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15
Oct 11

Want to know more about Zoho Time Tracking?

You should read my review of Zoho Time Tracking on the Time Tracking Review blog.


13
Oct 11

Graphic Designer Websites – what you need to know

So, you’re a graphic designer, and you need a website.   What makes for good graphic designer websites? What should they do?  What should they look like?    Here’s what you need to decide

Morris dancers at Ely cathedral 2 © by Cantabrigensis

There are two types of graphic designers, and thus two types of graphic design firms.  You can either

  1. Solve specific problems for people
  2. Help people look cool.  Most people call this  “Branding”.

A client will want one or the other – if the client knows what they want (i.e. has a definite problem), they will want the problem solving firm.  If they aren’t sure of the problem, or if they have existential problems they will want help in looking cool, however they define it.  If the client comes to you and says something like “People can’t understand how to use our website”, or “we need to find a way to emphasize our new camera batteries with our existing marketing” they are looking for graphic design that solves problems.  If they say something like “Our logo just doesn’t reflect our core values!” then they are looking for a firm that will help them look cool.

So, that being said,  what should your website look like?  Here are some thoughts

Problem Solving Graphic Designer Websites

If you’re solving problems you want your website to

  1. Be direct
  2. Be concise
  3. Make a direct link to your designs and a benefit to somebody
  4. Avoid abstractions
  5. Emphasize cause and effect, and why some designs work better than others
  6. Emphasize something that someone can measure measurable (i.e. “This marketing campaign” generated a 30% increase in sales”)
  7. Include something on the Fibonacci Numbers, or serial position effects, and to emphasize the fact that you are crafting a specific solution to a specific problem, not running an art project
  8. Maximize the use of  verbs in your copy, and minimize the use of adjectives and adverbs

Remember, you’re making the client feel better via something specific, i.e. your designs.  The client will be buying your product, not employing you as their designer.  The client regards the work as their primary objective, they regard you as a secondary objective.  You should consider charging by the project instead of by the hour.

Looking Cool / Branding Graphic Designer Websites

If you’re helping the client look cool, defined as “Branding”, then you want your website to
  1. Emphasize art
  2. Emphasize abstractions
  3. Feel free to use adjectives and adverbs in your copy
  4. Avoid the measurable
  5. Emphasize your likability
  6. Use lots of social proof, i.e. something like “We’ve been using XYZ co for ten years and they’ve all been great”
You’re making the client feel better via something general, i.e. your personality and design talent.  The designs are a necessary by product.  The client will be buying your services and opinions.  The client regards you as their primary objective, they regard your work as a secondary objective.  You should consider charging by the hour.

Examples of good Graphic Designer Websites

Okay, they would refer to themselves as design firms, but take a look at
  1. LuckyFish - Problem Solvers –  a design firm that does fine interactive work
  2. Mock the Agency -  Problem Solvers - a design firm that, while it often uses the term “branding” they deliver specific problems.
  3. Design Industry - Looking Cool - They help with very non-specific problems

What makes them good?  All three sites communicate the strengths of their respective firms quite well.  One thing to note – both Mock and LuckyFish utilize Cargo Collective templates for their sites?  Why?  It doesn’t get in the way and people can see the specifics or their work right away, so it the design accomplished it’s objective well.   Design Industry supplies the general and the abstract to their clients and their site design reflects that.

That’s what I think people need to know about graphic designer websites after 12 years in the business, most of it spent as the technical arm for graphic design firms.

 

Editor’s Note

This blog post originally appeared on the Profit Awareness Blog - as that app is up for sale, it has been consolidated into the main Digital Tool Factory blog.


12
Oct 11

Project Length – Why you should measure the duration of your web development projects

As part of my series on simple business metrics, I write this elaboration on metric #6 – Project Length., to wit, how long should a project last from start to finish. This might sound like an odd thing to track, but hear me out.  And yes, I know that longer project lengths can be a sign of larger projects.

timeline draft © by neil cummings

I’ve found that I usually set (within certain limits) the duration of my projects.   The client then modifies the duration based on my starting point, and then the actual duration drifts in either direction.  I’ve found that I am well served by getting the initial project length right.   Here are some positive and negatives I’ve come across over the years:

Positives of a short project length

  1. You get paid faster
  2. Less time for scope creep
  3. Fewer chances for the client to shift project managers
  4.  The problem remains fresh and painful, so the client will be grateful when you deliver
  5. The assumptions you are basing your solution remain true

