Modify – Lform Design

Episode graphic for "An Agency Story" podcast with Ian Loew - title Modify - Hosted by Russel Dubree - picture of Ian in the lower right corner smiling.
Ian highlights the significance of his staff's ability to communicate with clients, understanding their needs, and interpreting their requests accurately. He believes that effective communication, along with data-driven conclusions, can sway even the most skeptical CEOs and presidents of multimillion-dollar companies.  

Company: Lform Design

Owners: Ian Loew

Year Started: 2005

Employees: 11 – 25

In this podcast episode, Ian Loew, the owner of Lform Design, joins Russel Dubree for an engaging conversation about his journey as an artist turned web developer and agency owner. They cover a range of topics, including the value of underpricing work to gain experience, the role of data in decision-making, and the challenges and goals of running an agency.  

One notable insight is the use of the Descript tool for podcast editing, which allows for seamless voice synthesis and the addition of filler words to enhance the flow. They also discuss the power of self-reflection and speech pattern analysis by listening to oneself, leading to improved communication skills.  

Ian highlights the significance of his staff’s ability to communicate with clients, understanding their needs, and interpreting their requests accurately. He believes that effective communication, along with data-driven conclusions, can sway even the most skeptical CEOs and presidents of multimillion-dollar companies.  

As the conversation draws to a close, Russel seeks a pro tip from Ian for agency owners. Ian suggests that agency owners should evaluate whether their clients can comprehend complex concepts after minimal research or guidance, emphasizing the importance of clear communication and knowledge transfer.  

Enjoy the story.

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Show Transcript

Welcome to An Agency Story podcast where we share real stories of marketing agency owners from around the world. From the excitement of starting up the first big sale, passion, doubt, fear, freedom, and the emotional rollercoaster of growth, hear it all on An Agency Story podcast. An Agency Story podcast is hosted by Russel Dubree, successful agency owner with an eight figure exit turned business coach. Enjoy the next agency story. Welcome to An Agency Story podcast. I’m your host Russel. On this episode, we have Ian Loew, owner of Lform design, a design and development firm, specializing in building robust web applications and integrations based out of Montclair, New Jersey. Ian has founded his career on the belief that effective communication along with data-driven conclusions can even sway the most skeptical CEOs and presidents of multi-million dollar companies. You’ll also love how Ian went rogue and his local BNI chapter to get his business off the ground. This story highlights the many benefits of taking advantage of a particular vertical, utilizing sales coaching, and the constant, but subtle art of self-improvement. Enjoy the story.

Russel: 

Welcome to the show today, everyone. I have Ian Loew with Lform Design with us here today. Thank you so much for being on the show, Ian.

Ian: 

Russel, thanks for having me. Appreciate the opportunity.

Russel: 

Hey, the pleasure is all mine. If you don’t mind, get us started. Tell us what Lform Design does and who you do it for.

Ian: 

We are builders of custom web solutions for primarily manufacturers who are in the B2B space. We also provide web hosting and SEO for manufacturers.

Russel: 

Short, simple, sweet. Love it. Want to hear certainly more about what you’ve created today, but before we get back, what was young Ian doing with his life? Are you where are you thought you might have ended up if we go back in time?

Ian: 

It’s funny that you mentioned that, I was thinking about this the other day. My aunt was a graphic designer, and she was one of the first people I knew had to Macintosh. Threw me in front of her 21 inch black and white monitor because that’s what they had back in the day, and allowed me to futz around on Illustrator 88, and I was hooked. I thought it was magic. She was in the next town over and my grandmother was an art teacher for many years so I always had a love of the visual arts. My father, I remember him trucking me, I was in northern New Jersey growing up, and he used to take us into the city and go to museums, and so one thing led to another. I will say this, though. I do distinctly remember we had an agency owner come to our high school, I was in art honors society. Basically I was in advanced art and I was that kid who raised his hand and asked, so how much do you make a year? And the art teacher got so insulted with me and said, how could you ask such a question? Because I was curious. I was like, all right, if I want to go into the arts, can you make a living doing it?

Russel: 

That’s a fair question for a kid to ask.

