The Incredible Journey from Agency to Solo Business Owner with Paul Lacey

How I Built It
How I Built It
The Incredible Journey from Agency to Solo Business Owner with Paul Lacey
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All too often, we hear only the success story. The Olympian who won the goal. The successful millionaire who launched a business from her dorm room. It’s easy to assume these stories are without struggles. But what we don’t see is the sacrifices the olympian made. We don’t see the dozen other ideas and years of work the successful millionaire put in. Today we get to hear it all. Paul Lacey is as generous with his time as he is with his story. See, Paul has gone a long way in his travels as a web developer, from the pre-dot-com burst to crashing an agency and bouncing back. And he’s learned a ton along the way that he generously shares with us in today’s episode. So I just tried to get out of the way and tell his story. I think you’ll love it.

Show Notes:

Transcript

Intro: Hey everybody, and welcome to Episode 230 of How I Built It, the podcast that offers actionable tech tips for small business owners. Today’s sponsors are TextExpander and Podcast Liftoff. You’ll be hearing about them later in the show.

Paul Lacey is as generous with his time as he is with his story. See, Paul has gone a long way in his travels as a web developer from the pre-dotcom bubble burst to crashing an agency and bouncing back. He’s learned a ton along the way that he generously shares with us in today’s episode. So I tried to just get out of the way and let him tell his story. I think you’ll love it.

And as an added bonus in Build Something More, there’s a fantastic pre-show where we talk about the Panama Papers. I don’t know if you remember that from a few years ago, a huge privacy scandal that happened because of a WordPress plugin. And Paul has some relationship to that whole thing. So he tells us all about it in Build Something More.

If you want to sign up for Build Something More, and get that fantastic pre-show as well as add free extended episodes of every episode, as well as quarterly members-only episodes as well as members-only podcast as well as the live stream archive and lots of other great stuff, you can head over to buildsomething.club.

It is five bucks a month or 50 bucks a year to get ad-free extended episodes of the podcast, and lots of other great content. There’s a community with networking events and AMA’s and lots of other great stuff. So again, that’s buildsomething.club, five bucks a month or 50 bucks a year. That’s two months for free. Sign up today for the Creator Crew.

All right, let’s get into that episode. I really think you’re going to enjoy it.

Joe Casabona: Hey everybody, and welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that offers actionable tech tips to small business owners. My name is Joe Casabona. I’m your host. And today, I am very excited to have a friend and fellow WordPressor Paul Lacey on the show. Paul is a designer and speaker at Paul Lacey Digital.

And I’m really excited to talk to him because while many people want to move from solo freelancer to agency owner, Paul went in the other direction. That’s the direction that I prefer to be in. I want to stay small. A Company of One by Paul Jarvis style. So but before I start just talking, let’s bring in Paul. Paul, how are you today?

Paul Lacey: I’m doing great. Thanks, Joe. And thank you so much for inviting me on. Just really, really pleased.

Joe Casabona: My absolute pleasure. Paul and I have now talked several times. He’s an active member in the Creator Crew. And if you are a member of the Creator Crew, you will get at least 20 minutes of bonus content and an interesting pre-show where Paul and I talk politics, the Panama Papers, and how WordPress was related to that, dominion. It’s a good one. You can sign up over a Creator Crew for $5 a month or $50 a year.

Paul, the reason… We’ve also talked on This Week in WordPress, I’ll link a whole bunch of things in the show notes. But the reason I wanted that I want to have you on the show is for this very reason. That you ran an agency until right around the pandemic and then you realize some things. And I think that what we’re going to talk about today are some important realizations. But before we get there, let’s talk about how you got there. And tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Paul Lacey: I’ll make it as brief as I can. I was making websites from around 1998 at university. 1999 was around the time of the dotcom boom actually and I did a work placement while I was at university in a agency, like a digital agency back then.

But this digital agency had me on the work placement. And then while I was there, they launched this dotcom product or dotcom website. By dotcom site it’s like a website back then that just has a random idea and then tries to sell that idea to venture capitalists for tons and tons of money. So they were like, “Do you want to work on our projects because we need someone who will work on this? We can pay you.” I was like, “Oh, cool. Okay.” The project was called Kidz Online, which sounds quite dodgy, but it wasn’t. It was a kid’s easing.

Joe Casabona: Was it kidz with a z?

Paul Lacey: Oh, obviously. Yeah. Yeah. It was awesome because I would do things like make games in Flash. I would even do content. So I’d get to review computer games like for the Nintendo 64, or get sent to the cinema to press previews.

