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For this episode of E coffee with Experts, Matt Fraser interviewed Sean O’Kelly, the CEO of X App Design. Sean and Matt discussed several useful strategies and tips for web development. Sean also shared his insights on how the Internet has changed the way information flows. Watch the episode now to gain some profound insights.
I think being flexible is key to longevity in business because things change all the time and we have to be prepared to accept the challenge of change.
Thank you very much, Matt. I appreciate it.
Well, accidentally, I left the company where I was in a management position running a bunch of wireless retail stores, and cell phones. And so, I decided to start my own business selling cell phones online. And so, this is back in 2002-2003. So, I needed a website, like today’s modern e-commerce websites. The problem was there weren’t very many people that could do it. And I hired somebody and paid them and they never really did the work. So, I kind of was a waste of money. What happened was, we had about a four-month window to get everything up and running once we finally decided that we weren’t going to be able to rely on this other developer. So, I decided to take that project on myself because I had programming experience, not web programming, but computer programing and, and databases and stuff like that. In the past, I decided I would take that on and get that up and running. And then what was interesting after we did that is I started getting people coming to us asking if we could build a system like that for their business. So, they actually transitioned and the wireless industry got ultra-competitive, and they kind of forced smaller players like us. So, I decided to transition to doing this as a business. It was kind of heavily focused initially on database work and creating backends for people and connecting that to their existing systems and then it just kind of grew from there.
I did, actually. And in fact, that wireless company, I took the position with them because they were a very small company and it gave me an opportunity to get into the kind of running a business by myself pretty much. And there was support there, but not much. It was still very entrepreneurial and building it from the ground up. So, I’ve always kind of wanted to do that type of thing. When I first got into sales a long time ago when I was a kid, my first sales gig was selling car stereos out of the trunk of my car in L.A.
But the thing was, you got a lot of rejection. But it was a really good learning experience in terms of being confident in myself and my products. It helps me learn how to obviously sell and manage inventory because basically, we controlled everything ourselves. And, you know, so I’ve always had that kind of spirit and it runs deep in my family. You know, one reason I’m here in West Virginia now is as a whole basis. My grandparents on both sides, had businesses here in West Virginia, their own businesses. My whole family is that type of small business spirit.
Well, my dad was actually a minister for 50 years. My mom ran a Human Resources Agency for many years out of Chicago. And so, you know that they instilled in me a very, very solid work ethic. And also, I think one of the biggest things they instilled in me and that has helped with retaining clients for a long period of time is doing the right thing and if we say we’re going to do something, then we do it and that’s very important.
Oh, yeah. There’s been a lot of challenges over the years. That’s been a rather interesting curveball thrown everybody’s way. I think the main thing is I try to do and find things that I enjoy doing right. So, I enjoy helping businesses and, and people be able to achieve what they want to, whether that’s online or offline or whatever they’re doing. I like helping them and that keeps me motivated because I know that people need help and assistance. One of the things that happened kind of once COVID was in that first year like kind of passed some funding, government funding to help different stuff after that.
Yeah, late in 2020. And there’s an organization here in West Virginia, the Small Business Development Center, their national organization. But they have individual chapters in each state and they reached out to my company and some other companies as a way of using some of that COVID relief funding to help small businesses get off the ground and also stay in business. So, whatever their challenges were, we tried to help them get through that. Of course, our company helped them with the technical aspect, kind of the website and marketing and that type of thing. And then other firms would help them in different areas. They had multiple firms that did what we did. But that was a really good experience and a good way of kind of helping businesses in need during a very challenging time. And it was challenging for us, too. You know, one of the things that were fascinating, Matt, is that a lot of our clients were still spending money, but they weren’t spending money the same way. So, things had kind of cut down a little bit and we had to go out and find other clients, to fill the void. It was an interesting juggling act between adding these new clients and then just managing everything and managing the cash flow and all the expectations and everything and getting all that, working together all through basically a two-year period of unknowns.
