Reflecting on My Journey as a Web Agency Owner: Lessons Learned

I rarely delve deeply into my experiences as a web agency owner. It’s partly because I’m not one to brag, partly because the journey wasn’t all fun and glory, but mostly because it’s a chapter I’ve moved on from. I know, I make it sound so enticing, right?

In fairness, there were incredible aspects to running a web design agency. I genuinely miss the days when I had complete control over projects, from the initial client meetings to the final touches on the websites to seeing those websites actually produce results. Those were the golden moments of owning a web agency: helping others grow their ventures and witnessing the direct impact of your work on your community.

But let’s not kid ourselves—behind all that dedication lies a business. And a business can be a fierce beast, always lurking, ready to pounce. Consider this a sort of long-overdue post-mortem, as I share key takeaways from my time running that business.

Lesson One: Client Relationships Are the Lifeblood of Any Business

My company kicked off as a rather aimless venture in the early 2000s. It was actually my school friend who took the initiative to jump head first into the world of entrepreneurship, with me also jumping in not too long after. We rode the wild waves of the web hosting boom during the dot-com bubble, stumbling through failed ideas until we finally landed on the simple yet powerful concept of building websites for local businesses (keep in mind, this was before the time when automated website builders, like Wix, Squarespace, or Weebly, could handle most of the heavy lifting).

Securing clients and establishing a reputation in our late teens and early twenties was no easy feat—it was like scaling Everest. With little experience, we turned to our local Chamber of Commerce. For those unfamiliar, the Chamber is an organization that facilitates networking among businesses both small and large, while advocating for pro-business policies. It was the ideal setting for two ambitious twenty-somethings to start drumming up business.

Initially, our progress was excruciatingly slow. Networking events were my personal nightmare—strangers intimidated me and the thought of pitching our services was even worse. Fortunately, my business partner had a knack for networking, so he took the lead there.

After months of awkward “After Hours” meet-and-greets and speed networking luncheons, things began to change. We landed small projects initially, barely worth the effort, but soon people started to recognize us. Trust was established. We were no longer those “kids”—we were respected businessmen who were delivering results.

Sticking with the Chamber was pivotal for our growth. The more time my business partner invested in building those relationships, the stronger our reputation became. He volunteered, nurtured connections, and gave back to the community. Meanwhile, I was back at the office, churning out high-quality work and making clients part of the process. It hit me then—client relationships are everything.

Starting a business is all about creating and maintaining connections. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Offering exceptional customer service before, during, and after a project is critical for securing recurring business and valuable referrals. We almost never engaged in outbound marketing; our growth was fueled by networking, managing relationships, and trusting that those connections would bear fruit, either through new projects or referrals. This strategy transformed our small venture into one of the largest web design agencies in the area.

Keys to Maintaining Strong Client Relationships

Effective Communication

  • Provide regular updates
  • Be responsive and clear

Actively Listen

  • Understand client needs and concerns
  • Clarify any ambiguities


  • Be honest about timelines and costs
  • Share news promptly, good or bad

Be Present

  • Acknowledge important dates and milestones
  • Check in even when no project is active
  • Be present for your clients by attending their events, supporting their causes, or simply stopping by to say hello
  • Celebrate wins

Consistent Quality

  • Deliver high-quality work consistently
  • Seek and act on feedback
  • Understand the goals of the project and enable metrics to track them

Meet Deadlines

  • Stick to timelines
  • Communicate potential delays early and often

Lesson Two: Keep Up with Industry Knowledge

Running a business was an educational tidal wave. During our peak, I was also earning my business degree. By night, I learned the theory of business; by day, I gained invaluable street smarts. The business was my true teacher, offering lessons no classroom ever could.

From learning to communicate with people of diverse backgrounds to overseeing interns and employees, every day brought new challenges and growth opportunities. We developed new processes, tracked finances meticulously, and even attracted an investor whom we eventually bought out. These real-world experiences built a foundation that has served me well throughout my career and personal life.

Despite these lessons, I sometimes fell behind on industry knowledge. When I finally transitioned out of the business and entered the job market, I discovered my technical skills were woefully outdated. It was a wake-up call. While running a business provides unmatched learning experiences, it’s easy to become complacent.

I realized too late that I had neglected to keep up with new development tools and methodologies. Comfort had become my enemy. From learning the hard way that WordPress was essential for managing client content to overlooking the latest industry trends, my complacency came at a cost.

Now, I constantly remind myself to stay updated. I regularly scan job postings to gauge the skills currently in demand and work on side projects to keep my technical abilities sharp. The industry never stands still, and falling behind can have significant repercussions.

