“It was a two million dollar web project.”
Then Nick Weynand, CEO of Mighty Citizen (formerly Trademark Media), got up to take care of some business for a moment. Nick and I were conducting an interview for UGURUS at their office in Austin, TX.
I’ve spent the majority of my professional life in the digital agency business. The first thirteen years were running one, and the last six, helping them grow. I’ve spoken to thousands of agencies and done video and podcast interviews with some of the tops in the business.
This conversation with Weynand wasn’t the first time an agency owner was talking to me about seven-figure projects. I was excited to learn from Nick about how they approached such large-scale websites, how they positioned their agency to attract such work, and what about those large projects were different from work you might pursue smaller businesses and organizations.
Something interesting happened while Nick excused himself momentarily. I checked my phone to pass the time. There it was, in our support queue, next in line. An email from a prospective customer was responding to one of my emails promoting our agency Bootcamp. My email was talking about how to sell higher value projects – which we define as projects over ten thousand dollars. He said:
“No one buys websites for over $10k. I can hardly get clients to pay $3k. You’re full of it.”
Now, during my tenure at my agency, I pitched over a thousand website proposals. Most of them well over ten thousand dollars. I never sold a seven-figure project. But there I was sitting with Nick, and he had plenty of experience doing just that.
I was stuck between two polar opposite realities. On the one hand, a confident web agency owner running a multi-million dollar company providing an excellent work product to the best universities, nonprofit organizations, and businesses in the world. On the other, a struggling web professional whose own worst enemy was his mindset.
Not a New Problem
I was reading a book on risk, decision making, and probability called Antifragile, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, with little intention that it would have any direct insight into selling higher value creative work. Then I came upon a passage that beautifully explained the problem I had seen over and over in our industry:
“I have called this mental defect the Lucretius problem, after the Latin poetic philosopher who wrote that the fool believes that the tallest mountain in the world will be equal to the tallest one he has observed. We consider the biggest object of any kind that we have seen in our lives or hear about as the largest item that can possibly exist.”
Taleb, N. (2012). Antifragile. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.
In the book, he’s describing how ancient bureaucrats would track hundred year floods and use those high water marks to plan and predict for future hundred year floods. The fallacy being that past hundred year floods, extremely rare events, are poor predictors of future hundred year floods, extremely rare and unpredictable events. Hence situations like Hurricane Katrina.
I couldn’t help but see the immediate relevance to sales and positioning for digital agencies.
The gentleman that replied to my email believed that there wasn’t a market for websites over ten thousand dollars because he had never received that much to build one. He had only been to the top of a three thousand dollar mountain, so he believed that these mountains were all that existed.
Wait a Minute
Now, before we romp on this guy’s false belief and consider him a fool – I want you to consider yourself. I bet you have, deep within you, this same belief about some area or limit within your own business. You might now believe, along with me, that there are a lot of seven-figure projects out there if one chooses to pursue such monstrosities.
What you might not believe is that there are also billion dollar websites. But there are. The government estimates that the beleaguered Healthcare.gov cost somewhere between $800 million and $2.1 billion. We know that number because the government is forced to disclose such costs. Plenty of private corporations like Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft spend billions on their web infrastructure.
Mindset coaches call this whole topic upper limit beliefs. Considering what is possible requires a person to stop and think for a moment. These days, that’s a tall order.
I’m not going to get all woo-woo on you with mindset stuff. Plenty of good psychology explains limiting beliefs in very tangible terms.
Instead of thinking slow, we think fast using heuristics (a fancy word for a shortcut) and one of those heuristics commonly used is called the Availability Bias.
Our brain makes a judgment based on information that is readily available. If you’ve only ever come across clients willing to pay a few thousand dollars for a website, then your brain starts to make up a story that every business is only willing to spend a few thousand dollars for a site. Minds hate unresolved issues, so it resolves them with falsehoods.
The problem is those falsehoods often become beliefs that don’t serve us very well.
However, now you know businesses, in fact, spend a lot more than a few thousand dollars on websites and digital marketing. Many spend millions or more. My company isn’t even that big, and we’ve spent well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars on our web infrastructure.
An Easy Fix
Limiting beliefs and heuristics make us feel comfortable. They keep us within our chosen reality. It’s easier to remain unchallenged than to say the fateful words:
“I don’t know.”
Admitting that one doesn’t know the answer is tough. Before the scientific revolution in the 18th century, humans much preferred telling wild stories about how things worked instead of uttering those three words. People were convinced the world was flat. They couldn’t fathom it any other way. They should have just admitted that they didn’t have a clue and maintained that position until they had further evidence.
It seems much more comfortable for people that I come in contact with to instead say:
“I can’t.” Or…
“It isn’t possible.”
Or make up some other reality to avoid admitting they have no idea. Whatever gets you to sleep at night.
There are immense power and potential in saying those three magic words, “I don’t know.” Once you identify that which is unknown, you set parameters for exploration.
It’s possible that before my article, you were unaware how common seven figure website projects were. The next question you might have for someone like me goes something like, “Ok Brent, you’ve convinced me that these exist, but I have no idea where to find such clients, and even if I did, they would never hire me.”
