Act like the expert you are

Stop right now and ask yourself a question:

Why on earth do your clients hire you instead of the next person?

Really, why do they hire you?

Have you specialized? I wrote about how important specialization is in my series on Becoming a 6 Figure Freelancer. You need to do it to really run a successful business.

Yes, you might get into a position with a client that just pushes you into bad ideas. Fire the client. If you can’t (sometimes we all just need to pay the bills) then once you’re done, never work for them again.

But clients don’t value my opinion

What if clients don’t value your opinion?

That’s probably your fault. Have you been opinionated on your blog? Were you hired for your opinion or just to push some pixels/code around?

If you’re just ‘the WordPress person’ then of course many clients will ignore your opinion. You’re a commodity and commodities (like gas) don’t compete on value, they compete on price, as in who has the lowest one.

I’m not just the guy that can build WordPress sites. I’m the guy that figures out why your site can’t sell it’s $10k software by profiling the site and tracking down that one function that crushes your site.

I’m the guy that builds out custom UI for your users and increases conversions.

I’m the guy that replaces your $50k/year external membership tool that drops connections and thus users.

Yeah I can build a theme and I enjoy doing that, but that’s not why people come to me initially.

The clients you want will be hiring you for your strong opinion. They should be hiring you because you are the expert, not just because you can ‘code’.

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Projects That Don’t Launch

A few weeks ago, I wrote about shipping. Actually delivering finished work to clients is 1000000% more important than using the latest cool thing if you want to have a solid business and good referrals.

Long projects zap morale. The longer it takes to develop, the less likely it is to launch. – Rework

That ‘awesome’ project

A few years back I got to work on an awesome project with awesome clients. They didn’t have a firm scope, but they did have money to back the project and they were willing to trade a fixed price for the ability to change things as we went.

I thought it was going to be great. We’d get to be responsive to the needs of the project and just keep moving. We’d be doing Agile development (and a whole bunch of other buzz words).

The problem was that I put no guard rails on the project at all.

I worked on it for months and billed monthly for the work. Then we kept adding/tweaking things and I started to think it would never ship.

My motivation to work on the project died. There was no life in it.

I stopped shipping.

The clients got really angry and rightly so. They pulled the project from me and got someone else to work on it.

Then they dropped that they were thinking about suing me, due to lack of delivery.

This was a client that had sent me birthday cards and now they were talking about legal action.

Stomach Drop

It was early enough in my business that I was still running project to project to pay my bills, so there was no extra cash to offer a refund. My wife was working full-time still and she wasn’t as aware of what was going on in the business as she is now.

I was running it alone (at least that’s how I felt which really was my own fault).

Looking back, after a few years, it was all my fault.

My Fault

First, it was all my fault because I didn’t push hard for some set features to make up a minimum viable product.

Second, it was my fault because I didn’t say no enough to all the ‘cool extra’ stuff we added to the project as we went.

Third, it was my fault because I didn’t recognize my lack of motivation and the fact that I wasn’t shipping. I started to work on other projects instead that I was ‘interested’ in simply because they were new.

What doesn’t ship

After building tons of web projects, here are some of the flags for projects that are going to have a hard time shipping.

No Scope

Sure it can be great to just throw money at a problem, but few people truly have unlimited funds. They may have $20k and figure that’s enough money to realize their wildest dreams.

So, they want to be ‘responsive’ and ‘agile’ with the scope. Get a scope, or at least set a point in the project that you should have enough discovery so you can set a proper scope.

Running a project scope-less is like running around pant-less. It may feel free but you’re in for trouble when the cops catch you.

No milestones

You need milestones for delivery. Maybe with a loose scope project the first milestone is a technical report on how you’d accomplish the project start. Maybe it’s a report on the competition or after a call to talk design a set of color and font choices for your client.

Don’t just work ‘till things are done’. Set a timeline and stick to those deliverables.

Your goal should be to continue to refine the project as you go and get better milestones.

The other thing about milestones, is that they help you feel like you shipped something, not just push code to a site and then pushed some more. A milestone marks a point in time where things were ‘ready’ and shipped.

Maybe it wasn’t live to the end users yet, but internally it’s being tested.

Now when I get a project with really loose or undefined scope I will still take it, but we set a milestone (2 or 4 weeks seems to work well) and then we refine a scope for the rest of the project version 1.

That gives the client some time up-front to explore what’s needed and how the idea will work, while putting some boundaries on the project.

How have you dealt with projects with loose scope?

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If it’s all important nothing is important

When I worked in-house last, there was a problem. It’s not something big and shady behind the scenes, like embezzling. No one was stealing as far as I know.

