Features - Interviews
Interview with Nathalie Lachance
by Carolyn Wood
Nathalie Lachance is the owner of a successful, bilingual (English and French) web development and design firm, Natmark-Concept Inc. (www.natmark.net). Located in Quebec, Canada, Nathalie launched her business in 1997, and along with managing her business and developing new clients, she considers herself a web project manager, implementer and developer. She is married to an accomplished senior computer programmer and lives on the outskirts of Montreal. Although she admits to not having much time for hobbies, she enjoys anything that keeps her brain busy (puzzles, crosswords, reading, word games, etc.).
One of the founding members of the Wise Women discussion list, Nathalie has been a longtime contributor. In an interview with website designer Carolyn Wood, she talks about the importance of networking, and about launching, growing and managing a web design and development business, and shares valuable insights that will help clients select the perfect developer for their projects.
Carolyn: What is your professional background and how did you come to be a website developer?
Nathalie: After a long career as an assistant and manager in legal offices, I felt an urgent need to explore other talents I knew I had. I spent the previous 20 years organizing, translating, marketing, communicating, copywriting, training and managing for someone else's business. I was ready for a challenge.
Although making more money influenced my decision to create my own business, my personal fulfillment was at the center of that career choice. In fact, at age 37, it was a priority. Web development seemed to be an area where I could best put my creative and organizational skills to use. It was new, challenging and very exciting.
Carolyn: Your website describes your business as being centered around the Natmark Network. What is the structure of your company, and what is your role?
Nathalie: Natmark-Concept is the central point of what I consider the "concept" behind Natmark.
The concept goes a bit like this:
- Make a complete list of services needed for your projects to be a success.
- Add to this list all collateral needs that may arise.
- Accept the basic principle that you can't do it all.
- Find resource people in each field you don't master and make them your allies.
- Never stop looking for outside talent.
This is the same basic strategy any big business might have. However, the advantage of working through this networking concept is that I subcontract to the person or persons best suited for any specific project. I am then assured of the best quality product for my clients.
I guess I'd say I'm the team leader, project coordinator and central contact with clients. All billing and decisions go through Natmark. It's almost like an agency. I don't have an "About" page that describes me as an individual. Natmark-Concept isn't just me, but all the people that make my success. Whenever I speak about Natmark, I will always use the "we" and not the "I".
The key to making it work is to only use people who share your principles for quality work, or else you're in for a rough ride as your reputation is on the line.
Carolyn: What motivated you to switch to being the project manager rather than the jack-of-all-trades?
Nathalie: You've probably heard the saying: "Jack of all trades, master of none." I believe this to be the greatest truth for business. Trying to do it all in any kind of business is nothing short of suicidal.
I was fortunate to realize very early on that the only way to succeed in a field as diverse and rapidly changing as the Web was to identify my strengths and surround myself with talented people who could accomplish the rest. The more complicated the field, the more people you need around you. This is not only true for projects themselves, but for business management as well.
When I see people slaving over accounting, design or copywriting when it has nothing to do with their talents, it really makes me sad. More often than not, the reasoning behind their decision is financial. They try to do by themselves what they cannot afford to have someone else do for them… or so they believe.
The truth is that while they take five hours to do bookkeeping, these hours are not spent doing what they do best (i.e. what brings home the bacon). A professional in that field probably would have taken one hour to do the same work. You do the math: five hours versus one. They could have worked and billed five hours doing what they are best at and paid one hour to outsource their bookkeeping, leaving four hours in their pocket. By doing it themselves, not only are they short of the hours they could have billed, they will probably make mistakes or forget credits they are entitled to. Now you tell me, what's the wisest thing to do here?
Carolyn: What part of your work do you love most?
Nathalie: Many aspects of my work bring me joy. Being very organized, any aspect relating to planning, managing and team leading seems to come easily to me.
Thanks to my legal background, I foresee probable issues so as to avoid misunderstandings with clients or resources. Subcontractors' mandates are always well defined. They know what is expected of them down to a "T". Graphic designers are provided with information as to the feel, the colors, the theme, links and architecture needed for a site. Programmers also have full specifications on what click does what and are even provided with all validation texts for pop-ups and the like. Detailed schedules are given to everybody and deadlines are set for the project. I'm proud to say that no project has ever been late on our end (knock on wood!).
