Location Rebel Case Study: How to Build a Web Development Business

This is a guest post by Tristan King, Location Rebel Graduate and Founder of Shopify Ninjas, a small web development business which specializes in Shopify and building Bilingual Ecommerce Stores.

I’ve known Tristan for a little over a year and a half.  He’s been a part of Location Rebel and even helped me out with the launch of a product last year.  His transformation has been amazing.  In the time since he joined he’s left his job, built a business that routinely does 5 figures a month, and traveled throughout South America for a few months with his wife.

He’s a perfect example of how to build skills and build a business on your own in a year or less.

With that, take it away Tristan!

“Why is no one talking to each other? Are they asleep?”

I thought deeply as I printed another corporate presentation, looking around the 11th-floor office space where I worked. A hundred people, all seemingly awake, but not a word. Blank, drained faces stared at their screens.

“I’m over this.”

I felt drained of energy and of motivation. I needed a change.

***

Fast forward 18 months, and I now have my own business which I can run from anywhere. I genuinely like doing my work every day. I probably work harder than I did in my corporate jobs, but I have so much more flexibility that it’s 100% worth it. After 4 months, I was able to replace my corporate income from my previous life as a usability consultant / web globalisation lead, and I now choose which projects I work on.

My goals: To be able to travel more, spend time doing things I enjoy, and spend more time studying foreign languages.

It’s not all unicorns and glitter, and I hustle every single day, but it’s worth it for me. A recent 3-month trip around South America to visit my wife’s family proved the concept. This post is a detailed look at five real-life steps you can take action on, towards becoming a Location Rebel.

Note: I’m far from finished yet, and am still learning every single day. I have a long way to go before I’m qualified to give ‘real’ business strategic advice, but I do feel I’m able to offer some suggestions – and hopefully, help you avoid some mistakes I made in my 3-year journey to build a business.

STEP 1: Find people you aspire to be like. Take ACTION to start becoming like them. Get your hands dirty and try things out.

No-one builds a business by daydreaming all day, or reading their Facebook feed endlessly. People who take action get stuff done.

Just like Sean found a mentor in Chris Guillebeau, I recognised Sean as someone I could look up to. He’d done some great things, had a positive attitude, and had worked hard to build a life on his own terms. I’d been reading his blog for months, inspired by the message and the journey.

While brainstorming and looking for opportunities to break away from the corporate lifestyle and start on my own path, I spied a job advertisement for an unpaid internship with Sean.

“YouTube Video Required”. This sentence intimidated me – no-one likes seeing themselves on film – but it was a great chance to learn and be involved in fun projects, via the Location 180 Internship. I grabbed the video camera, wrote a short script, and immediately and went down to the park to record a 2-minute snippet. After 13 takes, I was happy with it and sent it off with my application.

I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Internship, and worked with Sean on his Facebook Profile, Twitter Profile, and the launch of Hacking The High Life. I started learning from day one, and Sean was a fantastic mentor in helping me build my own business while I helped on some of his exciting projects. He also made fantastic suggestions on how I could build up my skills.

I also joined Location Rebel and started devouring the blueprints immediately. I studied the SEO blueprint, and the skills I learnt there helped in my current business, to rank above almost all developers for the term “Shopify” (I’m on page 2), and #1 for “Shopify bilingual” and “Shopify multilingual“. I also studied in-depth on Web Development, gradually improving my skills to the point where I was more knowledgeable than my clients – building Relative Expertise.

STEP 2: Find an idea that gains traction with REAL people, build up your knowledge, and work hard at getting your first 3 clients.

I tried over 10 online business ideas before I started seeing some traction with Shopify Ninjas. (Some of these failures are listed at the end of this post). Shortly after building a website for a hard-goods product, a friend asked me how I built one of my websites for a side project:

“That’s cool.. can you build me one?”. Sure.

“Oh, I need a website too”. Can do.

