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Here at Foster — a small coworking space located on the northwest side of the Poncey-Highland neighborhood in Atlanta — the vibe is sedate. It’s clearly the kind of coworking space where people are less interested in networking than simply working.
Today, 2 of those people are Natasha Murphy and Lexi Stout. Murphy is a web developer and owner of Nicely Built, an agency specializing in e-commerce websites. Stout is the founder of Mug Creative Club, a design and branding enterprise.
Murphy and Stout have formed a strong professional bond over the past year, working together on more than 25 Shopify e-commerce sites. (Murphy is among the top Shopify Experts in the southeast region of the U.S.) Their partnership is emblematic of a larger trend in Atlanta we’ve explored in this series — creative entrepreneurs who are building businesses that celebrate collaboration.
Thanks to both of you for making time for this today. It’s nice that you have some flexibility since neither of you has a boss.
Natasha: I am pretty resistant to the 9–5 thing — driving there, getting there, sitting there. I don’t want any of it. And I think the freedom we have with our schedules shines through in our work. Lexi always seems really happy. There are lots of emojis in our conversations.
Lexi: At the same time, if everyone needs to stay up late because a project is not where it needs to be, we do it. I love the open work/hours lifestyle.
Natasha, let’s start with you. What’s Nicely Built’s origin story?
Natasha: In 2006, I had just finished grad school studying nonprofit management. I chose to take a job as a developer at an agency rather than stay in the nonprofit sector. That was the first of 2 agency jobs. And fast-forward 6 years, I started at Nicely Built.
What kind of agencies did you work for?
Natasha: Small shops. The first one had a proprietary CMS, which was strange since I had come from this world of nonprofit where everything was open source. But it was also really interesting. After that, I worked for more of a design agency.
With Nicely Built, your focus is primarily e-commerce. Why?
Natasha: I love web-based commerce. I like buying things online, I like where e-commerce is headed. The whole little corner of web development that is e-commerce really excites me. We also do sites that aren’t e-commerce, but our bread and butter and what we are really on fire about is e-commerce. About 90 percent of my business is Shopify websites.
"You’ve got to find a way to stand out. You have to speak to the people you want to bring in."
How do your clients find you?
Natasha: Primarily through the Shopify Experts directory. We also get a lot of referrals, although we try not to concentrate too heavily in one vertical because of competition concerns. We have a pretty active Instagram channel, and we do some lead generation through bimonthly Shopify meetups. I do some public speaking occasionally.
The arrival of easy-to-use e-commerce software platforms has lowered the barrier to entry for online retailers. Do you work with a lot of first-timers?
Natasha: We have a very specific type of customer. It’s someone who has been in online retail for a number of years — a minimum of 5. They have been on at least 1 e-commerce platform, and hopefully have been through the process of switching platforms. It’s really hard to manage expectations otherwise.
Our clients usually need a combination of complex feature sets. It could be a wholesale portal, or they might have a really custom product that they need to build out, or they might be enterprise level and need some help with their ERP integration. Maybe they are using a system to handle fulfillment or shipping, and they need us to come in and hook it up so that it talks to their system.
Nicely Built gets glowing testimonials on its Shopify Experts page. What are you guys doing right?
Natasha: We are really process-oriented. For every phase of the project, we have someone who is really good at that one thing.
Lexi Stout and Natasha Murphy at Foster Atlanta, in Georgia, USA.
Let’s talk about Atlanta. Lexi, you went to the University of Florida. How did you end up here?
Lexi: Coming out of undergrad, Atlanta was definitely on my radar. I had heard about the Creative Circus, which is kind of like SCAD and some of the other design schools, but it focuses more on the problem-solving side of marketing. So I went there concentrating on art direction, and then Ogilvy and Mather hired me out of school. Later I moved on to Ignition, which focuses more on experiential marketing.
You were working for some pretty big brands right out of the gate.
Lexi: Yes — you get the shiny, flashy clients that are so amazing, but at the same time you are giving up your life balance. But you’re just out of school so you’re like, “Give it to me!” But I had tons of fun working for some huge clients like Coca-Cola and Under Armour. I was rising in the ranks, but it wasn’t as fulfilling. I was moving into more of a managerial director role, and I missed the day-to-day design stuff. When I can sit with the clients and see it from their side, it’s so much easier to turn something around that they love.
You wanted to spend your time actually doing creative work, and working directly with clients — and that’s how Mug Creative Club was born.
Lexi: I molded design and creativity into what made sense for me. As a whole, it’s about taking someone’s business or brand and putting a face to it, bringing in writers and photographers as necessary to mold a certain look and feel. I like to do everything, but I have a passion for logo design and brand guidelines.
You obviously do a great job designing e-commerce websites.
Natasha: She’s a natural at it. The first design comp she put together, I was like, “Wow.” In all my years working with designers, I have never seen someone pick it up that quickly and do such a comprehensive job.
Lexi: I had done tons of mock-ups and bits and pieces of digital work, but I had never done a whole website from scratch. I was a little freaked out at the beginning. But now we’ve done 20 to 25 projects together.
