Getting started & getting good

published by Ben Allen

Remember those books that are sold at Christmas? Those books that attempt to deliver life's wisest phrases while it's readers are firmly seated on the toilet? I remember one which we used to have at home and there was one nugget that has stuck with me. It went something along the lines of:

"Don't attempt to learn the tricks of the trade. Learn the trade first, the tricks will come later."

I went to my first Digital Marketing Q&A session this week, hosted through the meetup network (you should come if you live in Chicago), and this phrase popped into my head after the session.

Ben? Yeah? It depends!

Let me set the scene - the session had a panel of 4 experts covering SEO, Digital Strategy, Site Design & Development. The audience, in my opinion, was dominated by small business owners who are just starting out in the web. The questions from the audience were good and the panel did a good job answering some tricky questions.

I say "tricky" because I think most of the questions could have been legitimately answered "it depends". Hardly a crowd pleasing answer.

  • Q: "how much does a web site cost?" A: It depends
  • Q: "how long should I spend on a web site every week?" A: It depends
  • Q: "what do you recommend I read and how often should I read it?" A: It depends
  • Q: "can I get my site on to the first page of Google?" A: It depends

Needless to say my nonexistent-career as a panelist is likely to remain nonexistent providing I come up with such insightful and humorous responses. I digress!

An "it depends" answer is often followed by the phrase "you need to think about...". This is usually when the chaff in the audience glazes over. The answer goes on "you need to think about X, Y, Z really hard thing that takes...". Cue intake of breath, prepare to gasp. "...Z really hard thing that takes time & really hard work". Goodness gracious me!

The 2 types of easy

Apologies for being facetious but I'm getting to my point. I think some people getting started on the web fail to distinguish something important. It's easy to get started on the web, something economists call "low barriers to entry", but it's hard to master your objectives once you're there.

  1. Q. Is it easy to get started on the web? A. Yes, the web enjoys low barriers to entry
  2. Q. Is it easy to get good at all the things needed to have an awesome web business? A. No, the skills involved take hard work

Getting started & getting good are 2 objectives which are worlds apart, polar opposites in the land of the Internet.

How do you learn the trade?

´╗┐What do you do if you want to become an expert? First of all you need to appreciate that experts are not made overnight (sounds easy but perhaps this is the bitterest pill to swallow). Experts are crafted through education, through project experience and through a commitment to learning.

Have I scared anybody yet? I hope not. Here is the deal: getting started in the web is easy and you should do it because it is only through doing that you're going to learn. Remember that before you get going you should work out what your requirements are. What are you trying to do? How are you going to measure success? Work out those business objectives and attack them like hell.

Here is my distilled advice. A 3 step plan, once you've got your objectives sorted.

  1. Test - get started & experiment. Play around with the tools. Don't play mindlessly though. All games have goals and this web game should be no different. Work out how the different tools can help you win your game.
  2. Learn - who are the big authorities in the space you're trying to master? Luke had to find Yoda to become a Jedi. Same deal here. I like books so I try to work out who writes a good book, I then read the author's blog and anything that the author is reading. Perhaps start with the Wiley Hour a Day series of books, anything at O'Reilly books, perhaps go to your favourite topic on or just look at blog recommendations through Google Reader. Got some cash for training? Check out Market Motive.
  3. Grow - build on what you've learnt and go back through steps 1 and 2. Take time to appreciate how much you know and how much you don't. Never lose tension.

If the above sounds like too much work then perhaps you should think about another career or, if you're not keen on becoming an expert, work out who to hire and make sure they know your business objectives. You don't need to be an expert in the web to be an entrepreneur.

Final thoughts

I was on a conference call years ago and the most senior, highest paid person on the call said:

"I appreciate all your hard work guys. Digital. It looks easy but plays hard."

Perhaps she was the most enlightened person on the call too because at the time this comment didn't make sense to me but in hindsight she hit the nail on the head.


Almost no one at the Q&A session asked about the process of creating great content, great user interfaces or great customer experience. I guess my job is safe for another day! Remember folks - you can lead a horse to water but can you make it drink?


Feedback is always welcome, goodness knows I need some!

  • Did you come to the Q&A? Did you enjoy it?
  • Do you think people get confused between ease of entry to the web and ease of success?
  • Do you think web design and digital marketing is too commoditized, driving the notion that the web is easy to master?

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