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Introduction (00:00):

Welcome to the Small Biz 101 Podcast, a show for big dreamers who want to start or grow their small businesses. And now your host, long-term small business owner and strategic business coach, Connie Whitesell.

Connie Whitesell (00:17):

Welcome. I am Connie Whitesell, your host of the Small Biz 101 Podcast. I am thrilled to have you here listening to this interview with Brandon Hills, web designer and owner of Good Steward Designs. Brandon and I had a fascinating discussion about the importance not only of having a website that communicates your services well, but also ensuring that website is accessible for people with disabilities and not just people with disabilities, aging people like me who just sometimes don’t see as well anymore. It really is the right thing to do, and it will also keep you out of legal trouble ensuring that your website is accessible. So check out the show notes for more information and to connect with Brandon Hills and learn more about his work. Enjoy the show. Hello, hello. We are currently streaming through the Streamlined Business Strategies Facebook group. If you are, come on in, say hello. If you are watching in the group, let us know you’re here with a hello, a happy Tuesday, an emoji. It is a gorgeous day. If you are in, well, we’re in Upstate Western. What’s yours considered, Brandon? Finger Lakes area, New York. Finger

Brandon Hills (01:48):

Lakes area is probably the easiest

Connie Whitesell (01:50):

Way, and it is such a gorgeous day, so hopefully everyone’s having a chance to get out and enjoy it if you’re in this gorgeous weather. But come on in, say hello. If you’re watching the replay, just let us know you’re on the replay. If you are watching on YouTube or listening on the Small Biz 1 0 1 podcast, hello to you as well. Thank you for being here. If you like what you hear, please hit the subscribe button. I do these interviews about once a month now to support small business owners by providing guest experts in areas needed by entrepreneurs. So, so far we have discussed legal considerations for solo business owners, mindset support, having an empowering mindset, the impact of working with an online business manager. Just last month we talked about the power of photography and knowing one’s purpose and business success, and I’m so happy to, Brandon and I, we’ve been talking about this for quite some time and having Brandon Hills here, Brandon has, boy, Brandon, you’ve been involved in web design for several years now.

(03:01):

Going back, I’ve got to 2017 after reading a book on it. That’s impressive. Somebody actually took a book and ran with a career with that. I know you started your first website design and development business in 2018 where Brandon gradually transitioned to become specialized in website accessibility. And after finding many designers and developers were not equipped to correct the accessibility problems found on their client’s websites. Brandon started Good Steward Designs. I love that name. And now Brandon helps business owners upgrade from there, do it yourself website to a new professional and fully compliant design. So welcome, Brandon. It’s really good to have you here.

Brandon Hills (03:49):

Thank you. Thanks for having me on.

Connie Whitesell (03:52):

And I’m curious, where did the name of your company come from?

Brandon Hills (03:57):

Well, when brainstorming, yeah, brainstorming ideas. I was just like, I’d be kind of taking care of people’s websites for them because I manage the projects that I do, and so good steward kind of stuck as someone that’s trustworthy, reliable to watch over your baby as far as your website goes. Oh,

Connie Whitesell (04:22):

I love that. I love that. And a website is so important. So let’s start with the basics really. From an overall marketing perspective, how truly impactful do you think it is to have a website for a business owner? Because there are several out there that don’t have them that rely on their Google business profile, their Facebook page. Tell me, what do you think?

Brandon Hills (04:46):

Yeah, it’s interesting. On each of those platforms, there’s a space for your website link to go because people naturally want to know more and to go check you out in other places is just kind of natural progression. You can’t get all the information that you want to convey on those platforms, or you have to hope that they’re going to scroll and keep scrolling maybe on your Facebook feed or whatever where you can present the information you want to control and present to them on your own website.

Connie Whitesell (05:17):

Absolutely. Well, actually, I should ask you, because there’s so many, I think of them as templates, and I know there’s a better word for it, but there are so many programs out there like WordPress and Wix that we hear about and other templates like that. What do you think about those? Do you use those? Do you think they have a place?

Brandon Hills (05:42):

Yeah, yeah. The technical name would be a C M S. It’s a content management system, but that’s industry jargon. So yeah, themes, templates, they use those things to create websites. Some other ones, if you pay more, you have the option to kind of drag and drop and do things kind, make your own stuff customized, but I don’t use those personally. It’s an accessibility issue for me. I definitely could do projects faster and maybe get a different market share of client that wants to take over the website when I’m done with it if I did. But from doing my website audits for accessibility, I just found it just makes it so difficult to create a compliant website. The software that’s building the website just naturally has its own problems. And then it’s very difficult for an outside developer to go in. You can only change it down to a certain level before there’s not much they can do, or you have to be really experienced and expensive to be able to change it. So because of the difficulty in making ’em compliant, I just don’t even bother. They’re great for businesses starting up. Wix is a big one. They’re cheaper.

