Marc Jenkins The blog of Marc Jenkins. Topics include web design, development, freelancing and business, and more. Thu, 08 Oct 2015 15:33:59 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 A new home Thu, 08 Oct 2015 15:32:12 +0000 Back in 2011, after many failed attempts at starting a blog, I launched Plausible Thought. I’ve blogged on a semi-regular basis since then about web development, running a business, and even the occasional interview.

But as of today, Plausible Thought is no more. I’ve moved everything over to my own domain—something I’ve been meaning to do for a year or so.

I feel better now I’ve sharpened things up. I now just have two websites: this one and 16by9 (my web consulting business).

Here’s to many more years blogging.

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You’re not unique Wed, 12 Aug 2015 19:13:24 +0000 I’ve spent this week working on the new 16by9 website. Most of my attention has been on the content. I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to say and how I want to say it, rather than focusing on how it looks.

This has naturally lead me to ask fundamental questions about my business. How should I position myself? What makes me different and unique? How do I stand out from the crowd?

There’s new agencies popping into existence all the time and it seems like every other day someone is leaving their full-time role to go freelance. There’s more competition than ever so figuring out how be different and memorable is important.

I feel like I’m not alone in struggling to find something that’s truly unique about what I do or the way I do it. Someone, somewhere, will have the same thoughts, the same ideas, and the same unique selling proposition.

But, and there is a but. If you can communicate clearly what makes you different, then you’re already ahead of most of your competitors. Sure, there will be others with the same USP, but how many clearly and succinctly tell the world?

My guess: not many.

That’s what this week is about. Figuring out what sets my business apart and then talking about it.

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Journaling: day one Tue, 11 Aug 2015 19:12:37 +0000 I screwed up. I didn’t send out my newsletter last time around. Since November last year, I’ve been writing and sending my newsletter every 2 weeks and I broke the chain for the first time.

I could make excuses. I was too busy. Life got in the way. I had writer’s block. But those are just that, excuses. The truth is I didn’t prioritise my writing.

I’d sit down and stare at the blank canvas that was my screen and wonder what to write. Sometimes I’d write a sentence or two, other times I wouldn’t even get that far.

That might sound like “writer’s block” but it wasn’t. I wasn’t putting myself in the right environment to be creative. I wanted something to magically appear, my fingers to automatically type out the perfect newsletter.

Writing, or any creative endeavour, isn’t magic. It’s hard work. And you need to create the right conditions for that hard work to take place.

When I don’t write for a while, a few things happen:

  1. I lose confidence in my writing and The Fear sets in. Does anyone care about what I write? Does my writing suck?
  2. I have less ideas. The less I create, the less creative I am.
  3. The longer I leave it, the harder it becomes to start.
  4. It becomes easier not to write at all.

I’ve talked about the benefits of writing before and it’s something I truly believe: writing makes you better at what you do.

My aim is get back into the habit of writing and to do that this blog is going to become my journal. Most entries will be a few hundred words, and I hope to publish something most days.

I want the blank canvas to be enticing and full of opportunity again.

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Thoughts on freelancing as an introvert Mon, 15 Jun 2015 19:11:54 +0000 Self-employment was something I had dreamed about for years. It took me a long time to find the courage to quit my job.

I was scared. What if I don’t earn enough to pay the bills? What if I’m just sat around while my wife is at work? What if I’m just not built to run my own business? What if I’m not good enough?

There was another fear I had at the back of my mind that I haven’t talked about. I’m an introvert. I’m shy and I like my own space. Space for thinking, reading, and being alone.

I regularly asked myself: as an introvert, how will I cope?

I’ve pitched for work in the past but I was always part of a team. I could let someone else take the lead until it was my turn, say my piece, and then back out. On my own, I’d need to take up the mantle.

I think there’s a misunderstanding of what introversion and extroversion is, so let’s start there.

Introverts can be just as sociable, just as good friends, and just as fun at parties. The difference isn’t necessarily in those things. The difference comes from how they gain and use energy.

An introvert will likely feel exhausted after a social event and will need to recharge their batteries by being alone. Extroverts, on the other hand, recharge their batteries in social environments (and need to recharge when they don’t socialise enough).

We all fall somewhere on the introversion/extroversion spectrum; we are neither one or the other. As Carl Jung put it, “There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.”

It’s easy to stereotype too. Many introverts love partying and socialising, while many extroverts enjoy time to themselves.

The most important thing is to know yourself. You’ll probably already have some idea of where you are on the introvert/extrovert spectrum. Building a business with that in mind will help you leverage your own tendencies.

It’s possible, even encouraged, to act out of character: for introverts to act in an extroverted way and vice versa. But only for short periods of time.

I’ve blocked out time into my schedule to allow myself to ‘recharge’. I spend a lot of time thinking, planning, or ‘being in my own head’ as some would say. Giving myself space to do that is important.

I work mostly from home and that helps. But I also work in some of my client’s offices and have face-to-face meetings. I’ve learnt that I need to allow myself time to prepare. I focus on minimising stressful situations. Simple things like allowing plenty of time to get there, making sure the car has petrol, making sure I have directions ready, and knowing what I need to talk about. If it’s an important meeting, I’ll try to fit a half hour walk in first to clear my head. I’ll try to avoid too many consecutive meetings. Preparation, at least for me, is key. These little things all help reserve my energy for what matters: being present and attentive with the person I’m meeting with.

Of course, extroverts don’t need to do this. Perhaps they’d want to arrange consecutive meetings. Or perhaps they’d rather work in a shared workspace. It’s important to know where you get your energy from and build a business around that.

We live in a golden age. Unlike generations before us, we have everything at our fingertips. It’s easier than ever before to build a business around who you really are. If you never want to leave the house or speak on the phone, I still think it’s possible to build a sustainable business that supports that lifestyle.

In the excellent book “Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking”, Susan Cain encourages you to stay true to your own nature:

“If you like to do things in a slow and steady way, don’t let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy depth, don’t force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single-tasking to multitasking, stick to your guns. Being relatively unmoved by rewards gives you the incalculable power to go your own way. It’s up to you to use that independence to good effect.”

There are many introverts who I admire; perhaps none more so than Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla. When he was younger, before starting his own businesses, he wanted to work at Netscape (who were big at the time). He didn’t get a reply to his job application – probably because he has a background in Physics, not Computer Science – so he hung around the lobby. Despite making his way to the lobby, he was too shy and too scared to talk to anyone so he left. Here’s a guy who is an introvert and, without a doubt, is changing the world.

If you’re an introvert, take heart from these wise words from Gandhi: “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

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An interview with Tom Lloyd: On starting an agency Wed, 10 Jun 2015 19:10:03 +0000 I had the pleasure of chatting to Tom Lloyd, Co-founder & Creative Director of Bluegg, a web & branding agency based in Cardiff. We dig into how he started Bluegg, hiring their first employee, personality and company culture, and more.

I hope you enjoy it!

