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WebRookie -- The Pros: Interview With Echo Tree
EchoTree Design
Jeremy Yoder

Visit EchoTree Design

Jeremy created his own design company and shares his experiences with Web Rookie in the following interview.

<WR> When did you become interested in web design and how did you get started?

I became interested in web site design the first time I browsed around on the Internet. This was in the early 90's, and on a 2400 baud modem. Needless to say, it was excruciatingly slow, but I was fascinated with the possibility of presenting information in a medium that could be seen from anywhere around the world. I actually didn't dig in to web design until I was in College. By then, web sites had evolved into something more than just static pages of text and miniscule images. I started out designing web sites while working on staff at the University library. The library had a web site, but it was very poor quality. It didn't help researching students at all. So, I was asked to redesign it. It was a pretty tall order, but I was up to the challenge and started learning HTML immediately.

<WR>How did you come up with the name "EchoTree" for your company?

I got the name "EchoTree" from two places. On the campus where I attended school and worked on staff, there is a tree that, when you talk to it, it echoes your voice directly back at you. No one else can hear the echo except the person who speaks. It's actually not the tree, however, it's the fact that it's planted at the direct center of a patio that is partly surrounded by a brick semi-circle wall. The wall forms a perfect amphitheater, and echoes back the sound crystal clear.
The other significance of the name is that "Echo" is the English phonetic spelling of the ancient Greek word "Ecco" which is a verb conjugated in the first person meaning "I have." The "Tree" word "Tree" is used often in the Bible to mean the cross. So, the name "EchoTree" loosely means "I have the cross." Plus, I just liked the sound of the name.

<WR>How long did it take for your business to really take off?

Mine has been pretty slow, but is very comparable to new businesses in general. What's great about web design, is that it allows you to start a business with a very small investment. You just need a computer and a word processing program, and you're on your way (of course, other tools help). I started getting contracts here and there almost immediately, but these were from people I knew before I started who needed web sites designed. It takes considerable time and effort, however, to establish yourself as a credible designer.

<WR>Have you worked on a contract basis? What do you need to know as an independent worker? Are there advantages and disadvantages to working by contract?

Generally speaking, I work solely on a contract basis. What's important to know while working independently is business management. When you work for yourself, everything's up to you. There are no accountants, marketers, customer service representatives, technical support staff, or janitors. Everything is your responsibility. You'll save yourself a lot of hassle if you take a few business courses from a local community college or state university. If you just attempt to wing it without wise council, then you're bound to get into trouble, whether through tax problems, through poor paperwork management or anything else. There are definite advantages to being an independent contract worker. You get to form your own business strategy, decide your hours, and carve your own market niche and not just help fill the one carved by someone else.

<WR>How did you create your business? Isn't managing your own business difficult? Do you advertise in order to create business for yourself or do you make your contacts by word of mouth and former clients?

I created my own business by seeing a need and fulfilling it. That's how a market economy works. The only way to make money is to have something of value (your services) and deliver it to some one who needs it in exchange for something of similar value (a big, fat check). I saw that among businesspeople I knew, there was a need for a competent web site designer. I was unimpressed with a number of design firms in the area and knew that I could do a better job and present a better value to my clients than the other firms, so I dove in.

Managing your own business is difficult, but do-able. Don't assume that your business will make you an instant success. You've got to work at it, at improving your capabilities, and at making those capabilities work for your clients.

As you've probably heard, word of mouth is the best advertising. Most of my best contracts come from word of mouth. If someone likes your work, they'll recommend you to others. So, the best thing you can do is make sure any clients you get are satisfied, but better still, ecstatic, with what you did for them. I have advertised in my local market, as well as on the web, but haven't had nearly as much success as I have with word of mouth. Generally speaking, word of mouth is free, while advertising is very costly. To advertise on, say, Yahoo!, you have to sink a minimum of $1000 into your ad campaign. I've heard from several people that they get a decent response, but that oftentimes it barely covers their advertising expenses. But advertising does have it's merits. The key is targeting your advertisement. Is there a certain aspect of web design that you accel at? Make sure the places you advertise on have visitor interested in that aspect. For example, if you have experience designing sites for legal firms, advertise on web sites targeted at lawyers. Also, many local newspapers have web sites and sell ads on their site pretty inexpensively, compared to straight newspaper ads. This has several advantages, because you're reaching only those who are familiar with the web (who can view the newspaper's web site), it's getting your name out in your local market, and it can provide a direct link to your site (whereas a newspaper ad makes it harder for readers to contact you). Lastly, if you own your own business, everybody you know should know about it. If you're excited about what you have to offer, then you'll talk about it. If you talk about it with people you know, they'll talk about you if they happen to come across someone who needs services that you offer.