But, 2021 kicked up really good for us and 2022 has been good so far. So, I expect things have kind of turned the corner on that. But those kinds of challenges are going to happen and I think you just have to roll with it. You know that system I developed a long time ago for the online wireless business, I used that framework for over ten years, to develop other businesses, websites, and stuff. Because I had full control of that framework and I had developed that. I could tweak it any way we wanted and get it to do anything. Well, in 2013, I decided I needed to start looking at content management systems that were out there rather than a custom-coded one like we had. That was a really interesting change because the market was looking for standardized solutions. So, WordPress ended up being the winner in our minds, so we chose to put everything really into it. Even though we work on a variety of other systems WordPress became our primary focus. When we get a new client, we put them in WordPress. But the thing was that we had to make that decision to get into a standardized open-source system because that’s just the way the market was going.
Yeah. So, this was really interesting. The first thing we did was try them. We tried everything and spent a little bit of time figuring it out. We actually went out and sought out some customers that had those systems we could work with. So, we actually did bring on some clients that we could use on those systems and fully vet them and test them. And then once we got accustomed to working with them, one of the things that jumped off the page with WordPress was just how easily you could customize WordPress. Yeah. Within its framework, on how its structure was. And the sheer number of developers out there that had a knowledgeable skill that you could tap into was teaming up with other developers to do stuff. So, having competent developers out there, readily accessible was a big factor for us. WordPress jumped off the page in those two ways. Of course, the cost for the client. The fact that there really was no cost involved there for the system itself was nice and you know that’s basically the thing that led us to choose it.
Yeah, so there are two pieces there that are really critical. Number one, you have the people that because you see all the advertising. This of course happens every day, all the time. People see all the advertising for creating their own websites, you know, Squarespace, Wix, or there is GoDaddy
So any of those systems, people have it in their mind that they can just go easily and so they think that you’re going to be able to do that for them at a very, very low cost. And while there are people out there that you can find, they will do something for very, very little cost. What happens invariably and this is where we get most of our clients, most of our clients come from that, right? They come from having set up those systems and then they realize that they need help. And the way that we are most able to help people is through knowledge. We do the work and we create things, but really, it’s the knowledge of knowing what to do given their business circumstance, that some of the businesses over the years, that different types of businesses mean large scale, small scale and so we use that when we evaluate a client’s needs, we use that broad landscape of knowledge, and we pull from that what they need to be able to make work for their business regardless of what system they’re in. And, we’ll move to WordPress if we can, but many times they’re kind of contractually tied into something and we’ll work with that. But we will help them get their business off the ground and get it growing. I think that’s what people ultimately need, is they need that knowledge, point them in the right direction because people hear so many different things, they see so much different advertising, they get inundated with emails all the time about people who want to do this and that and so they really don’t know where to go. That’s where our niche is, we really help people get on the right path.
Yes. And one of the things we’re really trying to focus on now over this last year, we’ve been building it more and more, which is a kind of subscription service, which is kind of new for us that we realized through the whole COVID deal. Is that really people need their handheld and when these challenges come around, we’re already kind of there for them. So, they don’t have to go seek out something else to deal with this new challenge. We’re already there, we already know their business, we can help them and we can jump on a call with them every month to talk about what they want to do. And that’s been very successful and invaluable for these clients.
I think, generally speaking, you have to be flexible. I mean, there are a lot of answers to that question. I think being flexible is key, especially today, because things change all the time and we have to be prepared to accept the challenge of change, you have to accept that challenge of change, that number one. Then you have to be kind of dug in to find the things that you can do that still work with your business model. Now, sometimes you actually have to change your business model, which is usually a long process to do. But that’s one of the things that we’re doing with this subscription service. We decided, let’s start getting into this. We didn’t leave behind anything else, but we decided we’re going to start getting into this kind of subscription deal and so that was a change, right? We had to look at the future and say where things going and how we wanted to address these needs. So, I think being flexible, seeing an opportunity, and figuring out how to incorporate that opportunity into what you’re doing.
