This is the story of how I co-founded Barn2 Media with my husband Andy, and scaled it from a startup to one of the UK’s best known WordPress agencies – all while working part-time.
I’ll tell you about the challenges I faced in building a WordPress business that is compatible with a good work-life balance. I’ll share what I did each time the growing business started to threaten my lifestyle, and how you can do the same.
I had a traditional full-time job throughout my 20’s. I enjoyed building my career and earning a regular salary, but didn’t like the lack of flexibility that came with it.
I didn’t like having to arrive at work by a fixed time, or being unable to choose when I worked. As a hard-working person, it felt counter-productive to be forced to work set hours when I may not be at my best.
My daily commute was anything from 25-50 minutes (which I realise is less than many people). It felt like a waste of time as I could work just as well from home, not to mention the environmental impact of driving so far just to sit in an office. Day-to-day tasks such as ordering items for home delivery became a big deal, as I wasn’t home during the day.
As a result, I spent most of my 20’s simultaneously building my career in a traditional job, while dreaming about running my own business and working for myself. Andy felt the same about his own job as a senior software developer.
I think that most people want a better lifestyle, but not many actually do anything about it. I thought I was one of those people.
Andy and I would talk endlessly about different business ideas (most of them terrible!) and even experimented with building a few websites that were never launched. However, we didn’t have the drive to make it happen and launch a business in the real world.
Starting a Business
In late 2009, Andy had finally had enough of his job and we agreed that it was time for him to quit. We decided to start a web design business together. He would work solely on the new business, while I would support it alongside my main job (which I didn’t hate, even though I didn’t like the lifestyle).
We started by building WordPress websites for small local businesses. Andy built the websites and I was responsible for copywriting and marketing. We approached local tradespeople who didn’t already have a website – back in 2010, there were still a lot of these! Our first clients were local plumbers, electricians, a washing machine repair shop, etc.
These early projects were quite low budget. The average hourly rate was quite low because we were still learning and hadn’t perfected our processes yet. We wasted a lot of time on projects where we had under-quoted but were committed to honoring the agreed price.
We made a lot of mistakes, and learned from them all!
By Year 2, the business was making the equivalent of a fairly low salary for one person. However, we had to work a lot for a relatively small income. This encouraged us to work more hours, and it wasn’t bringing the lifestyle benefits I was looking for.
Lifestyle Tip #1: Learn to Specialize
In late 2010, it occurred to me that we were building all our websites in WordPress but not advertising ourself as a WordPress company. I wondered whether people were actually searching for WordPress experts and whether this could be a good way to advertise. That may seem obvious in 2018 now WordPress is the world’s biggest web platform – but it was a genuine question back in 2010.
On a whim, I invested $100 in Google AdWords targeting keywords such as ‘WordPress web design’ and ‘WordPress developer’. Amazingly, we were overwhelmed with enquiries and quickly brought in over $4,000 of business – not a bad return on investment! The work came from medium sized companies who had never used our services before, with higher budgets.
Positioning ourselves as WordPress specialists completely changed the profile of our client base, as well as the budgets we were working with.
This vastly increased our average hourly income, so we were making more money without having to work more hours. Finally, it felt like a proper business with a better work-life balance.
Lifestyle Tip #2: Build a (virtual) team
The business grew quickly under its new identity as a specialist WordPress agency. By mid-2011, we had more work than we could manage ourselves. I also had a baby and increased my hours on the business while on maternity leave – eventually not returning to my old job. We still needed to increase the company’s income, while working towards the lifestyle we wanted.
We grew the business to the next level by building a virtual team.
I felt quite strongly that I didn’t want to become a traditional employer with a team of staff, all working together in an office. That would bring me back to the lifestyle I started with!
Instead, I decided to recruit a team of freelancers.
It took time to find the right freelancers, but the good news is that you can try someone out on a single project with no further commitment. If it doesn’t work out, then you don’t have to work with them again. Through trial and error, I built a team of freelancers with different WordPress-related skills. This increased capacity and allowed us to take on more projects without having to work more hours.
I was still managing all the projects, but could take a step back and wasn’t directly building the websites. Finally, it felt like a proper WordPress agency.
Lifestyle Tip #3: Selling WordPress products
By building a distributed team, the business became more and more successful. We were taking on more and more projects, and I was managing all of them. By the time we were running 20 projects at once, I had reached the limits of my capacity and was having to work a lot of hours.
From 2014-15, I experimented with working with freelance project managers, but had to give up because quality was dropping and our clients were less happy. I realised that with the current business model, I could only continue growing the business by working more and more hours. This wasn’t what I had been working towards!
It was time for Andy and I to pursue our other dream: selling WordPress products. We’d been talking about this since the early days of the business, but the client projects had kept us so busy that we’d never done anything about it.
In early 2016, Andy stepped out of the client business and started writing WordPress and WooCommerce plugins to sell. I continued managing client projects for the next 6 months, until the plugins were making enough money to stop taking on new projects and I could spend all my time marketing and supporting the plugins.
Selling WordPress plugins has been very successful because we already knew the market inside out from our years of developing WordPress sites.
We knew where the gaps were and what plugin customers want. We knew where other plugin companies get it wrong, and could learn from their mistakes without making the same mistakes ourselves!
By launching several plugins, we could listen to what our customers were asking for and build even more. In October 2016, we launched our WooCommerce Product Table plugin because so many people asked for a way to list products in a table with add to cart buttons. This immediately became our bestselling plugin and has sold more than all our other plugins combined. Since then, the plugin business has gone from strength to strength.
I have found that selling WordPress products brings a much better work-life balance than providing WordPress services.
We receive (many) plugin support requests every day, but each one takes relatively little time and is less pressured than fixing problems for web design clients. The whole business feels much more relaxed, and I don’t feel guilty about taking time off.
Between the two of us, we spend a couple of hours a day on plugin support. We continue improving the plugins, marketing, adding features and building the business on top of that. However, all of this is optional and can easily be done while working part-time.
Snow Day! Putting It Into Practice
Before we finish, I’ll tell you about my week. Today is Friday. At 10.30am on Wednesday, I received a text that my daughter’s school had closed for the rest of the week because of the unusual snow here in the UK.
The parents with traditional jobs panicked and had to quickly arrange childcare or time-off work. Some of them were stuck in cars on snowed-in roads as they tried to return to the village. No one could get to work the next day. A lot of people lost a lot of money.
Andy and I simply stopped work, put on our snow gear, walked the 10 minutes to the school, and then went sledging. Since then, we’ve been sharing the childcare in between responding to plugin support requests (and writing this article!). We’ve had 37 plugin sales on our website since the school closed, even though we’ve been working less hours than usual. Now, that’s what I’ve been working towards!
I’ve worked hard and have been extremely committed to building Barn2 Media. However, this has always been on the condition that it wouldn’t sacrifice my lifestyle goals.
For me, the ideal business is measured against a combination of financial success and lifestyle benefits. If the founders are working 70 hours a week to keep the money coming in, then it’s not a successful business!
You can do the same. Design a WordPress business that will give you the lifestyle you want, as well as making money. If you love working with people, build a team and provide WordPress services (WordPress design and development are good for this). If you want to travel, choose work that you can do remotely from different time zones (WordPress products are good for this). Plan your business around what matters to you.
WordPress is such a huge ecosystem that it comes with many opportunities to build a successful business. With a bit of extra thought and planning, you can build a WordPress business that is successful AND lets you life the lifestyle you’ve always wanted. That is the true measure of success.