<WR>What basics tools do you find essential in your work?

There are several essentials:

  • You need to know HTML. Sorry, there's not really much of a way to get around it. Yes, there are getting to be a few decent WYSIWYG editors out there, but there will always come a time when a client needs something that isn't offered in your HTML editor. You need to be able to insert hand coded sections that fulfill your clients' specific needs.

  • It's very helpful to know JavaScript. If not, you need to know how to implement pre-written scripts and find places where you can get useful scripts. Here's a few:
    The JavaScript Source
    Developer.com (a huge JavaScript directory)
    Steal My JavaScript (makes custom scripts)
    JavaScript Made Easy

  • Learn to optimize graphics! This is a huge problem with many designers. If your site has too many large graphics, people won't view it. Only place graphics that are useful to what you're presenting, not just because they look neat. Also, make sure that all of your graphics go well together. Once you've created your graphics, reduce the palleted colors on your gifs to minimize the file size.
    Here's a great web graphic design resource at Builder.com. It's a good idea to bookmark their homepage and subscribe to their e-mail newsletter. They give some of the best design info in the business: http://www.builder.com/Graphics/Spotlight/?st.bl.fd.gr1.feat.1346.

  • It's also helpful to get some design training at a local college or university. Many people who design web sites take naturally to programming, but not to design. They just assume that since they can learn HTML, they should be designing web sites professionally. But propeller-heads (techies) need to learn design skills to make a visually appealing web site if they're going to succeed.

  • If you go with a WYSIWYG editor, shop around as much as you can and try all the editors and read all the reviews before you buy. My personal favorite is NetObjects Fusion. Builder.com rates it #1 (and they're hard core hand coders). Here's the address of their editor reviews: NetObjects Fusion - Builder.com review

  • <WR>You have wonderful graphics on your site and list touch-up work for photographs as well. How much do they impact your work assignments; do you do a great deal of graphic work besides site design?

    The services I offer on my site reflect the area in which I am carving my market niche. I have extensive experience working with photograph restoration because of my work at an historic research center. I saw that there is a need for this service, so I decided to offer it. The same is true for graphic design. I actually have more experience with graphic design than with web design. I get a very considerable amount of business doing graphic design. Graphic design tends to be a little less lucrative than web site design, however. A good graphic designer can net about $50/hr compared to what can work out to be around $80/hr for contract web work (if you're an efficient web designer).

    <WR>How do you manage to come up with such unique designs?

    I gain experience with life and apply what I see to what I create graphically. When designing a site, I try to think about what would best represent the business or organization that I'm designing the site for. I ask the client what they're wanting to get across to the visitors, and then design everything around that. Also, I do whatever I can to keep the site from looking like just a page with a few picture sprinkled here and there. I make sites wherein every aspect of each page works together to seamlessly contribute to the visual appeal of the site.

    <WR>What are some common mistakes beginning designers make?

    Too much eye candy. They insert things that look neat, but that distract from the content of the site.
    Not having a stylistic connection between all pages in a site. Because many designers create on a page by page basis, they often fail to make the various pages seem like they're part of a single site. When a visitor clicks a link, they can't tell if they're on the same site, because there are no visual cues linking one page to the next.

    <WR>Did you have any bad experiences when you first began to be hired by companies or in starting up your company?

    Actually, no. Wow. I've never actually sat back and thought about that. I've had a few times where it's taken clients quite a long time to actually pay me, but that's about it. I'm sure I'll have some in the future, though. The closest thing I've had was when I designed a newspaper advertisement for a law firm that specializes in personal injury in San Francisco. There was a documentary photograph of an injured stray kitten that looked like it was in desperate need of help. In very sad looking letters, was the word, "Injured?". The law firm really liked the ad, because it drew the reader's attention immediately to the picture. However, when they placed the ad in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, they got more calls complaining that they were exploiting animals than calls from potential clients. Though the law firm approved the advertisement, I'm not sure if they'll ever have me do their design work again. Oh, well.

    <WR>Any advice for those just starting off?

    Beyond what I've mentioned earlier, the only thing that comes to mind is the necessity of your own domain name. It's really difficult for your site to look credible if your address is something like "www.geocities.com/yada_yada/blah/yoursite.html" Look into getting your own domain name (i.e. www.yoursite.com). This makes search engines more likely to give your home page a higher rating and makes it easier for people to find your site. Contact your ISP for information.

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