What I Learned Turning a $500 Project into a Thriving Business

Blog | Other Observations

3 Lessons from the Unexpected Origins of Cahill Consulting

“Life is what happens to us while we’re busy making other plans,” the saying goes.

It’s true in business, too. As much as I talk about the importance of planning — and it is important — you never really know where your business decisions, market forces or just plain ole’ luck will take you.

Don’t get me wrong: You should definitely think long and hard to develop, define and continuously refine your purpose, vision, strategy and other fundamentals of entrepreneurial planning. But it’s crucial to keep an open mind to whatever your business journey throws at you.

I believe this because it goes to the heart of the unforeseen way Cahill Consulting got started. Looking back now, although I had an idea of what I aspired to do as a consultant, I’ll admit that I didn’t quite imagine all that was ahead …

A few years ago, I was out of work.

I had left a job in corporate management, where I had spent 8 years climbing the ranks.

I had spent the winter skiing in Aspen and enjoying some time off. Now, it was summertime and I was spending my newfound free time volunteering and learning how to sail on Lake Michigan.

I was really reluctant to go back to corporate America. The thought of getting back into the routine of conference calls, all-day meetings and business travel no longer held any appeal.

I liked the idea of working for myself but wasn’t sure where to start.

My dad owned a printing business, and I was spending some time there, learning the ropes a bit and thinking about what I should do next.

One of my dad’s clients was in the lobby, and he asked, “Do you guys do websites?”

“My son does websites,” responded my dad.

Now, this was a stretch of the imagination. I had certainly done a few websites in my life. I had recently built a very simple website for my sister, who had a passion for bulldogs. But to really put things in perspective, the last business website I built was in 2007 using FrontPage.

But the client seemed nice and had an interesting business. “What’s your budget?” I asked.

“$500,” the client said.

Nevertheless, I had some time on my hands, so I agreed to help him out.

It took me a month to build his website. I worked on it every day. I probably made somewhere around $.50 an hour on the project, but the client loved it.

He was happy, and that made me happy. It was a liberating experience to get something big done for someone without a single conference call, all-day meeting or any budgetary considerations. I just built something with the sole intention of helping my client grow their business.

And with that mindset, this one $500 project became the spark that started my company.

While this client didn’t have a big budget for the website, he knew a lot of people. And he sent everyone he knew to me for a new website.

Within a few months, I went from selling a $500 website to projects that were earning much more market-based and sustainably profitable fees.

I was no longer building the sites myself, either. I hired a designer, a programmer, an SEO expert and a copywriter to ensure we were creating more robust and higher-quality websites to meet the needs of our higher-end clients.

Then things got even more interesting.

These new clients started asking me to help promote their businesses with digital marketing. Again, I went out and hired a team of specialists to help me execute strategies designed to help my clients stand out from the competition. As we helped these clients grow their businesses with digital marketing, they started talking to me about other business challenges, especially sales and management issues.

Within that first year, I began offering consulting services as well — which was my original goal.

In less than 18 months, I went from doing one website to helping dozens of companies grow their business with improved sales and marketing strategies.

Today, we have an amazing team of experts who handle our design, web programming and digital marketing services. And I get to focus on what I enjoy most: working one-on-one with business owners, coaches and consultants providing personalized support as they grow and scale their businesses.

Who would have thought …

I didn’t know at the time where it all would lead. And that’s the point. Where will your business go from here? Where will the next great opportunity come from? How will you capture it? These are the lessons that stick with me from the Cahill Consulting origins, and they’re worth revisiting today.

1. There is no such thing as an unprofitable project if you do a great job. When you exceed a client’s expectations, they’ll give you more business and/or you will be flooded with referrals. I made tens of thousands of dollars in sales off of that one $500 website without spending a dollar on advertising.

Now, Cahill Consulting doesn’t do $500 websites anymore, but if I see a chance to go an extra mile for a client, I do it. It may cost me a few bucks to do something that’s “outside the scope,” but if it creates a better outcome for the client, that’s a win-win. Sometimes, a client is so pleased that we get a referral without even asking for one.

2. Your current (or past) clients are your best future clients. More than half of the clients I have helped in the past three years have come back to me for new projects and services. I keep in touch with past clients and let them know when I add a new product or service.

While our services have evolved, so have our clients. Our businesses have grown together.

3. Reaching your goals starts with taking one step. I had a ton of experience helping businesses grow and I knew that was what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure where to start. In this case, my journey started with a $500 website. I saw a chance to help someone grow their business and I took the opportunity.

There is no way I could have known that this one step would have taken me to where I am today. I keep that in mind every time a new opportunity presents itself.

So what about you and your business? When the next great opportunity arises, perhaps in a place you didn’t predict, will you see its potential? Will you be ready to seize the next pivotal moment and pursue it wherever it leads?


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