Interview with David Mihm

David Mihm

It's that time again - another interview in our series. This time the man on the other side of the tape recorder (ok, email) is David Mihm, the web designer in Portland, Oregon (or at least he will be when he moves up the coast in a few weeks).

I got to know David through SEOmoz (SEOmoz profile and marketplace entry) - his eye-catching avatar / logo (what do you expect from a designer) and his love of basketball made him stand out. Oh, and his insightful comments, of course.

We have had a few interviews with people who focus on different areas important to SEO: Hamlet Batista on techie stuff, Dr. Pete on usability, Lyndoman (aka Cornwall SEO) on linkbait. Here David and I discuss design and small business challenges. Hope you like it:

Can you introduce yourself for our readers?

> [David]: Sure. I'm David Mihm, 25 years old, currently living in the San Francisco Bay Area. I'll soon be a new resident of Portland, Oregon, a smaller metropolitan area about 9 hours up the U.S. West Coast (3 hours south of Seattle). I started my own website design / SEO / consulting firm in 2006, after working in-house handling offline AND online marketing at a law firm for about a year.

> I'm originally from a small, blue-collar farming town in Illinois about 3 hours south of Chicago & I attended college at Williams, a small school of 2,000 students near Boston. While at Williams, I studied for a semester in London, living at the south end of Islington just off Farringdon Road, so I'm a huge Anglophile & was extremely distraught to learn that England did not qualify for the Euro championship this summer.

> I also started a college basketball website called Bracketography when I was at Williams, which has led to some EXTREMELY minor celebrity among NCAA Tournament aficionados, including a brief appearance on ESPN and an article in the New York Times in 2006, and a freelancing gig with NBC Sports last year.

> I tried a year of graduate school in architecture but was disillusioned by the program at Ohio State and so left in 2004, before getting my degree.

> I love traveling and golf, and somehow combining both of those would probably be my ideal retirement. I try to make at least one trip every two years back to Ireland or Scotland to play the world's greatest links courses.

We share a few things in common (some of the work-related ones might lead people to think we are competitors, but luckily our industry's friendly). You love basketball. Tell us about your local team. Do you play?

> [David]: Well, first off, if people think we are competitors, it'd be an honor to be included in the company of Distilled. I've been following you guys since my first days on the SEOmoz blog back in the summer of 2006. The camaraderie is one of the MANY things I love about our industry. It's so amazing to me that I have friends from all over the world (some of them in what I'd consider very high places no less!) not even two full-time years into my career. So many people have gone out of their way to give me not just practical SEO tips, but tips on growing my business, where and how to position myself, how to stay on top of all the changes in the field, etc. Rand Fishkin, Gillian Muessig & the entire SEOmoz team have been a great influence, and there are a ton of people in the San Francisco Bay Area who have been tremendous informal mentors for me: Bob Charlton, Laura Lippay, Scott Smith, Roger Montti, Lawrence Coburn to name just a few. There's also an unnamed SEO who prefers to stay under the radar who did a great job of mentoring me at my former in-house job.

> But back to your question. Not sure how it works in the UK, but my "local" team is actually the one I grew up rooting for, based near my hometown: the University of Illinois Fighting Illini. Illini fans are not having such a great season in 2008, but two years ago, our team came within a few points of winning the national championship, and our most notable recent alumnus, Deron Williams, is currently dominating the NBA as the starting point guard for the NBA's Utah Jazz.

> I've since moved to the West Coast & have picked up an affinity for most Pac-10 teams, particularly the Oregon Ducks, UCLA Bruins, and Arizona Wildcats. The NBA isn't really my thing (too much isolation offense and no defense whatsoever), but I'll root for the Portland Trailblazers, and of course the Jazz, on occasion.

> I'm a TERRIBLE basketball player and have never played a competitive minute in my life. (Except for my Williams College intramural team, the Purple People Eaters, where I led the league in number of inbounds passes and fewest points per possession. I just enjoy watching other people play the game well; in particular well-coached teams executing structured plays and playing intense defense.)

You also talk about golf on your blog. I'm not a golfer (or rather, I'm a very bad, occasional golfer) but I can appreciate the mind-control needed to excel here. It's a very different kind of pressure to the teamwork of basketball (even though that's often about the individual as well). Are there any lessons you feel you learn from sport that apply to business?

> [David]: Golf is a terrific sport for business, and it's not just the networking. As you and Pete discussed with respect to your graduate studies in your last email, golf teaches you a number of techniques that can be applied to business, at least indirectly:

> - strategic thinking (at least if you're playing a well-designed golf course; thinking about a problem from back to front (i.e. green-to-tee, rather than tee-to-green) is a tremendous asset in our industry) - self-discipline and focus (critical when you work for yourself like I do) - persistence / confidence to overcome less-than-ideal situations

> There are aspects of all three which can be learned from any sport, but because YOU are the only one accountable in golf, I think the benefits are amplified.

