Pivoting a purpose driven business during a pandemic w/ Amber Hinds

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Let’s say you’re a services business — you know, you make websites for people and sell them at fair market value. But, every so often, you get a little jealous about all of these product people running around printing money.

You want a piece of that action. Managing customer expectations are daunting.

Your master product plan comes together over night and you decide to cut off the deal flow coming into your business and even raise some capital to make this dream come true…

…but then two major moments happen: A huge client contract that you thought went dark pops up their head and says “Yes!” aaaaaand the world hits a global pandemic.

Now what?

You’re going to find out from today’s guest Amber Hinds, CEO of Road Warrior Creative and Equalize Digital.

Hey, if you like the show, how about a review on iTunes. And I’m looking for a quote or two put on the website — tweet at me @mattreport with a quote about how this Podcast has helped you.

MattReport.com/subscribe to join the mailing list — I may or may not be working on something new so stay tuned there.

Okay, tune in to find out how Amber handled all of this!

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Amber Hinds on Matt Report

Amber: [00:00:00] I am the founder and CEO- is what I’m using these days- for Road Warrior Creative LLC and Equalize Digital, which is our side brand that we pivoted to in 2020. We do work as a marketing agency for Road Warrior Creative and we specialize under Equalize Digital with accessibility audits, remediation and accessible development.

Matt: [00:00:27] and you started the agency back 2015, roughly, you’ve grown to, I think when we last chatted, we’ve grown to about seven-ish team members. Correct?

Amber: [00:00:36] Yep. That’s right.

Matt: [00:00:38] I think, and I might be just talking for my myself here, but maybe not, because I’ve interviewed so many people, I remember starting my service agency and like after year one, I was like, I need to get into product.

Like, this client services thing is pretty darn difficult and my God, that product thing looks super attractive over there. Have you ever had that sort of longing to create a product or has this been a moment where you said, a product, a plugin is something we should have.

Amber: [00:01:07] Yeah my self and my partner, Chris, we were organizers for WordCamp Denver for a couple of years when we still lived in Colorado. And I can tell you, I had a moment during a WordCamp when someone was talking about their business, and they were talking about selling things that they had made and not having to remake it every time they made a sale.

And it was between that, which was maybe only a year after I grew from, I’ve been working in WordPress as a freelancer since 2010, so very early days and shifting into the agency world, but then at a Word amp, at that exact moment when I went, “Man, we really need to figure out a product.”

And I think too, we’re a Certified B Corporation and we try really hard to be transparent and to do a lot of things. And there’s a couple of businesses that I really admire in that space. One of which is Buffer, and they, it’s, again, it’s a product, it’s a saas, right? And so for a long time, we’ve been watching them and talking about, “How do we get to that point?”

And that’s when we realized we really needed a product last year. Actually, I should say, now that we’re in 2021: In 2019, we got really serious about it.

And we actually said, if we’re going to be serious about building a product, we need to treat ourselves as the client, which means we need to commit to paying our developer, our designer, whatever, out of our pocket, instead of constantly scheduling them for client work to make us revenue. So we have to invest in this.

And we- that’s really, when we started doing it, we weren’t totally sure what that product would be, but we started putting the plans in place in 2019. We actually raised some capital in order to do that.

Matt: [00:02:58] How did you start to say, “Well, should we detract from client services, take a hit, and then push that, those resources towards product development though?” I think you’ve just answered it by saying you’ve raised some capital, so maybe you had the foresight to say, “Oh yeah, we’re going to take a hit on client work to be able to produce something like this.”

Amber: [00:03:17] Yeah, so we realized that was pretty much what we had to do in April or May of 2019. We took out (I’ll be totally transparent) we took out a little bit over a $100,000 loan because on the business-end we said, we’re going to commit to it.

We put some stuff on our calendar and then we got a massive RFP that we had previously written. We were selected for the project for a government agency, and then we did zero work on product development. We literally took that cash that we’d raised. We put it in a savings account and we’re like, just stay, it was just there. So what really drove us to do it?

I think there’s always this fear, right? It’s hard to say no to work. And when, especially for us, when we’ve got a team and we know that people are relying on us for their livelihood, it’s hard to take that risk of, if you dial back the client work and the product doesn’t take off right away, will the client work be there when you come back to it?