MJ: Hey Tom, thanks for taking the time to chat today.
TL: No problem, thanks for having me!

To get started, can you tell us a bit about your origin story? What was your path to starting Bluegg?
I went to an old fashioned art college after doing my GCSE’s. I did a GNVQ in Graphic Communication which touched on all types of design like print and branding. I was more interested in digital design – Flash in particular was massive at the time.

I freelanced throughout the second and third year of my degree. I mainly worked on branding and print projects and some little web projects for friends, family, or anyone who wanted any sort of design.

In my class was Mike, who ended up becoming my business partner. He went off to London straight after University. He didn’t have any luck finding a job. I was also sending my CV off and doing interviews but at the time it was really hard to get a design job. There wasn’t a lot of opportunities around. After about 6 months of job searching, Mike rang me up asked if I wanted to start our own thing.

And that was the start of Bluegg?
Yep. Neither of us had managed to land a job. I only had the freelance work I had done as experience. Mike, who took over the business development side of things, only had experience working at Calvin Klein and Comet. That was our total experience of work life.

Do you think your lack of experience helped shape the way you did things?
Yeah, it certainly helped shape Bluegg. We weren’t tainted by anything we learnt before hand. We’ve had to make all our own mistakes and we’ve made loads and loads of mistakes throughout the years. I definitely think that has been a big factor in how things turned out.

Why did you decide to go into business with a partner?
When we were in Uni, Mike managed to talk his way into really good grades. He was an ideas guy, perhaps not the greatest designer (and he’d be the first one to admit it), but he’d be able to explain the concept brilliantly and sell it. Where as I wasn’t great at presenting work but it was good enough that I didn’t really have to. The lecturers would say to us: “Tom, you should definitely go into the design side of anything that you do and Mike, you’d be really good at selling it”. So it made sense that Mike would be the right person.

I’m not sure how I would have done just on my own. I would have stayed freelancing, unless I had got a job, and I don’t know whether I would have had the the ambition on my own to grow it. Taking on that first member of staff would have been a much more daunting thing to do. With another person there was always someone to bounce ideas off. It meant we didn’t make stupid decisions. It was by far the best decision I had made at that point.

What was the most difficult thing about starting Bluegg?
Getting work was tough. We were actually really fortunate because we picked up a few pieces of work from colleagues and friends which quickly led to other work. On the first day, we got the phone book and Mike started ringing random companies. Once we had a few clients on board, that made it a lot easier because they had connections and word got around. Our first couple of jobs came from London, Sweden, Portugal and Belgium and it just went from one job to another.

Paying ourselves was also tough for the first 6-12 months. We kept our costs to virtually nothing. We worked from my parents house in a little room. We had our Macs from Uni so we had everything we needed. We didn’t spend a lot as neither of us had houses or mortgages or kids or wives and that sort of stuff. We lived on £250/month for a few months. That was tricky.

“I like bringing in disruptive people. I don’t want people that just fit snuggly in and don’t shake the place up.”

Did you ever think about quitting and getting a job at that stage?
I can’t remember really ever thinking that we should pack it in or that it wouldn’t work. We were pretty much out of options at that point, though, as we’d already tried to find jobs. We were enjoying working together. Being able to go into the garden and play frisbee in the summer was great. I remember thinking this is cool; it’s not work, we’re just having fun.

After about 6 months, one of Mike’s friends said they had some office space which we rented for a cheap rate. That was a big moment. Now we had an office of our own, a place to go to work and we could make it a bit more formal. That was good timing. We wanted to decorate the office and put furniture in there, so that was a motivator to make more money.

How long was it before Bluegg hired their first employee?
It was about 10 months. We did 6 months in Mum and Dad’s house and then a few months in our Newport office before we started to realise that – well – I wasn’t very good at building websites. We got by from what I had learnt at Uni and hacking stuff together. I was only doing very basic frontend stuff. I needed someone to take over the web side so we could build more complicated sites. We also had a lot of design work coming our way. We knew we needed at least one person, if not two.

We still didn’t have enough money and we couldn’t turn work around fast enough to afford to save enough to get someone in and make sure we could pay them for a while. It was tricky but as soon as we had those people in we knew we’d earn more money because we could do more work and take on bigger projects.

I was still supplementing my income. I started doing 1 day a week doing software lecturing where I was going into University and teaching students Photoshop and Illustrator. I was doing that for 5 hours, 1 day a week just to give myself a little bit of stability. Which was a good idea, looking back.

I met one of the students who I was teaching. It was obvious these are the guys we needed to be speaking to. One guy joined us and basically came on as an intern or whatever you want to call it these days. He came in on a small amount of money to begin with. We had a friend who was the year above us in University – he’d done well, got a first class honours degree, he’d gone off and was doing development. He didn’t like his job. We offered him a job, even though we wasn’t able to pay him much, and lucky enough he accepted. And he’s still here (12 years later).

They came on for a couple of months, helped us turn around a load of work, which then meant we were able to start paying them more.

You’re up to 9 staff now. Are you happy at that size or do you plan to grow?
Yeah, we’re happy at that size. We’ve said for a while that less than 10 is a nice number for us to cope with without needing additional management to start managing teams. Between 10-15 is perhaps our upper limit.

We’ve grown incredibly slowly over the last 13 years or so. We typically hang on until there’s basically 2 people in the studio doing the work of 3 people. Once we see there’s enough work to bring on another person, we’ll do it. We’ve always been very cautious about bringing people in. The thought of having to fire someone or let someone go because we haven’t got enough work for them is terrifying. I’d hate that. So we’ve always hung on much longer than perhaps we should have. I’d rather do that than have the shame of saying ‘Sorry, we hired you too early and we haven’t got enough work.’

What do you look for when you hire people?
It depends on the position. Experience is key if we’re looking for someone in a senior role. Looking at what they’ve done and how they’ve built up a portfolio and what they’ve got out there.

Culture fit is an important part of it. We like bringing in people who compliment each other. We don’t want to have a studio full of loud shouty fun-loving people because the whole place would be a bit of chaotic mess. We’ve purposely brought in people we think will fit culturally but maybe they’re on the quieter side or perhaps they’re a bit more sensible.

I like bringing in disruptive people. I don’t want people that just fit snuggly in and don’t shake the place up. I’d much prefer people to come in and say ‘you’re doing it all wrong, why don’t you try this’. If someone comes in and says there is a better way to do something, I want to hear it. Staff tend to stay with us for a long time so you get used to things and you get into your patterns and systems so when someone comes in and shakes it up a bit, it invigorates everyone. Everyone gets excited and then everyone brings new ideas to the table as well.

When I think of Bluegg, I think of the personality that you pack into your work (the about page and 404 page are great examples). How do you think that has impacted business? Do you think that has attracted or repelled some clients?
I think it does both. I can’t remember at what point we realised it would be a good selling point but for a while we became known as an agency that could inject personality into a brand or into a business corporate image.

