Rachael Butts Interview
Rachael Butts is the lead designer of rachaelbutts.com, a full-service web design corporation specializing in boutique custom WordPress themes. Rachael’s strong work ethic derives from an inspirational dad, homeschooling, and competitive barrel racing. She lives in Austin, Texas.
You have an interesting background which seems to have encouraged your entrepreneurial spirit. Take us back to the beginning…
Well, I always say I come from a family of horse traders. Not in the literal sense, but both my grandpa and dad have been entrepreneurs almost my entire life. It has always been instilled in me that having the freedom to work whenever and wherever I want far outweighed any type of risk in running my own business.
At an early age I competed at a high level in barrel racing and showing horses, from the age of seven to fourteen. We competed so much that I was homeschooled. We competed about four days a week, and the rest were for practicing. I think being a high level competitor coupled with having to do school on my own really prepared and molded me into being the type of person that can work on my own.
How did you first hear about WordPress?
I’d like to pretend that I was hip and cool or that I was part of an inner circle, but honestly it was my dad. He has always had computers around as early as I can remember. In 2005 when I was 21 and attending The Art Institute for Graphic Design, my dad, who at the time was a successful internet marketer made me come over to his house so he could “show me my future.” He made me sit down at his desk and pulled up a WP site he had made with the little “Hello World” Kubrick header, and he said, “Rachael, you have got to learn how to use this, and make headers for people…you will be rich!” I literally rolled my eyes and said, “This is what you made me come over here for?” Little did I know the seed he had planted inside of my head at the time.
After that he had one of his friends make me a WordPress website called thebannerqueen.com which was set up for me to sell my graphic services which included headers, banners, ebooks etc. All the really dorky internet marketing graphics in ‘05. At the same time we also set up virtualgraphicartist.com (VGA) where I would sell one-hour blocks of time where I would get on GotoMeeting with a client and he/she would direct me while I created their WordPress header or the other graphics we offered. It was going pretty well and it was a good little job that lasted several years while I was in school, but I was approached by a competitor to purchase both companies in 2008 and I jumped at the opportunity. To be honest I was a little burnt out on creating graphics and wasn’t really “loving” what I was doing. I think it mainly had to do with the internet marketing niche I had fallen into, and I wasn’t designing anything I had a real passion for. After I sold thebannerqueen and VGA I took a break from my computer and graphics, and I didn’t even check my email for a whole month. I took some time off school, hung out with friends, and skateboarded for about six months.
Did things change during your time away from working with WordPress?
Oh my goodness, yes! Themes were around while I was working at thebannerqueen and VGA but NOTHING like they had become when I came back in late 2009. Not to mention all the plugins and cool things you could do with them. Back when I first started if you asked people what WordPress was…well, honestly back then hardly anyone even knew what WordPress was, but if they did they would say oh ya, you mean a blog? When I came back into it the community had metastasized, and it was becoming more familiar to say “WordPress site or website” instead of “WordPress blog.” Which, because I am a geek I think that’s super cool. I love making WordPress websites and making people have to second guess if it is WordPress or not.
After a few years in the corporate world, you quit your day job and turned freelancing into a full-time business. What was this process like? Did you encounter challenges along the way?
I actually only spent a total of 5.5 months. Do you remember “Homie the Clown” from In Living Color where he would say “Homie don’t play that.” Well, that pretty much sums up how I feel about working in the corporate world. That isn’t to say I don’t love our corporate clients, but I am just not a 9-5 person.
The transition from working in the corporate world to running my own business came quite naturally to me since I had already run two companies, but this time I was determined to make it different. I chose to join the workforce because I thought I needed to rely on someone else to be the boss and to make the tough decisions. I thought my personality was the type where I needed to be directed and that I would prefer someone just telling me what graphics to make, but after being put into that exact position I realized I was the exact opposite. I found I enjoyed project management and being a leader. I had gotten a taste of working for someone else and I knew this was not the position God had planned for me. It definitely helped that my fiancé Ryan supported and believed in me 100%. I pretty much just built up enough clients on the side to have at least one month of business so I at least had a cushion. Which, looking back sounds ridiculous, but my business has grown consistently ever since and I never once felt like I made the wrong decision. I feel extremely blessed to say the least.
When I hear people talk about how bad the economy is and how you can’t start a business right now it makes me laugh because this doesn’t apply to web-based businesses. In all actuality a lot of people and companies are spending more money on their online presence to compete and keep their own business afloat. I don’t think the internet or websites are going anywhere for a while either.
My biggest challenge was finding the right people to be a part of the team. I read in the Sennza interview that that was their issue too, and it seems to be a common factor in our business. Often times clients come to me and they’ve been burned by a previous developer. Hopefully we as a community can come together to solve that problem by doing quality work and having better customer service. I am so blessed now to have a solid team working with me now. Jamie Brewer is our lead developer who writes amazingly clean code, and is my right hand man. Harry Martawijaya, the newest member of the team has added some super awesome design flair along with his custom illustrations (both computer and hand-drawn). Oh, and I can’t forget our little fuzzy friend Foxy the Papillon, my administrative assistant and loss prevention manager.