On came the light bulb. I’d been involved in the web for 10+ years, but had never taken on my own business. I’d built several websites for 5+ side projects, all of which had failed, but each one led me on to the next step or a new skill somehow.

I applied for development gigs on eLance, oDesk, and in forums. I created Google Alerts for key terms, and set up an RSS feed for job openings in my area (Shopify Development). There were more opportunities than I thought, and I applied to several.

I spent several Friday nights coding and researching and learning (nerd alert). I read tons of business books to devour as much as I possibly could.

Gradually, more clients started saying yes. My rate went from $55 to $60 to $80 and beyond, due to higher and higher demand and more items in my portfolio. Once I became qualified as an Official Shopify Expert, lots more work started coming in.

Specific suggestions:

  • Are there ‘official channels’ where people look for experts in your field? For me, this was the Shopify Experts portal. I know for a fact that Freshbooks also has an Experts Section, as does Volusion and many other systems. Does yours? If not, can you build expertise in an area which does have a clear need for experts?

  • Are there Job Boards or Gig postings in your area of expertise?

  • Do you have any friends or family who could use your services? Even if you do work for free, would they give you a testimonial?

STEP 3: Build Testimonials, Your Body Of Work & Be Memorable

Get Testimonials: After each contract – no matter how small – ask for a testimonial. Just sending a link isn’t good enough. Call them up, or ask them very politely via email.

Here’s a template you can use:

Hi [X],

I was just wondering, would you mind helping me out with a quick review if you have a moment? This is completely optional, but the reviews really help us as they go onto our public profile.

If you have 30 seconds, you can write a quick one here > [LINK]

In any case, I really appreciate you working with us – have a great one and chat to you later.

Thanks,

Tristan.

Post the testimonials on your website: NOT just in a page called “testimonials” where very few people will actively look – post them in and around your other content. This provides social proof. Stick them in your proposal documents too, so potential clients know you’re the real deal.

Showcase your work: A portfolio (writing, photography, websites, whatever you do) is essential. People want to see what you’ve done before they hire you. It also makes it easier for you to quote, because clients will reference work you’ve done and want to replicate it.

Be memorable: Why should your clients remember you and come back for more?

One way I (try to) do this is by sending hand-written, personalised thank you cards to every client at the end of every engagement. Whether it’s a $200 gig or a $5,000 website build, all clients get a thank you card in the snail mail.

This is cheap and it’s kind of fun too. People remember. Last year I sent postcards from Peru. Lots of clients commented on that. It’s not every day you get a Postcard of a Llama – people love it.

Llama postcards are fun. (The grey bits are just blocking out addresses.)

STEP 4: Scale & Grow Sustainably, Without Killing Yourself

I wanted to grow my business sustainably, without sacrificing on the quality of our work or going insane from impossible workloads.

Even if you have lots of inquiries coming in, establish which kinds of clients are a good fit, and politely decline those that are not. This helps you set boundaries, establish a great base of clients, and keep your integrity & quality up.

For example: I like diving, so our company donates a small amount each month to an organisation that protects ocean wildlife. I once receive an inquiry to build a website selling hunting tags (e.g. “This deer was killed by John Smith on 01/01/2014”). I declined it, even though it could have been lucrative, because it didn’t suit my values – I couldn’t be supporting wildlife on one hand, and promoting hunting on the other.

I now have two fantastic developers – one in Sweden, one in the US – with whom I work very closely. They help me with development work. I manage the bulk of business development, marketing, and a lot of web development as well.

I hired both of these very smart, flexible gentlemen from within the ranks of Location Rebel.

I’ve just hired my first Virtual Assistant, which is a work in progress.

My suggestion is not to scale too quickly, or you’ll end up burning yourself out. Identify profitable, repeatable elements of your business, and gradually hire others to take care of them.

STEP 5: Combine business with passion.