We used to work with corporate clients, accountants, solicitors, really blue tie stuff, and a lot of the companies would say we need a new logo or a new brochure or whatever. So we’d say we can either do something that fits in with your industry, or we can try and make you stand out. If you ask a client that, the client will always say they want to stand out. No one wants to blend in. Often the best way to make them stand out was to add some personality into the work and into their messaging. And quite often, even though they’re corporate businesses, the people behind them are good fun and like a joke. So we’d say if that is you guys, why don’t you try and portray that more and soften the image?

We got known locally that if you want a bit of personality in your work, go speak to Bluegg. Which was great. That was a combination of us wanting to make our clients stand out but also the fact that we practiced what we preached and tried to do that for ourselves. That was just a natural thing for us, to make ourselves look different and do exactly what we were doing for our clients. We wanted to be open about the fun we were having and not try to make us look like some serious corporate design agency that doesn’t have a soul or personality.

We’ve probably been more honest as the years have gone on and opened ourselves up more and more. We have a page on our website dedicated to doodles. We’ve probably had that for 8 or 9 years. No one would put a page of doodles on their site back then. We often have people ring us up and say they’ve been looking at our website – to which you hope they say ‘we love your work!’ – but they often say ‘we love your doodles!’ Everyone comments on the doodles.

We tend to attract clients that who are looking to be challenged. We’re unlikely to get someone who is a complete dictator because they can see that we like to inject personality and fun into our work. That’s only good thing for us. We don’t really want to work with clients who are super controlling and very prescriptive. We want to work with clients who are open minded and want to hear different options and different ways of doing things. A lot of massive companies are very prescriptive with what they want. We’ve worked with a couple of big companies and they all have guidelines: tone of voice, brand guidelines, etc. That limits the creativity that we can put into stuff. We pretty much came to terms with the fact that we wouldn’t get to work with those really big companies but that’s fine with us. We’re very happy working with companies who want to work with us.

Do you tend not to work with larger clients who already have brand guidelines then?
We’ve got a couple of clients who are quite big, a couple of billion dollar companies, but we tend to work with quite small teams within those companies. A really big company like that will have lots of marketing departments and work with lots of agencies. Those clients only tend to come to us when they want to push their brand guidelines more than they normally want to. They’ve got us on a special list of a) we’re a bit more expensive and b) we’ll push us them more than they normally go.

“You can’t create culture. Culture creates itself. It just appears from the accumulative environment that everyone works in.”

It seems that being fun and being open about who you are is part of Bluegg’s culture too. Is that something you try to actively encourage?
As far as culture goes, we do try and build a fun environment in the studio. We try to encourage people to have breaks, relax, and go and sit on the sofa. We don’t have an overly pressured environment. We don’t set ourselves crazy deadlines or give huge work pressure to the guys because we just feel like that’s not us. Mike and I never put ourselves under a huge amount of pressure to turn out work at a really fast rate or to work to deadlines that are unrealistic. That’s a really important part of our culture.

When we first started out, one bit of advice we regularly got from lecturers and business advisors was “if you’re gonna make a go of this, you’re gonna have to work until 2-3 in the morning and turn out a huge amount of work”. And we were like no way, we’re not doing that. We work 8.30-5 and that’s it. That’s pretty much a rule for the studio. The guys tend to go straight away and very rarely do we have to hang on and work after hours. That all adds up to the culture.

We try and go out and have dinner or drinks whenever we can. We try to go to conferences and different designery events as much we can which is great as Cardiff is starting to offer some really great meetups and events. We’re always looking for stuff to do with a design background, like last year we did a letterpress workshop in Bristol which was great fun.

I think culture stems from the top. I’ve seen places where the management want to have a certain culture but because that’s not who they are, it doesn’t work. It’s great that you and Mike have fun, are laid back, and are comfortable about that. I think that trickles through.
You can’t create culture. Culture creates itself. It just appears from the accumulative environment that everyone works in. I do agree that it comes from top down but when you hire people, you look for a fit. I know when Mike and I aren’t in the office, the culture doesn’t change.

Like you said, personality sells. I think there are people out there who are scared to put personality into their work, or perhaps scared to reveal themselves to the world. What advice would you give to freelancers or agencies that want to better show off their personality?
The biggest thing is to be honest and authentic. There’s nothing worse than a company that pretends to be a fun company when they’re not. It also needs to come through every part of an experience – everything from what the office looks like, to how they sound on the phone, or how they write on email or communicate on social media. It’s got to be consistent in how that personality comes across.

I also don’t recommend anyone try and copy someone else’s personality. When Innocent launched with their huge personality, I remember at the time clients were saying ‘look what these guys are doing, we want to sound like that’. But they might be completely the wrong type of company to do that. They were blinded by the praise that Innocent were getting at the time.

When we work with companies on branding projects, we spend time trying to work out what their personality is. It’s so important that you’re honest with it.

It’s very easy, especially when you’re early in the game, to work with everyone who knocks on your door. How do you vet clients and what does your on-boarding process look like?
I totally understand that people work with anyone in the early days. I wouldn’t say we turned down loads of work at the beginning because we pretty much worked with whoever came to us. There was also a certain type of client we would never go after. We would often just charge more for work we didn’t really want to do.

These days, a lot of our work comes from referrals from clients we’ve worked in the past or it’s repeat work or we receive briefs from clients who have seen us around. We’ll always have a conversation with them on the phone or in-person if possible. We get to know them a little bit to see whether we we’re a good fit for the project or if they’re a good fit for us. The only reason we turn down work these days, unless they’re a complete dick, is if they don’t have any money. We don’t really get contacted by war companies or drug companies, maybe we’d have an issue with those. We don’t have a list of clients that we definitely wouldn’t work with. If they’re nice people, and they have enough money to work on the project, and we like their business, it’s usually straight forward.

Most of the time, we have to put some sort of proposal together. We occasionally get RFPs which is a bit more dry and box ticking, which we hate. We would much rather spend more time with them, get to know them, and then get to know what their problems are and what their overall aims for the project are, and then our proposal can be directed at those problems.

The last part of our on-boarding would be the discovery phase. That is a more in-depth workshop where we establish the aims and goals of the project and the nitty gritty of what they need.

And the discovery phase is billable?

At the end of that discovery phase, they presumably get something they could take to another agency if they wanted?
We give them a list of the deliverables they’ll get at the end of it. We do say that if you want to take our discovery findings to another agency, there’s nothing stopping you.

There’s normally a technical scope outlining the technical necessities for the site. It could also be user journeys and structural stuff like a sitemap. We’ll do a report on what their measures of successes are, who their audience is, what their audience goals are, and what their business goals are. It’s quite a big chunk of work at the beginning but it gives our clients confidence that we’re thorough.

We often get clients that are skeptical about doing it because they see it as a big chunk of money that has no immediate visible outcome other than a load of documents. But later on when talking about the project and making decisions they totally realise that it was valuable. It’s really insightful later.

“We’re trying to get clients away from seeing that websites are finished once they are live.”