Ian: 

Unfortunately, they did not answer the question.

Russel: 

Ah.

Ian: 

Yeah. And then fast forward a little bit. My senior year, I applied to Rhode Island School of Design, RISD. That was a reach. I applied to Carnegie Mellon School of Design. I applied to a couple of safeties, and I actually got into both my reaches. I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe it. I ended up going to Carnegie Mellon. Had some amazing cohorts in crime there. Christian Schwartz, who’s an amazing type designer now, world known. I had Dino Sanchez, who’s a furniture designer, also has an amazing career now. Matt Tregeser, he does animated. So I was surrounded by very gifted people in the school. I went to school for communication design, ended up discovering something called industrial design. I didn’t know that was even a thing, that people had to design products. Fell in love with that.

Russel: 

Quite the curated path here. Exposed to the arts, had so many people that sounded like they helped you on that journey and then obviously went to a good school and got to rub elbows with some amazing folks in the design field. So, graduate and then what are you doing?

Ian: 

I ended up getting a job with 212 Associates, their signage firm. I don’t even know if they’re still around. I got the position unknowingly. I was doing spreadsheets. I thought I was going to do physical designs of signage. Turns out, on my father’s birthday, he comes into the city, we go to his favorite Italian restaurant, and I tell my father I got fired.

Russel: 

Oh, man.

Ian: 

That was two months or three months at that job. Turns out that I didn’t like doing spreadsheets. But then, it was during the dot com boom, so that was 99, 2000. I ended up interviewing with ToysRUs.Com. They were looking for in-house people. They asked if I could do HTML coding. I said, sure. If they asked if I could do Photoshop, I said, sure. They said, you have the job. Those were the amazing days of the dot com. Ultimately, I thought I was going to stay in industrial design or some type of three dimensional design capabilities, but because of circumstances, I ended up switching gears. They were paying, I was a young kid, it sounded cool to me. They were based in Jersey so I could drive. I loved it. That was fast paced. It was total kind of startup environment. After that, they were bought up by Amazon. Unfortunately, I was let go, and then I went to work for a small agency. I still kept ties with people at Toys R Us, and one individual, Dan, was starting his own accenture, meaning consulting firm, and he had brought me on. Wasn’t happy working for him, but it started to get the gears turning. This young guy left Toys R Us, started his own company. Maybe I could do this. I’d been doing freelance, and that’s why I tell a lot of young entrepreneurs, get your feet dirty, get your hands dirty, get in there, get out there, do some freelance work, burn some midnight oil, and that’s what I was doing. I was doing websites, business cards, you name it, from 10pm at night to one in the morning and then get to work. And, when you’re young, you have endless amounts of energy. After Dan hired me, he said, go to a networking group on my behalf. I’m sure a lot of people know of BNI. I went to the BNI chapter and right then and there, this was 2005. I stood up, gave my 30 second elevator pitch for my own freelance company instead of for Dan’s company.

Russel: 

That’s like an on the fly moment right there. At what point did you decide that, 30 seconds before you had to get up there and speak?

Ian: 

It was literally a split second decision. I said to myself, you’re hustling. You’re trying to get work for Dan’s company on your behalf. Ian, you can do this. I had a small mortgage. I had 2, 000 dollars in my pocket and that was it. I said, to heck with this. And it worked. I had always been interested in manufacturing because my father was a manufacturer, some of my freelance clients are manufacturers. It was a lot of manufacturing in Jersey, if people are unaware of that. For instance, I reached out to my good buddy, Mike, whose father owned Ronald Mark Associates. They do plastics and all sorts of different products within utilizing plastics. I told him right away, I said, hey, I’m starting my own company. I know I’ve been freelancing. He threw a whole bunch of work my way. He was like, oh my God, you’re going off on your own? You do great work, your pricing’s right. Yeah, here, do X, Y, and Z. All of a sudden I doubled my salary in one year. It was unbelievable. Now, did I have to work 12 hour days, six days a week? Yeah. But I loved it because I was like, oh my God, this is my own thing, I’m doing it. It felt so gratifying.