(07:11):

But when you’re first starting out in business and you don’t have anything and you’re like, well, what do we say in the coaching that a progress is better than perfect. And so having something there to interact with your customer base is better than nothing. And then once you’re ready to move into that more high-end website, that’s where I’m positioned to transition you from that point to the new design.

Connie Whitesell (07:43):

Well, and I’d love to hear, when you say accessibility, would you share about more about what you mean by that? Who does that help? How does it help? What are maybe some high level things that business owners need to look out for when it comes to that? Because of course, we all want our information to be accessible to everyone.

Brandon Hills (08:04):

Yeah. And this is like a, might ring a bell for some people. I usually will explain it. When you go to a commercial building and there’s handicap ramps and there’s handicapped parking spaces and you use the bathroom and they have, the bathroom has to be a certain size and there’s rails on the wall, all those different regulations that go into the physical building, there’s the same type of thing in the website. And so that would be the flip side of the coin there, the different compliance standards that keep it accessible to people that have low vision, no vision, hard of hearing. It can be cognitive disorders. It can be just a whole gambit. People that don’t have use of any limbs at all, and they’re using devices that track their eye movement, and so they can navigate around the site in a certain way. They might have a device that they can, it’s called a sip and a puff.

(09:10):

They have like a straw, and they basically have this device interact with a website or their computer in general by different commands that they give through either blowing air into the straw or sipping. You take a drink, different ways of doing stuff like that. So a whole range of disabilities. But then there’s also just as people get older and their eyesight starts to go or their hearing starts to go, just kind of a natural aging progression. So it’s not even just limited to people with disabilities. It helps everyone. There’s situational disabilities that you kind of say, I always talk about you’re outside on a sunny day and you’re trying to look up something on your phone and it’s really hard to read. Things like that can come into play. Or you are in a busy, maybe you’re at a bus stop, maybe you’re at a restaurant and you’re trying to watch a video and you can’t hear it, or it would be inappropriate to blast a video. So you use captions, stuff like that, that’s situational.

Connie Whitesell (10:23):

What do you see as being the biggest mistakes that businesses do make by not having their website accessible?

Brandon Hills (10:32):

Yeah, currently there’s about 50 compliance checks that I do. The ones I see cited most in lawsuits. It’s really the low hanging fruit, and it’s the ones that I find wrong on. Almost every website that I audit would be things like pictures. Pictures will have a certain attribute in the code that will communicate what is supposed to be described in the picture or the context of the picture that’s supposed to be about. Did I cut out there for a minute?

Connie Whitesell (11:18):

You lost you there for just a few seconds. Yeah. Do you mind repeating that?

Brandon Hills (11:22):

I’ll just repeat from the beginning there. So pictures is a big one. And communicating the context of the picture in the coding, there’s different attributes that should be there or should be coded in a certain way to communicate the information properly. Maybe it’s the picture is a link to buy now or buy a sale item or something and communicating the purpose of that link or where it’s going. Or maybe it’s a picture you on your own website. And so contextually you would want to say this is a picture of you. A lot of people don’t use, it’s called alt text. They don’t use it or they don’t have it. They usually don’t know. And so if someone’s using some sort of assist would be the broad terminology for everything, but screen readers. Screen readers reading it for someone that can’t see very well or can’t see at all, and it reads up to that image, it might say some sort of gobbly go, like the file name.

(12:32):

You might get a whole bunch of letters and numbers really confusing. Some other ones might try to guess and they get stuff wrong. Some people put their own alternative text in and it’s really bad. It might be almost like a commercial. And so you’re listening as you navigate through a website and you’re listening to five minutes of something that has nothing to do with what you’re looking for. So images is a big one. Another one is color contrast. So that’s going to be being able to distinguish the text that you’re reading against the background. So the highest level of contrast you have is obviously black letters on a white background or vice versa. But when branding colors come in to play, people might start using lighter shades or it’s just a styling effect that it makes the website look really cool or modern or nice and it matches branding. But to people that aren’t able to perceive it, it’s almost invisible or they have to really strain and then it becomes fatiguing and then you’re just like, I’m not even going to bother. One of the big things to cover in accessibility is you don’t want to put this undue amount of time on someone. Yes, they could probably get through it, but if it takes a lot of undue effort, then that’s becoming a problem.