How do you price projects? Do you do hourly, daily or weekly or value based pricing?
The bigger the project the wider the scope of pricing. We do a lot of design support services where it’s iterations on websites which could be anything from an hour to a day to a week. We have an hourly rate, which we times by 8 for a day, and that by 5 for a week. We charge hourly technically. We don’t really do value-based charging.

If we get approached by a company that has a much larger budget then we see that as an opportunity to have more time on the project. It might be that a client has twice as much budget as another client that comes to us for a brand or web project. We’ll quite often charge more or work to a bigger budget but that’s because we can put more into it.

We always ask for budgets as quick as possible. Right at the beginning of a project, the first question is do you have a budget? If they won’t give us a budget upfront, which a lot of people don’t – a lot of people think that either if you give them a budget you’ll spend it all or they don’t want to put their cards on table first – if they don’t give us a budget, we’ll give them a guide. We’ll ask them if they are thinking £5-10k, or £10-20k or £20-50k+. That places us in a ball park. Someone who is looking for a £1k job will obviously immediately know where they stand. Those markers usually give us some kind of impression of what they think about those prices.

If we don’t have a budget, we’ll base it on our discovery stage findings. We’ll bring individual members of the team who are going to be working on a project to see how long a piece of work will take. If it’s unknowns, we might need to do research for the estimate. A lot is still guess work, we don’t really know how we are going to build that thing, it might take a week, or it might take 2.

We’ve approached a lot of projects in phases. As soon as phase 1 is done, we’ll look at phase 2. If stuff doesn’t fit into the budget, that’s fine, we’ll just leave it out and do it in phase 2. That has worked well for a lot of our clients. We’re trying to get clients away from seeing that websites are finished once they are live. It’s something we’re really focusing on at the minute.

What tools do you use in your team?
We use Slack for internal communication. We would do a lot emailing to each other so our inbox’s would be full of internal emails. If we weren’t emailing each other, we were tapping each other on the shoulder and asking stuff so Slack has replaced that. Basecamp for clients. Harvest for invoicing, estimates and time tracking. We’re also trying out Forecast by Harvest for scheduling. We use Wunderlist for todo lists. We all have it on our Macs and phones. Every morning we have a morning catch up where we stand around the breakfast bar and the project manager runs through everyone’s tasks for the day. Having Wunderlist is really handy as we can all see each others lists. We use Bugherd for bug tracking.

We’ve also built ourselves an internal tool called Yolk which is kind of like a CRM which acts as a bit of an overview of all these other tools that we use. It gives us a bit of an audit trail when working with clients. We’ve found that the more clients we’ve worked with and the more people in the team, the more we need a way of being to look back and see when key decisions were made if any sticky situations come up.

Any plans to release Yolk?
We are making a service called Blocks, which we announced ages ago and then didn’t do anything with. That is still firmly on the table and we talk about it weekly. It’s just a case of opening enough development time to get it built. Our goal is to eventually replace all those tools that we use with one set of tools that all talk to each other. The biggest pain is that all those tools I just mentioned, you add notes into at some point so you end up adding 5 notes. We feel like there is a better way of doing it.

If you could give yourself one piece of advice when starting Bluegg, what would it be?
Probably to not to be so safe and to take more risks. We’ve never really gambled or taken many risks. We’re quite cautious as people. We’ve always been cautious to grow slowly, cautious not to get ahead of ourselves, cautious not to take on work that was well beyond us.

How do you deal with work/life balance?
I think because it’s been key since the beginning, we’ve got a pretty good balance. We don’t work in the studio past 5pm. Some of the guys in the studio have kids so making sure they are home in time to have dinner and put the kids to bed is really important. Mike and I both have kids so that’s important to us, so it’s only fair that is important to everyone else. That helps. We don’t work weekends and don’t expect anyone else to work weekends too.

Not being unrealistic with deadlines helps too. A lot of people who suffer from burn out maybe suffer it from it because they’re putting themselves under a lot of pressure to get things done and to stick to client deadlines. We’re very open and honest with clients. If a client deadline isn’t realistic and that means it will put us under too much pressure to get it done, we’ll just tell them. That very rarely comes back as a problem. As long as you’re upfront with them, we find most clients are open to you pushing back and making an alternative suggestion.

Are there any books or podcasts you’d recommend?
I don’t really read books, I listen to audiobooks. My commute has decreased lately so I listen to less that I used to. I’ve recently listened to the Becoming Steve Jobs book which was really good, which I enjoyed more than the first one. I listened to the audiobook of Rework by 37signals. Podcast wise, I kind of dip in and out of podcasts, and listen to a podcast for a week and then get bored. One podcast I’ve stuck with for ages was Bootstrapped. Although, honestly, I think that’s part of the burn out thing as well. When people aren’t designing stuff, they’re listening to other people talk about design.

Yeah, that’s me.
I can see why. If you’re constantly listening to other people talk about it, then you’re constantly thinking about it. You don’t get chance to rest.

Agreed. I should take note. What are you currently working on and what are your future plans for Bluegg?
We’re currently working with two guys who were on Masterchef a couple of years ago. They’ve started a chain of takeaways. We’ve been working with them for the last 18 months on their brand identity and interior. That has been great as we’ve been able to be really creative and they’ve allowed us do what we want.

We’ve recently won the project to redesign the Celtic Manor website which is one of the biggest hotels in Wales where the Ryder cup was held. They’ve got a really high profile so it’s good to get involved in that. It’s full of challenges as the website hasn’t been redesigned for a number of years. That’s going to keep us busy over the next few months.

We have an equal split between branding and design for print and web. I’ve considered if we should go fully digital and whether we should become more specialist. When we first started we wanted to do the whole thing and we had good reason to. At the time there were only agencies who really did branding or digital, no one really did both back then. So we wanted to be the one that did. It just feels natural to us to offer the whole package.

Longer term, I’m sure every agency says it but we want to build products. We’ve got loads of ideas. I want to get in the position where we can hire a person or two who would solely work on our own stuff. I think we’re a creative bunch with a lot of experience and I think there’s a few problems we could solve for other people. Long term we want to get some products out there. They’re all based on problems and pains we have ourselves.

Do you ever see yourself doing a 37signals and shifting from client work to just focusing on your own product?
Possibly. I’d feel uncomfortable about shutting down some of the studio which would mean getting rid of people. We’ve got a couple of guys who would love to work on one thing, but we also have a few guys who would hate working on one thing. I think some people like to have their attention on the long game on one thing, and others like to work on something, get it done, and then move onto the next thing.

You can follow Tom on Twitter and be sure to check out the Bluegg doodles.

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I’m joining the modmore team! Fri, 08 May 2015 19:07:46 +0000 Today I have some exciting personal news to share: I’m joining the team at modmore as their content strategist.

It’s a part-time venture so I’ll still be running my own business 16by9 and working with my own clients.

The role will combine two interests of mine:

Firstly, I’ll be getting much more hands on with MODX. I’ve written about MODX in the past having used it on several projects, but up until now I haven’t been actively involved in the community.

