This is Not Google

I just got a call from an automated service (I did not stay on long enough to hear all of it) that said:

“This is an important call for the business owner. This is not Google…”

I figured when they said “This is not Google” they really meant to say “this is a scam to get you listed when you could do it for free” so I hung up. I did have to laugh a bit when I heard “This is not Google”.

Update on Project Management

What time is it? Time to get serious about project management

A few months ago I switched to using Redmine for all my company’s project management needs. I had used it before for s short stint while working on another project but never really thought too much about it. After adding additional developers to my team – I really needed something more powerful than what I was using. Now – two months later I have over 400 tasks in place, clients entering in their own tickets, amazing reporting capabilities, and a great user interface that hooks in to all my SVN repositories. If you are looking for a new project management tool – give Redmine a look. I generally spend a few hours in it a day and have been very happy with it.

Contracts Are King

There has been a lot of talk about contracts in my field in the last few months, especially after the F*CK You, Pay Me talk/video. I have used a contract for 100% of my work now for a few years – after getting into a few situations where I did not get paid and had to learn the hard way. Contracts also help with situations where the client wants to add in a number of new features/functions/etc without getting charged extra.

Just like backups – people know they should do it, but generally feel ok if they do not. Time to wake up and get serious about your work. Not sure where to start? Keep reading.

  1. Find a contract right for you/your company. There are contract packs you can buy/download for a price, or even find some on the web (If you have a lawyer – they might have one they put together. If you do not have a lawyer – go directly to the next step below.)
  2. Document everything. Make sure to outline specs, change in specs, deliverables, etc. The more that is documented – the more you haveto work with and say – “that was not specified in the contract”
  3. Find a lawyer you are comfortable with. Make sure you have them review/make changes to/are comfortable with your contracts. If there are any issues – you know they will be comfortable with the terms you have in the contract.
  4. Don’t skimp. Use a reputable lawyer – not the cheapest or someone who is x person’s cousin’s wife (unless they are really serious about you and your work). Make sure your lawyer has an expertise in business law and can/will represent you.
  5. Fight for what you want. If you cannot use one of your own contracts – don’t let the other party bully you with their contract. Make sure you and your lawyer review the contract and make change requests as needed.
  6. Don’t be afraid to walk away. If after contact reviews/changes are not agreed upon – just walk away and be glad you did.

As I always say – it is better to be over-protected then under-protected. If you have concerns about legal fees with contract review – take a moment and research court/law suit legal fees. I am sure you will then begin to realize a little upfront costs will be much more appealing.

How I Stay Motivated

Everyone gets burned out now and again with what they do. When you are busy working on all kinds of projects it is easy to get lost in the mix, get caught up in all the switching tasks/taking calls/staying on top of email/feeling like you are just chasing yourself in circles, which can bring on some major burn out.

In order to keep burn out low – I have been doing the following which has worked well:

  1. Take time each day – during “work hours” to work on a pet project. In the end your skills will develop, and you will work on something that is exciting and something that you look forward to working on.
  2. Take time each day to step away from work – even if just for 20 minutes. I generally take my dog for a quick walk each day so I can refocus
  3. Keep to business hours. There are some exceptions, but for the most part – work only during your set business hours and keep all personal tasks for your personal time. (I do not even answer personal calls for the most part). By clearly separating your business/personal lives – you feel much more calm and focused at work and at home.
  4. Make a list of everything you want to accomplish for the day. The list helps set goals for the day and it is also quite rewarding to cross completed tasks off the list. (I know Mom…)
  5. Remember you do what you do because you love it. If you do not love it – find something you love and move on.

HOWTO: Change Your QuickBooks Web Connect Account

Awhile back I changed banks (bank buyout/name change) and have been fighting with Quickbooks (2010) when I do my web connect imports. When I go yo “Online Banking” > Import within QuickBooks – I have the account I want to use open, but when the .qbo file opens, it goes to my old account (previous bank). This was driving me crazy and I finally decided it was time to fix this.

To disassociate an account/fix this issue:

  1. Select the Lists menu and then select Chart of Accounts.
  2. Select the account you wish to unlink from imported online transactions, and then select Edit from the Action pop-up menu.
  3. Click Online Settings.
  4. Click the Download Transactions drop-down arrow.
  5. Select Not enabled, and then click Save.
  6. In the Edit Account window, click OK.

You can then have Quickbooks use your new account name – especially helpful when switching banks, or if your bank name changes.

Once you have removed the association from the old account – to set up the new account to properly import the transactions – you just need to make sure the account window is correctly open (new bank name) before importing.

