Increasing Diversity and Normalizing Sustainable Work Habits in Web Design with Rob Howard

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Rob Howard is discussing how to increase diversity and normalize sustainable work habits in web design. Full Text: profitable web designer EPISODE 37 Increasing Diversity and Normalizing Sustainable Work Habits in Web Design with Rob Howard

This week I’m talking with Rob Howard of MasterWP about increasing diversity and normalizing sustainability in web design!

Rob Howard is the founder of HDC, a digital agency headquartered in Denver, Colorado. His team is behind one of the most popular WordPress newsletters out there, Master WP, and they’re also the creators of EveryAlt, which is a new AI powered tool that instantly creates accurate alt text for your images.

Key takeaways from my chat with Rob:

  • Prioritizing mental health and sustainability in the workplace, and ultimately deconstructing the rigidity of corporate structure creates trust and balance among employees.
  • Be proactive in making the change you want to see, building your company based on transparency and rewarding talent and skills for retention. The gender gap can be at play when negotiating rates even if we don’t realize it because of social constructs.
  • Taking small, uncomfortable steps is a great way to take risks while validating your product and moving up the ladder with your pricing without devaluing your work.
  • There’s no set pricing for web design, so you get to determine where you want to be based on where your skills are at and the scope of work. Your pricing can change based on the client – not everyone has to pay the same amount for different projects.

We also talk about how Rob:

  • Grew a team out of wanting more freedom to be available for his family and based his company around the environment he would want to work in and enjoy being a part of, rather than copying the corporate culture he wanted to escape early in his career.
  • Built his company around breaking down barriers to equity through recognizing that he could use his agency within his own sphere to invest in diversity in the industry rather than perpetuate the “tech bro” culture.
  • Created an AI plug-in called EveryAlt for generating accessible alt text for images to help websites be ADA compliant.
  • Uses value-based marketing to grow and engage with his audience and inspire change.

Connect with Rob:

Episode Transcript

Shannon Mattern: Welcome to the Profitable Web Designer, a podcast for web designers who want to work less and make more money. I'm your host Shannon Mattern, founder of the Web Designer Academy, where we've helped hundreds of web designers stop under charging, overworking, and create profitable, sustainable web design businesses.

Shannon Mattern: Before we dive into this week's episode, I wanna tell you about a brand new training that I have for you that breaks down the exact pricing strategy that the high-earning web designers inside our Web Designer Academy used to confidently charge five times more without having to work more or offer more services. You can watch this free training on demand at, and in it I'll share with you the proven pricing framework that has created hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for our students, the biggest barriers to charging more for your services, and how to overcome them, the math behind a profitable, sustainable web design business, the types of clients willing to pay, quote unquote, that much for web design. And our seven step process for five Xing your income over the next 12 months so that you can uncover where and how you might be leaving money on the table and take control of the most powerful growth lever in your web design business. So you can get instant access to that training over at Welcome back to the Profitable Web Designer Podcast, and today I have the pleasure of chatting with Rob Howard, founder of H D C, a digital agency headquartered in Denver, Colorado. And his team is behind one of the most popular WordPress newsletters out there, Master WP. And they're also the creators of EveryAlt, which is a new AI powered tool that instantly creates accurate alt text for your images, which I'm super excited about that. So Rob, thank you so much for being on the show today.

Rob Howard: Thanks for having me.

Shannon Mattern: Yeah, so I would just love to hear a little bit about your backstory and how you got started, how you started your company.

Rob Howard: Yeah, absolutely. So I've been doing web design and development basically since I was a teenager. And you know, in college I really wanted to focus on kind of like the publishing journalism angles. So I did a lot with newspaper, with advertising, with all those things. Upon graduating, you know, I'd been freelancing for years, you know, in, in high school and college because everybody who needed a website was like, Hey, my nephew knows how to do that, or My friend knows how to do that, or whatever. So I sort of naturally was hearing from quote unquote the market that that was a, a marketable thing. But when I started to go out and apply for quote unquote real jobs at newspapers, what I was hearing was, Hey, we, you know, you're a good writer, but like we noticed that H T M L is on your resume and we wanna hire you to help us with the website and coding and all of those things.

Rob Howard: So just getting lots of like very strong signals. And this was like 2005, 2006 that like, that's the direction that is gonna be a interesting and fun and kind of like growth oriented career. So after doing a few sort of normal office jobs, I moved into more of like the solopreneur freelancer, digital nomad lifestyle. Back before, like everybody was working from home, I was the weirdo working from like the kitchen table and all that. So that eventually evolved into starting a couple of different design firms and digital agencies with friends. And eventually I started my current company H D C, which stands for Howard Development and Consulting in 2009. So it's been 14 years, but it actually was like my third or fourth company with various different, you know, other business owners and partners and friends and stuff like that. And you know, when I founded the company, the goal was really to provide tech and web development services to people who were really good at design or maybe were coming out of print design and starting to get into web design.

Rob Howard: There were a lot of these like graphic design and marketing and branding agencies at that time that really just like, they had tons of design experience, like decades of it, but they really had no web experience. So I was able to sort of plug into those as a freelancer and say, they would say, Hey, we've got, you know, these four projects for these restaurants, we're gonna do the branding, can you do the websites for us? And that became essentially my full-time job for the last 14 years. Over the last few years I've been fortunate enough to expand the company and, you know, bring on employees, do a lot more work for bigger organizations like Harvard and the World Bank or two of our recent clients. And you know, as part of that we're also doing more media stuff, more other software development, mostly for our own marketing purposes and for fun, right?