As a Shopify Developer and bigtime foreign-language geek, I was frustrated with the lack of a way to build a bilingual website (i.e. a website in two languages). There were some options out there, but in my opinion they either didn’t work well, were too expensive to be widely scaled, or too complicated to set up.

To solve this problem for store owners – and to combine my passion of foreign languages with Shopify development – we created the first ever Bilingual Shopify Theme. This allows store owners to manage two langauges on their website (like this one, our demo store).

This was launched less than a month ago so it’s still quite new, and it’s been really fun so far seeing stores created in Russian, Spanish, French and Chinese – and the list grows every week

What’s next? I’m still working on all these points, especially 4 (scale) and combining passion and business (5). Shortly I’ll be taking a trip to Vietnam for part-business and part-holiday, continuing to learn French, and moving to South East Asia in January to enjoy the sunshine, beach, diving, food, and continue building the business.

For Fun: Some Failed Examples

For fun, here are some side projects I started (and failed at) before Shopify Ninjas started gaining traction and became my full time business. Each is accompanied by a skill I learned from the failure in parenthesis.

  • Selling PhotoBooks online – failed because it’s too competitive (How to install WordPress)

  • Selling Compression Gear Online – failed due to quality control & shipping issues (How to build a Shopify website)

  • Selling iPad Covers Online – failed due to lack of demand & lack of market testing (How to REALLY customise a Shopify store, and led to my first two paying clients)

  • Creating 15+ translation-based websites in Germany – We still get occasional inquiries, but overall not enough marketing / traction (How to build WordPress sites en-mass, how to customise them; how to set up custom email addresses; how to configure domain names, etc.)

Wrap-Up & Key Takeaways

If you’ve come this far, here are the key points I’d love for you to take away from this article, and consider looking into for your business – real or future.

  1. You don’t need to be the expert in order to get started. You just need to be a relative expert.

    Do you know more than your clients? Can you help them get where they want to go, at a reasonable price that is also profitable for you?

    If so, you probably have enough to get started. You can build your ultimate expertise over time, but if you can help someone less knowledgeable than you, you can start. If you don’t feel like a relative expert yet, consider joining Location Rebel to build up on skills like Project Management, SEO Writing, WEb Development, Pay Per Click and a lot of othe real-life skills that are proven to have a market.

    Another great option for technical skills is Lynda.com – this has specific video courses you can take to learn almost any computer-related skill. I recently took a course on Lynda.com to learn how to use Twitter Bootstrap, which helped me build our Bilingual Shopify Theme.

  2. There are probably ways to reach your customers that you haven’t considered yet. How can you target where people are actually looking for your service or product?

    In my business, I know there’s still a lot of untapped resources and platforms I can continue building on. I’ve barely done any work on my social media presence up until now, and there are countless design-related blogs and website I could target.

    Where else can you find customers in your niche or business area? Are there job forums, gigs, eLance or oDesk categories, official expert portals or other website where people looking for your services hang out?

  3. How can you build real-life testimonials (not just from your mom) and showcase them to achieve a snowball effect of promotion?

    The more testimonials you have, and the more powerful they are, the more impact they’ll have on customers. They’ll help convince new clients that they should hire you.

  4. How can you build a passion area into your business?
    This can be easier said than done, and it might take some time. It took me a year to introduce my passion for languages into my web development business – but it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve done since I started Shopify Ninjas.

    Think hard about how your passion could relate to your business, and ask for feedback from real customers as to whether they think it’d be worthwhile.

***

Lastly – if there’s anything I (Tristan) or Sean can do to help, give suggestions or answer questions, feel free to post in the comments section below.

***

If you’re interested in the Bilingual Shopify Theme or have a question about Shopify, you can find Tristan at www.shopifyninjas.com.

Ian Pickering August 14, 2013 at 9:44 am

Thanks for the great advice!
It is especially cool to read about the success of someone who is a LR member.