Keys to Staying Sharp

  • Enroll in platforms like Coursera, Udemy, or LinkedIn Learning
  • Work on personal or open-source projects to apply new skills
  • Follow tech blogs, news sites, and forums
  • Attend virtual or in-person tech conferences and meetup groups
  • Pick up some books that reinforce what you’re learning
  • Mentor juniors or peers in your organization or community

Lesson Three: Financial Literacy is Non-Negotiable

Accounting is notoriously complex. College courses only skimmed the surface of the labyrinthine rules, formulas, and scenarios involved. In real life, proper financial management is equally, if not more, critical. To run a successful business, the financial gears must be well-oiled, thoroughly documented, and systematically managed. If you can’t readily pull a balance statement or identify outstanding receivables, you’re courting disaster.

Thankfully, my business partner had a good handle on our company’s financials. Though I regret not fully grasping the intricacies of cash flow and depreciation, we generally did well with our books. However, it didn’t shield us from making costly missteps.

Understanding your finances is perhaps the most essential part of running a business and managing your life. Every dollar requires accountability, and cash flow must be monitored meticulously to ensure you can meet your financial obligations. Mismanaged money can topple companies and put people out of work.

Automation was our saving grace. We were fortunate to be in an era where tools like QuickBooks Online could handle most of the number-crunching. Yet, setting up systems and rules to make these tools effective required significant effort. Spend the time to systematize your accounting correctly—know where your money is going and distinguish between necessary and unnecessary expenses.

With critical financial data at our fingertips, making financial decisions became less burdensome. We knew whether we had the funds or not, but that didn’t stop us from making some dumb decisions. We splurged $2,000 on a magazine ad that yielded zero leads and sunk thousands into office space we didn’t really need. Youthful exuberance and inexperience led to some regrettable decisions, but those mistakes became invaluable learning experiences.

Lesson Four: Establish Recurring Revenue Streams

Operating on a project-by-project basis is a relentless and often stressful model. The constant hunt for the next client to meet monthly financial targets kept me up at night. What if projects dried up? Would we meet our expenses?

This uncertainty is why I became a staunch advocate of the recurring revenue model. While not a new concept, the Software as a Service (SaaS) model had just started gaining traction during the prime years of our business. Implementing recurring revenue streams, such as ramping up our hosting and web maintenance services, proved to be a game-changer. It doubled our business size and provided a steady income flow, which was far more predictable than one-off projects.

We even developed a proprietary content management system to help clients manage their online media rooms. Although it wasn’t groundbreaking, it generated consistent revenue. Diversifying income streams not only stabilizes a business but also mitigates risk—a lesson that applies to personal finance as well. Establishing more than one source of income, whether through freelancing, secondary jobs, or smart investments, can provide a comfortable safety net.

Lesson Five: Partnerships Can Be Fraught with Challenges

So, what led me to leave the seemingly successful business I was running and take up employment elsewhere? A significant factor was the partnership aspect. After nearly a decade in business with my friend, our paths began to diverge.

My partner was responsible for business development, securing new clients, while I focused on project execution and technical aspects. However, as our revenue plateaued, tension grew. I found myself questioning his contributions: “Where are the clients? What do you do around here?” Whether or not these were fair questions isn’t the point; rather, it was the nature of the questions and the growing distrust that drove that wedge in our partnership.

Our relationship turned sour, and the trust and respect that once existed eroded. I held on for over a year, ignoring my gut telling me it was time to move on. Eventually, I realized that exiting was necessary for my own well-being and future growth.

Partnerships can be incredibly fulfilling but also dangerously volatile, especially when friends are involved. It’s not uncommon for business partners to part ways with strained relationships. Living through this taught me to be more cautious and discerning about whom I enter business with.

This isn’t to say partnerships should be avoided at all costs, because they can be tremendously successful and offer a balanced division of responsibilities. But you have to choose your business partner wisely. Ensure you both have a mature, communicative relationship and are aligned in your vision and goals. Legal and strategic groundwork is also essential; have clear agreements and exit strategies in place to handle conflicts or divergent paths. And, most importantly, acknowledge that you’re risking a relationship with a friend (or family member) by starting a partnership.

Embrace the Entrepreneurial Spirit

Being an entrepreneur doesn’t necessarily mean you have to run a business. Entrepreneurship is a mindset—a way to engage your creative instincts and constantly seek improvements in life. For me, running a business was an expression of my entrepreneurial spirit, and it carried me through years of growth, stagnation, and eventual transition.

That spirit, although fluctuating, has never left me. It’s woven into my decision-making and shapes my approach to both work and life. Although I’m not currently steering a business, my freelance projects and career keep me creatively fulfilled and accountable.

If you’ve ever had the itch to start a business, I say go for it. The learning curve is steep, but the wisdom gained is invaluable and far outweighs the costs—unless, of course, you’re risking your entire life savings. Starting a business teaches resilience and adaptability in ways no other experience can. You’ll encounter challenges that force you to innovate and grow, developing an invaluable skill set that will benefit you in any future endeavor.