Secondly, this will be my first paid writing gig. I’ll be writing blog posts, newsletters, website copy, and helping with other communication channels.

It’s a super exciting opportunity and I look forward to working with the modmore team to help bring the excellent work they’re doing to more people.

P.S. The modmore team have just launched, an online magazine dedicated to all things MODX.

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An interview with Jon Rhodes: On managing digital projects Fri, 08 May 2015 19:06:42 +0000 In my second interview, I chat to Jon Rhodes, a senior project manager for Sheffield based digital agency Quba. We chat about project management, Agile vs. Waterfall, the mistakes freelancers make, microadventures, and much more. Enjoy!

Did you go to university or college?
No, I didn’t go to either. I left school at 16. I was pretty bored of learning at that point so I decided to do a youth training scheme.

What’s your take on higher education? Will you encourage your daughter to go to university?
Well, my wife went to university. I’m biased to not going if I’m honest. It hasn’t held me back at all. I’ve missed out on some of the life skills, if you want to call it that, like living away from home and making friends and all that stuff but I didn’t have the debt and I started working straight away and I think that has been a better thing for me. I started working at 16 and I’ve learnt so much from that. Would I recommend it to my daughter? Well, I’ll give her every opportunity to make her own mind up. I wouldn’t try to sway her either way.

How did you get into project management?
I was working at a company called learndirect in a junior admin type role and my manager at the time said I should apply for a project manager job. That was in 2007. My first project was a website selling e-courses to the SME market. I absolutely loved it. I got made redundant from there, and then joined HSBC, where I managed IT projects. It wasn’t that well suited to me, it was such a massive company with such a massive office – I think it was around 4000 people in the Sheffield office – and I tried to do what I wanted to do, and do things my way, but there was a culture of this is how we do things. Then I moved to a web agency called Technophobia for a few years, before joining Quba as a senior project manager which is where I am now.

“If I say I’m going to do something, then I just do it.”

Can you describe what you do at Quba?
I’m a senior project manager at Quba. We’re a web and digital agency. I do my best to make sure what a client wants is ultimately delivered. I facilitate scoping sessions and workshops to get a better understanding of what a client wants and I write these up so I can replay back to a client to make sure our understanding is correct. I run estimating sessions so we can all get an understanding of how long things will take to deliver. I work with our team of designers and developers each day to make sure what we’ve said we’re going to do is done, and that we are on track with any timescales we may have committed to. I keep a client up to date as things progress and if something’s not right, I’ll let them know. And towards the end of a project I’ll work with our test team to make sure what we’re giving is to our high standards. I work with a client to make sure any steps for going live are as pain-free as possible.

I’m currently working on between 4-5 projects, between 2-3 new business pitches, and I manage a small team. I also work with the rest of the guys at Quba trying to make it a brilliant place to work and a brilliant place for clients to come to.

What makes a good project manager?
I think you need to be honest and trustworthy. There’s no point telling a blatant lie because you’ll either get caught out or you’ll disappoint someone. A big thing for me is that I want to be reliable. If I say I’m going to do something, then I just do it. If I promise a document or an email and that means I have to stay a bit later, then unfortunately that’s what has to happen. If you give your word on something, then you really ought to do it. It goes without saying that you need to be organised. You need to have good people skills and get on with people. And I believe you have to be a good mediator at times. Not everyone gets on at all times and you need to manage that, and it helps if you can get people gelling and working together. You also need to have the skills to create well written and well crafted documents.

What tips or advice would you give to someone, like myself, that doesn’t have any background or training in project management?
There’s various certifications, courses, and qualifications that you can take. They’re all great but actually you can just do simple things. Be helpful and friendly. If you say you’re going to call someone back at a certain time or email someone, just do it. And a big thing, if for whatever reason you can’t do something, I think it’s better to say you can’t do it than over promise. If you know you’re going to miss a deadline, or there’s a tricky situation, or you need to take a day off, just be honest with the client and say you’re really sorry but I can’t do this. Be organised, keep control of your schedule or calendar, make lists to know what you need to get done today, tomorrow and the following days. If someone asks you to do something which is miles away from what you initially agreed, mention it. If something is different but might only take 5 minutes, then do that little bit more and deliver something amazing.

We visited a clients office together a few months back and one thing that stands out was how you helped the receptionist when he couldn’t find the person you was after. Just being helpful and friendly goes a long way.
In my first job, when I was a young trainee, I was working with a woman in our post department. She gave me some advice I’ll never forget: “Always remember that people on reception are absolute key to making your life easier.” Receptionists are the first people you see when you go for a job or go to meet a client. Just getting a rapport with them is important. That interaction might feedback to the client.

“Being Agile is just being a bit more iterative and doing things quicker.”

What software do you use for project management?
You can’t get away from email, unfortunately. Skype is great. We use Basecamp – most clients and most projects are on it. I’m not the biggest fan of it to be honest. I’m a big fan of Trello; it’s a bit more visual and it’s easy to use. We’ve just started using a tool called DoneDone for bug tracking. Previously, we were trying to do bug tracking with Basecamp but that didn’t work. Most of my day is spent in either Basecamp or Trello.

I’d like to talk briefly about Waterfall vs. Agile. Can you explain what Waterfall and Agile workflows might look like?
Waterfall is where you do the scoping work up front and that will probably end up as a specificational or functional requirements document. Once that’s signed off, that will lead to the next step which is likely to be design. In a web project, we’re likely to do wireframes, visual concepts, style guides, things like that. At the end of that, those will be signed off, and that will lead into development work, which again will be signed off, and that will lead to testing, amends, and then user acceptance testing. And therein is the problem: you’ve got through quite a few stages where the client has seen documents, and some PSDs and mockups, but the testing stage doesn’t come until the end. Therefore, if you want any changes, you have to go back through the loop. Speccing out, design work, development, testing, etc. For large scale projects, it’s not great. A lot of the work is done upfront in documents.

Agile is breaking that process down into much smaller chunks. You basically do all those steps in a shorter period, usually somewhere between 2 and 4 weeks. You do less upfront planning work. In a web project, you might work on wireframes and concepts for the home page in a sprint and then after 2 weeks you might do a demo for the client. You might have nailed 90% of what is required, and 10% are little changes. That 10% goes into something called a backlog. In the next sprint, you take more items from the backlog and you go and change 10% of the homepage and then you might work on the registration page. Over a period of sprints, you build out a full picture. There’s a few benefits: you don’t have to do much upfront work, you can get cracking sooner, and it makes changing things easier because you just move into the next sprint.

Being Agile is just being a bit more iterative and doing things quicker. One of the problems with agile is getting client buy-in. The client needs to have an appreciation for agile and they need to have the right people in place for it.

In my experience, clients want to see some documentation. They want to know in writing what they’re getting and when it will be done. And there’s nothing very Agile about that.