Negatives of a short project length

  1. They are much less pleasant
  2. You can’t time shift (for example if you get a change to bid on a new project, you simply can’t fit it in)
  3. Less room to adapt to sudden problems
  4. External disruptions are costly
  5. Less time to pay off your technical debt

Positives of a long project length

  1. A moderate project pace is pleasant
  2. You can be thorough
  3. External disruptions are more manageable
  4. You can work new opportunities into the project schedule

Negatives of a long project length

  1. You get paid later than you would otherwise be
  2. Far more time for scope creep
  3. Project managers can change  at the client
  4. New project managers can be added to the project
  5. The assumptions you based your solution on will get out of date
  6. If the project lasts for a sufficiently long period of time the client will get resentful of having to pay for something which is (sort of) out of date.

So, why is measuring project length important?  Since project length is largely a collection of trade offs, it’s best to get the trade offs you prefer.  If you find yourself never able to pay off any technical debt like you used to, or beset by problems with new project manages at the client, see if you average project length is increasing.

 

Editor’s Note

This blog post originally appeared on the Profit Awareness Blog - as that app is up for sale, it has been consolidated into the main Digital Tool Factory blog.

 


10
Oct 11

Track your hourly rate over time to make decisions easier

Our Hourly Rates © by SMcGarnigle

As part of my series on simple business metrics, here is an elaboration on metric #5 – Overall Hourly Rate Over Time., to wit,  are you more productive per hour than you were in the past?  You won’t know this if you don’t track your hourly rate over time.  It sounds simple, and it mostly it is.  I’ve found that tracking your hourly rate over time makes many decisions easier.    Here is a partial list of the insights:

Insights from a Rising Hourly Rate

  • In general you are on the right track
  • You are doing more or less the right mix of tasks
  • Your capital investments (computer hardware, software and training) were a good idea
  • Now is a good time to bring on new people, especially people with similar skillsets to you
  • Your clients are solid – and you need to find more just like them

Insights from a Falling Hourly Rate

  • It might be a good time to invest in new software or hardware
  • The market might have shifted away from your bundle  of offerings, there might be new things to learn and offer your customers
  • Your might want to find new clients, and new types of clients.  Some clients will run you ragged if you let them, and it looks  like your current clients are doing just that.
  • You might want to reduce your outsourcing, or at least modify it - outsourcing should raise your rate (by allowing you to do higher dollar things)

 Why you need to use tools to track your time

I have found that my internal estimates of how much time projects (and clients) is distorted by personal enjoyment of the clients company (or lack thereof) and how much fun the project might be.  For example, a client that was a joy to work with who had an informative project might generate an off the top of my head estimate of 60 hours, when in fact it took 90 hours.  Similarly, a client that was torture to work with a project of pure drudgery has generated an off the top of my head estimate of 110 hours, when it took only 60.  Use an online time tracking service to record the actual data.

 

Editor’s Note

This blog post originally appeared on the Profit Awareness Blog - as that app is up for sale, it has been consolidated into the main Digital Tool Factory blog.


07
Oct 11

Internal Projects – What are the good ones and how much time should you spend on them?

Internal Project Intro

As part of my series on simple business metrics, here is an elaboration on metric #4 – External vs Internal Projects. What are those? As I (and most people) define them, external projects are paying projects for other people and internal projects are projects that help you land external projects (like a marketing campaign or software upgrade).  Please note,  internal projects do not include routine tasks like accounting or business development.

Internal Projects – The list

That being said – here a non-definitive list of what I consider to be worthwhile internal projects for a web development firm

  1. Short- term custom software – anything that speeds up data entry for example
  2. An Intanet (for your people)
  3. An Extranet (for your clients)
  4. Your website
  5. SEO campaigns
  6. Marketing honeypot sites that can be used for publicity – like eNormicon was for 37 Signals.
  7. Projects that allow you to learn and explore a new technology at your own pace – that was how I learned ASP.net MVC 3 and Silverlight.
  8. Explicit learning of new technologies and techniques.
  9. Short- term collaborations with other firms that allow some “code bonding”
  10. Prestige projects that you do for free to meet people – sites for symphonies or influential charities woudl fall in this category.
  11. Genuine pro bono work for kind hearted reasons – it sharpens your skills and you feel good at the same time.
One thing to bear in mind – any project like this that goes on for more than, say six months becomes:
  1. A hobby
  2. A vested interest – there will be internal constituencies both for and against it (nobody likes change)
  3. Difficult to modify in your workflow
  4. An entitlement to clients or the public if they’ve become used to it
  5. Psychologically difficult to remove – it’s like giving a way a puppy you’ve had for six months

And now for the big question – how much time should you spend on internal projects?