But now we know what we don’t know. Resolving that is just a matter of time.
For instance, if I was you, and all of a sudden I wanted to pursue such work, I might start asking agency owners that I have in my network if they know anyone doing seven figure work. This activity will give me a list of potential entrepreneurs to invite to coffee to learn from. Now I’m going from not knowing much about this type of work to understanding the dynamics of positioning an agency for this type of work, where to solicit for this type of work, and what my credentials need to be.
Even if I fail to convince them to have coffee with me, I can study their website, case studies, and perhaps contact the people at the organizations with these websites to understand how they think.
One of our students went on this journey and very quickly found himself at the feet of a five hundred thousand dollar app development project with a regional bank. Not quite seven figures (yet), but on his way (if that’s what he wants). Before this line of thinking, he too thought a ten thousand dollar project was all that was possible.
Making it Happen
Here are some simple steps to consider in this line of thinking:
- Don’t make assumptions: Assuming is a heuristic your brain uses to close loops and fill in missing information by making stuff up. It could be a variety of biases at play. The availability bias is just one of those.Confirmation bias – looking for information that backs up what we already believe – is another.
- Be open to possibilities: You now know there are clients with five, six, seven, and eight-figure budgets for web, app, digital, and branding projects. Just because you’ve never had the opportunity (yet), doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Don’t be the Lucretius fool.
- Research. And then research some more: Put Google to work. This research is especially important when you are making broad assumptions about entire markets. When people tell me about “restaurants not having money,” I ask what their business would look like tomorrow, if all of a sudden, they had the top performing 0.1% of the 250k independent restaurants in the US as customers. They then let me know their business would be crushed with the demands of 250 customers.
- Conduct customer development interviews: Interview anyone you can get your hands on in the market you want to serve or at the level you want to help. Ask about their problems. Have them walk you through their workflows. Not just for doing their work, but ask about the steps they take to procure contracts. I got lucky early on because we pitched (andlost) a fifty thousand dollar deal when I was 23. Going through that process was one more notch in my unofficial MBA. The experience taught me how to win future work of that size.
- Network with other agency owners above your level: Get amentor. Or grab lunch or coffee with others doing the same thing you are, but who are further along than you. There are over a hundred thousand agencies in the US, worldwide probably over a million. Find companies that have the type of work you want in the future today. Ask the owners out to coffee with little other agenda than, “I want to learn from you.”
- Ask, “What would I have to do if…”
Consider your goals. If you’re selling low four figures now, and you want that first ten k project, and the answer to that question is you’d need to start working with different types of clients. Then start down that path of exploring how to get around other people. Change your habits. Instead of attending the local WordPress meetup, attend a conference that is not in our industry. You’ll quickly be blown away at the millions of dollars spent. A customer of mine just when to a pet food expo with thousands of potential businesses in his niche.
- Push yourself a little on every deal: Weynand at Mighty Citizen didn’t start at seven-figure deals. In my conversations with him, he began in his college dorm selling websites for a few thousand dollars (just like everyone else). Weynand kept pushing himself on every deal. Progress might seem slow in a year, but the power ofcompounding interest affects this type of effort as well. Nick’s business is nineteen years old, those little pushes along the way add up to significant numbers.
Now Go Forth
If you started today believing that getting seven-figure work was impossible, I hope by now I’ve helped you see that not only is it possible, but it is well within your grasp over your lifetime. I don’t think my recommendation would be to go from selling a four thousand dollar website to a million dollar project next week. There is much risk with more significant projects. Complexities with larger scopes and more people involved.
I’ve seen several agencies crumble (or go through needlessly stressful downturns) because they overcommit their business to a big whale project. Think of building up your project budgets like lifting weights or other physical activity. You need to stress out your muscles within an acceptable range. Tissue grows, and then you can lift bigger and bigger weights until you become Arnold. Doesn’t happen overnight, but surprisingly can occur within a couple of years.
If you go down the path to seven-figure work, the skills that you have today might not be as relevant. You might find yourself spending more of your time hiring and recruiting talent, pushing spreadsheets around to calculate cost analysis, and flying to pitch meetings.
The good news is that those are solved problems. They take time to learn, and you need to grow into that line of work over time. The first step is setting your mind to this goal. Determining that you want to get there one day is the most critical part of the whole opportunity.
As I’ve seen from the inside of many agencies, bigger isn’t always better. I’ve met agency owners of one or two people firms that make far more profit at the end of the year than some big shops. Some have incredible flexibility in where and how they choose to work.
The last and most important question you’ll need to ask yourself is why.
Asking this question is where our egos are terrible guides. If you want to sell seven figure work so you can tell people you sell seven figure work, that is not going to get you there (or maybe it would, but once you arrive, you might not have the stomach to stay). However, if you look at the organizations making these investments, and see problems, you could help them solve, and you see that as rewarding and meaningful work, then perhaps this is a journey you should consider.
Regardless of whether seven figure work is right for you, I do hope that you push yourself outside of your comfort zone at some level. Whether that is with the size of work you are pursuing, or the focus you have on a specific market. Growing yourself is just as important as increasing your revenues.
And remember to enjoy the journey along the way.
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