"My dream is to have a company and do a service for people who want to work with me for a long time."
Let’s talk a bit about the tools of the trade. Natasha, Shopify is your platform of choice for e-commerce. How about email marketing?
Natasha: We’re big MailChimp fans. We incorporate it into our proposals, and we integrate the service into our websites and include it in our retainer packages. The product is with us each step of the way. It integrates very well with Shopify. Both companies believe in open APIs, believe in partnerships.
Lexi: I love the usability factor of MailChimp. I have set up a lot of templates for clients, and it’s great to design those things, but it’s also awesome to turn around and say, “OK, this is all you now.”
Natasha: And they can do it!
Lexi: The whole drag-and-drop function is just so easy for them.
Natasha: I got a sneak peek at the drag-and-drop editor right before it debuted, and I remember thinking, “This is going to be a game-changer.”
MailChimp is also active in Atlanta’s creative community. How would you sum up the city’s creative scene?
Lexi: There have been quite a few times where I’ve gone to a meetup, event, or some creative space, and I see people of all backgrounds, ages, and styles. And I always feel welcome.
Natasha: Atlanta is a city where people actually do things. From people making art for the BeltLine to all of our beautiful murals, people are really productive here in Atlanta.
Lexi: And there is a good sense of collaboration. Everyone wants to help each other out.
Have you ever considered going to work for a tech startup here?
Natasha: I have a lot of friends who work at startups, but that’s not really my scene. That whole mentality of “I’m gonna make a million dollars and drop the mic and walk away,” that’s not my dream. My dream is to have a company and do a service for people who want to work with me for a long time.
"Humans love beautiful things. They like little gestures."
Speaking of making things better: There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the need for more women in tech. Natasha, what has it been like being in such a male-dominated field?
Natasha: I will still occasionally contact a company for a product and they’ll ask to speak to the developer. But it’s totally changing. It’s so different today from even 2 or 3 years ago. You see so many more female coders. For the longest time, I would go to conferences and the ratio was literally 1 woman to every 15 men. Nowadays, especially when I went to the Shopify Partner Conference, it is more in the range of 3 women to every 10 men.
Lexi: There really is this awesome movement of women who code. It maybe isn’t to the surface yet, but they are out there and it’s slowly emerging.
Are you involved in groups that support women looking for careers in tech?
Natasha: I teach HTML and CSS for the Atlanta chapter of Girl Develop It. A lot of women come in who have never written a line of code in their life. And I prefer that to teaching the more advanced courses, because it really inspires me when people with no experience show up and are like, “I want to learn how to code.”
Do you think being women influences how you run your business?
Natasha: It really informs it. We are big on communication. We aren’t a very hierarchal organization at all. It’s obvious that it’s woman-run. When we all talk to one another it’s very egalitarian. There isn’t this hard structure of, “This person is the boss of this person,” and we don’t have an aggressive sales team like more traditionally masculine organizations … When I worked at my first agency, it was run by 2 men and people were constantly arguing about what their titles should be or trying to get more money.
Before we finish up, let’s circle back to the work. How do you respond to the argument that e-commerce sites don’t need to be beautiful — that UX and functionality are all that matter?
Lexi: I think that’s where you can get lost in the world of vanilla. You’ve got to find a way to stand out. For me it’s a middle-ground answer, because I do respect a clean aesthetic that doesn’t distract you from your mission to buy. But you also have to speak to the people you want to bring in. Not everybody can just have a white background and grid.
Natasha: Humans love beautiful things. They like little gestures. At a recent Creative Mornings, Aarron Walter spoke about why someone might buy a Tesla over a base model Nissan. At the end of the day, there isn’t any good reason other than the way you feel when you get in that more expensive car. You can get by with a very bare bones website for sure. But is it as nice of an experience for you? Or more importantly, for the end customer?
Young agency? Follow these 3 rules.
Natasha Murphy spent years in the agency world before launching her own successful digital shop in 2012. Here are 3 rules that have helped her succeed without sacrificing her sanity.
1. Narrowly define your ideal customer. If you don’t, it could be a drain on your business. Nicely Built, for example, works strictly with established retailers who have been doing business online for at least 5 years. “The learning curve is less steep when you are working with someone who has had an online store before,” Murphy says. “If it’s a new person, you have to walk them through it several times, and you can’t really turn a profit if you’re spending all of your time educating.”
2. Don’t sell mediocrity. Thinking of cobbling together a passable version of a service and selling it? Don’t. Whatever short-term gains it nets you will be negated by the bad rep you earn. Murphy has been very careful to sell only services that she can deliver at a high level. “I am very risk-averse about what we offer because I want to be sure we’re experts first,” she says. “I would never sell SEM, for example.”
3. Don’t work for jerks. If a prospect is giving you bad vibes out of the gate, back away. “We work with some really strong personalities, and I don’t mind that at all,” Murphy says. “I can take constructive criticism, or someone getting really mad about a missed deadline. I can handle all of that. But the one thing I can’t handle is someone being rude to me or to someone who works for me. It’s not worth it.”