Rob Howard: So that's where the Master WP Newsletter comes in. That's where EveryAlt comes in. And I'm kind of a, a mad scientist in a lot of ways in the sense that I actually like to build many different business ideas simultaneously. Like that doesn't stress me out. That actually kind of energizes me. So that's where a lot of these things come from. And, you know, some are hits and some are flops, but the ones we're talking about today are the ones that didn't flop and now are actually like real things that, that we're doing in building as part of the company.

Shannon Mattern: I love that story and just one of the things that really got me excited to talk to you was when I was just, just looking at your website and your mission and like the things that you're talking about in the newsletter and just your commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, pay equity, transparency, all of those things. And it was just such a breath of fresh air because as I have built our company and started actually hiring employees, I was like, I do not want to build anything, like any company that I ever worked at, ever. I want to be completely different. And I see that in you. So tell me, or in just like, in just a little bit that I saw on your website, I'm like this, we we're so aligned in how, how we think about things. So tell me a little bit more about that journey of like, okay, I'm, we're hiring, we're building this company, and what was your thought process around like how you wanted to build this?

Rob Howard: Yeah, you know, it's funny, I had literally like the exact same thinking in my head because, you know, six years ago or maybe even nine years ago, like I was at a point where, you know, I would have an independent contractor here and there, but I could basically make, you know, enough money being a solopreneur probably indefinitely, right? So there was very much like a decision point where I was like, do I want to grow this or do I wanna stay in the solo printer zone? And both have their benefits and drawbacks. One of the big drawbacks for me was my wife and I had just had our son who's now nine, and I was like, you know what? Like I'm noticing that like my time availability is gonna be different. Like if I'm really committed to like being the dad and the husband that I want to be like, I'm not gonna be working like late at night.

Rob Howard: I'm not gonna be, I don't wanna be stressed out all the time. I don't want to be like putting out fires all the time. So actually having family members who were counting on me in, in new in different ways was a big part of the reason that I felt that growing the team made sense for me because I didn't want to be the only person who could answer, you know, an emergency call or whatever. Like we try to not have emergencies, but when we do, like, it's nice to have a team and at the same time, like I can also support my employees and other team members in the same way, right? So they can turn off their computers and I'll watch out for them. If I'm truly unavailable, they'll watch out for me, right? So it really creates this, like, it's one of the big benefits of having a team, right?

Rob Howard: The drawbacks of course are that it's just harder to run a team than it is to do everything alone, right? Because you don't always agree or there's different challenges and decisions, like it costs more money. Like all of these things right, are, are challenging in various ways. But you know, at that time I had the exact same thought process that you just described, which is, if I do this, like part of the reason that I'm currently a freelancer and solopreneur is because I don't really like the like office space environment, right? And like I was just talking to one of my employees about this today. Like, it's amazing, you know, that the, the office face movie came out in 1999 and definitely like is deeply ingrained in my psyche for a lot of reasons, but it's crazy to see like people behaving that exact same way like 20 or 30 years later.

Rob Howard: Like it's, it's just bizarre to me. I'm like, how can there be like such a weird, creepy office vibe at this company? But like there are many companies that still have that. So I definitely wanted to get away from that. I want, and, and and you know, as you alluded to, I really wanted, I really literally said like I want to build a company that I would actually want to work for as the entry level employee, as the mid-level employee. Not just because I'm the c e O of the company. Like that's the easy part, right? Being in charge, right? But I wanna build something that people actually would want to be a part of and would enjoy and would solve all the problems that I experienced when I was 21 working in my first office job. And I was like, this is so inefficient.

Rob Howard: Like people are so passive aggressive and weird. Like the incentives are all wrong, right? And that doesn't even touch on like the gender and racial diversity stuff. Yeah. Which we can get into a little bit later. But like that was very much my thought process, mostly from just like a, I never really wanted to work at an office, so why would I want to now create something that is equivalent to that? And when you think about it that way, as you've experienced, like, it really forces you to rethink a lot of the like basic assumptions. And it also just makes you throw out a lot of the like M B A advice that's out there because that stuff just really doesn't map to a company that is employee-centric and is lifestyle centric, right? So a lot of people think like, well the only way you can have a life is you have to go be a digital nomad.

Rob Howard: You know, you have to live in Argentina or Thailand on $4 a day and all these things. And it's like, well yeah you can do that, but you can also live in Denver and have a family, and have kids and still have division between work and life, still make enough money. Like those are things where I think sometimes we unnecessarily create like a trade off or a false like dichotomy there. And the goal is like build a company where you actually have all the things right? And nothing's gonna be perfect obviously, but you can really prioritize mental health, you know, fairness and all those things. And those are things that we've tried to do very explicitly at our company as we've grown.

