Design Domination Podcast Episode #116: John Falke’s Journey From Two to a Team

John Falke and I talk about how he went from a two-person web design business to having a dream team. Get lots of tips you can use when hiring someone to help you, including a template for the hiring process.

Show Notes

John Falke's headshotJohn Falke (AKA Johnny Flash) is the founder and CEO of Johnny Flash Productions, a web and digital marketing agency near Washington, DC. He’s created a six-step proven hiring method that includes a tailored trial project to find the best candidate.

Johnny is a coach for Agency Mavericks (formerly WP Elevation), where he helps agency owners grow their business, nail down their processes and expand their team. John is also the creator of Amplified Impact, a six-week church communication course.

John is an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop CC and has been using WordPress for over a decade.

John is married to Julie (the real super hero). They have four kids: Jeremiah (15), Elias (13), Alicia (11) and Sammy (9).

Getting to Know John Falke

Colleen Gratzer: Welcome to the podcast, John! I am delighted to talk to you today.

John Falke: Thanks, Colleen. Pleasure is all mine.

Colleen: I thought we would start up with a few questions—fun questions. The first one is: would you rather eat a pound of sardines or a pound of liver?

John: You just jump right in, don’t you?

Colleen: I do.

John: I don’t think I would choose either of those. But if I was forced to I’d probably go for the pound of liver because I just really can’t stand sardines.

My dad growing up would get anchovies or sardines to put on his pizza. I’d always have to sit at the other end of the table because they just smelled so bad. I think I’d have to go with the liver.

Colleen: That’s funny.

I’ve never had like liver, liver. I’ve had pâté liver on bread. I can do that.

I’m okay with sardines but I can’t have too many. It’s just after a while I get grossed out, you know, there’s an ick factor.

Next question, what’s one thing on your bucket list?

John: Oh, man. Well, I’ve wanted to travel overseas. I’ve been to Israel and I’d really love to go to Australia and Italy. I’ve got a whole bunch of international places.

Obviously, we’re gonna need to get through this pandemic to make it a little bit easier. Because the last thing I want to do is travel across the ocean and then be stuck there for a long time on quarantine or something.

Hopefully soon, though, things will get back to normal.

Colleen: Yeah. I think we might have first met back in 2015 or 2016. It was through WP Elevation. We went to one of their meetups.

I remember it hadn’t been that long since you had left your full time job and that you started working for yourself.

So much has changed since then. You’ve had tremendous success with hiring a really strong team. I’ve learned a lot from what you have done. It’s been really inspiring, too.

I wanted to talk about that and start out with when you went out on your own—how it was just you and Julie—and then what prompted you to hire more people?

John: Yeah. I left my day job about six years and two months ago. But who’s counting?

I had already been doing Johnny Flash Productions on the side. I have a number of clients that I was working with and had done stuff.

But I always avoided having any kind of plans or recurring revenue because I didn’t want to be stuck doing maintenance while I was working my day job.

I wanted to be able to do new projects. So I would do a new project. I would train them, send them on their way and repeat.

Once I left my day job, I realized, “Oh man, I’m now dependent 100% on projects.”

Which is very scary when you’re married, you have a mortgage and you have four kids. It’s a lot of bills.

So I quickly realized I needed to build some recurring revenue. So I started putting clients on a plan. And then we hired someone very quickly.

My wife, Julie, is our kind of lead designer. She does a lot of logo, branding, print and graphic design. But she doesn’t really do the web stuff.

I quickly got some clients on a plan and then hired our first part time, kind of front end/Virtual Assistant to help with the ticket desk because I didn’t want to be stuck there.

Our team has kind of grown since then. We have Julie and I plus eight others. There are 10 of us on the team right now.

Colleen: So you hired somebody while you were still working a full time job?

John: No. I probably should have. If I did it all over again. I would have started building up those plans and recurring revenue while I was in my day job. Hire someone to take care of it and built up the recurring revenue. That would have been the smart thing to do.

I just left my day job and had no recurring revenue. I got about six months into that and realized I need to have some recurring revenue. I started offering plans and we hired our first team member.

Basically, the first 5 or 10 plans we got, we’re paying for that team members’ pay. As we got more clients, they could still handle them. We were making a profit at that point on those plans.

What to Think About Before Hiring

Colleen: What kinds of things were you thinking about when it comes to money or the number of hours they’re going to work? What kinds of things were you thinking about before you hired that person?

John: I always recommend thinking about, “What, what am I currently doing? Things that I’m doing regularly.”

It’s amazing when you really start to try to hand stuff off. You can actually hand off a lot more than you think you can.

