Episode 5: Sara Dunn


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Hallway Chats - Ep. 5: Sara Dunn

Introducing Sara Dunn

Sara Dunn is the founder and project lead at 11 Web, a remote web agency based in Battle Creek Michigan. Her tiny team of four obsesses over design, WordPress (of course), local SEO, and clients online needs. Sara recently started a video series about specializing.



Show Notes

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Episode Transcript

Liam: This is Hallway Chats, where we talk with some of the unique people in and around WordPress.

Tara: Together, we meet and chat with folks you may not know about in our community.

Liam: With our guests, we’ll explore stories of living – and of making a living with WordPress.

Liam: Today’s show is brought to you in part by Nice Work. Nice Work is an established WordPress digital agency that strategizes and creates better user experiences for your clients that are authentic to your company’s voice and culture. We increase awareness, followers and conversion. For more information, look up getnicework.com.

Tara: And now, the conversation begins. This is episode 5.

Tara: Welcome to Hallway Chats I’m Tara Claeys.

Liam: I am Liam Dempsey. Today we are very lucky to be joined by Sara Dunn who is the founder and project lead at 11 Web, a remote web agency based in Battle Creek Michigan. Her tiny team of four obsesses over design, WordPress (of course), local SEO, and clients online needs. Sara recently started a video series about specializing.

Liam: Sara? Welcome!

Sara: Hi guys. Thanks, Tara and Liam for having me on.

Tara: Hi Sara! We’re happy to have you here. So Liam gave a nice introduction. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

Sara: Sure. You bet. My company’s name is 11 Web. We’ve been in business for about five years. I have a fully remote team. We are all very grateful to work from wherever we are. I’m here in southwest Michigan in Battle Creek, which is a lovely small town. I just love the opportunity that WordPress and Digital Marketing gives us to work from wherever we are. When I’m not working, you might find me traveling, hanging out with my husband of five years or our French bulldog Jetta.

Liam: I like traveling. Where have you been? Where do you like to go?

Sara: Everywhere. I love international travel. I love going to Europe. We took a wonderful trip to Croatia last year that was just transformational. I love the Adriatic Sea and everything there. So as much as I can get to Europe, I absolutely love to do that. My husband and I travel a lot in the US too. Thankfully he has a job that takes him all over. I’m very grateful that I have a job that I can take with me. Whenever he goes, I usually go with him.

Liam: That is awesome. I like that. I’m heading to Europe in a few weeks. I’m excited to go back.

Sara: That’s good! Where are you going?

Liam: I’m going to Germany.

Sara: Wonderful!

Liam: I’m going along with my wife on her job and taking our two children with us. We’re all pretty excited to go. So let me ask you a little bit about how you first got into WordPress, how you found it, how that came to be. Maybe you can even role in (if it did) how it affected your decision to go into business for yourself.

Sara: It’s really interesting. When I meet a lot of people, they ask if I went to school for web design, design, computers or something like that. There answer is no. Absolutely not. I do come from a family of computer science majors. I actually went to college for international business. I did end up with a minor in marketing just because I loved the course work. Website design and WordPress was not a direction that I went immediately after college. I actually started a different business. That’s quite a long and winding story. To be honest with you, the most fun that I had in that business was making the website for it. It was something that I took a lot of time to learn. I enjoyed every second of Googling, figuring things out and teaching myself. Another opportunity arose where a friend of mine needed help with a website (it was where their company had paid $5000 to have a website developed on Dreamweaver). A year later they just needed to update a phone number and add their Facebook link. That agency wanted to charge them another thousand dollars. I said, “that’s crazy!” I made a website before. I said we could put it on this thing called WordPress. That will allow you to make any change like that in the future without having to call a professional to do it. My journey to WordPress was really out of necessity and then realizing that it could also help other people. After I had helped that person, someone else found out I knew how to do this. It was just a hobby that grew and grew for about a year or so. Before I realized it, I really liked doing my hobby a lot more than I liked doing my first business. It was probably a good direction that I could take.

Liam: That’s awesome. So as you’re developing your love of WordPress and realizing that your hobby was much more entertaining and fulfilling to you than your day business (as we call it) what specifically was pulling you into WordPress? Was it the design? Was it the content capacity with development? Was it a combo of all three?

Sara: No actually since I had very little knowledge it was just the fact that it was an open source platform, a CMS that allowed anyone to make their own changes. That was the only reason I started with it because I could one-click install on GoDaddy and figure out how to customize a theme from the theme directory and go from there. I don’t quite remember how WordPress came to be or how I found it. I’m sure it was just through searching around and reading articles about the easiest to make a website yourself. This was years and years ago. I thought it was a pretty good way to go.