Shannon Mattern: It's so interesting that you say that because one of the things I do, you know, is I teach, I teach freelance web designers how to run a profitable, sustainable web design business. We work mostly with women and one of the big things that we do together is like, I call it like deconstructing the employee mindset where mm-hmm. , you know, you're so conditioned to behave a certain way in a corporate environment and when you take that into a client relationship it does not work for your mental health, for your sustainability, for your profitability. And so we really work on deconstructing that and then when I have employees come into our company, I have to help them deconstruct that too. Cause I'm like, we don't work like that here either. Yeah. And so it's been so rewarding, I guess, to have people come in who are used to like these very rigid corporate structures and they show up on a meeting and they're sick and I'm like, why are like, like, I don't care if you can't get me sick.

Shannon Mattern: Like you need to go like, yeah, this is not important. Like go take a nap , you know? Yep. And really helping them understand like, that's okay, it's o it's the to the greater good of all of us. If you put your health and wellness and mental health and work-life balance first, it's better for everyone. And so like that's one of the, my big missions is kind of like deconstructing all of that, that I was conditioned to believe that the way that you succeed in life is that you fit yourself into this corporate box and you people please and be who they want you to be up until the point where you realize like, why am I doing this? And for you, what good are you doing in the world? And I'm out, I'm opting out of that , you know?

Rob Howard: Yeah. To give you one more funny anecdote along those same lines several of our employees have had this a very similar experience where like they come from just, either it's an in-person office environment or just a very different remote work environment and you know, they'll, in the first couple weeks they'll be like, oh hey, like I have to go like down the block to pick my kid up from the bus stop for 10 minutes. Like just letting you know like, is that okay? Like can I, do I need to get permission for that? And I'm like, basically like if it's under two hours, like I don't want you to tell me that you're leaving your computer because like you have control over that. And even then, like it's borderline if I care, right? It depends on exactly what you're working on that day, you know, or whatever.

Rob Howard: But you know, we trust people, we know people are putting in their hours at the time that is appropriate for them. We know people have kids, families, you know, other loved ones that they're caring for and like that needs to be part of normal life. And for me, like in some ways like I'm so far removed from it, like I haven't worked in an office in 13, 15 years, something like that. Right? So, you know, that level of like surveillance is not typical for me, but when we have people coming in and they're experiencing it for the first time in a fully remote environment that really has pretty low surveillance and high trust people have a lot of questions and they're like a little bit like trepidatious about like taking the liberties that are available to them, if that makes sense.

Shannon Mattern: Yeah. They're like, is the other shoe gonna drop? Like this is too good. When's the other shoe gonna drop? When am I gonna take it too far and get in trouble or whatever. Yeah. And it's yeah, it's just fascinating to, I see a shift, I see a lot more people trying to build companies that aren't like that

Rob Howard: Yeah. Agree

Shannon Mattern: Than are, which is a great thing. So yeah, I would love to hear like just sharing like your experience of hiring and, and building the agency and then looking at like your commitment to like pay equity and diversity, equity and inclusion. Like tell me a little bit more about your efforts in those areas because I just think we can't be like talking about this stuff enough and and contributing to it enough, so

Rob Howard: Yeah, totally. So I, I don't remember like the exact day, like I obviously like those things have always been on my mind, but there was definitely like a time maybe like six or seven years ago, maybe a little bit more, maybe like 2014 ish where I decided to very like explicitly learn more about diversity, equity, diversity, equity, inclusion wasn't even a term at the time that, that I started thinking about this. But you know, the idea that like, I'm not experiencing those things personally directly, but my friends and family members and people around me are on both the racial and gender dimensions as well as many others. And as somebody who's in a position now where I'm sort of in a powerful position, I've been, you know, basically on a fast track for my whole life towards hopefully being a successful business owner, right? I'm a white male, you know, I kind of have all the like randomness of the lottery of birth like lined up in my favor, right?

Rob Howard: I want to be really conscious about, you know, how I build a company in a way that makes the future better. And especially in tech, it definitely is true in many industries, but tech in particular, as I'm sure you and all your listeners have noticed, like is pretty full of bros, right? And you know, typically very sort of, I guess the word is like assertive, but a little bit aggressive and you know, think they're super smart, think that they like earn their spot, don't realize exactly what the sort of randomness of their position and privilege did to put them into the position that they're in. Like everybody thinks they're the smartest guy in the world, right? You know, obviously I'm exaggerating a little bit, but there's a very strong vibe of what we call like the tech bro vibe, right? And I mean that's true today it was even more true five or 10 years ago.

Rob Howard: We have a lot of people who are really working hard to break through, but it's really hard to crack open an industry that is so sort of caked over with like this weird tech masculinity, right? So it's a big thing that I noticed and I wanted to learn about and obviously everyone to get better at it in a lot of different areas of life. But the area of life where I think I have the most personal agency is the business that I run, right? Like I'm actually making decisions whereas like, yeah, I can go like complain to the local government but I don't have a ton of agency there. I'm just one voice, right? But here, like it's like, you know what, like you can actually do things and reshape things in a way that affects this small part of the world and maybe affects, you know, five or 10 or 20 people's lives and their family's lives and stuff like that.

Rob Howard: So at the same time, one of my high school friends actually was founding in Boston, a nonprofit that helps people of color from low income communities in Boston learn how to code. And you know, we call these boot camps today, but this was kind of a early version of that. It was very focused on diversity. I was able to get involved in that as a mentor, as an employer. And that has sort of also spread into, like now some of the alumni from that program do recruiting and we work with them for recruiting and you know, we sponsor their events or and stuff like that and help them with their websites. So there's all sorts of ways that this is now sort of fanned out from the initial sort of desire to get better at this. But I think that those, the two ideas kind of go hand in hand of like, I don't want the office space culture and I also don't want the tech bro culture.

