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How This Backpacker Turned Freelance Work Into A 20-Person-Strong Branding Agency

Serendipity had a hand in the birth of China-based branding agency Thread Design. Its co-founder, Ben Weldon, didn't even imagine he'd end up staying in China and heading a design agency almost a decade after he first set foot in the country as a curious backpacker. When it came time to choose a CRM, however, Weldon left nothing to chance. After exhaustive research, he found WORK[etc] and hasn't looked back since.

Thread Design

When Ben Weldon arrived in China in 2005 as a backpacker and a freelance designer/programmer, he had no idea he was going to stay for the long haul, let alone found a company. He was using his freelance skills to fund his travels, and originally, Shanghai was going to be just another stop along the way.

“I came here as a curious backpacker when I was 25,” he recalled. “I was a designer and programmer, not a businessman. There was so much freelance work in Shanghai back then it was insane, it still is. So I decided that I would stay in Shanghai and become an entrepreneur, as you do.”

He set up shop in shared office space in the middle of Shanghai, where he met his soon-to-be business partner, Louise Lai, a business consultant who specialized in helping international companies break into the Chinese market.

“We were both running freelance and consulting projects from an office space in an old villa house in the center of Shanghai,” said Weldon. “When that space’s main tenant went out of business, we were left with an office, a receptionist, a designer and a few computers. We decided to take on the lease and salaries, and the rest is history.”

Weldon had no idea that in just a few short years he and Lai would be running a thriving international branding agency with a client list including Disney, Ford, and Gap. “We just grew from two people, and our two golden retrievers, to an agency of 25 people at our biggest.” Today, Thread Design employs 20 people and has completed over 700 branding, digital and design projects for clients.

Thread Design's clients

But with a bigger staff and bigger projects came bigger problems. Weldon and Lai chose to base their agency Thread Design in Shanghai because they both love living and working there. But Weldon also missed the freedom and flexibility of working remotely, and Thread Design’s business processes at the time made that impossible.

“It was just chaos,” he recalled. “We had accounts doing financing. There was stuff in Excel. You’ve got accounts using SugarCRM software, and then we’re using Smartsheets for project management. We had all this stuff, and having everything stored in different ways by different people made it just impossible. We needed something different.”

He tried everything

Weldon knew that it was vital that Thread Design move to a completely cloud-based solution. He went on a quest to find the best possible business management solution for Thread Design, using trial and error to figure out what he did and did not want.

“I spent an insane amount of time learning about different systems and comparing prices and functionality and weighing out things like, ‘Do I get SalesForce and plug in Quickbooks? Do I get that and do this? Do I get this and do that?’” he said.

He signed up for multiple free trials of various software solutions and tested them out himself, unwilling to bring any other team members on until he was sure of his decision.

“I didn’t want to try something out, get the whole team onto it, and then six months later go: ‘This isn’t really working, let’s change,’” he said. “It had to be a decision for at least the next three years. It then took me probably two to three months before I chose WORK[etc].”

So what was it about WORK[etc] that made it stand apart?

“Every other system might do one single thing better than WORK[etc], but nothing does everything that WORK[etc] does,” said Weldon. “And because it’s an all-in-one solution, you only have to learn one system and you only have to pay for one login or one system for each person. So, financially, it makes sense. From an education or training point of view, it makes sense.”

“To have a real person actually going through problems in real time with you rather than just sending you an email to ‘here’s a page we wrote on how to do it,’ was so valuable. That was probably what sealed the deal for me with WORK[etc].

— Ben Weldon, Co-Founder and Creative Director, Thread Design

One-on-one training ‘sealed the deal’

“As a small company you get into a way of doing things,” said Weldon. “So, for example, we had a process at Thread Design for quotation, proposal, contract, invoice, and WORK[etc] didn’t work in the same way that we’d been doing things. I had a one-to-one Skype call, with live video and screen sharing. Steve from WORK[etc] in the UK taught me how to set up milestone billing in a way that solved the problem that I hadn’t been able to work out myself.”

It was that personal touch that convinced him that he’d found the right all-in-one business management solution for Thread Design.

“To have a real person actually going through problems in real time with you rather than just sending you an email to ‘here’s a page we wrote on how to do it,’ was so valuable,” he said. “That was probably what sealed the deal for me with WORK[etc].”

In addition to the one-on-one Skype training, Weldon was also able to book WORK[etc] training sessions for his project manager, saving him the time he would have spent training her himself.