That sort of thing? Well, COVID hit. And the client work dialed itself back pretty severely

Matt: [00:04:35] Yeah, you didn’t have that made the decision for you

Amber: [00:04:38] in 2020. And that was the decision, and we said, “Well, a lot of people are laying employees off. We took out, we had committed to building a product. I think this is the universe telling us now is the time to build a product.”

And so we built – we actually had originally thought we were going to build and we have a free version of a plugin that does a conference schedule. And we had thought we were going to build a pro version of that, but, a year’s difference in time and we were looking at it and we realized that there’s a lot more, I think, space on the accessibility side and we have maybe a lot more that we could give and contribute there.

Whereas there’s quite a few scheduling tools or displaying an event schedule plugins are already out there. Whereas there aren’t as much on the accessibility checking side. And so, we ended up deciding to launch a plugin that tests for accessibility problems in WordPress.

Matt: [00:05:38] Before we go down that path, I want to uncover the moment where you sat down and said, okay, we will dial back client services.

Did you put post-it notes on a wall to weigh the pros and cons? What was that moment like? How did you make that decision?

Amber: [00:05:54] Well, I don’t know that we ever said that it would be a long time, long-term, it would be more of a “we’re going to do what we call a blackout period.”

So we were going to say that for six weeks, we’re not going to take any client work. Outside of a few, like we do, some hosting and support packages, or we have people on a maintenance plan and we, weren’t going to say, “Hey, you’re going away, we’re not going to support you,” but it’s more like we, aren’t going to take on any new projects.

And it, I think it was just a number of conversations and it really comes down to the reality of when you’re doing a lot of client work there’s not… Everyone makes the joke about the plumber with the leaky sink at home – there’s just not enough time in the day, and if you don’t want to work nights and weekends. That’s not to say that we didn’t work nights and weekends to shove it all in in the timeframe that we wanted, but I think, it was just a lot of conversations and it came down to the reality of: “If this is actually going to get done, we have to book our team, all of ourselves, like fully focusing on this thing if we really want to get it done and get it done.”

Because it’s not just “slap up a landing page.” We did a full, hard on pivot rebrand, where we built a full website for a, what looks like a completely different company. And it was designing and developing and then building a product on top of that.

Matt: [00:07:15] Now let’s talk about the moment where you, that you took out some money. You ended up putting into the savings account because you landed that job, three major milestones, all happening all at once for you, right? It’s like determining that you’re going to do a product and maybe scale back services momentarily.

Then there’s, we’re going to take out some cash to do this because we need to pay for it. And then suddenly like a portfolio making client comes along and says, yes, we’ll do the deal. And they’re like, Oh my God. Okay. And now

Amber: [00:07:42] Can’t say no to this.

Matt: [00:07:43] Can’t say no to this, because this is quite massive. But that moment where you said, yeah, we need to get a hundred thousand structurally, how did you raise the money?

Did you just get a business loan? Like what does that look like and how did you even determine the number?

Amber: [00:07:59] Yeah, so we determined the number of basically by sort of writing our own statement of work, if you will, for our own scope of what we’re doing. Obviously, we’re not marking up our own work. But we know how many hours we think it takes to go into building at least a new brand and a new website.

And so then we’re thinking if we have to cover people’s salaries and all of our team members are W2, so they have health insurance and all of that kind of stuff. So for us, it’s really a matter of how much time do we think this will take and how long do we need to cover salaries for?

And then when do we think we’re going to start seeing some sort of ROI on that investment? So it’s a lot of spreadsheet and numbers work. Which I’ll say right now, I’m like our CEO. I’m not the finance person for the business. So I, I look at all the P&Ls, but I don’t make them. And I’m not the most experienced as far as saying, this is the amount we need, but I think we sat there and we really realized this is what we need to carry our team.

Obviously we weren’t, it wasn’t just at zero. Because we still knew we had some amount of recurring revenue that would be coming in no matter what. But there weren’t any sort of big ticket projects during that time period. So that’s how we kind of landed on that number.