Coding is also a great passion. I get great satisfaction in coding a nice design (created by my designer) that validates through and through.
Getting up in the morning is never a chore. I'm having the time of my life and feel very proud of what I have achieved.
Carolyn: Typically, how large are the companies that you serve?
Nathalie: They range from 5-10 employees to 60-100 employees. But I also have clients that are self-employed (coaches, real-estate agents, photographers, artists, etc.). The projects differ, but they each bring on specific challenges.
Carolyn: Do you think that designers/developers limit their income when they focus on serving individuals and micro-businesses rather than concentrating on larger companies?
Nathalie: In general, I'd have to say yes. Micro-businesses usually have micro-budgets - while retaining a taste for luxury. After all, poor people like filet mignon, too! But dismissing small companies as a rule would be a mistake. Small clients can refer big clients. They can also grow and become big clients in the future.
This is why it's important to really know a client before you accept his business. What are his business goals? Where does he want to be in 5 years? Who are his business contacts? These are all things that can help you determine if he has potential as a client or referrer or not.
Always remember that small thinking is often a state of mind, rather than a "state of client." Big clients can be stingy, too.
Carolyn: You list packages (Tight, Medium, Hefty) on your site, with price ranges. Do you post your packages to attract people or to filter out the bargain-hunters who want to pay as little as possible for a site? Some web developers are concerned that if they list substantial prices they will scare away potential customers. What do you think?
Nathalie: Yes, my packages were put online to filter out the bargain-hunters. You probably wonder how I reached the conclusion that I was better off doing this than just saying nothing. Well, over my first three years in business I've kept track of all the requests that had been made to me, either by e-mail or by telephone, as a result of a visit to the website. Of all the requests I got, none turned into actual clients! So I came to the conclusion that serious buyers shop for quality and that bargain-hunters shop for prices, whatever the quality might be.
Still, most clients (big or small) have to respect a certain budget when approaching a new project. For their frame of mind, what they see online are more like guidelines than actual "packages". They can at least see what they can expect from us for a given budget, and decide if they want to call us or not.
So in the end, I get my cake and eat it, too! I keep bargain-hunters at bay while I give worthwhile information to prospective quality-seeking clients.
As for the second part of your question, I do not think that listing prices will scare away potential customers. What it will do is scare away those who can't afford your services, but who will bargain you to death and force you to justify every penny on your bill. Now is that such a loss?
Carolyn: Who are your primary competitors, as you see it? Agencies or other one-person outfits?
Nathalie: Competitors? Who? Where? I might sound a bit flip about this, but although I understand the principle of competition (people who do the same thing as me and target the same client base I do), I don't lose any sleep over it. I actually don't believe in competition. I believe in product quality, in client satisfaction and in word of mouth.
The term "competition" itself must have been invented to justify why one's clients leave to go somewhere else: because he can't serve them properly, can't address their needs, can't meet their budget restrictions or their quality concerns.
What I offer my client base is not only the work, but also the person behind the hands that do the job. This is what I sell.
Agencies might be good for some types of client and one-person outfits might be good for other types. I would be quite a dreamer if I thought I could serve them all. There is more than enough to go around.
Carolyn: What advice would you give to a new website company owner, just starting out, if she wants to be financially successful?
Nathalie: To quote Brian Basset: "Success is getting what you want. Happiness is liking what you get." Money is nice, but it's quite relative in the pursuit of success. For one person, financial success is a million dollars, while for another, it is the ability to make ends meet with a bit left to go to the movies and buy popcorn.
Tips on how to give yourself a head start? The first one would be to do your homework at least a full year before you start your company, including the following:
- Make sure you do it for the right reasons and not just because you've been laid off and want to fill-in the blank in your resume and make a bit of easy cash until you find another job.
- Many people will tell you that you absolutely need a business plan. It's up to you. Many entrepreneurs never had one (including me). But chances are your bank will request one if you apply for a line of credit.
- Have at least 6 months (but preferably 12) worth of subsistence (both personal and business costs) in the bank before you even think of launching your business. That first year is murder.
- See an accountant to understand the fiscal advantages and disadvantages of getting legally constituted (getting your "inc."), applicable tax laws, etc. You may be eligible for certain grants or tax holidays, but only if you apply before starting the business.