Russel: 

I’ve heard a lot of origin stories at this point. You definitely win the award of, created the agency most on the fly, it seems like. That sounds like a n amazing story. You set out on your own and what did that look like initially? Were you excited? Were you running on adrenaline or were you like, oh crap, what did I do?

Ian: 

Totally running on adrenaline. I didn’t regret any minute of it, but I was such a noob, I didn’t even understand that people won’t pay their invoices. That was a foreign concept to me. I started to create a spreadsheet of, okay, these are my receivables. All of a sudden I had to learn about QuickBooks and bookkeeping and selling. This was, again, I was a production guy. I was the guy designing the websites. Cause this is back in the day before there were even such a thing as templates. I was designing the websites, doing the front end coding. And it was scary. That part, running the business was extremely scary. I started to reach out to people and one of my first advisors was Ken Drosman. Essentially, he taught me how to use QuickBooks properly. He was this ex-CPA turned consultant. I used him for 10 years. He saw the growth of my company. It’d be like from 120K a year to every year, 20%, 30% growth. It was unbelievable. It was,again, adrenaline and good old grit.

Russel: 

What was your secret sauce? That’s some pretty good initial growth going from split second to where you’ve got. Beyond the adrenaline, what do you think was working for you?

Ian: 

Caring about the work, caring about the customers. My pricing back in the day was quite inexpensive. I don’t know if some of your listeners know what Adobe Flash is, but I did a whole animated Flash website for 1,500 dollars, and it was like hours upon hours of work. Did I learn? Yeah. And so what I knew was that you have to undersell or underprice your items to get the work, but you can use that work to catapult yourself. I always believed you had to charge for the work. You have people coming to you, oh, you can do our website for free and then I’ll be a great reference for you? No, don’t do that. But what I did do was one website would allow me to gain other clients because clients want to see, oh, you’ve done stuff for plastics. I’m a plastics manufacturer. I deal with plastics. Great. RMA allowed me to get Hall Manufacturing. Hall Manufacturing doesn’t exist anymore, but they were bought up by a huge conglomerate. But my point being is one piece of work led to more additional work when I could raise my price every, it’s like steps. Every step allowed me to gain more. And yeah, it’s hard. They call it work because it’s work.

Russel: 

It makes me think of, and I don’t know how this relates to you, but that was probably one of the biggest lessons I feel like I learned over the business career is, there’s no such thing as easy money. It’s all built on either an investment you made, or as you said, blood, sweat, tears and work. I don’t know if you’ve found that in your own journey.

Ian: 

Absolutely. And the other component is people have to like you. They have to feel comfortable, secure. You have to be able to shoot the you-know-what with them. You have to be personable. And if you’re not, that’s one thing that I learned. So I did hire a sales coach, Artie Rensler, when I was around year three or four, I believe. I didn’t understand that as my pricing increased, my sales tactics and processes needed to also become better. Because selling 3, 000, 5,000 dollar website back in, the mid 2000s, wasn’t that hard. Now I’m selling 50,000 websites plus, minimum, and that’s hard. And I didn’t understand to get to that next level, I did Sandler training. I had multiple sales coaches and I have learned a lot.

Russel: 

Great point. It’s easy to win on price, but the more you up that game, then that’s a great takeaway. It sounds like you made a heavy investment in that process. Did that all pan out for you? I know people have had some good luck and bad luck hiring coaches and different things like that.

Ian: 

The answer is absolutely. I think where people fail is that they don’t institute what you’ve learned from your coaches, and every chance I had, I would make it a point of practicing what I learned. That’s what one of my coaches, Danny Wood, had said to me, was, wow, Ian, you actually listen and then institute everything that I’m telling you to do. I think a lot of people think that consultants are going to be the magic sauce, but it’s up to you to make those decisions and then utilize them.

Russel: 

There you go. What a great takeaway from someone that’s been on that side of the house. At some point, did you start out with a manufacturing focus? I know your background was industrial design. When did that become your focus?