You’re just usually in your own way. I think as business owners, we do it a certain way. We’re really good at it. We’re like, no one else is gonna be able to do X, Y, or Z than I do.

Then you start like, “Well, what if I were to just record a video or make an outline of what I do, or how I handle this and try to document it? So if I get hit by a bus, someone else will be able to carry it.”

Then you have someone else start doing it. You’re like, “Wow, they actually do it really well. They do it better than me because they can focus on it.”

It’s just one of the many things that I’m doing. I thought I’d always be writing the design brief, or making the sitemap for a website. All of our account managers and project managers are doing that now. They just use the template that I created for a design brief. They fill in all the information, and they send it over to the designer.

So I’m not doing that now. But I thought I’d always be doing that. There’s just a lot of things like that that I think we kind of get in our own way, as business owners or perfectionists or just passionate creatives.

Colleen: Perfectionists. Yes!

John: I think you just have to force yourself and say, “Hey, I do this every week or I do this every month. Why can’t this be documented and handed off?”

I think a lot of times, it’s because we think, “Well, the person’s gonna be not as good at it.”

But I know if I were to hand something over to you, you would crush it, right? You would do such a great job because you’re doing all that in your own business.

Or some of our other friends that we know. We could hand it over to them with confidence. I know Matt Rodela or someone’s gonna do a great job, right?

I think then it’s like, well, why can’t our team members do a great job? They probably can if we set them up for success.

Colleen: That’s a good point.

I think a lot of… well, I see a lot of web designers talking on Facebook a lot—in Facebook groups—they’re talking about how they want to learn more stuff, as opposed to hiring.

I used to think that way too. It’s from my own experience and seeing what you’ve done and what other people have done with hiring.

It’s like what you’re saying, it allows you to focus on not only just what you want to do. But to have a focus on just a couple of things in the business makes you more effective in doing that.

Whenever I see those questions, I’m always like, “No, you don’t have to learn like 100 million things. What do you really want to do? You don’t have to offer all these services to clients. What do you want to offer? What can somebody help you with?”

Like, just hire that out. I think some people think it’s gonna be too expensive to hire out.

John: Yeah. I think certainly, it’s easy to try to learn new things and stuff.

But many of us are probably “jack-of-all-trades, master of none.” You know the saying, right? Where we’re pretty good at a lot of things. But we’re not the most amazing at any one particular thing.

If we do everything, if we stop working, or go on vacation, then we’re either working on vacation, or we’re not getting paid.

Colleen: Right.

Benefits of Hiring

John: I think having team members gives you the flexibility to have more bandwidth. To get paid while you’re not working. To really focus on the things that you’re not just good at but you’re passionate about. You love doing them. You want to get out of bed and actually work on those things.

I think I’m just kind of zeroing in on some of those things. It’s hard because I was the same way. I was doing everything. Then you slowly realize, “OK, if we’re gonna have a whole bunch of clients on the plan. I can’t live on the ticket desk. Or I’m not gonna be able to do anything else, right?”

I’ve got to have 95% of that stuff done by someone else. If they need something, or they have a question, certainly, I’m happy to help. But I need them to function without me.

We’re building about 10 to 11 websites right now. I couldn’t do that by myself. There’s just no way, right?

I’d have to either just say, “Well, we’ll get to you in six months,” because I’ve got the next six months booked out or we hire more people, right? There a lot of stuff happening that I am not the primary driver of—which is really good.

Handing Off Work

Colleen: Did you ever feel like, “Oh, well, I don’t really want to get some of this stuff off my plate. I enjoy it. I want to keep some of it.”

Because I remember at the RockStar Empires Mastermind in Miami—we also attended that together—I remember Troy Dean saying, “You have to pick one, Colleen. You have to pick design or development?”

He’s like, “Which one is it gonna be?” I felt an excruciating pain. I just can’t choose.

No, I can’t choose, but I thought about it some more. That really put the bug in my ear to start thinking about hiring somebody.

I was fine for many years. My business was just me and I was fine with that.  But when I started thinking about that, I was torn.

I decided that I’ll stick with design. I’m a better designer than a developer. There are plenty of people that can do that better, that do that all day long. It will take them much less time.

So was there something that you were like, “Oh, I can’t. I just don’t want to get it off my plate?”

John: I thought honestly, I would design it. I would build it. I would do all the things.

I didn’t really see myself not doing any of those things. I would have assumed that I would still be doing those.

Colleen: Right.

John: But then I did have to hand off one part. I would lay out the site. Then I would hand off some of the content on the sub pages to the developer.

I was like, “Oh, that’s really nice.” I did it one time and all those sub pages got built, and I didn’t have to do it all.