(Documentation taken from: http://support.quickbooks.intuit.com/support/Articles/HOW12320)

How NOT to Take/Make a Business Call

It is unbelievable how some people act on a conference call or even a business related call. From my experience here are some pointers on how NOT to impress your colleagues/clients/developers. (All based on actual things I have experienced)

  • Make a business call while in the drive-thru at McDonanlds…and then ask me to hold while you order your “Big Breakfast”. You called me – why couldn’t you wait until at least after ordering?
    What it tells me: You do not respect my time and this will not be the last inappropriate call. Anything is game.
  • Have multiple conversations while on a call. Setting up a call with me, then talk to your co-workers about unrelated topics in between actually taking to me – who you called is just not acceptable.
    What it tells me: You are over scheduled or have no idea how to stay focused. Reviewing the project with you is going to be a bear.
  • Answer another line, without asking me to hold so I can hear the drama with you and your spouse.
    What it tells me: You lack discretion and inappropriate comments are soon to follow.
  • Yell at your co-workers while on the phone. If this is how you treat someone that you work with day in and day out – perhaps I should stay clear from you and your business.
    What it tells me: You have respect issues and interactions with you are going to be rough.
  • Talk to your kids while on the phone. Telling them to “go watch TV” or anything else while Daddy is on the phone just does not cut it. If you work at home – make sure your family members have boundaries.
    What it tells me: You have no boundaries and are going to expect me to work all hours of the day (since you do as well).
  • Take a call with very loud background noise. I have been on conference calls with people who had to literally mute their line when they were not talking because of the background noise. If you cannot find somewhere quiet to take/make a call – perhaps you should just wait.
    What it tells me: You think your time is worth more than mine.
  • Make the call, but then answer all call-waiting incoming calls. I know there are exceptions and emergencies, but if we have a 30 minute call scheduled and you put me on hold more than three times, perhaps this is not great time to take the call.
    What it tells me: You have a lot of other higher priorities than what is being discussed.

Seriously – phone calls should be to the point and between the parties on both ends done with mutual respect. This is not rocket-science – it is just a matter of time and respect.

Asset Management

I spent a few hours this past week thinking about “the big picture” for my company. I decided to focus a good chunk of time this month on improving workflow and streamlining certain tasks and processes. One process that I am going to tackle is asset management. Our designers/clients send a barrage of email with large files attached, use my company FTP server to host them, or send them using third party file hosting services. While the files are sent and archived – there is no central place for them and I am constantly looking everywhere for them. After doing some quick research – I found “ResourceSpace which seems to do everything I am looking for:

  • Web interface
  • Create users and user groups
  • Search, tag, add meta data to assets
  • Theme the install (look and feel is very important to me)
  • Archiving
  • Auto thumbnail generation
  • Reporting

I will report back next week and let you know how it goes!

Iffy v. Ideal Clients

I love having the opportunity working with a number of diverse clients from very diverse backgrounds. There are certain clients though that you can – right from the initial contact – that are going to be “iffy” v. “ideal”.

I have learned over the years how to easily spot the “iffy” clients. They clients are always the ones that need something quick in an impossible timeframe, cannot articulate what they want, wants your advice but wants it done for a fraction of the time it would take to do it correctly, think they know more than you or “in my past life I was…”, or always are panicked. The big issue here is they know they need help – but they distrust you and the solution (regardless what it is).

The ideal clients (you know who you are!) can be spotted a mile away. They come to you with a clear idea of what they want, know how to properly articulate/document tasks, and understand that the company/consultant might have some ideas of how to best implement the solution. Most importantly – they realize they trust that you (the company/consultant) have the knowledge to do whatever it takes to create the best solution.

My suggestion to successful client/consultant relationships: learn to gauge the trust level and go with it. If you as the client do not trust the consultant – find someone else. It is more likely that you will find an issue with something, blame the consultant (perhaps even wrongly) and not only will you not trust the consultant – the consultant will get bitter as well. If you are the consultant – and you sense a trust issue – it is also time to move on. It seems hard – but really – those panicked phone calls, thoughts of “are they going to pay me?”, etc worth it? No. Move on and enjoy life!

When Designing – Use Real Content

There are many lessons to learn out there as a designer, and please let this be at the top of your list: when designing something – whether it be a business card, a brochure, or a web site – use real content.

Lately – when doing any design work for a client – we always make sure they provide us with actual content so they can see their content in a working design. Often clients will see another site they like – want you to use similar ideas – but in actuality – their content is completely different or would not work. (We see this a lot). When working with clients who have their own designers or some pre-designed mockups – we always allot for more time – as there are bound to be changes because the designer only showed a few items (which in reality is a lot of items) – and then the client does not like the layout of their “real content”.