I'm also always intrigued by the business side of things. Is it just you working away over there, or are you growing a larger company (I guess this compares to the team vs. individual discussion above)? Do you have any plans that you can share on that side of things?

> [David]: I really enjoy working alone, being responsible only for myself, and setting my own hours and agendas, etc. Part of that derives from the fact that I'm an only child, I suppose, but I've always felt more productive whether in school or in the real world when I've had the latitude to make decisions and control the pace of things by myself. I'm well aware that I miss out on the opportunity to bounce ideas off of other people & grow in that respect, but I think the blogosphere & communities like SEOmoz alleviate some of that downside.

> Having said that, I'm well aware that I am essentially throwing away money by referring out the amount of business that I have been for the last four or five months, simply because I don't have the bandwidth to take on so many projects. Money isn't the main reason I'm in business, though; I'm passionate about creating great things and seeing clients succeed. But I realize that in order to grow my reputation further than I have, I'm going to have to take on some additional help for larger projects.

> My expectation in 2008 is to develop partnerships with freelancers (rather than taking on the bookkeeping headache of full-time employees) to farm out some of the tasks that I either don't enjoy doing or am not as good at. Linkbuilding is a great example. I recently had some discussions with Mike Belasco, aka Mike the Internet Guy, about doing some partnership work related to that. I would also like to find a top-class PHP programmer for some of the more tedious Wordpress slicing that I do; that person should also be great with shopping cart integration. Then there's the paid side, which I don't really dabble in at all. And of course a firm or individual that really knows viral marketing well. But rather than try to bring them under my umbrella, I'd rather let them operate independently & either white label it to the client or be up-front that someone else was handling that part of their marketing. Again, that's just my philosophy that I operate best when given full latitude. It's only fair that I would afford the same opportunity to others in similar positions. (Btw, I would love resumes & work experience from anyone reading this who fits those descriptions!)

> Conversely, it was really fun for me to help Matt McGee out with The SEMMYs recently, so that may be another route I go in, farming myself out to bigger, smarter fish than I am & learning and growing my personal brand that way.

> I think when I first started full-time in SEO / web design back in 2005, it was possible for one person to do it all. But even in the last three years, the field has grown at a remarkable pace, and at the same time become specialized into so many areas that it's simply impossible for one person to be good at everything anymore. I think that's a good thing, because it signals that the industry is reaching a certain level of maturity.

> I think you at Distilled have a great business model because you're still small enough to provide a great client experience, but you have enough people on staff to handle all (or virtually all) aspects of the online marketing space. Maybe one day I'll get to that point, but I'd rather start with a lower-risk model like freelancing partnerships.

I love a lot of your website designs. You came into SEO from the design side of things primarily, didn't you? That contrasts with me - I can't design for toffee and came in through maths, statistics and probability. As a result, creativity intrigues me. How do you work? How do you come up with your designs? Do you do anything else creative or even arty?

> [David]: Thanks for your kind words! I definitely got into SEO through design. I've been into art and design since primary school, and the opportunity to integrate great design into something that is good business (i.e. on-page SEO) just seems a perfect fit for my inclinations and skill sets. My secondary school art teacher, Steve Spangler, deserves a ton of credit for getting me where I am today, because he set up a flexible curriculum specially targeted to me and a few other classmates, that allowed me to simply experiment in the early days of Photoshop and Illustrator. I first worked on Illustrator 3 for Mac; we're on 13 now, as you know.

> (Incidentally, one of my classmates & best friends, Toby Grubb, I believe is now the lead graphic & web designer for Burton Snowboards. Another classmate is a high-end Flash designer for major record labels. There a ton of other classmates doing equally cool things in art and design. I'm one of the lower rungs on the MacArthur High School Art Alumni ladder. It's an incredible set of people to come from such a small school in the middle of nowhere.)

> Once I got to college, I took a class called "Intro to the Web" (it was actually a much tougher class than it sounds) that got me going on HTML. It was more a basic conceptual class on things like cryptography and data transfer, but needless to say, the taste of HTML coding set me on my way. One of my biggest regrets from college is that I didn't take the follow-up class called something like "Intro to Java" because it would have made my life a whole lot easier now!

> I get the most inspiration from peers around the web, to be honest. I'm always StumblingUpon & Digging cool designs (even Flash--horrors!), and my bookmarks are basically a completely unordered set of websites that I think look really cool. Typically at the start of a project I will ask a client to give me a set of websites he or she likes & a set that he or she doesn't like to get an idea of his/her sensibilities. I'm blessed with a darn good photographic memory (part of that comes from studying & having a passion for art and architectural history) so usually I can recall a number of different techniques & the sites that use them. I'll then try to blend those in a way that makes sense for each client & industry. I suppose that makes me a Post-Modernist (at least what is considered Post-Modern in the field of architecture) that way.