- See if there are any business start-up programs in your area and if you are eligible.
- Apply for a line of credit before your launch and before you even need it. They'll never give it to you once you do need it. And once you have it, don't touch it unless it bleeds! A line of credit is not an investment loan, it's an emergency plan.
- Get yourself a proper business image, done by a real graphic designer (logo, business cards and letterhead at the least). Forget the kits you can get to print your own cards. If you look poor, you'll look cheap and attract bargain-hunters.
- Start making contacts in your field. You will need them throughout your career.
- See an attorney to learn about your rights and obligations as a business owner or freelancer, and get a valid contract drawn up for your future projects.
- Network, network, network, network… you get the idea.
Carolyn: What mistakes do you see people making that undermine their ability to have a good income? Do you believe that lack of courage, assertiveness and confidence is a major hindrance for women who want to be successful web developers?
Nathalie: The main mistakes I see include:
- Underestimating what your work is worth and compromising on your fees; I can understand a beginner charging less than a more experienced developer, but I've seen senior developers get bargained to death, which is unacceptable.
- Trying to do it all even when you lack the needed skills.
- Letting clients treat you like an employee.
Lack of courage, assertiveness and confidence is a major hindrance for anybody, not just women. Fortunately, those weak points can be overcome through the habit of networking. The more people you see and the more often you see them, the more at ease you will become. It truly is a skill that can be learned.
Furthermore, if you are a great programmer but lack salesmanship, why not hitch yourself up with someone that has the skill and share projects and profits?
Carolyn: Did Natmark-Concept's revenues grow gradually or were there specific steps that you took that increased your business dramatically?
Nathalie: It was growing steadily until the .com crash in 2001, when it dropped drastically. During about two years, I could barely make ends meet. I had three choices: quit and get a job (this was just NOT an option), sit on my behind and cry (not my personality type and counterproductive), or take all the free time I had to develop, network and get involved in business-oriented volunteer projects. I chose the latter. This is also when Marketing Cube (www.marketing3.ca) was created with two other associates. When the IT market picked up again in Canada in the summer of 2003, business exploded.
Since then, 95% of my business comes from referrals from existing clients or contacts I made through my networking efforts during those slow years.
Carolyn: Do you get out and network, go to parties, join organizations?
Nathalie: Networking is the key to the motor that feeds your business. If nobody knows you, nobody can refer you or even think of you. It's the best kind of advertisement you could get at the cheapest cost possible. I'm not really the party type. I prefer taking my best contacts out to lunch or organizing networking dinners with my own Natmark Network members.
I am mainly involved in two organizations:
- AEDQ (Affaires et développement québécois) (www.aedq.org - the site is presently being overhauled), a local association for small-businesses and freelancers, where I have been involved for at least six years, the last three of which as Executive V-P.
- The Montreal Marketing Association (www.marketing-montreal.com), a branch of the American Marketing Association, where I have been Vice-President e-business for three years now.
Carolyn: Business books often advise people to write frequent thank-you notes, give gifts, and take people out to lunch. Are these practices important in your business?
Nathalie: I'm a great disciple of the appreciation law. Few people understand the true weight of a heartfelt thank you. Although I am not a frequent gift giver (clients are no fools), I do make the occasional special, not charging for a little modification that took me less than 15 minutes, giving free advice or just calling to get the latest news. My interest in them is genuine and they can feel it.
But my best business practice is probably my Christmas tradition, when I handwrite each of my clients and collaborators a true and heartfelt appreciation note in the card I send out. It takes me days to write them all, but as I do, I really take the time to sit down, close my eyes, think of what each one of them means to me and let him or her know how important he or she is. For many of them, it is the best of gifts. Some have written back, telling me I made them cry!
I also take very good care of my collaborators. After all, they are the lifeblood of my business. I am always very excited to see their work and amazed at their numerous talents. I enjoy them immensely and never miss an occasion to let them know. I show them my appreciation by also paying them the same day I get their bill and even sometimes ask them for a bill even though the project still needs some tweaking.
Carolyn: Do you believe that older women are at a disadvantage in this industry? Are companies less likely to hire them to be their "creative, techy person"?