Joe Casabona: Oh, wow.

Paul Lacey: Just really cool. I watched one of my favorite films on a press preview—The beach. I love the film The beach. It’s a great film.

Joe Casabona: Nice.

Paul Lacey: Good times until obviously the money dried up. And then I moved from there to another dotcom called Student Net, which was almost like a grownup version of Kidz Online. So it’s like as you graduate…

Joe Casabona: Yeah, you just grew with your audience. Right?

Paul Lacey: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. And I was at university at the time so I was still working and also at university. That was great. Again, we were doing flash games, just silly microsites. It was kind of student rag paper, sort of online website. It had its own CMS that they built called Apotheker, which I’ve realized today when I was like, “I wonder what that actually means.” It means repository. It’s like, that makes sense. That makes sense.

The funny thing is, as well, the Kidz Online it was the same guy who made the CMS there as well. The same developer. And he called that one Embassy, which is a brand of cigarettes. So the Kidz website, Kidz Online was powered by a CMS inspired by cigarettes. So that makes a lot of sense. After that, that one obviously capitulated with the dotcom bubble. Good time though. Lots of fun. Work was fun. That was a thing. Work was fun. You learned a lot and you had fun.

After that, I had a brief spell Capital One Bank being a HTML developer for a couple of weeks, while the rest of their team were practicing their Christmas play.

Joe Casabona: Wow.

Paul Lacey: So they paid me a fortune to cover for that. So that’s where your money goes, guys, when you go to the different banks. And it was really cool, because at the end of this placement I did for like four weeks, so they were like, “Do you want to come and work with us full time? You’ve done a good job.” And I was like, “I’d love to because haven’t got job. That’s great.”

And they were like, “No worries. You have to do this thing.” Because Capital One is American company. And it wasn’t a very common thing back then that you would do aptitude tests or personality tests. That wasn’t really a very British thing. It might be now. I don’t know. I haven’t had a job 15 years so I wouldn’t know. So they were like, “All you’ve got to do is just do this personality aptitude test, no one fails it. So just do that. And we’ll talk about the salary.”

So I did the test, failed. So one of the first people to fail an aptitude test. I don’t know what that means. But I would like to think it means that I was never meant for the 9 to 5 anyway.

Joe Casabona: What kind of questions did they ask? I mean, you did this 20 years ago.

Paul Lacey: I remember one really clearly. One of them was like, you cross the road and an old lady falls over on the other side of the road you’ve just come from? Do you leave her or call for someone else, or go and help outside? And I was like, “Well, I mean, I don’t know, but I’m going to say go and help.” And it was almost like all the questions were kind of moral dilemmas. I think that I probably came across as a liar. Because it’s like I’m not going to put that I’ll leave the poor cat stuck in the drain and I’m not going to leave the old lady on the… It was very strange questions.

Joe Casabona: Wow. So they thought maybe you’re being disingenuous. That’s not an aptitude test.

Paul Lacey: It’s like a personality test of some sort.

Joe Casabona: Did they ask you the trolley problem?

Paul Lacey: It was all life situations.

Joe Casabona: That’s really interesting.

Paul Lacey: Yeah. I failed. I failed.

Joe Casabona: Maybe in Build Something More out we’ll talk about the trolley problem because that’s an interesting philosophical problem.

Paul Lacey: Okay. Okay. From there I went to work for a dog magazine, which had an online magazine as well. And there we also had an agency side. I think almost all these businesses had an agency side at that point. I’m really kind of proud that one of our clients back then who I got to meet as well as Tom Baker, the Doctor Who.

Joe Casabona: Oh, yeah. Is that Fourth Doctor?

Paul Lacey: Third or fourth. I can’t remember which one, because some people forget…

Joe Casabona: The scarf?

Paul Lacey: Yeah, the scarf guy.

Joe Casabona: That was the Fourth Doctor.

Paul Lacey: Yeah, who eats the jelly babies. So that’s the one. Honestly, do you know how we got that job? It is advertised in a shop window on a little piece of card paper.

Joe Casabona: Get out.

Paul Lacey: Yeah. It didn’t say Doctor Who website. It just said, “Does anyone do websites?” My boss lived in that village where this advert was. So I called them up, it’s Tom Baker.

Joe Casabona: That’s so wild. Wow.