Tara: So it sounds like you and have embraced WordPress. Can you talk a little bit about how you discovered the WordPress community?

Sara: Oh my gosh! I’m embarrassed by this, but I developed on WordPress on an island for about four years. I didn’t know a lot of other people that did what I did. I didn’t know a lot of other WordPress users. I don’t know why. I think I was just more focused on finding people I could help and finding clients instead of “masterminding” with others or trying to find that type of support. I love this question, Tara, because this is really a new thing for me. It was only last year that I went to my first WordCamp (after working professionally in WordPress for four years). I decided to go to WordCamp, Ann Arbor which is only about an hour from where I live. It was amazing. I loved meeting other people that spoke my language. I learned so much from the speakers and presenters. I met several people who I followed online. Since I am completely self-taught, there were several people there whose blog articles I had read and learned something from. That was so cool! To meet those people, make those connections and realize that they existed in real life (not just words written in a blog post). Since WordCamp Ann Arbor last October, I’ve just been more intentional about connecting with people in the community. I’ve gone to another WordCamp where I was actually grateful for the opportunity to speak at that Wordcamp. It was WordCamp Jackson a few weeks ago. I have plans to go to more. I’d like to point out that WordCamps and in person events aren’t the only way to get more involved in the community. I’ve also connected with a lot of people on Twitter and joined the officehours slack group. I’ve connected to several other Slack groups (including one that’s all about women in WordPress) which I think is fascinating and wonderful. So it has been through the year a lot more intentional to get connected with the community, and I really liked it.

Liam: Wow. You’re all in now. That’s pretty intense. I want to let you know that there’s absolutely no need to be embarrassed about coming to WordPress from a vacuum. As Tara and I have heard over the course of our conversations with so many people, that’s the same experience as a lot of people. I’m raising my hand up. You can’t see it in the podcast, but I was exactly the same way. I probably used it for two or three years before I got involved at all. Like you, my experience was Oh my Gosh! Where has this been all my life? How did I exist before this? That’s fantastic. I really love how you have gone on from just that initial experience to being a lot more intentional about your involvement, activity, and role within the WordPress community.

Sara: Yeah. I think I realized that it has so much value for business development and for connecting with people and solving problems quicker. I didn’t need to just suffer on Google. When a client had an issue I couldn’t figure out, I didn’t need to just complain to my husband that there was a certain situation that was rubbing me the wrong way. There were actually people who had probably gone through something like that before. For example, Diane Kinney somehow has gone through everything before. She’s a great resource. There are many people like her who are willing to say this is how I dealt with a similar situation in the past. I really appreciate that type of community and support.

Liam: Yeah. I think that’s one of its greatest strengths. It is the willingness and ability of those who have traveled before us to save us the trouble of the mistakes that they’ve made. To get back to the idea of being intentional, I want to ask you what is your definition of success? How do you define that in either a personal or professional way (or both)?

Sara: It’s such a good question. I think when you own your own business you get to decide what personal and professional success looks like together instead of separately. I’m not just trying to climb some corporate ladder. I love that having my own business allows me to decide what I want life to look like. As I think about success (for me and my business), I think it’s really the freedom to learn and explore and to always have opportunities open that you can take. I really believe in a flexible lifestyle. My entire team works from where they are and sets their own hours. Since I am able to do that and I love it, I want to empower my team to do the same. Because of that, I’ve been able to work with some amazing people with unique situations. My graphic designer works from home with her two young children with her. That is something that’s really important to her and values. That is the freedom that our success together allows for her. I think that’s great. One of my other coworkers is a retired computer programmer and project manager for the government. So even though she was ready to be done with her first career, we have the freedom to work together. She can still have really fun engaging work and the number of hours that she wants to have. So success is that freedom; learning, exploring (traveling for me) going places, meeting people of new cultures and seeing amazing sights. Someone asked once a similar question that was a little bit different. How do you know when you have enough success? I like to think that someday I’d like to go somewhere and go to the best restaurant in town and not worry about what it costs. I love to eat, and I love to travel. That’s the ultimate experience for me. That is really the pinnacle of success.

Tara: I love that. That’s great, and that’s a great question. When do you know that you have enough success? Is there ever enough? Where do you find yourself on your journey towards success?