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Tristan King August 14, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Thanks Ian! Glad you liked it. LR really works :)

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John Gibb August 14, 2013 at 10:23 am

Hi Guys

Some of the key lessons we can learn from Tristan are essentials to any business, niche or industry I’d say…

1. Analyze demand before starting a project or creating a product…

2. Start multiple projects and don’t let your first failure hold you back (some guys quit the Internet, blogging or whatever, on their first fall, that’s too bad…)

3. Perseverance and passion is the name of the game

That’s all I had to say, for more about my experiments with niche sites and affiliate marketing, read the PDF report I give away…

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Tristan King August 15, 2013 at 4:08 pm

Glad you liked it John. Definitely agree. Especially on analysing demand before starting a project. Good to hear you’ve been doing lots of experiments too!
- Tristan.

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Simon August 14, 2013 at 2:07 pm

Tristan, if you don’t mind me asking, what does your wife do for work? How is she able to take off and travel with you for months at a time?

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Tristan King August 15, 2013 at 4:09 pm

Hey Simon! Sure. She paused her job at that time (for 3 months) while we travelled. During the trip, she did a little work locally and also helped me on a few things related to my business. I’m lucky that she’s flexible ;-)

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Tristan King August 14, 2013 at 3:22 pm

Thanks for having me on as a guest Sean. I’m honored, and very thankful for all the hard work & effort you’ve put into Location Rebel. Lastly but not least – all the suggestions, advice and help along the way has made a massive difference to my business, and life. Cheers to that :)

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Navid Moazzez August 15, 2013 at 6:42 pm

I love to read case studies about Location Rebel members. Great post and advice Tristan!

I just became a member of Location Rebel and looking to dig into the different courses soon, as I need to start offering something for sale on my personal blog I recently launched. And LR can really help me learn some new and well needed skills.

Glad to hear about your success!

All the best,
Navid

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Tristan King August 15, 2013 at 7:51 pm

Hi Navid,
All soundsn good. Great to hear you joined up, I’m sure you’ll do great. Look forward to hearing more about your success later on too.
Tristan.

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Ben Cameron August 15, 2013 at 7:07 pm

Love it! I really enjoy web development, still an absolute beginner so I appreciate the road map.

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Tristan King August 15, 2013 at 7:52 pm

Hi Ben,
Glad you liked it! We all start out as beginners ;-) Remember, you only need to be better than the clients you’re serving!
Best of luck
- Tristan.

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Hazel Lau August 17, 2013 at 6:54 pm

Hey Tristan,

I truly appreciate you for sharing your experiences and success in your Location Rebel business. It means a lot to me as I run a similar service-based side business!

Just to give you a little background, my sister and I run Kindle Station. We transform your manuscript into a ready-to-sell Kindle book and complement it with essential book marketing tools. My sister is a graphic designer, she handles all the creativity tasks in our projects while I’m the “marketing girl” in our business, I learn and apply marketing strategies, branding, acquiring clients, closing etc.

How do you manage a service-based business and enjoy a location independent lifestyle?

I mean, there will be time that you’re not available to your clients and you have to keep the business running. You and I are not selling info product or having a high traffic blog. The business is not automated or passive in that sense.

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Tristan King August 18, 2013 at 6:42 pm

Hi Hazel,

Glad you liked the article and thanks for reading. Sounds like an interesting business you have there. For me, the location-independence angle all depends on how you interact with your clients. If you *have* to be face-to-face, it’s a lot more difficult.

Much of my communication with clients tends to be over the phone, Skype, or email. I still respond quickly most of the time – almost always within 24 hours – but I use these tools to make it easier to move around. I also do have face-to-face meetings from time to time. If I’m not available, my two (great) developers will often back me up via Email, Skype or Phone. It’s good to have a team behind you.

You and your sister could consider covering for each other while the other one is out, and get your clients comfortable with using Skype, Phone and Email instead of face-to-face.

Hope that helps.