Paul Lacey: Yeah. From there, I moved into the art sector and worked in the digital media team of an art sector for ages. That was great. Fun times again. When that came to an end, sometime around 2004, or something like that, I can’t exactly remember when it was, I left and joined an agency, a digital agency, a proper digital agency. I worked there for only three months. And I learned how to get stuff done there because they were hard workers. Absolutely.

But it was too far to drive and the hours were really crazy for the normal hours. And I was like, “This is too much.” So I decided to leave. I didn’t have another job to go to, but a friend of mine was like, “Well, we’ve got a little gig going at the university. Do you want to come and just do like two month contract freelance.” I was like, “Yeah, that sounds great.” And then the idea was I’d go there and apply for some jobs.

But while I was there, I met someone who had a new startup digital agency and they were looking for someone who could do web. They were two designers and they needed someone who could help them make the websites. And I was like, “I could do that.” The university offered me a job, but I turned it down and decided to partner up with this agency and also do work for other agencies and other freelance job. So I totally accidentally fell into the world of freelancing as most people do. I did that for a while.

And as that agency grew, I needed to scale up as well. So for a while, what I did was I started outsourcing overseas, because that’s all we could afford. We didn’t have much money to spend. There was a startup and we’re trying to… I had a friend who was doing this outsourcing to the Philippines and he was like, “You could maybe try this.”

And basically we did this offshore model thing where I was outsourcing to all sorts of different people all around the world. Which was interesting because I’ve got a feel of how different cultures work, really, in terms… how they work in jobs and their approach to being entrepreneurs and solopreneurs and freelancers and stuff like that. I found there was a lot of difference in different cultures. It was amazing, actually.

From there, it kind of fell apart. When that did fall apart, one of the people I was working with was a guy called Peter, who was from Poland, and we decided after that whole relationship fell apart to start our own little agency. And this is the first version of my agency, Dicky Birds. Quick version of this is that we did all right for a while and then we actually scaled up because we started getting bigger clients.

And we got one very big client, at least it was a very big one for us. That was the downfall of the first version of Dicky Birds completely. We pitched for a job that should have been over 100k and we were kind of charging around the sort of 20K to 30k sort of thing.

Joe Casabona: Oh, wow.

Paul Lacey: So it ended up being a 50k job in full but we really got battered around by the project. I was over the barrel a lot and we were not getting paid for things we’re… The CEO of this particular company was really trying to squeeze money out of every… he was firing some of his own team to make sure that his spreadsheet look good for his massive bonus.

But anyway, if anyone ever wants to hear that story in full, you can go to my website Paullacey.digital. Lee Jackson, friend of ours, let me put the talk that I did about that, His event Agency Transformation Live on my website as a video. There’s a recording of that on my website. You can check it out. It’s called How Giving Back Saved My Agency.

Anyway, me and Peter started this new thing. It went wrong because of that. We went off in different directions for a couple of years. I was really into WordPress. I’d really got into WordPress at that point. And after a couple of years of… I mean sometimes these things take a few years to recover from. It was really bad, Joe. I’m telling you, mate, it was bad experience. A bad experience. If you watch the talk at Lee’s event, the majority of the room were crying at the end of it.

Joe Casabona: Wow.

Paul Lacey: Not for me, they just resonated with your situation. We’ve all been there kind of thing. Anyway, so after a couple of years of just kind of recovering in the wilderness, I started messing around with WordPress a lot more on my own because I needed to make some money and I was freelancing again. I went to a WordPress meetup in Birmingham in the UK, I met Ronald from YITH there. He was Ronald from YITH and it was just Ronald from his own agency. We’ve been really good friends for a number of years, we shared office for a while.

I think I just personally just found a lot of resonance with the WordPress community. One thing led to another and eventually, I ended up start rebranding myself as something called WP Blueprint, which again I was still just a freelancer. Myself and my old business partner ended up partnering on a job randomly. We didn’t choose to. It’s just person who hired me hired him.

Joe Casabona: Wow.

Paul Lacey: We enjoyed working on it, and we were like, “Should we start an agency again?” At that point, my confidence was quite high because I just started doing things like podcasting in the WordPress space. I’d been invited on Nathan Wrigley WP Builds web show years ago, Lee Jackson had me on his. I’ve been on a few different things. I was starting to feel confident.

Joe Casabona: Let me stop you there. Your solo agency was called WP Blueprint?

Paul Lacey: Yeah, WP Blueprint.

Joe Casabona: I really thought you said Dopey Blueprint. And I was like, “That is a funny name.”

Paul Lacey: That would have been much better. I’m rebranding Paul Lacey Digital now.

Joe Casabona: Dopey Blueprint.