Sara: We do have a lot of freedom. I think that we continue to learn and explore. It seems so strange to be like I feel successful. I feel really good about my personal and professional journey right now. I try to keep that positive perspective in mind. It’s a good place in this journey, Tara.

Liam: I love that. You are successful where you are right now. That is fantastic. That leads us very nicely to our next question. To maintain the success that you’ve achieved, what is the single most important thing that you do every day?

Sara: The most important thing…it’s funny because we are talking so much about freedom… and doing what you want. But I am someone that is very structured and very intentional with the time that I do take to work. The most important thing I do every day is a plan. I choose every night at the end of the workday to sit down and look at what’s been accomplished. I have a daily planner that I really love. I look at anything that’s not checked off and rewrite it into the next day. I write out my schedule for the next day. I like to define three seeds and three weeds. A seed is something that you plant. You should be planting things every day, whether that’s sending out a proposal, reaching out to a past client (anything like that might help your business grow). Maybe it’s being on this podcast today and getting out there and doing this very thing of applying to speak in a podcast. Maybe it’s a conference or something. So I like to define a few seeds for each day and then a few weeds. So weeds are the things you don’t want to do, that you are dreading or maybe you pushed off a couple of days before. You just don’t want to do it. I like to write those down, and then I think it’s really important to do those in the morning. Do it first thing when you’re fresh. You’re ready to go. It’s not the end of the day when you’ve been tackling a lot of other things. I do those weeds before I open my inbox in the morning, which is really important.

Tara: Eating the Frog is another way to talk about that. There is a book about eating the Frog and doing the hard things first that you don’t want to do. I am really bad at that.

Liam: David Allen.

Sara: It’s just so hard.

Liam: It’s Getting Things Done by David Allen. What if the worst thing you had to do was eat a frog? Once you got that done the rest your day would be incredible.

Sara: I find that a little gross, Liam.

Liam: I didn’t make up the phrase.

Sara: I’m going to go with pulling weeds. (laughs)

Liam: All right. I’ll give you that.

Tara: I love the seeds and weeds idea. The planning is also critical. I’m a tool person. So it sounds like you actually handwrite your list. I found that no matter how many to-do lists or planning things I have if I write it down, it’s sure to get done. Somehow the digital things are sometimes harder to keep track of so I love that you use that method.

Sara: There’s something about a pen and checking off a physical box that just feels really good.

Tara: I think that’s true. What would you say is the biggest challenge that you face.

Sara: In the past or currently?

Tara: Either or both. How are you working on that challenge? How are you working to overcome it (or how have you already overcome it)?

Sara: Currently my biggest challenge…I say this as a future focus…because it’s not something that wears us down in the business every day. I’m currently challenging myself to think about specializing the work that we do at my agency. For so long (the five years that we’ve been going) we’ve been the agency for anybody with a business and a checkbook. We take on all types of projects, and it’s really exciting to work with so many different kinds of clients. I think that we can have a bigger impact and just become better known as experts if we specialize in something particular. What makes this exceptionally challenging for me is…number one… I love learning. I love doing different things. I feel like every time I learn something new about digital marketing; I decide that is what I need to do forever and into the future. I’m currently toying with Google Adwords a little bit. I love SEO. I’m reading a book on designs. Learning makes this particularly challenging and the fact that I enjoy a lot of the things that I’m learning about. The other challenge is the fact that nothing has just naturally presented itself as the right specialty for the agency. You hear about certain industries or certain agencies that are focused maybe on a particular industry or type of client. You hear about others that specialize in a particular service. We do eCommerce, or we do SEO (something like that). We always have done so much of everything that nothing has risen to the top as you know what? This is the thing that we really need to keep doing. Or this is the type of client that we need to keep working with. It’s been a bit of frustration. I know we want to specialize. I know I’d like to try doing it. I’m not really sure what direction to go. I don’t feel like there’s enough information out there about specializing a web agency, branding, and brand positioning. That’s one of the reasons I recently started just a little video series. It’s not very serious. It’s just regular ongoing where I talk about the challenges of specializing and documenting that journey. I don’t want to come across as someone with all the answers. I have zero, and it is a challenge. So that’s the biggest challenge I’m facing right now. I do not have the answers to it, but I do feel like I’m slowly getting there.

Tara: I think that’s really exciting and it makes me feel nervous for you in a way because when you think about specializing that means saying no, right? I think that’s a challenge if you said anyone with a checkbook that needs a website that you would build a website for them. You do get some variety that way. It kind of keeps you from feeling bored or burned out. I understand that having a specialty could allow you to really drill down on your content and understand an industry. What happens when you go down the path of the wrong industry, and you discover that this industry isn’t right? They don’t want to spend money or whatever other reason…then you need to turn to another. So are you considering that this is a journey where you may try out a bunch of different specialties or specializations before you land on the one that is right?