(13:56):

The third one that I see really frequently is the structure of the website. I usually will relate it to a table of content. So your webpage is going to have a certain structure to it, and a lot of people will have that really, really off, which harms the navigation structure. So someone is using a screen reader to go through a website and they’re trying to get just relevant information to find out where they want to go, and they can’t get it because the structure’s off and it gives them incorrect information, or they get routed to the wrong part of the page, and so they miss what they’re looking for. It’s a really easy fix. Typically, it’s due to styling. People want their headings to look a certain way, so they use a certain heading structure, but it’s out of order. And so they’re not familiar with how to actually make it look the way they want, but the background meaning of the actual building blocks of the website need to follow the structure. So it’s pretty simple stuff usually, but if you don’t have an eye for it, you don’t know what you don’t know. And so business owners end up getting into trouble and they had no idea.

Connie Whitesell (15:11):

Yeah. So two things I’d like to explore from that. Number one, I can’t even imagine how frustrating that could be for somebody with a disability with just trying to find one website that they can get through without all of these struggles. And I’m just curious, is there something that can indicate on a website that it is accessible so people don’t have to keep trying out the site, trying out that site? Is there anything like that out there or

Brandon Hills (15:43):

Not really. Even in the work I do with where I used to do an accessibility statement that would be found at the bottom of the page and it would communicate, this is the standard that we’re using, this is how compliant it is. If there’s any known issues, these are addressed there. Even those, I’ve found a lot of people will just almost maybe copy and paste one to stick it there, and then the site actually isn’t compliant. So I wouldn’t even say you could trust that anymore. You’ll see websites that have a little button. It tends to be in the lower corner on one side or the other, and it’s a little handicapped symbol for some reason. They’re always blue. You might see those on a site that’s using software. It’s called an overlay, and it’s supposed to, I give this analogy, it’s kind of like you have a moldy wall that’s got water damage and you put a new fresh coat of paint over it, so you’re trying to make it look good, and they’re doing it.

(16:45):

They want to try to help people use the site better, but it doesn’t actually fix the root problem. And so even with something like that, it might help people in certain aspects, and it might be a sign that it might be a little bit more functional in the end. Those are basically a waste of money for a business owner. And there’s more and more data coming in, even for those going to lawsuits that have been using these tools that it hasn’t protected the businesses at all. So you got to really watch out for things like that.

Connie Whitesell (17:20):

Wow. That has to be such a struggle for boy, so many people. And then on the other side of things, you’ve mentioned a couple of times now lawsuits. So there are penalties for not having your website compliant, correct?

Brandon Hills (17:38):

Yeah. It really comes down to, I mean, there’s federal guidelines, well, federal rules, they all fall under civil rights laws. So there’s federal level, there’s state level for us in New York, if you’re from anywheres from New York and Northeast, the district courts in our region have ruled. That’s district courts one and two. They’ve ruled that a website is a place, in the technical term is place of accommodation. So it would mean that even if you didn’t have a brick and mortar store, it is like a brick and mortar store, so you have to make it accessible. So if you are in any of those states and there’s a lawsuit and you haven’t taken care of any of it, you’re probably going to lose.

(18:25):

So you can go through the D O J can come after you. It could be a state level thing. There’s a lot of things that don’t go to an actual lawsuit, and it’s called a demand letter. A law firm will send out problems. We really don’t want to go to court. If you can just pay this money and tell us you’re going to fix it, we’ll drop it and just settle everything there. And there is, for every lawsuit that’s out there, there’s probably at least 10 to, there’s probably more than that, a hundred of those that go out. You could call it predatory in a way, because when you look at the lawsuits, there’s a lot of the same law firms and the same plaintiff making cases. It might seem a little dirty, but at the same time, people aren’t actually doing what they’re supposed to. But for a good portion of that, they don’t know. Web designers largely don’t know, and it’s almost only through the lawsuits and the escalation of them that people have finally learned that, Hey, this needs to be done.

Connie Whitesell (19:38):

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, yeah. So it’s not only do the right thing, please, but it’s also, yeah, there are good chances that you can really get dinged on this if you don’t do it. Right. I know you had mentioned separate from this in another conversation that New York State in particular is pretty strict on this.

Brandon Hills (20:02):

Yeah. New York State is number one for lawsuits. So California is number two, and they’re actually developing their own. The problem with the laws is that a lot of ’em were out before the internet has become what it is. So people argue that the website specific terminology, I cut out again. Yeah,

Connie Whitesell (20:34):

You said it was a

Brandon Hills (20:35):

Really good point as well.

Connie Whitesell (20:37):

I sure was. You need to repeat it. I heard people argue that, and then you cut.