Paul Lacey: Dopey Blueprint. It’s probably more accurate. So me and Peter decided randomly just over a beer, “Hey, should we just start an agency?” That’s how ridiculous our business plan was. It was like, “Should we just start it again?” And the reason we were called Dickie Birds by the way was because my name is Paul and his name is Peter and there’s a nursery rhyme that is called Two Little Dickie Birds. Two little dickie birds sitting on a wall, one named Peter, one named Paul.

Joe Casabona: I like that. I like that a lot.

Paul Lacey: I was confident and I was really getting into all these different communities and I was seeing what everyone was doing and I was thinking, “You know what? I think I could do it this time. I know what went wrong last time. I know where we went wrong. I think I can course correct and do it properly this time.”

But after about a year, I realized the industry had changed, the stresses had changed, the expectations had changed. What people wanted changed. So when I was in an agency before, a digital agency was very much the techies. And I think it changed more into a… digital agency has become much more business consultancy these days. But one of the things that I struggled with as I was trying to do what I thought was right was that I was hanging around with a lot of people in WordPress and in the agency sort of scene, the word going in different directions talking about scaling their agencies, all that kind of thing. And I just was like, “I need to do that too.”

And then because I was becoming like a trusted voice on things like podcasts, I was getting invited to come and talk about this. Because people saw we got this agency. We were really good designers. So we could brand really well. And so we looked a lot better than we probably were.

Joe Casabona: Got you.

Paul Lacey: So I think people were thinking, “Hey, Paul’s really got it together. He really knows what he’s doing. He’s scaling his agency and stuff.” And in the background I was just thinking, “I’m not sure I’m doing a great job of this. I’m trying.” I think what can happen easily is you can go along with the crowd, forget the person who got you all of your success up to that point was you. And you can keep listening to you if you want. You don’t have to just say, “Oh, look, there’s a new course and it tells you how to do this for your agency. You better buy it. It’s on a last minute offer.”

Joe Casabona: Last day until tomorrow.

Paul Lacey: Exactly. There’s a timer. I think what happened is I really got caught up into it for about a year and then I really started mentally suffering from it. I think the stress of it all. The stress of having to pay for… I mean, we’re only a small team. We’re only like five people, but the feeling of responsibility of needing to put food on five tables.

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Joe Casabona: We’ve got a good look at your background and kind of how you got to the agency, the agency life, will say.

Paul Lacey: Yeah.

Joe Casabona: Around what time are we now? Are we like at pandemic time?

Paul Lacey: We’re around mid-2018?

Joe Casabona: Okay, mid-2018. You’ve hired people, you’ve kind of grown your authority in the WordPress space…

Paul Lacey: Yeah, accidentally. I didn’t really mean to. But I think you become reliable in the space and people will invite you to things.

Joe Casabona: So you’re kind of starting to feel the pressure of an agency? Because I think a lot of people feel this. This is certainly why I don’t want to bring on a full-time hire. Up until this point I’ve only hired contractors. You were kind of starting to feel the pressure of it’s not just you and maybe your family, right? Because you have a family.

Paul Lacey: Exactly.

Joe Casabona: It’s other people and other people’s families, right?

Paul Lacey: Yeah, yeah. I think it’s that classic thing where a lot of us in tech or design and generally creative people, we thrive in that kind of thing. And then when you move from a creative role as a freelancer into basically what you can call the CEO, it’s a different job altogether. I think there is a big difference. Paul Jarvis does talk about this a lot in his book “A Company of One.”

The difference between something like a freelancer where you can have all the creativity that you want and you’re very hands on to running an agency, which these days is really more of a business consultancy, where the CEO or someone is building in systems to make this a well-oiled machine and to bring things in, things get done, it goes out the door. Sure, there’s some agencies that are still enjoying the fun of that, and maybe the right people are finding joy in that they are pushing these solutions out. But if you are a person who enjoys getting your hands really dirty in all the work, the CEO role, the shine goes off quite quickly and the stress comes in. And then you start looking at the numbers.

And as a freelancer, you’re kind of used to kind of thinking, “Okay, that’s how much money I need.” But when you’re employing four other people as well as yourself, you need to earn five times the amount of money. And the pressure for that is quite intense if you’re not the right person for it.

So I started to really suffer. I was having a lot of arguments at home. That kind of thing. Wasn’t particularly good dad at the time. I ended up probably, I think for the second time—I’d already been through this previously when it had kind of failed the previous time to that—ended up on medication to help with that because that was I was at kind of desperate point where I needed a quick intervention. I know there’s other ways people can get help, talk to people, therapy, but I think I’d gone too negative, I’d gone too far on it.

