Micah Cooksey Interview
Micah Cooksey is a freelance designer and graduate student living in Portland, Oregon. His work focuses on SEO, clean design, solid code, and creating good content. Micah starting using WordPress at age fourteen and has been an active user for the past five years. In addition to his design work, he volunteers as a forum moderator for WordPress.org.
How did you first get into web design? When did you start working with WordPress?
I played around making websites when I was 12 and 13. It was something that I enjoyed learning about, but then my family moved and we got busier, so my web design got put on the back burner. About four years ago, I became motivated to take it up again. A friend told me about this cool new blogging software called WordPress. I thought it seemed like a good way to maintain usability for the customer with all the features I needed to make fully functional websites. That was back when 2.6.5 was all the rage. I started by cold-calling local businesses, asking them if they wanted me to design a website for them. Cold-calling was a good experience for me and helped me learn about selling myself to potential customers. I now have a long list of things not to say.
Would you be willing to share a few of those “things not to say?”
Since I started doing web design at a young age, people would act interested at first. If I told them how old I was they would immediately turn me down. So, not that you should be dishonest, but if you’re still a student, try to avoid talking about your age and instead focus on your ability and accomplishments.
Don’t jump immediately to, “Hi, I’m selling websites.” Try to build relationships, talk to people, and get to know them before you ask them if they want to hire you. Be sensitive of their time, though.
Building on that, don’t be a “salesman.” By salesman I mean someone who is high pressure, someone who keeps repeating “buy today,” and in all other respects, is annoying. Everyone hates this kind of caller, and acting like one will not get you business. Business owners get calls like this all day long, so try to set yourself apart from this type of person.
Can you share the most important things you learned about cold calling, and about the most effective ways to sell yourself?
If you’re calling people in your area, let them know you’re local. That sets you apart from the many non-local sales calls business owners get every day.
If you can, learn the name of the person you want to talk to. You might find it on LinkedIn (if they have a LinkedIn profile), their existing website (if they have one), or by Googling the company name. This accomplishes two things. First, you’ll be at a more personal level from the start, and, if someone other than the business owner answers the phone, you can ask for them by name instead of asking for “the owner,” which immediately labels you as a salesperson.
Were there any particular resources that helped jumpstart the learning process for you?
The Codex is awesome, as are the forums. I asked a bunch of dumb questions in the beginning, but the WordPress community is great when you’re trying to learn. After I started to learn more about the workings of WordPress I began volunteering in the forums so I could teach others who were beginning to use WordPress. Joost de Valk’s blog was great for WordPress SEO when I was starting out.
Do you have a specific area of expertise that you focus on?
I try to be fairly flexible with the jobs I accept, but I have done a lot of work with businesses who want to rank well in local search listings. I focus on good content, SEO, clean design, and solid code.
What are your top three tips for SEO with WordPress?
- Use an SEO plugin like All in One SEO Pack.
- Change your permalinks from the default format to either /%postname%/ or /%category%/%postname%/
- Use an XML sitemap plugin like Google XML Sitemap Generator
What type of clients do you work with?
Most of my customers are small businesses who are targeting a specific geographic area. I started with people in my immediate area, but as my network has grown, I’ve branched out to customers in other areas as well.
What types of questions do potential clients ask you and what are the answers you provide?
For some reason, it seems like a lot of people ask how long something will take me even if they don’t ask my hourly rate. So I just try to be honest while adding time for unforeseen difficulties. I don’t necessarily focus on the price, although I do give as clear a picture as I can of what it will cost. Focus on what you’re providing, and charge what it’s worth.
People have also asked me how I learned how to make websites. I tell them that I began by building websites as a learning experience, and as I got better at it, I began hiring myself out on a freelance basis. I also tell them that I have five years of experience doing web design. This is not as much of an issue anymore, but if they seem unsure about my ability I always show them a few sites from my portfolio that I’m particularly proud of.
What are your strategies for dealing with difficult clients?
I’ve had a couple bad experiences with clients that have taught me the following things:
- If you can, avoid clients that seem like they could be potentially difficult. Even if you are desperate for business, it’s not worth the headaches. If, during your initial meeting, they’re already showing signs of being irritable, hard to please, etc., don’t feel obligated to work for them.