The second biggest challenge was once I started really obtaining a large amount of clients and growing a team, was whether to stay with my name/domain name rachaelbutts.com as my company name, as awful as it is, or move to a separate company name where we could all be housed under one roof. As I was doing some research I noticed this was an issue a lot of other freelancers were struggling with as well. Whether to give the illusion they were a firm or just showcase themselves as the designer. I had a different problem as we actually did have a team and it wasn’t just me, and I have a more of a “share the love” mentality. My goal wasn’t to set up a design firm and take all the credit and keep the team hidden. I wanted everyone to feel like they all played critical roles in the design and development process. If you look at our site now you will see everything is “we” and “us” and this is to show that we really are a team. The reason I had built off of rachaelbutts.com in the first place was it seemed through working with clients that often times they picked me because I came across as a “person” or individual. They felt they would be able to connect and talk to someone instead of being passed around within a company. This presented another problem however which was we could have been excluding larger corporate and B2B clients as they may see us as small and or inexperienced. This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise however because it turns out we found our niche and our highest profit ratio is with the smaller custom child themes because they are just simply easier to quote and much more accurate. We absolutely love designing the types of smaller sites we get to do because there always seems to be a lot more room for creativity. We do larger sites too, and sometimes like to mix it up of course, but we prefer the smaller more personal sites where we can really dig deep and translate a person or company’s message. For now we will stay where we are at because it seems to be working for us.
What are your favorite things about working for yourself?
#1—Working in my pajamas.
#2—I get to start my workday at noon.
#3—The satisfaction of knowing I am living the goal I set when I was 15.
Rachaelbutts.com has gone from a one-woman business to a four-person (plus one dog) team. Did your project management experience help prepare you for managing a team?
Definitely, and I would also add that project management is one of the most important parts of running a successful business as well. Not just between you and your employees/contractors but with the client as well.
Jamie and I try to do a weekly meeting each Monday where we go over our calendar together. We discuss projects that are coming up in the queue so he knows what to be prepared for, and we also go over and create timelines/deadlines together. We then place it all on our shared Google Calendar where his tasks are in green, and mine are in red.
For email communication I try to lay out emails very clearly with titles of items in bold and highlighted in yellow and the task itself right underneath it. We also set up our subjects lines with project name first like “rachaelbutts.com – subjects goes here.”
We have tried all the fancy project management systems but we found we spent more time putting the information into the system than needed, and it is just more efficient to use Google Calendar, Docs, and Gmail. Plus, they’re free!
For Gmail we create folders for each client. Each client is marked with a color. Green means I need to work on their project ( which correlates with the Google calendar), red means I need to reply to them, blue means I am waiting on the client, and purple means I am waiting on a team member. It works great.
The key is to be very efficient and effective all while maintaining a high quality of work.
What have you been working on that you are excited about?
We specialize in child themes, and we recently launched http://www.enlightened-eater.com/
which is running off the WOO framework. Harry created the background in the header which I think turned out quite nicely. I matched what he did with the background and created the logo and the rest of the elements on the site.
Another one we recently launched is the blog for Fusion Academy http://blog.fusionacademy.com/. It is one of our recent fav’s and an example of our custom theme service.
Harry created the guitar, skateboard, and tv illustrations. I designed the rest utilizing some Graphic River images for behind the slider and also did some custom graphics work.
It features a really cool drop down menu that Jamie developed which includes Google maps in it which we had to mimic after their main site which is not in WordPress. Of course we think our version of the navigation is better because it is running on WP. ;)
On your website you state “rachaelbutts.com is my full-time job, but I don’t consider it a job. I consider it a goal that I achieved.” What advice do you have for others that have similar goals?
Confidence. Just believe in yourself: you CAN run your own business if you really want to. If you’re a beginner remember that we were all beginners at some point. You cannot live your life with the “what ifs.” What if you never try? When you wake up 20 years from now are you going to be mad that you tried and possibly failed, or never tried at all? Sure, every business has its ups and downs, but when you write down a list of pros and cons you’ll see a much longer list for pros, and you’ll find most of the cons to be fears that may or may not ever even happen. Live in the now, and focus on today. Focus on your determination and surround yourself with like-minded individuals that will support you.
If you want to be designer or developer for WordPress specifically, get involved locally with WordPress meetups. Subscribe to blogs to stay up to date on the latest news, trends, and business practices like Code Poet and WP Candy, and reach out to others in your community. I know I was nervous as an amateur talking to other WordPress professionals, but the more I did the more I found how willing they were to share their advice with me and remember that they were amateurs once too. We all have come from a humble beginning and this is especially true I believe with WordPress.