Behind the Business: 9-Step Site Building & Launch Breakdown

First, thank you all so much for the incredible response to the big launch last week! As I made no secret of in my launch post, I did not build this new site alone — nowhere close.

The scope of this project reached far beyond simply designing a new website (a gargantuan feat in itself) — it was really about building the bones of a new business — a platform that I could grow into over the next 5, 10, 20 years. In the spirit of giving you a peek “behind the business,” this post is my best attempt at describing the process we followed from start to finish.

Two quick things before we jump in:

9-Step Breakdown of How We Built

As I mentioned last week, throughout the last year I worked in concert with mad-hatter creative genius Adam Chaloeicheep, who “showed me the light” on the whole process outlined below. Adam helps values-based companies create meaningful experiences around their brand, ultimately so that they can connect with their communities on a deep, visceral level. For that reason, our process went much more in-depth than just the design you see.

What I didn’t yet share about Adam is that he has one of the sharpest “no bullshit” filters of anyone I’ve ever met. It kept me on my toes as I worked to differentiate myself from the sea of websites already out there. I can’t tell you how much of the copy and early designs we scrapped because it looked or sounded too generic.

At a high level, we followed the following steps:

  1. Business Goals
  2. Brand Exploration & Excavation
  3. Brand Strategy & Guidelines, Logo Development
  4. Photography & Asset Library
  5. Copywriting
  6. Design
  7. Development
  8. Communications
  9. LAUNCH!

1. Business Goals

When we kicked off the project last june (code-named JB2.0), I was ready to start picking fonts and pretty colors when Adam put the brakes on — hard. He pushed me to start from ACTUAL square one: business goals, site goals, my own deepest values and my mission statement. We spent months on the WHY behind my work before ever considering fonts, colors, logo, photography and site design.

The question that launched it all was, "In three words, how do you want people to feel when they visit your site?" I was stumped. At home, optimistic, inspired to action? That was my initial stab . . . and we continued to refine it over the next 12 months.

Action steps:

  • I defined my 1- and 3-year goals both financially (outer success) and in terms of my desired lifestyle, feelings and impact (inner success).
  • It was important to be clear about my goals not just for the website, but for how it functions as the primary funnel for almost every aspect of my business. There's no point in a site that looks nice if it doesn't actually inspire others, provide value, and influence feelings, behavior, relationship-building and results.

2. Brand Exploration & Excavation

Let me start by saying if you find the word "brand" a little nauseating, I get it. Adam and I both agreed that this process was not about making up any kind of fake persona, but rather peeling back the layers to really show all sides of me . . . ones that hadn't come through yet at Life After College. Athletic, sensitive, serious, and yes . . . even sexy.

Adam's focus is helping clients develop a strong, sustainable brand presence that is an extension of who they already are, so this part of the process was really about exploring and describing how those close to me already see me.

Action steps:

  • I answered questions ranging from the quirky to the complex — on everything from brand look-and-feel to short and long-term business goals. A few fun examples:
  • “If were an item of clothing, what would it be and why?” (Cashmere sweater—soft, inviting, soothing, comfortable, elegant)
  • "How do people describe your site? How do they feel when they leave?" (Bright, welcoming, optimistic, aspirational but relatable; leave feeling motivated and inspired with practical tips and tools to actually take action)

3. Brand Strategy & Guidelines, Logo Development

This is where it really started getting fun . . . Adam drafted a 7-page PDF outlining all guidelines for the direction of my new site. He created logos (the J stamp), chose fonts and a color scheme, provided photo direction, and made a collage of the key words and visuals that represent me and my website. You'll notice that the colors and even logo give a nod to Life After College (the yellow and blue, the J stamp from my book), but in a more elegant, sophisticated way.

Action steps:

  • We reviewed the colors, logos, fonts, etc to make sure I was on board with the "visual voice" for JB2.0. On board?! I cried tears of joy when I saw the PDF. My online work has always been so scrappy — I designed the first few versions of my website and logos myself, and had never had anything done with this much care or precision for me as an individual, not just my work "out there."
  • We referred back to this document throughout the process, and it served as the foundation for the site design and print collateral (business cards, letterhead, etc.)

4. Photography & Asset Library

It was important that Adam had an image library to work with that was high quality, varied and represented all sides of me. I had the headshots from my book photo shoot, but those were years old and I actually look a lot different now! Over the course of a year, he helped me build a rock-solid "asset library" of pictures and graphics.

Action steps:

  • Adam set-up a photo shoot with his friend Dan for many of the NYC shots, provided photo direction for the subway shot (by Galo Delgado) and took the yoga photos at NYC's 5-Pointz and Joshua Tree National Park.
  • The new headshots that you see sprinkled throughout the site are taken by renowned LA-based photographer Mark Hanauer, who took my first portraits as a newborn baby.
  • I hired someone on eLance to vectorize my handwriting and the icons I drew for the navigation circles above.

5. Copywriting

This is where it was all on me to do the heavy lifting. Before digging in to the design, Adam wanted to know what he was designing for. My homework was to develop all the copy for every single page. Pfft! I really resisted this at first. Couldn’t I just wait until the last minute?!

No, Adam wasn’t having it, and understandably so — the copy (particularly the homepage) shaped much of the design. It actually created major headaches later in the process when there were copy elements that I hadn’t thought out in advance (like the sub-navigation you now see in the pink ribbon — added very late in the development process).

