From the Ground Up: An Interview with Chad Lewine of CDL500
Q: So, Chad, let’s start by having you tell us a bit about your history and how CDL 500 got started.
A: Well, I I started at a young age playing with Dreamweaver, Flash, and a couple other programs, like very simple HTML stuff. I had a website on a sub folder of my dad’s ISP that they gave me for free and I kind of just played around. My first website was for Midtown Madness, the driving game, and I would put up cars you could download. That was my first foray into web design and I never really stopped.
When I was in seventh grade, I sold my first real website for $75 to a friend’s grandmother who was an author, and that was the beginning of ChaddyD Creations, which was the first name of my company. Eventually, I went to school for web design at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, where I learned a bit more of the technical basics.
That brings us to 2011/12 when I changed the name to CDL500. I was doing freelance my whole life, but then I moved to New York for an SEO job in 2011. That didn’t last very long. I just didn’t want to work for somebody else after working for myself for so long. They noticed the same thing so it was a mutual agreement that I ended up leaving not too long after I started. I learned a lot from that experience, not just about SEO but about running a business. I can definitely say that that marked the beginning of my love affair with SEO, and ever since that’s been one of my two main focuses: web design and SEO. I actually just gave a talk at WordCamp NYC about WordPress SEO and Yoast. (insert link?)
Q: So you run CDL 500 as a single-man shop?
A: It’s just me! I’ve tried hiring others or outsourcing some work, but it just doesn’t work for me. I’m really good by myself and I can keep all the loose ends together. I manage the client relationship, I manage how the project gets done, I manage everything. That allows me to move fast, pivot when necessary, and deliver the best results I can. I have a developer I use for customizations that I don’t know how to do, but he isn’t an employee of the company.
Q: As a sole proprietor, how do you balance your time to ensure that you’re servicing the clients that you already have while still bringing in new ones?
A: One of the biggest things for me right now is public speaking. Like I said, I just did a talk in NYC at WordCamp and I’ve been reaching out to others to partner up as well. I have a lot of experience and knowledge to share, but I don’t have the audience that some of these bigger agencies do. Speaking at events helps me connect with an already engaged audience in exchange for my experience.
Q: In other words, you’ve shied away from more traditional marketing strategies and really embraced word-of-mouth?
A: I’ve never been one to go out and guest blog or spend a bunch of money on PPC. That’s just not my style. I know how powerful it can be, but it’s just not for me. Like you said, as a single-person shop, I have to make decisions and place my bets in areas that are not only strategic for my business, but also areas that are going to help me grow and be happy as a business owner. Speaking brings me a lot of joy and I’ve been having a lot of fun sharing my knowledge with all different types of people at these events. If I can market my business, grow my reputation, and enjoy myself, why wouldn’t I continue to invest more in that area?
Q: That’s a great point! You mentioned that you tried bringing on other team members but it just wasn’t for you. What were the difficulties that led you to go back to being a solopreneur?
A: The biggest thing for me was the efficiency. I personally hated going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth with someone else; then, if it didn’t turn out as the client wanted, I’d end up fixing it myself anyway. Ultimately, I realized that even though having a larger team would allow me to take on bigger projects where more money might be involved, that doesn’t mean I’d be happier. That’s the bottom line. I’d rather have five smaller projects that I can manage myself than one huge project that requires a large staff.
Q: That’s one of the reasons why I think these interviews are so great. Most agencies are looking to scale, scale, scale, but that isn’t the right approach for everyone. It’s interesting to hear a perspective from the other side as well.
Let’s dive a bit more into the challenges of being a solopreneur. What unique challenges has that presented you?
A: For me, the only real challenge has been generating more business. Finding leads, building the relationship, and actually making the sale takes time away from the work I need to do on my clients’ sites, so I have to balance my time wisely. Leads don’t always fly in, so lead generation has historically been tough, but I’ve been focusing more on my own SEO and speaking at more events, which has really helped expand those opportunities.
Other than that, I think choosing the right clients has been difficult, but also hugely important. I’m only one guy, so I can’t go out and take on a client that is going to expect the work of a big agency or a client that is looking for something heavily work-intensive. I have to make sure that I’m budgeting my time and being strategic about the engagements I take on.
Q: What do you look for during those initial client conversations that might tip you off that a particular engagement might not be the right fit?
A: As a business owner, you can feel when an engagement likely won’t work, but there are a few super common things I look for in particular. First, I see a lot of businesses that want the whole world, but they’re just starting out. People will come to me with an idea, but it’s not a business yet; so what they really have is a dream or a wish. Those conversations almost never even get to the budget phase because even the smallest budget will scare them away.
The second thing for me is I look at the business itself. I refuse to help a business that I don’t agree with and I won’t work with a business unless they’re forward-thinking. They have to do good for the world and be open to change.
That’s my third thing: open to change. I always respect the customer’s wishes as long as it’s something I can do and, more importantly, something that will help them move their business forward. If they ask for something that I can’t do or that won’t help them, I don’t just tell them what they need: I’ll explain it in a way that they can better understand. I treat my clients’ sites like they’re my own and they really appreciate that.
Q: Awesome. Well, thanks so much for sitting down and sharing your story with us today, Chad. Do you have any closing thoughts you’d like to add? What advice might you have for prospective business owners looking to follow in your solopreneur footsteps?
A: The first piece of advice I would give to anybody looking to start a business is to not listen to anybody; don’t let one person’s story dictate yours; don’t let one person’s path to success limit your vision for your own path. Learn from their mistakes and their successes, but don’t let them define what you do for your business.
The second piece of advice I’d give is to not try and do everything just because you can. I could offer tons of different digital marketing services, but I only offer SEO and web design. Why? Because I know that by limiting my service offerings I can provide better service. This focus has also helped me build my reputation in those specific areas. If you claim to be an expert in everything, people will start to doubt the extent of your knowledge. Do what you do best and let others handle other services.
The last piece of advice I’d give is to Google everything! I taught myself most of what I know through Google and Youtube. The knowledge you need to be successful is out there and it’s up to you to find it.
Q: Thanks so much, Chad!
Chad began a life of computers at the age of 3. His parents worked from home so they both had computers starting in the early 90s. He cut his teeth on IBMs and quickly became interested in web pages once he got access to the internet at home. Chad started learning the basics and eventually building his first website at the age of nine.
Closing his first website sale in 7th grade, Chad Lewine has been professionally designing websites for over 10 years. He began as a youngster tinkering in MS-DOS, playing computer games and customizing web pages in the AOL days. Graduating from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh with an A.S. in Web Design and Interactive Media, Lewine moved to Brooklyn in 2011 for a high-profile agency job. He began freelancing full-time shortly after.
Now, Chad is at the helm of designing and marketing websites for local and national clients. CDL500 is both a digital marketing agency and the umbrella organization for Lewine’s professional dealings in art, music, and B2B services.