Rob Howard: And while a lot of the tech bro culture, for lack of a better word, almost like explicitly attempts to like pretend like it's not office space culture like with the bean bags and the ping pong tables, right? Like yeah, it's more fun but it's still just as much a gatekeeping and I'm cooler than you type of experience. When you get into those organizations, especially as a woman or a person of color, there's very much like a outsider vibe that a lot of people get when they go into those organizations. We wanted to really do the exact opposite of that. So that is not just about saying it though, like saying it is cool, like it's nice every, everybody pretty much says it on their hiring pages, but it's also about walking the walk, right? In addition to talking the talk. So that's where things like pay equity come in.

Rob Howard: So like why is retention so low for black women for example, at a lot of these tech companies? Well one of the reasons is that people realize that they're being underpaid by 40 or 60% compared to the white man next to them and they're like, screw this, I'm gonna go find something better for myself. And that can often lock people into feeling like I can only be a solo printer because that's the only way that I'll have enough agency and enough like control because I just can't trust hiring managers and employers and stuff like that. So that's one of the reasons that we just publish the information, right? So now people who are in the same role have a guarantee and not only is it a guarantee, but like we talk about it all the time, right? Like we had a financial meeting with the team yesterday, everybody has seen all the pay scales, everybody sees the books every few months of the company.

Rob Howard: And I think that those are things that are awkward in some cases, right? It's certainly awkward if you need to go like restructure your pay scale. Like we were fortunate to do this from the beginning and not have to like have awkward conversations about why you know, person X is being paid more than person Y for the same job. But obviously that's a very prevalent thing. You can kind of bs your way through some of the explanations if you want to as a business owner, but ultimately like people see what's going on. Yeah. And they're like, well on average the person who went out on maternity leave for two years is gonna get paid 60% less than the person who didn't, even though they actually have the same job experience, they have the same skills, right? So really being transparent about that is one of the ways that we can not only attract a more diverse set of candidates, but also retain them and like respect that they are really good at their jobs and deserve to be here.

Rob Howard: Right? And I think what we see from a lot of other companies who are not there yet to put it in a nice way is they actually like gatekeeping, right? Like I see some business owners who are like, if you have a misspelling of this thing, like we're gonna just throw out your resume and just like stuff that's just like just nonsensical, right? But what they do is they, they think they're the smartest guys in the room. They gate keep and they treat people like maybe not so harshly that it would rise to the a level of like a workplace like harassment thing. But like they treat people differently in negative ways. They don't respect people as they should and all those vibes make a difference and they result in, you know, somebody who has 20 employees, they have a diversity statement on their about us page and then they have 20 white faces and 18 men on the ev about us page, right?

Rob Howard: So, you know, there's a lot of talk and there's not a lot of actual action because the action costs money, right? Like paying people equally is a cost, right? Giving people fair amounts of like P T O and healthcare and leave and stuff like that. Like these are costs that make a difference. But people would rather, a lot of people would rather like post nice things on Instagram than actually do the things that would retain more women or allow more moms who wanna work part-time or three quarters time to succeed at their company or bring more people of color into tech or any of those things.

Shannon Mattern: I just feel very validated in hearing you say all of these things personally, that I'm a person of privilege as a white woman, I'm a person of privilege in my space. But just even like my experience in learning WordPress back in the day in the early, you know, 2003, 2004, like in the early days was I'd go into a forum and I'd ask a question and I'd be like, I get the answer if you even have to ask that you shouldn't be doing what you're doing. And I'm like, yeah, okay. Duly noted. I guess this is not the place to get help. I will learn all on my own Yeah. By trial and error and research, but not asking questions because I'm gonna get eviscerated.

Rob Howard: Yeah. It's crazy.

Shannon Mattern: Yeah,

Rob Howard: Just think about the mindset of that dude who's like, I'm gonna harass this person because I'm the gatekeeper and I'm better than everyone. Right? Yeah. And then multiply that by hundreds of thousands of people who are exactly hiring managers now and CEOs now and stuff like that.

Shannon Mattern: Yes. Yeah. So I'm like, well I'm gonna take my ball and go like build my own playground over here and then invite all my friends to come with me. And now I'm at the place where I do wanna have like a bigger impact in a way instead of being like, well if I can't play over here, I'm gonna just come play over here and I'm not going to, I think where I'm at in my business journey is like then being like more proactive in creating change instead of just being like, I'm just gonna go over here and do my thing and leave you, leave you over here to continue doing what you're doing . You know? Yeah. And so, but yeah, it, it's so refreshing that there are people like you out there really like leading the way in in this space and like doing it really successfully and transparently and not just like you said, performatively like with a statement on your Instagram and on your hiring page.

Shannon Mattern: So I appreciate that and I'm like, I'm inspired by the work that you're doing and that your company's doing. So one of the things that you said about women of color and like pay equity and them leaving to go be a solopreneur, this always comes up with women in our program, is that they massively, massively undercharge and undervalue even as a solopreneur. Mm-Hmm like the battle to get them to understand how much they can charge and that it's all tied up in like self-worth in like what society has told them and how they have learned and all of these things like that is my big mission to really help them stop undercharging and undervaluing and over-delivering and overworking and it's, it's tied up in the employee mindset, but it's also tied up in all of this. So I don't know exactly what my question is there, but like what are your thoughts on that? Yeah, .