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FERNANDO August 17, 2013 at 11:01 pm

Great article with amazing ideas and motivation. Location 180 has triggered my interest to start learning SEO and I currently run a Web Development and SEO services company after reading “How to Become an SEO Freelancer in 48 Hours” It’s one of the best article I read earlier.
Really enjoyed your tips on choose the client with whom we would like to work and compatible with our our values in life. This is something I got burned out several time after getting clients who were a pain on the ass.

Also presenting the testimonials on several places of the website is good point which I never thought before. Thanks for the mention.

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Tristan King August 18, 2013 at 6:43 pm

Hi Fernando,
Glad you liked it and sounds like you’re making great progress already. Thanks for reading.
- Tristan.

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Chas August 20, 2013 at 7:12 pm

I really enjoyed reading your story. It was really interesting seeing the examples of your failures and how they prepared you for your future success. You are very good at writing. Thanks for sharing your journey.

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Tristan King August 20, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Hi Chas,
Thanks for reading and I’m glad you liked the article =)
Tristan.

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Gary August 22, 2013 at 6:41 pm

Hi Tristan,

Great to read your story and feel I can really relate as I’m a huge language lover! I’m fluent in Thai, Lao, and pretty good with Chinese as well as dabbling in Vietnamese, Cambodian, Burmese, and Hmong. My wife is actually Thai and is currently trying to set up a business on Shopify so needless to say I thoroughly enjoyed your post. We’re very interested in entrepreneurship, especially online, but despite the many ideas we’ve come up with we just can’t figure out the demand portion. And of course everybody says don’t just run with an idea because you think it’s great because your business needs to be based off of consumer demand! Well, I hope you have a great time in SE Asia, it’s an absolutely amazing place!!
Gary

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Tristan King August 25, 2013 at 5:21 pm

Hey Gary,
Thanks for reading. Quite an impressive list of languages you have under your belt! Looking forward to trying my hand at some South East Asian languages. I speak Japanese, but that’s the extend of my Asian languages.

Sounds like you’re on the right track with the business direction – absolutely, needs to be based off demand, not falling in love with our own ideas (like I did with several of the failures listed in the post). If there’s one tip I’d give, it’s not to spend *too* much time validating an idea. Just get it out there and see if you get some customers, and what they want.

I LOVED this discussion with Noah Kagan from App Sumo about this… really worth a watch >http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2013/08/08/low-risk-entrepreneurship/

In any case, I’m sure you’ll do great. Just a bit of extra food for thought.
Best of luck!
Tristan.

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David Anderson August 27, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Tristan,

Most success stories focus on what they did to succeed, but you on the other hand not only talk about your failures, you give detailed examples. This story really speaks to me and actually sounds real.

I love how you wrote out postcards. You never see that these days! It reminds me when my entrepreneurial step dad got me to hand write holiday letters to my clients when I was 14 years old running a mobile car detailing service. That business lasted 5 years, and those letters helped me so much in the beginning.

Thank you for this. I look forward to seeing your progress through Location Rebel (I joined last month!)

-DA

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Tristan King August 27, 2013 at 5:07 pm

Hey David,
Thanks for reading and glad you liked the article. Successes are fun to read, but sometimes the failures are more interesting ;-)

The postcards were fun – I really like writing those cards. It doesn’t take long and people love it. Sounds like you already picked that up years ago with your car business.

See you in LR!
- Tristan.

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Rahul December 12, 2013 at 4:12 am

Hi Tristan,
Thank you for a really nice article. It not only gives motivation to start something new and in case of failure not to give up, but also helps to understand what could be the mistakes while starting a business.
I have a question regarding your Virtual Assistant. Did you meet that person in real life before hiring, or was it enough for you to meet that person online? That is just my curiosity.
Thanks in advance for your answer.

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Tristan King December 12, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Hey Rahul,
Thanks and glad you liked the article. My VA and I have never met in person, but we speak regularly on Skype video chat, plus Trello (our project management tool) and email. I found her through zirtual.com.

Hope that helps! :)
Tristan.

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