Joe Casabona: Got you.

Paul Lacey: So I was kind of suffering a lot. Actually, that really helped me. It gave me a bit of a boost for a while and it gave me a lot of clarity. What happened was, Lee Jackson, who I mentioned earlier decided to create this event called Agency Transformation Live. And he created this event and he invited me as a speaker. And I was just like, “That’s awesome. But this is the ultimate imposter situation now.” There’s one thing doing a podcast interview about agency life and there’s another going on a stage in front of a bunch of agency owners thinking you all probably know a lot better than I do.

So I had a good four or five months to prepare for this. And all along, I was like, “What am I going to talk about. You know, scaling this, scaling that. I don’t know. Sales tactic? funnels? I don’t really know.” In the end, for the clarity I was getting through, you know, having some ease off the stress, I decided to just do a focus talk on giving back and how that helped me and my agency survive.” And I talked about this story from years back where everything went really badly wrong with this terrible client and everything.

And just reminded everyone who was at this talk while on stage… talked through this story and reminded everyone that no matter how hard things get, there will be some really good things that you’ve done that made a difference to a business or made a difference to a person or made a difference to someone’s family. And no one can ever take that away from you. So when times get hard, don’t forget the good things that you’ve done, and they get you through.

It was a really well-received talk. It was humbling. There was a standing ovation. People were crying. It was because they were, I guess, relating their own things that they’d done good in bad times. And Lee immediately asked me to come back the following year, and I was like, “Oh, man, you know, it’s just great that everyone really enjoyed the talk, but I need to come up with something else now.”

I had a full year to think about it this time. And during this year, I was really starting to doubt the direction I was taking things but feeling immensely trapped. Probably in my own head really. It’s not that you’re really trapped. But you feel responsible for people. You don’t really want them to lose their jobs if you decide to shut things down.

Anyway, I read Paul Jarvis’s book “Company of One” during that year. His book was a big influence on the following talk, which I did, which is also on my website. As well you can listen to that. And it was called Scale? but with a question mark. So it isn’t a kind of anti-scale talk.

With the benefit of hindsight, I think the writing was on the wall the fact that that was my talk at that point. Because it was really you don’t need to be bigger, you just need to aim to be better. It doesn’t matter about the scale of your agency, or how many people you’re employing, or how many VA’s you’ve got, and how many sales you’ve got. It does to some people.

But I know that this resonates with so many people who are running agencies that they’re struggling, they’re following a blueprint that isn’t their own, and they don’t know what to do, and they’re stuck. And what they do is micro pivots. They do micro pivots. And that’s where basically they’re doing something, it’s not really working out and someone goes, “Hey, you should be doing funnels.” And they go, “Right, I’m reformatting my business. I’m rebooting it, and it’s going to be a funnel agency.” And they tried out for a while. It’s a tactic. It’s strategies, it’s tactics. Trying different things. And they tried out for a while, it doesn’t work out. And then they try something else. It’s micro pivot. They’re not dealing with the core problem. That maybe it’s not for them. And that’s what I realized.

What the awesome thing, Joe, is that the only way that I realized this was that because I got involved in things like podcasting, and being guest some podcasts and doing public speaking and stuff like that, which was, for me, like the adult version of skateboarding. I used to be a skateboarder. I like the excitement that I’m throwing myself down a metaphorical set of steps of skateboard by going up on stage in front of people and potentially flopping basically. But that’s skateboarding for. You fail more times then you succeed with skateboarding.

The fact that I ended up doing that was what gave me self-realization because I had to write a talk that made sense to me to deliver to other people. And I did. I was like, “The person who needs to hear this talk the most is me.” Then the pandemic hit, basically then because that particular event was in the pandemic. It was going to be an onstage event but it ended up being an online digital event. It was one of the ones that was like, “Should it go ahead, should it not.” And it didn’t go ahead.

I think what really happened was I had a long time to think about it throughout that pandemic year. But business got even harder during that year. And by the end, I’d realized that number one, business was so difficult that I couldn’t really make it work anymore. And number two I needed to fix what I’d done to my life and my family and my friends and that kind of thing by being just so obsessed with doing other people’s plans.