We did end up just taking out an SBA loan. We had talked a little bit about, do we go try and find someone to partner with? I know there are some really cool Individuals out there, especially in the WordPress space that are interested in, funding plugins. But at this point, I’m not sure I want to give up ownership.

I’ve had the ability to connect with some people who’ve raised venture capital, which of course we’re not in that land anyway. But, they’ve shared with me some of the challenges that they experienced as an owner losing ownership.

We’re a certified woman owned business, so there’s another sort of thing that factors in there, if we’re going off, if we’re going to continue going after government work, is how important is that? And then that could impact where we get our funding from if we’re giving up ownership.

So [we] ended up just deciding that we needed to do an SBA, small business loan, which I had tried in the past to do, but it never went forward. But this time, I think we were far enough along in the age of our business, that we were able to get one at a pretty good rate.

Matt: [00:10:21] Was there any kind of, or what was the analysis like to determine whether or not you put the eggs in the scheduling plug-in basket? Or what now is the accessibility auditing tool and go ahead and obviously name the plugin and where can folks find it and stuff like that. But how did that break down?

Amber: [00:10:42] A couple of reasons why we decided to go on the accessibility front and build our plugin, which is called Accessibility Checker, which is a boring name, except for we did a lot of keyword research

Matt: [00:10:53] Hey, there’s nothing wrong with it.

Amber: [00:10:54] and people literally Google that. So that is a thing. The scheduling tool, and that may be something that we come back to because we have — we don’t have a huge user base, but we have people who use it and they occasionally ask for other features on the events schedule plugin. It’s called WP Conference Schedule.

I think what it’s called on wordpress.org.

Matt: [00:11:17] Capturing all the best keywords, right?

Amber: [00:11:19] yes. Yes.

Matt: [00:11:20] if you’re ever going to start a company, just call it best underwear. It’s

Amber: [00:11:23] Yeah, I guess so, I don’t know, for the PR on the product side make sense to us, but so you know, some of that was a little bit timing just because of when we really were like, okay, when we finally got around to – we launched the big project, now we’re actually doing this and COVID came along.

We actually had quite a few of recurring retainer clients that were in events, which is why we had built this plugin in the first place. But guess what: all their events went away.

And so we were having the conversations and saying, “Is this an area where, it makes?” Obviously events will come back and you can use it for an online event schedule as well, but with 2020 being what it was, it didn’t feel like the most advantageous market to get into.

And also, there is a lot more competition there in that space, whereas on the accessibility side, there’s a lot fewer players, if you will, in the game. When it comes to auditing or checking websites, there’s some really big, well known things like WAVE, which is a tool that you can use for free. Or if you want to scan multiple pages in bulk, you can purchase API credits for it. There’s one or two other WordPress specific tools or some other third-party platforms that you can purchase, but it’s not quite as competitive of a landscape.

And also as a B Corp, we have really invested in accessibility over the past few years with some of our education and government clients, and it’s something that we feel strongly about. So I kind of like that. I’ve- I feel like I’m making a product that helps make the world better and that’s important.

It’s important to us. So that factors in as well. And then the final piece was honestly, like this plugin, the initial idea from it came from a direct need, which is that our clients, we would launch websites that were accessible. And then we train them and we’d hand them a PDF checklist.

That every time you write a blog post, here are the things you need to make sure you did: Are your headings in the right order? Are your links not ambiguous? Whatever that might be. Do you have all tags in your images? But they would rapidly fail to look at that document.

And I kept saying, we just need something right on the post edit screen like Yoast does for SEO. We need something like that for accessibility that it will check it; will them, these are the problems you have so that their websites can stay accessible. And so it was a little bit of kind of scratching my own itch as well.

Like, what can I do that will make it better for my clients and make the things I launch actually stay compliant?

Matt: [00:14:08] So many people forget. Which is kind of hilarious to me, but so many people forget that when you’re starting a business, you should, especially like the product space, both physical and digital, I, it seemed to me that you actually have to love a little bit, the market and the space that you’re addressing.

Like you look at saying, okay cool. I’m solving scheduling needs. This is something that somebody needs. It’s a fantastic market and you’re solving a problem. But with this other problem that we can solve, not only do we enjoy solving this problem, but we’re actually making the world better.

