Interviewing the CEO of a successful web design agency

Today I’m talking with Keren Lerner – the CEO of Top Left Design. I want to know how she manages to run a web design agency. I also asked about:

  • Her thoughts on website builders
  • What are red flags when taking on new clients
  • The worst thing about running an agency

Why did you start an agency?

I began freelancing partly as a way to take control of my own fate, and partly because when looking at businesses online, I saw websites that needed to be redesigned or updated. I worked on my own (freelance) for a while, and slowly needed others to help with some of the work, until I had my first official employee. 

I thought I’d have her 2-3 days a week, but she was so keen to work I couldn’t resist – I loved her work ethic! She and I are still in touch today – but I think that hiring her would mark the start of the switchover from me being a freelancer to being an “agency owner”. I now have 5 members of staff and we’ve evolved hugely, in the way we run things, who does what, and in the technology we deliver. But the quality of work, great service and communication, and continuous focus on efficiency has been there from the start!

Interview Web Design Agency – Keren Lerner at TopLeft Design

What has your journey been like so far?

It’s been 19 years, and there are many common themes – we’re still looking to “clean up the internet” but we see how talents are in helping to discover and reveal “unique greatness” – the true and different things about each of our clients – and once we know what this is and can define it, we have many different ways to show this off, so our clients can honestly be proud of how they look and sound online

What is the nicest thing about running your own agency?

Having a team of talented, loyal people, who understand the work we’re doing and what it’s like to create change for our clients. I also like that I can have an idea of how I want to do things, and decide to implement it quickly. In terms of the running of TLD, I can decide if we take on new processes, try new software and suppliers, and collectively improve our efficiency.

What is the worst thing about running your own agency?

The pressure to make enough money to cover everything we need to run the business at the high level we do – with expert team, professional suppliers and quality systems. It would be lovely to just relax and enjoy taking care of our existing clients, who are mainly SMEs. Inevitably the bigger projects come to completion and need to be replaced with new ones from other SME clients. This is fun in itself, but covering our own running costs means it’s also worrisome at times.

Interview Web Design Agency – Keren Lerner at TopLeft Design

What type of clients do you love working with?

I love clients who communicate how we’ve helped them, who take the time to write gushing thank you messages to us – it makes us all feel great! We also like to work with people who genuinely love what they’ve created in their businesses, who want to be proud of every aspect, and therefore value the work we do.

What type of clients do you hate working with?

Rude clients! Just as we love people to be nice, we don’t like it when people are unkind to me and my team. It’s happened a handful of times, and those stick in our minds far too much!

What is a red flag, when it comes to taking on a ‘bad’ client?

Sometimes we don’t know until we’re into the project and realise they aren’t paying their invoices. Another red flag I’ve seen is if clients if people want us to copy text from their competitors, that’s definitely a sign they’re not looking for the original approach we offer.

What is your opinion about website builders?

We’ve been on the bespoke website train for many years, so we’ve always thought our way is superior, but I have seen vast improvements in the available products out there these days, and they can be a great cost-saver for those on limited budgets who need a web presence. With a bit of guidance, they can be coaxed to seem like the real thing. On the back end, I’ve heard that things are difficult, you fix one thing and something else breaks, and you don’t have the flexibility you think beyond the given templates. Many can be very heavy, as they give you lots of options, but it makes the site slower to load and more difficult to manage

Do you think website builders are a competitor to the web design business?

Yes, though when people I meet say “Like Wix” I say – “We’re not like Wix as we do things bespoke from scratch and you get something totally customised and unique, and Wix uses templates” – so the people who want our services usually wouldn’t be satisfied with Wix – either because they’re not in the mood to fiddle with templates, or because they have a very distinct requirement.

Where do you want to take your agency 5 years from now?

I want it to continue to service our lovely clients and more beyond, and to build the TLD loyalty club to have 20 members (we have 11 now) we can take care of!

Is SEO important to you? And can you tell me something about your strategy?

We have a guy called Tom who takes care of our SEO. We get a healthy amount and considering Google Reviews and a presence on other channels is important. Every month Tom suggests lots of things, I pick a couple we can do and we do it. I think taking a long-term approach to continuously improve it. Traffic can come from all sorts of people – being found easily and being visible will also invite (in our case) students with an interest in our industry, people who want to place links or articles on our site, companies who want us to outsource to them – so I would not expect to meet our business goals just by having strong SEO.

Thanks for this interview Keren!

– Ralph

PS: Want to learn more about Keren and Top Left Design? Check out

Ralph de Groot