Sarah is like the gold standard amongst web designers and small business owners. I first came across her when she did her AMA session (link works for Circle members only) for the Squarespace Circle community - I was seriously impressed by her knowledge and candor. And of course that turquoise wall in her office! Sarah also runs one of the best designer biz groups on Facebook, it’s called LWS Design Collective (LWS stands for Ladies Who Squarespace) and is a wonderful place to meet fellow designers and get advice, feedback, tips and heartfelt commiseration if you need to let some steam off. The quality of the group definitely speaks to Sarah’s community spirit, she’s super helpful, supportive and professional. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!
Sarah Moon is the founder of Sarah Moon + Co, a design and strategy studio with deep digital roots. SMCo crafts web design and strategy solutions for knowledge businesses, experts and boundary pushing organizations, as well as business advising for designers and similar creative business owners. Based in Portland, Oregon, Sarah loves dogs, sunshine, unfiltered Carignan and pizza—not necessarily in that order.
1) What is your professional background and how did you get into Squarespace web design?
I have worked in communications management since college, so 20ish years or so. I started in public relations for government and nonprofit organizations, with a focus on digital, and can a couple of marketing/communications departments and also served as a Public Information Officer (spokesperson), which means I've been on TV, quoted in the newspaper (back when people read printed ones), and was on radio quite often as well. I've been on NPR, in the Washington Post, on Telemundo (even though I don't speak Spanish), and on local and national news. Crazy, right? Crazy stressful, too! When I got laid off due to the recession in 2008, I looked around me and saw that there were very few options for jobs, since everyone was downsizing. I'd always had freelance or personal projects so I figured at least if I was running the show, I had more control than if I left my job prospects up to someone else.
While at that point I was focused more on content creation, digital was my wheelhouse and clients I worked with needed websites and worked with clients on creating blogs and websites, usually on WordPress. I stumbled upon Squarespace when I was teaching web design at the college level and I kept getting artists taking my classes and getting frustrated by all the techy stuff. So I created a workshop at the college that was focused on portfolio creation for creative professionals—this was version 5, I believe (which I loved, the billing center was awesome, as was the ability to have multiple stylesheets on a single site). I was invited to beta test version 6 and Layout Engine, and built a good relationship with several people over at Squarespace, who helped me with some tools for my students at the college.
I also was added to the Squarespace Specialists list, which was when no one was using Squarespace, so while it's not much of a lead generator now, then it was a nice steady source of new clients who were frustrated trying to DIY their websites. I was fortunate enough to develop a reputation for being able to deeply customize Squarespace and worked on some very large websites for well-known companies and organizations as a result. With that said, we're a "platform agnostic" project and with the exception of Design in a Day™, which is an exclusively Squarespace solution right now, we evaluate every project and match it with the platform that will best meet their goals.
In 2014, I hired my husband (whose background is in higher education and is my behind the scenes sounding board about literally everything) and shortly thereafter I met Kath O'Malley, who works with us on nearly everything (we could not do it without Kath, she's the very very best). The three of us are our core "team" at SMCo, but we also work with the fab Olivia Lopez (of Olivia Design & Co), Ashli from Flight Path ATX (her infographics are dreamy), the guys at SEO Bros (I actually love SEO work, since it's research and that's my jam, but I had to let that go to clear some stuff off my plate), and an assortment of other collaborators as is appropriate. I don't believe in subcontracting, in believe in collaboration—I trust team members to do amazing work so we can all deliver high value in an efficient manner to clients.
2) What was your safety net (e.g. a partner, another job, savings etc.) when you first started out and how did that help you?
Well, I had a few months of unemployment which was minimal (but the state ran out of money—the recession hit Oregon hard), and then I got a part time communications job that paid terribly and had no benefits, but it was money while I built my business. I did that for a couple years until I'd established a steady income. In retrospect, I probably should have quit six months earlier, but that was a scary leap!
I HIGHLY recommend the part time route so you can be more selective when you're starting out. I know it's not glamorous, but it will force you into a schedule and routine and it will give you a bit of freedom to work with the right clients, rather than operating from a position of stress that you just have to land every client in order to pay your mortgage, health insurance, and power bill.
We were also fortunate at that time because Portland was still a relatively affordable city (it's not now), so our home was cheap and the general cost of living was still low. I could not have lived on that part time job in Portland now, nor could I have in a pricier city at the time. Honestly, if you can cut your living expenses, it makes starting a business so, so much easier. Again, not super glamorous stuff, but it helps a lot!