Action Steps:

  • After about six months of writing and refining, I ended up with a Google Doc clocking in at 25,000 words (!!) with all of my website copy and launch communications....and that's not including the drafts of the first several blog posts.
  • Melani Ward was also a huge help in terms of copywriting momentum -- I worked with her to spruce up a lot of the outdated copy at LAC (speaking, about page, coaching overview) which provided a great jumping off point for
  • As part of this process, I also started working a bank of blog posts about a month before the launch so that I could rest easy knowing I would have a steady stream of new stuff to share even as the launch frenzy was happening.
  • Finally, I decided to do a welcome video at the last minute — I wasn't sure if I would have the time to do this, but while the site was in development I threw something together with a Flipcam and my friend Shaun's snappy video-editing skills. Many people will tell you to write a script — I'm much more off-the-cuff, so what you see is a one-take video that I came up with on the spot. It isn't perfect . . . but it's me, and it works for now.

6. Design

A huge bulk of the effort went into bringing all the puzzle pieces together to form an inspiring, unique, fun, original site. Adam was tireless in his quest to design something truly unique and I was constantly awed by his vision and fierce commitment to originality and excellence.

He would design something I loved, then a few days later say, "I was bored with it! It wasn't cool enough!" and send himself back to the drawing board until he had sufficiently pushed the envelope in every direction. Ultimately a blog is a blog, so some aspects of the site are consistent with many other websites (the sidebar for example), but some familiarity is good for user experience too.

Action Steps:

  • First up was a sitemap (outline of all pages, particularly what needed to go in the various navigation areas) and wireframes (hand sketches of various ideas and layouts)
  • Once I delivered the relevant copy and wireframes, Adam would put together a rough design of each important page.
  • This was really a collaborative process. We would review together, I would provide input, then he designed and refined in the master Photoshop file (many many times) until the site was ready for development.
  • In addition to the overall design, Adam and I worked hard to come up with creative solutions to things like the New Here page, the Toolkit, and my Coaching Process page.
  • It is best if the design is FINAL before handing off to the development team, but we didn’t quite achieve that since there were so many complex elements and moving parts.

7. Development

This is where my dear friend and web-developer extraordinaire Nina Cross comes in, who worked as a team with Thesis prodigy Alex Mangini to develop the site using the not-even-out-yet Thesis 2.1 framework. That itself proved to be a big learning curve, and we had a LOT of custom technological requirements on top of it. Save for a few small things hired out on Elance and oDesk (such as the animated elements), Nina and Alex did an outstanding job of turning the design into web-based reality.

Action Steps:

  • Nina worked on a development server with Adam's PSD file and a Google Doc I put together called Technical Specifications with all instructions for layout, features and functionality. We agreed on a timeline and scope of work, then got started!
  • I delivered three main rounds of feedback via shared Google doc, which was helpful since I had Adam weigh in with his thoughts too. Nina and Alex did a very graceful job of balancing both of our input, and magically found a way to make everything happen.
  • Once Nina and Alex were done, my right-hand woman and sanity saver, Melissa Anzman, helped me with countless last-minute details, link checking, updates and copy changes.
  • Adam and I did a final site review, and ended up making some significant changes to the navigation to ensure that it represented the site architecture accurately.
  • Right up until the final pre-launch minutes, Nina and Alex helped with dozens of last minute bug fixes, formatting updates and design tweaks to get the site as close to the original design as we could.

8. Launch Communications

I am not a fan of last-minute scrambling (I'm an obsessive planner and checklist-maker!), so it was important to me to have all my launch ducks in a row as far before the official date as possible. For a big project like this, communicating it is no afterthought! If a website launches in the Internet Forrest and no one is around to hear it...did it ever happen?!

The launch communications were also particularly important for me because I now have two sites — I wanted to make it clear that I'm not ditching Life After College, but rather enhancing it (with the help of guest writers) and bringing it back to its roots, while I explore ALL the topics that interest me here: the intersection of mind, body, and business — along with tools, writing, travel, yoga, health, creativity, and whatever else comes to mind.

Action Steps:

  • Much like the Blogger Kit I created for my book, I put together the following copy in a Google Doc: announcement blog posts for LAC and JB2.0, a newsletter for each, an email to my blogger friends with sample tweets and a light request for help spreading the word, and all the various social media updates I’d be sharing when the site went live.
  • I spent the week before the launch formatting everything in WordPress and MailChimp to ensure that I would have to do as little as possible on the actual launch day . . . I knew I would be fried!

We were still working on development fixes all the way up until the eleventh hour . . . but at 1 p.m. Eastern Time on June 11, with a HUGE sigh of relief, exhaustion and glee, it was finally time to turn off the Coming Soon plug-in, hit publish on all of the copy, and . . .

9. LAUNCH!!!!

Then . . . collapse :) And celebrate in gratitude to all of you who shared such kind comments, tweets, and emails. THANK YOU.

So, that’s it — or at least as much of it as I can remember before blocking it out of memory for a little R&R!

A recap of resources to support you in your own big launch:

I’d love to hear from you in the comments: What questions do you have about your own big launch? Am I missing any steps in the process that you’d like to know more about?