Brandon Hills (20:43):

Right. So the terminology in the laws that get cited is that place of public accommodation that when the laws were developed, the internet wasn’t what it is for everybody today. So they’ll argue that this doesn’t apply to my website, my online store, even if you have a brick and mortar building, it doesn’t apply to the business’s website. And so California, they’ve developed some of their own laws that are now kind of taking that into account where they’re using exact terminology to kind of eliminate the problem upfront. The district court rulings have happened because people have taken their lawsuits so far that finally they ruled. And while you’ve got, I can’t remember what, it’s 11, 12 district courts in the us, only a handful of them will go this way. So you have other states that if it went to court, you’ve got a chance, maybe some you’ll probably win.

(21:45):

If you’re on the negative side of it, it kind of varies, but then you still have cross border stuff. So you could have somebody in New York, you’re in Washington State, and you get sued. Well, now you have to ask someone, go to court in New York, because that’s where they’re bringing the lawsuit. And now even if you don’t get dinged on it, you’ve got all expense going in for court and everything like that, which maybe it’s a little different now after Covid with everything Zoom. Maybe they’ve made some concessions, I’m not sure, but it’s almost just cheaper to get it done and fixed than to take the risk.

Connie Whitesell (22:23):

Yeah. So what is that, for someone who’s hearing this for the first time and realizing that there might be an issue here, what should they do?

Brandon Hills (22:34):

Yeah, I mean, you can see I’ve posted a couple free tools, and I don’t know if that’s something we can maybe mention in show notes later or something where people can kind of go and check. I’ve made posts about ’em where you can go and download them and it’ll show you some top level low hanging fruit, and you can just get an idea and see if you’ve got errors. What kind of errors are they? If you’ve never really worried about accessibility before and your web designer didn’t mention it, then chances are your website’s probably inaccessible because of the way people just have been making websites. The modern thing is very messy and inaccessible, but free tools. I offer free checks for people that like, Hey, I’m not sure where my website stands, and I can go check a couple quick things and give you a yay or an nay, and here’s a couple things to fix.

(23:33):

I’m happy to get people coined in the right direction for that just because like we say, you don’t know what you don’t know, and it can be very damaging to a business to get just a nasty gram from an attorney’s office out of the blue. But yeah, there’s also, if someone wanted to go the audit route there, you can have your website audited, and that’s running through all the compliance standards and what exactly needs to be fixed. And then you can take that to your website developer or whoever, if someone’s managing it for you, or say someone built a website for you in the past, maybe you can go back to ’em and say, Hey, these things are wrong. Can you fix them for me? There’s different avenues like that. When I do that with my other business, I’m typically brought into a project where there’s already a developer, but there’s different avenues. The information can go to get it in the right hands. Clients that work with me, I build everything from scratch, from the ground up. It’s the only way that I can ensure that everything can meet compliance standards without having a bunch of a CMSs software mess it all up.

Connie Whitesell (24:48):

Yeah. Oh my gosh. It really is so enlightening, and I think that it also emphasizes for anyone who is considering setting up a new website, doing a new website, do it right the first time, bring in somebody like Brandon who really knows this information and can do things the right way. So it’s not an issue. It’s super helpful, and I will gather your contact information. I will absolutely put it in the show notes I’m going to ask as well, but I want to shift for a moment if that’s all right with you, because I also like to share during these interviews perspectives from other service-based business owners, and you’ve been doing this for a while. I know you’ve said that this has been a good year in your business. You’ve been growing, growing. So some things that I just wanted to ask that you might be able to share with the audience here is what do you feel like, did I lose you for a second there? You

Brandon Hills (25:48):

Did. You did. Yeah.

Connie Whitesell (25:50):

Okay. I hope not for too long, but

Brandon Hills (25:54):

You are just starting the question, so you can just re-ask it.

Connie Whitesell (25:59):

Okay. As a service-based solo business owner, I’m just shifting the perspective here. I’d just love for you to share some things that have helped you in your business. What would you say are your one to two keys to success in your work? Clearly, you provide a service that is so valuable, but still you have to be out there and letting people know. So what would you consider to be keys to your success? Well, this is going to be one of these days with internet issues, it looks like.

Brandon Hills (26:31):

There we go again. So I did get the question that time. So as far as for helping me this year, I mean, when it comes to any business, it’s just really getting your name out there. And so consistency has been big, and I don’t want to break the secret or anything, but I’ve worked with you, Connie, for most of this year. I’ve worked with you as a business coach, and so finding out ways to identify where you need to meet your target audience and then just being consistent in reaching them, and then the business will, it’ll just naturally come to you. No one’s going to come to you if they don’t know who you are. And once they know who you are, there is that kind of period of, can I trust this person? Are they a fly by night kind of thing? And then the longer you do it, the more credible you become.