- Make it clear in your contract that if the client doesn’t do certain things (e.g., send you content or passwords, review your work on time, respond to correspondence), you are not bound by the delivery dates set out in your terms of agreement.
- This is true especially if there is a fixed price for the project. Have something in your contract about what it is that you’re providing and the number of times they can request changes. The more clarity there is in writing from the start, the easier it will be to deal with the client if they’re problematic. Adding a few lines to your contract in the beginning is a lot better than wishing you had something more explicit in your contract half-way through the project.
Do you work alone, doing all the design and development, or do you partner with others? If so, who do you partner with and why?
So far, I haven’t subcontracted any work. I’ve been able to do all of the work that comes in myself. However, I’m considering subcontracting some work if the number of jobs I have increases. For now, though, it’s working pretty well doing it all “in-house.”
How do you promote your business?
Most of the business I get these days is through word of mouth. When I started out, I did a lot of cold calling and going door to door to meet local business owners. I’ve found that the longer I’ve been doing freelance web design with WordPress, the easier it is to have enough work.
Are there any particular plugins or themes that you regularly use?
Which theme I use varies by the project, and sometimes the customer will already have a theme that they’ve purchased, so this part really varies quite a bit. As far as plugins, I use All in One SEO Pack, WP Super Cache, Autoptimize, Widget Logic, and Contact Form 7, consistently.
What is your approach to balancing school and your design work?
This is hard because usually, doing freelance web design is more exciting than working on that ten-page research paper that’s due in four weeks. I am certainly not perfect in this area, but here’s some advice:
- Don’t overcommit. If you overcommit, your school will inevitably suffer, as will your work. It’s bad for your work because you can’t give your customers the attention they deserve.
- Set goals. Since, for me at least, work is going to be the more exciting thing, tell yourself that you can’t work on your new blog redesign project until you have accomplished “x” with your schoolwork. You’re not going to forget about your work, so put the less motivating thing first. That way, your desire to do your work will motivate you to do your schoolwork. For me, lots of small goals are easier than one large goal.
Any challenges that you’ve faced along the way?
When I have a project during a particularly intense period in my schooling. I really like to get my projects out of the way during finals week or any other super demanding part of my schoolwork. Cramming while working on web design is pretty trying.
What advice would you give other young web designers that are just starting out?
Communication with the client is key. It’s tempting, especially when the customer is not particularly computer savvy, to simply build them a website according to how you think it should be and then “give them the keys” when it’s finished. However, to avoid the frustration that comes from an unhappy client, you need to make sure you understand exactly what they want and expect, and continue communicating with them through the entire process. It is also your job to ensure that they have realistic expectations for what you can give them.
What are your tips for managing client expectations?
You can’t meet the client’s expectations if you don’t have a clear picture of what those expectations are. Understanding as fully as possible what it is that the client expects through asking questions, looking at examples of things the client likes, etc., are good ways to combat this.
In addition, giving the client a clear picture of what you can give them is important. Promising things that are beyond your ability may get you the job, but it probably won’t give you a long-term relationship with the client. Sell yourself, but also tell the client if there are any limitations in your resources/abilities, etc., so they don’t realize this only after you show them the finished product.
Does your youth ever become a factor in working with clients? If so, how do you overcome that?
Not as much anymore. It was somewhat of an issue when I was starting out. Focusing on what I’ve accomplished and my abilities helps to shift the focus from what the client may think about me as someone who is young to who I actually am. Most people who have been put off by my age are really concerned about reliability, lack of skills/experience, etc. These things are easy to disprove once I show them examples of work I’ve done for other clients. Also, even though in the beginning you may be desperate for work, don’t commit to a project beyond your ability. It’s good to learn new skills and you should always be developing your skill set, but to overcommit is to set your self up for frustration and maybe even embarrassment when the client realizes that you cannot deliver what he/she needs. This is a good opportunity to recommend someone else you know that would be a better fit—that way, you have still helped the client and built a relationship.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m still making up my mind long term. I enjoy web design, but I don’t know if that’s what I want to do vocationally or not. For now I’m content to keep doing designing and developing and wait to see what pans out.