I had the pleasure of digitally meeting Gretchen Cawthon and asking her a few questions about how to be successful as a freelance web designer. Here are her extremely insightful answers:
First of all, who are you and what is it that you do?
I’m Gretchen Cawthon, Owner, Brand Strategist and Lead Developer at Left Right Labs. We build bigger, better, more beloved brands for wellness entrepreneurs. Most of our clients are former professional athletes, doctors, and wellness influencers who want to build a legacy around helping others live healthier, happier lives.
We focus on brand strategy, design, development, and marketing for our clients. We help them Get Clear, Get Noticed, and Get Paid. Our team of 11 works remotely, and we’re located across the US, Mexico, and Canada.
How did you find your first few clients in the early days?
I’m an accidental web developer. I’ve been writing code since the 7th grade (~1984), but I never intended to make a career out of it. In fact, I have a music degree in percussion.
My entire childhood and early adult life was a series of me, a girl, doing things girls generally don’t do… playing little league, making the boys basketball team, playing drums, writing software, etc.
I faced a lot of sexism along the way, so in 2005 I decided to start a website called Girls Can’t WHAT? which became very popular. I built the entire thing myself by reading library books and watching tutorials.
In the midst of that, I started getting requests from people to build websites. So I hired my best friend (now business partner) to handle the graphic design and I did all of the coding. We mostly worked from referrals, but I found an easy way to drum up new work was to help people with tech issues in many of the online groups I was active in. Those people then continued to do business with us and also referred more clients.
So what started as part-time work for both of us is now – 15 years later – a fully incorporated team of 11 focusing on brand strategy.
Was there a project you enjoyed the most and why?
We’ve built 100+ sites and we are always striving to be better, more efficient, and really sharpen our skills. The projects I enjoy most are the ones where we really connect with the client. Good relationships make the work fun and exciting, and we look forward to our weekly meetings because we know we’re going to laugh and have a good time on that call.
Recently, we did a massive rebrand for undefeated world champion boxer, Laila Ali. That is probably my current favorite because it involved a variety of tools and integrations between platforms. The rebranding process was fun and the design my partner came up with was the perfect fit for the client. Laila is also a blast to work with and we’ve become good friends in the process. That makes the ongoing work with her just as fun and exciting as the original project.
What advice would you give someone who’s just starting out as a freelance web designer?
If you’re just starting out as a freelance web designer, think about your final destination. Do you want to be the only one your clients rely on or do you want to build a team so you can take vacation without bringing your laptop? I spent a lot of my early years taking my laptop everywhere because I was the only developer in the business and I felt chained to it. I was always worried that if I didn’t respond fast enough I might lose the client.
Don’t get me wrong, freelancing is great – but it can also suck up your time if you don’t put boundaries in place or create a team to help out when needed. This can even be as simple as partnering with a few other freelancers to cover each other’s clients when one of you needs to step away from the business for a while. Bottom line: build a support system so you don’t burn out.
Are there any tools or tricks that have helped you as a freelance web designer along the way?
I love tools. I like to tinker and experiment with systems. It’s pretty clear from my massive LEGO collection that I love to build things. One thing I’ve learned… whether you are building a LEGO model, a website or an online business… simple is better.
In everything I create, I always start by making it super complex and then scaling it back until it is as simple as it can be without taking away from the original intention. The creative process is messy and I’m a neat freak. I always end up with a great end product, but I tend to take the long way to get there because I need to exhaust every possible option to make sure I have the best result.
We also try to keep our software and plugins stacks as lean as possible. Some of our favorite tools at Left Right Labs include Teamwork Projects, Workona, Google Drive, and Active Campaign. We use those daily.
Did you hit any big obstacles on your journey and if so, how did you overcome them?
One of my favorite books is “The Obstacle Is The Way” by Ryan Holladay. If there is anything I have learned along this entrepreneurial journey, it is this: Do Hard Things.
We faced some of our biggest obstacles just last year. We were growing so fast that we could not physically keep up with the demand, even when we added team members. My business partner and I were working night and day and even weekends to keep up while at the same time trying to train new team members and build more processes to ease the strain.
It was unbelievably stressful, but we had an end game in mind. We knew what we were building and we knew that growing pains were only temporary. We embraced the suck and marched right through it. At the end of the year, we had a record profit, a new team, and a few more optimized systems under our belt. We’re still busting at the seams a bit, but we came out the other side smarter and stronger than before.
The path of an entrepreneur is not easy. You must be willing to get up every day and do the hard things… make mistakes, take risks, embrace the suck. You will have bad days, you will make big mistakes, and you will fail more times than you can count. Face the obstacle and do the hard things. Every day.