Ian: 

When I first started, I honestly took everybody and everything. I had done realtors, I did a couple of business cards for them. I did trifle brochures for a couple of nonprofits. In fact, a lot of nonprofits, the word got out in my area that I was doing great work and so we ended up doing a lot of nonprofit work. Ultimately I doubled down during the pandemic, so it wasn’t until, 2020 that I decided, my marketing, my messaging on my website is going to be we help manufacture. It took a giant leap of truly a belief that we could make it, we could be specific in helping manufacturing. Where I learned this was from Blair Enns. Maybe your listeners have listened to 2Bobs podcasts. I had actually attended one of Blair Enns sales seminars in Chicago pre pandemic. He said, generalists will die a slow death in the agency world, and if you cater to a specific industry or vertical, you’re going to prosper. During the age of AI now that we’re in, I think that holds muster. And I’m seeing it. I’m having a lot more manufacturers come knocking on my door in 2021, 22, and absolutely this year, so it’s paid dividends. It’s been worth it.

Russel: 

The 2Bobs, I do listen to that myself, big fan of Blair Ann’s and David Baker, both, I think they’ve both got a lot of great content out there that I think is very helpful for agencies. So if you are not, in fact, listening to Two Bobs it’s worth checking it out there, folks. How has that thought process and that kind of focus impacted your agency, maybe on a more specific level? It sounds like, I’m sure it’s been a great boon for sales, but maybe even more so on the delivery side. How has that been helpful for you?

Ian: 

I think it’s been great because a lot of the work that we’ve done in the past, we can look back at the data and make smarter decisions for our clients, because we see the same patterns over and over again, so we’re able to advise them appropriately and then convince them that this is a better decision. Now you’ll always have the CEO and presidents of multi-million dollar manufacturing companies thinking that they know better than us professionals, but ultimately, more often than not, they do listen to us because we’re able to show the data to support our conclusions or the directions that we want to go.

Russel: 

Where are you at today? What are you excited about in the agency today? What’s keeping you up at night?

Ian: 

I’m excited and I’m also being kept at night about AI and ultimately I am reading a lot about it. We’re instituting it. Everybody’s using ChatGPT. It makes sense. But we’re also using other tools like Surfer SEO, which is also incorporating AI. I think language modeling is going to take off. I think it’s going to make our lives easier. I think smaller agencies like myself are going to prosper because we can get so much more done. I’m afraid, honestly, of my current staff being fearful that they’re going to lose their jobs due to AI. I want to continually rest this, they’re not going anywhere. I think ultimately though, and I’ve told this to my staff is that we need to be more service oriented or handholding, and then the production will rely more on AI and that’s okay. I know my staff has the ability to talk to our clients with care and understanding and also be able to interpret what they’re asking for, so ultimately we can be more efficient, which is a great thing. There’s nothing wrong with that. Again, I think people’s fears are fear of the unknown, right?

Russel: 

Yeah. I had conversations similar to this on a couple other episodes and I think back to, we were probably similar timeframe when we were starting our agency. I had so much fear back then of a Wix or, those things that were starting to come online in terms of DIY web building and stuff like that, and it’s certainly gives a little easier access to the DIY folks, but it doesn’t take away from a lot of those things you mentioned, the experience, the strategy, the guidance, the expertise that ultimately it doesn’t seem like AI is going to replace anytime soon. I think all this AI fear is generated from Terminator. I think we’d have so much less fear of AI or iRobot and Terminator and I’m sure there’s probably a couple other ones out there that I’m not thinking of, but I don’t know.

Ian: 

I agree. I think the media, definitely entertainment, has skewed our perception of AI. Look, we’re not there at artificial intelligence. We might be there one day, but I don’t think anytime soon. Ultimately, AI is another tool. It’s like Photoshop. I distinctly remember in high school, my graphic design teacher, because I took a year of graphic design and how he was talking about how, oh, now you can do everything, in Quark, but in the good old days, you have to cut it out and lay out by hand and use the photo stat. It’s the same difference, right? Back in the day, everything was done by hand, but then all of a sudden you had the digital pre-press revolution and everything was done on a computer. And nowadays, it’s gonna, it’s gonna be the same thing. It’s gonna speed up production.

Russel: 

Yeah. Absolutely. Good thoughts there, sir. When you’re looking at the future, what are you trying to create? What’s the big goal with the business?

