Phil Ellis, President of Humanear, a website design and programming company in the Midwest, decided about ten years ago that he didn’t want a real job anymore. That may sound like the claim of a lazy person, but Ellis is anything but that. With his feet fully planted in cyberspace (not an easy task, but this guy manages), Ellis is a web developer and designer with a satisfied—and growing—client base.
As the head of his own start-up, he has had to go from tech guy to tech guy who wears not only an artist’s hat, but a marketeer’s, too.
Every time I talk to Ellis, which has been quite a lot over the last six or so years, it seems he has yet another new project and yet another client. He’s a guy constantly moving his business forward.
So I sat down with him (via the comfort of email) and fired some questions at him. Here’s what this audacious entrepreneur had to say:
AI: Why Humanear? Do the squeamish ever complain about the name?
PE: Humanear was a name I thought about using long before I decided what to do when I grew up. The term was actually gleaned from a movie where the protagonist stumbled upon a severed ear while walking through a field not far from his house. He took the ear to a detective in a plain brown bag, at which point the detective says, “Yep, that’s a human ear all right” in a manner similar to if he were looking at a PB&J sandwich instead of a body part in the brown paper bag.
Finding this to be probably more hysterical than it actually was, I mentioned to a fellow “Blue Velvet” fan and friend of mine that if I ever started a business, I was going to call it Humanear. Years later, I was dumb enough to actually follow through. As much as I’d like to take credit for a clever reason behind the cute name, I must stick to the honest, stupid version which would be meaningless to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie.
I’ve never had a complaint about the name, but I’ve had many people ask the same question you did. Some have seen the movie and understand, and some just nod their head and smile.
AI: I’m going to nod my head and smile, then ask the next question: what was your strategy, and how did you come up with it?
PE: Honestly, I was laid off from Gateway and my only goal was to find a job. Thanks to a healthy severance, I had the luxury of a few months to come up with something. When nothing happened, I decided (with a lot of discouraging comments from most people around me) to start the operation of getting a few clients and scraping up some cash. So my official business plan was not much of a plan at all. I hit the ground running. Admittedly, I was not prepared and made many mistakes. Over time, my general plan was to find ways to get residual income and to increase my client base. That basic plan is still how I operate today, but I’m much better at it. Looking back, I see that I thought I knew more than I actually did, but I’m glad I stuck with it.
AI: What trends in website design are you loving right now? What do you hate?
PE: Trends in design seem to come and go pretty quickly. One trend I’ve been partial to for quite a while now is incorporating negative space whenever possible and keeping the design elements simple, but professional. Simplicity has great merit. Another rather basic trend is towards more text and graphics, pertinent text and graphics and less fluff such as gratuitous Flash elements. Twirly things for the sake of having twirly things on the page. Which is one of my hates. My personal preferences have changed radically, and evolve as my skills and experience evolve. I’m not a big fan of overcomplicating the uncomplicated. Another trend that bothers me is pages that expand and contract according to the size of the browser window.
AI: You sit down with a new client and you listen to their ideas. You can tell this is a client who is dead set in her or his ways. You’ve done your homework, and you have an idea as to what you think would be a better strategy for their site. What are some ways you’ve reconciled the differences between your ideas and their vision? How do you manage to keep their ultimate needs in tact?
PE: The most important thing to remember, of course, is that the customer is always right. The challenge is to steer the customers’ thoughts and ideas in such a manner that he or she is making the decisions that will positively impact their business. In a situation where the thoughts of the client and the thoughts of the developer seem to be heading in two completely different directions, the right thing to do is to figure out how I can change my strategy and thinking in a manner which will eventually be appealing to my client. As a designer, it’s so hard to lose the ego, but in order to get things done, it’s gotta be done. What do I do? Suck it up and design something that the client will love and that I can build and be satisfied with. There’s always middle ground, and that’s what you shoot for. At the end of the day, if the client loves it, that’s what’s most important.
AI: So you started this business without much of a plan to start, but found your way and it paid off. In your own words, you made some mistakes along the way. What is the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn in this business?
PE: Over the last eight years, I’ve experienced many lessons. A little over two years ago I learned the biggest lesson of all: In order to succeed, you MUST spend money on the tools to help you succeed. No matter what business you’re in, you have to spend money to make money. I had a near-catastrophic failure, which jeopardized my entire client base. I was fortunate enough to catch a few breaks and smart enough to move quickly to save things before it was too late. I’ll never make the mistake again. Since then my overhead has increased significantly, but my client base and my client satisfaction has increased at an even quicker pace. Every dollar you invest to improve your business is a dollar you invest in your client and your success.
AI: Bill Gates once said that if he could spend his budget on only one thing, it would be PR. Do you agree?
PE: In my particular business, word of mouth and my clients are my advertising. I believe that I would spend advertising and marketing dollars on PR. Web development companies are a dime a dozen. Traditional advertising does not work for me. Getting exposure through PR gets my name in range of the decision makers in larger companies. It’s the largest bang for the buck.
AI: Who am I to argue with Bill Gates, or you? Thanks, Phil, for your thoughts, from the common sense to the audacious. You are definitely worth the cyber ink.