In my experience, you reach the point of diminishing returns if you spend more than 30% of your time on internal projects.  30% is just a general rule I have arrived at over many years in the business.  Your mileage may vary.

Why measure the time you spend on internal projects?

Internal projects are way more fun than external projects.  No one to tell you to make the logo bigger, no exact specification to match, no conference calls, no rush deadlines – just a lot of doing what got you into the industry in the first place.  You get to do things YOUR WAY.

I’ve found that the internal work can come in the way of paying work in some circumstances, and (unless precautions are taken) it gets in the way of unpleasant but necessary routine work in most circumstances.  Isn’t working on the SEO campaign more fun than doing accounting?  Isn’t coding up that new app for the animal rescue more fun than prospecting new business?  It’s way more fun, and you deserve the fun, but just keep it to 30% of your total work.  If you measure your time via some sort of time tracking service, and then analyze your time – you can see the true cost of that new app.

 

Editor’s Note

This blog post originally appeared on the Profit Awareness Blog - as that app is up for sale, it has been consolidated into the main Digital Tool Factory blog.


03
Oct 11

What is the right size for web development projects?

As part of my series on simple business metrics, here is an elaboration on metric #3 – Project Size., to wit,  what is the right size for web development projects for your firm?  The answer is not necessarily “Larger”.

I’ve found that my projects consist of varying percentages of:

  1. Graphic design
  2. Client Management
  3. Project Management
  4. Web Development
  5. Estimating, proposals and accounting

Each of the above varies by client of course.

Each of the above tasks requires some overhead in terms of dollars, time and energy.  The cost of client management and project management will increase disproportionately with the size of the project.  Maybe you are an extrovert.  Higher amounts of items client management and project management will be easy for you.  If you’re an introvert you will prefer graphic design and web development.  Client management and project management will be draining for you.  The percentages that are right for you will depend on your skills and personality.

After a few years you will have some notion of what the right size is  for you and your company.  Too far below this size and you find yourself spending too much time and money on estimating, proposals and accounting for the project to be profitable.  Too much above this size and you find yourself outside your comfort zone and spending too much time and energy on client management,  project management, and one time capital items.  You can lose money on projects that are too small or too large.

However, one happy thing about doing multiple projects for the same client is that client management and project management will decline over time (as percentages).

So, in sum:

  • There is a right size for web development projects.
  • That size will vary from firm to firm
  • That size should vary by client.
  • The right size for web development projects should increase over time.

In closing – I ran this by several friends as I was considering the article and got a wide variety of opinions, some agreeing with me, some not.  This is only my experience, your mileage may vary, etc.

 

Editor’s Note

This blog post originally appeared on the Profit Awareness Blog - as that app is up for sale, it has been consolidated into the main Digital Tool Factory blog.


30
Sep 11

How to raise your hourly rate? Start by calculating it properly

As part of my series on simple business metrics, here is an elaboration on metric #2 – which client has the highest hourly rate.  Calculating this seems simple, and for the most part it is.  You just have to make sure to include all time involved with the project.  It’s easy to omit non-billable time, hopefully you are including practicing  time tracking with some automated software.  You can only raise your hourly rate if you know what your rate truly is.  When calculating the rate, make sure to include all of your non-billable tasks.

Over the years, I’ve found non-billable tasks often include:

  1. Meetings
  2. Travel to meetings
  3. Phone calls
  4. Meeting prep (no one ever remembers to account for this)
  5. Pitch rehearsal
  6. Task disruption – on average, I have found it takes 15 minutes minimum to get back into psychological flow after a phone call or “urgent” email.
  7. Project research
  8. Client Research
  9. New software evaluation (ideally this should be spread out over several clients)
  10. Writing contracts and proposals
  11. Negotiating prices and contracts
  12. Consulting with outsiders (lawyers and advisers) about contracts
  13. Status emails

Have I missed anything?

Update: Bill From Coding Out Loud suggested the following points (which I have reworded slightly)

  1. Contract review and legal overhead
  2. Collections
  3. “Goodwill” support, i.e. items outside of the contract but needed to maintain the relationship (like when a client asks for the same file for the third time.).

Editor’s Note

This blog post originally appeared on the Profit Awareness Blog - as that app is up for sale, it has been consolidated into the main Digital Tool Factory blog.


