Origins

By Erik Reagan

Lately I’ve been thinking about where Focus is today compared to where we started from. After going through some old emails, I thought it would be fun to share my first contact with Bill along with how we got the Focus ball rolling.

Origins Alt

It started when I found his freelancing website (“Ideal Design” was the original name). He was looking for some Flash help here in the Savannah area. I was working three jobs at the time: Retail Jewelry, Worship Leader (church music) and freelance web work (“Designs by Erik”, if you can believe that). I contacted Bill in early December of 2006. In then-typical Bill fashion, he replied a couple of weeks later not really knowing how long ago I’d emailed him. Here’s a snippet of the conversation. Emails have not been edited.

Bill first email:

Erick,
You may not remember but you emailed me a couple months ago about job openings. I am currently looking for someone who is very knowledgeable in Flash and other web programming.
Please let me know if you are familiar enough to build complete sites on Flash or just intros etc.
Look forward to hearing from you.

Me:

Bill,
Good to hear from you. I’ve been working with flash on and off since version 4 and have loved it the whole time. I’ve done simple animated intros with almost no programming involved to entirely dynamic flash sites (most recently using flashCMS by Flash Loaded). Since I do not use Flash regularly it’s not the fastest thing I do. On top of that, I’m extremely busy right now with working fulltime at Helzberg Diamonds in the Oglethorpe Mall and also leading worship at Live Oak Community Church. The only work I can offer with a decent time frame attached right now is html/css/php/etc. Flash would need more time than I have. If your deadlines aren’t around the corner then I’d be happy to work with you. But if it’s something you need very soon then I’m afraid I may not be the best help. The Christmas season in retail is insane! Let me know what I can do, if anything. Hope to talk with you soon. :)

Bill:

Erik,
I am still interested in having you take on html/css/php jobs if you feel that you have time. I have so many clients that its hard to keep them all happy. I have a ton of print work as well as Web jobs going right now. If you are willing to take on a job or two that would be great. The first job I have is not that bad. Its for a local famous artist who wants have his site redesigned. It will feature about 10-20 of his paintings with brief descriptions and purchase links to his email. A small background song and that’s it. Preferably build with the option for him to sign in a upload new paintings or remove old ones. If you have or know of any php already built for that, and you can just customize to what we need then that’s fine to. I have other jobs as well but I know you are busy. If you are interested let me know. We can meet up and go over stuff. Ultimately I will be looking for a Web designer so I can handle all the Print and Photography. Let me know how this may suit you…

Me:

Bill,
I’d love to help out. I am actually putting the finishing touches on a photo gallery script I’ve been working on for 2 clients. It’s a gallery I plan to use with future clients as well. I took a free photo gallery script I found online and tweaked it a bit. I also have a CMS that I tweaked a lot for my clients. It was also a free news blog that I just turned into a CMS. I’m may end up writing the gallery into the CMS but who knows. Anyways, let me tell you my schedule for the next week so you have something to look at to plan to possibly meet. My schedule is weird because of working in the mall so here we go:
[schedule clipped]
I don’t have my schedule for work beyond that but I will have it soon. If you’d like to get together somewhere in there just let me know when and where. If you’d ever care to give me a call you can reach me at [redacted]. Looking forward to meeting with you.

In the conversation above, we scheduled our first meeting of the minds which was at a local Applebee’s over dinner. We talked about the project Bill had in mind, but in the process also talked about our respective dreams. I wanted to run a business someday and Bill wanted to build up what he had. We were both working multiple jobs to get by and busting our butts with the hopes that one day our freelancing gigs could be something bigger. Bill and I saw some convergence in these dreams.

By the end of that first meeting, Bill proposed we just tackle this business thing together — as partners. I was quite shocked considering I was just there to get some more freelance work at the time. Regardless, I said I’d consider it and I liked the initial sound of it. Later that week we decided to join forces. The next month, at the beginning of 2007, we started working together.

Structure and Sustainability

In our early days, Bill and I both had other jobs so we simply worked on our client projects whenever we could. We rarely met in person, despite being in the same city. It was difficult with my schedule across three jobs; and his job was literally 45 minutes from any of my jobs. So we just emailed and IMed back and forth.

Bill and I had existing client bases by the time we met so we just worked from that. You may have caught this in his emails above, but his goal was to relinquish the web design duties so he could focus on print design and photography. Oh, how times have changed.

When we met, Bill was charging about $10 per hour more than I was. With our first unified project we bumped our rate up to account for the added value of two heads versus one. Perhaps it was just our own perceived value at the time. While digging through old emails for this post, I found one of our first project invoices where we both did the work for the whole thing. The project started two months after we met and was 100% Flash work. Here’s a snippet from the invoice:

We will be creating and modifying a full flash website and introduction to [domain name]. Along with this new flash site will be the availability for users to register for events and pay for them online.

The project spanned a few months and the total cost to the client was next to nothing. It didn’t take long for us to realize that our pricing was far too low to support our goal of doing this full time. We didn’t have a sustainable model and we had to change something.

But how do we make more money? Is it new prices? New services? New clients? These are questions were were starting to ask ourselves regularly. (Later we realized the better question was about profit, not revenue.) Little did we know how important those questions were and how much the answers would shape Focus Lab’s future. In a future article I’ll go into more detail on how we slowly answered those questions.

Design

Most people reading this blog know of Bill Kenney’s philosophy of simplicity in design. He has a particular style that follow’s writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s quote, “It seems that perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Suffice it to say Bill didn’t start his design career that way.

Here are some screenshots of the amazing work from our early days:

The code behind most of these projects is jumbled up PHP 4.x with a variety of CMSs powering the sites. This was also a time of everyone validating everything so we had the usual suspects of CSS, XML and HTML validation icons in the footers etc.

Process

We didn’t really have a defined process back then. Anyone could call or email us any time and we’d respond as fast as freakin’ possible in an unfounded fear of possibly losing the client. And of course, by “call us” I mean “call Bill’s cell phone.” That’s the best we could do at the time.

We worked crazy hours (remember, this was my side, side job) and did everything through email. It’s amazing we made it longer than a year.

After a site would launch we would do small changes for free constantly. We had no conception of post-launch billable time. Our business was going nowhere fast. To put it into E-Myth author Michael Gerber’s words, we were two Technicians simply “paying our dues” early in the game. Thankfully we didn’t continue that pattern for too long.

I’m happy to say we learned a lot of lessons along the way. Enough to keep food on the table and slowly begin to build what we have today. As far as I’m concerned we’re still very early in the Focus Lab timeline, but we’ve covered some good ground thus far.

What about your origin?

It’s fun to look back at our origin from time to time. It really wasn’t that long ago when I was regularly working 14 hours a day across three jobs. I’m glad that period is behind me but I got tremendous value from the things I learned then.

What about you? What did your early days look like?