Caylee Betts, Product Designer


What I learned building, running, and eventually burning out on my Seattle-based web design and development firm.

Role: Business owner, designer, manager / Employer: Betts&Co. (self-employed)

Growing the business
Betts&Co. unofficially started when I picked up some freelance work for a couple local wineries and restaurants in 2009. In such a small community, word travels fast, and my clients were really happy with the work. Over the course of 5 years, 90% of our work came to us via word of mouth, and the last 10% was usually me finding an introduction to the owner of a business I really wanted to do work for.

When it was just me and a developer starting out, we’d work together remotely, going back and forth until we were happy with a website. Work kept coming in, and I saw a real future unfolding. I decided to simultaneously hire another designer and move into an office space. I had ambitions to take the business to the next level for a while, and having a legitimate office was really important to me. I hired a designer. Soon came a project manager. Eventually we were working with 4 different developers and an accountant. Things were humming along very well for a long stretch of time.

The work and the clients
We did a wide variety of work at Betts&Co., which is the way I wanted it. When you’re excited to learn or try something new, work rarely feels like work. We were generally sought out for web work, but we also did branding, packaging, print work, and once even helped to design, staff and open a restaurant.

Our clients were one of the best elements of the job. Here’s a small glimpse: a client invited us to Walla Walla to take some photos, taste the wine, and talk about the web mocks we’d sent before arrival. He took us to a 70s bowling alley the night before the shoot. The next morning he and his partner had cooked us a Mexican feast for breakfast at a farmhouse where we’d be shooting. After breakfast, they started drinking Coors Light and we took photos of them in a field in suits holding chickens.

I met clients that became second parents to me. I met clients that became my best friends. I got to work on projects alongside my parents. I got to shadow some of the most respected makers in their industries (food, beer and wine, mostly), drawing back the curtain to learn more about the process and take photos of every step. I got to follow Dan Marino and Damon Huard around their new vineyards before the launch of their super exclusive wine label.

We worked for 65 clients in 5 years.

The Best Days
Meeting small business owners, learning about what they do, I not only learned how to run my business, but I got to see behind the scenes of dozens of others. One of my favorite times was a trip with my team, getting to show them some of the amazing things I learned from our winemaker, brewer and chef clients over the years. It was really fulfilling to be able to run the business how I wanted. Friday beer or wine tastings and afternoon trips to do the Theo Chocolate tour were common.

I am really proud to have been able to give people a chance, also. That’s something I learned from my parents. At Betts&Co., young designers had the chance to work in a sweet office with flexible hours, do interesting work, work directly with clients, and be part of a team that loved what they did. Some of our developers did their first professional work with us. Our hidden gem of a project manager was given the chance to transition from restaurant management into a new career path, starting with us.

The really, really hard days
I had a great relationship with my employees. I infused my energy and passion into the workday. But, I didn’t always succeed as a first-time manager. I am thankful to be able to learn from those mistakes early. When you come up doing something yourself for years, it can be hard to give up responsibilities to others. It took time to learn this. Also, building a business doesn’t qualify you to manage people. I look forward to taking what I learned and what I've now observed from my managers along the way and being a more thoughtful and proactive manager in the future.

Working for small, non-technical clients is so tough. Sometimes it felt like we couldn’t speak the same language as our clients. And we had to maintain several clients at once because of the relatively low budgets and short projects. It was exhausting at times.

In the end, it was so heart-wrenching to outgrow something I really wanted. Sure, I could have shifted or grown the company in a different way, but I hit a point of being sick of learning-by-doing and wanted to go learn from super smart people.

I am super proud to have this experience. It has prepared me for so much that I have faced since. I could have taken a more direct route to where I am, but, nah, it's all about the journey!