Sara: Absolutely. I continue to be scared of all those things. Those things terrorize me. One of my videos recently was about my biggest fears and choosing the wrong specialty. I’m in a mastermind group with this wonderful woman who told me you know what? You will never fail at this. You will only pivot. You will only learn something from the choices you make. That’s one of the things that’s keeping me going. It’s not allowing me to get paralyzed as I think about doing this because once we decide on something I do want to do it wholeheartedly. I’m open to the idea of it not working and needing to pivot from there. So I don’t feel like this is a decision I’m making for my business that we have to live with forever. It’s not that way, and I think it’s going to have so much value that even if I choose the wrong thing and do the wrong thing, it’s just an investment in the future of possible growth and possible differentiation. It may not easy, but I do you think it’s going to be worth it.

Tara: So are you saying no to people that come to you who are not in those specialties in the meantime while you’re developing this? When do you cut that off?

Sara: I don’t know if the specialty is. I feel like I’m going to reach a point where I declare it and them I’m going to do more “nos”. As I think about this,
I have over time started saying no to more things. For example, I got an inquiry from a client last week that asked for some changes or ongoing maintenance for a WordPress site that we already have. We’ve decided in the past that our choice is to no longer maintain websites that we didn’t build. There is too much uncertainty, and we’re not able to guarantee the client how much time things will take. A lot of times we disagree with how things were built. We would prefer just to rebuild them. I have learned to give myself enough credit to the things we already say no to. There are certain things that we don’t get into anymore. So maintaining sites we didn’t build. I don’t tend to work on projects that are for online business, so eCommerce or online consultant courses. Our bread and butter is really a service based business that serves their local area. We can help them generate more foot traffic or more leads if they have a sales process to work. I guess I don’t give us enough credit for how far we’ve already come. I just want to get even more narrow (whether that’s an industry or a certain service or maybe both) because I think you can be successful specializing both in a certain service or a certain industry.

Liam: Sara? Do you have a timetable for your decision process? You’ve explained to us that you’re open to different kinds of specialties. You’re exploring opportunities; you’re considering different avenues, and keeping a mindful eye opened up to all of it. In your mind, you have you given yourself a timeframe? For example, I’m going to consider it for a year, 18 months or something to that effect?

Sara: I’m glad you asked that. In one of the Mastermind groups I’m a part, we set 90-day goals. So my goal for the last 90 days (that ended at the end of spring) was to have a specialty decided. What ended up happening was I just chose something, went after it, and did a lot of market research. Ultimately, I decided it wasn’t the right direction. So my goal for this round of 90 days is to back off a little bit and stop asking so much of myself, stop forcing it so much and just see what kind of work is coming our way, what kind of work we are enjoying and making some lists. We are not trying so hard to make a decision if is not something that I think is going to work. I’m not quite sure so far if I can really force myself into it. I can just continue to take the right steps. Sometime after this 90 days, I’d like to push again a little bit more to make a decision. I needed to back off for a short period and not put so much pressure on it.

Liam: Yeah. I think that’s really important. The value of letting the decision (not come to you) like sitting around waiting for it to be delivered like an Amazon package. I also love that you took the time and you explored a particular specialty option as part of your goal. You ultimately made the decision that it wasn’t right for you. I think that the value of that kind of exercise of should I do this and putting significant time, energy and resources into finding that out…I don’t know what you spent…cumulatively maybe it was two, three or four days… some people might say, gosh that’s ages. Think of the money you could have made. Think of the headaches you would’ve endured if you didn’t do the research and you did a day and said yes. Then six months down the road you have all these client’s projects and obligations that you don’t want. So that’s awesome. It’s a lesson with great value. Thank you.

Sara: I think that concept of specializing, as an investment in your business is really important. It doesn’t just happen when one day you are only going to work with realtors, and the next day a thousand realtors contact to you say hey I hear you only work with realtors. It definitely is something that takes time and effort. I have no delusions that this is easy or is not an investment in the future of the business.