First and foremost, it’s going to be solved by the market because you are right about the education system, it grinds along very slowly in terms of change. So, it has not kept up with what is required in the business world, which is why we have a shortage. So, what is happening, though, is that there are more and more services like Google. It recently opened up a learning system to everybody for free. And I forget the specifics on that, but I think that’s just an example of how things are going to start opening up. I don’t have kids, but if I did, in High School, I would have them open up their own business and I would have them learn those business skills very early on. Maybe that’s an online business or not. Maybe it’s just cutting the grass or something, I don’t know. But I would have them do something that they are in control of and that they’re responsible for what happens in the business because that type of skill set is the number one thing that’s lacking. We can talk about technical skills, but if you’re going to get involved in this technical world. Today you got Fiverr and all these other companies, all these self-employed individuals, that are part of the kind of new labor workforce and they’re independent contractors. They’re hiring themselves out on a per-hour or per-project basis. And so they need to be able to learn how to manage themselves, manage to work with other developers, and all the things that go along with running a business. And as that, as the market continues to grow with these self-employed folks, which it will. Then what you’re going to see if you’re going to see the education system change accordingly. It’s just going to take another ten years, at least before it is really in step.
Well, there’s very little work on self-analysis. So, there’s introspection and there’s very little of that in schools. I’m really good at testing, I don’t care what kind of test you put in front of me and that made up for the fact that I was a terrible student at school. But I was so good at testing that it kind of paved my way to get through a lot of stuff. Standardized testing is problematic because what happens is you end up with teachers that teach just for the test. They’re teaching to the lowest common denominator of learning, which is like, here is a question, and here is an answer. No personal development in any way. I don’t know if there’s a quick solution there to kind of get rid of standardized testing, but I’ve always seen that as a major problem. And filling in, you know, A, B, C or D, if you get used to how tests are done and you know, you can run through them. There’s a problem with that but I think the biggest problem of all, through high school, all they want to do is get you out of it. That all they want to do is to push you through high school. We can talk all day long about politics or whatever but the reality is the school system up through high school, they just wanna push you out. Then you’re kind of ill-prepared for college after that and the decision-making that happens there and then the colleges are so entrenched with kind of the old school, like we talked about earlier, that they really have not adapted now to the new model. There’s an awful lot of work to be done there. But I think primarily parents are going to have to wake up and realize that the education system is not going to prepare their kid for the real world and that’s got to instill that rings true for people. And I think more and more people are kind of waking up to that. But until they really realize that, then we’re going to continue to have an education system that doesn’t produce well once enough people wake up to it. I think the education system will start to change because the market eventually will get it to get its act together, hopefully.
That’s where you and I kind of are different. I mean, there are a lot of people like us that are self-guided learning-wise and can do that. But self-guided learning is a little more challenging for kids just because they’re kids. If you think back to our childhood. I’ll focus more as a kid on how hard it would be to do that. Parents do the best they can but that’s a real challenge. So, the classroom structure helps kids in that regard. However, having said that, you’re right that the Internet provides a learning opportunity that did not exist before. Back when you and I were in school, I remember going down to the library to look at magazines in school. So, we would agree to look at periodicals and maybe it was popular science or a million other different things. And that’s how you got the news, which was old news, newspapers, and such, and now that it’s on-demand. One thing they still do in schools is you still gotta go buy textbooks and stuff, which is ridiculous. That’s where the education system should really fully adopt the Internet, in how they distribute information.
That’s everything you need.
I think that once people realize what your question is, are people going to think about and think this is worth investing in? And I think that that is starting to happen because people are realizing that the kids need skills and they need skills that move at their pace. One of the major problems that I know that I had and an awful lot of people have with college is that it’s a long-term commitment before there’s any payoff. Well, as a kid today, you could go to one of those code camps and you know, I don’t know how this particular one you’re talking about is set up, but within 3 to 6 months, you could have skills. They could earn you $100,000 a year. With platforms like Fiverr, as I mentioned earlier, and all these other places you can put yourself out there on the market and start earning money immediately. So, for very little cost on the education side, instead of spending $100,000 or more on a college, you can spend a few thousand dollars as a parent getting them skills that can immediately translate into dollars.
So, yeah, I think it’s changing and it’s just taking time. For now, on the flip side of this as a company that uses contract labor all the time, we go out and if we need somebody that’s a database person and I don’t already have one, I go look for somebody. I need someone that’s a particular type of marketing and I don’t have that person on tap right now. I need to get somebody new with that skill set. There are more and more people available out there for that and there are more and more avenues to try to get that person. So, from the ability of a small business to kind of go out and get talent to fulfill a need, there’s more and more of that available. And I think that’s going to continue to grow. It has to continue to grow because this is the new model which is kind of using contract labor to build the business.
Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Those days have started to dwindle for sure and the gig economy is definitely a growth market. But it’s interesting how the politics of the cities like in California where they recently passed those laws, I forget where they came down on that actually, but they were trying to get all of the drivers from Lyft and Uber. They’re trying to get all those to be employees. They’re trying to force those companies to hire people as employees, which is the worst thing you can possibly do at this point. That’s just going to hamper things and ultimately, it’s not going to do any good because people just need to adopt and realize that this gig economy is the future. Self-employment and doing stuff on 1099. One of the key missing ingredients to all this though is how to help people. And I don’t know, probably over the years, 30 people that were not clients of mine, but were businesses that needed help. They were totally self-employed, they were starting something new and so they were clients. They weren’t really web clients, they were more like business consulting clients. And helping them with how to navigate, get health insurance, or get investment opportunities and how to structure a business and things like that. So, all these types of skills, that’s where the learning and education system needs to start really kicking in is teaching people how to work self-employment and still get the things that their parents had. You know, their parents had a parachute at the end and these folks today aren’t going to have that unless they plan for it. They’re not going to have that group health insurance policy that their parents had. They’re going to have to go out and buy individual insurance and we’re seeing how that insurance market is trying to change to accommodate that. I’ve been in the individual insurance market for 20 years now but a lot of people aren’t familiar with it, but they’re going to have to be. So, it’s things like that, that the business climate has to adopt. We’re getting there, it’s just slow.
Yeah, well, you know, what’s interesting about that, you know the whole issue with Ukraine, a long time ago I used a couple of different development groups out of Ukraine, it must be 2005, 2006, maybe even 2007. That was kind of early on in the remote kind of work arrangements, but we’ve been doing it a long time, but now we have people all over the globe that do work for us, it’s fascinating to see that. I had a conversation, it was really interesting, how this plays out and so sometimes I had a conversation with this gal and she’s from Vietnam, She’s a marketing person, she is kind of like when people need to take their business from one phase, like let’s say they’re a mom and pop shop and they’re going to start changing it to be more of a corporate environment. So, she helps with that kind of transition and how to market to business and business planning and all this kind of stuff. Strategic. It’s very interesting but what’s so fascinating about working with remote people is you may speak the same language but there’s so much of a difference between the cultures. How you do things with that information is different and it takes a little while to get used to it. We try to do most stuff in the USA for that reason or folks that have a mindset that’s USA-based.
Yeah, exactly. That’s right. And so, we work through those differences. But the Internet has definitely changed things dramatically in the flow of information. The fact that you and I can jump on a call, a video call, like this, is absolutely fascinating. And the cost to do this…
Yeah, it’s just amazing.
The change is good. One of the things that’s a challenge for us here in West Virginia is that we still have a very large percentage of businesses here that are so used to doing business the old way local kind of perspective. Kind of old school, it’s worked for them for so long, but now it’s starting to not work as well because all the things that they traditionally relied upon are not working that well now. And so, this gets back to your point earlier about what you have to do to be able to succeed in the long term and that flexibility of thought is so critical. So, many businesses are tied in and they’ve done it this way forever and they kind of think they can continue doing it that way but now what they’re realizing is that their newer competitors are beating them to the punch on a lot of stuff. So, they are being forced to change.
You’ll be gone just quick these days, just suddenly.
Blockbuster is a great example.
Everybody of our age is familiar with Blockbuster.
Yeah, I wouldn’t think of that. So, yeah, Netflix is a great example of what to do.
To be able to see the future and change with it. And that change of business is really hard, though. It’s really hard when you’ve been successful at something. I worked for a long time as a kid when I was going through college and everything at Circuit City. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Circuit City. So, Circuit City was the king of electronic stores back in the day, and it dominated everywhere. Starting in about 1994 or 1995, they started to have problems with Best Buy and they were trying to figure out what to do. They couldn’t quite figure out how to change their business model to compete and what to retain from their own identity. So, what they ended up trying to do was be Best Buy Lite and fail because Best Buy was better at being Best Buy.
Yeah. So, they made these challenges, business challenges, how you see the future and what you’re going to do to tackle it is critical. That gets back to why we created these subscription plans. That’s almost like a retainer. You think of it like you have an attorney on retainer or something like that.