Ian: 

Ultimately, I’d like to grow it. There’s a few direct competitors in my space and I think there’s enough fish in the sea that we can all play nicely. I would like to get the word out that we are specialists in web design, web development. I don’t plan on increasing my services. What I do see happening is, I do see niching down within manufacturing. One of my friendly competitors, they specialize in helping manufacturers of home products, specifically building. I was like, that’s genius. They do windows, wood, flooring. B2B sales within that arena. I was like, that’s genius. I haven’t figured out what my niche within manufacturing is yet. I think that’s going to happen organically but I want, over the next few years, to figure out what that’s going to be and then hire appropriately to serve our clients better in order to gain more value. I did have a larger agency at one time and having big payroll scares me. Maybe it’s an unfounded fear, but ultimately I do want to grow in a specific market share. Does that make sense?

Russel: 

Makes great sense. I love the thought process, you come down to some real basics there. Give more value, double down further on your target market. Become more well known in a smaller group, it sounds like great recipes for success. Once you do find that path and where that goes, love to hear about it. We’ll have to have you back on the podcast and hear the next phase of Lform and how that’s worked out for you. Fascinating conversation. Wish we could have two hour long episodes, although listeners probably don’t want two hour long episodes, but my last big question for you, Ian, are entrepreneurs born or are they made?

Ian: 

They’re made. They’re not born. No way.

Russel: 

Confidently, says made. Tell us why.

Ian: 

Ultimately, it’s your life. Each day influences your future goals. I think if it wasn’t for having an aunt in graphic design, if it wasn’t for going to a college where I could experience industrial design versus communication design, if it wasn’t for living in a state where there’s a ton of manufacturing, I don’t think I would be where I am. Now, obviously, you have to make choices in your day to day life.

Russel: 

And if you hadn’t been sent to a networking meeting on someone else’s behalf, and made a split second decision to, that one, I’m not going to forget. That was a great one. Amazing stuff. If people want to know more about Lform, where can they go?

Ian: 

Lform.com. L F O R M dot com.

Russel: 

I know a while all four letter domains got bought up and I gotta imagine, I don’t know, are all five letter domains bought in the world now at this point?

Ian: 

Maybe. There’s a good backstory to my name, too. Back in 99, I knew I wanted to start freelancing. My last name’s Loew so I wanted L design, it’s a more of a vanity thing, and it was taken. So I reached out to my friend who’s now a lawyer and I was like, I’m looking for synonyms for like design and I want a short domain name. He was like, you’re industrial designer. You’re also a graphic designer, design. How about forming stuff, making stuff? I was like, that works, Alex. All right, let’s go with Lform. Alright. That kind of has a nice ring to it. That was my branding exercise right there.

Russel: 

I love it. I’m so glad you brought that up. Gosh, time’s about up here, but thank you so much for being on the show today, Ian. It was an absolute pleasure to get to hear all your nuggets of wisdom and your learning process and everything you’ve gone through to get to where you’re at today. Appreciate you taking the time to share it.

Ian: 

Absolutely, Russel. Thank you again so much for having me, it was a lot of fun.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of An Agency Story podcast where we share real stories of marketing agency owners from around the world. Are you interested in being a guest on the show? Send an email to podcast@performancefaction.com. An Agency Story is brought to you by Performance Faction. Performance Faction offers services to help agency owners grow their business to 5 million dollars and more in revenue. To learn more, visit performancefaction.com.

Ian: 

I remember dealing with a client, this is actually previous to starting Lform, and the client hated circles and refused to have any circles in her brochure that we were working on at the agency. I thought I had heard everything, but that was a first.

Russel: 

It sounds like might need to be some therapy there to go and cover why they hated circles. I’ve heard hating a lot of things, but a shape, I don’t know that I’ve necessarily heard hating a shape.

Ian: 

I’ve come across some interesting clients throughout my day. There was another one where I made the button too big and she stormed out of our agency, like in a huff. Wow. Okay. Some people are a little bit kooky. Entrepreneurs, let’s be honest, definitely are unique individuals at times.

Russel: 

Yeah. You’re not wrong about that.