The problem was that the leadership said things were important, then never followed that important up with resources.

Sure I had a 1 year old iMac and any software I really needed, but you know what resource I didn’t have, time. In the morning I’d be told that task A was my main focus for the day. Then at lunch task B would be something to get done by the end of the day. Maybe I’d even get told about task C by the end of the day. Then the next day there was a new focus item.

If it’s all important

Yes, team leaders if you tell your staff that everything is important and an A priority then nothing is really going to be important to them. They’ll catch on that you have no idea how to come up with priorities and start to ignore you when you say something in important.

I’m guessing that’s not your goal.

So start to filter yourself. If you think something is important, ask a team member what else they are doing for the day first. Then filter your request based on the importance of the other tasks.

Even better if you can track what’s on everyone’s plates via some software, just take a look yourself at what they are doing. Then put your new task on in the proper priority.

Your job as a boss/team leader is to filter the priorities to your team properly.

When something is a real priority run interference on everything else, so that your team has the proper time to actually get the job done.

If you’re stuck with the important syndrome

Okay you’re not the manager but you have to deal with this. How do you deal with it?

The best tool I had to combat this continually changing priority was asking my boss to take something off my list. Yup, I’d show them my list for the day (which I took the time write down on paper) and ask them which item could come off my list for the day so that I could accomplish the new task.

90% of the time the boss would look at my list and that important item they just told me about was not nearly as important as the things already on my list.

In fact, about 50% of the time they’d say “oh never mind we don’t actually need to do it now”.

Yup, they’d tell me the important task wasn’t important at all in the grand scheme. It was simply an idea of the moment, that had no filter at all on it.

Make sure that you’re always focusing on the things that are actually important each day. Make sure you reserve your drop everything, this is important for times that it’s actually the case or your team will just start ignoring you.

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Forget about the trenches and ruin your team

One of the things I look forward to as I hire people and start building a bit of a team is not being in the trenches daily. A good business owner should be stepping back to work on the business. That’s how you’re going to keep all those peope employed.

There is some danger in stepping totally away from the day-to-day operations though.

Craigslist founder Craig Newmark still answers support emails today (sometimes within minutes) – Rework

Do you still understand?

Back in my high school years I ran a live performance theater. I was a registered pyrotechnician and had experiences building sets, with lights and sound and running all types of electrical equipment.

Then I was put in charge for a few years of the whole show. We traveled around Ontario competing in drama festivals and sold out shows (and added shows) in our town.

It was fun and helped keep me out of a bunch of trouble in high school, but I was a bad leader.

When I was put in charge I mostly stepped back to giving orders, especially when it came to clean up.

I’d walk around pointing things out for people to do, while rarely bending down to do it myself. I mean, I was in charge, why should I do that?

One day it came to a head and my assistant stage manager started yelling at me. I mean spittle flying profanity laced screaming. At the time I thought that he was simply wrong to treat me that way, I mean I was in charge and had been for 2 years at that point. You don’t treat someone in charge that way.

Now I look back and see that I was too proud to do many of the tasks that needed to get done and that pissed people off.

With every able-bodied man present, including VPs, EVPs, CFOs, and the CEO, the work only took about thirty minutes. Yes, you read that right. I was in the truck helping unload and load. I never thought it was a big deal, but one day a new team member wrote me a long e-mail afterward, saying he had never worked in a place where the boss was a real leader. He had been with us less than two weeks and looked up in the truck and realized that the guy handing him boxes was the owner and CEO. After having that experience, the guy will find it hard to cop an attitude about anything he is ever asked to do while he works on my team. The work I did that day took me just thirty minutes, but for years now it has had an impact on my relationship with my team. – EntreLeadership

As you scale your team, make sure that you’re not too proud to get back into those trenches as needed. No you shouldn’t be in them daily, but when things need lifting, go lift.

A few times a year when some code needs to be written, jump in and write it.

Stay in touch with the trenches and your customers and really be a good leader.

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So you’re having trouble with contractors, it’s probably your fault

My friend Angie asked freelancers/business owners what their biggest struggle was. One of the issues that came up a few times was finding reliable contractors for projects.

I get it, I’ve struggled with contractors as well which has been a solid portion my own poor management.

The fact that someone got on your team who should never have been allowed in the building is your fault. – EntreLeadership

Let’s say that you have the management portion under control. What do you look for in a contractor?

Of course you need someone that can do the job required but is that all they can do?

What is a technician?

In The E-Myth Revisited Michael Gerber talks about the 3 different business personalities and calls them:

  1. Entrepreneur
  2. Manager
  3. Technician

The person that has the hardest time running a successful business is the technician. They focus on the present problem (like that intense/awesome bit of code) and not on the long term.

