089: Building a boutique 2-person consultancy with Bright Umbrella

I recently attended the HOW Design Live Conference and had the opportunity to meet up with Lea and Emily from Bright Umbrella. Bright Umbrella is a 2-person design and development agency that focuses on the education sector.

In our interview, I got to talk to Lea and Emily about how they started out, what they have learned, and some of the things they are doing to grow their business today.

Getting the first clients

Lea and Emily worked together on the ExpressionEngine podcast before starting Bright Umbrella. And, when they started the company, they were fortunate enough to have built their networks already.

Emily had mentioned that she was very fortunate to maintain a pretty steady stream of clients through word of mouth, and Lea had gained a lot of traction with a blog she had written on the art of self branding.

They relied heavily on these reputations that they had built until they struggled with a very difficult year in their business. It was at this time that they realized that they could no longer just rely on the web industry to get them work. They had to go out and start focusing on their prospective clients.

A shift in focus

This mindset shift to start focusing on creating content and messaging geared toward their clients was a huge change for Bright Umbrella.

Before this, they were mostly focused on communicating with their peers. They had just been writing about features and techniques. They never wrote about the why. They hadn’t been communicating the benefit to the client.

So, they began to write articles for their clients, speak at events where their clients were, and generating content focused on their client’s needs.

They had a whole slew of information they used to speak with their clients, but they hadn’t written it down, so they began to break down these conversations and put them in the context of the education market. This allowed them the change they needed to attract new business.

Why education?

The education industry can often be very bureaucratic, and difficult to work in, so I was curious why they decided to focus in this area. Both Lea and Emily have a passion for working with and teaching others. They both have teaching experience and love the sharing of information and skills.

In fact, their podcast CTRL+CLICK CAST is focused on the education of their peers.

While this is the case, they did mention that the bureaucracy can be a hurdle sometimes.

But, one of the best ways to overcome this is to find a champion inside the company or organization they are working with. Their work often comes about from a relationship they have with someone in the company, and often this person can help facilitate the communication and presentation of information. Lea and Emily will sometimes ask this champion questions like, “What would make a proposal more appealing. What mental model is necessary. Do they need graphs? Do they need a before and after? What is important to them?”

This can help to communicate in a way that really resonates with the organization in a way that couldn't be done without the help of this champion.

Personally, I’ve found this to be true in every industry I’ve sold into.

What’s working?

One source of generating business is relatively new for Bright Umbrella, and that is work coming from strategic partners.

They have scheduled outreach campaigns where they ask their peers if they have any projects they are planning to turn down that may be a good fit for Bright Umbrella. In addition to this, they have a few agreements in place with other companies that will give them projects they turn down.

One crazy thing is that these opportunities came about just by asking. They told me that they had known some of these people for 10 years, but they had never asked before about referring clients there way. And, once they did ask, others were more than happy to help.

This goes to show that you shouldn’t assume that someone is just going to reach out to send you work. If you are interested, you have to be proactive and ask.

At the end of my interviews, I always like to ask what advice they would give others. Lea and Emily both pointed out how important it is to have someone you can run your ideas by.

You need someone to bounce ideas off of. You need someone to validate or question your thinking, because you can’t just trust your own decisions all the time. A lot of people work in businesses by themselves, and they can just work in a silo. But, there are a lot of generous people out there that are willing and excited to help. Sometimes you just have to ask.

Once again, thank you for listening to this episode of the Working Without Pants Podcast. I had a great time with Lea and Emily, and I hope you are encouraged to look at areas of your business where you could ask others for advice, referrals, or just to bounce ideas off them. And, as always, I hope you are working without pants.




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