And whenever Weldon runs into a problem in WORK[etc], the support team is ready to answer his questions in detail, with customized videos. “The support team actually makes screenshare videos for me and emails them so I can just watch the solution,” he said. “It’s not just ‘here’s something we made.’ It’s ‘Hey Ben, let’s look at the problem you’re having. Watch me do this example.’ So the videos are specifically for me, not just a ‘how to do it’ page.”

Payoffs

Once WORK[etc] was implemented by Thread Design and everyone was brought up to speed, Weldon found that WORK[etc] did more than just keep everyone in the loop and make it so remote working was possible again.

WORK[etc] was able to:

Keep track of Thread Design’s invoicing: “We run 30 or 40 projects at any one time, and there’s often add-on charges or other extra things that were discussed. ‘Oh, can you add two more pages to my website?’ ‘Sure, we’ll just tack the money on at the end.’ And then it never happened, with the old system,” said Weldon. “But with WORK[etc], a reminder about unbilled charges pops up every day, so you never lose track.”

Save the company tons of time preparing quotations: “Having a predefined product list to pull from to build quotations, plus everyone being able to watch as you’re building quotations, has cut down on mistakes,” Weldon explained. “WORK[etc] saves a huge amount of time on doing project quotations. Louise [Lai] and I have an overview and that’s probably saved us countless hours every week. It’s probably saving us a few days a month, just being able to build quotations in WORK[etc].”

And even help overcome a language barrier: “We have a bilingual office, and there are some people that don’t speak Chinese and some people that don’t speak English,” Weldon said. “We have a few people in our office where it’s impossible for them to talk to each other, so they have to share information through WORK[etc].”

Thread Design's WORK[etc] workflow

Anticipating future improvements

No software solution is perfect, but Weldon appreciates how WORK[etc] keeps its customers up to date on all the improvements it’s planning to roll out in the future.

“I’m looking forward to an overhaul of the dashboard,” he said. “At the moment the dashboard’s kind of boring. But the great thing is when we look at WORK[etc]’s Request a Feature form, WORK[etc] already has design mockups of what’s going to happen in their next updates. The dashboard’s going to get a lot more exciting and show reports and stats and be an interesting place to start your day. So I’m just waiting for that to happen rather than moaning about it.”

Ben’s Top Tip for Managing a Growing Business

“Get your business processes in place. Having processes frees you up. Make sure everyone uses them, and then review and improve as you go. That’s my number one thing I’ve learned in moving from being a solo entrepreneur to co-managing a company of 20 plus18 people. And it took a long time before I realized how important it was.”

— Ben Weldon, Co-Founder and Creative Director, Thread Design

About WORK[etc]

WORK[etc] is a cloud-based, all-in-one business management software that breaks down the barriers between your customer relationship management, time management, and project management. With WORK[etc], here’s what you can accomplish in one platform:

  • Consolidate multiple apps into the one platform
  • CRM, Projects, Scheduling, Invoicing, Help Desk & more
  • iPhone, Android and web apps
  • Gmail, Outlook, and inbox gadgets
  • Open API and integration tool set

For more information, visit http://www.worketc.com/features-overview/.

  • “Get your business processes in place” – never a truer word spoken brother.
    Amen to that!

    Like you, we will welcome the refresh to the dashboard… But hey – all good things come to those who wait.

    It’s great to another great story from a fellow evangelist of the church of WETC.
    Sounds like you have followed a similar path to us Ben in your search and implementation of this fantastic. Different business on the other side of the world – but the fundamentals are the same.

    A lesson for everyone somewhere in there…

  • It’s really fantastic to see the younger generation in China growing into it’s own as a multi-cultural hub for business other then manufacturing. I feel like agencies like Thread with the power of tools like W[e] are going to help change the face of the region. It sounds like Ben was running into similar issues of testing every solution out there and not being happy with the band-aids. I have enjoyed the training W[e] offers and I am too excited for the things to come with the refresh!

  • Brittany McClure Thompson

    “To have a real person actually going through problems in real time with
    you rather than just sending you an email to ‘here’s a page we wrote on
    how to do it,’ was so valuable,” he said. “That was probably what
    sealed the deal for me with WORK[etc].”

    I have found this to be one of the reasons I love using Work Etc as well. I also love seeing how other companies organize their workflow and projects with work etc. I always learn something new and fun abut work etc with each blog i read, ongoing training is essential to make a piece of software work for you in the moment.

    • Steve Westrop | WORK[etc]

      So true Brittany, but it works both ways. I leant loads about solar energy requirements in the US the other day. Can’t imagine I’ll ever achieve much with that new-found information, but it’s so valuable learning how different people and different industries function.

  • David McGarry

    Interesting article. I have a backpacker staying with me in Australia at the moment, hope she is as successful as the author!

