Justin and I met, as so often, in one of the Squarespace Facebook groups, I'm thinking it was Rockstars? He is actually the one who inspired me to start offering Ask-Me-Anything sessions because he was always asking me questions! :) He became my first AMA client and I really enjoyed meeting him in person this way, too. He is a great example of "leap and the net will appear" and I adore his can do attitude and how he is not afraid to reach out and go for what he believes in. It's been lovely to watch him grow as a designer and I am particularly intrigued by his commitment to getting the best out of Squarespace without relying on custom code, so to keep things truly manageable for his clients!
Next interview → Connie Holen from Pixality Design on August 23, 2018
My name is Justin Mabee. You may be looking at that twice, but, yes, my last name is said “maybe.” I’ve heard “Call Me Maybe” jokes more often than you’ve checked your Facebook. I work as a freelance Squarespace designer and an Authorized Squarespace Trainer. I’ve been working in Squarespace for 6 years and focus my projects on getting the most out of templates. The reason for this goal is to keep custom code out of designs - I have found that code tends to confuse a lot of business owners.
When I'm not designing awesome websites and helping clients grow their brands and business, I'm doing some (or all) of the following: watching movies, watching the latest episode of a new Netflix show (or The Office for the millionth time), cheering for the 2018 Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles and the Nashville Predators, drinking a cup of coffee, visiting a new Nashville restaurant, eating sushi, playing video games, or, most importantly, hanging out with my soon-to-be wife, Amy Sturgeon.
1) What is your professional background and how did you get into Squarespace web design?
I went to college for Music Business. I had every intention of moving to Nashville to pursue a career in the music industry. With that in mind, and because I wanted to review music professionally, I wanted to beef up my website for music reviews. Initially, I tried my hand at using Wix for site design and was really frustrated with the lack of page organization. From what I could see, this “feature” led to a lot of amateur sites looking like a mess with elements on top of other elements, and almost nothing was symmetrical. Looking for something more modern and stylish, I found an ad online for Squarespace, taught myself everything, and decided I’d never go back to anything else.
That was back in 2012. During that time and for the next five years, I worked a bunch of customer service jobs while I was building sites for friends and a few clients here and there. Last June I decided to quit the full-time customer service job that I was sure I needed to pay my bills. At the time I chose to work only as a site designer, I had been finding 1-2 projects each month that equaled what I was making at my day job. So I jumped.
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?
I really didn’t have one. My fiancé believed in me and we both knew I wasn’t happy in customer service. The month before I quit I told myself I could do this because of the steady clients I had found or who had found me. Of course, the first month after I quit, no projects came in. But I powered through.
In addition to my fiancé encouraging me to take the jump, I was part of a Mastermind group with a handful of other entrepreneurs. This group helped inspire and reassure me, as I had been the only one in the group with both a day job and a side business before choosing to go out on my own. The more I came to my group and told them where I was and how I was feeling, the more they urged me to consider quitting and focusing more time solely on my business.
I believe not having a safety net is what helped me most. Not knowing where your rent is coming from can definitely light a fire inside you to get your business in gear and find work.
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.
I started off working with DesignLive, now called Sixty, doing live screen-share sessions with clients that booked time with me for help on their Squarespace websites. That’s how I got a lot of my first clients, and it’s where I get a lot of clients today as well. The rest was from word of mouth and getting to know people around Nashville.
If we’re going with 2012, the first year, I’d probably point to Grimey’s. This is my longest client and still a client to this day. One of the oldest and most respected record stores in Nashville, they had a website they were updating from straight HTML code for 7-10 hours every week. I created a new site for them in Squarespace and they loved it. Currently, in tandem with them moving to a brand new expanded location this fall, we’ve already been working on a new redesign, as the previous design is over 5 years old. The site and their new building will launch this fall. I’ve already built the whole thing in Preview Mode, so it’s just waiting …
The first few years, when my business was small, a lot of my clients ended up being people I just happened to meet in Nashville. Some of these early sites were for former coworkers with their small businesses on the side or musicians I met out at shows. An example of this type of early site would be heatherbatchelormusic.com. This one has gone through a couple of redesigns in the last couple of years, even though I built it in 2012-13. Heather is a musician in Nashville and a wonderful singer/songwriter. We’ve been working on doing mini-refreshes every few months to promote her new music.