It’s kind of like that and you’re starting to see that in the medical world now. Right?
Yeah. Where you pay like a set monthly fee no matter what, like 50 bucks a month, I guess it varies wherever you’re at, then you just go whenever you need to go and they give you your prescriptions. It’s just that things are changing.
Yeah, actually, it’s good you mentioned that because I’ve been thinking about doing that myself. I used to have that a long time ago. I want to say it was through legal zoom or something like that. But then I temporarily went into business with this other gal and then we kind of changed things up because we merged and all that. But it’s interesting because when we did that, we had to separately hire this attorney to try to figure out how to bring the two businesses together. And buy her out now. So that’s all done. But it took us six months and it took us thousands of dollars to work with this attorney and figure out how to bring the businesses together. So, you know, if we just stuck with Legal Zoom or Legal Shield it would have probably been much easier.
Yeah. But those are the types of things that people need to know about and take advantage of.
Yeah. Nothing’s ever can actually be unlimited ever.
Yeh, well, it has to kind of go that way. And that’s why we decided we’re kind of in actually what we call it is an all-in-one website design. So, what we do is we not only build or rebuild someone’s website but it includes everything you normally think about, with hosting and security and backups and crashing and all that’s all there.
Yeah, all that stuff’s there already and then we also do management of their domain, will do management of their email system, and when we rebuild the site, we’ll do their on-page SEO as part of the build rather than charging separately for it. So, by the time their website is built, we put them on a year subscription basically, which they would renew or go monthly after that. But within 30 days they’re up, and their website is done. Instead of having to have spent thousands of dollars on that, the cost is spread out. And now they can spend our money on building their business right away.
That’s right. Because most of our customers are long term customers. You know, I’ve got customers going back to 2005. Piece of people come and go out of business and there’s a variety of reasons that someone could leave, too. You never know the circumstances. But because we provide a value-added service with a very good personal touch, that retains people and they want to continue working with you. So, we have had clients for years, so we know even if we spread out that initial cost, we know we’re going to recover it by the end of that year and year two and year three and year four. As long as we continue providing the level of service we do, we have no doubt that we can, even though we’re delaying that payment, and their business will be better off. So, if their business is better off, then they can spend more money with us doing advertising or something else. So, it all works together.
I used to do that. So, years ago, 2005-2007 because there were very few people that did what I could do personally at that time, and there were companies that didn’t have the money. So, in order to help them out, we took that equity position. The problem is you invest a lot of time and effort into that up front and there’s a really high likelihood you’re not going to recover it. Because it’s just too I mean, in my mind, it’s too challenging. So, we’re kind of taking a different route. Well, actually, there is another key component of this. If people are really invested in the business and making it work, they’re going to be able to find some money to make it, to do a website. This payment plan type system where we break it down over a year helps with that. But they still have to make a commitment. If the people don’t make a commitment, there’s just too great a chance that their business is going to fail and you’ll never you’re not ultimately going to help them in the long run if their business never really gets off the ground. We need a commitment from people to some degree and even at a lower level, even if it’s just $100 per month that someone pays. If they know they’re paying $100 per month, regardless, they’re going to want to get something from that. And in order to get something for it, they have to contribute themselves. They have to take their time to let us know what they want. So, you’re staying in contact with the client, and because you’re staying in contact with the client, that enables you to actually bring a project to fruition and have success with it. But so many times, if they don’t have a stake in it…
But it’s interesting you mention that because there are more and more people thinking along those lines, mainly because that’s what investment companies do. Basically, venture capitalists. They’re taking a stake in the company. But, you know, we do not venture capitalists, and I don’t want to get into that business.
They can go to our Website, xappdesign.com. They can also find us on Facebook as well under the same name X App Design. They can always when they get to the Website, they can feel free to just call us. We’ve got four agents that are sales reps that are willing to talk to people with no obligation at all. So, get the conversation rolling and we can talk about whatever their needs are and figure out how to help them.
Oh, yeah, I’m on LinkedIn. We have personal profiles on LinkedIn, and a company profile, too.
I really appreciate it, Matt. It’s always good to talk to people, especially it’s good to talk to someone that’s got a lot of experience like you do. And so, it’s always a good conversation.
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