the main reasons we’re doing this is to simplify the way we deliver websites. No more hopping from WordPress to Drupal per project, wrangling with different themes and getting into all kinds of a mess. Productisation is designed to make your life easier.
When setting up a niche productized business, it’s worth considering the following:
- CMS and theme
- Website proposal
- Development contract
- Project management processes
- Communication flows
I use WordPress for every project and have developed my own in-house UI kit which I use to turn into a theme for every website I build. I mostly use the same plugins per project, and host all my client websites on a reseller server.
My website proposal document is heavily template-driven, saving me time and energy on producing quotes, and my contract is setup to simply have a few key details changed. From enquiry to website launch, each client follows the same journey.
Do you see what’s happening here?
Every aspect of my business is set up to be predictable and repeatable. This is the essence of a productised service: being able to deliver value quickly, and cost-effectively.
Spend some time on this. Think about the steps you take in most projects and think about how you can normalise the process. Consider the anomalies: can you normalise these, too, or can you dispense of them entirely? It’s all about streamlining at this point, working toward something you can do again and again.
How to market a productized service
Back when I was building websites for anyone and everyone, I found selling myself as a freelancer to be really challenging. I dreaded the question “what do you do?” at networking events, because I never knew what to say. Yes, I make websites, but who for, and why? And by the way — I was thrown into other areas as well, doing SEO for clients (badly), writing content for clients (badly) and working for clients in morally dubious areas, such as short term loans.
It was not a proud or happy time in my professional life, but having since productized my service and focusing on one audience, it’s now tonnes easier to explain what I do, get web design clients on my own terms and deliver quality work.
So do you sell websites to clients using the productization method?
It starts by laying your offer out on the table. On the web, this takes the form of a landing page that is highly focused on solving your particular client’s problem.
In my case (non-profits) clients are usually looking for a small website that accepts online donations and let’s people get in touch with them. My prospects usually have questions about hosting and CRM integration, how long it takes to build a website and even queries about branding.
The key takeaway here: once you know this audience and learn their common enquiries, you can create content that answer these questions.
It all goes back to the productization mentality: get to know your audience and develop a set of processes to serve them efficiently, from the moment they search Google to the day you launch their website and beyond.
Is service productization right for you?
So far we’ve learned a lot about productization: what it is, what the benefits of productisation are and what steps you can take towards building a business in this way.
But the productized web development model isn’t right for everyone. As a web designer you might relish the creative process, and the rich variety of outcomes that can be achieved. The web needs diversity, and some clients will come with very particular needs.
If you are excited by the unknown, and seek variety, then productization might not be for you. Uncertainty is really the antithesis of the ethos of productising a service, the aim of which is to be predictable and repeatable in as many ways as possible. And for me, I like to bring order to chaos. I like parameters and deliverables. If you enjoy freestyling your web design projects, service productisation might be something to avoid!
Now is the time to productize
Web design as a sector is saturated with low quality providers and clients who want it all. If we, as an industry, are to withstand the onslaught of sophisticated web building platforms like Wix and Squarespace, we’re going to need to start driving a lot more value for our clients. We’re going to have to get well-acquainted with their specific problems, and pretty much have solutions to hand. We’re going to have to become more than web builders.
If you’re up for the challenge, building a productised web development service could be a fantastic way to differentiate yourself from the competition and build a profitable business that will stand the test of time.