The third website I want to share is the first restaurant site I did a few years ago, in 2014-15. Rotier’s Restaurant is one of the oldest restaurants in Nashville, and they really needed a web presence. They also wanted to do online ordering from UberEats and Postmates, and couldn’t do that without a website.
4) Do you have a niche market, or a speciality, or are you more of a generalist?
I would say a generalist. When you look at my portfolio there are construction companies, flower shops, spas, and a safari vacation site just to name a few. I live in the south, and I tend to find a lot of leads coming from churches and musicians. As a resident of Music City and because of my background in music business, I actually have a discount I offer to all musicians that work with me. I also tend to work with a lot of small businesses, particularly ones who don’t have the time to put together a great looking site for their businesses.
5) What are your five top tips for starting your own business?
1. Define your rates, and stick to them (for a while).
The goal is to not change your rates with every client, but have your costs and prices set and work from that point. I say this with a grain of salt. Originally I had a flat rate for every project that I rarely deviated from, but eventually felt it was limiting. I found that I wasn’t working with as many smaller clients as I would like. To broaden my client reach, I decided that I wouldn’t charge hourly, but I would work in purchasable hourly blocks of 5, 10, or 20 hours. It tends to be a really good strategy, especially working with clients who have already started with Squarespace and become stuck.
Another reason I say to take it with a grain of salt is because my flat rates have changed - over time and as I hone my craft more and more, those rates have and will continue to go up.
2. Don’t be afraid to say no to small projects or weird scope projects.
Once you get into a groove with your business, it’ll become easy to say no to smaller projects, since you’ve got a steady cashflow or client base coming to you for help. Too often in the beginning I was taking tiny jobs that ended up being a lot more work at the end of the day. Those clients got a huge deal and I had a lot of work to do for a lot less than I should have been paid.
3. Invest in your equipment.
This might seem like a given, but I know a lot of people (business owners included!) who try to skate by with computers or gear they have, or who try to save money by getting something less expensive. If you need it to do your job, do your research and invest in it! This is one of the biggest reasons I use Squarespace in general, as a bunch of the other basic website builders out there don’t set your business up for the long haul. Just a few days ago I sent my work iMac out for upgrades. My gear at the time was slowing my productivity, and I needed it to be in tip-top shape to do my work. Don’t second guess it. (Plus, most of the time you can write it off as a business investment.)
4. Find your niche, and grow your network of experts.
When I first became self-employed, I was offering all kinds of services in addition to website design. I was doing graphics, logos, brochures, social media management, and even Mac repairs and tutorials on how to use your iPhone. Something I realized in doing that was I was trying to be too many things to too many people. I didn’t have a niche. How or why would I expect website design clients to also need Mac repairs? It made sense in my head, as I wanted to offer as many services as possible to get the most clients as possible, but it actually had the opposite affect. My business seemed fragmented. So I stripped everything away and focused on web design.
Do I still do Mac repairs? I can. Do I still do graphic design for clients? I can. But my focus is website design. If someone comes to me saying, “Hey, do you do this also?”, now I say, “I can, but I’d prefer to focus on web design. I can recommend someone in that field for you if you’d like.” This especially can happen with social media work. I’m the first to admit I’m not very good at social media. I can set stuff up and give you some pointers, but I don’t want it to be my main job.
5. Make the jump. Even if it terrifies you.
This is probably the most important thing I could tell anyone, and it’s the thing I end with all the time. There will never be a perfect time for you to start your business. No matter how much money you put aside, no matter how good you feel with your side business, no matter what your friends or family say, it’s never going to be absolutely perfect. There will be struggles, there will be downtime. Making the jump will light a fire inside you like you’ve never felt before. It’s freedom, and it’s terrifying, but it can be done.
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