Nathalie: My take is that companies tend to hire young wolves that don't have much experience and whose ideas are still fresh and uncontaminated by the world. But they will also need a senior to make sure projects get done. When it's time to get down to the "nitty-gritty," they need the experienced worker to manage and guide the juniors who are running around with unrealistic ideas, often way over budget.
I believe that competency always finds work. You just need to know what your real talents are and bank on them. If you're older and know much about managing, sell your managing skills within the creative scope. After all, unleashed creativity can be just more graffiti on the wall.
Carolyn: How do you start the process with each client?
Nathalie: First off, I have a marked advantage when clients are referred to me, since a big part of the selling has been done for me through the referral. It usually starts with a telephone call and while chatting with the prospect and learning a little about his business and Web needs, I'll inquire about his budget. Before I take the car out to go to a meeting, I need to know what the "no thanks" point is.
By this, I am not trying to know if the project is "worth it", but rather if the client's expectations are realistic for what he wants to achieve. I don't want to waste my time and he doesn't want to waste his either.
I usually have them sign a contract when I am positive that I will have the project. I very seldom play the "call for tender" (or request for proposal) game. Drawing up a complete proposal takes a lot of time and includes strategy pointers, proposed navigation, tips and much very useful information. So I don't just give those out for fun, especially if I feel that the prospect will just use my proposal to go fishing somewhere else.
If a prospective client tells me that others are bidding on the project, I will often ask him to wait until he receives the other proposals and to call me afterwards so we can compare apples with apples. Many clients don't know much about the Web; they often cannot tell when developers are not bidding on the same thing. I want them to really understand what they are paying for and what I am bidding against. As for payment, I require a 40% deposit at contract signing, 30% mid-mandate and 30% at delivery.
Carolyn: Do you have anything in your initial process to avoid difficult clients?
- Where they got my name.
- What their budget is and what they think they can get for it.
- What their "drop-dead" day is and why they chose that date.
- How many people are involved with the project.
- Who makes the final call and makes decisions.
- How they feel about a signed contract and a deposit.
Their answers usually tip me right off.
Carolyn: Some web developers believe that it's important to identify themselves as owning a company rather than saying that they do freelance work. They find that they are taken more seriously by potential customers. Would you agree?
Nathalie: It all depends which clientele you are seeking, but in general, yes I would. There is a stigma attached to the mere concept of freelancing, which is being "there today and gone tomorrow".
Too many freelancers start their business because they were laid off and are looking for a way to make money until the next job offer comes along. This makes them unreliable resources since they are just passing by. When you take the time and money to get legally constituted, to register for taxes, to get your own corporate image and printed material, you are definitely considered to be more serious than a freelancer. Always remember that above all else, you sell security and peace of mind.
Carolyn: What is your advice for web developers who are concerned that their lack of ability to build complex CMS applications will prevent them from working for large companies or making a good living in the future?
Nathalie: XML and PHP are often used for these. But not knowing PHP (or anything else that's technical for that matter) shouldn't keep anybody from tackling big projects. If you are wise enough to know what your limits are, you're on the right track to finding resources that can fill the void. Find help! Create teams! Split projects and profits! All you need is one strong manager to lead the team and interface with the client. The rest is butter!
I don't know a single line of PHP (yet). Still, I can manage to land important projects because I've learned to not be a squirrel and keep all my nuts to myself. "Share the wealth", I've always said. When I meet anyone that "does Web," I don't see a threat, I see opportunity. I hurry to speak to anybody the least bit talented to find out what they can do that I can't, and figure out how I can use his or her services and talents. This ensures me a constant flow of new resources.
Maybe now you can understand what I meant earlier about not really caring about competitors. Often times, I make competitors my allies. I even have partner companies that can tackle projects that are too large for me. Everyone wins.
So to those who wonder about the future of Webmastering or Web developing, I answer "it's all up to you!" CMS will never take the work away from you as long as you're the CMS creator or facilitator. Just be there when it happens, be prepared, team up and tackle the challenge.
Carolyn: Thank you, Nathalie, for your time and the interview!
Copyright 2005, Carolyn Wood, All Rights Reserved
Carolyn Wood (www.pixelingo.com) is a website designer and copywriter in Portland, Oregon.