It’s- wouldn’t it be great if everybody thought that way? There’s no question there, it’s just a statement, right? It’s like people should be thinking about this. Cause you wake up thinking you’re solving, knowing you’re solving a problem that’s making somebody’s life better, both the technical user who’s putting a website together but also the end user who has to consume this content.

You mentioned to me in our pre-interview that accessibility, isn’t just about blind at birth, right? Can you explain that to the audience?

Amber: [00:15:08] Sure. I think a lot of the people, when they think about website accessibility, they think someone who is blind or has extremely low vision and uses a screen reader, which is certainly a population of people who benefit from accessibility features when they’re built into websites.

But something we spend a lot of time talking with our clients about it, especially if they’re more in the for-profit realm rather than the government/they just know they have to do it side, is that there’s a variety of other users that benefit from accessibility features.

And one of the things that we forget about is things like color contrast, or text size readability, those that actually impacts anyone as they get older. Another thing is that some accessibility features can be situational. So a great example is if you have a doctor’s website or something where you are, there’s a mom, it’s late at night. Her baby is really sick. She’s holding the baby. She’s trying to find the phone number for the doctor on the website.

Right? She might only, she might be on her phone. She might only have one hand, right? The size of the target to tap to call because she’s freaking out and she doesn’t want to put her kid down, like that could impact how easily she can do that. So there’s also what we consider situational disabilities or challenges.

Things like military veterans frequently, or someone who’s been in a car accident might have a traumatic brain injury, which can impact their ability to understand functionality of different items. So yes, it is things like if you’ve been deaf since birth or blind since birth, but it can also be situational or it can be something that people can become or start to an experience and impact

Matt: [00:17:03] Yeah, I’ve been in that exact situation, holding the baby screaming baby middle of the night. Trying to

Amber: [00:17:09] figure out what to do.

Matt: [00:17:10] figuring out what to do now. Like you’re figuring out what to do with no guide to parenting. And also trying to find that number on a website and you thought you were mad at restaurant websites.

Wait until you’re in that moment when you’re trying to figure out, like how does the medical industry not have a clear call to action that will drive you insane?

Back to marketing and in launching the site, the Equalize Digital website. Not to pull away from Road Warrior Creative, but the EqualizeDigital.com website is a fantastically designed website.

Amber: [00:17:42] Oh, thank you

Matt: [00:17:42] You’ve been doing this for, well, it looks like you’ve been doing this particular brand for 20 years, but you have that experience. There’s a lot on this site. There’s also some services here. It’s not just about this plugin and maybe the pro features of the plugin.

How did this all come together and how are you balancing some of these, what I’ll call “done for you” services that you have on the site, but maybe you have a better term for it. How have you balanced the marketing of this site along with Road Warrior Creative? Because it looks like you’ve put a lot of investment in the site.

Amber: [00:18:15] Yeah, so we did, we had originally offered some accessibility specific like audits through Road Warrior. And now since we’ve done the rebrand and we decided that it made more sense to pull that out and have it be its own entity, all of that points over to Equalize. So we did have the foundation when we were getting ready to build the website and create the content.

I would say, I’d say from a marketing standpoint in 2020, we’ve had, I haven’t put much as far as dollars or effort into Road Warrior, whereas we’ve been shifting a lot of our efforts into marketing with Equalize part of the goal with that shift.

There is actually that, though it is still done for you services, and I think we’re still refining how – because it is a little new right- how we can make it slightly more productized, but it is a lot tighter than with Road Warrior Creative is just a marketing agency. We do search engine optimization, social media, logo design, right? Like all of these things, as opposed to with Equalize it’s very specific. We have a process that’s website Audit to Certification where we will verify that something is WCAG compliant.

And I think the product for us, it’s a benefit to our clients. It’s a way we can give back to the community through the free version of the plugin, but it’s also I think a sales tool to try and drive people towards Equalize and some of the services we offer if they are a larger organization. But we’ve put a lot more effort as far as marketing and like Adwords and that sort of stuff into Equalize. I don’t know how much you want to go down that path.

Matt: [00:19:50] Yeah. Yeah, sure. Yeah. When I first see this it just reminds me of the days, I think I told you this story when we first met, about us. There’s so much goes into client services, it’s ridiculous. We would be talking for another hour. We’d be talking for another week if we started going down this path, but there’s so much in the client services that I, you could be running an agency for 10 years and still uncover new things.