Do you use Agile or Waterfall?
Quba generally takes a hybrid approach. We work with clients who have a fixed budget, they’ve got a timeline, and they generally know what they want and that generally leads to Waterfall. What we try to do at Quba is a specification document which is basically a summary of what the client will get. What we try to do in a slightly more agile way is the development phase. We break down the backend development work into sprints wherever possible and we do demos on a regular basis. The client sees something more often which is a more agile approach, but if they want anymore changes we’ll often go down the Waterfall route of you can have whatever you want but there will be a change request. That hybrid approach seems to be working really well.

How do you go about pricing projects?
For any project that we start at Quba, we hold an estimating session or an estimating workshop. That’s just an internal get together and we try and have someone from each discipline, so we’ll usually have a designer, developer, project manager, account manager and we sit down and go through whatever the project is. We then list out what we’re going to do, what assumptions we’re making, and how many hours we think it’s going to take. At the end of this, we have a price. I’m involved in collating how much time we think it’s going to take.

What do you think makes a great agency?
I think it has to have a good client base, a good pipeline and a massive thing is the people who work there. We’re lucky at the minute that Quba has some fantastic talent. All combined, that’s helping us become a brilliant agency. We’re really lucky that the office that we work in is really quirky, it’s a great place to come to work and a good place to bring clients. We’re concentrating on getting the quality of our work up to a standard that we’re happy with.

What does Quba get right?
We’re really good at investing in the people we have, even though that sounds cliché. I wanted to do Scrum Master training and I was given the opportunity to do that. There’s absolutely zero fuss over stuff like that, they just let you do it. We always have people out at conferences, workshops, getting certifications and there’s a really good buzz about it. I think that’s making a big difference.

And what do you think Quba gets wrong?
We’re getting to the point where we’re really busy. We’re trying to do too much at the minute and we’re spreading ourselves too thin. That’s something we’ve recognised over the last few weeks and we’re doing something about it. We need to fix that now because we don’t want that affecting the quality of our work. We need to be a little bit cautious about the work that we take on. We want to get to the point where we have a schedule and some clients will wait perhaps a month or two because they know the quality that we can deliver and that’s one of current challenges.

You’re actively involved in hiring and working with freelancers. What qualities do you look for in a freelancer?
We need to make sure they’re reliable and that’s generally going to come from personal recommendations or historic use of a freelancer. Wherever possible, a good portfolio is helpful. We need to make sure their rates are within budget. I also want to work with freelancers who are client facing. I don’t want to be a messenger, I’d rather go into client meetings with a freelancer if required.

“We always have people out at conferences, workshops, getting certifications and there’s a really good buzz about it. I think that’s making a big difference.”

What are the biggest mistakes you see freelancers making?
We recently used a freelancer who had given an estimate of a few days for a piece of work. After those few days he replied that he was a bit busy and he’d need a few more days to complete the work. After after those few days his computer had broke, and a few more days later the computer was still being fixed. It was just ringing alarm bells for us. My gut feeling was that he was just too busy and working on other jobs. If he’d just have been honest and said I can’t do the work this week, I’ll start it next week, we could have worked that into the schedule. The simple mistake was just not being honest.

How do you keep active and what impact does that have on your work/mental state?
I either cycle or run into work each day and I also go kickboxing once a week. I go to the local ParkRun most Saturday’s with my wife and I try to do a either a 10k or half marathon race each month. I just feel better when I exercise, it puts me in a better mood, it gives me more energy and it’s nice to get a bit of time to myself. If I don’t do something for a few days I generally feel a bit sluggish.

What are microadventures?
Microadventures is a concept coined by an adventurer called Alastair Humphreys who’s a bit of a hero of mine. A few years ago he was bored of doing expeditions abroad and he wanted to do something closer to home where anyone could do it.

Microadventures have a few rules: it should take place on a week night. It should be something where you leave the office and be back at the office the next day. The whole thing is about being outside, sleeping under the stars. You sleep in a bivvy bag, you don’t take a tent and your face is open to the elements. You go with some mates. You cook a meal over a fire and then nine o’clock next morning you’re back at your desk.

There’s a few groups springing up over the UK. I’ve just joined one in South Yorkshire – I’ve not been out with them yet but sometime this year it’ll be good to get out and meet some like-minded people.

What 2-3 books would you recommend?
Funnily enough there’s a booked called Microadventures by Alastair Humphreys. That’s a brilliant book, and has been really inspiring for me. There’s another cracking book called The Man Who Cycled the World by Mark Beaumont. That’s about his world record cycling around the world. And another one: Just A little Run Around The World by Rosie Swale Pope. She’s in her 60s and has run around the world. Just brilliant.

If you could give yourself some advice when you first started out, what would it be?
Years ago I worried that I didn’t know what I wanted to be—that’s the question you’re always asked at school—and I never had a clue. I’ve just landed into this project management gig and it’s working out fine. It’s just happened by chance. So I’d tell a younger version of myself just do what you’re good at and it’ll all work out.

A huge thank you to Jon Rhodes for sharing his insights here. You can reach Jon on Twitter or on his website.

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An interview with Mark Hamstra: On freelancing and selling digital products Thu, 02 Apr 2015 19:05:45 +0000 I’m doing a series of interviews with people in our industry where I find out what makes them tick, how they go about their day, and what we can learn from them.

My first guest is Mark Hamstra, a 24 year old self-employed PHP developer from the Netherlands. Mark is the founder of modmore, a provider of premium extras for MODX.

Lets jump straight in.

For those that aren’t aware, can you tell us what MODX is and what you like about it?
MODX is an open source content management platform. It has been around for a decade, and is one of the few systems that truly deliver the creative freedom that professional designers and developers need. Its philosophy of separating markup from logic and content makes it a really great tool for people that need to deliver an easy way of managing content, while maintaining control of what is returned by the system to the browser.

How long have you been self-employed? What did you do before?
I’ve been self-employed since 2011. Before going freelance, I studied Hospitality Management for 2 years and then I dropped out to go freelance full-time. I haven’t had a ‘real’ job, I just jumped head first into freelancing.

What made you start your own business, especially at such a young age?
I’ve been developing websites since middle school so it felt like a natural progression and wasn’t that big a leap. My brother does some entrepreneurial stuff and my mother used to have her own conference centre, so it runs in the family a little.

“Freelancing provides some diversity, a different perspective and it’s a nice change.”

Can you tell us about the freelance work that you do and how that works with modmore?
At the moment, I spend about half my time freelancing and half my time working on modmore.

On the freelancing side, I have a few clients who ask for guidance about how they should build things with MODX but mostly I build sites for agencies. I don’t do a lot of start to finish projects. Most often an agency will need something developed in MODX such as talking to 3rd party services.

modmore is where I make and sell premium extras. We’re a small team of 4, each with their own expertise and role within the business. These are all independent contractors spending an average of 4 hours a week contributing to specific projects. Right now we are also looking for someone to manage content and communication.

