“First Client” Interview #3 – Nick Johnson

This interview is the third in a new series I’m starting to share how web designers and developers got their first client.


I met Nick Johnson at a conference for Christian businessmen in September of 2007. Within a month of meeting, we decided to go into business together and started Sabramedia. Years before, Nick had started his own web development business, which had grown from that first client to a thriving, two-man shop. Today, Nick leads development an ecommerce platform and Pigeon, our foray into the newspaper industry.

1. How did you get your first client?

Technically, my first client was my dad’s business. Kind of obvious how I came by that one. It was the summer of ’98 and I was 16 years old. I had no idea how the Web worked. I had poked around on it at school and my parents had just upgraded from a 28K baud modem to a 56K and we were surfing the web screaming fast.

My dad was an artist so he needed a website to show his art catalog. I began developing the site in Netscape Composer. I remember looking at the source code view and figuring out that tags made text “do stuff”. The first time I wrapped text with the <b> tag (made the text bold) was an incredibly exhilarating experience. I knew then that whatever this was, I wanted to do more of it.

Then I started doing all kinds of hideous things like flashing text and marquees, ugh, I get sick thinking about it. I think it was the thing to do in the 90s. Not too long after that I picked up a HTML4 book, by Molly E. Holzschlag, and couldn’t put it down.

With that backstory in mind, a couple personal web projects, and a brush with network engineering in between, I didn’t actually open up for business until January 2002 under the name Harmony Design. By this time I had taken a few courses and learned a lot about the Internet and World Wide Web. I need to pause here and give a lot of credit to Eric and Cara Stalsmith. They gave me some resources and opened my eyes to the web development world like I had never seen it before. You have to understand, nobody around me at the time was into computers or the Internet. I felt like an Island. Then this couple stopped by to sell my dad ad space on their website, and I was super excited to talk with these people. I probably wouldn’t have got into web development, or at least as soon as I did if it wasn’t for Eric and Cara.

I leased my first shared-hosting account and setup HarmonyDesign.biz (yeah, it was a dot biz). My first ‘official’ client was a private shipping company owned by some friends of the family. They didn’t have a website and knew they needed to be on the web. I knew that I wanted a residual income business, so I decided to resale hosting to all my web clients. I outlined a scope and sketched a layout. I showed it to them and sold it to them. I set the price a bit higher, then worked in a discount. I had picked a few sales practices from my dad. They bought it. I was on cloud nine, $500 bucks for a teenager was a lot of money, plus I was being paid to do something I loved. I think I danced around a bit when I got the go ahead. I also had my first monthly paying client at $15.95 per month. It doesn’t seem like a lot now, but at the time it was the beginning of a dream. I think I finished the site in about two weeks.

2. What did you learn from that first experience?

I don’t know if I learned it on the first client, but I began to realize that getting clients was about connections and building relationships. I was able to use my dad’s website and this private shipping website now as references. The next few websites were all based on referral and connections.

3. What advice do you have for folks trying to get their first client?

The best way to build a solid business is through consistent communication and going the extra mile when it’s not needed. People remember that kind of stuff and they talk about you, in a positive way. That talk inherently leads to more business. I didn’t advertise for years. The one time I paid for a print ad was a total waste of money. I’m not saying print advertising is bad, there is a time and place for it. It certainly is not what you spend money on getting your first few clients.