Then we eventually hired a designer. I had developers but I didn’t have designers. I was still, I guess I was more into the design.

I let someone else figure out how to make it work. The first designer hired was just so amazing. He is such a rockstar. The websites looked a lot better than when I was designing them. I thought they were pretty good when I was designing them. I took pride in it.

But he was just able to focus in on it. He was able to give it a lot more time and energy and detail than I did. Now, I’m kind of like, “Let’s get the stuff that I built a few years ago out of the portfolio. Those are the weakest link.”

Hiring Mistakes

Colleen: Oh, that’s funny. When you got into hiring, did you knock it out of the park? Right off the bat? Or did you have any issues?

John: We’ve all made hiring mistakes, Colleen.

The thing is before I was working my agency full time. I worked as a creative director at a large church. I had staff under me.

I had made lots of hiring mistakes at the church. I probably had a dozen or more interns there. Some of them were amazing and some of them I don’t know what I was thinking.

I thought a warm body that was willing to help would be good. It was a disaster. Because they had such a narrow skill set that didn’t apply to most of the stuff we were doing.

I’ve definitely made a lot of hiring mistakes over time. I think I’ve gotten a lot better at it in the more recent years. I think part of it—I think we all do this too—is that we tend to rush. We realize we desperately need someone because we can’t get this project done.

Or we want to take on more projects or whatever. We’re going to go on vacation in a month and we don’t have anyone to cover while we’re gone. We don’t want to work on vacation. Whatever the thing is.

We get in a situation where we feel like we have to hire quickly. And it’s when I hire quickly that I usually hire poorly. I think when we hire slow, we look at it more. This is true with anything.

I mean, I still can be impatient. Julie’s not here right now, so I can say I’m more patient than I used to be.

Colleen: I would never think of you as an impatient person at all.

John: I remember the first time we were going to buy a car when we got married—this was 16 to 17 years ago. We went to my friend who worked at this dealer. I knew we were going to get a good deal.

I saw a nice car. He gave us a good price. I was like, “Let’s buy it.” She’s like, “This is the first one that we’ve looked at. How do we know this is like a great deal or whatever, right?”

I was so frustrated. Because I’m a strategic shopper. I go in with the few things I need to get. I’m like in and out. I’m not looking at a gazillion things. I just get what I need and I go. I don’t wanna shop. I just want to buy and go.

She talked me out of buying this one, which was in hindsight was really good. But I was just so frustrated at the time because it was a good car. Seemed like a good price.

I think people do that with hires. They find someone that’s pretty good. It seems like the right price. They can do what we need to do. We hire.

Then it’s a month or two into it. Three months into it, we realize, “Oh. Their skills aren’t where they need to be, or their personality drives me crazy about this, this and this.”

Had we just spent a little more time and considered a few more candidates. We would have made a better choice.

Colleen: Yeah, that’s so true. I think that’s why I didn’t have good success early on when I was looking for people. Even subcontractors, it doesn’t even have to be a full time person.

You get excited to get the help. Or you’re saying there might be some kind of thing coming up that’s making you make a decision by a certain timeframe, like a vacation, like you mentioned. I completely relate to that.

There’s a saying, too, “Hire slowly and fire fast.”

What to Do Before Hiring

Colleen: In order to slow down that process, what kinds of things did you put into place? What did you start thinking about before you even started looking for people?

John: I think definitely having a clear job description. We’ve all probably worked at a job where we didn’t have a clear job description. This is what you’re supposed to do. These are the expectations. These are the responsibilities.

I think having a clear job description is super important.

You can have key performance indicators that you can measure strategically. For us, if a website is not delivered on time, if the client’s not happy, or we didn’t do what we say we were going to do for that project. We didn’t hit the mark. It’s pretty easy.

If someone’s managing a website project, did we deliver it on time that we said we were? Did we do everything we say we’re going to? Is the client happy and going to leave us a 5-star review? If all three of those things are true, then we did a good job.

I think being clear about what you’re looking for is super helpful. You need to get enough candidates, that you have some strong ones, not just one, good one. But you want to be considering between three, four or five good candidates that’s hard to choose.

Then you’re in a much better position than if you’re just, “Well, I had five people, only one of them was really good. So I went with a good person.”

You really didn’t have five options, you had one option. I think you have to throw the net wide enough that you get enough fish in the net. That you can say, “There are some good ones in here. I’m going to put these through the wringer and figure out which one’s the best.”

My favorite position is when you’ve just got too many good options. I really want to hire all three of these people, because they’re so good.

Colleen: But that’s hard too. I hate saying no. Telling them no, that they didn’t get the position. I hate being put in that position.