How did you start modmore?
I had enough money saved up to take a few months off freelancing to build modmore. I needed to spend a lot of time building the products and the platform. Now I try to spend a month working on modmore and then a month freelancing to keep things balanced.

Do you enjoy the freelancing side or can you see yourself going full-time on modmore? How would you like things to pan out?
I would like modmore to grow and I can see modmore playing a bigger role. That said, I can see modmore generating more freelance work too, especially when it comes to integrating our plugins. It does make things interesting to go from one to the other. Freelancing provides some diversity, a different perspective and it’s a nice change.

“Pricing comes down to value. What does it offer? What would people use and what would it be worth to them?”

Why did you decide to base your business on MODX rather than a more popular platform such as WordPress?
I’ve spent the last 6 years working with MODX, including a year working with the MODX core team to develop the platform. I know it well so it seemed like a logical fit.

WordPress would have had a bigger target audience for sure. But when I started modmore, I saw an opportunity to start a new market and to be the first in the MODX community to offer premium extras. Even now, there isn’t much competition.

What does the process for creating new products look like?
Well, there’s no shortage of ideas. I have a list of who knows how many ideas. We also ask our users if they have ideas during signup, so there’s a lot of things we hear and see.

From there, it’s scratching an itch. For example, with ContentBlocks (a plugin which lets you easily construct a page with pre-built blocks), I didn’t like having to build out by writing the markup by hand. That’s how the first ContentBlocks proof of concept came to be. Build it, see if it would work, and then keep refining it until it’s an actual product.

Sometimes, some of the things we work on don’t actually make it into a final product. When I first started out, I had 3 or 4 plugins I wanted to sell and only 2 of those made it. I went to the MODX meetup in London and I presented some of my ideas and there was a real distinct difference in the projects that people were interested in.

“We don’t have sales often because we don’t want to devalue our products.”

How do you approach pricing for your products?
Well, pricing is definitely one of the more difficult things when it comes to selling a digital product. Our costs per product are basically zero, there’s no distribution costs or manufacturing costs so it doesn’t matter if we sell 5 or 500. So pricing comes down to value. What does it offer? What would people use and what would it be worth to them? I don’t think we always get it right. At some point we dropped the pricing of one of our extras called SimpleAB, but sometimes it can be easy to undervalue a product as well.

One of the things we’re experimenting with is subscriptions. Rather than buying individual licenses, a subscription lets you have unlimited licenses. Although the uptake hasn’t been as quick as we’d like, it is growing every month and we can see this growing to be a significant part of our revenue.

We do occasionally have sales, too. Black Friday last year was a huge success. We sold more in a 24 hour window than in the prior month. We don’t have sales often because we don’t want to devalue our products. We try to sell premium products. There are alternatives to what we sell, sometimes even for free, but that’s not what we want to compete with. We want people to buy for the quality of our products and the support that we provide.

You put together your own conference, MODX weekend, last year. How did that come about? What did you learn? Would you do it again?
I helped organise MODXpo Utrecht 2012 and MODXpo Cologne 2013 but I had another vision of how I could run a conference for MODX. It also helped that I studied Hospitality Management so it was a case of combining my development side with the hospitality side.

MODX Weekend was more expensive than MODXpo because it was all inclusive. I really wanted people to come for the weekend and then not worry about getting a hotel or finding somewhere to eat.

We didn’t make a profit. In fact, we made a loss. But despite that I think it was worth it. I think the conference really put modmore on the map. It was a great weekend, with a lot of great speakers. We published videos of the talks which still get a lot of traffic.

We’re not running the conference again this year. I am thinking about doing an event in 2016. Next time I’d focus on where the money is spent so that we can make it more profitable. I’d also look at how we market the event so that we can get more people to attend. I’d try to lower the ticket price, too.

Do you do many talks? How do you find public speaking?
I do talks mostly at meetups and MODX events. I’m doing a talk about MODX at a local PHP meetup in the next few months. I don’t consider myself a professional speaker and I still get nervous. When you’re organising an event and speaking at the same time, that can be difficult. Preparation is key.

What do you think the future of MODX is?
There is need for change, but that’s natural. For the immediate future, the core vision of MODX is still very relevant and useful. It’s interesting to look at the longer term though. Jason Coward has written about how he thinks the next major version could be rearchitected (Keeping MODX Relevant — Part One and Part Two). I’m looking forward to see how it will be shaped and contributing as well.

“I try and take the right project at the right time. It can be tempting to take everything that comes your way but that doesn’t always work.”

How structured is your day? Do you have any set routines?
I’m quite chaotic. For a long time, I would sleep in every day and work every night. Recently, that has changed a little. The day typically starts with support, I’ll answer a few support tickets in the morning. And then, depending on what the task is for the day, whether that’s freelance work or modmore development, I’ll take it from there.

Since running my own business, I’ve found it tempting to work all hours. Have you found that too?
Yeah, I did get burnt out a few years ago because of that. Constantly working, constantly trying to get client projects finished, constantly trying to get more clients. I was stuck in that loop.

How did you get over that?
Taking time off helped. I also stopped taking on additional freelance projects for a while. I finished everything completely before starting something new. I had to get out of the loop of constantly going from one project to the next. If you don’t wrap up a project before adding a new client, it can quickly become overwhelming. One client is late delivering something you need for the project and everything snowballs.

Now I try to have work hours and I do less work at the weekend. I try and take the right project at the right time. It can be tempting to take everything that comes your way but that doesn’t always work.

What tools do you use?
I use a Mac. The most important tool I use is PhpStorm – I think that’s the best IDE you can get. GitHub for version control and Trello and GitHub issues for project management. I’ve started using Dash lately which is nice for documentation. We also use Slack for internal communication as well as hanging out with the MODX community.

Any resources (books/podcasts) you’d recommend?
I would recommend a book by Scott Stratten called UnMarketing. Anyone that does anything remotely connected to marketing would find that an interesting book. Also, I’d recommend REWORK from 37signals.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?
Attend more usergroups. Especially if you work remotely or from home, it’s important that you get in touch with people who also use your language, your framework, whatever it is you use. Even just an evening a month, you learn so much from discussions with other like-minded people and you also make a lot of contacts.

What are you currently working on?
Well, we are working on something big but that’s still secret – sorry! We’re also working on which is a magazine style website for MODX which brings dailyish content varying from blog posts, to tutorials, to videos, to podcasts. We’re inviting anyone to contribute and we’re hoping the community will embrace it and help maintain it in the long term.

A massive thanks to Mark Hamstra for being my first guest and for being so generous with his time. You can follow Mark on Twitter. Or, checkout modmore (and in particular ContentBlocks, a game changer if you build websites in MODX).

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How many hours should you work? Sun, 01 Feb 2015 20:04:48 +0000 “How’re you getting on running your own business?” a friend of mine recently asked.

“Things are going well, thanks. Still finding my feet but enjoying it so far.”

“Ah great. So how many hours a week are you working?”