    I think this is exactly how the owner of our company is running his business (similar scale and size). He is making the use of business processes to free up his time and, as we use WorkEtc it has meant that he is now starting to reap those rewards by actually taking some well-earned leave away from the office!

    Work[etc] does a lot of tasks that would normally require 3/4 or more applications and that’s one of it’s great strengths. It’s consolidated a lot of our work and is my jumping-off point at the start of each working day.

  • This is a great story. “The dashboard’s going to get a lot more exciting and show reports and stats and be an interesting place to start your day. So I’m just waiting for that to happen rather than moaning about it.” Amen!! Can’t wait.

    My absolute favorite thing about WORKetc is the people behind WORKetc!
    http://www.virtualresortmanager.com/post/what-customer-services-is-supposed-to-be-like/

    • Steve Westrop | WORK[etc]

      Thanks Michael. It’s an absolute joy and privilege to work with (most of) our customers too 🙂 One of the things that means so such to me is the way the Team really want to understand what every user is trying to do in their business. Helps that many of us have been there ourselves too of course.

  • I love this quote: “Every other system might do one single thing better than WORK[etc], but nothing does everything that WORK[etc] does,” said Weldon. “And because it’s an all-in-one solution, you only have to learn one system and you only have to pay for one login or one system for each person. So, financially, it makes sense. From an education or training point of view, it makes sense.”

    The company i work for, I work in the web development side. So with work[etc] it makes keeping track of my projects, sending projects to the next stage, i.e. test, seo/content. Which sends it to the person that works in that department. When im working on a design for a client have a single ticket and being able to make discussions to communicate with the tester makes it all the more easier and a great software to work with. Keep it up WORK[etc], and Dan!

  • Allen Bayless

    Just as Ben mentioned it was the fact of finding something all in one. Instead of trying to find a combination of things to work it was important to find something different that just made sense. It was a must and luckily at that point of time WorkETC was found at it’s early stages.

    There really wasn’t a need for training on how to do things, but it’s great to know how well WorkETC helps their customer base. I do know that the support is top notch which adds to the fact that this is the tool to use for various businesses. Nice to hear about Ben’s success with WorkETC.

  • wow great story I’m hoping to build similar success with my fledgeling and growing business.

  • Hats off to Ben, it’s very inspiring what he was able to do. I can see how he was forced to learn so much in a small amount of time. In the end his hard work paid off. One of the most gratifying things is knowing you made the right decision. We recently paired with another company in which we had to do perform rigorous research. Even with our hard work it was sometimes hard to be 100% sure we were making the right decision. In the end this company ended up doing business with big names like Uber and Airbnb. At that point, I was able to 100% say we made the right decision. In this case we had leave a small percent to chance if that software will work. But that was not the case for Work[etc], they do this part for you! If the research into Work[etc] is performed, its easy to see how well the product will work for you and not leave it to chance.

  • It’s definitely been a game changer for us to see how responsive and committed Daniel and the team at WE is in bringing in new processes and plugins to allow us to grow our business. Thank you for creating an awesome system and look forward to your next UI update 🙂

  • Tabitha Mills

    I am so impressed with the dedication and passion that the team at WORK(etc) show with their CRM. The fact that they use their own system shows clients and staff their total and utter belief in their program. I am hoping that with their help my husband and I can reach new heights with our business and see 2015 explode into the market fresher and with intensity. Looking forward to seeing how this all pans out for everyone 😀

  • David Jones

    Great read and I liked the tip for managing a growing business at the end. I was recently asked by a friend starting his own business for some advice and I told him almost exactly that. I said get your processes in place and get a system to make them easy to follow. Figure out what you like doing and try to make that your primary focus since you will do that best, and then if you can hire or find a system to do the stuff you don’t.

  • Thomas Lawler

    “Every other system might do one single thing better than WORK[etc], but nothing does everything that WORK[etc] does,” said Weldon. “And because it’s an all-in-one solution, you only have to learn one system and you only have to pay for one login or one system for each person. So, financially, it makes sense. From an education or training point of view, it makes sense.”

    This quote is so true! We successfully eliminated the use of FOUR SaaS solutions, and we haven’t missed them! We have seen a lot of savings in time & frustration.

    Like thread design we are anxiously awaiting the UI updates! I’ve heard from several employees that the current customer portal is more “fun” than our dashboard. I know you guys / gals are busy working away to make it perfect for your customers & for yourself.

  • Branden

    Something that increases efficiency, like WORK[etc], is a company’s best friend. Whether it’s moving from multiple solutions to one, or making it easier to find what you’re looking for, more efficiency = more money in your pocket. The tl;dr version of this article is “efficiency, efficiency, efficiency”

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