I can almost guarantee it. You can find new things in new sectors as you move to find new clients. That typical story of people growing up in their agency and say, one day I’m building out restaurant websites, the next I’m building out school websites, the next day, I’m building out a website for a hospital, over the course of their story of building an agency.

And I think I told you about when we were doing an art museum and suddenly, not only was it a horrific experience because everything was designed by committee, who thought it right as an art museum, but then they were like, “Oh yeah, is this is all accessible, right?”

Like we check all the boxes for yeah. For example. Yeah. Oh, no.

In a tool like yours again, no real question here, but a statement, a tool like yours, like every agency or freelancer can have this in their back pocket to say, “Hey, for free, we’ve got this audit tool.” And they could use that as either a benchmark or a stepping stone and say, “You know what? I don’t want to go down this path. What I’ll do is I’ll install this tool on the website and then send the rest to Equalize Digital.”

Is that a fair statement of how like you’ll address the agency market and something as an opportunity in the agency space for you?

Amber: [00:21:32] For sure. We’ve actually, in the past two years, I’d say we’ve done a fair number of audits where we do audits and then provide feedback to agencies that even have their own developers. So, I think for us too, that was part of thinking we want to shift more into working with agencies. Now, that’s not to say that we don’t want to maybe also do some of the development.

So, we might have someone who comes to us. We just did, she’s more of a designer, like a WordPress super user, and she had built a website and we audited it and then we gave her the report and there’s some things she can fix and some things I’m anticipating that we’re going to have to fix because they require custom code.

So, I think for us that, that was part of it too, was being able to shift more into the agency side.

And it is hardly, you can be an amazing developer or an amazing designer, but if you haven’t spent a good number of years studying or trying to get familiar with accessibility, there’s stuff that you maybe just don’t realize.

And that’s a challenge that we’ve come across with some of the WordPress plugins, even that we’re using for the first time, to sell our product or that we’ve had clients that they’re using a plugin and we’re like, “Oh, like, this is, it’s a great plugin. I love it. But it requires remediation.”

So it’s not a judgment against anyone if they don’t know, but it’s also hard to – when your client comes to you and they say at the very end, “Hey, this is accessible, right?” Especially if that their colors aren’t super great. You might have to be like, “Whoa, wait a minute. We need to go back to revisiting what colors are in your brand guide.”

Matt: [00:23:12] Look there’s no offense taken or there should be no offense given, because this is like the kiss of death for so many freelancers and one that people should learn really quickly. And one that really gets my goat is when people say they can just do anything and everything, and they really don’t know how to do anything and everything, but they’re out there positioning themselves and then it becomes a bad situation for all parties involved.

Any website, like how many times have you had somebody knock on your door and say yeah, we need help with our website. The developer, we can’t even get ahold of them anymore. We don’t know what happened to that. Yeah.

Amber: [00:23:48] Like went M.I.A., they took my money.

Matt: [00:23:50] And it’s just like this stop, stop doing that. Stop saying you can do everything to get over your head.

There’s nothing wrong. I think back to my, yeah, it was saying no or saying, one of the craziest lessons I ever learned. Probably like the only thing I’ve ever learned out of any schooling is way back in like elementary school. When some, when a teacher said, it’s okay to say, I don’t have the answer, but I’ll get back to you.

Like, that’s the, that’s what people should do in an agency. Like “is this accessible?” I don’t have the answer for you. Let me get back to you. Do some research, come back and say, this is what it’s going to take. And it’s not us. It’s this other agency. Everyone will be so much happier if they just approach it that way.

Amber: [00:24:30] Well, I think the thing, the goal with Accessibility Checker is to make something that does make it easier to do the automated testing. Whether you’re a developer or you’re just a content creator, who’s adding content. But I do want to say, there’s a little caveat and we have this little asterisk on the backside of every page which is that automated testing only catches between 30 to 40% of problems on a website, you have to do manual accessibility testing as well.