Heh, interesting question, I thought. Of all the things he could ask — Are you finding enough work? Don’t you find it distracting working from home? — and he asked how many hours I’m working.

I use RescueTime to track the time I’m at my Mac. Since 90% of the work I do takes place on my Mac (the remaining 10% is travelling and meetings), I have a pretty good idea of how many hours a week I work.

“It varies. Last week I worked around 40 hours.”

“Ohh.” You could almost hear the disappointment in his voice. I imagined the continued dialogue in his head: “40 hours? I’m sure you need to work 60+ to run a successful business.”

Our society has created a culture that promotes long work hours. If you work long hours, you must be important and successful, right?

Well, no.

RescueTime allows me to see roughly how productive I am based on the apps I’m using. It’s not entirely accurate but it gives a decent estimation. On average, I’m productive (coding, designing, writing, emailing) 70% of the time. The remaining time I’m on Twitter, Facebook or Amazon. You know, the normal distractions. Of course, this fluctuates based on how busy I am. Some days I’m in the 90s and others I’m down in the 60s.

Why am I telling you this? Because it highlights that not every moment of our working day is productive. And the funny thing is, the longer my working day, the less productive I am.

Someone who works 16 hours a day or 80 hours a week might only be productive 50% of the time. So, theoretically, I could work for 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week and get the same amount done.

Working long hours is seen by some as a badge of honour and that it puts them in the same league as the greats of the past. But, instead of how many hours worked, we should be looking at our output.

Are we focused when we work? Are we working on the right things? Are we avoiding distractions? Are we automating the things that can be automated? Do we have a structure and routine for our day?

If we ask ourselves those questions, it’s possible to work a 40 hour week (or less) and run a successful business.

It’s only lately that I’ve begun to really appreciate and value time.

Most people care about money. Not in a greedy way (although some do) but in the way that we need money to survive. We plan and budget and save. We’re careful with how we spend money.

Why is it then that we don’t consider how we spend our time in the same way?

We should be spending our time wisely. We should be focused when we need to be focused. We should be saying ‘no’ to distractions. And we should have periods when we’re not working.

I wanted to end this with a quote. While searching Google, I stumbled on this wonderful piece by Kevin Kelly. Although this quote is in the context of travelling, I believe it applies to life as well.

“Time is the one thing you can give yourself in abundance. It is often the one resource the young own. Ironically, if you exploit your gift of time as you travel, you’ll gain more than any billionaire can. Without exaggeration, you’ll earn experiences that no amount of money can buy. Seriously. Although it tries, money cannot buy what time delivers.”

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How to get the budget and justify the cost of a project Fri, 16 Jan 2015 20:04:00 +0000 I received a great question from @cherry_works:

When speaking to potential website clients, I’ve had a couple of them state “Well, we are doing alright, so we’re not sure spending money on a website will benefit the company”. This comment usually comes after they have received the quotation, which is always “that’s more than we expected”, which in turn is always after the budget question, to which they reply “We don’t have a budget expectation, how much does a website cost”.

There’s a few interesting statements in there so I’ll attempt to tackle them separately.

“We don’t have a budget expectation, how much does a website cost?”

Even when a client says they don’t have a budget expectation, they do. They might not have a budget per se, but they will have a number in mind, whether they know it or not, in the same way we have a number in mind when we walk into a store to buy something.

Clients are often reluctant to share their budget because it puts them in a weaker position when negotiating. Their thought pattern is understandable: “If I say my budget is £5,000, they’ll charge £4,999”. If they say a number, they’ve put their cards on the table. And the easiest way to counter this is to put your cards on the table first.

Jason Fried wrote about getting the budget out of a client:

Try this: When they tell you they don’t have a number say, “Oh, ok. So a $100,000 solution would work for you?” They’ll quickly come back… “Oh no, probably something more around $30K.” BINGO: That’s the budget.

If they won’t share a number, do it for them. Start with something like: “We’ve worked with other companies of a similar size and costs usually start from around £3,000. Are we in the right ballpark?”

Their answer will be telling. Make sure you’re paying attention and pick up the signs. They’ll either take comfort that the price is within range or they won’t. Establishing what they are willing to pay is critical. If their budget is too low and you can’t do anything meaningful for them, you should walk away.

It’s tempting to take jobs at lower prices to ‘win the contract’, but avoid it if you can. It keeps you looking like a professional (you didn’t lower your rates) and you don’t look desperate for work. You can of course keep this friendly. Pass them on to someone who can work to their budget or recommend an online service such as Squarespace.

Get the budget before writing a proposal

When I first started out, I found it difficult to talk to clients about money. I was afraid I’d scare them away. I’d even deliver proposals without having discussed potential budgets and this usually doesn’t go down well. It’s important to ensure your expectations align with their expectations before writing a proposal.

I have a new rule now. A proposal shouldn’t include any surprises. They should already know roughly how much the project is going to cost. A proposal succinctly sums up exactly what we’ve already talked about.

“We’re not sure spending money on a website will benefit the company”

It’s important to remember sometimes they’re right. Not all businesses need to spend thousands on a website and in fact many would be just fine paying a few quid a month to someone like Squarespace. (I’m not affiliated to them — honest!)

Our job, then, is to find out the answer to that question for them. You should start looking for that answer as soon as discussions begin with the client. Get them to fill out a questionnaire and talk about the project with them, but also discuss their business.

Clients will often come to us asking for a “new, modern, fresh” website. It’s important to then dig in and find out why they want a new website. Often, you’ll find the answer by talking about their current website. Perhaps it’s not making enough sales, or it’s not generating enough traffic, or their competitors have a better website.

Discovering the underlying issues and understanding why they want a new website will help you sell the website to them.

Proposals, not quotations

I write proposals, not quotations. Quotes, at least to me, are a list of prices. “3x templates = £300, WordPress integration = £300, hosting = £50”. That’s how I quoted websites for years. The focus was on the cost of each component and, of course, the client would try and remove as much as possible to reduce the cost.

Proposals, however, focus on how the project will impact their business. Quite often, I won’t even itemise the costs. 80% of the proposal is talking about them, their situation, and the solution I’m proposing. I’m not talking in great detail about the technology or the latest coding techniques because the client doesn’t care. The client cares about getting something back from the money they put in.

A real-life example

I was in a meeting with a client recently and they posed the question: “We’re not sure we can justify the cost”. My first reaction was to empathise. I’m a business owner and I try to justify every expense too. The price was expensive and there’s no doubt they could have got a cheaper website elsewhere. I could tell he was sitting on the fence and it could swing either way.

I asked “How much is a customer worth? How many customers would it take to recoup the cost of the project?”. The client’s customers were high-value and paid expensive contracts once signed up. The client only needed 2 customers to cover the entire cost of the project.

Once we had established this, it changed the clients perception of the cost. I was able to convince them that the project was actually low-risk. We’d get 2 new customers—I was confident of that—and we’d likely get many more. I focused the conversation on reducing risk for the client and how the client would get a return on their investment, not on the technology. And I got the job.

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