So I made the call that this business was no longer viable anymore. And we had to put it into bankruptcy, basically, because it wasn’t going to work. The pandemic destroyed all of our strategic engagement and our kind of business development. And I’m glad it did. Because as a result of that work, I was able to gain some strength to know that it was the end, and then have the strength to get through the process of telling my business partner what I think we should do, having lots of difficult conversations with the team. And mostly everyone backed to me and agreed that it was the end of the game.

But the cool thing is, is when something ends, that’s what it is these days, Joe. These days, we don’t have a business for life, we don’t have a career for life. We have stepping stones. And everybody does a thing, you take the good things out of it and you move to the next thing and you grow and try and have a glass half full approach to life.

And yeah, it was a rough a couple of years, but I was really surprised how quickly mentally I could recover from that. And I think I’d learned so much over the years that I was able to quickly put it behind me. I wasn’t medicating anymore. I had a lot of clarity gained, a lot of strength by facing difficult decisions, difficult conversations facing up to things like business bankruptcy was not fun, but it helps you to make hard decisions that you will take forward in the future. And you’ll be like, “Okay, whenever something like this happens again, I know that you just have to get the decisions, make them and move forward.” Easy.

So my plan was to go back freelance for a year, take it easy, and build a personal brand again, and just really engage in the WordPress community a lot more. Because that’s where I’d found… you know the fun that I talked about earlier in the career?

Joe Casabona: Yeah.

Paul Lacey: The day I left that arts organization, joined a proper digital agency, and then formed my own was the most boring, stressful time of my career. I don’t regret it. But you can work and have fun, and grow and enjoy it. And that’s what I decided to do. I was just like, “Right, the risk now is to take the risk that’s more fun, or take the risk to stay the same and grow old and bitter.” And I went with the fun one. And it’s working out quite well at the moment.

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And now let’s get back to it.

Joe Casabona: As we kind of wrap up here, there are just a couple of… maybe we can do like a lightning round of questions here. And the first is surrounding the team. I was going to ask how did you wind down the agency, but you kind of answered that in filing for bankruptcy. I’m not fully familiar with that process here in the United States. So I’m not fully familiar with it of course in the UK either. But what did that mean for… did you have any current clients, for example?

Paul Lacey: Yeah, we did. Me and my business partner, after a couple of weeks of talking through different options, “Should we try this? Should we try that?” what we came to the realization was that the most responsible thing to do now was to end it. And the reason we had to file for what we call in the UK liquidation, which in the UK bankruptcy is a personal thing, liquidation is a company thing.

Joe Casabona: Got you.

Paul Lacey: It’s just the word, it’s kind of the same. Because during the year, we’ve taken a one of these kind of COVID loans. I know you have in the states as well. And we had taken one of those, and we used it to employ someone—someone from the community who you might know, who is really, really skilled, really strategic. He helped us during the final year actually to figure out a plan of what would work.

That was one of the realizations when I was like, “Yeah, an agency really is just a kind of meat factory kind of thing.” Yeah, just like something comes in, gets chopped up, goes out there.” And I was just like, “That is really not an exciting thing for me.” I forgot what the question was though.

Joe Casabona: What happened to your clients?

Paul Lacey: Oh, my clients. So me and Peter decided the things that we would maintain, that each of us would own were our relationships that we’d made. That made sense. Because he’s got a really good relationship with a major car manufacturer who he was doing lots of UX work with through our company. And we were like, you should go and talk to them and see if they’ll give you a job, because you love that work, and you’re doing an amazing job with them. And he did. He went and did that. Almost all the relationships were my relationships. A lot of those I helped off-board those clients to other people.

My job in a way, my final job as a CEO was to make everyone as good as they could be. You know, be responsible. And that was just kind of built into me. So make sure the team is okay, make sure my business partner is okay, make sure the clients are okay.

So the majority of clients I have boarded, they just went onto their own things because they might have been semi dormant clients or something like that. Or if their agencies I put them in touch with people who could white label and that kind of thing. But the clients that I was able to maintain a relationship were a lot of the maintenance plan clients.

So if anyone out there is working in freelance or WordPress agency, I can just say that if you’ve got maintenance plans with people, it’s a lifesaver at times. So those relationships, I was able to say to those companies, “Hey, Dickie Bird is closing, you can go and find people to look after you. I will look after you if you want to. This is what’s happening.” Just full transparency. And most of them decided they would want the individual known as Paul Lacey to look after their websites. I was like, “Okay, great. I’ll do that.”

So Peter went and got a job. And I think that was the right thing for him at this point in his career. He was doing really well with that particular client. And for me, I was like, “I think I want some flexibility. I want to try some cool things. Maybe I want to start a start podcast or something. I don’t know, I want to do some fun things.” So that income was relatively significant that I was able to move into my own freelance world and get me started.