3) How many websites did you design during your first year and how did your clients find you? Please share three sites you designed during that time.
Hmmm.. I really can't recall how many, it was a handful (fewer than 10). I was also doing other work at that time as well, writing, blog posts, social media training, you name it. I can tell you that I wrote AT LEAST 500 blog posts that year, and probably closer to 700. No exaggeration! I had a near daily blogging habit and also had to write a post a day for the part time job I mentioned. To this day, I can write quickly, and I that that's a hugely useful skill. But I digress...
These Squarespace projects weren't from the first year (I don't know if any of those are up now), but here are a few that are still active in their original-ish state. We're fortunate that clients stick with us and we have several clients who are on their 3rd or 4th website iteration with us.
Bone Sculpture - http://www.bonesculpture.com/ This is the artist website for actor Jerry Hardin (he was Deep Throat in the X-Files), and his work is AMAZING. This was an early project, right after v6 was released to the public.
Crash America - http://crashamerica.com This is a shop owned by Mike King, whom I mentioned above, and the first Squarespace store I worked on. Mike is a neat guy, very creative and I love his work.
Wander Nature - https://www.wandernature.com/ I've had a blog (varying topics) since 2006 and I would not be doing what I do if it weren't for blogging and the blogging community, so early on, I attracted a lot of blog projects. Claire blogs every Wednesday and I love seeing what she's spotted out in nature.
None of these sites are particularly representative of the sort of work our company does now. You can see more current work at https://sarahmoon.net/our-work
4) Do you have a niche market, or a specialty, or are you more of a generalist?
Sarah Moon + Co specializes in websites and strategy for knowledge businesses, experts and boundary-pushing organizations. So, essentially our clients are thought leaders in their fields. More narrowly, about half our clients are attorneys and boutique law firms, and another quarter or so are nonprofit organizations. I have a particular interest in advocacy for animal shelters and animal welfare organizations, so we do probono and partially probono work for those organizations when we are able.
We've developed a reputation for infusing strategy at every level (from Design in a Day™ to intensive custom projects), and so we attract clients who are very ambitious, committed to content marketing, and are eager for advice and expertise from people who've seen it all.
5) What are your five top tips for starting your own business?
1) Nail down your process.
I cannot emphasize this enough! When you're confident in how you approach your work, clients feel it and are confident in you and your advice. I have every single step of everything we do mapped out in MindMeister, which sounds bonkers, but I never have questions about what the next steps are, because it's all documented. This means that I always have answers at the tip fo my fingers when people have questions, which makes me much more sane. We also have all of our forms, contracts, canned emails, you name it, in Dubsado, so all those component are easily accessible. I can't even measure the hours we save each week because of all this.
2) Evaluate every project after it's finished.
What worked, what didn't? Did you like this client? Their industry? Listen to yourself and begin developing a sense of what you do best and what makes you happiest. Say yes to those projects and no to those that don't fit that mould, as you are able financially.
3) Don't skimp on the essentials that take care of YOU.
What I mean is that you are your business' greatest asset, so you need to treat yourself that way. Make sure you have health insurance; take time to exercise (I go for an hour long walk with my dog every day); don't eat at your desk; invest in a quality, ergonomic chair; plan time off; watch your stress level; get disability insurance; do your hobbies. This also means that you'll probably get to a point where you shouldn't be doing everything on your own. Find amazing people who are good at the things that are draining you and collaborate with them so you're not doing it all. There's no glory in burnout! I have a little side endeavor doing business consulting for designers and other creative folks and so many of them are suffering from burnout, stress and even health issues from this job and you can't let it eat you like that. It's not only bad for you, you can't do good work either.
4) Don't do what everyone else is doing.
Embrace your unique point of view and your particular ability to make your clients shine. I see so many new business owners (not just designers) try to emulate those they perceive as successful and it's simply inauthentic and plain weird! Use language and visual style that is true to you and speaks to your audience. Trust me!
5) Don't bill hourly. Just don't.
Hourly billing is bad for clients, and it's bad for you. Establish fixed scope, fixed rate pricing, learn about value pricing and how and when to implement it, and consider productizing a service. (Also, you'll probably want to double your rates—I'm just saying!)
I'm happy to offer a discount on a Designer Business Strategy Session! If you'd like $20 off, click here and use the code STUDIO5. This is basically your chance to get advice on anything that's making you tear your hair out: pricing, productizing services, niching, processes, client relationships, whatever!
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