If the client does not have real content – red flags should go up. Not only are you setting yourself up for a potentially longer than expected engagement (if they do not know what their actual content is – do they really even know what they want anything to look like?) – but a lot of changes and headaches will follow. If they provide the content up front – everyone’s expectations are set right away and the end result will match the design. No questions/confusion.

In conclusion – save yourself a lot of time, frustration, and potentially endless change cycles by making the client provide real content for your designs.

Managing Time (Pre-Contract)

Over the past year – I have been really trying to tighten down a lot of processes/functions in my company – and wanted to talk a little bit about managing what I call “pre-contract” time. When potential clients first contact us – I generally spend thrity minutes to an hour getting the initial project information. This includes having an initial call to gather existing documentation, mockups, timelines, and other other project details. After this – I generally write a follow up email and either put everything in my notes in writing or have the client email me a list of what they went over. Either way – the important part there is that everything is in writing.

I generally also take this call without any other people from my company – as I want to make sure I am not wasting others’ time. Once the initial contact is over – I either send over a contract with work specifications or if need be – I will set up another call with whomever from my team is needed to help move the process along (sometimes design, other times other developers). Some clients are very respectful of time as well and make sure to have an agenda or at least questions ready. The second call generally is a little longer and I usually plan for 45 minutes in order to get the new people on the call on board and questions answered. Overall – I generally think it is reasonable to give pre-contract projects @ 2 hours (on average) of time if it seems like it is going to go somewhere. In two hours – the client should be able to clearly explain the project, follow up with questions, and then get ready to move into the contract phase of a project.

I do not like to rush the process – but my goal is to make sure everyone is respectful of each others’ time.

Recently, I had a potential client call us and request a full demonstration of WordPress – with notes – in front of their board – in order to decide if they want to go with WordPress – and then possibly use my company – all unpaid. That is what I would call disrespectful. It is one thing to want a demo – I would be happy to do that and have done that as a paid consult. Asking someone to do a demo of open source software, prepare notes, do the demo in front of their board of directors, and field questions was a bit too much for me. Perhaps if the scope of the project was something big and exciting – it might have been worthwhile. This request did set some alarms off. If they thought this was reasonable – what else was to come? Phone calls at 2am, frantic emails on Sunday? You can tell a lot from people in this pre-contract stage and sometimes you just need to say “sorry – I think we will pass” because doing that will be a lot easier than working with a difficult/non-respectful client.

As Thomas Jefferson said:

Never trouble another for what you can do for yourself.

On the other hand – we have really focused over the last two months on streamlining the pre-contract phase in order to save time for both us and the clients. I have put together a new contact form which has more specifics on it to collect more data on the initial contact. I am also in the process of putting together three more specific forms (design/logo specific questions, custom development specific questions, and maintenance/support specific questions). These forms will help us pinpoint pre-contract questions/red flags, as well as provide more written documentation – thus saving some time later down the road. Writing things out makes the client really think about what they want and will help us ask more precise questions.

Potential clients need to also realize that you are available for paid consultation. If they are not knowledgeable about a specific aspect and they want you to do their project planning, marketing plan, and spend time working on a design before a contract is in place – this is a huge red flag. While I am always willing to help people – there is a line between gathering project information and actual project planning/consultation. It is your job to politely tell them you are happy to help, but this is a service your company offers for x dollars. Most lawyers bill by the minute for advice. Although I do not bill by the minute, I appreciate that they know their time and advice is worth something.

To the point – I like to work with people who respect your profession and your time. If they respect what you do – they should know that time spent performing something should be paid. If you get a potential client who wants you to invest a lot of time up front – make sure it is worth it.

To sum it up:

  1. Try to set call times (both start and stop) (I have been on “introductory calls that have lasted over 2 hours – and ended up not even working on the project). Find an appropriate amount of time to spend with clients that will both promote new projects and that will not take too much time away from existing projects.
  2. Make sure you have a checklist of questions to ask about the project to prompt the clients to give you the information needed in order to give them a time/cost estimate
  3. Instead of spending multiple hours on multiple calls helping the client figure out how to plan a project – tell them the estimate is free, but if they need help putting together a project plan or specifications – you are happy to help but for x dollars
  4. Make sure you are comfortable with clients before signing a contract/give them any more time
  5. If you have doubts about the client, or there are any red flags that go up at any time – go with your guy instinct and save yourself the time/effort before you get into a contract with them (It is ok to not take on a client)
  6. Put together time saving forms to help gather the common questions/responses you need in order to begin a new project.
  7. Make sure your existing clients are being taken care of before addressing new potential clients (within reason).