Today’s student success spotlight is with Drew Ulmer. It’s our hope that we’re able to share a different story each week of how a past student has been able to significantly grow their freelance business by applying the concepts they learned from Double Your Freelancing (check out last week’s with Jim Van Fleet). If you feel your story would be a good fit, share why!
“In 2015 we are on track to bring in more than a half million dollars in revenue, we’ve hired one employee and made an offer to another.”
Drew Ulmer is one of the men behind Unabridged Software – a software development consultancy, specializing in building custom software solutions for businesses. They help businesses both domestically and internationally to streamline their internal processes using software.
“Our specialty is web applications which we build and maintain completely custom for our clients.”
What got you into freelancing? Was it what you expected?
I’ve wanted to start my own business since high school when I read Paul Graham’s, Hackers and Painters. He inspired me to see business as not a zero-sum game – wealth can be created without destroying anything.
After a brief stint being employed at a small software company post-college, I set out on my own. My best friend from college and I teamed up without much of a plan – we had lots of idealism and savings, but little real business experience.
We started out doing a SaaS app, which didn’t amount to much. On a whim, I thought that doing some freelancing might be a good idea so that I could at least generate some income. I read a few posts on Hacker News and decided “Hey, I can do that” and got my first client from oDesk.
“Freelancing” (I haven’t called myself a freelancer in years) turned out to be very rewarding – you get to work on many different projects with diverse people. We decided to ditch the SaaS business in favor of working on client work full-time. There have been many bumps on the road to reliable profitability, but overall switching from a product to a services business has been a fantastic decision.
What’s been most challenging thus far?
The most challenging part of running a client services business has been sales and marketing. Both my business partner and I are highly technical people and sales and marketing don’t really come naturally to us. I’ve spent many dollars and hours on books, courses, and podcasts to learn how to effectively sell our services. I’m still not 100% comfortable every time I have to run a sales process, but I’m getting there.
A close second would be the “feast and famine” nature of doing client work – some months you have more things to do than hours in the week and some months you wonder if you’ll have enough money to pay the IRS. The stress can definitely start to wear on you.
Did you ever want to quit or give up? Why or why not?
Giving up was on the table from the moment we quit our jobs to start the business. Because we both have highly technical skillsets, we knew finding a full-time job would not be an issue – likely both of the employers that we left would hire us back if we gave the slightest indication that we were interested. Our backup plan has always been “go get a job” and we’ve even had full-time offers from clients.
Even with that ace in our pocket, we only really got close to folding the company one time, about two years in. We simply didn’t have enough money coming in to pay ourselves a livable wage – due to low rates and few clients. In the face of a long famine, we closed some key sales and managed to survive and grow.
What were you struggling the most with when you ran into the DYF line-up?
The first product of Brennan’s that I purchased was his Recurring Revenue for Consultants Bootcamp. When I bought it, we were doing solely hourly work and while our rate was good, it wasn’t where I knew we could be charging. I blew off the entire day of work to go to the webinar and boy was it worth it. I pitched the basics of retainers to my business partner that same day and we knew it was what would help us move the needle for our business.
Our first retainer came when we approached our best client that was paying us for every hour we spent and converted them into a client that treats us like a trusted advisor and never even sees hourly breakdowns. Our role expanded, our influence increased and our billing has become extremely regular. We even managed to switch the client to a prepaid model.
“This change has single-handedly transformed our business from feast-and-famine into one of expansion and having a reliable profit.”
We have since purchased DYFR and the Blueprint with the former being the more influential. I am always looking for ways to improve my sales process as I am not a natural by any means.
Tell us about a recent win in your business. Did you do anything differently?
Around June of 2014, my business partner and I closed a client on a monthly retainer, largely informed and inspired by the discussion in the Recurring Revenue for Consultants Bootcamp. Brennan and Patrick basically laid out the rationale for doing retainer agreements and I instantly knew it was where we had to take our clients.
We closed a huge deal for our business that has meant substantial reliable recurring revenue. We focus heavily on the value we bring the businesses and “technical advisor” aspects during the sales process and in return we get clients that are happy to pay a premium and don’t nit-pick about hourly invoices.
How has your income changed after taking Brennan’s courses?
2013 was our first year with six figure revenue and our hourly rate was roughly $75.
In 2014, we made just under 2x our 2013 revenue and increased our hourly rate to a peak of $140.
In 2015, we are on track to bring in more than a half million dollars in revenue, we’ve hired one employee and made an offer to another.
What have you implemented that’s made the biggest difference?
The single most important lesson I have learned after getting into consulting was that clients pay for value and therefore you have to sell based on that value.
The second most important tactic that has had an outsize impact on our business was changing our billing structure from hourly billing into monthly retainers paid up front.
What are you most excited about for your business in 2015?
The most exciting news for our business is that about five months ago, we brought on our first employee and we currently have an offer out to hire another employee. Setting our clients up with ongoing retainer agreements has meant much more stability for the business and means that we are able to bring on employees without worrying if we’re going to be able to make payroll next week.
Drew grew up in South Dakota and graduated from the University of Nebraska with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. He contributes to major Ruby open-source projects and spends most of his free-time thinking about work. He lives in Lincoln with his wonderful wife, Lisa and their daughter, Estella. Check out Unabridged Software’s website or follow Drew on Twitter (@latortuga).