What Can Web Designers Learn from Business People?


The best way to learn how to run a business is to read the stories of successful businesses. So recently, I’ve been reading some books by Harvard Business Press (written by very successful VCs, CEOs or university professors) and learned A LOT of principles that can be taken from them and applied to your web design work.

In this article I am going to write about those hand picked points which I learnt from my study.

1. The key to productivity is managing your ENERGY, not your time

Tony Schwarz is a frequent writer for the Harvard Business Review and also the author of 2 bestseller books, “The power of full engagement” and “The way we’re working isn’t working.

His main point is, we aren’t hardwired to work like machines all the time. We are hardwired to make waves – to be alert during the day and to sleep at night, and to work at the highest intensity only for limited periods of time (during the day.)

He mentions an example of working 90 minutes and then taking a break for 30 minutes (or what I do is work 45 minutes and take a break for 15 minutes.) The key point is, during those 90 minutes you need to be doing your job without multitasking or being distracted and during the ‘rest time’ of 30 minutes, do something that fills you with energy (like listening to music, walking outside, exercising, but not reading emails because that rarely gives you much energy.)

You, as a web designer, can be way more productive in your work if you organize your time and manage your energy in this fashion. Try, just once, working for 45 minutes without distractions and then take a break of 15 minutes. Then do that again. Notice the difference. You’ll probably get a lot more done than usual. I also highly recommend Tony’s books if you want to learn more about this. It’s really counter-intuitive but it works very well.

2. How do you define ‘success’? By measuring

If you’re doing freelance work, one of the main things that determine your success might be:

  • Number of projects being done monthly
  • Referrals by existing clients

and so on. In business, there’s a term called KPI (Key Performance Indicator) and every major company has a number of them. If the company consists of people freelancing for other people, some of the KPIs might be the ones I’ve mentioned above. You can have all kinds of KPIs really. There are process KPIs, outcome KPIs… (see the link below for a great resource from Harvard Business School to learn more on this).

One short nugget on how to find the best KPIs for your business (got this from one business consulting book): Ask yourself: “What would success look like for your business”? This is a more sutble question than ‘How would you define success’ because with the second one, you don’t invoke your imagination and imagination is a very powerful thing. What would success look like for freelancers? A lot of clients who are willing to pay $500 per project? Put that as a KPI and focus on that…what you focus on is what you get.

Why do companies use KPIs? Because the best way to know whether you’re making progress is to compare yourself against some criteria (or benchmark). I highly recommend this short course to learn more on KPIs and performance management.

You can try and set up a few (2 to 4 at most) KPIs and try this concept. For example, if you’re selling website templates, you can measure the average time it takes you to make 1 template. Then you can set up a goal to make that time shorter (without compromising the quality, of course.) So you might come with a new process of making the header faster or putting all together. There are endless possibilities.

3. Don’t just innovate but imitate!

Imitation is a bad word, no? Yet, it’s one of the keys to human progress overall. I’ve recently read an article and a book on this and was astounded by the research. 97.8% of the value of innovations goes to imitators! And this is from 15+ years of research, not some stupid and false statistic.

Web designers love to innovate and re-invent the wheel. Many forget there are certain conventions for web designs and certain things that are proven to be working over time.

Now don’t try to go to extremes (like some people do), and say “now, imitation is everything and innovation sucks!”. No, that isn’t the case at all as we’ll later see. I think one of the main mistakes we do is to really go to various extremes when in fact it’s often the balance that’s the key and brings the most success. That’s not what society and popular culture teaches us (otherwise, would movies be fun? :) ).

I’m not saying it’s bad to innovate, I’m just saying that you should treat innovation and imitation as complementary and not like black and white. Oded Shenkar, who is the author of some of the research on imitation and the article I’ve linked to above, coined the term imovators. Those are people and companies that might take something, imitate it, but also improve (innovate) on it. Take McDonalds, Visa or Wal-mart for a start.

Many people have been doing this in web design. There’s been a bunch of great modification of the navigation menu (which proved to be working over time), for example. People have taken the concept and added some of their own modifications (innovative sub-menus), for example (from samsung.com):

That’s what imovators are :)

For a start, don’t try to re-invent the wheel but it’s totally okay to try to make it better (as long as it’s within legal boundaries.)

I hope these ideas gave you some useful insights.


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  1. Clive

    There is an excellent technique called the Pomodoro Technique (www.pomodorotechnique.com) that has a similar work management system that I have found very effective. It essentially breaks it down even further into 25 minute block with 5 minute break. Their testing has shown that this is the most efficient way to stay alert and focused and therefore more productive.

  2. Hey Darren,
    First of all a great read. Also, I have a question for you:

    Now, I have a free time for about a couple of months, so i was thinking to read some interesting business and time management books. Can you link me to some of them ? [may be an ebook or a paper book]?


  3. mosaicteam

    Great stuff Darren. I particularly like the idea of working hard without distractions for a time and then taking a break. I think most of us think that working longer hours on something means we will get more done. Just the opposite. By working on a single task and not multi-tasking we actually do get more done. I am going to go take a break!

  4. Zach

    Great article! I hope to major in business at the University of North Carolina next year with a focus on websites and web applications.