30
Sep 11

When should you invoice for web development projects?

As an elaboration on my simple metrics post from yesterday I’m sharing my personal experience with each metric.  The first metric is “How long do clients take to pay their invoices.”  Why is that important?  The main reason is obvious – your money is safer with you.  And to get paid you must first invoice.  I’ve tried several methods over the years and here are some thoughts on when to invoice for web development.

  1. Invoice at the end, Net 30.
  2. Invoice 100% at the beginning, starting work on the sending of the invoice
  3. Invoice 100% at the beginning, starting upon receipt of the first payment
  4. Invoice 50% of at the beginning, starting work upon receipt of payment, and invoicing the remaining 50% on the completion of the project
I’ve tried them all, and here is my experience
  1. Invoice at the end – It has worked worked, but avoid if at all possible.   On some projects the money only changes hands at the very end and it can be profitable to use this method.  Be warned though, I’ve found most client relationships will take a hit from this method.   This method will draw deadbeats like flies.
  2. Invoice 100% at the beginning, starting work on the sending of the invoice  - I’ve found that this bring out counterproductive perfectionism in clients
  3. Invoice 100% at the beginning, starting upon receipt of the first payment - I have had mixed results with this method.   Since the client has already paid for the work, he usually feels no need to make anything easy for you, and will never feel bad for endless phone calls and meetings (this happens in about 80% of cases).  Also, clients who agree readily to this usually have little experience in the web field and require a lot of handholding
  4. Invoice 50% of at the beginning, starting work upon receipt of payment, and invoicing the remaining 50% on the completion of the project – I’ve found this method to be optimal, you attract experienced, non deadbeat clients who are willing to pay for quality
That’s my experience with invoicing for web development projects.   What’s yours?

Editor’s Note

This blog post originally appeared on the Profit Awareness Blog - as that app is up for sale, it has been consolidated into the main Digital Tool Factory blog.


28
Sep 11

Six simple business metrics for your web development company

After nine years in business at the best web development shop in Atlanta, here are the simple business metrics I wish I had kept from the beginning.

  1. How long do clients take to pay their invoices – it’s easy to overlook, bit if you don’t manage these they can creep up fast and it is hard to rachet expectations back down.  Read more
  2. Which clients has the highest hourly rate – Not always the easiest thing to track, particularly if you have a mix of hourly and fixed price projects, but you have to know who gets the extra effort – Read More
  3. Project Size – for all of the obvious reasons, and remember, a lion does not live on mice. – Read More
  4. Internal vs External Work – This metric has a host of obvious benefits, and it will usually show you where and what to outsource to outside services. – Read More
  5. Overall hourly rate over time – If it trends down for more than two consescutive months, you need to start retooling your business – Read More
  6. Project Length – How many days from start to finish?  It is easy to confuse this with project size, but how much time is lost in delays and approvals? – Read More

I track all of these simple business metrics in my Profit Awareness web app.  Indeed, I wrote the app because it is too much of a pain to do it manually, and QuickBooks is of absolutely no help at all with most of them.

Editor’s Note

This blog post originally appeared on the Profit Awareness Blog – as that app is up for sale, it has been consolidated into the main Digital Tool Factory blog.

 


16
Aug 11

The case against scratching your own itch when building a product

I recently spoke on Atlanta Business Radio and after the interview I spent some time talking about with the hosts about TimeProducer.com and Stronico.  One of the hosts had some interesting, and mildly troubling throughts.  He asked me outright if I was “scratching my own itch”.  He then presented a compelling case against doing that.  To wit

  • If you are solving your own problem, you have much less pressure to come up with a commercially viable solution because total failure is unlikely.  At least the product will work for you, and you get to use it.
  • You have no pressing need to get out of the building and talk to people.  You know the market right?  After all, you’ve been in it for XX years.  The reality is you know your segment of the market, and a lot of your assumptions are no longer current.  If you are building something for someone else, you can’t fool yourself as easily.
  • If the industry is foreign to you, you are less likely to have fewer emotional attachments to tools, methods, or industry players.  Product features will be worth a lot less too.

In short, if you build a product solely for other people, you avoid all of the psychological traps that people fall into with product development.

I’m not sure if the case against scratching your own itch outweighs the case for it, but the decision is not as clear cut as I once thought.

 

Editor’s Note

This blog post originally appeared on the Profit Awareness Blog - as that app is up for sale, it has been consolidated into the main Digital Tool Factory blog.