And if you’re – at bare-bones, what that means is, you need to tab through the entire thing with your tab key only, and pretend like you don’t have a mouse and make sure you can still navigate. And do everything you would do if you didn’t have a mouse and then you, and then the second thing is using and seeing what a screen reader says for different elements, whether it’s a free one on your Mac using VoiceOver or in NVDA, which works for Windows and is open source.

But I think, that’s the thing that is challenging. And I don’t want to give anyone a false sense of security, which is, I installed the plugin, it tells me what the problems are, and then that’s it. So that’s where you really do have to, acknowledge whether or not you have enough training or expertise in order to know how to fully test it.

Matt: [00:25:48] Wrapping up here. I thought, I’ll be honest. I, when you were saying you were a Certified B Corporation, I didn’t fully understand what the definition was until here I am clicking on the logo at the bottom of your website. That brings us to bcorporation.net. For folks who maybe have heard Certified B Corp for the first time on today’s episode, summarize it for us and why the decision to go this and was it difficult?

Amber: [00:26:14] So a Certified B Corporation is a corporation that is a for-profit company, but that has gone through a certification process and a review process of their policies to ensure that they are striving to do more than just benefit their shareholders with their business. There’s a couple of different components that are looked at, but the briefest is trying to have either positive environmental or community aspects or having, and/or being good with how they employ good employment practices for their workers.

And, we- from the very beginning I’ve always just naturally been driven to wanting to make a difference in the world. And when we- when we took my freelance business and turned it into Road Warrior Creative, we spent a bunch of time, I — my husband and I, who’s my business partner, Chris — we spent a bunch of time talking through, “What are our values and what kind of business do we want to be? How do we want to treat our clients? How do we want to treat our employees? Do we, are we willing to outsource work to someone in the Philippines for like pennies on the dollar to what we would pay to someone in the United States? Those, a lot of those sorts of things, what kind of schedule do we want to ask people to keep? Do we want to be remote or in-person?“

And so we’ve always had the strong values base that we had started. We have an open source employee handbook on our GitHub. And as I mentioned earlier, there are a few businesses that we’ve really followed that we’ve been super impressed with their business model.

And at the end of 2019, we decided that we wanted to really try and put our money where our mouth is, I guess, when it comes to saying we’re a values-based business.

And there is a free assessment that anyone can do, the B Impact Assessment. And if you get over a certain score, then you can say, okay, I’m interested in pursuing certification, at which point they have an internal auditor.

It takes several months; they review everything you’ve submitted. They ask you for extra clarifications. You go through an interview, you have to submit documentation to prove certain things, and then they give you a score. And that’s how you become a Certified B Corporation.

Also, if you are, you have to amend your bylaws. So what that means is different in different states because different states have different requirements. So we were able to stay an LLC, but we did have to amend our operational agreement to specifically say that it’s not just for the benefit of myself and my husband.

So B Corporation dot net has a ton of info on it, about what the process is. You can see there’s a directory of all the different companies, and you may notice it cause it’s, it’s a variety and there’s big companies like Ben and Jerry’s or in Fort Collins where we used to live in Colorado, New Belgium Brewing is one and they’re all employee owned now, so there’s a lot of things there about just trying to be a better business person.

Matt: [00:29:21] Listen for folks who have been listening to my show and hearing me rant about podcasting and podcast guests, that just demand to be on my show and give some kind of either this VA pitch where it’s somebody who’s telling me that this person has been on the fortune five- Fortune 500 lists before and they say, they’d be a great guest. You sent me an amazing pitch. I’m glad that you did. I’m glad that we made the connection today. I think what you’re doing is awesome. Where can folks find you to say thanks.

Amber: [00:29:52] Of course we’re, our website is EqualizeDigital.com and I’m amber@equalizedigital.com. I’m happy to answer any accessibility questions. I’m pretty active on LinkedIn and I’m just, it’s, whatever that LinkedIn /in/AmberHinds, I’m on there pretty regularly. I try to avoid the other socials, although I do have profiles, but the best place is probably LinkedIn or sending me an email or visiting our website and the plugin.

The quick link to the plugin is a, 11 like the number, Y, checker.com (a11ychecker.com).

Matt: [00:30:27] Awesome stuff. Everyone else. mattreport.com mattreport.com/subscribe to join that mailing list. We’ll see you in the next episode.

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