They disappear for days or weeks as they get 100% focused on the problem at hand. You don’t hear from them and they often miss deadlines because they just want to solve the problem.

Everything else be damned.

I try not to hire technicians for contract work. Sure they can accomplish the task but maybe not on time and maybe not on budget and you can expect them to go in to ‘mole mode’ for days.

They’re often not thinking about the budget or the time at all as they focus on the problem.

That’s a recipe for having a bad experience with a contractor.

What makes a good business owner?

A good business owner is a ‘manager’ and ‘entrepreneur’. They step back and learn to manage properly, not only their employees but their own time.

The think about the long term benefits of a ‘workable’ solution delivered on time instead of a ‘technically perfect’ solution delivered when it’s done.

They’re focused on delivering ROI to the clients not just working on some technical challenge because it’s cool.

They have processes for communication with clients and you hear from them regularly.

Who did you hire

So if you hired a technician how much management do you think you need to do? Probably a lot.

If you hired a strong manager or entrepreneur then you have to do less project level management with them.

I try to hire people who run an awesome business and have great customer service skills before being an awesome technician.

Sure one might technically write better code, but the client will still be left unsatisfied with the experience and I’ll have to do way more management.

Which one are you?

So which one are you?

If you’re just starting out it’s likely you fall more towards a technician. You can do the craft so you think you can run a business.

Start taking some steps back and learning how to be a good manager and entrepreneur.

Your business will run better for it.

Identify your core business strengths or be ready to be overwhelmed

What are you highest payoff activities?

What is it in your business that you do that earns you the most money?

What is it that only you can do?

What is actually important and not just urgent?

In The Virtual Assistant Solution, Micheal Hyatt quite quickly asks these questions while he defines 6 steps to better success.

Capacity

I’m at capacity lately which is pretty awesome in some ways but very tiring in many others.

I’ve got 2013 receipts to enter so I can get to my 2014 taxes and figure out how much I still owe the government.

Then there are 2014 receipts to get done.

I’ve got an agency site I’m working on (yup I’ll incorporate this year) which needs copyrighting work.

I’ve got invoicing to do each Friday and estimates to send out.

Most of that is not something that requires all of my time in front of a screen. Almost anyone can enter my reciepts.

The best person to write case studies isn’t me it’s someone with more experience writing effective case studies.

Do you write awesome case studies? I’m looking for someone to help me with SFNdesign. No I’m not asking for free work either.

I need to cover the technical details in my estimates but much of the rest can be put together for me. If I put time in to training someone then I could even hand off some of the technical portion as well.

Of course I’m going to work hard to lead properly and not abandon anyone.

When you’re starting out you’re going to need to cover many bases that might not be your core strength. Once you build up some positive cash flow and a strong savings you really need to start looking at getting help.

Even if you’re not ready today, sit down and identify the things that only you can do. Identify the things that make you the most money. Identify the things that really fire you up about your job.

Then figure out how to start passing all the tasks that don’t fall in to the above items to someone who has a core competency in those tasks.

Have you set up sub-contractors for failure?

I’ve tried to hire out work a number of times and it’s really been a 50/50 split about it going well. Even many of the jobs that have gone well haven’t truly lived up to my expectations 100%.

As usual the problem is me.

I used to think as a young leader that I was wrong to micromanage when a quality person joined my team. As I have become very good at delegating I have realized that when someone first joins my team, until they prove their integrity and competency, it is not micromanaging at all but should be called training – EntreLeadership

See I’ve hired awesome developers and designers that have solid reputations. People I look up to and feel honoured that they want to work with/for me.

Of course someone of that calibre will be awesome right?

Of course they’ll naturally perform above my expectations. Right?

There has almost always been a bit of disappointment in the project. I’ve always had to do some work that I simply didn’t expect to do. I didn’t expect to do it because their so awesome they can handle it.

Right?

The simple fact is that I’ve failed them. I’ve given so much rope and so little direction (a task list is not direction people it’s simply a list) that all they can do is hang themselves just a bit.

I’ve shied away from diving in and managing them and getting daily check ups because it feels uncomfortable to check in on these superstars.

But they have no idea how I want to run my business and the face I want to show to clients. They have no idea how I work and what I think can be done in a week.

So what I’ve done is set them up to try and randomly match a set of expectations they have no idea about.

or….

I’ve set them up to fail.

No one to blame but myself.

And I’m sorry.

Extra project pricing considerations

The thing that really used to kill me on flat rate projects was project management time. One client would take little hand holding, but I’d have charged a lot.

Then the next client would want me on the phone daily and I’d have charged too little.