Rob Howard: Well I will say I'm sure you've seen some of this research, but there is a huge gender component to negotiation period, right? So when you look at salary negotiations, what you'll see if you, they have like, you know, people have compiled this data and they said, you know, basically when a man asks for a raise or asks or attempts to negotiate a higher salary upon hiring, the man is viewed as more competent. He's like an ace, right? He's kind of a badass, right? He deserve to, whereas if a woman were to use the exact same words and the exact same tone and the exact same way she's perceived in a negative way for asking or for advocating for herself, right? So to some degree you're always fighting an uphill battle that is purely how your gender is perceived, right? And you know, obviously that is not something that we individually can change, but obviously we want to try to slowly move the ball in the right direction, right?

Rob Howard: But I think when you think about your, your audience of freelancers and solopreneurs, like the first thing is recognize that there's kind of a social construct happening here, right? And that if you were to hire a man to have the exact same negotiation for you, it would probably be easier for him to negotiate that price up or whatever. So your clients may actually be responding to you in a way that they don't necessarily consciously realize, but they're gonna try to talk you down or like be a little bit more pushy back to you or like low ball you or whatever. So that's going on and that needs to be like the baseline assumption that something fishy is going on here and like nobody necessarily, people aren't necessarily being malicious, but they're just responding how they are naturally trained to respond by society, right? So I think this isn't really a pleasant answer, but part of the answer is just that it's always gonna be harder as a female business owner to negotiate those prices up.

Rob Howard: Like I don't think that it's an illusion. I think that what your audience is experiencing is that people push back on them harder than they might push back on me in the exact same situation. I actually remember there was like a very salient experience for me shortly after my son was born, I turned 30, like you know, when he was less than a year old and I was like, I'm a 30 year old dad now I'm like literally like the peak of my n like the next 10 to 15 years are like peak like business owner negotiation. Like I've got a little gray hair coming in, I'm like who am I not gonna be able to negotiate with? Right? But that is like purely like an identity thing, right? That I ha like it's not me being better at negotiation, it's just that I look and sound like the archetype of the business owner in the suit on Wall Street or whatever.

Rob Howard: Like it's a easy persona for me to pick up and enter into, right? And if you think about the contrast, people who are not able to easily adopt that Wall Street dude persona, like it's much harder and it's nobody's fault, but like there's a clearly a, I mean there are people whose fault it is, but the people who are actually trying to build the freelancing businesses are not at fault for this. It is a social perception thing, right? So I guess, you know, that's a long way of saying the first step is sort of acknowledging that there is a discrepancy and a problem and that it is gonna take different strategies and different work at the same time. I would also encourage people to dive in more than they're like take more risk than you are now. Like it's very uncomfortable. But the way that we do it and the way that I've helped other freelancers do this of all genders is start with your new clients, right?

Rob Howard: And basically inch up in a very systematic way. So let's say you're charging $75 an hour now you don't want to say anything to your existing clients, let them be for $75 an hour, let them keep paying you, right? The next three clients that come in charge them 80, once three people have accepted at 80 charge the next 3 85 and in a year you're gonna be at 90 or a hundred. And then you're gonna be at a place where you have people coming in at these higher rates and you can go back to your older clients and you can say, Hey, it's been great, you know, I'm really enjoying the work we have. Most of our client book is now at $95 an hour. If you'd like to keep working with me, you're gonna have to move to 95. If not, I can refer you out to somebody else.

Rob Howard: Right? And that is a very low risk way of doing it because the worst case scenario is you lose three clients at 75 and you just step back down and you keep trying. But basically it's like tiny, tiny steps, right? But those tiny steps really add up over the course of a year or two and it could double your income over the course of a year or two. And you probably will also realize that your old clients will would've paid, right? It's a very hard conversation to be like, Hey, I'm changing from 75 to a hundred per hour today. Like they're gonna say, no you're not right? Or some like variation of that. But when you come back and you say, hi, 50 other people are now paying me this new rate, if you'd like to keep working with me, please pay me this new rate.

Rob Howard: Like that's a much different negotiation position, right? So a lot of it is like hacking these, these conversations and negotiations a little bit. You know, there's a lot of specific tactics, but one of the big, I think big picture approaches is like take it extremely systematically and slow. Like you should not be putting out prices that like make you like shiver with anxiety. Like those prices are probably too high for your mindset right now. Like add $5 an hour, add $1,000 per project, confirm that those prices work three times and then move up again and make it very like slow and systematic because ultimately like this is gonna be a 10 or 20 or 30 year career, like you can afford to experiment, you can afford to lose a few clients in order to systematically move yourself up that ladder.

Shannon Mattern: I love that advice and I love that kind of like three times rule of thumb that you're like, prove this, prove it's not a fluke. Right? Exactly. Because people are always like, oh it was a fluke or whatever. And yep. One of the things I love that strategy and, and one of the things I tell our clients too is like you can roll that price increase out to all your $75 clients one by one in order of this is my most pain in the butt client and I'm cool if they leave

Rob Howard: Mm-Hmm.