And then around that same time, other opportunities started popping up because I did a talk at WordFest last year, where I spoke about closing down my company. It was extremely raw at that moment. It just happened. And I only did the talk because someone else dropped out and they were like, “Paul, will you come do a random talk?” And I was like, “Okay, I can talk about this, but it might not go down very well.”

So it was the only live talk at WordFest, it was a live interview. I did that and a few people heard, and then reached out to me. And a few people in the industry offered me jobs, actually. Some big companies in WordPress offered me jobs. But one of the companies that I had already been working with for a while was Beaver Builder. And we’d been talking for a while and I had done some work for them before and we decided that we’d start working together again.

So really quickly, I’d got a really nice gig with Beaver Builder. I got my maintenance plans. I was doing one or two bits of design work, but it gave tons of freedom. And then I could focus more on the podcasting side of things and the more interesting things that I wanted to do.

And then opportunities started popping up in that area. I think people realize sometimes, “Oh, you’re in limbo. Maybe we should collaborate.” And people got in touch. The year I’ve got ahead now is some maintenance plans working with Beaver Builder, a bit of consultancy and design, and a monetized podcast in addition to the one that I do with Nathan, This Week in WordPress, which is not a monetized podcast, at least for me. It’s a passion thing.

So a new opportunity came up, I’m launching a new podcast and live stream show. And that’s going to be a significant part of my income, because we’ve secured a good sponsor for that.

Joe Casabona: Wow. That’s awesome. Gosh, love to follow up after that launch and maybe do like a live stream about it. This has been such a great conversation. I want to put a bow on it here. We’ve been recording for over an hour. I mean, you dropped so many good nuggets of information. You don’t need to be bigger, you just need to be better. People are following a blueprint that isn’t theirs when they don’t know what to do. So they do these micro pivots. I love that. I was doing that for a while too. “Maybe I’ll offer this service, maybe I’ll offer this service.”

And I thought maybe I should actually focus on what I’m good at and what I’m known for, and give it more than a couple of weeks to see if it’s actually going to make money. Now I’ve secured a pretty big client for a custom course I’m making for them. I have secured a couple of Done for You Podcasting clients. I think what you said, figure out how you can be better and create your own blueprint from that.

Paul Lacey: That’s well said. Exactly. And how you get to that point is different for everyone. For me, it took a lot of pain and getting to the right… The risk one way or the other is equal now: take the exciting risk, which previously was too risky, or take the risk to carry on and probably almost definitely crash and burn. It was like I was almost forced into the fun route. And that’s the route that I’ve gone. I didn’t think that the opportunities would happen quite quickly.

But I think the moment you give yourself some headspace and you start to think about what you know, what you want to do, I’m not necessarily a big believer in this kind of thing, but there is the thing people talk about the secret. That when you start manifesting the ideas in your mind and you’re positive about them and you start making positive steps, even if that’s just a quick DM to someone, “Hey, I see you doing this. Do you want to chat about that?” And that’s what people did to me. People started chatting to me and I was chatting back to them. Conversations manifested, ideas started and real things happened.

I think if you’re stuck in something that’s eating all your time, you’ve got headspace for that. You’ve got at some point, if things are not going very well, create that headspace for yourself and give your own ideas a chance to work rather than someone else’s.

Joe Casabona: This really echoes what I’ve been reading lately, which is about the stoics, the philosophy of stoicism. I just finished reading “The Obstacle is the Way. And now I’m reading “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, which I feel is probably I should have read already, because I’m Italian. I feel like great Italian works I should have followed. My grandfather would be very disappointed in me.

These are the kinds of things that they talk about. Things happen around you; what happens to you is totally up to you. So, you can look at a situation and be like, “Oh, well, I failed again at an agency. I guess I’ll just get a job somewhere else.” Or you were like, “You know what? I’m going to put myself out there. I’m going to speak at these events, I’m going to be honest and open about what’s happening.” And you created actual opportunities for yourself. And in this case, the obstacle for you became the way. Don’t sue me Ryan Holiday for that. But you kept going and you found a way around the thing that was causing you pain and trouble and you came out the other side better because of it.

Paul Lacey: There was some luck involved in that but there was also a lot of self-realization and help as well. I mean, anyone who’s watching, if there’s ever is a video, you can see in the background I’ve got a sign up on my wall, if you can read it. It says “Never give up.” And I think that’s got to be your mantra sometimes. When times are tough, just keep pushing through.