Liam: Yeah. I think I agree with that. It just takes time. I know from my own experience of running my small businesses that for the first few years of the business, what do you specialize in? I don’t know. I still just get my head around it all. I like it, and it’s enjoyable. This is fun, and that is not fun. Ok. I know if I learn that little bit that is not fun. So we don’t specialize in that. What we do specialize in… I don’t know just yet. So I get that. I really appreciate where you are in and love your thoroughness in approaching it. Let me change gears on us again and ask you what I think it’s becoming our signature question (I’m not sure yet) we will have to see what of the listening public thinks. Sara? What is the single most valuable piece of advice (it can be either personal or professional or both) that you’ve ever received and incorporated into your life?

Sara: Wow! That puts a lot of pressure on this question. I don’t know if something is coming right to mind that is the best, most valuable advice that I’ve ever received. But something is coming to mind that has spoken to me recently; It was a quote that I saw from Guy Kawasaki.
He said every profile is your professional profile. He was talking about online social media and how no matter where it is or whether you want it to portray you or not if you’re saying it online people will find it. That has something to do with how they view youe professionally. I think that it’s something that I try to be very mindful about. I choose not to get whiny or political on any of my online profiles. Because I know clients will see them. They use those decisions and the things that I say to decide whether they want to work with me or not. So the advice of every profile is your professional profile I think is really important and something that I’ve been keeping top of mind recently.

Liam: That is a very valuable one. There is no gray line anymore, or black line or any colored line between personal and professional on the Internet is there? Oh, it’s on LinkedIn it’s professional. If it’s on Twitter, it’s personal. I’m not so sure I agree with that. That’s great. Thank you for that. Let me ask you one more question if I can. We’ve got some time left, and we didn’t get a chance to really explore this. Because you work with similar clients as I do and I our approach is being methodical (at least mine in theory) is similar to yours. I’ve got a paper schedule. I’m not a pen guy. I am a mechanical pencil person. What is your favorite thing to do it work every day? We talked about what’s the most important thing but what’s your favorite thing to do?

Sara: My favorite things to do in this business are probably not things I get do every day anymore. I’m really grateful to have a small team. That means that a lot of the development work has been taken away from me at this point. I love some days when I can just help my team out with the project (maybe we’ve to a lot going on). We will stop if we don’t throw some more hands at it. I love when I get to go in and help my team build out a website, do some CSS customization, and hang out in the code for a while. I turn on the music on Spotify and just make the website look like the design (or how the designer envisioned). I find that really fulfilling, to take something from a blank page or even just basic content, give it styling, give it design, give it personality, work a little bit with the messaging and copy. I really still enjoy getting down into the project even though my role now has a lot more to do with strategy, planning and project management then it ever has before. When I can get into a project and really dig, that’s my favorite thing to do at work. My least favorite thing to do is email. I do a lot of things to try to reduce my email load. It feels so unproductive to sit in my inbox and react to things that happen as opposed to moving forward on things that I had planned.

Liam: Yeah email. (laughs)

Tara: I think you read my mind right there. That’s mine.

Sara: Yes. That’s why we have BaseCamp, and that’s why I do hangouts with my team. I don’t want it all happening just through my inbox. That’s crazy, and I refuse to do it.

Liam: Human contact is fantastic. I like that. Sara? We are out of time. I’m going to say thank very much for joining us. It’s been an absolute pleasure chatting with you and getting to know you just a little bit. Before we say our goodbyes can you let people know where they can find online, please?

Sara: Sure. If you would like to check out my agency, it’s 11 web at 11web.com. I’d love to connect with you on Twitter. My handle is @Sara11d. My favorite place to hang out is Instagram. If you love Instagram as much as I do, please contact me there. It’s SaraDunn11.

Tara: I think you also have an account for your dog. Would you like to share that with everybody before you go?

Sara: (Laughs). Yes. My sweet darling French bulldog Jetta does have her own Instagram account. People can choose to see pictures of her. I can stop spamming my account with a thousand photos of Jetta. If you would like to follow her, its Jettalafrenchie.

Tara: Great. Thank you so much. Sara? It’s been great having you here. Thank you so much for joining us.

Sara: Thank you guys. This has been great. I love what you’re doing with Hallway Chats. I cannot wait to listen in the future.

Liam: Thanks so much Sara. We’ll see you soon! Bye!

Liam: Thanks for the listening to the show. We sure hope you enjoyed it much as we did.

Tara: If you like what we’re doing here – meeting new people in our WordPress community – we invite you to tell others about it. We’re on iTunes and at hallwaychats.com.

Liam: Better yet, ask your WordPress friends and colleagues to join us on the show. Encourage them to complete the “Be on the show” form on our site, to tell us about themselves.

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