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7 key lessons for web design agencies diversifying into dev

Time to strengthen your agency's dev capabilities? Here's what you need to know.

Profile picture of Joe O Connor


6 min read

While not every web design business will subscribe to the ‘diversify or die’ adage, branching out into other products and services is one of the most effective ways to achieve stability and growth. Jacob Murphy, founder and creative director of Act One Media, can testify.

He and developer AJ Gorczyca shared their story recently at Wix DevCon, a two-day developer conference, which brought industry-leading minds together in New York City to discuss the future of web development with Wix. Bursting with insightful talks from the likes of Wix CEO Avishai Abrahami, game-changing product releases such as Wix Blocks, and tailored workshops for attendees, the event was an opportunity for developers and Partners to network, exchange ideas, and have fun.

Jacob and AJ’s story is of a Chicago-based web design studio that had hit a ceiling. As Jacob describes it, Act One Media was successfully building high-performing, low- and no-code websites for its clients since 2017. However, as it honed its expertise and grew its client base, the studio received more technically demanding requests from prospects. For Jacob, that meant turning them down and missing out on lucrative contracts or taking action.

“I knew I needed to add this really important tool to our kit, and that was working with a developer,” says Jacob. “I just came to that place enough times that I was like, ‘okay, I've got to do this’. I have to bring in people who can build interactions, who can build functions, because otherwise, we’re just stuck.”

Jacob and his team tested the water and partnered with AJ to build a new website for Fetching Tails Foundation. This client project laid the foundation for Act One Media to become a studio that offered a full suite of design and development services, with AJ coming on board as lead developer.

Since diversifying into development, Act One Media has more than doubled its revenue. And while Jacob acknowledges that there’s no perfect blueprint for how agencies should do it, he shares the key lessons he learned along the way.

01. Reduce pushback from prospects on price

Whether prospective clients are being opportunistic or questioning your worth, they’ll often try to negotiate a lower price for your design work. According to Jacob, providing dev services and using premium tools gives you much more leverage to hold firm on your initial fee.

“In the Wix Partner Facebook community, there’s always talk about pricing and client pushback,” he says. “When using a pro-grade tool, you don't necessarily find that same type of pushback. I’ve found that to be a huge benefit when pitching.”

Be clear about the premium tools you use and highlight how not every agency can deliver the job. “It becomes easier for you from one month to the next to be like, ‘hey, this is our rate, and that rate can climb’. Your clients will look at your work and trust your rate.”

02. Explore retainer opportunities

When you’re working in more complex environments and using customized code to build websites, clients who have little knowledge or experience of website management will require support beyond handover. This can present an opportunity to put in place a contract, measured in time or value, of the work you do for a client each month, otherwise known as a website maintenance retainer agreement.

As Jacob puts it, adding development services to build more complex websites creates higher dependency. “Again, it’s because it's a more complex environment. If you can work in it, you can build a gorgeous, responsive website that your clients will be thrilled with. But they won’t want to touch it in case they break it, because breakpoints can easily get broken. This behavior creates a retainer model for you.”

03. Serve higher-end clients like platform companies

When you’ve got a developer in your corner, you can serve businesses whose websites are their product, such as Act One Media’s client My Music Workshop. This opens your world to a new market of higher-value clients such as platform companies. These larger projects involve continuous iterations of products and new feature releases, which means you’re needed for regular website updates.

“As we’ve done more work using development, it has become much less project-based and much more partnership-based,” says Jacob. “We’ve built websites that act more as products for our clients, so once the project is launched, it is nowhere near done. Instead, you have a long-term relationship and a long-term revenue stream.”

Jacob adds that these clients have long-term strategies you can piggyback on. “If you were to ask anyone in a large agency where their revenue streams come from, it’s predictability,” he says. “Dev services attract clients with predictable needs. These clients are working with their own customers who have long-term demands. So the roadmap they create for those customers suddenly becomes yours too.”

04. Engage your team and create consistent work for contractors

Act One Media has a team of 15 people, but the majority of those work on a contract basis. One challenge with this business model is keeping team members engaged and feeling part of the wider company.

Larger projects go a long way to address these deficits, creating more challenging and rewarding work, bringing greater responsibility to individuals, requiring closer team collaboration, and generating more consistent client projects. Jacob explains how his team works:

“These bigger projects encourage us to work really agile. We try not to have too many layers of oversight, and people are trusted to do their thing. With every project, we meet for a weekly standup so that different team members can align. We try to be very fluid, working through Slack, Trello and Figma, and bring creations to life. Everyone involved enjoys the process and likes the way we’re able to bring them large, fun, complex projects that often become long-term gigs.”

05. Tap into a middle-market of opportunity

When Act One Media took its leap of faith into development services, Jacob identified a gap in the market for lean small to mid-sized agencies to build semi-enterprise level sites for five-figure sums.

He says you could typically build an enterprise-level project with a price tag of $50,000. “As far as winning business goes, there's definitely a market of users who want to spend up to 50k on a project, which is great revenue if you manage your business smartly.”

Jacob adds that if your work is good enough, you can consistently win that level of project. “The challenge for a lot of people, as it was for me, is jumping to the 10, 20, 30, 40, 50k level. So, for anyone starting out in dev, this price point is definitely something to work towards.”

06. A dev-filled portfolio is your new best friend

While Jacob says there’s no magic bullet for lead generation – it’s a combination of channels like Wix Marketplace, paid social ads, and word of mouth – having a solid portfolio of advanced websites with sophisticated code packs a punch.

“Our team has built many large sites with custom UX, custom booking flows, all sorts of custom behaviors, using Velo as a playground,” says Jacob. “It has allowed us to build more rich and complex sites. Over time, by building a more polished portfolio on Wix, the level of users we’re attracting and projects we’re building has jumped in standard.”

Jacob advises agencies new to dev work to slightly underbid on price for their first few large projects to help add more sophisticated work to a portfolio that might not speak to larger clients. “Don't underbid yourself terribly but over-deliver,” he says. “It’s not only for the client but also for you to have something that shows off your new skills. That's what we did strategically.” Also try these coding courses to improve your skills.

7. Treat small and big clients alike

Jacob stresses that just because offering development services has opened your world to a new type of high-end client, you shouldn’t neglect your smaller ones. After all, they helped you get to this point.

Does he try to upsell dev services to that profile of client? “No matter what, we always aim to meet their goals,” he says. “And you don’t want to push clients beyond those goals. A lot of the time, you just have to educate them about what you’re doing.”

Act One Media continues to stay nimble and serve clients of all sizes – from sole traders looking for single-page websites to enterprise companies that require complex code. If it makes sense for business and the client, Jacob and his team will take it on.

He offers attendees of the Wix DevCon breakout session some final words of advice:

Choose your dev talent wisely. Put them through a test as part of the application process and collaborate on one client project to see if they’re a proper fit.

“Don’t worry about closing every dev deal,” he adds. “Give yourself some tough love but also be loving towards yourself. If you can offer something competitive that’s of quality and then grow it over time, you’ll win more, you’ll make more, and you’ll succeed more.”

To watch the Wix DevCon sessions back, visit here.

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