Like I said about that talk, about how giving back saved my agency, you’ve done some good things. No matter how much of a failure you might feel in the moment, you’ll have done some freaking awesome things at some point that you can take with you. So take that stuff with you and move forward.

Joe Casabona: I absolutely love that. I want to leave it there. But I still need to ask you. Do you have any trade secrets for us?

Paul Lacey: Oh, what kind of trade secrets?

Joe Casabona: Anything really that… bells a new thing I’m trying?

Paul Lacey: Okay, I was wondering.

Joe Casabona: Any piece of advice? Maybe some underutilized. I mean, you’ve given us so much already. But maybe some underutilized thing?

Paul Lacey: I do, actually. And it is honesty. First and foremost, it’s honesty with yourself. So I’ve done a lot of talks like this. And I’ve told a lot of my stories now because it’s therapeutic for me. And I’ve found that it’s therapeutic for other people. I get messages, “Hey, Paul, thank you for being so brutally honest about what you said there. You really kind of held yourself up to be vulnerable there.” And I’m like, “You don’t know how good it is to do it.”

And what I found, it’s almost like a thing that I practice now. So you get some things where I might be able to reflect on something from 10 years ago and admit the things I did wrong. And it’s easy, because it’s 10 years ago. But talking about something from last month or last week, where you’re literally facing the feeling of failure in your mind right there is a lot more difficult to be public about. But what I found is the confidence you get from having full brutal honesty with yourself is pretty amazing.

I’m a very confident person these days. I never used to be because I was hiding from myself so much stuff that I didn’t really want to admit to other people. I don’t talk to people, you know, my friends about this sort of thing. But what I find is talking with your community or your audience of such, them knowing exactly who you are is what creates good connections with an audience. And it’s also what has people sending you DMs with opportunities because they trust you. Theyre like, “I’ve just watched this talk. I want to give you a job.” And you’re like, “Why?” “Because I think we need someone like you.” And like you don’t even know what I do. That’s probably the secret sauce.

The second one is relationships. There’s a book, I think it’s called “Return on Relationships” or something. People talk about ROI, return on investment. I think ROR is one of the best weapons that I’ve had in my arsenal for almost forever. The ability to create good relationships with people and find common ground with people and understand what they need and reciprocate.

So honesty and relationships is… in a world where we’ve got the big, big companies and big government controlling majority of everything, the independent business person these days doesn’t have the same prospects they had before in the traditional sense. So, to me, solopreneur success is all about honesty and return on relationships.

Joe Casabona: I absolutely love that. I mean, you’re going to have better relationships if you’re honest. If someone feels like you’re disingenuous, you’re not going to have a good relationship there. And I couldn’t agree more. I mean, I don’t know if the Brits are known for their blunt honesty. Definitely for your self-deprecation, you’re very well known. But I’m a New York Italian, you know how we’re feeling. Even if we don’t tell you, you know how I hear you when you look at me. And you got to lean into that. You said it well, so I won’t step on that. I think that’s fantastic.

Paul Lacey: From time to time. From time to time I say something smart.

Joe Casabona: Paul, I gotta say you’re a great storyteller. I just kind of sat here and I got out of the way and I let you… you like weaved your story with little nuggets of information. I didn’t even really need to be here. I’m sure the listeners appreciate that hearing my voice in and out each week. Paul, if people want to learn more about you, where can they find you?

Paul Lacey: You can find me on Twitter, WP_PaulLacey. So please connect with me there, at my website right now, Paullacey.digital. Go there. I’m going to launch a blog soon there. Won’t be much of a blog, but it will be an online record of the different things that I’ve done. Right now there’s just a few examples on there. There’s the two talks that I did at Agency Transformation Live. And I think there’s a podcast episode from uGurus. And one of This Week in WordPress episodes is there as well. So go and check them and keep in touch on Twitter. That’d be fantastic.

Joe Casabona: Fantastic. I will link to that and everything in the show notes, which you can find over at howibuilt.it/230. Howibuilt.it/230. Once again, if you want to catch that lengthy conversation that Paul and I had in the beginning about a whole bunch of life stuff, you can join the Creator Crew over a buildsomething.club. It’s five bucks a month or $50 a year. I’ll be there in the community, and Paul is also there, an active member of the community. So come and say hi there.

Paul, thanks so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it.

Paul Lacey: Thanks a lot, Joe. Anytime.

Joe Casabona: And thank you to everybody listening. Until next time, get out there and build something.

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