> Before I touch Photoshop, though, I'll almost always (and by that I mean 99% of the time) sketch out a series of rough thematics for the layout of the homepage, product pages, etc. These are often doodled on napkins or coasters during trips to my local watering hole.

> I'm still REALLY into architecture & may get back into it at some point down the road, but I've curtailed outlet for my creativity for the last couple of years.

We have a lot of discussion in our office about the optimum computer set-up for designers, developers and everyone else. Duncan and I have pretty much subscribed to the view that it's worth spending money for more screen real estate (though we aren't up to shoemoney levels yet). I run two 19" monitors (as does our web developer), Duncan and our graphic designer have 24" iMacs (whenever they're not being stolen!), and we have a mixture of linux, Mac OS X and Windows around the office (only linux on the servers though). What do you run? Are you an evangelist for anything in particular?

> [David]: Yeah, I was really bummed to hear about your break-in! Hopefully insurance covered everything.

> I'm not an evangelist for anything in particular, having learned on a Mac at school, but using a PC at home. I do use the right mouse button an awful lot, though, so for years the PC had an advantage there. Although Macs look absolutely gorgeous these days & I hear are way more reliable, all of my files are in PC format, and I've kind of adjusted to life on Windows. I'm waiting for whatever's coming after Vista before I buy another OS, though...XP is working fine for me right now & I am not about to upset that delicate balance.

> You might be shocked to learn that I only have a 1280px Dell Inspiron laptop. Part of that is me being stingy & keeping my overhead low, but part of it is a desire to design within a space that most people will view my work in. I might upgrade to a 19" or 21" monitor when I move to Portland in a couple months, but 24" just seems unnecessary. I'd be much more likely to spend money on a system with a ton of RAM than on a fancy monitor. I love being able to take my laptop & work anywhere, including at clients' offices. I think it's great that you guys are doing well enough to afford all of your high-end equipment, I'm just not ready to take that leap yet :D

> I don't host any of my own websites, but I do love mySQL and PHP (as opposed to ASP / Windows servers). And I'm a HUGE Wordpress and Firefox evangelist, as I'm sure is every designer.

On a similar note, one of our interview questions for web dev roles is about preferred development environment (notepad, vim, emacs, textmate, dreamweaver(ugh)). What do you use?

> [David]: I write 99% of my code by hand these days, but I used to do everything in the WYSIWYG of Dreamweaver, back before I knew a lot of code. So I still use the text editor in DW because it highlights tags in various colors & makes it easy to glance at a piece of code and see content vs structure. But you're right, anything that Dreamweaver "writes" for you tends to be pretty messy, and the WYSIWYG never seems to display CSS-styled documents properly.

Getting back away from work stuff, you mentioned on your blog that you don't drink coffee - is that because (a) you don't like the taste, (b) you don't like the effects of caffeine, or (c) you drink vodka at your desk?

> [David]: It's so nice to know that people actually read my blog, even if it's the posts that are just for fun! The answer is mostly (a) and (c). I don't drink a ton, except when I go to conferences, but I do enjoy a nice Greyhound or G&T every now and again at the end of a long day. I used to drink a lot of RedBull, but these days I am into a "natural" energy supplement called Zenergize which apparently isn't as bad for you as Taurine or Caffeine. I do find myself getting a little addicted to it, which is bothersome, but I sleep a lot as it is (8.5 hrs most nights) and I just think my body is wired such that I would sleep 10 or 11 hours without some kind of boost.

> The success Pat Sexton is having with SEOish is making me strongly consider microbrews as my breakfast beverage, however.

Staying with the alcohol theme, what will you be drinking at SMX West, so we know what to buy you if we beat you to the bar?

> [David]: Hard to know because my preferences change on a weekly basis, but I've recently been enjoying dirty martinis. Basically anything dry and not sugary will probably be a welcome concoction.

> The one thing I'd tell you to stay away from is a Long Island Iced Tea. Apparently bartenders in the San Jose area simply don't know how to make a good one. You'll have to ask Rebecca when you see her about the one she ordered at SES last year, but needless to say I finished it for her & regretted it on two separate occasions the next morning.

Finally, to bring the interview slightly back on-topic and end with a bit of geekiness, what's your favourite html tag, and have you ever found a real need for definition lists (dl / dt)?

> [David]: My favorite HTML tag. Wow. That's a good one. As a designer, I'd say the <link rel="stylesheet"> meta tag, and as an SEO, without a doubt, the <title> tag!

> I have NOT ever used DL's or DT's & would submit those tags could probably be deprecated without a major outcry from web designers everywhere :D

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About the author
Will Critchlow

Will Critchlow

Will founded Distilled with Duncan in 2005. Since then, he has consulted with some of the world’s largest organisations and most famous websites, spoken at most major industry events and regularly appeared in local and national press. For the...   read more