It seemed like something I almost never got right.

Here are some tips to try and catch those extra pricing considerations in your project estimates.

Point of contact

Who is your point of contact at the company? Do you get to just talk to a single person or are there many people that need to be copied?

If you’re lucky enough to have a single person (and I always insist on that) do they have the power to actually make decisions? Do they have direct access to the decision maker or do they have to go to the ‘web group’ and get a consensus decision?

The fact is that the more people you have involved in the decision making process the longer the project is going to take. The best case scenario is when your main contact point is the decision maker for the site.

The ‘worst’ case scenario is when you have to report to a committee of people and they have to come to a consensus. Not only can it be frustrating to hear some of the absolutely asinine arguments from departments, it takes time to get that group together before they get to make their self-serving points.

A single point of contact that is the decision maker takes wrangling your schedule and their’s for a call. Getting a group of people together means many many schedules.

My best recommendation is to wrangle schedules right away and pick a single day and time of the week to meet each week the project will be running. Then you know you have one chance each week to get real decisions from people.

Are they onboard?

While you may be talking to a single person it’s possible they are not on board with the web project. Maybe they just happen to own an Apple computer and thus are viewed as the ‘tech person’ at work and get the web project tossed at them.

Maybe they hate the company and are just sticking it out in a job because of benefits (which is insane I know).

Maybe that committee of people has one person on it that always derails every decision. They always have the bad reason and no solutions.

Communication type

How does the company want to communicate with you?

Do they want daily phone updates?

Do they love Basecamp or Trello?

Does that communication style fit with your favourites?

What time do they want to talk to you?

Here is not where I tell you to avoid phone calls. Talking to your client is one of the best ways to really get to know them and build a rapport with them. People trust you when they like you.

I am quite happy to use any communication medium that a client prefers but on my terms.
I only book calls at 9am PST or 1pm PST. I only book them during those times because that gives my hours after a call to actually get some work done. Booking a call at 10am is a sure fire way to make sure I tackle nothing hard for the whole morning.

I only have 40 minutes before the call (accounting for more coffee and a bathroom break) and by the time the call is done lunch is fast approaching. You need big swathes of time to get things done so make sure you get them.

So…

Yeah how on earth do you find out these things about a client?

By talking to them more than once before you start the project. Don’t rush from initial call to estimates and deposits and contracts.

Ask them if they have a project management system to use. Ask them if they have to report to on project progress and outcomes. Ask them if they want a weekly or daily phone meeting. Ask them how many calls they expect to get during the project? Ask them what their preferred in project communication tool is.

Then make sure you account for all of that in your project proposal.

Weekly helped me here

Moving to weekly pricing helped me here. On a project in December 2013 the client wanted to talk lots. Sometimes twice daily.

Then we missed a weekly milestone and they weren’t super happy.

Our next call focussed on the time that I was spending managing the project and a light bulb turned on for them.

We cut back our calls to 2 per week (I had already enforced my 9am call routine) and nothing slipped further.

If I had been billing flat rate I would have had to go back to the client and ask for more money (or realize it was a money loosing project) and tell them essentially that they talk to much.

Weekly pricing helped them see the cost of project management and decide how important it was for them to talk daily. They easily could have decided to talk daily still and add 2 weeks to the project.

They decided that 2 extra weeks wasn’t worth the PM time though.

The second thing is that weekly pricing helped me with is that no client likes to see a line item about PM time. Any consultant worth something will be charging for email and meeting time but no client really wants to know the meter is running.

Weekly pricing means that I don’t have to start ‘running the clock’ when the client calls. It’s all just included. Yes in my example above we were using lots of PM time and we addressed it to hit the goals of the client but they never say a line item about 20 hours of PM time in a week.

That’s it for my pricing series. Is there anything else you’d like me to talk about in regards to pricing?

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Answering Questions about Weekly Pricing

Yesterday I talked about how I think you should price your services.

Weekly pricing rocks and long ago I wrote about why it rocks.

On episode 97 of the Freelancer’s Show I answered question on weekly pricing from my co-hosts. I think that you should go listen to the episode but I’m going to hit some highlights here.

1 week sprints

If you’re coming from an agile methodology then weekly pricing is basically 1 week sprints. You and the client together decide what can be done in a week. Yes non-technical clients will need hand holding on how long things take but it’s a collaborative process.

Brennan Dunn has a great sreencast that shows using PlanScope to do this. I don’t love showing how many hours you expect something to take to a client since it should be about value not butt in chair time but it’s one way to do it.

Slippage

What about when you don’t hit a milestone in a week? At some point on some project it’s simply going to happen.