(27:26):

So just being consistent, and I highly recommend working with someone like you, business coach, even if you can’t afford it and you go through an S B A program or something like that, can really get you on the right track early on to start thinking of these things, because it’s really easy when you’re first starting a business to just get bogged down in every aspect of the business, and you don’t know what it is that’s going to be in the most high priority item or the most productive item you can be working on. So we tend to do a little bit of everything, and then we don’t want to delegate anything, and so we take too much on, and if you don’t burn out, then you start succeeding down the roads.

Connie Whitesell (28:12):

Yeah. Yeah. I’m so glad you said about consistency, because that is, I think people know what they need to do, right? People, they do a great job developing their marketing plans, but where things fall apart is in the application, in the consistent application of the ideas. So it is not that you have to do one particular thing to grow your business, but decide on what will be the most impactful one, two, possibly three activities, and do them consistently. I’m curious.

Brandon Hills (28:44):

What I liked how you,

Connie Whitesell (28:45):

Oh, go ahead.

Brandon Hills (28:47):

I was going to say, I liked how you said there’s no one size fit all. I mean, I’ve put thousands of dollars in programs that will give me the silver bullet in the past, and the problem is they’re selling a one way only approach, and if that way doesn’t work for your business or your target customers aren’t on the other side of that, then it was actually just a waste of money. But they made their money reaching to their target clients, so they’ve accomplished their goal, but it is probably going to be different for everybody, so you really have to put the work in and figuring it out.

Connie Whitesell (29:24):

Absolutely. Absolutely. And that just reminds me, having worked with you over this year, another thing that we didn’t talk about with regard to web design that I just want to really give kudos to Brandon for is Brandon is a copyright expert. I mean, you have gift for the way you express things, particularly online and in the website, so you’re so helpful. And sometimes when you’re as a business owner, if you’re putting together a website, the people you work with are mainly technically focused and may not have that gift because we’re not all ideal marketers either. And it’s so nice that you provide that added service of being able to convey in a really impactful way what people do and really help them that way in their websites. So I just wanted to mention that. I think that’s really,

Brandon Hills (30:16):

I appreciate that. It’s easier when I’m not live and I can think about it and edit and just that kind of thing. So as I stumble over all my words, don’t hold that one against me.

Connie Whitesell (30:27):

Oh my gosh. For all of us, for of us, for sure. Well, I really appreciate you sharing about your expertise, about your experience as a business owner. And I’m just curious, now we’re getting toward the end of the year. Is there anything in particular that you’re excited about in your business for closing out the year or starting out the new year?

Brandon Hills (30:50):

Yeah, I mean, I’ve laid a good foundation over this year. I went from having a really bad year last year to really having my best year this year, and so I feel like the foundation has been laid really well, and so just continuing to build on that and add to it. So I’m really excited to see what this next quarter and next year are going to bring.

Connie Whitesell (31:16):

Love that. Oh, fabulous. Well, Brandon, thank you. Oh, I need to ask you, how do you prefer that people reach you?

Brandon Hills (31:26):

Sure, yeah. Email is always good. That’s Brandon at Good Steward Designs, or you can reach out by phone or text at two three five five one zero eight. If you see me on social media, friend request me and start up a chat, that’s fine too.

Connie Whitesell (31:47):

I really encourage people to find Brandon on social media because he provides a wealth of information and tips, and Brandon’s hilarious. You’re bound to get a chuckle out of most of what you’ll see out there. So Brandon, you really make it enjoyable to read your content, so thank you.

Brandon Hills (32:09):

Good. I don’t want it to be dry, but I want people to walk away with something. I don’t want ’em to feel like they’ve been sold to, or they’ve been tricked to read it. I want them to have something that they can walk away. That was worth my time.

Connie Whitesell (32:21):

Yeah. Oh, absolutely. I so appreciate you being here. Thank you also to people who have popped in, whether you’re watching live or if you’re watching the replay, if you’re here watching on YouTube or listening through the podcast, really, really appreciate you being here. I’m sure you’ve taken away some real nuggets of gold for your own business. I also ask that you join me for my next interview on, we’ll be live November 14th with who I believe to be just the king of customer service and client retention. Alex Teis. I know this is going to be another really super informative interview, so looking forward to that and hope to see you all there. Take care, everybody.

Outro (33:08):

Thank you for listening to The Small Biz 101 Podcast with your host, Connie Whitesell. For more information, visit smallbiz101podcast.com.