Shannon Mattern: And strategically use those price increases as well. You don't have to do it to all five clients paying that rate all at the same time. You can just do it one by one an inch your way cuz it, it is more safe that or a little less risky. But one of the things you said earlier about just taking more risks and that it is going to be inherently different unfortunately just because of the way our society is structured, that people are going to say, you are too expensive or I can't afford that, or whatever that is, whatever their impression is, is like regardless of what someone else says, that does not make you worth any less. That is their opinion and their perception. And you can always go on to find the next client that is willing to pay those prices. It might take more work, you might have to talk to more clients than someone else, but you can find those and don't let other people's perceptions like devalue what you think about yourself. And I think that that's like when you were talking about like negotiation position, it's like the dynamic of like, am I going to allow you to work with me? Not am I gonna hope that you're gonna hire me ? Like,

Rob Howard: Yeah. The other thing that strikes me there is that, especially in web design, right, it is such a wild west of prices, right? Like it's one thing to say like, okay, like I'm a lawyer, I had to get this accreditation. Now I know that I'm in a charge like this amount for personal injury law or that amount for like high-end corporal law. Like there's like a reasonable like rubric there for people to follow. However, by contrast in web design and programming, what you see is more like a 10 x variation between the high and the low, right? Like we will frequently see people quote, have people will come to me with quotes where they're saying, I got 5,000 from this company and I got 50,000 from another company and they read the same scope document, like how is this possible? Right? So if you think about that angle on it, like you should actually expect a huge amount of variation in client expectations in the world of web design because there really is no established price or rate.

Rob Howard: Like some people charge $15 an hour, some people charge $150 an hour. And both theoretically can work for different clients and different positions and and different journeys. But you've gotta figure out like where you want to be, like where you think your skills are at, what you can do to like reframe the conversation and the negotiation a little bit, but really just as we said, slowly step your way up. But recognize that like you are probably nowhere near the true ceiling of the market. Like we know lots of people who charge 1 75, $200 an hour for web design work and that is like, maybe that's the ceiling, but like 99% of freelancers are nowhere near that ceiling, right? So there's plenty of room to grow, it's not gonna be instant. And you know, you shouldn't ever like email all your clients and say, Hey, I'm raising my rates.

Rob Howard: You should take advantage of the fact that your clients don't know each other. Like, that's one of the things that's nice about being in a client service business is that, you know, if I'm selling something on a Shopify site, right? I have to change the price for everybody on the same day, right? And all my customers are gonna be aware of that price change that might create blow back, that might create issues that might be confusing. But with clients, like every price is essentially a custom quote. So you can actually use that to your advantage as you sort of test different approaches, test different packages, and you know, definitely never raise prices on all your clients at the same time. Like test, validate, move up a little bit, test and validate again. And that gives you way more comfort, hopefully less anxiety and allows you to really like really test how this is gonna work for you without having to just make up like scary possible outcomes in your head, which I think a lot of us do, right? And instead, you know, you can say like, well the data shows that I won three bids at $80 per hour. I now feel comfortable testing at $85 an hour and you just keep going.

Shannon Mattern: Yep. I love it. So I wanna switch gears and ask you a little bit about some of the projects that your team works on. Master wp, your alt image generator and your wallet tool. So can you tell me a little bit about those projects? Yeah. And and who they are for?

Rob Howard: Yeah, so I'll start with EveryAlt because I think that's probably the one that is gonna be most applicable to your audience, like immediately. Yeah. So as you know, AI is a thing. We are getting really excited about it. Like I'm trying not to be like a crypto bro about it because we saw a lot of tech mania around things that didn't really pan out in the last few years, but we'll see if this opinion still looks good five years from now. But my opinion is that the language models that are coming out right now, which we're calling artificial intelligence chat, G P t, really are going to significantly change how we build software over the next five or 10 years. And I think, you know, when my son is a high schooler instead of a like elementary schooler, like he's gonna be using a lot of this stuff like day-to-day, just as when I grew up, we had, you know, flip phones when I was a teenager.

Rob Howard: Now we have iPhone. Like it's just like, it's gonna be one of those like epic shifts in how software and hardware work. I think. So number one, I want to be on the cutting edge of that to the extent that I can because I, I like building software number two, we want to think about real use cases for it. So one of the things that you may have noticed in the AI like world is like a lot of the use cases are silly. Like why would I wanna like chat with this thing and ask it questions I already know the answers to. So, you know, the use case of like replacing a search engine is mostly just like a demo. Like, it's like a silly, like a fund demo, but there's also a lot of real stuff you can do with it. So what we created was, it's actually a mix of multiple different AI tools and we combined their output together for a very specific purpose, which is look at an image that I upload to a website and we have a WordPress plugin that does this automatically for anybody who uses WordPress or you can do it through, just like upload it to the webpage and output a nice accurate one sentence description of what is in that image for the alt text, which is for, it helps for seo, but most importantly it helps for accessibility for people who are visually impaired, who are using screen readers.

