Big Small Big

I work with a number of clients that range in size and have noticed something interesting (at least to me). The bigger companies tend to have more resources, take a longer time to produce something, but in the end put out a high quality product. A lot of people inside of the big business (with big ambition) see the long development cycle and get frustrated for the long processes and decide to leave big business and start their own small business in hopes of being more efficient/quick.

Once the business is set up – the ability to release products seems amazingly simple, easy, and effective. More and more products are introduced but soon they generally all run into the same thing: quality assurance issues. Sure they can release something quickly but part of the quickness is due to the lack of polish and proper review that is needed to create a truly great product. The products are generally 90% there but that last 10% is hard to obtain. Not everything needs to be perfect – but at the end of the day, we all want something of quality so the small business puts more time into getting the right people in place for design, implementation, and testing. Soon the quick release cycles becomes longer and longer and reminds them of the big business days.

At some point the cycle will start all over again. The business owner now understands and appreciates what it takes to create something of quality while someone who works under them gets frustrated and needs to learn the lesson for themselves by starting their own company.

Lesson for the day:
There are definite pluses and minuses with quick release cycles vs. longer release cycles. The key is to find some middle ground. Respect both a shorter release cycle while still paying attention to quality.

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.

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 with ResourceSpace

This is a follow-up post to my post: Asset Management. I spent an exciting Friday night going through the config, learning the workflow, setting up accounts, and getting to know everything that ResourceSpace has to offer. After a few hours of playing around and applying various customizations (with ease) I am sold on using ResourceSpace for asset management.

What I like about ResourceSpace:

  • It has good documentation – both in the code as well as in a wiki
  • It is easy to customize both in look and feel as well as configuring admin options
  • It has been well thought out and has just about everything you could want (users/groups/fine access control/flash uploads for multiple uploads, contact sheet creation on the fly, etc

What I do not like about ResourceSpace:

  • They use frames
  • The layout is liquid vs. fixed (I am a fixed layout kind of person

The dislikes are minor in the grand scheme of things. Overall – I am excited I gave this a try and look forward to adding and archiving projects in here in the future.

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).

Finding Your Pace

We all work at different paces. Some like to try and do everything really quickly so they can relax later. Others wait until the last moment and race to get things done (they find energy and excitement in the challenge to finish). Still others prefer to keep a grueling pace throughout the entire project in order to get everything plus more done.

Although I have done all of the above – if nothing else – Oregon Trail taught me one thing: pace is everything. While some of these routes to the end result will work some of the times, the best way to do it is to go at a realistic – not too fast, not too slow pace. While there may be benefits to either extreme – the costs for both of them are often higher than expected for both you and your client.

If nothing else learned this year – I learned that you should set your pace – not the client. No one knows how much x,y,z tasks take better than you if you do them over and over. The client might be working on this project now, but you are being hired for your professional experience – experience that you have gained by doing similar tasks – and thus you should have the best idea how long/how much something will take.

Any client that needs something in an unreasonable time frame or that constantly has emergencies in off hour time periods is perhaps not the client you want/or even constant “immediate” changes (regardless of the pay). I know it sounds hard to stand up to them or even risk losing some clients, but trust me it is well worth it. Your quality of work will improve as will your mental sanity.

Early in the project – make sure to set the pace. Your client will respect you more and your family/friends will appreciate it too. Just remember – your sanity is worth a lot more then spending weekends/holidays on the phone for something that will not be as important as the time you lost with your friends/family.

Jappler Recommends: Work/Life Balance

Over the last few years I have, like most other business owners, struggled with a good work/life balance. While I do not feel like I am at an optimal balance yet – I know and I a lot closer than I once was. This can be tricky – but here are some tips that will help you achieve it.

  1. When working with clients – clearly state your business hours. I generally do this on the initial call or email as well as on my voicemail so when a client calls after midnight or tells me they are available until 11:30pm for a call (it happens) – they know I will only be available during my company’s business hours. Sure you might lose a client here or there because you are not available at 7pm on Saturday, but do you really want that type of client anyway?
  2. Actually follow your business hours. Sure there are days I work earlier/later or an occasional few hours on a Saturday, but if you want your clients to respect your availability – you cannot email/call them before/after it. Once you email them at 8pm – you open up the door for “she must be available all the time – so I will call her now (10pm)”.
  3. Keep non-work activities (online shopping, errands, etc) for after work hours. If you can put in x solid hours of work a day – you can confidently end the day at your end time without feeling guilty (for not doing enough work).
  4. Keep all work activities (email/voicemail, etc) for work hours.
  5. Realize not everything will get done in one day – no matter how long you work.
  6. Don’t feel guilty for taking a day/week off. Everyone needs some time away.
  7. Hire someone/multiple people to help out. (This was hard to do but I am glad that I have people to depend on and who can get things done when I am not around)

The tips seem like no-brainers – but they are a lot harder than you think 😉

Make Opportunities

Several years ago, the company I worked for had a secretary full of life lessons which she would tell me about each morning. Out of everything she ever told me – one thing really stuck. She told me “Jen – don’t wait for opportunities, make them”. There are not too many days that go by that I do not think about that.

So many people wait around for “that phone call, that new job, that right guy/girl, etc” (you fill in the blank) and those people will often live most of their life with regrets and/or with dead end jobs. It is easier to stay stuck in a rut than to actually make a change and if that is how you live your life – that is fine, but I wanted more.

With the economy the way it is, I have seen a lot of people get laid off or feel like they have to stay in their mind numbing job because it is “too risky” to move into a new job. At some point in your life you either have to “shut up or do something” and for your benefit – I hope you do something. The best thing I have done in my life was to stop waiting around for things to happen to me and to go out on my own and start something that was mine and I enjoyed. While it was risky – I got to a point where it felt more risky not to do anything. I finally took the secretary’s words into consideration and have not regretted it whatsoever.

I do not mean to preach, but I do ask you to take chance and to think about what you want – not in a month from now, but in 5 years from now. Can your current situation provide that? If not, what can you do to make a difference? Whatever you do, take a chance and make that opportunity instead of waiting for it!

When is Vacation?

I have been going non-stop now since the summer and dream of some time away from it all so I can either finish something fun or just relax yet every week day, weekend, and non-sleeping hour seems to be jammed packed with something.

I absolutely love owning my own business but sometimes it makes things like taking time off or getting away a bit more complicated. Let me re-phrase that…getting completely away.

Any business owners out there that have a secret they want to share so I can better enjoy my time?

I am happy to be busy but it seems lately – clients are contacting me via phone, email, even Facebook (had to adjust my privacy settings) at all times and are non-stop.

Serenity now!