John: But if you can put them through enough tests. Then eventually, one’s gonna slightly rise to the top, right?

Then you can feel confident, “Hey, I had three really good choices. This one’s just slightly better because of their availability or because they have this experience, or they have this extra skill set that I wasn’t really looking for, but it’s gonna come in handy with the work that they’re doing.”

We have a mix of U.S. team members and international team members. I feel like with international team members, you have to put them through extra hoops because there’s gonna be timezone differences. There’s gonna be potentially some little language differences. There’s gonna be just a whole bunch of other things that you don’t have to really think about as much when you’re working with U.S. team members or local team members.

That’s where I think the hire slow is perfect. Maybe you find three candidates you can’t decide. You give them all a paid project, say, “Hey, I need this work done.”

I’m going to pay for it three times. Yes, it’s going to cost me a little bit more. But now I’m gonna have three people do apples to apples comparison work.

Colleen: Right.

John: I’m gonna see: how well do they communicate? What problems did they run into? How well does the work actually look like? If it’s a designer as an example, give all three of them the same brief and say, “Make me a homepage mock-up.”

You could even have as part of the test like, “Hey, I’m going to give you feedback. I want you to make one hour of revisions to the mock-up that you made.” You’re going to see how well they handle your feedback.

When you start to really get into it, it becomes very clear who’s the right candidate. Because usually someone or a couple of them will smash it.

And then some other people might be happy with it. But, Colleen, you and I are pretty particular with design, we’re not gonna be happy with that.

Colleen: Right, right, for sure. I had actually thought about hiring a lot sooner than I actually did. Or farther back than I actually did it.

One thing that I really struggled with was I need design help and web development help. But I don’t need the web development stuff as much as I need the design help.

I got stuck in a rut for a while, because I’m like, “What do I do?”

I heard all these people talking about when you hire somebody, don’t hire somebody that’s gonna do everything. All these different skill sets. Don’t hire another jack-of-all-trades.

I’m sure I talked to you about this at some point. Don’t hire someone that can do both. Both of those things are totally different skill sets. One is creative, and one is technical. Hire two different people or just hire one person.

But again, it goes back to like I always thought, I’m going to need to have somebody full time and keep them busy. That mindset also prevented me from hiring before I did, too. It doesn’t have to be like that.

John: You’re totally right. The first person I hired, I was hiring a front end developer and a virtual assistant in one. I was looking for that unicorn and they did a pretty good job.

But then the second time around, someone had mentioned, “Hey, why don’t you hire just a front end developer, and then hire someone, you know, that’s just going to be the kind of the face on the ticket desk and make them to different people.”

What was happening was, the developer was doing the work, sometimes they would reply back to the client, or sometimes, I would check in and reply back to the client. I realized rather than them checking their own work, or me having to check all the work. It’d be great if they just could do the work.

Someone else who’s more comfortable with English could reply back to the client. Fully understand it. Be that second set of eyes.

That worked much better when I had those broken out. I think one thing you can do, as a business owner, is if you’re not sure who to hire next. Just log your detailed time for maybe two weeks. See where you spend all of your time.

Because we think we know, but then when we look at a breakdown in toggle or any of these different things then you’re gonna see, “Oh, well I actually spent this much on sales. I spent this much talking to clients. I spent this much time designing. I spent this much time.”

If I was spending 15 hours of the last two weeks on design. I know, I’ve got at least 15 hours of design work per week for a designer, right?

I hire someone part time at 10 or 15 hours a week. Have them start taking that over, or whatever it is. You can then know with better confidence how much work you have.

I don’t think you have to start a full time. In fact, you’re probably better off hiring part time, especially if they have the bandwidth to grow. You can try him out, make sure it’s a good fit, and then kind of expand their time and their role.

Colleen: Right. It was funny because I was so worried about being able to afford or keep one person busy. Now I’ve got four people that work for me between two businesses.

Now I’m like, what else can I get off my plate? Because my income actually went up. Obviously, my expenses went up some. But my income went up because I was able to focus on doing some other business tasks and let them do other stuff.

But, yeah, I’m trying to get more stuff off my plate all the time. Because I have to do the podcasting.

I still have to do that stuff. There are things that I can’t get off my plate.

John: Yeah, yeah. But then you get to choose, right? Then you can say, “Hey, I just want to do the podcasting.” Someone else is gonna do the editing of it and someone else is gonna do the booking of it. I just get to do the fun part and talk and then have someone else do all the other stuff.

Colleen: I think it’s really important to look at it as an investment and not how much money am I giving up? What are my expenses gonna be? Especially if you’re gonna need to spend time doing client outreach, prospecting, that kind of stuff. Spending time on proposals, doing talks or these other efforts in order to reach clients.