Rob Howard: And it's also becoming a bigger thing because a lot of websites now need to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act as a result of some changes with court decisions and the Justice Department releasing new guidance over the last few years. So we have restaurants who have come to us after getting sued for not being a d a compliant, stuff like that. And part of that is, hey, this image needs to have alternative texts so that if I am blind or visually impaired, my screen reader can tell me a description of it, right? So we find that that's a very difficult thing for people to actually follow through with. Like, everybody's like, yeah, I know I should do that, but ultimately, like the intern isn't doing it when they're creating those new pages, then you're going outta compliance and it's just, you know, a very difficult, like people have like a blank page problem with typing in the alt text and a lot of tools, WordPress included also just don't do a good job of like making it obvious that you should put alt text in, right?

Rob Howard: So the EveryAlt plugin plugs into WordPress and then you get a little API key from your account, you can try it for free. And then we charge $15 per 1500 images. So it's like pretty, you know, reasonable, you could do like almost all your sites for 15 bucks, right? And we have some people who have even come in and done you know, they bought 10 packs because they're gonna go do 10,000 images across all their clients, stuff like that. But what's cool about it is it's automated. You upload the image, we ping our software, it then describes basically part one is like what's in this image? And we get back information like there is a person swimming, a sea turtle an ocean, or whatever it is, right? And then we create with another AI tool, like a nice human readable sentence that just becomes the all text.

Rob Howard: And there's no tool out here out there that does it. Like there are some image recognition tools, but they send you back like kind of just like random, like they send you back words, but they're not useful information that would work as alternative texts. Like it would be like person, ocean, rock, turtle, swimsuit, like, but what? And so we take that initial like image recognition stuff and then transform into something that is very specific for this particular use case. You know, there's a lot of accessibility tools out there, but none are anywhere close to the level of quality of the image recognition that we've been able to create. It's all pretty new, right? We launched this less than a month ago as of this recording, but we've had a lot of premium upgrades already. We have a couple hundred people who are in there using it on a regular basis and have the plug-in installed and all that.

Rob Howard: So we're really pumped about it. And we've only done a little bit of pro promotion honestly at this point, but I'm really excited to have a cool piece of software that I am proud of. But also more importantly, like I wanna show that like AI is not just like a random like, like sci-fi idea. It's not just like, oh no, like C3 PO or Skynet is gonna take over the world or whatever, right? We have a lot of these like weird in my opinion, like ba like basically like bizarre sci-fi things in our heads and like really like I want to build software that helps people with real challenges. And you know, one of the ways that this helps people is obviously the more all texts we have on the internet, the better it's gonna be for people with disabilities. On the other side of that, it also helps the web designer and the business owner because they theoretically know they need this thing, but it's time consuming.

Rob Howard: It is easy to forget. And by automating it we get you 80 or 90% of the way there. They give you the ability to, you know, maybe you wanna tweak this word or maybe change something entirely once you see the generated text, but most of these are good to go without any changes and it also prompts you to remember to do it right, which is a big thing where it's like, oh you know what EveryAlt gave me this all text now I see it popping up and I'm like, I should do that. I should read it. I wanna change two words and now we're good to go. So we use it on all of our sites already and have been having a lot of fun with it. So yeah, that, that's our big most recent initiative right now.

Shannon Mattern: I'm so excited about it. It sounds brilliant. I'm like, I'm gonna probably install it as soon as , we are done with this. There you go. Podcast episode.

Rob Howard: Nice.

Shannon Mattern: I think of ai, like a lot of articles I read like it's gimmicky or it's harmful and I'm just like, but there's so much more. Yeah,

Shannon Mattern: It can do, it's so powerful and you can leverage it to do really, really great things. So it's like, I love that you're creating a tool. It's like really a win-win win all the way around having a huge impact and that you're building it, like to make it like this is just gonna become part of your natural workflow instead of like something extra that you have to remember to do. So I'm very excited to try it out and I know all of our listeners are gonna geek out over it too, so that's very cool. Yeah. So tell me about Master Master WP and your wallet tool.

Rob Howard: Yeah, so Master WP is a newsletter that is focused on really, we're moving beyond just WordPress into all technology, but WordPress is an area that we've always focused on as developers for many years. It's a big community. There's a lot of events, there's a lot of like interaction within the open source community and it also vibes really nicely with our mission in the sense of being open source. That being said, there's also like the people on the WordPress forums that are gatekeeping and scare people away. So it's not a perfect community and they are not perfectly adhering to that mission by any stretch. However, you know, we wanted to really start experimenting with like different types of media marketing and that sort of thing. So it's something that has been fun for me and and my employees to build. Over the last year and a half, we actually had a different mailing list.

Rob Howard: We acquired the Master VP brand from somebody else who'd been doing it who wanted to kind of retire from the newsletter business, but now we have Master WP and a couple other tools like WP Wallet. We also have a tool called Under Strap, which is an open source theme framework that is used by like Facebook and Intel for their WordPress sites. So we did a handful of these kind of like small acquisitions and then like build up essentially like a media persona for the company, right? And that's been fun, but it's also allowed us to do a lot more. Like for example, when we launched EveryAlt, we already are emailing 40,000 people every week and it's like, hey look, we launched and now all of a sudden we have, you know, 50 or a hundred users playing with it, right? So it kind of, you know, is a, it's definitely an expansion of the company in terms of like, it's more work when you, you know, it only really works if you have more people, right?