Just before Christmas 2013 I hit a bug on Monday that took a whole day to track down. That took a 2 hour feature on Monday to something that got done on Tuesday.

Back when I worked based on project pricing (flat rate fixed features) I would just have to try and make up the time and still hit the deadline. Despite the fact that bugs happen in custom software development. They are simply unavoidable and you need to make it clear that bugs come up and are paid time when you talk with your clients.

So dealing with this starts with client education and your contract. You contract should talk about bugs and how it’s dealt with. Mine says that we are all humans and bugs happen that may affect the project. It’s a simple fact of custom software development.

Once your contract is a first line of defence it all comes down to your communication. Did I wait till Thursday to tell my client that we were off track for the week?

Hell no! They got an email at the end of Monday saying that the day was spent working on a bug and the features for the day didn’t get accomplished. I told them it was likely that the week would be behind now and I wanted to let them know right away so we could deal with it together.

Don’t expect your client to be happy about a bug though. Experience software shops and clients will understand but they may also ask you to work extra hours to get back on track. My answer is no. I work a reasonable amount of hours each week and take care of my health.

I don’t wear overtime like a badge of honour. It’s not and you’re an idiot if you think it is.

The key take away is to let the client know right away not in 2 days. Then deal with it together.

Maybe a later feature can be moved to a ‘nice to have’ item instead of a must have item. Maybe the project needs to extend a week.

Prepayment and being a hack

What if the client decides your a hack? They’ve already prepaid for a week haven’t they?

What if you decide the client is terrible and don’t want to continue?

Again the first line of defence is a contract and mine says that either of us can leave the project if it’s not working. There is no penalty and the work done so far is paid for in full.

Yes that means that if a client books an 8 week project and pulls out after week 1 you just lost 7 weeks of work.

That can seem like it like it sucks and on some level it does but would you rather try and stick with a client that doesn’t want to work with you?

I know I wouldn’t it’s going to suck on both parts and I don’t want to work on things that suck.

That ability to walk away is also a trade off you make for getting pre-paid. In most projects you pay 50% up front then get the rest at completion. If the client (or you) decide that the project sucks after week one then you’re stuck trying to figure out how much of the 50% deposit is due back to the client.

I simply have no time for that crap and don’t have to deal with it now.

My pricing thoughts also extend to getting things done faster. I have finished a project a week early because some of the technical hurdles turned out to be nothing. Yes I lost a bit of cash, but man was that client happy to see a lower bill than anticipated. I’ve had another client love that we could get to some of the features that they didn’t expect.

Getting booked

What if a client calls me today and wants me to work with them next week but I’m booked out for 6 weeks?

The obvious answer would be no and it’s easy to say that when you’re scheduling weekly. Simply look at your calendar and see how many weeks you’re booked out. Then tell them you can start after that.

Working on many projects at once easily gets you to a place where you say yes to projects and start next week when you should have been saying you could start in 6 weeks.

I did it. You’re doing it and you will do it.

It’s easy to forget about the hours, or think that we can manufacture extra hours out of thin air when we don’t schedule things out weekly.

When it’s weekly, you have a stop date and that’s that.

What if it takes longer?

So what if a project takes longer? What if we want to add features?

When I book things out I take any 3 week project and leave a free week at the end. A six week project would get 2 blank weeks at the end.

Those blank weeks are for the feature extensions and things that didn’t get anticipated.

Yeah I hear you, what if they aren’t needed?

I’ve found that on a 3 week project you have a good idea at the start of week 3 what will be happening by the end of the week. You’re either neck deep in features still and they might need some clean up the following week or you’re already on the cleanup phase.

If I’m already mainly cleaning things up then I just get in touch with the next client and tell them I can start a week early. 99% of the time they are ecstatic that I can start early and they are ready to go when I am.

If I decide I want a week down, I take a week of downtime.

You should be pricing your weeks so that a 3 out of 4 weeks meets your minimum earnings for the month. Yes that figures 12 weeks off a year which is a lot of time off and you probably won’t take it.

It also accounts for any slow months that happen.

Anchoring weekly pricing

Yesterday I talked about price anchoring which sort of sounded like you just charge a bit less than the value you can provide. That’s not what I do though.

My current weekly rate (January 23, 2014) is $3k. I don’t do different rates for different people since I’d never be able to keep track of that. What I do is anchor my weekly pricing against the value provided.

For a recent WordPress app build our goal was to get a prototype out so that the client could show it off and get a bit of investment. Our investment numbers were in the range of $30k and we planned for a 3 week project.

When I presented the project to the client I anchored my $9k costs against the $30k investment that he was going for.

Any other questions about weekly pricing?

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