Growth & Customers

David Lockie: “Why I went from freelancing to hiring my first employee”

Pragmatic team

I didn’t start out wanting to run a digital agency.

I grew up loving nature and watching David Attenborough documentaries. That inspired me to study zoology at university and spend a lot of my time running around jungles catching frogs, snakes and lizards with the aim of becoming a zoologist.

During my final year though, I became interested in computers and at our research centre in a hut in the rainforest, I was responsible for managing the IT for the project, looking after the 15 workstations we used.

I gradually came to the realisation that while zoology was fascinating, it was not the right career for me.

The industry suffered from the usual roadblocks of complex bureaucracy, obstructive politics and burdensome admin. It seemed just like the rest of the business world but wasn’t going to make me any money.

A new career path

So I started working with some friends, trying to promote renewable energy and building an online marketplace to achieve that.

I was keen to make our website deliver more value for the business, so I involved myself more and more with it, learning eventually to build an entire website from scratch. In turn, I used this knowledge to build a few websites for friends and family.

This sparked the thought that I could make a career in web development. In fact, it wasn’t long before I was earning more money building websites in my spare time than I was in my day job. So that was me – I used that ambition to become a freelance website builder, working from home.

After a couple of years, I had built and was hosting about 100 websites, all created with WordPress, which I loved because of the ease of using templates and the speed with which I could build and adapt sites.

The steps to hiring my first employee

The opportunity to hire my first employee came about unexpectedly, almost accidentally. My server was hacked and all my clients’ websites were affected. I needed someone to help me out and by chance, I’d seen a shout out by someone I knew from a local WordPress meetup saying he’d lost his job and was looking for work.

I got in touch and he helped for a few days to fix this crisis. But that turned into weeks and then months as I seemed to have a never-ending list of work that needed doing and that he could do to help me out.

For many companies, there comes a crisis or a sheer overload of client work that means a decision has to be made.

This turning point will often take you along one of four routes. Three of them – putting up your rates, turning down some of the work, or getting some contractors to help you for a while – mean you can manage the workload while remaining freelance.

The fourth, alternative route, is to hire someone to help you grow.

And that was the route I chose. I wanted someone I could rely on, who would be there every day and I whom I could depend on to achieve what I needed doing.

Learning from experience

Building a business takes effort – and when you employ someone, you feel very responsible for them, wanting to ensure you have sufficient business to cover the two salaries you now have to meet.

This necessarily means investing long hours into your work. But my advice would be to make sure you’re as smart about it as possible. Believe me, if you think you’re busy and dealing with a lot as a freelancer, you have no idea just how effective and efficient you have to become when you have a team to manage.

Around the same time that made my first hire, I’d also started another business, analysing websites and advising on how to improve their speed, and show which plugins worked with which themes, and so on.

I’d received some angel funding for this new start-up, so was running two businesses: my digital agency, Pragmatic, and this new start-up.

I wanted both to be successful, so was spending six hours a day on each business. I ran really hard like this for about 18 months.

But it wasn’t until I evaluated the purpose behind what I was doing and examined my motivations that I learned that Pragmatic was already delivering everything I felt I was searching for in the new start-up.

It was already sustaining the lifestyle I wanted and was giving me purpose, allowing me to be in a business that helped others by creating value for their businesses. It already had everything I wanted from my work.

Devoting my time and attention back to Pragmatic allowed me to be more focused and to put more energy into my work.

Looking back, those 18 months were a significant learning experience. Anyone starting out on the same journey and considering making the first step from freelancer to first hire can avoid a similar mistake by asking themselves three key questions…

Where are you heading?

Carefully considering the motivation behind what it is you want to achieve and examining what makes you tick can help uncover your personal purpose.

If you don’t know your final destination, you won’t ever know what route you need to take to get there. Like me, you may decide you’ve already found your purpose but just hadn’t realised it yet.

What lifestyle do you want?

Contemplating how you want your day-to-day life to look will help shape the path you take. Do you want to work remotely a few days a week from a place in the country? Or do you want the party lifestyle, employees and an office in town?

Both approaches can work but it’s up to you to decide which one suits you best. I love being around other people at work.

What are you good at?

If you don’t know, you can always ask your clients. But take time to think about what it is that makes you different, because that is what will differentiate you from your competitors and shape the kind of company you build.

My clients told me I had good judgment and they liked the decisions that I helped them make and they said that I was “pragmatic”.

This endorsed my decision to focus on my digital agency… and also to name it Pragmatic!

Where next?

It’s taken six years to go from freelancer to running an agency employing more than 50 people. In doing that, I’ve found my purpose.

I’m bringing pragmatism forth into the world.

That started with enjoying building websites but ended up with me discovering what I really want to do in life – to create value for people and organisations.

Right now, the most pragmatic way to do that is to create awesome digital solutions using WordPress. I’m happy to inspire others and pleased to have a great team behind me.

In a future post, I’ll explain how I grew the business from that very first hire to become the UK’s leading WordPress agency.

What are your stories of taking on your first employee? Let us know in the comments below.

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