Rob Howard: But also it's fun for us and it builds what I would describe as a sort of self-reinforcing experience with our company. So maybe you're not gonna be a client who spends $40,000 on a website, but maybe you're on the newsletter, you're gonna buy a course for a hundred dollars, you're gonna try some of our tools that maybe cost $15 or open source and free. We often get referrals to clients because we write the newsletter and they're like, oh, you know, the university that I work for part-time needs this new thing. Can you guys help them with that? So it really creates like a variety of different ways that people can interact with us, potentially become, become customers, definitely become fans and you know, just kind of have like a positive experience regardless of where you are on the sort of pricing tiers. And, and that way we're not just only focused on like, Hey, if you don't have $50,000 for a luxury website, we can't service you, right?

Rob Howard: We actually have a lot of stuff like, we can teach you how to code, we can teach you how to build your agency business, we can teach you about ai, you can play with our AI tools, right? So really it's about diversification of how we interact with sort of the web designer and developer community and also it's fun for us to do this stuff, right? So that's a big component of it. Like as I'm sure pretty much everybody will agree with, like client work can be a bit boring and exhausting at times. So being able to switch off of it and still have stuff that's like gonna make money or gonna build the brand, like that's fun not just for me, but for many of our employees to be able to do a mix of things. So we find that it's, you know, it's always tricky to strike the perfect balance, but it's been a fun experience to do a little bit of everything and have more than sort of one iron in the fire, if that makes sense.

Shannon Mattern: Yeah. And my impression of it is that it's not like content marketing, it's like value-based marketing. I think there's like a big difference between a newsletter that is just like churning out probably AI generated content . Yeah.

Rob Howard: Yeah. We really think of it

Shannon Mattern: As a magazine.

Rob Howard: Yeah,

Shannon Mattern: Yeah, yeah. It's very valuable. It's

Rob Howard: A newspaper magazine. We talk a lot about diversity in the newsletter and our articles, which definitely gets us hate mail sometimes because many of the bros are our subscribers and they're not always comfortable with those conversations, but it allows us to really center and prioritize those values and missions that we have as well as producing good stuff that people like to read, having fun with it, having a real business case for doing it, and kind of all the above.

Shannon Mattern: Very cool. I could talk to you forever. I feel like this conversation has been so good, but we have to wrap up. I have one more question that I ask everyone that comes on the show that I'll ask you, and that is, what belief about yourself did you have to change to get to where you are today?

Rob Howard: That's a good question. Let me think about that for a second. I think as we talked about, like I'm pretty well positioned from like a social standpoint to be a business owner. Every time that I've hit like an inflection point in the business, I definitely had like an instinct to not do the next thing. That's it. Like, you know what I mean? Like I think an outsider would've been like, Hey Rob, like you obviously should now take this next step in your business. But I would be like, no. And I would do sort of like self-defeating things and I actually find that like when I get into that anxious or self-defeating mode, like that's when I end up keeping that bad client for too long, letting those bad experiences or, or relationships hold me back. So I think over the years I've gotten better at self-identifying when that is happening.

Rob Howard: But you know, I look back and I'm like, how many like opportunities did I probably pass up or not do? Or I was too wor like, or I kind of like self sabotaged a little bit. And I, I mean, I can think of some that I, you know, if I were instructing somebody else on the outside, I'd be like, heads up, like you're self sabotaging. Like you should do this thing. Like, it's not gonna harm you right to do it, but that's been a very, like, like that's just been a growth experience over 15 plus years. And now looking back, like it's easy to see that, but there was definitely a lot of like, you need to get outta your own head, right? A lot of like no one around you runs this type of business anyway. So there's not really a lot of reference points like everybody who's successful from like, you know, upbringing is like, oh, you're a doctor or you're a lawyer, or you're an accountant or something.

Rob Howard: So it's like those pieces of advice don't really translate well into what you would maybe describe as like the new online economy. So, you know, there was just a lot of learning as you go, but now there's a lot more people like us who are in these, you know, positions and can kind of help each other and, and be a community for one another. So looking back, like it would've been super cool if I was in a community of like 30 other solopreneurs when I was 21 and I'm glad that that is a thing now.

Shannon Mattern: Very cool. So where can everyone go to learn more about you and your company and all of the opportunities and tools? Sure. And all of it.

Rob Howard: The easiest thing to do is to go to and sign up for the free newsletter. So you'll get all of our stuff including like new courses, new releases, stuff like that. And then, as in every image deserves alt text is the website for our AI-based every, EveryAlt generation plugin there. So check that out, free to sign up. Both are free to sign up and you'll get a weekly email from Officer Master repeat and you'll kind of be able to stay in the loop. We're actually gonna do some business building, like a digital agency business building courses later in the year. So if you sign up now, you can sort of be ready for that when it comes in.

Shannon Mattern: Very cool. So I'll link all that stuff up in the show notes. You guys can go check that out. And thank you so much for being here.

Rob Howard: Thanks so much for having me. It was great.

Shannon Mattern: Hey, so if you're ready to stop undercharging and overworking, if you wanna take back control of your time, work only with the dreamiest of clients and make more money as a web designer than you ever thought possible, get started now by going to and joining our wait list, we'll send you exclusive teachings from the current Web Designer Academy so you can start applying our concepts now, and you'll be first to know when enrollment opens up again, so that you can work with us to completely transform your web design business.

Speaker 3: This podcast is part of the sound advice FM network. Sound advice FM Women's Voices amplified.

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