John: Totally. think there are just so many options. There’s a book by Mike Michalowicz called Run Like Clockwork and he’s got like a whole curriculum behind it.

The concept in the book that I really like is working up to, “What would I have to do in my business to take like a month off or two months off or three months off?”

Most of us are just like, “That could never happen! How in the world? I can barely take a weekend off or a few nights off. How can I take off a month and not open my computer and not check email?”

It would be amazing, right?

Colleen: Right.

John: I’ve been kind of like working up. This past summer I took 16 days without my computer. I didn’t even take my computer. I thought for this to really work, it’s not gonna be because the team doesn’t do it. It’s gonna be because I get in the way.

I intentionally did not bring my computer. We went to the beach for 16 days. Didn’t check email. Didn’t go into Slack. I told my team, if you need me, you have to text me because that’s the only thing that I want to respond to. I was like, it’s fine if you need to text me, but I’m just not gonna have my computer. I’m not gonna be looking at email and stuff.

I somehow did it. But in the book, what it talks about is working your way up to that. If you’re currently working seven days a week, and you work on the weekends, and you work in the night. The first thing is take a Saturday or Sunday and not work. Plan something, so you’re gonna be away.

So you don’t have the option to go into the room and work. Plan to go to an amusement park or this show or go visit some family that’s a little way away. You’ll realize that that is really fun.

My business survived me not working a Saturday, right? Then you get into a groove and now you’re not working on Saturdays. Then you expand it to Saturday and Sunday.

You probably should be off by five or six o’clock, be with your spouse and stay married, all those things. Start to set up those things. Then you realize, “I can take a three-day weekend, I can take a four-day weekend. Oh, wow, I took a whole week off and it didn’t burn down, right?” You just keep expanding that. But it’s like baby steps to get there.

Colleen: Yeah, that’s awesome. That’s really quite an accomplishment. It really is.

John: Thanks.

Colleen: I mean, I would love to go to the beach for 16 days.

John: Yeah, yeah. It was amazing. Now I need to plan a month-long trip.

Template for the Hiring Process

Colleen: Right. So John, earlier in the podcast, I mentioned that you do have this proven six-step process. But you actually have a low cost product for people to buy that helps them with this hiring process, so that they will be successful.

They won’t have to go through this, hopefully, over and over again and make the same mistakes that we have. Do you want to talk a bit about that and where they can find that?

John: Yeah, sure. It wasn’t something where I set out to make a product and like, “Oh, how can I make some money?” It was like I’m coaching all these agency owners. They would get to this point where like, “Hey, I think I need to hire a team member, what do I do?”

Colleen: Right.

John: I had done it enough times with enough success and coached enough people through it. There’s actually a need here that’s not really being met. It may be out there. I just didn’t look hard enough.

Basically like, “Hey, here’s the job description that we use. Here’s where we post it. Here’s the kind of steps that we put them through. Here are the trial project tests that we give them.” We actually paid the best candidates to take this test because it’s often like four to eight hours.

Because we’re saying, “Hey, we want you to do a homepage wireframe and a mock-up. Here are the assets.” Almost as if it was a real project and then we can compare those best five candidates’ work. Pay a little bit of money. I really like hiring my team members direct.

You can go to hiring agencies where they’ll find the candidates and present them. But then a lot of times, you’re either paying a high fee for that, or you’re paying the agency. They’re taking 20% or more. Your workers getting less of the money. It’s just kind of tricky and so I like hiring direct.

I basically documented our process. I honed in the trial projects that we offer and then I bundled it up into a product that people can buy.

If you go to the website, the quickest way to get there is just It’s probably the quickest way to get there.

You can go there and you can pick if you want a developer or if you want a designer. It’ll show you the process that we go through and all that’s included in that bundle.

It’s sort of a do-it-yourself hiring kit, but it’s effective.

I think if you put in a little bit of time to hire and get the right person and then it pays. Even if someone else finds the person for you, you still got to train them on board. But you just put in that little bit of time and then months from now your life’s gonna be a lot better.

Colleen: I’ve used your process and I know it works. A lot of other people have used your process and it worked.

John: It’s so funny because I didn’t have a website. It was hidden for the longest time to even buy it. You had to get the link from me and you couldn’t even search and find it on my website.

Colleen: Yeah. I asked you about it.

John: We’ll actually make its own website. It would be a little bit classier. But right now, we’re just like, “let’s register a domain, let’s make a landing page, let’s make it a little bit easier to find. That’s kind of what we’ve done.

Colleen: Awesome. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast, John. This has been really helpful.

John: Thanks, Colleen. It’s been great chatting with you.

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